Name: Warren Alexander
Fiona: Where are you from?
WA: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, long before the invasion of the hipsters.
Fiona: Tell us a little about your life.
WA: We were a standard issue family of a mother, father, sister, and myself in an area where almost everyone in our school was either a first or second generation American. It was a cauldron of Jewish achievement and expectation.
I was a terrible student. I did very well my first term in high school but then I thought I did not have study and my grades reflected that. Just to indicate how stupid I was, I chose a college that was easiest to reach by subway. Fortunately I met my wife there and we’ve been married for 44 years.
Because my grades were also poor during my freshman year, I had to wait almost twenty years to be admitted to a good graduate school. I received an MA in Creative Writing from NYU where I studied with E.L. Doctorow and two Man Booker recipients, Tom Keneally and Peter Carey (twice). Tom Keneally is truly one of life’s good people.
I have lived in New York all my life and now live in the East Village of Manhattan, an area I love.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
WA: My first novel will be published by Linkville Press with a pub date to be determined. It is entitled The Dead Are Annoying and is a satirical novel about the least successful Jewish family in America.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
WA: I started writing jokes as a kid. I was void of literary pretense, just going for the yucks.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
WA: I do not recall such an epiphany.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
WA: The origin of ideas and creativity are one of life’s more wonderful mysteries. I am hopeful scientists will not figure how deep is that well. As far as inspiration is concerned, I am an acolyte of Chuck Close, possibly America’s greatest living artist, who said that inspiration is for amateurs. That is put in the time and effort, otherwise you work may never come or could be derivative.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
WA: There are various ways to write funny. I prefer the style where the funny stuff is simply part of the text and should not be telegraphed, nor written with a wink, exclamation marks, funny faces, or obvious pratfalls. Needless to say, I break my own rules, but try to keep them to a minimum.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
WA: One of the premises of the book is that Jews have an extra burden to achieve. Besides being the first major western monotheistic religion, we followed up with Einstein, Freud, Marx, and Steven Spielberg. Every Jewish child knows the litany of all the successful Jews by the time they are 10 days old and are expected to match or exceed it by the 11th day. While it is a source of pride, it is also extremely annoying.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
WA: Besides the absurd manner in which my characters fail, there is a theme of stoicism. No matter what happens to the protagonist, he is resolute and self-controlled, rare characteristics these days.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
WA: There is a true sense of time and place of Brooklyn in and around Brighton Beach and Coney Island during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The characters are almost all composite and 90% of the situations are fictional.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
WA: The sensibility of the family and the neighborhood are tangible. There are bits and pieces of people I knew and know here and there, but no one is identifiable. For example two characters, Unkle Traktor and Aunt Georgia, are misbegotten Trotskyists who desperately want to be blacklisted by the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC), in order to affirm their status in the radical community but cannot. Liberals and free-thinkers were part of the American-Jewish experience of that transitional political era depicted in the book, but I knew no one as extreme as Unkle Traktor and Aunt Georgia.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? A mentor?
WA: Lysistrata, Tristram Shandy, Humboldt’s Gift and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Devil’s Dictionary, and Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. That last won the Pulitzer in 1964, but is as relevant as ever.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
WA: By the time is published, I am hopeful that I will have finished reading them. I am migrant reader and go where my short attention span leads me. But to answer the question, the research for my next book and screenplay, Steve Stern’s Book of Mischief, Elmore Leonard’s Mr. Paradise, and Infinite Jest, which I am hopeful to finish before I die. But then again, who would know.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
WA: Junot Diaz and Paul Beatty. Are they still considered new? For the longest time, my friends admonished me for not reading enough contemporary writers. So sometimes, I will alternate between a live author, a dead author, a live author, although I often get them confused.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
There are three projects. A sequel to The Dead Are Annoying which a satire about business with the working title Success Is Not An Option. A screenplay of a totally different nature and a short story based on a friend who has dedicated his life to his saxophone.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
WA: There were college professors who were supportive and some of my graduate school professors.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
WA: Writing is not a career, as much as a need.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
WA: Complete it twenty years earlier, but it would have been a piece of crap then.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
WA: I truly do not recall.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
WA: It is a continuation of the protagonist’s absurd life where he eventually becomes the head of a corporation for all the wrong reasons. Having worked in all types of establishments from mom and pop shops to the City of New York to a Fortune 10 company, I never felt that I did belonged. I am hopeful this discomfort combined with a recounting of real and imagined events will produce an engaging and funny book.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
WA: Being funny and original without being lame.
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Aristophanes, Saul Bellow, Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce, I.B. Singer, and Pedro Carolino.
When I first read Lysistrata, I was struck that the same issues we had in the 1960’s existed for 2000 years. I am not sure it was ignorance, youthful hubris, or self-imposed blindness but it made me realize that every generation thinks they invented sex and the right to be self-righteous about the condition of the world they inherited. And this gave me a more universal approach to the world and writing.
I measure how much a book moves me either emotionally or intellectually by the amount of my marginalia. When I read Bellow, I always struck by his intellect and his insight into the human condition and almost every page has some sort of notation. For some reason he has fallen out of favor.
Oscar and Ambrose because they are too effing funny. If you have never read the Devil’s Dictionary, you should secure a copy immediately.
There is no purer story teller than Singer. The simplicity and clarity of his prose belies the complexity of his tales and characters.
And Pedro Carolino. Pedro wrote a Portuguese-English phrase book despite the fact he did not speak English. He used a Portuguese-French dictionary and then French-English dictionary. Mark Twain wrote the introduction for the first American edition and noted, “Nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone.”
The language varies from poetic to idiotic. Pedro is a shining example of single-mindedness, crazed ingenuity, and a reminder that cautious people do not change the world. My favorite mistranslation is “to craunch a marmoset.” I have no idea what it means either. His book is now called, “English As She is Spoke.” As a 10th project, a screenplay about Pedro could be most interesting.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
WA: No travel is required for research.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
WA: My wife is a very smart, witty, and a very good artist. I am encouraging her to collaborate for a distinctive cover with which I am hopeful my publisher will accept.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
WA: The business part of writing.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
WA: The mechanics of writing a novel and the conviction to stay with a chosen POV, style, characters, etc.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
WA: To put it simply, get off your ass and write. Don’t make excuses, just put words to the page. I might grant a temporary exemption for a death in the family or severe illness, but otherwise write, write, write, no matter the quantity and quality of what you produce. And in a gentler vein, here are two tips from Elmore Leonard:
1. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it; and
2. Leave out the parts that nobody reads.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
WA: Never believe what a writer or artist says about their work; just believe what you read or see, including me.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
WA: As a child, my friends made fun of me because in the morning that would find me behind The NY Times, but regarding books, honestly, no.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
WA: Yes, questions about what makes laugh or cry. I laugh significantly more than I cry and I laugh at so many different things at different times, it is impossible to qualify or quantify.
Fiona: Is there one person pass or present you would meet and why?
WA: There are so many things I do not know or understand, that at this point one person would not clarify things. Yet, while this may appear dreary, it is not because I accept the fact and find solace and imagination in the unknown.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
WA: Watch your step.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
WA: We have visited numerous countries and when we travel I always look for the NY Times, even in the rain forest of Belize. I used to exhibit photography. I love ice hockey, the daily crossword puzzle, and ethnic foods. I have played in the same recreational poker game with the same guys for twenty years. I even know some of their names.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
WA: I never remember the times and stations of the programs I like, but my wife diligently records many shows. We love British mysteries and are now afraid to visit either Oxford or Yorkshire, because of the high incidence of murder. We watch them with closed captions, especially the ones that occur in northern England and Scotland. Sometimes even with the CC, we have no idea what they are saying.
I like movies with a compelling story, terrific writing, acting, and direction. I am impatient with special effects and movies where guns and violence are not essential to the story. Spotlight is a perfect example of the movies I like.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
I am a bread cuckoo but they haven’t invented a cuisine I don’t like. I love folk music, symphonic music, and the oxymoronic category of classic rock.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
WA: If offered another life, I would have liked to been a professor of either immigration or intellectual history. I feel I am not well versed in literature which is one reason I did not go on for doctorate. My knowledge is like a python who has just eaten a meal, long with a few bumps here or there.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
WA: I am working on it. I have reserved a few names including AlexanderDaGrate. I was going to have a section where friends and relatives in the arts could tell of their latest venture, but I could not raise enough enthusiasm for it. Maybe they do not appear with me in public.