Thursday, June 12, 2008

Alec Niedenthal is Ready to Take Back What's Ours

I first contacted Alec a week or so ago asking him to do an interview with me. After much back and forth, we finally settled on an e-mail interview. Alec is 17 years old and lives in Birmingham, AL and broke into the New York literary world with a rightfully angry letter penned to the editors at The New York Times. He is honestly one of the most refreshing thinkers I've spoken to in a long time. Below is the interview.

When did you first become interested in literature and writing?
I’ve always written. I started reading voraciously—bigger, denser stuff—just a couple of years ago.

What drove you to write a letter to The New York Times?
I’m not sure. I just read the review, and I was like, “This speaks to me. This moves me. How can I communicate the way this makes me feel?” Then it just sort of shot through me: letter to the Editor! It was written in a sort of deliriously queer state of mind, and I, all of a sudden, was overwhelmed with passion for what I felt needed to be said, and was compelled to write this letter, which has apparently caused so much stir. The aforementioned state of mind is to blame for my scattered malapropisms. I typically don’t do that.

How did it feel to have huge media organizations like Gawker and The Observer interested in you and your writing?
Freaking unbelievable, quite literally, and that is said with both a good and bad connotation. I was almost shocked into indifference. I never expected, or intended to get, that kind of response. My first reaction was, “I can’t do this. I’m not equipped for it,” but then I settled down and realized that what I had been endowed with was a tremendous amount of luck, and then I was impelled to take advantage of it, or else I would regret not doing so for the rest of my life, no matter how many naysayers there may be. I usually don’t have a lot of confidence when it comes to these types of things, but I guess I had to sort of reach into that secretive area where it was simmering and deracinate it. And that’s where I am now. I just had to steel myself against the harsh, trenchant anonymity of it all, and it was hard, no doubt. It’s still hard, really difficult and stressful and exciting--exhilarating, invigorating--but this entire awkward ordeal has been gorgeous in a way I can’t express with the implements of words.

How has this affected your every day life?
I’m stressed a lot more often now. The only repose I get from my own voice—because I’m constantly telling myself write write write write write WRITE WRITE—is at the gym. I’ve been going everyday now to help me expel great volumes of stress. My parents have been Googling me a lot and keeping me apprised of what they find, though I’d kind of rather they not, but it’s cute. They’ve been freaking out. And, obviously, I’ve been writing a lot. More than I’ve ever written.

I read that you’ve been propositioned by a few publishing houses – are there any deals in the works for you?
Um, well, there have been inquiries, yes, but before any deals are struck, I must produce a work. I’m working on that now. It should be finished by the end of August, and it’s going well. I usually hate what I write, but I hate this less than everything I’ve ever written; I actually kind of like it. It’s very different from what I usually write, but in a good way.

What do you think of the current young reining literary champs like Keith Gessen and Jonathan Safran Foer?
I think they could stand to be a bit more pissed off, Gessen in particular. I just read Gessen’s book and have mixed feelings on it. It seems more self-indulgent than intensely personal. Foer I do like, however. I think the whole cabal of n+1 kids needs to quit crying and start fighting; they can write—I mean, damn, they can write—but they’ve got to suppress their sadness and longing, if only for a moment, and begin to arm themselves, fight back. I’m planning on doing so myself, if I get a chance. I’m sort of sick of contemporary writers quoting historical and literary figures in order to express their thoughts, too.

What authors and published works do you most value and draw inspiration from?
My prose has a pretty bulky shade of early Vollmann in it, only far more straightforward, less diffuse. My sentence structure used to be very Pynchonesque (or Proustian, but less so), although not anymore; that turgidity can either be triumphant, or it can fall flat on its face, and I guess mine did the latter with a tepid shine. So right now I’m channeling a lot of Vollmann, DeLillo, William H. Gass, Bowles, and Calvino, maybe.

Did you realize that you would garner so much reactionary publicity from your letter?
No. I had no idea. I didn’t intend for any of this to happen, this outcry. I never even hoped it would because I couldn’t fathom it. But it did. It did.

What is your reaction to the dismissive claims that our generation can’t produce anything of quality because we are, as you say, grappling with “Facebook-and-Myspace-addled minds?”
I think—and I could be entirely wrong—that our techno-obsessed society, of which I am proudly a part, will only make our ideas even stronger, will only galvanize our words. The Internet and the whole of our modern technological obsessions engender so much hatred—well, such a mélange of different emotions and experiences, of love and outrage and apathy, all of this passion and drama unfurling indiscriminately, often anonymously every single freaking day, and you can’t help but witness some of it and absorb it, become freighted with it—that it cannot possibly bear to not encourage phenomenal, dazzling literature.

What kind of literature would you like to see emerge from the vein of the up-and-coming literary elite? Are there any important genres or topics you feel young writers absolutely need to address?
Literature that isn’t so obsessed with itself. I want for us to slough off all of the layers of involution that we’ve acquired from our literary heroes (Danielewski, Foer, etc. etc.) and get back to writing great stories again. There has to be an entire epic novel devoted to the hook-up culture. I don’t want to write it. I don’t feel as if I’m experienced enough to get through more than a few pages. But I will if someone wants to remedy my situation. Please.

Whenever I mention Updike or someone of the sort, people always say things like “Oh, suburban angst.” I read that you grew up in the suburbs - how do you think your upbringing has impacted your writing, if at all?
It’s definitely contributed to the angst I’ve been channeling. I’ve seen a lot of hate and injustice and terrible, horrible, vile things over the years that can never be forgotten, and have let them just sort of happen right in front of me. Maybe this is my shot at redemption. Hopefully. Who knows?

What’s your advice for young writers looking to break into the “incestuous” New York literary world spearheaded by the Times Book Review, etc?
I have no idea. I’ll tell you when/if I’m broken in. Get delusional. Get passionate. Get pissed off.

As told to Jessica Roy.


Bee said...

Oh my gosh, thank you! It's really interesting to hear what he/you have to say without the filter of the Observer/Gawker--I think it's easy for someone even just a few years older to forget that "fever of youth," when one is so taken in and propelled by big, big ideas: it's really sort of beautiful to witness. I suppose he could stand to be more humble, but seventeen is a time when it should be okay to be arrogant, to tell the whole world you're going to take it apart before you can be knocked down by the quotidian reality of it.

As someone who wants to write but is fatally insecure, this kind of self-assurance in someone so young is fantastic to see. Don't you wish a young woman writer would come along who's like this? A young Margaret Atwood with a really expansive scope?

And the "epic novel devoted to the hook-up culture" answer is hilarious. I really hope no one tries to capitalize (too much) on his youth and he has time to write something really good, because he's obviously talented.

Jess and Josh said...

As someone who has actually begun to forge a friendship with Alec, I have to say he's not arrogant in the slightest! He is very self-assured which is unique in people his age - I'm 3 years older than him and it took awhile for me to get to that place. I certainly wasn't that self-confident at 17.

And re: your Margaret Atwood comment. I want to be that woman! Now if only I could get myself to write something book-length.


Bee said...

Not if I don't get there first! And I didn't mean arrogant as a bad thing, self-assured is probably a better way of putting it.

Have you read any Janet Fitch? She wrote White Oleander, which yes, was an Oprah book but pretty decent, and Paint It Black which is great--her first book wasn't published until she was forty-something and she has a MySpace with all this advice for young writers, you should take a look at it.