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20th February 2013

Manchester student Alexander J. Allison talks about his first novel

Books editor talks to first-time author, and Manchester student, Alexander J. Allison

Like you and I, Alex is a student. Except unlike me (and I’m guessing unlike you) he’s just published his first book. Alex wrote The Prodigal whilst doing his undergraduate degree, and published it with small pioneering American press, Civil Coping Mechanisms. He’s now doing an MA in Creative Writing here in Manchester. The Prodigal is a novel about, or at least set around, poker – its protagonist, Martin, ‘claims’ to be a professional poker player. Except no one (least of all Martin) is gambling anything real – the story is punctuated by Martin’s small gains and petty losses, and here, in the online poker room, is where the only real action takes place. The characters are too insulated by their own privilege and self-hatred to even spend time together, or time apart from their computer. And we’re left wondering whether anything will ever really happen.

I talked to Alex about Peep Show, saturation of technology, and the genius of Adam Levin.

First I want to say that it’s hugely impressive that you’ve already written a book. How old are you if you don’t mind my asking?
I’m 21. I wrote the book when I was 19.

Why did you write it?
I just had the time to, and I thought it was a story that was worth telling.

Is it an experience that is close to you? Was it just a story that just came to you?

Well, I’m a professional poker player. I’ve been making a living from doing that for about 2 and ½ years now. And I’d been writing poetry since the age of 17, with semi-success. Published in a couple of journals, a couple of literary magazines. I was one of those precocious kids who thought they were good enough to actually send stuff out. I definitely wouldn’t have sent this off if I’d had the self-doubt that I do have now. This was my first attempt at long-form fiction.

You’re a professional poker player? How many hours a day do you spend playing?
It depends. I play tournaments. So if you’re still in a tournament after 8 hours that’s a pretty good sign, you’re going to make some money. But if you bust out all of your tournaments in the first 45 minutes, then you give up for the day.

This is a stupid question but do you lose money if you lose?
Yes. But I don’t really think of it as gambling. You put in enough volume and things balance themselves out. You play like 6 at a time. It wouldn’t make any sense to play one 100$ tournament a day. You play ten $11 tournaments a day.

If you and your protagonist both poker characters, do you share any other traits?
This is a question I get asked a lot – ‘Is Martin you?’ I modeled him on my physical build. He probably looks like me, but he’s not who I am. Martin’s a completely horrible person.

I’m not rich at all. Martin has all of the luxuries that I’ve never had. My girlfriend says that I’ve got have big problems with people with privilege. And that is manifest in the book that I wrote – which kind of chastises this terrible person for living the life that I couldn’t.

That’s an interesting reading.
Well, I think a lot of people are very eager to read it as autobiographical. They want that element to be there but it’s not really. It’s usually a case of unimaginative people, unable to see the difference between an artist and that work. That sounds so pretentious.

So how do you feel about the book now that it’s come out?
I think it’s a good book. I’m pleased with it. I spent a year and a half editing the thing to try and make it into the book I wanted it to be. But I’m very wary of this branding process now, where I have to put myself out there and stick my face in people’s lives and say buy my fucking book. It’s not really an enjoyable process. But you bring any product to market you’ve got to stand behind it.

My issue now is whether the Americans will find it funny. Because I’m thinking of this as a comedy, and my litmus test for each line was can I hear this coming out of either Mark or Jez’s [from Peep Show] mouth?

That’s very British humour. Incredibly deadpan.
Well, it’s an American publisher. So he must have got it to some extent.

I wanted going to ask you about all the typographical stuff in the book. [The book contains a lot of typographical design] Did you ever read any Adam Levin – The Instructions?
I’ve read everything by Adam Levin. Hot Pink and The Instructions all of his short stories in McSweeney’s. He’s just a mind above the world.

All the typographical stuff in The Instructions is so intricate, you’re so drawn into it. Was Levin an influence on the typographical design in your work?
Well The Instructions came out after I wrote The Prodigal. So no. But definitely lots of us who are working in the same ways, and thinking about the same things, are trying things out with that. I think it’s something that I’m probably unlikely to return to. I’ve probably exhausted the potential that it can afford me. I’m glad you liked it.

The chapters where there’s most of it in is in parts where the character is experiencing the most emotional trauma. Martin’s first breakdown when he moves house and he’s all thrown up and in a horrible mindset. Or the next one where he’s quitting smoking. I think the typographical stuff is really mirroring the internal state of the character.

I felt that the structure did that as well. The rhythm of the book is somewhat unsettled.
No, I think of the structure more like a comedy sketch show. You’ve got the main plot and you might be flicking away from it – like a flashback. ‘Lost’ is really the inspiration for that structure. I think television shows have influenced this book more than other books have.

That’s interesting because technology is the lurking presence in the book – not even lurking actually, it’s the elephant in the room.
It is the book really. That’s how it should be. I find it infuriating that so much of what is written now is written outside of the internet – without reference to it. I think that’s improving. People are very afraid now to read anything that’s written now, that’s a period piece. Like where Martin’s iTunes crashes and the room goes silent, he becomes aware of the silence and it feels like a threat. I mean, that’s how we interact with technology.

That’s very true. I always listen to music when I’m on my laptop, and I sometimes feel like I create this weird bubble for myself that I don’t actually want to get out of. There’s just this feedback loop going on between technology and yourself. But there’s something ambivalent about the character’s relationship with technology in your book.
Are you referring to the ending?

Well, yes, because that’s the big climax – the real event in the story, and it takes place only within that feedback loop between the character and his online persona.
I’m not trying to make any kind of point, I’m not saying technology is good or bad. I’m saying this is part of our lives. Not just reflect that, but maybe provoke it, poke it in its ribs and make it stand up and fight for its place in our lives.
I love technology.

But it’s interesting because when Martin’s playing poker with real people it doesn’t do it for him anymore. His online experiences have changed his experiences in the real world.
That’s a good way to put it, let’s go with that.

The current publishing climate isn’t favourable to first time writers. Do you think it’s harder to publish a book so young?
It’s just infuriating, how closed off fiction publishing is for anybody who’s not writing anything marketable. This is not a marketable book. And people want to make money from what they do. And everyone’s doing these shitty dead-end jobs.

But there are plenty of great authors who’ve written books at 19 and brought them out. Bret [Easton Ellis] wrote Less than Zero at 19 and that was pretty fucking successful, and I think that’s a pretty good book. But he’s not writing fiction anymore so whatever.

He’s writing tweets.
Yeah, he’s a great tweeter. He’s very controversial.

What are you reading now?
For the course I’m reading The Master [by Colm Toibín], The Ask by Sam Lipsyte.
And I’ve got CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders open on my table.

When you’re writing, well, I feel like I always need all my sources in front of me. It’s like writing an essay. I use different things to get in the right emotional place.

So do you think that you really learn how to write a good book once you’ve published?
I feel that you probably learn what sells and what doesn’t sell. I’m a big believer in thinking than an author is only ever remembered by their best book. So it doesn’t really matter what you ever put out up until that point.

The Prodigal might be remembered as the best book that I ever put out, but I’d probably be surprised. I know it won’t be the only one.

The Prodigal (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013)

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