• Q&A With WriteByNight Consultant Resa Alboher

     

    Resa Alboher, writing coach and consultantResa Alboher (Los Angeles, California) is one of the founding editors of the international literary journal, St. Petersburg Review; has been a lecturer at the legendary Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia and at the American Center of the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow; has published in many places including Roads & Kingdoms, Cosmonauts Avenue, Blackheart Magazine, Maintenant 5, Have a NYC 2, The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Frost Place, Volume 2, Radar Productions, El Portal, Scapegoat Review, DMQ Review and The Edison Review; is a staff writer for Mango Salute and Rewire Me; and blogs for Sundance TV. A Los Angeles native who has spent the last two decades living, working, traveling, writing and day-dreaming in Russia, she holds an MFA in creative writing from University of Tampa.

     

     

    Where are you from?

    This is a question that could be taken literally or could be one of those testing question used by Zen masters to gauge one’s level of understanding. Since my level of understanding is probably lower than I would like, I’ll go for a somewhat literal answer and say I was born in Los Angeles to parents who were both in a kind of late post-war/early 1960s exile there in the city of angels. They both came to the west coast to escape difficult families and to pursue dreams. My mother to act in the movies, model and dance, my father to write for film and television (which was then still an emerging form) and to act on the stage and screen.

    My father stayed on the fringes of that world, the industry, and made his living as first a hospital social worker, and then a high school English teacher. My mother, even farther out there on the fringes of her dreams, worked, more and more unhappily as she aged in this land of perpetual youth, as (what they called in those days) an executive secretary. They both hated the beach, the sun, warm weather and the lack of changing seasons and felt stuck in L.A., my mother regretting ever leaving New York, and my father, while not regretting leaving Indianapolis, longing for the places where he couldn’t afford to travel: Italy, France, Greece, Spain and most of all, England.

    My feelings for Los Angeles, which seeped into my consciousness like a mental and emotional IV drip from my parents’ loneliness and frustrations out there, were, one could say, ambivalent. Through my mother, I yearned for New York City (not the Brooklyn of her childhood, but the Manhattan of her dreams), and through my father, I longed for a life of travel and of adventure. I never quite felt at home in L.A., and my parents responded to the city as if our being there were a temporary move, a mistake that they would fix as soon as they had the means to move somewhere, anywhere, else.

    My parents were from American cities, but they were first generation and their parents were from the Old Country, as they called it, my mother’s father from Russia and my father’s parents from Macedonia. When I would think of where I was from, I would never quite want to answer L.A. in and of itself, but would feel I was somehow from a mixture of places, an accumulation of the history of my parents’ families from their Old World origins in Russia beyond the Pale, and in Macedonia from before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to their arrival through Ellis Island and journeys to build new lives in Brooklyn and Indianapolis. So in truth, I feel that I am from an L.A. that was the culmination of escaping all these cities that went before, and there we were, a family of three, backed up against the vast, seemingly endless Pacific with nowhere else to go.

     

    How did you get your start as a writer?

    When I was three years old and up until the age where I could write by myself, I dictated stories to my mother, who would kindly and patiently write them down, first in expert shorthand and then translated into her lovely cursive script to accompany my illustrations which mostly were composed of stick figures with faces and shocks of curly hair, a yellow globe with radiating spikes to depict a sun, another green globe on a stick of brown serving as a tree, a square with a triangle that was the house where the stick figure people lived, and where the globe of yellow shined down upon its roof.

    One story, where the house and family got into some desperate trouble, was about a wind about to blow everything down and was creatively entitled “The Wind,” and while I am not entirely sure if I can trust my memory, I think that it is possible the Santa Anas were blowing the day I composed this tale. So at a very young age, I somehow sensed that environment and the effects of dramatic weather upon it could be inspiration for a story and could serve as conflict.

    Much later, I would read Gogol’s description of the Petersburg wind blowing in all directions at once and would think about how the wind can be a kind of surreal commentary on the state of things, but at around the same time I learned about pathetic fallacy and how that was a romantic idea to be heartily rejected, but well, I guess I was a romantic from a very young age, and so pathetic fallacy didn’t bother me at all, and even now, when I should know better, I am of the view, which seems to coincide with both the tenets of post-modern fiction and our most current theories of physics, that nothing, not even the weather itself, can be entirely objective.

     

    List some of your influences.

    My father and his incredible library that had everything you could dream of from Plato to Cervantes, Shakespeare to the English Romantics, the 19th century Russians, and 20th century American writers, from the modernists up to the Beats. The writings of Malcolm X and MLK. California poets including Robert Creeley and Deena Metzger, and the journals of Anais Nin. Sitting at the dinner table with my dad, who would read aloud from whatever he was reading at the time, was the biggest influence on me and his tastes in reading informed my own. He bought me the novels of Colette, Jane Austin, the Brontes. And once, kind of a mistake, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which I read when I was eleven years old and then read again in my twenties where I understood it more.

    Then also there are these influences: Marguerite Young and her Joycean fiction, and she was the one who finally got me reading Gogol, though my father, and my high school English teacher Sherry Beth Sternlicht, tried but failed to impress upon me just how important Gogol is. Something in that moment standing on Bleeker Street outside the Tiffany Diner (which has been gone from NYC for many years now) sparked when Marguerite talked about Dead Souls and I felt suddenly desperate to read it—finally, my father said, finally! So the Russians of course, 19th century, Soviet and Post-soviet.

    Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf—especially her To the Lighthouse, ask me tomorrow and I will come up with a different list—there are so many influences. These days, Bolano, Knausgaard, Denis Jonson, David Foster Wallace, Eileen Myles, especially her Inferno, and then the other Inferno too—Dante’s, and Mandelstam’s essay about Dante walking “the goat paths of Italy.” Bruce Chatwin and his essays on travel that made me burn even more with travel desire; his novels too, and he is the one who led me (in an interview he gave to Granta) to Mandelstam on Dante, so influence is circular. Josip Novakovich, his collections of essays and stories, his wonderful novel April Fool’s Day and his incredible books on craft. Peter Trachtenberg’s philosophical study of suffering, Hemingway, everything he wrote, all of it.

    Stephen Elliott’s novels and memoir and the Daily Rumpus email he often sends out to subscribers, Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Not to mention the memoirs of Lillian Hellman. James Baldwin, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mikhail Iossel’s Every Hunter Wants to Know, I could go on and on … did I mention the transcendentalists, the surrealists, the futurists? Did I mention Charlotte’s Web or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? Or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time? Did I say already The Chronicles of Narnia? Or Lord of the Rings? Not to mention Harry Potter. Did I mention Homer, whoever he really was? I will stop … anywhere you turn, if you read and read deeply and well, there is influence.

     

    Word association: Literature

    Literature. Lit. Alight. A bird on an autumn branch. So light. Branching out in all directions these words, these birds, these leaves on fire in red and gleaming yellow and gold, behold.

     

    What is the last book you read and what did you think of it?

    I am working through the translations Archipelago is in the process of bringing out one by one: all six books of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and these books thus far are a nearly plotless hyper-nonfiction work of compelling, hypnotic beauty. He writes well and deeply mines his memory and reaches near-Proustian heights. Now I need to finish Proust!

     

    What is your favorite word and why?

    Poignant. The word itself sounds like life which is so often on the verge of loss and tears and aching beauty all at once when it isn’t on the verge of irony and sarcasm—but those words, irony, sarcasm, aren’t my favorites. I yearn for the poignant and often experience the ridiculous instead. I say the word poignant quite hopefully and overuse it to a fault. This fact has been pointed out to me, quite helpfully, by my friends.

     

    What is the hardest part of writing for you?

    All of it is hard. The getting myself to sit down with it, sit still with it, trust the process of it, to let the work and its world unfold without interfering and ruining it so much. Difficult to trust, let go and dare I say enjoy, but in those rare moments when I overcome these difficulties of my own mind being an obstacle to the writing unfolding, there is joy, however brief, and then the hope I will one day, if I am to be so lucky, experience that joy again. That hope itself keeps me going.

     

    Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

    Let yourself love writing for itself and in and of itself. Love the narratives you want to create, the stories that are burning in you to be told, the rhythms of the sentences, the feel of the words on your tongue, the music of the syllables, love these for their own sake and allow yourself to step out of the way and give the process permission to happen.

    If you are seeking publication, remember the many books that have endured and have gathered the steam to reach us in our time, but in the writer’s time often achieved little recognition. Think of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, how Twain’s fans much preferred the more traditional Tom Sawyer. How no one knew what to make of Melville’s Moby-Dick. How Virginia Woolf’s husband had to start a press so his wife’s books would see the light of day. One of my favorite instances of self-publication. Not to mention Emily Dickinson and her two thousand poems nearly all unpublished in her lifetime. Cervantes was plagiarized—it goes on and on.

    Write for the joy of the narratives themselves, and put it out there of course if you want, but don’t worry about what the market is doing on any given day of the week. Even though it has darker implications of political systems that don’t allow for free expression, I love the Russian/Soviet expression, writing for the drawer. Even though he knew it wouldn’t be published in his country, in his lifetime, Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita over many decades and poured all that he had to say about his time into this book. He kept on going with his tale of Master, Margarita, Homeless the poet, Kot Begemot, Pontius Pilate, and the mysterious Woland, and even on Bulgakov’s deathbed, he was making changes in his text, dictating these changes to his wife. He kept at it in his final moments, regardless of whether or not his book, his masterpiece, would make it out of the drawer and into the world. Do it like that.

     

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