By Daniel Ford
I love a great writer bio. Here’s Alexander Boldizar’s:
He was the first Slovak citizen to graduate with a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Since then, he has been an art gallery director in Indonesia, an attorney in California and Prague, a pseudo-geisha in Japan, a hermit in Tennessee, a paleontologist in the Sahara, a porter in the High Arctic, a police-abuse watchdog in New York City, and an editor of the first pan-Asian art magazine.
Turns out that his debut novel, The Ugly, is just as entertaining (it comes out September 7, 2016). Boldizar talked to me recently about how he became a storyteller, his publishing journey, and what inspired The Ugly.
Daniel Ford: What made you want to become a storyteller?
Alexander Boldizar: I started off wanting to be a good thinker, not a storyteller per se, but somewhere in my twenties I came to see storytelling as the most sophisticated form of thinking. I love ideas that are too complex to put in a box, whether the box is a bumper sticker or a tome like Being and Time. Heidegger never wrote the second half of Being and Time because, he said, he realized that Rilke had done it all better through poetry. Ideas are only meaningful when they interact with people—real conflicted people, not Ayn Rand-style cardboard people—and I see stories as the only way to touch truly complex, open-ended ideas. It’s probably why I dislike plays: they tend to be closed.
If you can grasp an idea in its totality, it’s not a very interesting idea. For me, an interesting, complex idea can only be poked, not held, because it’s full of aporias and conflicting levels. Novels of ideas can get a bad rap sometimes because writers start off with prepackaged answers they want to present to the world. That leads to allegory or therapy or propaganda, not literature. I wanted a novel of ideas that started only with questions or approaches to thinking. And the characters in the book, though a little extreme, are real people with motivations that vary across situations. If they were flat, then both the story and the ideas would be flat.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
AB: As an adult, definitely Kafka and Musil stand out. Plus the film “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That would be the troika for me. But also Joseph Roth, Borges, Hrabal, Bowles, Dostoevsky, Rilke, Conrad, DN Stuefloten, Jodorowsky, and then a lot of science fiction. PK Dick and Frank Herbert had the biggest influence there.
In Czechoslovakia, I remember reading Jules Verne, Jack London, and Karl May in Slovak translation. In refugee camp, I read whatever I could get, in whatever language I could get—Slovak, Czech, and Polish were all roughly understandable, and I was learning German, but they were all adult books. Nobody had kid books. Then we came to Canada, and I discovered science fiction. Between the ages of 8 and 14 years old, I think I read nearly every sci-fi book written, using books the way some people now use cell phones. I couldn’t walk, eat, or use the bathroom without holding a book in front of my face. Around 15 years old, I discovered Nietzsche, and through him other existentialists. Every teenage boy should go through a science-fiction-plus-Nietzsche stage, and every adult man should grow out of it. I came to more standard contemporary literary fiction much later in life.
I was only seven when we escaped, speak English better than Slovak, and don’t give much weight to nationality or ethnic origin—but somehow I nevertheless seem to connect far more directly to writers born in what used to be Austria-Hungary than I do to Anglo-Saxon literature.
DF: What’s your writing process like? Were any mountains harmed in the making of The Ugly?
AB: The process for The Ugly was ugly, and not one that I plan on repeating. I spent six months writing the book and 16 years editing it back under control. I had the main character, Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth. I had the setting, Harvard Law School. I had a few characters I wanted Muzhduk to meet, and I had a few ideas I wanted to bounce into each other through their interaction. But I had no plans as to how those interactions would play out.
When I was a boy I used to make cars out of Lego blocks, and then smash them into each other to see which was the better design. The winner would get fixed, the loser would get disassembled and replaced with a new design. I took a bit of that approach with the people, settings and ideas in The Ugly.
About half way through I realized I was creating a monster with too many things happening to keep track of. Faulkner has a quote where he says you can learn how to write on your own, but everything will take twice as long—I’d never taken a writing class, though I’d written for school and humor papers, so I tried to sign up for one. I ended up at MIT with Anita Desai, and, lucky for me, she was at the other end of the spectrum from me in terms of style, which means I learned a lot. And my girlfriend my last year of law school—Stacy McKee who went on to fame as a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy”—was doing an MFA at Emerson. She was always a fantastic writer and let me peek at her notes, taught me some basic craft, and gave me great feedback. To this day, I’m grateful. (I don’t own a television, but have been told there are elements of a brusque ex-wrestler named Alex Karev in the early seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” that helped make it a fair exchange). But it took years to carve back the essence of the book from the chaos I created in the first six months.
As for harmed mountains, I don’t think Harvard blinked. My ego, perhaps, took some solid dents. Economics, law, those are all subjects where the rules of the game are explicit and more or less objective. Once you know the rules, it’s not hard to beat them. Writing is subjective, however, and it’s tough. Over and over I found that the limits to my writing ability were actually the flaws in my personality.
DF: “Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth is a 300-pound boulder-throwing mountain man from Siberia whose tribal homeland is stolen by an American lawyer out to build a butterfly conservatory for wealthy tourists.” That is one hell of a setup for your novel The Ugly. What inspired the story?
AB: I worked as a summer associate at a French law firm in Prague in the mid ‘90s, shortly after the country split. At the time I often spoke English in cafés if I if I didn’t want to be asked whether I could really afford the coffee. A table full of Czechs next to me didn’t realize I was Slovak, and I overheard them making fun of Slovaks as dumb mountain men who grunted and threw boulders at each other.
I absolutely loved the image. When I was younger, I had a bad habit of playing dumb whenever I could see someone start off with that assumption—I was large, drank too much, fought a lot, and had an East European love of the absurd that North Americans sometimes mistook for stupidity—and when I heard that dumb mountain man stereotype I wanted to run with it and turn it on its head.
At the same time, Harvard Law really was a very alien place for me at first. At one point in the book, Muzhduk gets an anonymous letter stating that his admission devalued the Harvard name for everyone at the school. That was, nearly word for word, taken from a real letter I received in my first year. It was a very careful place, where nobody knew if the person next to him or her might end up being a supreme court justice, or the president of some little country. Or big country. People who had lawyers for parents knew that the most valuable thing at Harvard wasn’t the education or even the name, but the connections—all in a hypercompetitive context. I preferred a directness that made me look like a caveman in comparison.
I had no interest in writing a One-L type neurotic complaint about law school, but I thought it would be fascinating to bring a real mountain man to Harvard Law and see what happened.
As for the butterfly conservatory, that’s more conceptual. I don’t like good versus evil stories. If a lawyer is stealing some tribe’s land, he’d better do it for a damn good reason and the tribe had better have serious flaws, otherwise you’re going to flatten the story into a Disney movie.
DF: Like all writers, I imagine elements of your own personality ended up in at least some of the characters, if not all of them. How much of you is in the book?
AB: Though I’m not a fan of biographically decoding books—Kundera once wrote that the Kafkologists killed Kafka—I guess I spilled the beans in the previous question.
Muzhduk is the most obvious, but remember that he’s much younger than I am. The armature on which he was built was a caricature of my younger self, but the clay comes from the interactions he has at Harvard, in Africa and in his Siberian backstory. Oedda has elements of real people, but also of my own education, my intellectual life after leaving home and particularly the thinkers I was exposed to through personal relationships while at Harvard—I dated a philosophy professor my first three years, smartest person I ever knew, but we couldn’t have a proper argument about socks until I was able to use the jargon of Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, Buber, etc. In many ways, the worldview underlying these thinkers was drastically at odds with who I grew up as.
I think we all have a childhood personality that then gets layers of identity put on top like sedimentary rock, a layer per era of life, and these don’t always match up well. Oedda is my higher education.
Peggy has elements in an inverse way, admirable characteristics that I’m lacking.
Like the anonymous letter, there are a number of stories in the book that are drawn from real life, but twisted around in the service of the novel. There’s a scene where Clive tells Muzhduk “Place a small sign on the door warning that ‘you are now entering the State of Nature,’ a separate jurisdiction just for Mr. Ugli. In your room, with proper notice, you may engage in any auto-erotic activities you like.’” That actually happened, again almost word for word, but it was Alan Dershowitz who said it to me. After class, he apologized, but he didn’t need to. It was probably my proudest moment in my first year to push Dersh into ad hominem. It was such a pleasure to argue with him.
DF: Authors hate talking about themes, but I’ll ask this anyway. Were there specific themes you wanted to tackle while also writing a fun fantasy novel?
AB: I’m more comfortable talking about themes than biography. The thematic layers of the book were always important to me. In a very real way, The Ugly is driven by the question “What is thinking?” I wanted to examine different ways of thinking. Kaspar Hauser mountain man, Harvard lawyer, African voodoo priest, academic postmodernist, American painter, with many of these subdivided and then thrown at each other.
The thematic inspiration for The Ugly was a frustration with analytic rationality. I was very good at logic, felt like I could fill out the entire volume of its Venn diagram, but I became frustrated that so many of my fellow students equated logic with thinking. I wanted more. In real life I did two years of law school, then took a year off to go to Africa, searching for a more tangible, immediate way of interacting with the world. So I talked my way onto a National Geographic expedition to go dig for dinosaur bones in the Sahara, trading abstract thought for sand and bones.
That wasn’t the answer either. I wanted to go to the jumping place, but I didn’t know where it was. Einstein did it, filled in the space of existing science, jumped into the realm of art, and pulled back the theory of relativity. The Ugly was my attempt to find the jumping place.
DF: What was your publishing journey like?
AB: Long. When I first started looking for an agent, I receive a lot of rejections. Too many to count. A frustrating number of these included some form of the expression “too ambitious.” I thought, “Shouldn’t books be ambitious?” I felt like I was trying to sell a Central European absurdist/existentialist sensibility in an American market that equates literary fiction with psychological realism.
I eventually got an agent who believed in the novel, but my timing was terrible. She tried to sell it just as Lehman Brothers collapsed, the financial crisis hit, and all the big publishers suddenly became very risk averse. Then life got in the way. I went through a difficult divorce, became a full-time single dad while sending support payments to another country, and The Ugly took a back seat while I focused on things that were even more important.
I read a study once with a graph of patent applications by engineers, scientists, etc. undergoing divorces—there’s a five-year hole in the graph around the time of the divorce. Once my five-year hole was finished, I approached Brooklyn Arts Press, the first small press I approached unagented, and had the very good fortune of meeting Joe Pan.
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next for you?
AB: I have a first draft of a second one. It’s very different, though, pure science fiction. Less multilayered and thematic, more fast paced, and written with a much more planned-out approach. The working title is “The Man Who Saw Seconds.”
DF: What’s your advice to up-and-coming authors?
AB: It’s a cliché at this point, but really, there’s no better advice than “Don’t attrit!” And don’t buy into the idea that there’s only one way to write a novel. Going against the grain may slow you down, but if that’s what your book needs, then that’s what it needs.
At the same time, however, I do think writers need to read their work with a truly critical eye and ask themselves whether some limitation in their own personality is holding back their writing. The advantage of editing a book for 16 years was that I really had a chance to learn from my mistakes, and trace them back to their source. I’m a big believer in protecting a small part of my brain that is convinced everything I think I know is wrong. If you can unify that self-doubt with enough confidence to never quit, your book will eventually make it.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
AB: When I was 17 years old, I wrestled a 770-pound brown bear at the Canadian National Sportsmen Show. It was one of the last years that bear-wrestling was still allowed. When I started marketing The Ugly, I contacted the show asking if they had any pictures in their archives, and discovered that the bear’s name had been Sampson. By sheer coincidence, I had named my own son Samson (no “p”) 10 years earlier.