INTERVIEW WITH ALINA STEFANESCU, AUTHOR OF EVERY MASK I TRIED ON: STORIES.
Poet and author Alina Stefanescu reflects on her progress from philosophy to fiction, on her parents’ recollections of life under a dictatorship in Romania, on bribing her husband with a ukulele, and on the uncharted territory of raising a teen boy in an interview about her new book of short stories, Every Mask I Tried On.
“I don’t think we really know who we are. And I think there’s a lot of self-help that tries to tell us we can, but I don’t believe that. I don’t believe we’re one thing. If you would have told me five years ago that I would be writing a fiction book, I would be like, ‘No, I’m having a sewing bee at my house.’ You know? It would just be unfathomable to me.” –Alina Stefanescu
Interview by Katie Saffell, Bethel University
Alina Stefanescu is an American author, born in Romania and raised in Alabama. She studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon before transferring to the Auburn University Honors College, where she graduated with a degree in philosophy and political science. She currently lives in Tuscaloosa. A prolific writer, Stefanescu explores universals in human honesty, both internally and externally, in her new book of short stories, Every Mask I Tried On.
How would you define Every Mask I Tried On?
“I think it’s hard for me to say what sets it apart or what’s unique about it because it’s really hard – for the same reason that it’s hard to sort of criticize your own work – it’s hard to get out of the box, where you can look at it. I’m in the box, so it’s hard for me to drop what I know about (the stories). And I guess I think that’s what great writers can do, and I’m not a great writer yet, so I still really struggle with that: to try and figure out how to look at my own writing and not feel it.
“I’m not good at genre. I think of myself as a poet, first and foremost. I didn’t set out to write a fiction book. I just started writing stories because I had these ideas coming in my head, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do this. It’s just fun. I’m gonna do this.’ And so I think my first influence is poetry, and it’s closer to what I feel like I am. If people ask me if I’m a writer I usually say I’m a poet. So it’s kind of funny with this fiction collection, which I love. And I love writing fiction.”
Your poetry might inform how concise your prose gets.
“I think sometimes it does. I think a lot of writers that I really like have managed to blur the boundaries between poetry and prose and to really kind of weave them together.”
When people ask what you do, what do you say?
“I tell them I homeschool my kids. I tell them that I fail at being a mother and a wife. I tell them – it just depends on the day. If I’m with writers – if I’m at AWP or if I’m at a writing event – then I’ll sometimes talk about poetry. Most of the time, in Alabama and everyday life, I’m just a mother. An environmental nut. I’m on the board of an environmental group that I care deeply about.
“But if you say that you write here, people kind of look at you, they get a blur on their face. Especially in play groups: if you tell other mothers that you write, they’re like, ‘what do you write?’ and ‘have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?’ I don’t write romance novels and I don’t really read those things.
“I guess I don’t feel comfortable enough with calling myself a writer yet to always do that.”
That’s probably a healthy place to be.
“But it’s awkward, because it takes up a tremendous amount of time. I remember when I was working on Every Mask I Tried On, a lot of the stories I was just really into them. And my husband would be like, “are you gonna put the kids to bed? When are you gonna come hang out with me?’
“‘Okay, let me tell you about this story!’ I would run it by him. And he’d be like, ‘Okay, but can you put it down now?’ No. So I bought him a ukulele. And he liked it. And then I bought him a guitar. Every year I’ve added to it so I could do this stuff that I loved.
“And maybe that’s what didn’t happen when I was at Carnegie Mellon doing my undergraduate work. I didn’t ever just write, just fall so madly I couldn’t stop. I’d get in a position where I couldn’t stop writing and it was just coming. And that’s what happened for me at 35. It just came, and I couldn’t stop. I would sit at dinner parties with my husband and the kids at my friends’ house and people would be talking to me, and I swear, I would just – I don’t even remember what they said – I would be playing the story in my head, changing lines, editing and smiling at people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left from a rock concert kind of show and gone into a bathroom to write on a napkin. And my husband’s like, you know, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing that tonight.’ But you know, it’s like a love.
“But that didn’t happen to me in undergrad. I think I was more inhibited. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. And after I had the kids and stopped nursing I kind of looked at the world, and I was like, ‘this world is messed up. Why is everyone so unhappy when we have all these great things? What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with our world?’ There was just a lot for me to write about, and I wasn’t as unsure of who I was. It was easier.”
You mentioned a lot of writers you like blur the line between prose and poetry. Could you list a few writers or books that have influenced you?
“Sure, there are so many. I love reading. I’m a reader before I’m a writer, and I come to writing through reading. I think when I was writing this: William H. Gass. His fiction was very influential for me. His essays, strangely enough, influenced my fiction more than his fiction did. He’s just incredibly, incredibly well-read and he has a way with words. He’s just very good at writing.
“I’m trying to think of who else I’ve been reading. Let me look at my shelf. I read a lot of different books at once. I don’t know why I do it. It’s like I’m in a different mood. Cartesian Sonata, by William H. Gass was the novela that I loved by him. I really, really, really like a lot of Romanian writers that have been published by Dalkey Archive. They’re very experimental. I like how daring they are, so I would say there’s a lot of Romanian writers that inspire me. I don’t have a lot of fiction there right now. Etgar Keret. He’s a short fiction writer. He writes a lot of different stuff but I really like him. In general, I like a lot of history of ideas, so I like reading people who write about totalitarianism, that’s kind of one of my personal interests.”
“I think I’m definitely influenced by people who give me permission. Some writers, like Miranda July gives a lot of permission for playfulness in her short stories when I read her. In a way she gave me permission to write the piece that won the flash fiction prize, and it’s in that book. I was reading her and I realized things like I don’t have to be so serious. I think writers do that for me. Different writers give me permission to try and experiment with different things, that I wouldn’t otherwise. Sentimentality: she doesn’t avoid sentimentality, and I think a lot of writers, we’re afraid of sentimentality. We don’t want to be too sentimental, we don’t want to sound cheesy. ‘How do I not sound cheesy? How do I not ruin an emotion by wallowing in it?’ And that was one of my worries with that book.”
It’s interesting what we subconsciously don’t allow ourselves to explore.
“Right, especially as a female. As a female I think I censor myself in so many ways that I wouldn’t if I weren’t a female. My being a female definitely informs my writing and my perspective on writing. I’m not ashamed of that. I enjoy being a female, I’m comfortable. I’m aware of it. My son tells me regularly, ‘Mom, I look at this world and my sisters, it’s so unfair for them. They have to worry about things I don’t ever have to worry about. Nobody looks at my legs and sees if I’ve shaved them well enough. My hair is long and it can be a little matty and people think it’s cool. I don’t have these same things. I don’t walk through a parking lot at night in fear, like you do.’ So his growing up has also informed my experience of being a female.”
You talked about how the stories, when you were writing Every Mask I Tried On, just kind of come at you. Did you see them fitting together while you were writing or did you bring them together later?
“I think initially I did. There is a – I almost feel like I’m giving something away if I say this – but there is a way in which the book was sort of informed by the myth of Scheherazade. I would sit and tell my husband these stories. We would talk and I would tell him about, “Oh, well there was the time I did this, or the time I did this.” And I would realize there are a lot of different people I’ve been in my life. Some stories that I would tell, I had never done, but I could have done and I might have done if someone else hadn’t done them and I hadn’t heard the story.
“I guess there was a way in which it ended up being about a relationship. The stories are somehow linked by this relationship between this husband and this wife – this man and this woman – that’s kind of going in and out. And I didn’t plan it that way but when I put it together, that was sort of what we agreed on. [My husband] was like, ‘You know it keeps coming back. There’s that couple again: that couple that’s not us but has had conversations similar to some of ours.’ And it’s fiction, but again, it’s also – it starts with something in real life.
“And Every Mask I Tried On, the [titular] quote was from Bend Sinister by Nabokov, and [in it] he says, ‘My saviour. My witness.’ And I think there’s an underlying question throughout the book of how much brutal honesty – how much of these masks that we talk about, and try on and expose – how much of that is good? How much of it is worthwhile? How much of it is valuable?
“And everyone’s trying on masks. I mean, we live in a culture that is: everybody’s trying on one identity one day, one another day. That’s what we do. It’s very American to do.”
That’s an interesting observation: “Very American?”
“Well it is, I think. In Europe people were sort of – you couldn’t just be anyone you wanted. It was sort of passed along by who your parents were. You know, the status changes a lot more in America. People really could reinvent themselves.
“I would catch up with my friends from high school and they’d be like, ‘What? You’re doing that? You’re homeschooling? You’re doing – what are – you’re working at a car dealership? But you studied philosophy!’
‘Yeah, but I like selling cars and I make a lot of money and I go on vacations.’
“You get some of these friends who come out. Friends who decided they weren’t gay. Things changing. Constant flux. And that being a great thing, but also a destabilizing thing.
“I don’t think we really know who we are. And I think there’s a lot of self-help that tries to tell us we can, but I don’t believe that. I don’t believe we’re one thing. If you would have told me five years ago that I would be writing a fiction book, I would be like, ‘No, I’m having a sewing bee at my house.’ You know? It would just be unfathomable to me.”
In one of the first stories, the narrator says, “whatever I say will be a story about masks.” When you were writing all of these, did you have that in mind? Or did you look at the collection as a whole and think, “this is what this is about”?
“That’s a really good question because I’m trying to remember; it feels so far, like it was so long ago now. The first version of that collection was going to be called [redacted]. But don’t display that because I think that will change the way people read it. It didn’t have the quote by [Nabokov]. I was reading whatever book* that’s from. I read the book and I highlighted it. And I started thinking about some of those stories and I thought, ‘that’s really kind of what some of those stories were about.’
“It did start – I didn’t write this as one book. It was other things first but then when I read that, I kind of framed everything around it, because it made perfect sense to me.
“And my husband, he played a huge part in it, too. He listened to all of these stories. And some of them, he was like, ‘No. No, you can’t publish that.’
“I was like, ‘Why?’
“And he’s like, ‘Because that sounds like So-And-So, and So-And-So’s feelings would get hurt.’
“And I was like, ‘Well –”
“And he’s like, ‘But it’s good. So what counts more? Do you think it will make a difference in someone’s life if they read it and they empathize with it? What counts more?’
“So it’s sort of an interesting question, the ethics, too, of writing. He gave me a lot of permission to write, too.
“With my son, I decided that I didn’t want to get married and that I did not want to ever belong to a man, and so I decided to become a single mom, by myself. When I was five months pregnant, I met the man I married, who I was never going to marry because I was not interested in marriage. I did not want to be trapped by a man. All those things. A year later: there you have it. After he asked me to marry him, he was like, ‘We need to do this fast, cause you’re gonna change your mind.’ And so we did, we got married out in a field and it was exactly the way I wanted to get married. And that informs a lot of my writing, too: my relationship with my husband, who is my partner. He’s a lot of different things. He’s my friend.
“And he gave me the first Walker Percy I’d ever read. I had never read Walker Percy until him. He’s kind of my muse, too. I write around him. He was raised in an evangelical, republican household, very obsessed with projecting a certain image. A lot of challenging stuff that happened in his family that was not at all what the surface looked like.”
I can tell by your writing that that’s a very intricate and beautiful relationship.
“Thank you. I think one of the big mistakes we make in life is that we think that we need to present happy endings or we believe that love completes us. Nothing completes us. We’re always – I think any human that’s honest with themselves – is always searching, always curious. But it’s still beautiful. It’s still wonderful. It’s still, for me, the best thing.
“One of my muses: I sort of have this love/hate relationship with Christian fundamentalism. I’ve had a lot of friends whose lives have been impacted, by growing up and being forced to take abstinence pledges which turned into lies, which they never told their parents, which they then had traumatic experiences that followed. But then they were still nominally very ‘brand’ Christian, I don’t know how else to say it. That’s something that my husband has been very interested in as well.
“Yeah, I think growing up in the South – I grew up in a family, my parents were both scientists: my mom was a physician, my dad is a metallurgist – and they never had a conflict between faith and science. I never grew up in a house that was like, oh, ‘Evolution or God.’ But a lot of my friends grew up in those houses. And it was really weird to walk into those conversations because my parents were like, ‘You think that God wrote everything He was doing in a book that you could read? What is God about that?’ They were like, ‘Where would you get crazy ideas like that? How would you believe that God left the instruction manual for you; why would you need a God?’
“I grew up in a house that was comfortable with supernovas and faith, and they didn’t ever butt heads. But in a lot of my friends’ lives and in a lot of guys I dated’s lives, that was a real thing. A lot of shame about sex that wasn't healthy. I didn’t grow up with that.”
“My parents used to say, ‘You have to laugh.’ The only way to survive life under dictatorship is you have to find something to laugh about. So they had this great joke culture. They couldn’t criticize the government, so they would do it through jokes. And that’s kind of what Late Night right now is. We’re not living under that kind of system. There’s still little signs of it, you know, similarities, and so it reminds me of that.”
It almost seems like all you have to do to be funny is to be the voice of reason.
“Oh yeah, or you just repeat what happened and make a funny face. Or you put on a fake mustache and you say it, and it’s absurd. And that’s another thing: I really like Eugène Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd, the Absurdists. I really like them, in terms of what inspires me as a writer. There’s a great absurdist tradition in Romanian literature that came about because of communism and totalitarianism. It was a response to a culture in which you couldn’t directly criticize and to which all language had been made meaningless, all words were meaningless, sort of like ‘God bless you’ is meaningless right now. Do they hate you if they say they’re gonna pray for you? Are they saying they’re going to, like, try to destroy your life? You know? I don’t know what that means anymore.”
Any concluding thoughts?
“I am so grateful to Brighthorse. I think that what they do for emerging writers and for writers, to validate their writing – it was incredibly exciting to win the prize – there’s just no way to express how much gratitude you have toward the publisher who does that. They’re really easy to work with, they do all the hard stuff for you. I think one thing you learn as a writer is publishers are different. Smaller presses of course are different. And some publishers are easier to work with than others.”
“I don’t have any concluding thoughts about [Every Mask I Tried On] except that I hope people enjoy it. I hope someone reads something and finds something in it that sort of reminds them of something that happened to them. I hope that people see maybe some of the masks that they wear when they read it. I think we all wear masks. And I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing. I think some people do it to survive. And costume parties are a lot of fun.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.More information about Alina can be found on her website.
Edited by Katie Saffell, Bethel University.