Alexandra Tanner on Vulnerability, Making Money as a Writer, and Taking Literary Shortcuts


I met Allie Tanner in November of 2016 at the Brooklyn reading series Franklin Park. The first words she ever said to me were “Are you okay?” (I was. I used to call the raffle at Franklin Park, and felt that microphones were for cowards, so I did not use them.)

We’ve been together for seven years now, and it has been one of the true blessings of my lifetime to write beside her day in and day out. Of course we were going to talk about her debut novel, Worry, together. Worry is a funny, tender, gross, and wild book about having a sister, being alive, being alone, how work is and has always been bullshit, and a three-legged dog named Amy Klobuchar. It’s a book about how we aren’t always good people, and if we spent a little more time laughing at that, most of us would be a lot better off.

A thing I think about a lot with Worry is the version of the word where a thing is worn away, that you can worry something down to the bone. Its tenderness will suddenly take you by surprise. Ahead of its release this spring, we spoke over email about craft, love, money, and the joys and hardships of building twinned careers around different goals.

Sasha Fletcher

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Sasha Fletcher: While we talk every day all the time about our art, every conversation has to start somewhere, so: You watched me go through the whole process of publishing a first novel two years ago. What has the process been like for you?

Alexandra Tanner: I think you were a lot more normal about publishing Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World—you had this deep trust that it would find its readers: this even, quiet confidence about it. I expected I’d feel that, too, but I’ve been really all over the place.

I hate periods of waiting, as you know. Sharing your work comes with so many little humiliations and demands and contortions. It’s a big competition for attention, a leap and a prayer to be noticed. It’s activating something scary for me. I feel like I’m at an orphanage waiting to be claimed.

SF: I have such faith in this book, if for no other reason than the awe I feel about you and your work. When you sit down to write, you can do it anywhere, in bed, on the couch, at a desk, a dinner table, much like how you can fall asleep whenever you want, and when you’re working you just get this look in your eye, and nothing in this world can tear you away until you’re happy with it.

With Worry you did this breathtaking job of writing a novel that was able to get at an unflinching sense of truth. You stared down the parts of ourselves we shrink from and just dove in. Can you talk a little about what it took to get there? My memory is that you just kind of decided you wanted to do that and then did it. But I also tend to mythologize you a little.

A lot of the work of this book was done before it started: I had to look at stuff I’d done in the past and see where I was lying to myself, where I was taking shortcuts, where I was exploiting my characters.

AT: Thanks for saying all that, Sash. I think of myself as lazy and work-avoidant to the point of self-destruction, but I didn’t ever indulge myself there with this book. The writing itself was easy and focused. I’ve never had that before. A lot of the work of this book was done before it started: I had to look at stuff I’d done in the past and see where I was lying to myself, where I was taking shortcuts, where I was exploiting my characters.

And now I know what it feels like, intellectually and physically and emotionally, to be working with the material you’re meant to be working with. It’s amazing. I think Be Here was that book for you, too.

SF: I do like that the books we both ended up selling were the ones where we said Fuck it, this one’s for me. It’s a weird thing to ask someone you saw write a whole book how they wrote the whole book, but here we are. What was your process generally like before writing Worry, how did it change during Worry, and how is it still changing now?

AT: I have no idea how to talk about process because as soon as I codify something or turn it into a routine it starts to feel like work, and then it’s hard for me to approach. I make a lot of notes in TextEdit files about scenes I want to render or funny things I’ve overheard. I’ll make lists of beats I want to hit in each section of something and organize my notes so the jokes build or repeat or whatever in a way that seems like it’ll be satisfying to write.

And when I have enough to start, I start. I don’t have a writing ritual but I do have things that make me feel sort of ensconced and alone with my thoughts while I write, like writing at night or writing in bed or writing something I’ve been avoiding when I’m a little stoned. And when I complete something the first thing I do is get notes from you.

I think what Worry changed for me most in terms of process was teaching me to get better at cutting. If I’m looking at a sentence or a scene that feels like a hassle to figure out, I’ll often just cut it now. Because, like you said, the writing of this gave me more of a fuck it attitude. I used to spend so much time trying to make writing that didn’t work work.

Let’s talk about money. I think a lot about money, in a way that really warps my experience of the things that are happening to me. When I have success in my career it’s like: I’m going out to a good dinner. When my brother has success in his career it’s like: I’m buying a boat. I don’t want a boat but there’s a part of me that wants to be able to buy a boat.

I’m in the wrong industry. I want to do the Hollywood thing, to make more money and have more security and more time to write, but that’s a grind, too, from what I understand. That’s a line of work where the payoff can be big but it’s tough to get the writing to have that sense of surprise.

SF: That’s a great way to talk about the pull of Hollywood! I think both of us reach for TV and for movies as readily as we reach for a book. For me, there is something about trying to find a way to narrate the way the phone booth lights up in Punch-Drunk Love, or how it feels when the score starts to swell, when we zoom out and see the larger scene.

AT: Lately I’m much more admiring of movies and television than I am of books. But I think this is a money thing too. I think publishing is an arena where there’s so little money, compared to other industries, and that creates a fear of risk. I’ve written sort-of half-baked essays to this effect, but I think there’s something way more demoralizing to me about books following trends than movies or shows following trends.

To break out in either industry you kind of have to do something that’s been done before, just better. You have to have strong comps, even if you’re looking at a bunch of them and thinking—I’m kind of doing something new? I think we both had that experience with our books, of feeling like they were hard to describe because they were synthesizing so much from such a range of mediums, taking on the rhythms of other forms.

SF: We did! What is it like for you, these experiences we share? The joy of working back-to-back in the office in our apartment, of sharing this space and this life together, it’s been such a beautiful thing, us being such different writers, and still being able to share so much of our work together. I do think one thing we maybe don’t share, I mean like we share it like we share a meal but not like we share a thought, is our different ideas of success.

For me, yeah, I want to make money, I want to be compensated fairly for my labor, but I don’t think that’ll ever happen when faced with how much of ourselves we have to put into these works of ours, and at the end of the day all I really want is to have someone feel about my work what I’ve felt about the books that have shown me ways to live and to breathe and to see and to love. What does your idea of success look like, to you, on the eve of your first book? These are two different questions delivered as one.

We’re both working to have written something we’re proud of not for what it could bring us materially but for what it’s shown us about how our own minds work, how far we’ve come from a prior point in our own thinking or capacity for rendering.

AT: I think having a shared career—being able to shape and support each other’s work, having these overlapping experiences we can help each other through—that’s a big part of success to me. When we’re both in the middle of our projects and we’re working at our desks, reading out lines we’re proud of and looking at each other’s pages, listening to music, pouring little glasses of wine: it feels like we’re one of those realty teams that’s like, top earners at the firm third year in a row. It makes me want to chest-bump you.

I think we’re always getting better at helping each other, at determining what we want out of our day-to-day writing, what we want out of publishing, what we want out of our larger careers and how we can try to get there. We’re both working to have written something we’re proud of not for what it could bring us materially but for what it’s shown us about how our own minds work, how far we’ve come from a prior point in our own thinking or capacity for rendering.

I think how you look at art has given me a sense of freedom to be so, so serious about “the work,” and how I look at it has given you the freedom to get out of your patterns a little. You’ve shown me how to have more feeling for the work, and I’ve shown you how to have more distance from it. Success to me looks like more and more time with my work; success to me is having a life where the bottom line is the time and space to work.

SF: There is, in this tender and hilarious book, a deep and underlying tension in its tender moments, where Jules seems to never really be able to tell if she is going to lean into a tender impulse or if she’s going to turn from it. Can you talk about the tension tenderness can bring in the book, in your life?

AT: I have a hard time writing about love, writing about vulnerability. I think I got so afraid for a while of trying to ape Marilynne Robinson or whoever and falling short and winding up with something really soggy and embarrassing that I’ve closed myself off to it in a lot of ways. I think that’s how I got Jules: a person constructed around withholding, and manipulation, and keeping herself closed off. She’s afraid of love and tenderness.

There’s also, with Poppy specifically, a fear of loss. Poppy’s physically ill, she’s attempted suicide, she’s kind of in shreds at the start of the book. I think for Jules to take in the magnitude of Poppy’s suffering, to grieve with her, is to admit fear, admit need. Sometimes that feels grotesque; sometimes things can be so painful they become revolting. I think this is that tension you’re talking about, that fear of leaping off the edge with someone into grief, into regret, into whatever emotion they’re inviting you toward.

You’re dealing with this tension in your work now, too. I think this new project is more honest about what love can and can’t do. What’s at stake for you, when you show tension on the page? How does it feel to be dropping that scrim, a little bit, and bring a little more unrest and uncertainty onto the page?

SF: It’s terrifying! So much of Be Here involved me wanting the love story to be a place that I and the reader could retreat back into. But I talk a lot about wanting to write love stories that are more than just two people falling in love. If I want to tell an honest love story, I need to tell it more honestly, I need to show the fights and the struggles of love. We change and we grow. We are different people than we were, because of each other.

So let’s talk about growth, or about change, as these are not always the same thing, certainly not in life, and especially not in the publishing process, and the changes it can work on a book. What are some things that changed about the book, for you, in the editing process?

My recollection, and this may have been before it was sold, was you did this massive edit where you condensed the middle of the book, where Jules is going to work and Poppy’s at the school. I have this memory of a lot of repetition, this beautiful stuff that reminded me of the repeated scenes in Neon Genesis Evangelion where Misato comes home and cracks open a beer and they all eat, the way we’re shown the stabilizing boredom of routine amidst the insanity of the world.

AT: Our minds don’t like repetition in art: it reads like a mistake. But I’m pretty sure that’s because we’re scared to look at how much our lives are defined by repetition. There was a lot of that in the middle of the novel but I don’t know that it accomplished what I wanted it to, so it did get cut.

Our minds don’t like repetition in art: it reads like a mistake. But I’m pretty sure that’s because we’re scared to look at how much our lives are defined by repetition.

My dream novel is just reading about the boring minutiae of someone’s days over and over and over. I would read a thousand pages of just someone doing the same thing and having this slow, almost so slow it’s unnoticeable change or struggle. Maybe I’ll write something like that one day, but Worry wasn’t the book for it.

I found the work my editor and I did made the whole thing much tighter, much more successful as a narrative, and made me better as an observer of my own work. It taught me what to look out for next time. Worry was very fragmentary in early drafts, nothing really added up. I think as much as I hate it, you have to show that you can make things add up to something.

SF:. But I think Worry really marked the start of something for you, that it showed you a new way to write and to think, or, it allowed for the way you think to be more easily translated into prose. Do you feel that that’s true?

AT: Worry let me give myself over to something without pretension or precognition. I found a voice I could live in and think in, even though it wasn’t necessarily my own. I was just attuned to Jules, to how she observed things and reacted to them. And suddenly I could write very closely to the truth about myself and my family and my failures of thought and action.

I just had a need to be in the work in a way I never had before, because I was just writing it for me, and for my sibling Jess, and for you, kind of. To make the people I loved laugh a little. I didn’t try to be literary or deep. I wasn’t thinking about, you know, whether the sentences were good as I was writing them. I just wrote from these reserves of frustration and anxiety and hypervigilance and let that be enough.

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Worry - Tanner, Alexandra

Worry by Alexandra Tanner is available via Scribner.



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