Interviewed by Diane Prokop
Alexandra Fuller was in Portland recently and I had a chance to sit down with her to talk about her new book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (The Penguin Press, 2011), as well as reading, writing and what she is working on now. Her book is a sequel to her highly-acclaimed debut novel, Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs, that chronicled her coming of age in war-torn Africa with her larger-than-life parents. In her latest book, Fuller continues her family’s story with the same honesty, compassion and humor that made her first book so gripping.
Diane – What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Alexandra – I think that on some level it’s incredibly important to forgive yourself. I think that’s been my mother’s gift. Or at least accept yourself. There’s an enormous responsibility that goes with having forgiven yourself and being human and messy and all the other things. You’re now responsible to live in awareness of that.
Diane – How do you think your childhood in Africa shaped who you are today?
Alexandra – I think that I’m one of those people who doesn’t mistake comfort for security. So I don’t need a bunch of stuff around me to make me feel safe.
Diane – Did your childhood make you strong?
Alexandra – Compared to my mother, no. I’m a complete and utter broken, pathetic wimp but I find I have a very different attitude than most people. I have a very quick emotional metabolism.
Diane – What do you mean?
Alexandra – I think I get over stuff quickly. Okay, that happened. We don’t need to go on and on about it. That’s very much my mother. Let’s learn a lesson from it – time to move on. Conversely, I think I have that writerly thing of not forgetting. There’s a little bit of both.
Diane – What memoirs did you read that you really liked that have influenced your writing?
Alexandra – The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. Michael Andaatje’s Running the Family. It’s just fantastic – I love it. James Galvin, The Meadow, which is just beautiful and the most under-rated American book. It’s just gorgeous.
Diane – What are you reading now?
Alexandra – Sarah Bakewell’s absolutely brilliant, grounding, and fabulous How To Live, or, A Life of Montaigne. It’s the most centering book. It’s so perfect for a book tour because so much of that is untethering. I highly recommend it.
Diane – How will you decide what book to write next?
Alexandra – I am learning to trust that I will tell the story that insists itself on me. The book that actually cost me the most, was the Legend of Colton H. Bryant. That book nearly killed me. It did actually kill me. It killed the essential me which was good. That was great!
Diane – What do you mean it killed you?
Alexandra – I think that until then I had this idea that I was someone – that there was a central idea called Alexandra Fuller and she was this sum of things and she was writing a book about a cowboy roughneck who got killed on the oil rigs of Wyoming. I had various labels attached to her like environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, blah, blah, blah. I think the original idea that this woman had was that she was going to write a polemic rage against the oil companies. But that isn’t who Colton Bryant was. It wouldn’t have been true to him. He was a roughneck. He loved to drill. That’s what he wanted to do. He was third generation and it was in his blood. So for me to really tell his story, the quality of my listening had to change. The only way that that could happen is I had to get rid of this person who had an idea that she embodied certain things. I had to get rid of everything inside of me that wasn’t letting him into me.
Diane – What’s your writing process?
Alexandra – It depends. I’ve heard of writers who use outlines and I wish I was one of those writers. It just sounds so great. They have a regimen and know where they’re going and what they’re going to do next. I write everyday, not necessarily at the same time. It depends on the book and it depends where I am. If I have a deadline coming up and I need to write for 18 hours, I’ll do it. Or, if I get to some point where there’s so much pain with the story – the only other experience that comes close to it is labor where you’re just, okay, it’s ready and I’ve got to get it done – I will write. I will kick everyone out of my life and I will bring my computer on to my bed and I will write until I cannot write anymore.
Diane – What are you working on now?
Alexandra – I’m writing an article for National Geographic about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a fascinating place – I really lost my heart there and I’ve been curious and interested about the indigenous issues here in America.
Diane – What music do you like?
Alexandra – I have Pandora radio on classical. I love Brahms. I love Chopin but I may have slightly overdone him. I love the story of The Ring but if I had to sit through the 17 1/2 hours of it, I’d kill myself but I love the idea of it. It’s such a metaphor for our time.
Alexandra Fuller has written four books of non-fiction.
Her debut book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (Random House, 2001), was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002, the 2002 Booksense best non-fiction book, a finalist for the Guardian’s First Book Award and the winner of the 2002 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. Her 2004 Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier (Penguin Press) won the Ulysses Prize for Art of Reportage. The Legend of Colton H Bryant was published in May, 2008 by Penguin Press and was a Toronto Globe and Mail, Best Non-Fiction Book of 2008. Her latest book Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness will be published in August 2011 (Penguin Press).
Fuller has also written extensively for magazines and newspapers including the New Yorker Magazine, National Geographic Magazine, Vogue and Granta Magazine. Her reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review; The Financial Times and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Fuller was born in England in 1969 and moved to Africa with her family when she was two. She married an American river guide in Zambia in 1993. They left Africa in 1994 and now live in Wyoming with their three children.