The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Alison Espach


If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week we spoke with Alison Espach, whose debut novel The Adults is the defining novel for recovering debutantes from Connecticut. The novel is narrated by Emily, a high school freshman, who grows up in the privileged world of investment bank commuters and desperate housewives. Her padded life suddenly unravels when she wakes early one morning after a sleepover, and looks out her kitchen window to witness her neighbor’s suicide. Meanwhile, her classmates provide anything but comfort (i.e. The fat girl in class gets nicknamed ABOB, which stands for “Annie The Bird or Bear” because nobody can decide if her nose makes her a bird, or if her fat makes her a bear). Satire, obviously. But amidst the byzantine cruelty only privileged high schoolers are capable of, grace is found in the secret, illicit relationship that develops between Emily and her English teacher. Espach never excuses the relationship, but she never indicts it either. Amidst a world of cheese platters and art auctions, their relationship simply surfaces as something real while everything else in Emily’s world just seems sterilized. Espach joined us to talk about her novel, love and morality, and the thing we know as “white girl fiction.”

How would you describe the state of American fiction today? Is there anything you love or hate about it?

I love how many different places you can find fiction. You can find a daily dose on Five Chapters every morning. You can still find it printed in periodicals like The New Yorker, Harper’s. You can find it in 140 characters on Twitter. You can find it on individual author blogs. You can find it through small university presses, in strange and eclectic literary magazines. And I’ll stop there, because this is starting to sound like Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

I hate the increasing need for an established platform before you sell your first book. I hate how it’s much easier to sell a book if you have 20,000 blog followers than if you don’t.

You’ve said before that you saw tension as “characters feeling emotions they shouldn’t” and plot as “characters struggling for power they don’t have.” How did that factor in when writing about the relationship between Emily and Mr. Basketball?

I say that because that’s the only way plot makes sense to me. Bombs and car chases and bank heists never really did it for me. Maybe that’s because I grew up with two older brothers and watched too many Arnold movies and became desensitized to that kind of drama at an early age. To me, the most excruciating conflict is the private conflict, the stuff inside us we try to hide from everybody, except perhaps the reader. I get lost in big plot sometimes, in obvious conflict. But when I think of the story as a series of small and subtle power shifts, it becomes a lot easier to write that middle chunk of the novel, the small scenes in between the big scenes.

In your novel The Adults, Mr. Basketball is 24 when he first sleeps his 15-year-old high school student Emily. I was also 24 when I read the book, and I couldn’t help but see myself in his position, which made me angrier, though more empathetic. You also must have been around the same age when writing his character — did you ever struggle with your own moral judgment when writing him? How much, if at all, do you think people should read with moral judgment?

It’s much easier when your characters make bad decisions — if everybody did what they were supposed to in The Adults, there would have been no plot. So in that sense, I didn’t really struggle much while writing Mr. Basketball. Because the story is told through Emily, a young teenage girl ripe for attention, it was easy to see what she would desire in Mr. Basketball, what she would ignore, and what she wouldn’t see at all. When you’re in love, you (or well, me) can do a lot of dumb things, things that don’t make sense out of context or to an outside audience. It’s weirdly difficult to see who it is you love, the person you are the closest to. For me, it’s taken years after a break-up (Why did he used to get embarrassed when I ordered fajitas? He kept a manikin in his living room window?). And so on. I wanted Emily’s arch to feel like that, like she was slowly opening her eyes. It’s not until the end of the book where she has her first real glimpse of Mr. Basketball. I think that’s a lot of what the coming-of-age tale is about, a young person who finally understands what it is she’s seeing.

Incidentally, two of the novels many consider as the “first modern novel” are about a bored suicidal housewife, and an older man who sleeps with a twelve year old girl. You worked with similar subjects in The Adults, except set during contemporary times. To what extent do you think writing about a young, rich girl in privileged Connecticut still matters to readers today?

Ha. Oh, I don’t know. I think any story matters as long as it’s interesting. And how do you know if it’s interesting? I don’t know. You really have to trust your gut on that one and believe whatever interests you may just interest someone else. I think for a story about a young, rich girl in privileged Connecticut is obviously not going to be one of survival. A lot of plots are built on these basic survival needs — Robinson Crusoe, Hunger Games, The Road, etc. But if a character — like Emily — has tap water to drink and Go-Gurt in the food closet, then the story becomes about the less obvious needs she might have. We always wants something, even if we seem to have everything, and if you can find what it is that’s missing, you may have found a story.

Where do you see American fiction going — or, perhaps, where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

I live in desperate fear that books will disappear. I don’t think stories will ever go away — in some form or another, we’ll always have stories. But the actual pages you can feel. I worry about books disappearing the way I worry about getting cancer, getting hit by a car. Which is, to say, quite a lot.

What was the last good book you read?

I’m going to break the rules and mention two books because one hasn’t been published yet. One great book that you should buy right this second: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One great debut novel that everyone should buy this summer when it’s published is Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell.

Illustration by Geoff Mak