The Problem with the Future: An Interview with Alexander Weinstein

photo by Jessica Spilos

Interviewed by Garry Craig Powell

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes, have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and appear in the anthology New Stories from the Midwest. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe. His collection, Children of the New World (Picador, $16), is one of the most exciting debuts of recent years. As The Atlantic puts it, “By turns satirical, jarring, ludicrous, and sad, Weinstein’s stories take present-day anxieties about pornography, cloning, social media, and digital isolation, and follow them to their logical extremes.”

Garry Craig Powell: In a recent interview with 0s&1s Reads, you cite the influence of filmmaker Charlie Kaufman and mention that in spite of his metaphysical concerns, he grounds his stories in a gritty world. It struck me, reading Children of the New World, that you do that too. Unlike some cerebral writers, including some that you acknowledge as influences, you create complex, well-rounded characters with whom we can empathize. In the title story, for example, a couple has to ‘delete’ their virtual son when his program is plagued by a virus—and incredibly, we feel sorry for them. You seem to want the reader not only to consider where the future is leading us, but also to explore universal human problems. Would you agree with that?

Alexander Weinstein: Absolutely. I think the future is intrinsically linked with our universal human problems. In fact, it’s these very problems, and how we deal with them, which will determine our future. I set many of my stories in a gritty “realist” world, but one that is plagued by an overuse of technology, which is akin to the world we find ourselves living in now. The problems we have with our current technology often reveal our own human foibles, and it’s these new emotions of cyberspace which reveal our struggles. What is the emotion of an empty inbox? An unliked Post? An ignored dating app message? I think there’s a great loneliness that much of our society is running from, and we search for relief in our phones and computers, our online communities, our social networks of friends, the OK Cupid lovers we meet for awkward first dates. We are growing less able to keep ourselves entertained during down moments, so we fill our time by searching for Pokemon, but underneath it all are the same human questions we’ve always been asking: Who Am I? What am I doing here? How can I be loved? I think the challenge for humans remains the same as it has always been: to learn the skills of kindness, compassion, and love. Without these sacred skills, all technology can do is grow the shadows in our lives.

GCP: On a philosophical level, most of the stories seem to be exploring the boundaries between empirical reality and what can be imagined and brought to virtual life—what Plato would have called Ideas. In “The Cartographers” a man falls in love not with his own projection, which is an old theme in literature, but someone else’s. That’s a fascinating new angle.

AW: I was really interested in this ability for others to create virtual memories for us. In “The Cartographers” I explore this through Adam Woods, and the company he works for, which produces virtual memories that people can beam into their consciousness. While the technology is sci-fi, the story is also a metaphor for the way love relationships create memories in our minds. When I wrote the story, I’d just gone through a breakup with a woman I’d loved dearly. Without this other person in my life, the memories we’d shared often felt like phantoms. Who was this person I once loved? Did she still really exist? The answer, on a metaphysical level, was that this person didn’t still exist. She’d gone on to become a different person, an individual with new hopes and dreams which no longer involved me. And yet, there were still the memories of jokes we shared, replete with punchlines that no one else would ever understand. Movies and songs which have the ghosts of our times together hidden within them. There are the residues of our ex-lovers, unseen by anyone else, still shared across vast distances with people we may never speak to again.
This became the narrative, which drove the story, of Cynthia and the narrator who still loves her even in her absence. And this idea, of falling in love with other people’s projections (à la beamed memories), is akin to how we fall in love with the real memories we create with others. In “The Cartographers” it just becomes more sinister, because of the awful memory company the main character has helped create.

GCP: Most of the stories have a political dimension too; they often read as critiques of current human blindness and selfishness. For instance, there’s environmental catastrophe in “Heartland” and “Ice Age,” and the moral degradation of virtual pornography in “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Migration,” and “The Pyramid and the Ass.” You’ve called your work “speculative fiction,” and this collection is set in the future, mostly the relatively proximate future. Why have you chosen to do that rather than write more stories with similar themes set in the present-day USA?

AW: I don’t think the critique would be as clear. One of my central approaches to writing speculative fiction is to take an absurd situation, which we presently feel is normal, and then push it to an even further absurdity. It’s only in this light that we can see the reflection of the disturbing state of our present-day affairs.

I came across an old story of mine that I’d written a decade ago. The main joke of the story is that a mother is telling her children about how she met their father online. The majority of memories the mother has all have to do with really funny links he sent her, a music download that she loved, etc.—and because of these superficial details she fell in love with the father. Reading it today, it’s hardly a dystopian story; it’s simply a realistic story about how people actually meet. Parents are already telling their kids about falling in love online—there’s nothing “frightening” or “dystopian” about this. So, the critique doesn’t work, because we already consider our dystopic state of affairs normal.

In much the same way, the environmental catastrophes we’re presently seeing are considered “normal” though they’re horrific. Fracking has made drinking water flammable, families are dying from planned lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, mountaintop removal is killing families throughout Appalachia, and oil/mining companies continue to denigrate Native American and indigenous rights throughout the world (see North Dakota Pipeline presently). This is horrific—and yet we somehow consider it normal. Realistic writing/reporting about this is vital, and I’m a big fan of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, where they visit what they call The Sacrifice Zones of America and report on the current state of our environmental calamity.

However, in my fiction, I want to give an even further warning of where we’re heading. And so, in “Heartland,” you have people selling off their topsoil, and an underwater oil spill that has lasted over three-hundred days. These are just further extensions of what is already occurring, and by making it one step more “absurd” my hope is that we’ll be able to see our present state of affairs more clearly.

GCP: In spite of the bleakness of that vision and the seriousness of your themes, one of the delights of the collection is its dry humor. In “Moksha,” for instance, you satirize those westerners who seek instantaneous enlightenment. Could you tell us more about the inspiration for that story?

AW: The truth is: “Moksha” is really a satire of myself. I’ve always been interested in Eastern spirituality. I’m a big fan of Chogyam Trungpa, Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Krishna Das, and I’m particularly interested in enlightenment and the spiritual pursuit to liberate ourselves (I’m a Buddhist at heart). During my teenage years, I imagined I’d end up going to India to become a yogi; study with the last living saints in a cave; give up all my worldly possessions; learn to levitate. And there’s still part of me that can see myself “disappearing” for some years at an ashram somewhere.

And yet, I also realize that I’ve had a very idyllic vision of what spirituality looks like. Honestly, most of Western culture has an idyllic and simplified idea of what enlightenment entails. You find this watered-down enlightenment sold in mass quantity at yoga studios, high-priced shamanism retreats, DJ-fueled Ecstatic Dance parties, ayahuasca ceremonies, and self-empowerment seminars. There’s a hope for a quick fix—if only we have the money and right drugs for it.

While I’ve always been critical about this peddling of spiritual materialism, it wasn’t until I went to Nepal that I came face-to-face with my own spiritual materialism. The thing is, Kathmandu is noisy, and dusty, and crowded, and everywhere you go you see these same Western yoga teachers, hashish-smoking backpackers, and fair-trade shop owners, all seeking the stalls filled with amazing Buddha statues, hand carved mirrors, beautiful yak scarves, and thangka paintings. And everyone is buying stuff! I found myself purchasing these beautiful items, too (they were so cheap!), in hopes of . . . well, in hopes of what? Perhaps to adorn my home with spiritual paintings and Buddha statues so to bring a little bit of that spirituality back to my daily life. And here I was, stuffing my bag with holy objects, just like all the other lost and wandering tourists—everyone seeking some piece of enlightenment.

So, in Nepal, I realized a certain part of my spiritual search had come to an end. I wasn’t ever going to live in a Himalayan cave (I like electricity and a soft bed way too much), and I sure wasn’t going to find enlightenment so easily. Near the end of my trip to Nepal, I climbed the mountains and ended up at the Muktinath Temple (just like Abe did in “Moksha”) and I got to pass beneath the ice-cold waterspouts of the gods, which promise enlightenment. I’ll let you guess if it worked or not.

GCP: As someone who’s also been to Nepal and Ladakh, and has tried to follow the Middle Way too, I’d say it’s not something you “achieve” for once and for all—it’s something that happens moment by moment, through attention. That may be an over-earnest answer!

Another of my favorite stories is “Fall Line,” in which an extreme skier struggles to come to terms with his loss of fame after a near-fatal accident. Apart from the environmental situation, which isn’t as bad as that yet, and an invention that makes taking selfies even easier than it is now, that story could be set here and now. Again, it seemed to me that you were exploring an almost universal human problem. The ending is brilliant. In general your endings are very strong. You don’t usually resolve the conflict overtly, but end with an epiphany, particularly with epiphanies that connect the characters to meaningful moments of their lives or to nature, as Chekhov often does. Is that too far-fetched a comparison?

AW: I’ll take a Chekhov comparison any day! He’s of course one of the great masters at the short story form, and has helped define traditional conflict as we understand it. And, it’s true, I do love the semi-epiphany. For example, in “Fall Line,” the character’s final decision is less epiphany than imbecility. He makes a choice, which the conflict hangs upon—whether to seek fame or actually change his life—and so, his decision is tied to the central conflict and his own hubris.

In this way, while my stories are experimental, they’re also very traditional. I love the works of the great Russian writers like Chekhov and Tolstoy, and their ability to portray our human struggles and joys. And I love the Russian absurdists—Gogol, Kharms, and Bulgakov. Even within the Russian experimentalists, there’s a lineage of traditional narrative, conflict, and character development, which I find vital to my storytelling. It’s of course not the only way to tell a story, and I really admire the experimentalists who challenge traditional narrative—writers like Ishmael Reed, Michael Martone, Donald Barthelme, Tatyana Tolstaya, George Saunders, and many others.

GCP: A couple of your stories do dispense with characters and scenes, and thus are perhaps veering more in the direction of experimentalists you mention who challenge traditional narrative. “Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary” and “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution” both purport to be scholarly writing. The latter particularly, with its MLA footnotes and parody, reminded me of David Foster Wallace. You have to be witty and imaginative to pull that off.

AW: David Foster Wallace was a brilliant experimentalist who I deeply admire. His ability to do formalism helped me understand how to tackle stories like “Dictionary” and “Failed Revolution.” “Dictionary,” in particular, functions against narrative in many ways—each of the definitions are their own mini-story or prose poem, and the collection of them adds up to create a different effect than the traditional Freytagian Pyramid story. Borges is a writer who plays with this beautifully as well. Wit and humor seem to always factor into this—there’s a tongue-in-cheek tone you get when you take on a formalist story—because there’s an inherent voice you’re trying to copy (and often to satirize).

GCP: One of the funniest stories is “The Pyramid and the Ass,” in which a future incarnation of George W. Bush is President again, unfortunately for Americans, and has invaded Tibet for its quartz crystals! Still more hilariously, the protagonist, Douglas, who is a courier of souls, is terrified above all of the Buddhist terrorists of the Sword of Transcendental Wisdom. Plus ça change . . . I suppose?

AW: Yes, that particular story was written during the dark days of the Bush years. George W. Bush had just been “re-elected” (or elected for the first time, depending on how you count the stolen election) and it seemed like the horror of his presidency would last forever. We were in the early days of the “War Against Terror,” our country was invading Iraq while ceding leases to Halliburton, and America was seizing oil reserves (what’s new). Bush’s presidency was one of the great nightmares of my life to date.

So, in the story there’s this war against the so-called Buddhist Terrorists. As we find out, they’re not really terrorists at all, just good folks trying to liberate people from technology and fight against an American government/corporation trying to coopt our souls. The inherent racism and Buddhist-phobia in the story plays into the present demonizing of Islam—and of our loss of knowledge about the great, spiritual history of the Sufis, for example, or the cultural heritage from the middle east.

But, honestly, I’m just worried that the technology I invented in that story will become real, and George W. Bush will be able to clone into a new body and be “re-elected” due to a clone-bill passed by him and his cronies. God forbid!

GCP: It could be even worse than that if a certain crypto-fascist is elected. I agree with you on the demonization of Islam; having spent eight years in the Gulf, I am aware of some of the riches of the culture, and Sufi mysticism and the great Persian poetry it inspired are some of the greatest glories.

You have some very sad stories too, like “Rocket Night” and “Openness.” Again, apart from the technical innovations you’ve imagined, both of these are about problems that engage us today—how we deal with people who don’t fit in, and whether it’s possible for a romantic relationship to survive complete honesty.

AW: Both of these are questions I still ask myself—particularly the latter one. I’m a big fan of the relationship/sex podcaster Dan Savage. One of his pieces of wisdom is that a relationship isn’t a deposition—total openness and revealing every detail of your soul to a partner shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a committed relationship. “Openness” ultimately asks this same question—can a relationship survive complete honesty? As a romantic, I want to say “Yes, of course!” But, over time, I’ve come to agree with Dan Savage.

“Openness” also deals with our public level of disclosure. We’re being asked to continually be “authentic” and “honest” with the world through social media. There’s a demand to post our wedding pictures, baby pictures (only minutes after the birth), our relationship status, and our grief and joys on Facebook and Instagram. Similarly, we construct persona through dating apps and networking sites. All of these social media networks exert pressure on us to share the personal details of our lives with unknown masses. So the pressure on the characters in “Openness” isn’t merely romantic, but public/social as well.

“Rocket Night” is my take on bullying culture. I think this is getting better, thanks to the anti-bullying work being done by my generation. But there’s a way that coaches, teachers, parents, and administration officials can conspire against our students who need the most support. Presently we’re seeing these kinds of battles for our most vulnerable students—such as Trans and LGBTQ students. You have a lot of conservative parents/school boards making life much harder for these children by trying to ensure bullying remains in place. For example, in Michigan, the religious right lobbied to put a stipulation into anti-bullying legislation which would allow bullying to be permitted when based on “personally and deeply held religious beliefs.” So, yes, the sadness within “Rocket Night” is all too present in our current society.

GCP: The last story, “Ice Age” is a tour de force. At first sight, it’s the most familiar plot, set in an overtly post-apocalyptic future, in which men are reduced to hunting with bows, and bloodshed is promised. You set up the suspense in the classic way and then subvert it, which I thought very clever. Can you tell us why you did that?

AW: I chose to end the story this way because I wanted to explore the themes of male-dominance and community more deeply. The “classic” way to end a fight between good and evil is to have a violent battle where good ultimately wins (think of every single modern-day superhero flick). But, in our lives, we rarely get to have these epic battles. We shuffle out of office buildings after being laid-off by draconian bosses; we sit on hold for ten minutes only to be told by a supervisor that the charge on our cable bill can’t be removed; we click a crying emoji on Facebook as our last whimper of protest. So rather than end the story with the expected violence and destruction of evil, I wanted to focus on the way the characters end up sabotaging their own community though their attachments to the consumerism of the old world.

There’s a kind of classic, Norman Rockwellian Americana that I love to satirize. So I take a time-worn classic trope, like a family drama (in “Saying Goodbye to Yang”) but then subvert it with robots. In “Ice Age,” there’s this male-dominated Western narrative going on—the men with their bows and arrows, the threat of blood, the standoff between good and evil. Like you say, it’s a classic trope, and I find a lot of humor working with the kitsch of this—the wonkiness of this ridiculous male-driven world, but they’re all living in igloos!

GCP: I hope Children of the New World has the success it deserves. And thanks for the interview, which was fun and thought-provoking.

AW: Thanks so much for the wonderful questions—it was a pleasure!

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