It’s funny you should ask that. My wife and I have an ongoing struggle with television and what to watch together. She can’t handle anything violent or cruel. Somehow every show I love involves this element of intensity and often this intensity is measured by how far into some area of darkness – crime, violence, psychological terrain – the show and the characters are willing to go. She says “Modern Family!” and I say “True Detective!” And we meet in the middle with “Orange is the New Black.” So this is something I think about a lot: Why am I drawn to the dark side?
I’m a Gemini, I’m hyper-social, I laugh a lot, I practice yoga and believe in brightening a stranger’s day with a small act of kindness. But if you put me in the vicinity of someone preternaturally happy, I get suspicious. What are they hiding? What’s really going on? What do they have to convince themselves is true in order to maintain this constant cheeriness? I believe you can be extremely self-aware and cheerful. But “happiness” as behavior in our culture is often a shield against truths we don’t want to admit.
I come from a culture – I’m half Southern, half Yankee WASP – in which you are always supposed to put on a smile and act happy no matter how you feel. I hated this directive growing up. I didn’t like being silenced, wasn’t very good at keeping my feelings to myself, and was constantly amazed by the lengths to which people would go to convince themselves something was true when it wasn’t, just to save face. And this is the impetus for the stories that make up Unaccompanied Minors. I wrote these stories to explore the psychologies of people who were told there was something wrong with them: the girl with the physical deformity who refuses to be ashamed about it, the gay person who will not allow himself to be gay, the girl who has an abortion as a teenager, the anorexic whom people take one look at and dismiss as “crazy.” I wanted to peel back the layers and try to locate the intricacies of what led them there.
But sure. There’s something wrong with me. Isn’t there something wrong with you?
Ahem. What’s interesting is that your first book, the travel memoir The Blind Masseuse, has never been called dark. Readers and critics were more likely to call it “insightful” and “funny.” Why such different tones?
The Blind Masseuse is a collection of travel essays and Unaccompanied Minors is fiction. I tend to approach essays very traditionally, in that I’m “trying” something, trying to prove something or make sense of something. So, though I may be exploring harrowing material in The Blind Masseuse, from government abuses in Cuba and Burma to the Cambodian autogenocide, there’s a buffer between the reader and the thing described. In fiction, I attack psychology more than ideas. It’s an inward exploration, so the reader is perhaps forced closer to the experience.
Your first two books came out less than a year apart. How did that happen? And didn’t you also have a baby during that time?
I did not plan to have my books come out so close together. I’ve been writing stories for many years, publishing individual stories slowly and steadily, but I didn’t see for a long while that I had a collection. I’d been working on travel essays at the same time, and at a certain point realized I had a book-length travel memoir in the works. So I buckled down and worked on finishing, polishing, and sending out the travel memoir. While that was making the rounds, I turned back to my stories, and as I continued to write and revise, the unifying themes of youth and struggle leapt out at me. While I was still looking for a publisher for The Blind Masseuse I decided to send out the story collection to contests. I found out Unaccompanied Minors won the New American Fiction Prize just a few months after the University of Wisconsin Press accepted The Blind Masseuse.
Oh yeah, and then I had a baby. Three weeks before The Blind Masseuse came out. I also have a three-year-old.
When is the last time you got eight consecutive hours of sleep?
That’s just mean.
“Sin Alley,” one of the stories in Unaccompanied Minors, takes place in a male brothel in Costa Rica. Have you ever been accused of exoticism, or the literary equivalent of “slum tourism,” because you are a white, economically comfortable American woman writing about extreme poverty in Central America?
Not yet. I would be worried about such accusations if I hadn’t already spent an entire book outlining my beliefs on representing cultures other than one’s own. Because, yes, I’m writing about poverty from a position of privilege, and a lot can go wrong when you do that. But if anyone does take me to task, I can just hold up The Blind Masseuse and say, “Look, I’ve given this a lot of thought, okay?” I’ve done responsible research. I’ve lived in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t have written a story that takes place in, say, Somalia, because I’ve never been to Somalia, and I don’t know much about what life is like there.
So you’ve traveled a lot. Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been?
Country in which you’ve spent the most time being publicly naked?
Japan. It’s how I met my wife! Or, you know…”met.”
I’m not going to touch that one. Most memorable cup of coffee?
Monterosso, Italy. They don’t mess around with their coffee in Italy. The view of the Ligurian Sea over the rocky coast probably helps with the memory.
Do your books have any unsung heroes?
My badass publicist Sharon Bially is the unsung hero of both my books. I call her my “book doula.”
Speaking of birth. Is it true that the second kid comes out easier than the first?
That’s just a flat-out lie.
What was the best thing about labor and giving birth?
Other than the babies?
Everything stops. The noise of the world goes to cotton. Nothing matters except your body and the baby’s body. You go into this still, pitch black place of physicality, inside a pain that makes you feral. And you come out of it exhausted and transformed. I kind of want to do it again! (But I won’t.)
Just after you had your first child, you wrote in Mother Musing that giving birth was what made you able to finish a book. Do you still think that’s true?
I do think it was a major part of being able to see the finish line. I’d been hemming and hawing about finishing The Blind Masseuse for a decade. And then, in the middle of the busy craziness of having a baby to care for, I thought to myself, “What have I been shuffling around for? I can do this. I’ve been to hell and back and I made another person. I can certainly make a book!”
ALDEN JONES is an award-winning writer and faculty member at Emerson College’s department of Writing, Literature and Publishing. Since 1995 she’s combined teaching and writing with extensive travel to destinations such as Cuba and Costa Rica, where she lived for extended periods. Her 2013 memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia was named a “Top Ten” Travel Book by Publisher’s Weekly and has been nominated for a PEN award and won a 2014 Gold Award from Independent Publisher. Other awards Jones has received include the latest New American Fiction Prize for Unaccompanied Minors. Jones’ short stories and travel essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner and The Best American Travel Writing.