Alden Jones’s travel chronicle, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award for Travel Essays, as well as being longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award and being named a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award in Travel Essays. Her debut short fiction collection, Unaccompanied Minors (excerpted here on Monday), won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize. Those are a lot of honorifics for two years’ worth of publishing. But Jones’s work—and her life—were percolating long before the finished books saw light of day, and she’s taken time out to talk to Bloom about some of what went into the process.
Bloom: You are an experienced and award-winning travel writer. How was writing fiction different? Were there exotic landscapes in fiction that surprised you as much as waking up in a new country?
Alden Jones: I have a very different approach to writing fiction versus essays. With essays, particularly travel essays, I feel like I’m starting outside the material, even though I lived through the events I describe. I try to look objectively at the events I’ve accumulated and trying to make sense of them, to order them, before I start to write. With fiction, I operate on a much more subconscious level. I’m more likely to start with a pair of characters who create some kind of heat in combination and let them go, see where they take me. I think the deeper I get inside a character’s psychology, the more familiar it seems, because I’m getting closer to the thing that makes us all human, the human core. Travel is the opposite. I like being delighted or taken aback by elements of a new culture I’ve never considered, things that are completely external.
Bloom: In your travel writing, you often compare what it means to be a “tourist” with a “traveler.” Is there a similar ethic at work when you are moving through fictional landscapes and meeting fictional characters?
AJ: That is a great question! And the answer, I now realize, is yes. The “tourist,” as I describe it in The Blind Masseuse, moves through the world with as little conflict or discomfort as possible. The tourist has an ethnocentric point of view—the unchallenged belief that his or her way of thinking is the best way. The “traveler” is more likely to consider another person’s point of view, another culture’s point of view, and to aim for some kind of humanistic way of judging people, actions, customs. If we apply this to writing, the “tourist” is doomed to write bad fiction, because good writing and strong characters require empathy. It’s crucial to put your own beliefs aside and to consider the motives of others if you are going to create any kind of realism in your fictional characters.
Bloom: Unaccompanied Minors deals with the unexpected and the undetermined—people breaking boundaries to explore life more freely. Talk more about how passion can coexist (or not) with common sense.
AJ: This is why I love being around teenagers and writing about teenagers. They have so much passion, and so much confidence in their beliefs… but the common sense piece may not be there. In a story like “Freaks,” high school friends Emiline and Kristen both have passions that define them. Kristen’s passion is self-deprivation, and she feels most like herself when she doesn’t eat. Common sense tells her, and her best friend Emiline, that starving herself to death is a really bad idea, but they both put her passion ahead of her safety. Teenagers can also be solipsistic, so Emiline, who wants to be accepted for who she is, manages to see Kristen’s anorexia as something to be protected, because she wants her own selfhood to be protected. In the end, this proves very selfish indeed.
In a story like “Something Will Grow,” passion plays a much different role. Erotic passion paired with a lack of common sense resulted in an unwanted teenage pregnancy. Abortion is so attached to shame in this culture, and young women and girls who accidentally get pregnant are told they are stupid for not being careful or that they should be ashamed of their sexual feelings. I wanted to write a story that reframed the situation. It’s clear that Lanie feels sadness about terminating a pregnancy even years after the fact, but she won’t let it kill her ability to be intensely passionate and loving.
Bloom: Did you have experiences in your travels that you always thought you’d like to fictionalize? Did fictionalizing them change your memory of those experiences somehow?
AJ: I spent my entire year living in Costa Rica thinking about how I would fictionalize my experience. In the end I fictionalized very little of it. I’ve also spent a decent amount of time in Cuba. I have notebooks full of notes from Cuba. Almost none of it has worked its way into my fiction successfully. It seems easier in some ways to use a place I haven’t spent much time in as a setting. I am less attached to getting it “right.”
I once spent the night in a homeless shelter in North Carolina as part of a community service project. This became the setting for “Shelter,” the first story in Unaccompanied Minors. I can only remember it as I captured it in this story, and I’m sure my memory isn’t entirely accurate. But if I hadn’t written about that place, I may not remember it at all.
Bloom: You mention on your blog that you wrote The Blind Masseuse, your collection of travel essays, to distract you from the novel you were working on, which in turn, became a short story. Are you still interested in working on a novel?
AJ: I am! My next project is a novel that takes place in the rave scene of the 90s and the rainforest of Cambodia. There is an area of rainforest in Cambodia that has been inadvertently protected by landmines for decades. Things that don’t grow anywhere else on the planet grow there. One of these things is safrole oil, one of the key ingredients needed to manufacture the drug Ecstasy. As soon as I learned about this, the idea for a novel took root in my mind. It’s a novel about the American entitlement to happiness, the addictive allure of false happiness, and the story of how two cultures connect.
Bloom: You cite Paul Bowles, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Amy Hempel among your influences—can you describe how their work inspired or shaped any of the stories in Unaccompanied Minors?
AJ: I was insanely lucky to study with Amy Hempel at Bennington College, where I wrote drafts of some of the stories in Unaccompanied Minors. Knowing Amy was reading what I wrote helped shape my stories in ways I’m sure I don’t consciously understand. I do know for sure that she has been a model for making a great sentence. I strive for economy in language and narrative, and this is something I learned from reading Amy Hempel. She is able to be awed by the small moments in life, and to make her readers feel awed by the small moments in life. And also by language. The same could be said of Lidia Yuknavitch, though I discovered her after I finished Unaccompanied Minors. Her memoir The Chronology of Water was a reminder of how much fun language can be. It’s a book that makes you want to sit down and write.
Bloom: You’ve just had your second child—how do you integrate family, teaching, travel, and writing?
AJ: I don’t sleep much. I also have a superhuman partner.
Bloom: What’s next? More exciting travel essays or new fictional adventures?
AJ: The novel is still in the “thinking about it” stage, but I’m relishing this stage. I listen to a lot of electronic/dance music. I poke around the Internet for information on how to compose such music. I make vague plans to return to Cambodia sometime in the next couple of years. I’m starting to think of my characters as people I know.
My daughter Cora Blue is seven months old. My son Grayson is three. “What’s next” usually has something to do with getting them the next place they need to be, getting them fed or dressed. When I turned 38 I had no kids and no books. Now I’m turning 42 with two kids and two books. Life is nuts. I’m honestly fascinated to see what happens next.
Click here to read an excerpt from Alden Jones’s novel Unaccompanied Minors.