Alexandra Kleeman on “Fairy Tale”


At Work

The winter issue of The Paris Review opens with debut fiction by Alexandra Kleeman, a young writer, part Taiwanese, who was raised in Japan and Colorado. She recently left behind her graduate studies in rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, where she planned a dissertation on cognitive science and experimental poetics. She lives now on the west side of Manhattan and is pursuing an M.F.A. at Columbia University.

“Fairy Tale” is your first story to be published. Is it your best story?

It’s probably my favorite story. I was trying to be funny and I’m naturally very serious. I hope it’s kind of funny.

What makes it a fairy tale?

My original title was “Knives,” which seems very different, but the logic of the piece always had that sort of fairy-tale element to it: There’s a sense in which the world depicted is, on one hand, very tight and claustrophobic, but on the other hand extremely open, like anything could appear in it anytime. It would be a completely irrelevant question, in that setting, whether something was believable or not. Instead, you’re actively learning the rules along with the character. That’s the way the later part feels, to me, anyway, but really the first part is strongly amnesic.

What interests you about amnesia?

I like that it tables the issue of likeability, because amnesiacs can’t really know enough about themselves to give you the pieces of information that would allow you to judge them. Instead, it’s just: this person, this narrator, is confused. I really identify with that.

Because you share that sense, the amnesiac unfamiliarity of the world?

Yes. I’m a slow waker, but I also feel it’s easy to forget who you are for periods of time. Remembering who I am is a really active task for me. And I often have to tell myself, you’re a graduate student, you’re a daughter, et cetera, in situations where I’m supposed to behave like one.

We talk about characters in literature as though they were built on the model of the real person, but then I often think that the way we present ourselves as real people is based heavily on the way literary psychologies are stylized, and I wonder how the two forms of realistic personhood feed on or fulfill each other. I find an incredible amount of pressure in creating a realistic person or in being a realistic person. To me, it feels a lot more exciting, in a way, to just bring people into existence in a single sentence and then play with them. I think, if I add this quality, if I give them just one quality, what does it make them? What do they become?

In my writing, I tend to have two modes. One is more theatrical: Every sentence is a gesture or something happening as if onstage. And then I have some writing that’s more from an interior perspective and very fluid, or mushy, a lot more like a perceptual experience of an overly full world than an empty world that gets gradually populated—the world of “Fairy Tale,” for instance.

Does the story have a happy ending? It’s a story that is putatively about seduction and romance, but the acts of violence are the only gestures with a sexual charge.

I thought of it as being a restful ending. I’m really interested in passivity as a type of action—sort of allowing the situation to change you, choosing to give in being an act of agency rather than an act of submission.

Is that a desire that you share personally, too?

I don’t really buy the death-drive thing too literally; it feels overly neat and convenient. But I am suspicious of fighting back being the dominant model for cinematic conflict and personal conflict and political conflict. I don’t have a final answer handy. But I am thinking a lot about it. I should have a solution in about six months.

To purchase the winter issue of The Paris Review click here.