Alexis M. Smith is the author of Glaciers (Tin House Books, 2012), her debut novel, which I read (and this seems important) in one day following a month-long dip, or submersion (near drowning), into Moby-Dick. Why mention my Melville antics? Say what you will about the whale epic, but that book is dense. Like swimming in Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Burger Soup. You know it’s true. I needed, frankly, relief.
So, Alexis. I took a deep breath. I sighed. I smiled serenely (this is true). And I read the whole damn thing in a day. To Alexis, I now say one thing: Thank You, Friend.
Glaciers is about one day in the life of Isabel. In her day, we see her childhood memories of a splintered family (um, keep in mind how glaciers do the splintering-thing too). We see her present moments—library books, vintage secondhand dresses mingled with Portland chic parties, the bruises of a war vet named “Spoke,” the pristine beauty of Alaska. The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, sparse and delicate, not heavy-handed in the least bit. Reading it is like fingering valuable, but maybe discarded, objects in thrift stores. It’s like finding something good. It’s also like seeing something beautiful: think about a glacier with its clarity, its majesty. I’ve been to Alaska once, and I remember the sound of glaciers breaking. That falling away. The beauty of what’s left behind.
We spoke a little about her work.
Jennifer Spiegel: Your debut novel, Glaciers, came out last year. Everyone loved it; in fact, I kept hearing so much about it (especially from David Abrams, actually), it showed up on a bunch of “Best Books of 2012” lists, and then—totally judging a book by its cover (what a great cover you’ve got!)—I bought it and loved it. It’s short, minimalist, tight. Is this fair? How would you describe this book, and your play with Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” which I kinda guess you’re doing deliberately? Was that deliberate?
Alexis M. Smith: It’s not widely known (because I don’t have a blog, let alone a blog that everyone reads, like David’s), but David Abrams and I have a mutual admiration club. We’re reading together at the Brattleboro Book Festival this fall (I think), and I’m very excited about it because it will only be the second time we’ve ever met, and hopefully we’ll get to hang out this time.
I don’t think everyone loved Glaciers, though. I’m sure there are some haters on Amazon and Goodreads. I only read reviews if the Tin House publicist sends them to me, though. I don’t have the nerve, otherwise.
I admit that I haven’t read much Hemingway and I had to Google “Iceberg Theory.” I made it into something much more fanciful in my head, which just goes to show that Hemingway and I are not made of the same stuff, however similar our prose styles. (I am a huge fan of Moby Dick, and poor Melville, however.)
Yes, “minimalist” is a fair description, if we’re talking about plot, happenings. I like to think Glaciers is rich with images, but spare of prose. I spent most of my twenties writing poetry, so precision of feeling—of sensory experience—is important to me.
JS: Sell me on Melville. What do you like about Moby-Dick?
AMS: Well, the first thing about Moby-Dick is the romance of the sea, which, if you grew up knowing as many fishermen as I did, you can’t really escape. I love Melville’s philosophical ramblings about life and death, and even the encyclopedic chapters on whales and ships and seamanship. I know I’m in the minority, there.
But, ultimately, I think Moby-Dick is worth reading for Queequeg alone. Ahab is the prototypical American, right? He wants what he wants, and he wants it now, and he sets off on this crazy, dangerous journey over untamed territory and he’ll be damned but if he has to kill his whole crew to get it. Then there’s Queequeg, the “savage,” who just does what he does and does it well, and sets off not to conquer the world, but to see and experience it as it is. The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is tender and funny and heart-wrenching. It’s one of the best depictions of male love in all of literature. Right up there with David and Jonathan in the Hebrew Scriptures
JS: What are you working on right now?
AMS: I am in the midst of a really different novel right now. There’s a lot more plot, two plots, actually, woven together, somewhat in the way the past and present were woven together in Glaciers, but with more action. The story takes place in the Pacific Northwest again, in the San Juan Island of Washington State, and in the Malheur wilderness in Oregon. The themes are fertility and mortality. Bugs and mushrooms play important roles. I’m really excited about it, but I don’t like to talk details while I’m in the thick of it.
JS: May I ask if you’re a full-time writer?
AMS: Right now I am a full-time writer, although I volunteer for the board of a literary non-profit and help coordinate one of their programs, so I consider that one of my jobs, too.
JS: I loved your language. There are many examples of stark, beautiful images. One I loved is found near the end at a party: there’s a “lopsided red velvet cake, white frost glowing, wound gaping, recumbent forks.” Those small moments, elegantly packed, made this little book feel weighty to me. I’m curious about your writing process. Are these brief moments written quickly? Are you a slow writer? Is poetry your secret forte? And would you point out one of your favorite passages from the book?
AMS: I read a lot of poetry, though I don’t actively write it much these days. I always thought I was a slow writer, but I think now that I’m just a careful writer. I like to be sure of what I’m trying to say as I write. I will spend a lot of time on a line, or a scene, but I think that makes for easier editing later. I’m learning to let some of that go in this current project, for the sake of getting the story on the page.
The early passages about Alaska are some of my favorite, because they’re directly from my memories. Writing them was a process of creative preservation.
JS: I love this part of your answer: “Writing them was a process of creative preservation.” I think this is important to me. Would you just explain what you mean here a little? I’m thinking I know, but I’m not sure.
AMS: Well, I started writing Glaciers as prose poems about specific memories of Alaska. As you’ve probably noticed, when you start writing down something you remember, whether it’s a dream you had last night or your first day of kindergarten, as you’re in the act of writing, more details come back. So part of writing Glaciers was about letting my mind recall as many details as it could, and putting them down on paper. But, of course, I ended up writing a novel, so I frequently had to go back and edit or change details that weren’t working for Isabel’s story.
JS: I can tell from the things you like on facebook that you’re cooler than me. Does this have something to do with living in Portland? What are your interests outside of writing?
AMS: I would definitely not describe myself as “cool.” I think I used to be, but I’m a single mom, so I see very little action outside of chasing my 5-year-old son through the Safeway now. It’s amazing how invisible you become, as a woman, when you have a child, or maybe it’s just being over thirty. I used to have flings with tattooed Whole Foods cashiers; now I’m lucky if they don’t call me “ma’am.”
I grew up with a very hip musician dad (he was listening to Sonic Youth while I was still listening to Electric Youth), so I love music, and used to play with friends myself, but these days I hear myself saying things like [crotchety old lady voice here], “That show starts at nine o’clock?! Who the hell does this ‘Phosphorescent’ think he is? And why would I want to be trapped in a room all those young people making eyes at each other, anyway?”
My interests outside of writing are pretty typical for a Pacific Northwest native: growing heirloom lettuces, agate-hunting, drinking homemade dandelion wine, passive-aggressive driving, and collecting mason jars for the apocalypse.
JS: Are you haunted at all by the impending apocalypse? You’ll have enough mason jars and everything?
AMS: I think it’s fair to say that I’m haunted by the idea that our planet is rapidly becoming a place that won’t be able to support all of the incredible life that has flourished on it for so long. Insofar as pickling vegetables and making jam from seasonal fruits preserve a moment of abundance for future periods of scarcity, I think the mason jars are symbolic. But symbols are all we have for what lies beyond this life, so I have a cupboard full of them.
JS: Weren’t you disappointed in the minimalist approach the filmmakers of The Hunger Games took with Lenny Kravitz as Cinna? Didn’t you think they should’ve done something a little more with him?
AMS: Don’t get me started. I expected so much more from the former Mr. Lisa Bonet. He should have been perfect for the role—Cinna is one of the most relatable characters in the series—and the most cinematic—he’s the fairy godbrother for crying out loud! Where was the magic?
If you want magic, check out this book. You’ll swoon. You’ll melt. You’ll chip off, splinter into clear shards, fall into the sea with a crackle? Doesn’t work like it should? Let’s call that “A Lenny.” I just wrote A Lenny. Find something that works, something magical: Glaciers.