Alex Shakar’s first novel, The Savage Girl, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and Booksense 76 Pick, and has been translated into six foreign languages. His story collection, City In Love: The New York Metamorphoses, was the winner of the FC2 National Fiction Competition. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he now teaches fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Olivia Block.
Shakar recently spoke with TriQuarterly Online about faith, Margaritaville, neurology, scientists, mystics, and his latest novel Luminarium, published this month. For a preview, check out the excerpt available here.
TriQuarterly Online: Luminarium is finally finished and about to hit the shelves. For those of us who read The Savage Girl, it's been a long wait. How long have you been working on this one? How does it feel to be finished?
Alex Shakar: A decade. It feels good!
TQO: I just finished reading it last week, and I loved it. Late in the novel, the protagonist (Fred) comments on the "thousand 9/11 novels" that have popped up in the aftermath of the towers' collapse. He says "everyone's got to spread their own miserable little layer of meaning over it." Obviously a wink and nod to Luminarium itself. What do you think the role of the novelist is in the post-9/11 world? What was your approach to this issue?
AS: Well, yes, the 9/11 novel is a bona fide national pastime at this point. My protagonist Fred is pretty critical of the whole phenomenon—novels, movies, commemorations, the spinning, the appropriating, as well as all the billions of inner narratives. It takes the story’s unfolding to see what is behind his feelings. As for my own, I was interested in people’s drives to make that hole in the ground mean something, by hook or by crook. I was interested in my own intense need to do the same.
TQO: In the excerpt that you shared with TQO, Fred is undergoing experimentation in a neurological study meant to simulate a sort of spiritual enlightenment. This intersection of science and technology with the spiritual and religious is a major theme in the novel, and you write about it with clarity. What was the research process like for this novel? I imagine you must have been up to your ears in scientific journals.
AS: For that part of the story, yes. The helmet doesn’t quite exist in our world yet (though it is based on a helmet that gives “sensed presence” experiences designed by a Canadian researcher), but I wanted to make it something that could, theoretically speaking. I did a lot of reading—books, journal articles—and then found a neuroscientist who was gracious enough to read over the passages and make corrections and suggestions.
TQO: I was absolutely smitten with the love interest, Mira Egghart:. Do novelists ever fall in love with their own characters?
AS: Oh—they break my heart. That one especially.
TQO: What do you think that means?
AS: That their creator is in love with them? Well, take from that what you will.
TQO: In your last novel you explored the idea of the age of "post-irony.” Does Luminarium pick up where The Savage Girl left off in this sense? Is there an equivalent idea encompassing Luminarium?
AS: It’s funny. I didn’t think of this until very recently, but at the very end of The Savage Girl, Ursula wonders about the possibility of an “ironic religion,” which, not having the book in front of me now, I’d describe as one that grants a sacred space even to doubt. In this way, I do think Luminarium actually picked up where The Savage Girl left off. Post-irony in [the earlier book] is (among other things) Javier’s and Ursula’s attempt to reconcile irony and earnestness, to find a way to live that's big and deep enough for both of these. Mira’s “faith without ignorance” perhaps takes that thought to the next level, from consumer culture to metaphysics. Of course, as Fred’s story unfolds, his very sense of what “faith” and “ignorance” even are begins to shift.
TQO: The idea of "faith" and struggling with faith is such an integral part of the story. How does writing about such a heavy and personal topic affect you as an author? Does it ever begin to wear you down emotionally?
AS: I don’t really write about abstract ideas per se, at least not divorced from my characters’ (and my own) burning concerns. What is a challenge, though, is writing about things—moods, states, longings—that are almost impossible to put into words. For better or worse, I see that as being the core of my job as a novelist: to find words for things people feel and experience but can’t express. I'm drawn to write about things I myself can barely talk to others about. And when I can’t figure out how to get there at first, oddly enough, it usually means I need to look even deeper. Yeah, it often makes me feel like an idiot—emotionally, intellectually—for a good long while. But there’s usually light at the tunnel’s end. Sometimes, gloriously, there’s even a punch line!
TQO: The Disney-created utopian town of Celebration, Florida, makes an appearance in the novel. Have you ever been?
AS: Yes, I spent a few days in the Orlando area. I’d done research on the Orlando area remotely via phone and Internet before that, but there’s no way I could have gotten the flavor of the place without hanging out there [for] a while. It was a great, strange, kind of lonely trip, punctuated by long drives in a marshmallow-smelling rental minivan. In Celebration, I rode on that bus-disguised-as-a-trolley they have and talked to a real estate agent, his secretary, and some other people, but [I] mostly wandered around in a disoriented, sleepy stupor much like Fred did in the book. I [also] took in some unique musical theater numbers at the Holy Land Experience; wasted away in Margaritaville; and snooped around the eerily quiet University of Central Florida research park, where I based my military-contracting behemoth Armation. Stuff like this is the fun side of research for me.
TQO: The book's structure is somewhat unconventional. You use icons instead of chapter numbers, and calendar weeks to mark sections. What was the intention behind this?
AS: These graphical elements, over time, actually come to play a part in the story. With regard to the icons, I had the instinct to get an artist to do them before I fully understood the role they’d play. But once they were there, they helped certain elements of the story snap together in a way I hadn’t expected. As for the calendar, I think readers will find that it does things functionally, and viscerally, that section numbers wouldn’t do.
TQO: For all of the aspiring authors out there: what is your writing process like? Do you have any set ritual? Has it changed over the years?
AS: I know writers who plan and map out every scene and beat. And I know writers who never know what’s beyond the sentence they’re writing. I call them the scientists and the mystics. For me, it takes everything I’ve got. I can (and do) make tons of notes and outlines. Then I start writing and much of that goes out the window, and I drop the outline in favor of the ground-level intelligence of what’s sparking in the moment. I go like this for a while, then I get lost and start calling in the satellite maps again, re-outlining and scheming. I jump back and forth, from scientist to mystic. As the drafts progress, I find the scientist and mystic switching posts more often—the planner the one having lightning flashes of insight, whole structures and psychological arcs lighting up in new ways; the trekker the one calmly tending the path, smoothing and trimming, settling into the native rhythms.
TQO: What's next? Are you already working on something new?
AS: I seem to work on novels until they’re ripped from my hands—I was working on Luminarium down to the last day, even after the galleys, so I was only really done just a couple of months ago. Which is to say that, though I [have] some vague impulses, I haven’t had the time and space to dive into anything new. So what’s next is really a mystery. But somehow, somewhere, I like to think the next journey is being prepared.