The Strangest Thing You’ve Ever Eaten: An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman

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In Alexandra Kleeman’s newly released debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper Collins, 2015), an algebraically named cast navigates cults, game shows and romance. When the book opens, A’s relationship with her inattentive boyfriend, C, is stagnating. Her roommate, B, starts fashioning herself to look like A, and A decides to make a run for it. She joins The United Church of Conjoined Eaters, a starvation cult that has infiltrated grocery stores around the country. When A gets kicked out of the cult, she lands a gig on a game show called That’s My Partner, where contestants are challenged to identify their partner under uncanny circumstances. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a bildungsroman that questions identity, contemporary food politics and entertainment culture with a zest reminiscent of David Foster Wallace.

I caught up with Alex at her Staten Island apartment after she returned from a three-month trip in Vietnam and the South of France. She talked to me about her novel, her travels, homemade bone broth, and writing routines.

INTERVIEWER

Your novel was so rich. It reminded me of the first time I read Thomas Pynchon. I read it and then I read it again to uncover all the secrets I missed the first time. What inspired you to write it?

KLEEMAN

One answer is that it was an exercise for myself in writing fictional worlds that partake of the ugly, noisy, hyper-commercial stuff that surrounds us.  I had always liked clean, sparse, Beckettsian setups, where I could tally up every object in the fictive world in question.  Whenever I notice a habit in myself, I start to see it as a crutch and I want to break it to find out if I can do the thing that doesn’t come as naturally.  Also, obviously, there was a lot I wanted to say about the experience of being female in late capitalistic society.

INTERVIEWER

In You Too, your protagonist A becomes a background dancer on a game show called That’s My Partner. What games shows or television do you watch?

KLEEMAN

In reality TV, I like to watch competition shows, specifically competition shows in which people try to do stuff that mimics having a job.  My favorite reality show is The UK Apprentice, though I also watched the now-defunct Celebrity Apprentice and Apprentice.  I really enjoy tracing how others assign blame, and you can see a lot of interesting differences in how scapegoating happens in the UK and American versions.  On another level though, I like watching other people do job-like tasks and imagining how I’d solve the same problems, especially since I’ve never had a normal job. I watch television in bulk.  It bothers me not to know how a story ends.  With a novel you can tamp it down because the ending probably won’t offer much conclusive satisfaction anyway, but with TV shows it’s really difficult for me to stop watching when the ending exists elsewhere.  I feel anxious until I know how it turns out.

 INTERVIEWER

Your protagonist A is forced to eat a lot of strange foods, most prominently “Kandy Kakes. What’s the strangest thing that you’ve ever eaten?

KLEEMAN

The worst thing I ever ate was turtle soup at a dinner I attended with my parents and some of my father’s Taoist monk friends.  A special banquet in Taiwanese culture means no rice and the dishes should be rare things, treats. This meant stingray, tripe, chicken feet. The soup was dark and murky like the water turtles prefer to live in. When you eat more reptiles and become more familiar with them, I think this feeling goes away, but the pieces of turtle made me feel “off.” The bones were small but too thick and strong to be bird bones. The meat was dark and fibrous and it clung to the bone too tightly to be gnawed off. It seemed like a cluster of knuckles surrounded by tough meat that tastes of dark mud. The habitat flavored the flesh. When we left the restaurant, I looked in the aquarium by the door. There had been a cute turtle when we walked in, but now there was nothing. It was an empty tank. That felt awful.

INTERVIEWER

Did you think about your novel for a long time before you started writing?

KLEEMAN

I thought about it, but I didn’t make any real progress. I was thinking about how I wanted the main character to change into a cartoon cat—the first part in real world, the second part in cartoon world. I thought it would be fun to write a cartoon world. The idea was that the real world would be very flat and emotionally impacted, like a tooth that can’t pop out. In the cartoon world, the cat would be full of very articulate thoughts about his own situation. But people aren’t really interested in reading cartoons.

INTERVIEWER

I want to read about cartoon cats. What else have you been working on?

KLEEMAN

I went to this fruit festival for people who eat an all-raw plant diet. They have a lot of ideas why this is the perfect diet to have. I went there for a week, and it was okay. I didn’t need to cheat. But there was this French lady there who was really dictatorial. She came to me on the last day and said, “I did something bad. Let me show you.” When she opened up her suitcase, it was full of charcuterie.

At first I felt pretty good. Then I felt dizzy. When Alex Gilvarry, my fiancée, picked me up, he brought me a prosciutto and pesto sandwich. When I took a bite, I got heartburn for the first time in my life.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you write when you’re in New York?

 KLEEMAN

I usually work at the kitchen table in my apartment. It’s warmer there during the winter, and it’s closer to all the food. It’s also farther away from window, so you don’t see time pass in the same way. At the kitchen table it’s always the same, until it gets dark.

While I’m working, I often stew bone broth. Alex and I go to Western Meats—a bargain meat market. You can get a family pack of beef bones. So when I work at home, I put them in the pressure cooker and watch as they stew. I leave them in for 12 hours. When I take them out, there’s this weird elixir full of positive health properties.

Parts of the bones disintegrate, and parts stay intact. As someone interested in the body, I think about how I’m full of bones and that we all think are bones really hard, but some parts will decay faster, than others. Some parts will last a really long time.

I started reading lots of Paleo blogs, which get really crazy at times. They have tricks for extracting the maximum nutrients from the bone. A little bit of apple cider vinegar at the beginning helps.

INTERVIEWER

You just got back from Vietnam. How was it?

KLEEMAN

It was great. We started in Ho Chi Minh City, went through the middle of the country, and then ended in Hanoi. Alex is setting part of his next novel in Hanoi, so he was doing lots of research. For me, it was mostly leisure time. I usually get kind of antsy when I don’t have something to do. I like walking all over until I find my favorite streets and favorite paths. Then the next day, I can walk them even more efficiently. I like museums and also seeing living creatures. I don’t really care about buildings.

We went to Monkey Island, but it was the worst. You could go on this hike to find monkeys, but there was just a snack stand with two obese monkeys sitting next to it. They were really aggressive and one stole a woman’s chocolate bar. When she tried to get it back, he bit her.

We stayed at a resort for a few days, which was very different. It had a really nicely kept property with built-in fishponds and ornate landscapes. I got close with a waitress who worked there, and she told me that they used to have a beach that was thirty yards long. Every year, the monsoon came and took more of it away. Now, the whole thing is gone and the resort might not be around next year. It was supposed to look like nothing ever changed there, but when the tourists left, the place was bombarded by storms in this constant apocalyptic decay.

INTERVIEWER

After Vietnam, you went to France?

KLEEMAN

Auvillar. I kept meeting people there who asked me if I knew about birds. I know some things, but not much. I could never be one of those people who collects birds and wants to see every type so they can cross them off their list. I only want to see interesting birds.

I saw these great birds in France. They were nicely shaped brown birds, male and female, fanning themselves out completely in the grass. They would just lie there, and, occasionally, they would sit up and preen. Some birds like to sun themselves, but these birds were letting bugs crawl all over them and then eating the bugs. It was a clever survival strategy.

INTERVIEWER

What are you up to for the rest of the summer?

KLEEMAN

I’m going to a Twin Peaks festival. I might go on bed rest for an article on neurasthenia. I’ve been talking to different experts on the treatment, doing some historical research, and some present-day research. But I want an experience to tie the article together. If I do it in the modern sense, as for pregnancy, I can have visitors, but if I do it as it was done originally, I’d be completely alone for a week.

INTERVIEWER

That sounds wonderful and traumatic.

KLEEMAN

You know how all the cells in your body are replaced every seven years? I think the mind is like that, too, but if you concentrate you can make it happen faster. I had one bad semester when everything just blew up on me. I went to go visit my parents in Taiwan, where they were doing research. I just walked around, all day, as fast as I could, worrying. It was like I was doing a year’s worth of worrying all at once. The more I walked, the more tired I got. It made me feel like the thoughts themselves were getting tired. And they didn’t seem to possess the same pain. By the end of those three weeks, I felt pretty good, like I understood something about those times, except that I hadn’t learned any new knowledge. I just became, well, indifferent.

INTERVIEWER

Have you seen any movies lately?

KLEEMAN

Magic Mike II just came out. I haven’t seen it. I don’t find Channing Tatum attractive, but he seems like a nice, fun person, though he kind of looks like a potato. I don’t think it’s good to have that many muscles. Whenever I see someone with that many muscles, I can only see how unhealthy in their body image is. The exception is this one friend. The thing that’s unhealthy about him is that he’s over-dedicated to his work: to his writing and to his body. For him, both are like artifacts that illustrate his fanatical dedication. That’s why I don’t want a routine. I want to make all my decisions consciously, in the moment, based on what feels right. I don’t want to feel like something has meaning just because I’ve completed a routine.

INTERVIEWER

Even if that routine made you feel good?

KLEEMAN

I don’t think that things make me feel the same way twice. I remember when I was a freshman in college and my boyfriend at the time showed me how to make a fried egg. I had never had one before. He showed me that I could make the fried egg and dunk my toast in the yolk. I never knew what it was like to just eat a yolk. I made six eggs in a row and ate them all. By the last one, I felt like I could throw up. I couldn’t eat a fried egg for years.

INTERVIEWER

You weren’t pacing yourself.

KLEEMAN

Aren’t all routines done everyday? I forget that I like something if I don’t do it. I just remembered that I like sugar snap peas, so I bought some. I should have been eating them all along. If something is the best, I want it all the time. In Vietnam, I ate phở everyday for three weeks and wasn’t the least bit tired of it. I found my soul food.

 

Alexandra Kleeman is a New York City based author, who has written for The Paris Review, Me, Tin House, N+1, The Guardian and many other publications. She has received grants from Bread Loaf, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Santa Fe Institute.

Jacob Kiernan is a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and works at Bookforum. He has written for On VergeMobyLives, and The Jordan Center. He’s currently working on his novel, Empire of Hope.

 

 

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