It’s still hot here in the UK, if you’re wondering how this wilting little author is getting on. (Although, I’m writing this on Sunday and the heatwave is due to break on Monday, so I might be a lot cooler as you read this.)
Today, I’m delighted to be talking to Alexis Paige. Alexis is the author of Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, a craft memoir about neurodivergent creativity, and Not a Place on Any Map, a memoir-in-flash about the geography of trauma and addiction – both published by Vine Leaves Press, where Paige serves as CNF Aquisitions Editor. Her work also appears in Longform, Hippocampus Magazine, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, and on Brevity, where she was an assistant editor from 2013-2019. Winner of the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, Paige has also received “Notable” mentions in Best American Essays and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Assistant professor of English at Vermont Technical College, she holds an MA in poetry and an MFA in nonfiction.
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Alexis. Let’s start at the beginning: how did your writing career begin?
Books were my first love, and though I flirted with studying law, I knew by age seventeen or eighteen that I would become a writer. In high school, I was fortunate to take specialized classes in law, journalism, and women’s studies. I excelled in them – freakishly so, in comparison to my earlier academics and according to my best friend who fumed at how easily I churned out opening statements and newspaper features and analytical essays.
I have ADHD, but I didn’t know this until a few years ago when I underwent formal diagnostic screening, somewhat on a lark. The diagnosis explained why I had struggled academically in primary school, so much so that I was put on a non-college-prep track in middle school, off of which I had struggled by high school. I also had an English teacher in middle school who was so discouraging she was a cliché – pinched, humorless, points off for bad penmanship – so it was a surprise to learn later that I could, in fact, write.
My confidence began to rebound in a sophomore Law and Ethics class when I took part in a mock trial of what was then, in the early 90s, called a “battered wife” who had killed her husband in self-defense. I played lead defense attorney, and my closing statement was a barn burner. This was an advanced placement class, with smart, achievement-crazed students bound for top-tier colleges, and I, the kid who had scrapped my way from the land of C-students, had smoked them. After class, my teacher – who had a law degree from Dartmouth – chased me into the hallway, and with tears in his eyes, he said, “You have to do this.” The next year I took journalism and got an A+ on every single assignment. The year after that, my women’s studies teacher handed out my Jane Eyre paper to the class, declaring it the best student essay she’d ever read. I had written it the night before, and as always, under extreme duress, but I had done it. I started to believe then what my teachers did – that I really could become a writer.
Why literary non-fiction? Did you choose it, or did it choose you?
I began as a poet, and I’m glad to have that training, which informs my literary nonfiction today. I don’t rule out writing in other genres – I have an idea for a detective noir novel set in Vermont (where I live) that I might pursue one day, and I’d like to do some screenwriting – but creative nonfiction, the personal essay form particularly, is home. I think partly this is because I have a realist sensibility (not Platonic, but literary realism), but also and again, because nonfiction comes more easily to me than the other genres. I took a nonfiction writing class in college in which we studied and wrote essays imitative of those in The Art of the Personal Essay by Philip Lopate, which remains a seminal text. I had always read widely and voraciously, but studying masters of the essay like Mary McCarthy, E.B. White, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and James Baldwin opened a whole new world of possibility. I saw their work dimensionally, in a way that I had never looked at other writing. While I had done plenty of analysis as an English literature major, I felt myself reading the essays differently – like a writer, like a practitioner of the craft. I could see enough of the moves they were making on the page to begin to imitate them, to play, and to develop a voice. So, nonfiction chose me, not the other way around.
What do you hope your readers take away from your work? What are you trying to achieve?
I hope to achieve all the things good art does: to connect, to move, to delight. But I’m not an art for art’s sake gal; I have an agenda. The world is full of problems, and writers have at least the kind of solutions that can reframe the bad premises that got us here, that can recast history more critically, and get people to think differently, or to think period. With fascism flaring around the world, we need critical thinking more than ever. Nina Simone said that an artist’s duty is to reflect the times they live in. I’ll be happy if I’m able to reflect my times with convincing verisimilitude. If I can somehow put forth a vision for something beyond these times, all the better.
How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between? Where do you get your ideas?
It depends on the project, especially the form I’m writing in. If I’m writing a flash piece, I lean pantser. The process of writing flash essays, for me, is largely intuitive: I wrote most of my first book – a flash collection – in the ragged edges of late night or early morning, as if trying to work as close to in a dream state as possible. If it’s a longer essay, I might sketch out a general shape or arc or threads. When working on book-length projects, I’m generally a plotter of big-picture structural elements like metaphorical through-lines or artistic arrangement, but a pantser in individual chapters or pieces.
Does social media help or hinder?
Both. Social media has democratized the world of letters in vital ways, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, it creates so much noise. Social media may improve my reach as a writer, but I don’t know if it’s done much for my writing. As a Gen-Xer, I’ve now spent half my life in the pre-internet era, and half in the post, which is to say I have a decidedly split perspective. David Foster Wallace wrote about our mediated reality much better than I could, and long before the uber-mediated realities – or virtual realities – that we live in today, but I think he was on to something when (in a 1991 interview) he said, “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is mediated and delusive.”
Tell us about your most recent publication.
My latest is my second book, Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life (Vine Leaves Press, February 2022), which I call a craft memoir because it weaves essays on and about craft elements – everything from writing about race, to narrative voice in nonfiction, to approaching trauma artfully – with personal essays that (I hope) demonstrate these craft elements. The subjects of the essays include my personal experiences with neurodivergence, sexual assault, addiction and recovery, perimenopause, and much more, but many of both the personal and craft essays also touch on aspects beyond craft – the writing life and literary citizenship, as two examples.
How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin? Was it a conscious decision to work with a small press rather than a Big 5 or self-publishing route?
In 2015, I had just finished an MFA, and my thesis project – the jail memoir described below – was nowhere near ready for publication, but I had notes I had been tinkering with to escape the jail project. They were the beginnings of flash nonfiction essays. My friend and fellow Vine Leaves author Penny Guisinger had been a finalist the year before in VLP’s Vignette Collection Award, and she told me about the contest. The deadline for the next cycle was a couple of months on, so I collected all my notes and hammered them into a weird little manuscript about geography and trauma called Not a Place on Any Map. My weird little manuscript won, and the book was published in 2016. About six months later, Jessica Bell, the publisher, approached me to do some development editing, which I have been doing since. Recently, I became Vine Leaves’s Nonfiction Acquisitions Editor, which is a role I’m excited to dig into.
Is there anything you need to have with you when you write? A tool of the trade, a mascot…?
Need, no. But I’m prone to superstition, so I’d be bummed if I lost the empty bottle of Dr. True’s Magic Elixir, which I discovered on the banks of the river in my backyard a few years ago. (You can read more about the elixir, and how I found it, here.)
What’s next for you?
I’m finishing the jail book mentioned above. In my late twenties in 2005, I was charged with Felony Intoxication Assault in Texas after causing a car crash in which a Houston society bride broke her leg. This experience – including quitting alcohol, serving two months in the Harris County jail, and confronting my own social privilege – changed the trajectory of my life and work and is the subject of my memoir-in-essays, The Right to Remain. (You can read a slice of the story here.)
Thank you so much, Alexis. I love how us authors boil down our current projects to nicknames. The jail book sounds like it’s going to be a lot more than that, and another fascinating insight. Good luck with it.