When asked to comment on her new novel’s ruminative, stream-of-consciousness style, Alina Simone responds with two gestures that seem to come very naturally to her: a shrug and a smile. “I get so annoyed when things happen in books because nothing ever happens. In real life, nothing ever fucking happens.”
Simone’s own career trajectory suggests the opposite: she studied documentary filmmaking in college, made her first career as an indie rock musician, and transitioned to writing after an editor at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux emailed to ask if she might want to write a memoir. (She nearly deleted the email, thinking it was a prank.) The resulting book of essays, You Must Go and Win, earned a warm reception from critics (and an interview with Full Stop) and prompted her to write a novel, Note to Self, which came out in June. Note to Self centers around a thirty-something woman named Anna, unmoored in the age of the internet and on the hunt for a new career and a new life. The book is a witty, acerbic send up of the art world, internet addiction, and the millennial impulse toward dilettantism. A few things fucking happen, but not so many as to be annoying.
I spent an early evening in August sitting around on the living room floor with Simone and her good-natured two year-old, Zoe, talking shop with the one and distracting the other with pens.
Jordan Kisner: Note to Self is your second book, and your first novel. What were your goals and hopes for this book? Did you approach it differently than your book of essays?
Alina Simone: I guess that I wanted to write about this weird and narcissistic art world that I was enmeshed in. This is going to sound really weird, but Tao Lin wrote a book a couple years ago called Shoplifting From American Apparel and I didn’t read it (I did read Tai Pei and I liked it) but I kind of know his style and knew the type of book it was and that it was going to be this hyper-real, in the moment, almost free expression kind of thing. And I wanted to do my version of that. Like a thirties version of that: living on the web, being surrounded by weird, floaty artists, and a constant bombardment of opportunities. I feel like we’re in this age where every three seconds you’re getting pinged by some weird “ask” that is almost like an invitation to a new life. And it’s really easy to just answer a Craigslist ad or take a class or something that leads you in a completely new direction or leads you to sort of abandon your life and, in some cases, your whole moral compass. You can really easily lose your way if you’re feeling a little unmoored in the internet age.
Yeah, I was really struck by that narrative of self-discovery and self-reinvention in the morally ambiguous landscape that this character Anna is navigating.
I went to art school, and I’m really interested in the psychology of the artist. I went to school with a lot of those personalities, people who were very single-minded. Very focused but also in no doubt that they were, you know, the answer to everything. And very not ironic about their work, very super-serious. No matter how ridiculous [the art] was, they had a way of being incredibly self-serious about it. Those people were all successful, and that’s sort of how you have to be because so much of art is your personal narrative and how you promote and package it and not the quality of it, nowadays. Not the time or craft or whatever that you put into it, but the narrative behind it, so you really have to believe your own narrative and kind of be a self-mythologizer, and be successful at building a mythology that’s built on your own personality and your own life story. [Writing a book about that] was maybe a little bit of a wanky, self-indulgent thing to do, because the intersection between narcissism and art is my own personal obsession.
Almost all of the characters in the book were delusional about themselves in one moment or another. They have this lack of self-awareness, or as you put it, an impulse toward self-mythologizing that completely lacks consideration. There’s this question which you raise in the book: what is art, and what is total bullshit, and what bullshit do we allow ourselves to get away with in the name of art or by calling the bullshit art.
Right. I’m talking about a particular fringe of the art world which does involve exploiting other people. Which is a part of the art world. I mean, documentary photography and there are a lot of forms like that. And if you look at who’s successful in documentary photography a lot of it involves sex, poverty, fat people, some kind of porn. Fat porn or poverty porn, destruction porn, sex porn, which is by far the most prevalent. And so when you’re actually in school — which I was, I studied documentary photography, that’s what my BFA was in — you get cynical, or like, “Well, I should do this because that’s what sells and that’s what people pay attention to. I could take this beautiful picture of a tree or do my in depth study of the housing projects,” or something that’s not sexy, but the people that you’re competing with are often doing things that are way more sexy, that pushes biological buttons and it’s hard to ignore that and say “No, this is my vision.”
I have friends who are in the art world and who work on their own weird esoteric subject matter and are bitter because they’ve got those friends who went really far doing way more sensationalistic stuff. Sometimes the degree of that bitterness has to do with the degree of craft that is put into the product. So someone who’s using an 8×10 camera and complicated lighting to photograph their naked person may be accorded more respect than someone who uses like a Polaroid camera. Or maybe not, but that’s sort of like a thing, one of the things that I was exploring.
Where the process itself is fetishized for its perceived purity.
Yeah, there’s this perception of purity that redeems the sensational aspect of the — it gives you permission to like it a lot because you can be admiring the fine grain, or whatever. You can be like, “Well, yes, but it’s important to note that he was doing it on an 8×10 camera and they hand mixed their developer and printed it by hand.” And never mind that the reason you’re looking at it is, like, there’s a naked lady in the pile of trash.
That’s such a clear theme in the book, that critical gaze directed at “high art,” whatever that means. But I also noticed a real ambivalence toward “low art” or pop art. There is a lot of poking fun at pop culture and the culture of the internet, which we would probably largely define as low culture and not high art. Were you consciously trying to turn a sharp eye on both sides or did that just evolve naturally?
It’s a satire, so I mean I was just trying to be funny. Nothing is sacred in the book, which is a very harsh landscape to live in creatively. My next book has to be about flowers or something. [Laughs.] I feel like when you write a satire and you start out with that tone of being a little bit unforgiving, you have to hew to it to the very end. And so the art world was poked fun at in the same way that the internet was poked fun at. It wasn’t intentional except for that everything was made — like, yoga is made fun of, and a lot of other things . . .
Yoga, hipsters, yuppies . . .
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like all of those things. [Laughs.] In fact, I do, I like all of those things, but I just think they were good subjects for satire and that they’re complicated. I really was trying to write a satire about the art world and about the intersection between narcissism and art. It was sort of philosophical story. I don’t think I’m going to do that again, because I think it’s a subject that interests very few people. That there are very few people who read the book and know what it’s about and realize that that’s the heart of it.
[We pause because Zoe has an important, if mildly indecipherable question about Jordan’s pen.]
Well, to me it seemed like the book had two threads — if you’ll forgive me for being reductive; if we can pick a few things that this book might be about — and the intersection of narcissism and art was one, and the second was an examination of what the internet does to us. How it changes the landscape of what it means to be a self-creating individual, or what it means to be an artist or what it means just to . . . be a person trying to coexist with your iPhone. And I’m curious because you’ve said a few times now that this is a book about art, but it’s been marketed largely as a book about internet addiction.
It has and that was because that was seen as a marketing strategy.
Oh, so that was a conscious decision?
Yeah, that was FSG’s decision, and I could see why, because internet addiction is a meme. One of my proposed titles had the word “art” in it, and that was vetoed because art scares people. That was literally what my editor said: “Oh no, that would just scare people away.” So I really feel like — and I love my publisher, I’m not mad at them or anything — but I wrote a book about X and they’re marketing it as Y. Not that it’s not about the internet. It is also about the internet.
I was also struck by how ruminative the book is. For a book of its length, it’s so much in the main character’s head. There’s not much action.
Right, exactly. My husband described it as, “I can’t wait to see what doesn’t happen next.” He’s like, “I don’t know how you created some sort of sense of momentum or suspense in a book where nothing ever happens.” Except for the end when something really big happens, mostly it’s like, “This whole chapter is about when she went to yoga with her friend and decided she didn’t like yoga.”
Did you agonize over that at all? That’s sort of a bold move, in terms of book construction.
Well, I get so annoyed when things happen in books, because nothing ever happens. In real life, nothing ever fucking happens. I get kind of angry at books where things happen. I love Geoff Dyer, he’s my favorite writer, and I adore Ben Lerner, and I love Sam Lipsyte, though he’s not quite as stream-of-consciousness-y. But I feel like Geoff Dyer, his books are really slow in terms of plot, but they’re incredible. I think I’m trying to be like a less smart Geoff Dyer hiding myself behind the fig leaf of gender.
That chapter about yoga you mentioned was one of my favorites because I felt like that was a low moment for Anna. She has a flash of insight about how self-obsessed she is and how selfish she’s been with this friend of hers, and she resolves to be better. And then you just watch her lose it and fail.
Well, she’s just incapable of really considering what someone else is feeling, or of being a good friend. But I think all of these feelings are feelings we all have at some time, but just magnified. All of us have those feelings of selfishness or — Zoy, Zoy, Zoy . . . [Zoe has fallen over.]
Was there ever a moment in the writing where you thought “I’m not sure I like this girl right now?”
Yes, that was very hard. All of it was very hard. That moment in the end . . . well, originally I had this sappy super sweet ending. That’s what I mean when I say that artistically — and this has nothing to do with whether people will like you or your book or anything, but just from an artistic standpoint — it had to have consistency. When you write a highly stylized book that’s odd and sort of experimental, you have to maintain faithfulness to that to the very end, no matter how tempting it is to give it the Hollywood ending or redeem it all with a pat gesture. And that’s really hard, because as a storyteller I want to tie it up with something that will leave people happy and satisfied and feeling morally superior.
It’s funny, trying to detach from your own sense of ego as a writer, which says “I want somebody to finish this book feeling like they like it and like me —”
Right! Yeah, yeah —
. . . and having to set that aside.
Yeah, I was like, “Ugh, this ending is so despicable. What am I doing?” But I tried, and I felt like the ideas were interesting. There’s this . . . checklist of, like, eight things that contemporary fiction writers write about, with the disintegration of a white middle class family being 80% of it, and I was like, I just don’t want to write about the disintegration of a white middle class family. I just don’t. Or the disintegration of a white middle class couple. I just wanted to write about something different.
My first book was much more of a crowd pleaser, a nonfiction collection of essays that was kind of humorous and sort of David Sedaris-y. So having done the crowd-pleasing thing, I knew what I was giving up. I knew that people were going to be way more uncomfortable with this book and it wasn’t going to be a really easy pill to swallow, because a dislikeable protagonist is a hard sell to a reader.
Do you feel like that expectation came true? That the reception for this book has been different?
Yeah! Well, to be honest, I don’t read much of the reception. My first book was a book that I could give to anyone and be like, “This will make you happy.” Just funny little weird stories about my sad little indie-rock life. It was kind of light and I just had no qualms about it. [This novel] feels more personal than my first book, because even though my first book was autobiographical, it was all told in such a lighthearted way that I didn’t feel like I was revealing that much. Whereas in Note to Self, in the guise of this nasty narrator I feel like I give away a lot about myself. And these are thoughts that I think people have had, and I’ve had — and I’m hopefully not that nasty — but buried in the book are all these things about me, so it feels a lot more intimate.
I’m sitting here wondering how this meta loop of “self-in-art” you’re experiencing personally interacts with the question you’re asking in the book, about the intersection between art and narcissism?
I think that shows how obsessed with that I am. It kind of puts my personal philosophies about that on view in a really big way for people to agree or disagree with.
Do you think having written a novel in this style will change how you approach your next book?
Well, I’m back to nonfiction. I’m writing a nonfiction book about Madonna that I got commissioned to write by the University of Texas, and I haven’t actually started writing that book yet. I think that will be informed by this book in that I’d like it to be first-person-y like this, but I’d like it to really have an emotional heart in a more plainspoken way. It’s not going to be stylized like the novel at all, but I do think that that experience of finding that I was more honest in my novel and saying more risky things under the guise of fiction– I want to carry that over to my nonfiction. I’d like to kind of try to bring a more radical honesty to the first person in this book.
Is there anything else you want to talk about in conjunction with this book before we wrap up?
You know, every time — I feel like every time I’m asked for an interview I’m like, “Let’s just talk and be friends. Let’s not even talk about the book; let’s just have a regular conversation about what’s going on in each other’s lives and that’ll be the interview.” I never want to talk about my book at all, because I don’t have much to say other than what’s in it. Especially the novel. It just feels like . . . you just get this weird impulse, a story comes into your head, you start writing. If it’s good you keep writing. The genesis of it is mysterious, the motivations behind it — it’s really hard to explain.
People have said “Well, why do you want to write a book about this?” And I’m like, “I don’t know!” I mean, I can sit and be cerebral about it and say, “Well, I always found these things interesting.” But the fact of the matter is just one day I just felt like being creative and just started writing it. Out of boredom, frustration . . . I probably just wanted to try writing a novel, is probably the most honest thing. After I finished my book of essays, I didn’t want to write another because I felt like it would just be diminishing returns. And I felt like, well, it seems like it would be fun to make things up because writing nonfiction is hard. You have to really hew to the facts. Yeah, I mean, I felt like it. Just to see if I could do it.