“The Moon Between Them: A Conversation about Grief, Love, and Ill-Fitting Shoes with Lauren Aliza Green, author of The World After Alice”—curated by Tiffany Troy

Lauren Aliza Green’s work has appeared in Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of A Great Dark House, selected by Joshua Bennett as the winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship. Other recognitions include the Eavan Boland Award, sponsored by Poetry Ireland and Stanford University, and a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, class of 2024. Her debut novel, The World After Alice, is forthcoming from Viking in the US and Penguin Michael Joseph in the UK this summer 2024.

At the center of The World After Alice are two of life’s most significant events: the death of sixteen-year-old Alice Weil and, twelve years later, the wedding of Alice’s younger brother and former best friend. The novel moves through time to traverse the thorny terrains of marriage, friendship, divorce, and family life. Things in this book are not as they appear at first glance, as revealed by the ways those closest to Alice process their grief while continuing to search for her. Through language, Green manages to construct an intricate puzzle that illustrates both the world’s deprivation and evil, as well as moments when characters misjudge others through their own insecurities and deepest yearnings. These characters, rendered in pristine, lyrical language, are shown reaching for what we can no longer hold close to us in this timeline of ‘what ifs.’

Tiffany Troy: How does the “Prologue” set up “The World” that is at once real and constructed? I admire how you focus on Alice Weil without pointing to her by name, which underscores the sense of mystery in the loss of a cornerstone of the Weil family.

Lauren Aliza Green: In the prologue, you glimpse Alice from an onlooker’s perspective, where she appears as just another girl walking along a bridge. Her identity–and thus her existence at that moment–is distillable to the basic facts of height, age, and gender. Yet such facts do not reveal the truth: that her family doesn’t know where she is; that the heart ticking inside her will soon come to a halt; that the observers on the bridge are witnessing the ‘before’ of someone else’s worst nightmare. I was intrigued by the notion that the people we most love, those for whom our worlds turn, are mere strangers to others.

TT: Yes! The novel’s beginning creates an air of mystery and you play upon the tension between who Alice is to an outsider versus those who love her. Can you describe the process of writing The World After Alice? Was it like fitting different pieces of a puzzle together, or creating characters and following their desires based on their character traits, so to speak?

LAG: I would say it was both these things—both fitting together pieces of a puzzle and inventing characters with clashing motivations. I tend to draft in fragments, small scenes or even just sentences that I then string together to establish a semblance of narrative continuity. How about you? When writing a poem, does the entire thing appear at once, or do you collect lines until they come together into a whole?

TT: Recently I’ve been troubled greatly by my dress shoes which caused my big toenail to grow into my flesh. The ingrown nail caused me great distress as it hurts to walk, so much so that I limped and for the longest time I’ve resisted–whether through laziness or through an unwillingness to change where I was–to get bigger shoes. I’ve begun to think of the cursed shoes as a metaphor of imposter syndrome, which is the state of wanting to be perceived as a Wonder Woman no matter how irrational or unhelpful the thinking is. Then that’s doubled down by societal expectations placed upon me to prove that I am qualified, because I was young, a woman, and a person of color. I mention this because those thoughts of emotional, physical, and societal valences in my ambivalence often become the focal point of my writing.

For me, poems are often about a state of being “shook,” whether that’s projected onto a fictional character or nonfiction. I would say that a poem is done when I’ve reached an epiphany (expected or not), as when in my poem “Pretext,” the speaker, through the snow at the god-forsaken (and quite annoying) parking lot, sees in the universality of weather a kind of hope of redemption even in the dark concrete jungle taxed by this necessity to perform efficiency. Sometimes, that turn can be quite dark (like the realization by the speaker in another poem, “Holy Saturday,” that the cockroach to be exterminated was herself), but to me, poetry is about resilience notwithstanding the galloping life force that threatens to overtake the speaker. That’s exciting to me.

How about you? I’m curious about the nitty-gritty process in putting together the collection, in large part because The World After Alice plays homage to Lewis Caroll through wordplay (the characters’ names are alphabetized, for instance), but then you also go into the complex family dynamics where people often say things that differ from what they actually believe, or pretend to be who they are not (or not anymore). I can definitely see the building up from fragments in the seams, focused on the buildup of a scene or an idea, perhaps like in a movie or film (which I hope your novel will be adapted to someday soon!) Then as a writer who writes both prose and poems, can you speak to the distinction between these for you? I ask because I’ve fallen into a dry spell with poetry, and my way out was to write these personal essays. Do you see yourself as belonging to a tradition of poet-writers or vice versa, and did that affect you as you’re storyboarding and writing the dialogue, etc.?

LAG: Well, first, I want to say how much I relate to your anecdote about the shoes. Yesterday, I was contemplating the delusions we sustain in order to live. What you’ve described seems to me the perfect example of this–a lie we tell ourselves (“I am not suffering”) to ward off the icky feelings of vulnerability that slip in. What I love is how your poetry sneaks around that lie to arrive at the truth.

When I sit down to write, I don’t conceive of myself as belonging to any particular tradition. I simply try to get whatever’s inside out. The form that takes remains largely a mystery to me until it appears on the page. There’s this wonderful Franz Wright poem that speaks to this. It reads, in its entirety, “Leaves stir overhead; / I write what I’m given to write. / The extension cord to the black house.” I write what I’m given to write–that’s the extent of my process. It’s funny, though, because in poetry, I find I am trying to counteract my narrative instincts, and in fiction, I am trying to counteract my poetic ones. C’est la vie.

I’m curious to hear more about your personal essays. As someone who has a crippling fear of making myself known, I remain in awe (and fear) of this form. What drew you to it? Do you feel any sense of exposure when writing the essays? Is exposure perhaps part of the point, the thrill, the freedom?

TT: Personal essays are so tough because it can feel like you’re standing naked in a public space and being judged. It demands a degree of proximity to the writer, names, dates, and places of social media, but also an arc or revelation in real life that, at its best feels serendipitous and, at its worst feels contrived. What generates clicks is often raging and sorrowful, but what is dramatic is often the complicated relationships with those closest to us, which often touch upon secrets we do not wish to share with the public.

Rather than making an argument or advancing a thesis, what excites me most now about essays is carrying the voice that is uniquely yours and using it to tackle a mystery. I sort of dug myself into this spiral of depression as I wrote some thesis-driven personal essays. Then a very good friend suggested that I try incorporating humor that makes me “me.” And so it was I wrote a personal essay about watching Extraordinary Attorney Woo after getting a text rave from the best professor I ever had in graduate school. Like all writing, what obsesses you (in my case, the figure of this young Asian female lawyer who is on the autistic spectrum, who protests for dolphins and cleans up the streets on her days off ) often is related to something interesting about who you are. Like god, her birthday is the inverse of mine, though I couldn’t for the life of me understand her excitement for kimbaps and walking in the park rather than watching Seth Meyers or napping. It’s really a soliloquy with yourself as the muse and audience. For a time, I have dreamed to be Woo Young Woo: Who doesn’t want to win cases with a savant memory? But then, I felt completely let down.  Autism is literally “self-closure syndrome” in Chinese, and Woo Young Woo considers her love flawed and selfish. The I’ll love you as a cat loves her butler confirms for me that someone with autism cannot love normally, reaffirming what I was always told when I was written off as a deformity, a miscreant. But that’s distraction that the voice ultimately walks away from, and I think that the degree of color and emotional complexity allowed for in this form is what draws me toward it. The ugly and the unbearable are the alarms that wake you up from the dreamscape of impossibilities contained in the essay form.

I so enjoy listening to you speak about the tension between writing poetry and prose and how it’s different because it’s true that repetition, which is central in poetry, can feel like slack in prose, and the last thing you’d like a reader to do is doze off!

How about you? In writing fiction, how do you draw parallels from life? Because I feel like as the author, you certainly don’t shirk away from the uncomfortable and the ambivalent.

LAG: The ugly and unbearable are, I believe, part of the appeal of art for both the creator and consumer. As people, we tend not to dwell in our shame, vanity, and discomfort, yet we find pleasure in encountering these emotions on the page, as we do with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Emma in Madame Bovary.

As for the question of real life: a few years ago, I won a prize for a short story I’d written. The story was told from the point of view of a middle-aged man whose wife is dying from cancer. When I arrived to accept the award, the author who’d selected the story was visibly taken aback. He said, “I expected you to be a fifty-year-old man.” I don’t know which of us was more startled: me, to have this assumption of his baldly revealed, or him, to have his perceptions of me shattered. I’ve thought many times over the years about this moment. Many people assume that fiction is drawn from one’s life, and often it is, but not in the ways we’ve come to expect. The autobiographical bits–the pieces drawn from real life–are much like the fiber optic cables that run along the ocean floor. They contain the heart of the story’s power, yet are buried beneath leagues of plot, character, and stakes.

TT: Do you feel the pressure of such an outward homage to Alice in Wonderland, like almost having to one-up Lewis Carroll? Or was it freeing to have the reader already familiar with this conceit so you can defy expectations?

LAG: I didn’t think too much of Carroll while writing, though I suppose those books that mean much to us in childhood remain lit by nostalgia’s lamp at the backs of our minds. What is Alice in Wonderland about? Selfhood, the need to discover one’s identity, a child encountering the absurd and terrifying adult world for the first time. Down the rabbit hole Alice tumbles, and what she discovers on the other side is a place of nonsense. (“We’re all mad here.”) In The World After Alice, that sense of illogic stems not from any fall into a rabbit hole but from the characters’ encounters with grief. In the face of their loss, the signifiers around them cease to hold. Life goes topsy-turvy; what was before no longer is. The streets they’ve walked in the past transform into new ones; the trees are no longer the same trees; the sky is a different sky.

TT: That description is so apt in The World After Alice, where intrigue is built through third-person narration, which focuses on how people who are obsessed with and whose lives revolve around Alice are coming together for Benji and Morgan’s wedding. Were you set on unfolding the narrative in the third person from the beginning, or is that something you arrived at over time?

LAG: The narrative perspective existed from the start. Part of what’s so thrilling about using multiple points of view is getting to observe how one character picks up the thread from another, both adding to what came before and altering it. It’s like watching a 3D sculpture being made in real-time by a half-dozen different pairs of hands. This choice further allowed me to play with the conceptions and misconceptions characters have of one another. Imagine if, for a moment, you could step into the head of someone against whom you hold a thousand judgments. Suddenly, your perception of them would be forced to change. The closer we move toward someone else and their experience of the world, the more the walls around us crumble. Does this resonate with your experience?

TT: It definitely resonates! I say this because we initially see Alice through Nick and Linnie, and because they don’t really “know” Alice, we learn a lot more about their dichotomous handling of grief (full-on embracing it versus denial) than about Alice herself. With Benji and Morgan, we feel their jealousies and intense attachments to Alice, and then with Ezra, it feels like nothing he’s saying is trustworthy, not only because he engages in this cat-and-mouse game with Morgan but also because he is consumed by his own obsession over the student-teacher relationship. Further, Linnie is sometimes seen (by Morgan and others) as the overbearing mother who wants her perfect daughter to not only be a budding musician but also an all-star student, which drives a wedge between Linnie and Alice. How do you approach writing about and thinking through the identities of your characters? And maybe if you have any tips for budding novelists who want to do the same in an honest, raw, and nuanced way.

LAG: Interesting characters, much like interesting people, will never have all their arrows pointed in one direction. By this I mean that interesting characters are multifaceted, with desires and fears that are often illegible even to them. Maybe, to return to your earlier example, they walk around in shoes that are a size too small–and if so, what might this say about them?

With Linnie, you’re right: some view her as overbearing, but they do not know of her scrappy upbringing, where she worked to claw herself out of her oppressive hometown. The pressure she imposes on her daughter thus resembles that which she wishes had been placed on herself. She lives vicariously through Alice’s achievements yet also feels Alice’s suffering as if it were her own. These contradictions are what I read for in fiction; not the straightforward antagonist or protagonist, but the human being who believes they are acting in good faith even while their actions harm others. I advise budding writers to resist the temptation to judge their characters. When we render judgment on anyone, we flatten them, compressing them into a box.

I’m curious: what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

TT: I love that tip, and we even see it in Morgan, who wished her mother had expectations for her as Linnie did for Alice, even if she also absorbed Alice’s quibbles with Linnie. Both qualities exist and explain simultaneously, creating a fuller picture of the character in the novel, which is similar to how it works in real life.

The best piece of writing advice—it’s really a writing pep talk, but I’ve been coming back to it ever since— I received came from Dorothea Lasky, who has always inspired me to go new places in my work is that it’s okay not to have an audience. She told us to never give up even if it feels like nobody cares. She said, it may be that your dream audience hasn’t been born yet. And I feel that’s especially true when you write of or from identities that might speak with an accent or speak in non-standard English, or if there’s an idiosyncrasy that makes you you. So, staying true to what excites you about the richness that is life and trusting that the value in it that you see is worth it has shaped how I write to this day.

In closing, do you have any thoughts to share with your readers?

LAG: “Stay true to what excites you about the richness that is life”—I couldn’t have said it better myself. Also, thank you for reading.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor of Asymptote.