Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, is the story of Boy Hernandez, a five-foot-one, Filipino-born fashion designer. Boy finds himself in Guantanamo Bay after accepting startup cash from his downstairs neighbor, a charismatic — if somewhat smelly — man who makes his living in the import-export business (he sells weapons-grade fertilizer). Gilvarry is a true satirist: he’s consistently exacting and hilarious, whether he’s digging into Bushwick, Westchester, or the War on Terror. That said, the novel’s greatest strength is the indignation and vitriol that defines its last 100 pages: few works of fiction have relayed the War on Terror’s human toll with as much compassion and vigor. Gilvarry is also the editor of one of my favorite literary websites, The Tottenville Review. We spoke about growing up in Staten Island, Coco Chanel, and immigrant novels.
You grew up in Staten Island. Have you more or less lived in New York City your entire life?
Pretty much, yeah. I just moved to Cambridge in September. So I’ve been here for 31 years. I grew up in Staten Island, then Manhattan and Brooklyn.
What was it like growing up in Staten Island?
I always tell people the best thing about growing up in Staten Island is the ferry that takes you to Manhattan.
And the Wu-Tang Clan!
Yeah, and the Wu-Tang Clan. That gives you a little street cred. People think that it’s a hard place to live. It’s not — it’s very working class. …. It’s very ugly, but it’s got its charm.
Are there any Staten Island novels?
There a couple. [Bill Loehfelm] grew up in Staten Island, but he doesn’t live there now — he lives in New Orleans. He writes detective thrillers about Staten Island. There are no Staten Island novelists that I know or know of, though they might be out there. It’s really not a place that’s been covered a lot in literature.
There are so many pockets of New York City that are unexplored by fiction. I want to do a historical novel about Staten Island, where it starts with farmland and swampland.
And then the Ol’ Dirty Bastard rises out of the muck.
And then the Wu-Tang Clan is Chapter Two! Somebody asked me if [From The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant] was going to be about Staten Island. No, man! I want to get as far away from that as possible!
There is an assumption that the first novel is supposed to be the autobiographical novel. Like you have to use up all of your experience before you can start making shit up. Your novel doesn’t seem particularly autobiographical — at least not in the way that something like The Rachel Papers seems autobiographical.
No, I think that’s a bad way to go. Well, it’s not a bad way to go, but I’ve gotten tired of seeing the autobiographical, or “coming of age” story from young novelists. Also, I don’t think I’m that interesting. I need to make stuff up. There are good ones out there, though — Gary Shteyngart’s first book is a very heightened, but personal novel.
And I wrote about myself a lot in this book. Everything that happens in New York, those were things that happened to me, through the eyes of this immigrant. But the only way I could write about myself and feel comfortable with revealing things about love and all that stuff, I had to create this five-foot-one little man, where nobody would confuse [him] with me! Then I could talk about everything very personal. It’s just about finding that right distance in your work, to where you can talk about everything personal that’s going on in your head.
When you were working on it, did you ever think it was getting to be too close to your own experience?
Sure. For instance, [Boy’s] girlfriend: I was trying to create this love story. How do you do that? You can pull everything from times you’ve fallen in love. But then you worry — “Oh no, if I use this detail, someone’s going to get hurt.” Michelle is just an amalgam of all my ex-girlfriends. So I don’t think anyone can claim ownership.
Aside from the parts of the book that you took from your own experience, it seems like a fair amount of research went into writing it. There’s a level of familiarity with both the fashion world and Guantanamo that strikes me as more than passing.
I read everything I could on Gitmo. The book started because I was consistently reading about it in the Times, listening to NPR’s report of some guy who had been there for five years, hadn’t done a thing. When I started the book in 2006, I was getting a lot from the New York Times, the Washington Post and just keeping a file of cases involving detainees.
When I started writing the book I needed the details. I pretty much had free range because, in 2006, we didn’t know that much about what it looked like. There were few photographs — horrifying photographs of men on their knees with hoods over their heads. I read memoirs and books by Clive Stafford-Smith and Joseph Margolies, two lawyers who represent hundreds of detainees.
I also read the Koran while I was doing this. That’s the one book Boy has in his cell. I read that and pulled language from it for him to use. He has to interpret it the way he can — sometimes inappropriately! In the book, he calls his capture the “overwhelming event,” which is a sura, or a chapter, in the Koran.
I did all the fashion research first, which was fun. I started reading women’s fashion magazines! I had never read them before. All this time when I was a teenager, trying to get my hands on a Playboy, W has nudity! It was a whole new world to discover and it allowed me to write about Boy discovering this world as a kid. And I got to make light of it.
I also read Coco Chanel’s biography and The Beautiful Fall, which is about the rivalry between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, which was really funny to think about. I think that’s where the character of Philip Tang came from, because I just found this rivalry between these two fashion designers to be so ridiculous.
Coco Chanel, one of Boy’s heroes, was famously accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Do you see her case as being similar to Boy’s?
People ask me all the time, “What’s the link between fashion and terrorism?” There’s no link. But [Coco Chanel’s story] is one of those things that I fell upon that made me feel like I was on the right track. She had been accused of war crimes, of trying to broker a meeting between Nazi forces and the U.K. — she was dating an S.S. officer. I don’t know if she knew how it was going to pan out — she took her side pretty early!
She was a businesswoman, an opportunist in a lot of ways. It’s amazing how that gets overlooked. Nobody else gets off the hook for supporting Nazis.
I might be wrong, but it seems like that story had been more or less forgotten until the book Sleeping With The Enemy came out.
Yeah, there was also the film Coco Before Chanel — though if it was before Chanel I guess [her Nazi collaboration] wouldn’t be part of the story. If I was making a movie about her that would be the whole movie! People love Nazis on film.
Maybe it’s just our proximity, but it does seem easier to give them an all-encompassing ethos than, say, global terrorists. Also, handsome uniforms.
A lot of leather! Very S&M. They also had those haircuts that are coming back now. …. [Groups like Al-Qaeda] aren’t armies of villains who are taking land, necessarily. It’s not the way wars used to be.
Being someone who was more-or-less opposed to the War in Iraq, for instance, WWII seems attractive because, in retrospect, it seems like a good war, a noble cause. That’s a belief that’s probably more dependent on film than historical reality though — there was a very strong opposition to that conflict.
In the book, there’s a scene where Boy attends the march against the Iraq War [in New York City]. I wrote that scene because, during that time, I was very confused. I was very willing to believe the president that there was some type of threat there. I didn’t want to get caught up in the “it’s all about oil” narrative. I lived on 25th Street at the time and I didn’t march up 1st Avenue. I’m upset that I didn’t, now. That’s why I wanted to include that scene in the book: I was ambivalent at the time and I shouldn’t have been. After writing this book and spending three years with this material, I won’t be anymore.
Guantanamo seems to have been designed to be peripheral, to invite ambivalence. My favorite part of the book is the last 100 pages, where your indignation about the existence of Guantanamo and indefinite detention becomes palpable, even seething.
That’s the intention. That’s why it’s off the coast of Cuba, in a place where we’re not allowed to go anyway. They’ve orchestrated their perfect prison: off the map. We can know exactly where it is, but it’s still on the periphery. When I was writing the last 100 pages I knew that I had a lot of balls in the air — I had written a lot of jokes — but I really wanted to close the book and weigh-in on the subject in an artful way, where it’s not just wagging your finger. I wanted to write a novel about Guantanamo, to where no one else had to write another novel about it again. I think that’s the way everybody should write.
The transition between the two parts is really interesting. So much of the first part of the novel is dominated by jokes, by the absurdities of the war on terror, by Boy’s coming of age in New York City — there’s a transition from an intellectual take on the War on Terror to a look at its human toll. I sense that the decision to leave Guantanamo unnamed was part of that decision as well.
There’s a balance between the seriousness and what you want to say, and what’s actually keeping the story alive. Plot is your tool to sew those things together. There’s no way to explain that balance. It’s a day-to-day thing, where every choice you make with every sentence is part of it. One of the limits of Boy’s voice was I couldn’t mention Guantanamo — he couldn’t say Bush, he couldn’t say Cheney, he couldn’t say Rumsfeld. I wanted to keep that out of it, because those words change the tone.
You didn’t want a MoveOn.org — or “ohcomeonmove.org,” as it is in Memoirs — novel.
All of that balances the novel. Before I got to work with my editor there were some parts that went overboard — either too serious, or not serious enough. She would reign me in. I had to take out a lot of sex scenes.
I really put in a lot of work into them! She was right in the end. She said, “Do they have to have sex for so long?”
Did you read House of Holes?
Parts of it — I’m going to read the whole thing. I love Nicholson Baker — one of the reasons there are footnotes in this book is because of The Mezzanine. He’s an American stylist of the highest order. I know some writers hate it when you call them stylists. I read novelists because of their style.
If you’re interested in form, I can’t think of many people who do more interesting things with the medium than Nicholson Baker.
He’s somebody who’s going to be read beyond all of us. We’ll read Nicholson Baker over The Corrections in 50 years.
I’m tired of suburban ennui!
Middle-class, middle-aged — who gives a shit?
It’s time for a youth movement.
That’s not our fiction.
In Memoirs, a lot of what Boy says about fashion school and designing could also apply to the writing workshop and process. Was that intentional?
You learn to talk about these things not from research — though I did read women’s fashions magazines for three years — but from writing in character. It’s amazing where the sentences begin to come from. In some ways, I was channeling what I think about writing when I was writing about fashion. Instead of saying, Don DeLillo, I cite Diane Von Furstenburg. There’s this substitution. Everything he says has a truth to it because it’s how I feel about art — I was just getting into character. But there is something when you’re writing prose — every sentence is based on the one before it. The conscious and the subconscious are really working together and things just start coming. It’s really mystical. I haven’t experienced it since I finished this book. I started a new book, but it hasn’t clicked yet. Once the character becomes real to you, you can write about anything you want: women’s clothing, Guantanamo Bay — it doesn’t matter.
Every writer has a way of talking about that. Don DeLillo talks about writing in a really interesting way. He uses much more abstract terms. The man is a true artist; I love his language. He develops this rhythm that sings to you on the page. He talks about the way the words even look on the page begin to allow him to intuit the next one.
Then there are times in this book when that [wasn’t working]. Novels are imperfect things and that moment when you’re at your hottest does not happen throughout the whole three years. It stops and you stop and you hit a wall. It’s the next day and you have to work and you have to pursue the story, even if it’s not there. Looking at this book, I see some passages where I wasn’t as hot as I should be, but you just need to get it out and keep working.
It’s hard to talk about writing in a way that isn’t completely abstract. And it’s impossible to figure out why it works one day and not another.
Yeah, I think that’s why writers have their routine: a lot of them go to the same cafes, they have the same thing for breakfast. You want to simplify your life to the point where you can get back to that point.
It’s not like foul shooting, though, alas.
It’s not repetitive: it’s a different sentence, a different paragraph, the whole day. In the end, that part of it is the craft. Then you have the part of it that’s not so mysterious, which is that you show up at work every day, you write the book every day. Two or three of the five days, you’ll obtain that. You get 20, 30, 50 pages, you’ll know that there’s enough good stuff that something’s going to happen.
I never thought I would write a novel. I wanted to be Donald Barthelme. I didn’t want to write long: “How could someone write a novel? 300, 500 pages?”
Years of work, not weeks.
The sentences, the paragraphs, they just add up. Sometimes you can stop thinking — you’re so involved in the story that you’re not really thinking.
How much revision do you do?
I revise every single sentence many times. And that’s interesting because we writers write now, compared to when we wrote with typewriters, there’s a revision going on when I’m writing the first draft of a sentence: I put it down, I delete it, I write it again, then I write it again. Before, we didn’t do that — I think we had to think much more about what we were doing before we did it.
I’m sure there’s a PhD student at Manhattan Upstairs College working on a dissertation about that change.
I’m sure they’ll put it on me and our generation about how it’s been declining. The way we write now, it’s cut and paste.
I did three drafts of Memoirs on my own, then another with my agent and then two drafts with my editor. So, that’s six drafts. But Gary Shteyngart told me he did eight drafts on Super Sad True Love Story. And I thought I had it hard!
Boy’s identity as a Filipino is an important part of the novel. Did you spend any time in the Philippines while you were working on the book?
I go there about every two years to visit family. I absorbed a lot while I was there. Also, the climate is very much what it would be in Guantanamo Bay: hot, miserable, humid. At the end of the book, Boy ends up living in something called Manhattan City in the Philippines. I was in a mall in Manilla once and a woman tried to sell me real estate at a complex called Manhattan Garden City, which was going to be a housing complex that was supposed to look like New York City — it had newsstands and little streets. I knew that was something I had to use, about how we idolize New York all over the world.
I had hoped that Manhattan City was real. It’s a nice reminder of how ridiculous New York City’s status as a symbol of global culture can become.
It’s gotten into the wrong person’s hands at that point! The entrepreneurs have gotten a hold of it. I wonder if in 20 years Zucotti Park is going to be hot real estate.
The book pivots as Boy’s opinion of America changes — it shifts from an open land of opportunity and possibility to one that’s closed-off, defined by injustice and inequality. That’s a transition that defines a number of “immigrant novels,” but it also mirrors our frustration with this country in the wake of 9/11. It becomes allegorical, in a way.
In the beginning Boy is innocent and open — although he’s had his hope taken away from him on page one of the novel, he doesn’t realize it until the middle. In every novel your character has to change — if he or she doesn’t change, it’s bullshit.
The immigrant’s story has been told over and over again, but those are some of my favorite books, because writers can take [that archetypal story] and run with it and make it new again. I wanted to do that. It was also the only way I could write about the Philippines and America in the same bound book.
Immigrant novels are also inherently political. The American class system — in your novel’s case, its political system — is often the engine that moves those novels.
They are political books. Not only political, but very social. Race is also a big topic in all of our literature. Invisible Man is an immigrant novel, in many ways. People should be writing more of them.
There haven’t been that many novels that have directly addressed the particular absurdities and horrors of our politics and wars in the past ten years, though that’s not saying there should necessarily be a dramatic uptick.
Absurdistan is one — I love the way that ends on September 10th 2001. There haven’t been a lot of fiction that addresses it. A lot of novelists think you need perspective to write about wars. It’s very difficult to write a good book about [wars]. I’ve got a friend, Phil Klay, who was a marine in Iraq who wrote a great story in Granta and he’s now writing a collection, essentially [made up] of war stories. He’s a writer who’s capable of doing it — readers will think it’s justified.
I think anyone can do it and I think that more people should because the rules have changed — it’s been such a tumultuous time, over the past ten years. There’s a trend of novels by young American novelists capturing childhood, coming-of-age. That happened more and more because of the rise of MFA programs, the younger age of novelists — they’re publishing when they’re 23, 24.
But the state of America over the past 11 years — it’s time to change all that. It’s time to get back to business. You should be angry. If you’re like me, and all you can do is write fiction, then that’s what you should do. I’m not the first person, but I hope more and more people taking it on. Even if you don’t have as much perspective, that doesn’t matter because shit is horrible right now. You’ll be forgiven.
It can be difficult to find parallels between this moment, defined by both long wars and neoliberal destruction, with earlier ones.
It would be interesting to look at the popular novels that were written during the Vietnam War and after. That was the closest time to now, in my opinion. Meditations in Green and The Things They Carried both came out in the ’80s.
I’m contemplating setting my next novel in Vietnam. It would be about a war correspondent who loses his mojo and goes to a war zone to try to get it back again, but he can’t leave his hotel. The Continental Hotel, where all the war correspondents stayed, is still there, so I’m going to go there for a few weeks — whatever I can afford — and hole myself up in a room and see what I get.
You’re going to end up like one of those dudes in Apocalypse Now.
That was filmed in the Philippines! There were a lot of Filipinos in that movie — I think it was the last movie with that many Filipinos in it, though I guess John Sayles just made one there.
It’s funny, if you look at a movie like Apocalypse Now, you could not make that movie today. That’s not CGI — they’re napalming the forest! The water buffalo they slaughtered at the end of the movie was real. They were all on drugs.
You should probably take a lot of drugs when you’re writing in Vietnam. It worked for Coppola.
People have been trying to figure out how to do a reality show about writers and I think that might be it. Just me in my underwear, sweating in a hotel room in Vietnam.