Though Kathleen Alcott’s third novel, America Was Hard to Find, is set in the mid-twentieth century, its concerns are eerily current—nearly every character is caught between the stability of convention and the blazing allure of revolution. Alcott depicts several big American events—the moon landing, the carnage of Vietnam, and the Reagan administration’s dismissal of the AIDS crisis—but she renders just as many intimate realities with a sensibility that she has come to define as her own. Her prose has a way of finding the cinematic in the personal: the private toil of being a single mother or a fatherless son, the bright loneliness of youth, and, perhaps most vividly, the torrid struggle of a single citizen who is “sickened by the masculine bark of her country” as she tries to find a way toward action.
Fay Fern rejects the traditional path her parents had envisioned for her to instead bartend in the Mojave Desert near an Air Force base; Fay’s transition from the doting mistress of a pilot nearly twice her age to a radical antiwar activist serves as the spine of the narrative. Her stoic ex-lover, Vincent, has moved away to become one of the first astronauts in the nascent space program. He’s also unwittingly become a father to Fay’s son, Wright.
This triangulation sets the book’s plot in motion, but what hooks the reader are Alcott’s darts of wisdom and finely tuned observations. A woman’s youth is “the reigning god in her life, the thing from which came all permission and unhappiness.” Another character’s relationship with the possibility of suicide is “like some billboard he had to drive by every day … a highly effective advertisement that adorned the horizon on his way to getting anywhere.” The last moments of a sunset are “when all the colors, imperiled, flare up in protest.”
Alcott’s narration is penetrating and elegant, but she gives her characters some of the wittiest and most screen-ready dialogue in contemporary fiction. “Call me when you’re sober,” Fay says to her sister over the phone, who replies, “Call me when you shit out whatever rotten thing it is you ate.” A young man in San Francisco stumbles across his apartment and declares of his hungover state: “I feel like a goddamned aborted murder.”
I met Kathleen while we were living in New York, and since then we’ve spent our friendship in several American states and just as many emotional ones. Her intelligence and wit are just as sharp in person as they are in writing, and though I wish we could have conducted this interview in person—conflicting time zones required us to write it over email.
Most of the conventional, collective images of what America “is” changed radically and repeatedly during the five years you took to write America Was Hard to Find. Though the novel is set mostly in the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, which had their own snakeskins to shed, did this upheaval change or challenge the concerns of the book?
I am certain that it changed what I was looking at, or how I looked at it—the winter Trump was inaugurated I was living in seclusion on the Sonoma Coast, and I spent a fearful, manic period watching the Watergate hearings in their entirety on YouTube; that was research for a chapter I was writing, for a fight that takes place in the gas line the summer of Watergate and the oil embargo. It is difficult to imagine that I would have engaged with those hearings in the same way under a Hillary Clinton presidency but it is also impossible, at this point, to imagine a Hillary Clinton presidency. I mean that, mostly, life outside and art inside are always interdependent, and that to try to see one as the teacher of the other is to say that knowledge in the classroom travels unidirectionally—which I know, from the humiliation teaching has always been for me, is not true. I do know I am confronting structural misogyny in a way I did not during the Obama years, as is true for all women, and recognizing the shortcuts I took to avoid feeling its effects.