Alexis Coe on Working Hard and Doing Good Work
Alexis Coe’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, The Awl, The Toast, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, is aNew Yorker pick for October and Amazon Book of the Month for history. Alexis serves at the pleasure of a ten pound dog and lives up a 29% grade hill in San Francisco. Follow her ontwitter and like her Facebook Author page.
Readers in San Francisco can find Alice+Freda Forever at City Lights, the Booksmith, Kepler’s, Green Apple Books, Folio, Books Inc., and Book Passage. In November, Alexis will be reading at Folio and Book Passage, and she’ll be mangling Daniel Handler’s work at the Booksmith’s Shipwreck, which has been praised as “a vile, disgusting event.”
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Writer — but that took some getting used to! My first book, Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, just came out, so I guess I should start saying author. Oofta!
I actually didn’t set out to be a writer. I was a research curator in the exhibitions department at the New York Public Library after grad school, and I thought I could find a similar position when I moved back to California in 2012. That just didn’t happen, but the opportunity to write about museums and books did, and two years later, here I am.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Time. I’m not sure where it goes, and I need a lot of it.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I get asked this question a lot, and my advice is deceptively simple: Write, and do it often. Don’t romanticize the profession. Don’t be paralyzed by fear and self-doubt. Don’t mistake boredom or laziness for writer’s block. Just work really, really hard.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
The counterpart to success is failure, and I try not to get too attached to either. I find them distracting, and distractions threaten the work. At the same time, when I hear that someone inhaled an advance copy of my book, I feel as though I accomplished what I set out to do. I feel proud. And then I feel like I should get back to work!
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
My dog is adorable and batshit crazy, so I’m more likely to turn to her for a break — and she’s always there, ready to receive my attention. I should live stream Rosie on YouTube! Isn’t that what Chris Krause meant when she told the The Believer that artists should cultivate other sources of income?
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I share a birthday with my late maternal grandfather. Poppy, as I called him, was a really big part of my childhood, but I spend a lot of my time imagining his life outside of me, before he was even a father. Poppy was one of the only members of his large family to survive the Holocaust, and he spent the rest of his days feeling guilty about it.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I was a pretty ardent reader and environmentalist. I worshipped Jane Austen and Al Gore. I don’t think I had a particular profession in mind, besides doing good work.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Is any camping trip ever ideal? I spent a week kayaking through Yellowstone backcountry with a friend, and that was a real gift, despite the fact my wrist hurt the entire time. In Peru, I got terrible altitude sickness the first night of a five day trek, but it was necessary. It made me slow down and take everything in. I guess the cocoa leaves helped, too.
What’s wrong with society today?
That’s a long list, but I’m frequently preoccupied with nationalism. At best, it can be distracting, and at worst, downright frightening.
What is your fondest memory?
Falling in love. There’s nothing more intense and exhilarating. Everything is new. Everything has potential. Everything tastes good.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I’m not sure I can quantify it, but I’m definitely moved by quite a few things. I like to a read a poem a day. There are special moments with the dog. There’s the person sleeping next to me at night. I feel an ardent connection to my friends, and when they say something touching or profound, I feel drawn to them. But I’m skeptical of the idea that one can fall in love each day, because that’s a real life event. It can happen more than once, of course, but daily? That strikes me as something else entirely, but no less necessary.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Meaningful political discourse on the national stage. Universal healthcare. Prison reform. I’m afraid that list is long. That being said, I’m really excited about the next generations of girls! There are so many badass young women right now.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I’m loath to define it, because that suggests art is objective, and those people can shove it. Art is everywhere. Your connection to it is personal, and therefore amorphous and changing. I will say this: It is definitely necessary.
What are you working on right now?
My second book! I just returned from a ten day research trip, and now I have to make sense of all of it.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’m very grateful to say that I’m doing the kind of work I want to do! I do miss curating exhibitions and public engagement, so I’d love to figure out how to work in a show…
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Better public transportation.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
The way a person’s skin changes as they near death, and how their desire for or resistance to the process can be seen through it.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Oh, I could do a lot with both! The first 50 words provide a way in. I just can’t seem to start anywhere but the beginning of an essay, even if I know exactly where I’m going. 50 bucks makes for a lovely afternoon of yoga, used books, and a drink at happy hour.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I love the smell the Pacific Ocean, hiking through the Redwoods, the damp smell up in Twin Peaks after the fog has settled… I love the smell of California!