June 2014

Michael Carroll

features

An Interview with Alden Jones

In ten months, author Alden Jones has published her first two books, establishing herself as equally capable in two separate genres. Her essays in The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler's Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013) is a bold tome intimately detailing her restless movements around the world over the years, sometimes as a teacher and at other times as a merely observant and curious traveler (if not one of those overbearing, self-congratulatory ones). On May 6, The Blind Masseuse was long-listed for the prestigious PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, alongside titles by such older practitioners of the form as Janet Malcolm, James Wolcott, Rebecca Solnit, David Sedaris, and Jonathan Franzen.

Jones's second book, Unaccompanied Minors (June 2014), is a collection of short stories depicting the lives, often harrowing, of young people from posh, addled American suburbs... and the ghettoes of Costa Rica. In manuscript, it won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize. Each book is the product of Jones's writing for literary journals like AGNI and Prairie Schooner. Alden Jones and her wife make their home in Boston. She teaches at Emerson College.

We conducted this interview through email over the course of I don't know how many weeks. Having sent a set of questions, I would receive a message at midnight, after the chores were done and the kids had been put to bed. We completed it soon after her spring semester of teaching had wound down and she'd turned in her grades -- that afternoon of which she wrote to inform me that she'd turned on the techno music in her office to enjoy a private dance party.

Let's start with the travel book. While reading The Blind Masseuse, I also happened to be reading Joan Didion's novel The Last Thing He Wanted, which has a lot of exotic settings. I remember smiling at Didion's special glamour, to wit the way she deflates it, which of course only increases the exotic appeal. Her main character is on some island in the Caribbean, and she registers in her mind the complete beauty and ease and luxury of it, and calls it tedious. In another part of the novel the same character is attending an Oscars party in LA with her husband and never once looks at the screen at the actors receiving their prizes. All she does is look down at her plate. But in your book, the glamour is forefront, or am I wrong? The glamour is being in a new place, exotic yes, but you, your narrator, are just happy to be there.

It's funny that you mention The Last Thing He Wanted. I read that book in the '90s, probably in the same month I wrote the first chapter of The Blind Masseuse, when I was on the hunt for any representation of Costa Rica in English-language literature. I had just spent a formative year in Costa Rica, and there was virtually no literature available in English about Costa Rica, zero. The Last Thing He Wanted didn't have much to do with Costa Rica at all, which was disappointing -- and made me even more determined to bring Costa Rica to life in writing -- but I relate to the point you make about exoticism and the tedium that arises to replace it once you become familiar with a setting.

Though it seems unfathomable now that I'm living in Boston just emerging from the worst winter I can remember, at a certain point during my time in Costa Rica, a view of the Caribbean Sea and the feeling of sand between my toes felt tedious. Once I'd grown used to my Costa Rican existence, "exotic" meant the life my friends were living in New York, with their office jobs and tiny apartments and access to turkey club sandwiches. I was ecstatically happy to be in Costa Rica for many months, but after a while, when the charm of the unfamiliar wore off, I started craving new environments. By the end of The Blind Masseuse, I come to the realization that in order to keep my spirit alive, I had to keep moving. I didn't want to "go native."

What's so appealing about your narrator, you, is she has some wonderfully, what I'd call, true personal needs and desires. I smiled whenever coffee was mentioned again. You like coffee, and in certain surprising situations (in your host house in Costa Rica, a coffee-growing country, and in Bolivia), you have a hard time finding coffee. This becomes a wonderful returned-to trope, and helps shape the book. A travel book can be a loose and fast affair. Were you aware of the reader's need for some plot device or theme, or what were you thinking? Just being honest to your character, yourself, or what?

It was not a deliberate narrative thread; the quest for good coffee was a genuine part of my travel experience. I can still grade every place I've been on the quality of the coffee (Cuba: A. Australia: D). Nothing grounds me as much as my addictions. At this point in my life, I'm addicted to my children. If I don't see them for even one day, I become anxious and obsessed, I think about how pure and good it will feel the second I have access to them again. Which it never is, of course (well, with the baby it usually is -- the toddler is a different story!). At another point in my life, my primary addiction was coffee. There was something so comforting about waking up and having a goal that absolutely, positively needed to be achieved. When I found myself in situations where it was not acceptable to demand coffee in the morning, I immediately thought to myself, "Okay, I don't belong here." I think this became relatable to many readers of The Blind Masseuse, because we all have our non-negotiables. They make us who we are, whether they are chemical addictions or otherwise.

In the chapter called "The Blind Masseur," you relate getting a massage at a luxury hotel in Costa Rica, and again I'm applauding your honesty about your personal needs and desires while in an unfamiliar, new environment. On one of your repeat visits to Costa Rica after your long-term teaching stint there, you describe wanting a weekend (you hoped with a lover, who never shows up) not of deprivation but the full amenities. When you arrive at the spa, you discover your masseur is blind. I was astounded to learn the modern tradition of getting massages by blind masseurs. You say that in effect there is a certain received wisdom that blind people have special sensory powers. About undressing at the Marriott you write, "I'm not one of those people who believes that blind people physically hear better than people who can see. I believe they might listen harder." I laughed my ass off at this, but what was your thought as you wrote that? Did you feel rakishly daring? Did you worry about ruffling feathers in this essay? Is part of being a writer taking the dare to be yourself, reveal yourself?

I wasn't trying to be particularly daring, just honest! As a twenty-two-year-old, pretty-enough, thin-enough, blonde American in Costa Rica, I got a lot of attention that had to do with my physical appearance, as did many of my female American friends. Some of the attention was flattering, and some of it was very unwanted. But there was absolutely no escaping it, which is part of what the chapter called "The Blind Masseur" is about. One time I was walking down the street of San José and this entire bus full of soccer players started screaming "Gringa! Macha!" out the windows of the bus while they were stopped at a stoplight. This kind of thing had happened so frequently, and I was so tired of pretending I didn't notice, that this time I just smiled and looked back at them and waved. The bus exploded into cheers. You could hear them for blocks. It's safe to say I never got anything like this kind of attention before or after that year. The attention could be terrifying -- there were times when I felt true danger -- but it could also be thrilling.

So in "The Blind Masseur," and why this became the title essay for the book, I attempted to not only call a cultural habit as I saw it, but to own my own assumptions, behavior, and privilege as a gringa in Costa Rica. It seems like it might be a takedown of the machista masseur who critiqued my physicality, but in the end it's a takedown of me as well. So yes, it was important for me to reveal myself in that way for The Blind Masseuse to be a success. And I think that's true of all good travel writing. You have to turn your lens on yourself if you're going to aim it on others, especially when you cross cultures.

And this leads me neatly into your first fiction collection, Unaccompanied Minors, by way of the final chapter of The Blind Masseuse, in which you address Gustave Flaubert directly in letter form. During your time on a ship teaching in the Semester at Sea program, you taught a literature course about exoticism that you designed prior to the voyage. Your -- let's face it -- privileged American students express discomfort with the exoticism of Western writers when depicting non-Westerners. Flaubert, according to many, sinned by exoticizing and maybe sentimentalizing Egyptian prostitutes in his Letters from Egypt. And you've clearly considered this, in that final travel memoir chapter. Then fearlessly, in the story "Sin Alley," my favorite and doubtless one of the most startling inclusions in the fiction collection Unaccompanied Minors, you head into the inner city of San Jose, Costa Rica and depict the interior lives of boy prostitutes, who do not identify themselves as gay. They sit around in front of the TV in a dumpy apartment owned by their guardian or madame, whose dogs have shit all over the floors, which hasn't been cleaned up. Your inspiration? Your dare? Is writing fiction about daring yourself? What went through your blonde American head? Because the story is unrelentingly honest -- never predictable.

I'm so glad you liked that story! As I said earlier, when I was just back from my year teaching in Costa Rica I was on the hunt for literature in English about Costa Rica, and during one random search I came across the book Lila's House by Jacobo Schifter. Schifter is a health advocate who went to Costa Rica and interviewed twenty-five young male prostitutes for a study on condom use, drug use, sexual practices, and attitudes toward homosexuality. Their interviews were published as Lila's House. I was most interested in the fact that almost none of the boys and men identified as gay, even when some of their answers suggested otherwise. In Costa Rican Spanish there is actually a word -- cachero -- for a straight boy or man who has sex with men for money. So I invented a character who thought he was living a righteous life and had him enter the fictional world I based on Lila's house and, unfortunately for him, fall in love with one of the cacheros. I was amazed by so many of the details in Schifter's study, especially the house itself, and once I'd read it there was no way I wasn't writing about it.

Incidentally, after the study was completed, Schifter helped to shut down Lila's house and open a safer living space for young prostitutes in San José where alternative work opportunities are provided. But when I lived in Costa Rica, I might have walked right by it.

In stories like "Shelter," "Something Will Grow," and "Flee" you write about American kids and young people in their teens and early twenties in danger, "at risk." Did this grow out of some fascination, a sense of authorial responsibility, what? Because I'm totally convinced.

It really didn't grow out of any conscious sense of responsibility. Honestly, I didn't even see the theme of young people on the edge of society until years had gone by and I began to see the common thread running through the stories I'd written that I thought were the best. I grew up in a place where there was plenty of "at risk" behavior and unsavory situations, but you weren't supposed to talk about these things or be involved in them. In my writing, I wanted to give voice to the people, girls mainly, who were so often sent the message that they should keep their mouths shut about the things that happened to them in their lives.

Tell us a little about your influences. How does a young woman from a New Jersey suburb decide to address the problems of endangered youths, underprivileged, overly privileged or just modern kids? You haven't "prepared" for these topics, in the sense that I can see any obvious literary influences -- there is a sense of organic, original thinking going on. But did any writers prove invaluable, someone to reach for when you were stuck or about to lose your cool? Or do you ever lose your cool? Your work is very self-assured.

I was lucky as a kid to have amazing teachers who introduced me to really good books, and parents who encouraged me to read good books. When I was eleven or twelve I started collecting Sweet Valley High books, and I have a distinct memory of my mother saying, "I'll buy them for you, but I don't like you reading those books if you want to be a writer. They're not very good, and what you read is going to influence how you write." She was right, of course, and lucky for both of us I mostly devoured the canon. As a teenager I loved Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Oscar Wilde. I was all over the map, subject-matter-wise, but the literature I was most drawn to as a young reader was the literature of tough lives. I'm glad that you felt a sense of organic thinking. Even the story that was based so heavily on research, "Sin Alley," felt very organic to write. Some of these stories came out of me in just a few days -- "Shelter," "Heathens," and "Something Will Grow" were all finished in a matter of days, and revised very little after the fact. I believe in revision -- a lot of revision went into Unaccompanied Minors, and even more into The Blind Masseuse -- but sometimes you hit the vein, and those have always been the stories of mine I find the most successful.

What a great mom! Earlier you said that you're addicted now to your family. Now you're married and have two children. Your work in both books exposes the instability of youth, from childhood to teenage years to young people in their twenties figuring out their paths in life, or else not. What has changed as a result of marriage and parenthood, a stable teaching job, nursing an infant? And what's next in the Alden Jones quiver of mean shots?

It's funny, some readers have referred to the young characters in Unaccompanied Minors as "those poor kids," but I don't see them that way at all. I think they will all be okay. Even Martín, the teenage prostitute, and Angel, the cocky punk princess. They exist in the stories during a time you should worry about them, and hopefully someone in their lives will worry about them soon. I think of the teenage years as a very exciting time. You're figuring everything out, everything is heightened, and you are allowed to make mistakes, be selfish, and act on your impulses. Being an adult -- married with kids, a homeowner, a teacher -- doesn't make me feel any differently about youth or about my stories. I love teenagers, and I loved that time in my life, even though it was filled with doubt. About parenting, my partner Kate and I always joke that she'll take the toddler years and I'll take the teenage years.

Both The Blind Masseuse and Unaccompanied Minors were slim books, and my next book is going to be long in comparison. It's a novel set in the rave scene in the US and in the rainforest in Cambodia. There is this swath of rainforest in Cambodia that has been inadvertently protected because of the Khmer Rouge landmines that were never disarmed. Because no one was allowed to access this piece of land for decades, things grow there that don't grow anywhere else in the world. One of those things is safrole oil, one of the main ingredients in Ecstasy. Now, people go into the rainforrest illegally to mine safrole oil, risking their lives, and across oceans club kids swallow pills and dance and feel blissfully happy and know nothing about how these pills were made. The novel combines all the subjects I love -- youth culture, Cambodia, yoga, Eastern religion, and the American obsession with happiness.