I’m still not sure what my genre is. I leave that up to the reviewers, and they seem undecided between calling The Ugly literary fiction, dark humor and contemporary fiction—though dark humor and satire are definitely winning the race. Until The Ugly was published, I thought I was writing literary fiction but struggling to sell a Central European absurdist/existentialist sensibility in a North American market that equates literary fiction with psychological realism. But it’s probably easier to just pick a different genre label.
At any rate, I don’t expect to stay in one genre. The Ugly is literary satire because that’s what made sense for this particular story, but my next book is science fiction.
That said, I do really enjoy existentialist dark comedy. My favorite authors are Kafka, Heller, Vonnegut, Musil, Borges, Joseph Roth, Hrabal, Bowles, Dostoevsky, Camus, Rilke, Conrad, DN Stuefloten, Jodorowsky, PK Dick, Frank Herbert and the movie “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder—as Einstein said, “If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”—writers who were thinkers, but knew that storytelling is the most sophisticated form of thinking, that an idea stops being interesting the minute you can put it in a box. And who knew that in order to tell a good story, you have to keep the thinking below the surface.
The Ugly had to be satire because it’s set at Harvard Law School. When I was a student there, people saw me as a bit of an odd mountain man, so I thought it would be fun to bring a real mountain man—not my half North Americanized version, but one distilled and fortified in the most remote mountain range in Siberia—to Harvard Law and see what happened. This is a natural setting for humor, which grows out of incongruity. The clash of Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth and Harvard has instant comedic potential, and stiff rule-bound places already lend themselves to funny situations. But at the same time, the juxtaposition allowed me to ask the question of “What is thinking?” which is what the book is about for me (though I don’t necessarily expect that to be the case for the reader.) There is the rational discourse of law school, with its various categories, but there are also forms of thinking that happen with the fists or the penis or the heart or the ear, poetry and visual art and math and bullets and sand, and I wanted to clash all these various ways of processing information into each other and see what happened. I didn’t approach the book with answers, just open-ended questions that I wanted to smash into each other as hard as I could. Those collisions are often inherently funny, and the fact that this is the place that creates the people who make the rules that govern all our lives—take a look at a list of alumni: my roommate my last year, for example, was Samantha Power (though she was great; I’d never have made it through our Chinese Law class without her)—makes it inherently dark. That became The Ugly.
What do you find most challenging about the writing process, and how do you deal with it?
Number one is finding time. As for the writing itself, at first what I struggled with most was the subjectivity of it. There’s no objective standard, no puzzle to decode—you have to write for your readers, who are human beings with a million different preferences and backgrounds. And yet if you want to write anything interesting, your writing isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Lots of people never made it through Ulysses and never even picked up The Man Without Qualities. There’s no universal reader and there’s no one proper way to write a novel. Going against the grain may slow you down, but if that’s what your book needs, then that’s what it needs.
At the same time, however, I do think writers need to read their work with a truly critical eye and ask themselves whether some limitation in their own personality is holding back their writing. Over and over, I found that the limits to my writing ability were actually the flaws in my personality, something that was blocking me from being able to see a way out that was true both to the story and to the reader whom I’m asking to invest eight or more hours of his or her life in the world I created. The advantage of editing a book for 16 years was that I really had a chance to learn from my mistakes, and trace them back to their source. I’m a big believer in protecting a small part of my brain that is convinced everything I think I know is wrong. If you can unify that self-doubt with enough confidence to never quit, your book will eventually make it.
You can see why I don’t write How to write guides: “Spend 16 years editing a single book” isn’t going to be popular advice. But that was my solution.
When and where do you do your writing?
Whenever I can. I spent years as a full-time single dad, which meant I had to work from home. Now I work out of a tiny home office, with a 200-year old Balinese teak door for a table top, mounted on an Uplift adjustable-height desk, with a Lifespan treadmill underneath. I can’t write while walking, but use the treadmill while reading. Around the treadmill and desk is a nearly chthonic chaos of paper and books buried under other books and paper. Fortunately, the office has high ceilings and I can keep adjusting my desk higher as the papers rise up to drown me. As I’m typing this, I’m realizing that I’m actually quite high up in the air, on a sort of precarious throne, with my feet roughly at the level of the window sill. Which isn’t bad, because I can see into the back yard.
I have a little mantra that I like to recite as a way of starting my writing sessions. It’s dedicated with love towards my son and girlfriend, and goes something along the lines of “Just because I work from home doesn’t mean I’m not working! Please stop walking in and out of my office and yelling up at me from downstairs and asking me whether we have mustard!” (Swap socks or playdate for mustard, as appropriate.) After loudly clearing my throat in this way, I’m in the zone and can write.
What have you learned about promoting your books?
I have a great publisher, Brooklyn Arts Press. They won this year’s National Book Award in poetry. But they’re a small press, which means a lot of the marketing and promotion has been up to me. When it comes to promotion, I’ve tried to learn from both traditional and self-published authors, and I’m capable of putting on the “used car salesman” hat, but I really don’t enjoy it. I’m a hermit at heart, and much prefer sitting at my ever-climbing desk over clicking “refresh” obsessively on my Amazon page. I’ve published over a hundred nonfiction articles, lots of short stories, art criticism, ghostwritten pieces for Wall Street, etc., but had never heard of this Amazon-refresh-clicking disease until I started promoting The Ugly. It seems incurable. I only know of one writer friend who’s beat it. He says the disease goes into remission once a major Hollywood studio purchases the film rights and makes a movie, since at that point everyone stops caring what readers think.
More seriously, I was surprised at how much publishing with a small press, even one that won an NBA, is similar to self publishing in terms of the legwork you have to do to actually sell books. I’ve had fantastic reviews, but translating those into sales is tough. One example: I’m a Harvard alumus, former chief editorial columnist at the Harvard Law Record, my book is set at Harvard, but when I asked the Harvard Book Store to come in and do a reading, their reaction was “Debut author with a small press, no thank you.” That surprised me.
The flip side, of course, is that these days it seems only small presses are willing to experiment and discover new authors and try unorthodox approaches. Basically, small presses seem to be doing all the heavy lifting within the publishing industry. That’s more than a fair trade for putting on the ugly salesman hat once in a while.
What are you most proud of as a writer?
It was a tremendous honor to be included in the Best Books of 2016: Best Fiction, by Entropy Magazine, called “the eternal champion of small press literary books” by Small Press Distribution. I was very happy to be #1 on Goodreads’ New Releases list and I loved seeing The Ugly at spot #2 on Amazon’s “most wished for” list in the dark humor category, nestled between Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. After a few days, Chuck Palahniuk knocked out Kurt, but The Ugly stayed where it was at #2.
But my proudest moment may have been when I received a blurb from Professor Alan Stone, the former president of the American Psychiatric Society, where he wrote that “The author moves from the surreal to the real without ever losing his way.” That had been my goal, to not fall either into realism or surrealism but try to balance between the two, and having someone I respected very much pick up on that meant a lot. The irony is, because of space constraints, that portion of the blurb was edited out and never made it onto the book jacket.
Actually, no, scratch that. My proudest moment was seeing the book in real life, holding it, hugging it, caressing it. But that’s probably what every author says, so let’s go with the wise psychiatrist.
If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I’d rather have a poker game with the writers I mentioned above— Kafka, Heller, Vonnegut, Musil, Borges, Joseph Roth, Hrabal, Bowles, Dostoevsky, Camus, Rilke, Conrad, DN Stuefloten, Jodorowsky, PK Dick, Frank Herbert, Fassbinder and, sure, Einstein for variety, why not—and just listen to them trying to bluff each other. But if I have to choose one, it would be Franz Kafka. We’d talk about the weather and aliens and slow people who drive in the passing lane. I’d love to see how his mind worked on daily things, whether his ability to open up that weird existential sideways shift was just who he was, or whether it was a conscious intellectual move within the story.
Alexander Boldizar was the first post-independence Slovak citizen to graduate with a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. Since then, he has been an art gallery director in Bali, an attorney in San Francisco and Prague, a pseudo-geisha in Japan, a hermit in Tennessee, a paleontologist in the Sahara, a porter in the High Arctic, a police-abuse watchdog in New York City, an editor and art critic in Jakarta and Singapore, and a consultant on Wall Street. His writing has won the PEN/Nob Hill prize and was the Breadloaf nominee for Best New American Voices. Boldizar currently lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where his hobbies include throwing boulders and choking people while wearing pajamas, for which he won a gold medal at the Pan American Championships and a bronze at the World Masters Championships of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. For several years, an online Korean dictionary had him listed as its entry for “ugly.”
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On Twitter: @Boldizar