One Wild and Joyful Ride: Alex Poppe on her new novel, MOXIE
[A note from Matador’s Social Media and Development Editor, Mandy Grathwohl]
When I first read Alex Poppe's short story collection Girl, World, my favorite story was "Moxie." I was so excited when I spoke with Alex and she told me that she would be turning the story into a fully-fledged novel. The story itself was sharp and witty, and I wondered how she might expand it into a larger form. What aspects of the story would she tell?
When I got my ARC of the book, I was floored at what it had become. I hadn't had anything to expect—so everything surprised me. Moxie as a whole is just as sharp and witty as its short story predecessor, but with added emotion and elements of the world we live in to this day. Poppe pairs elements of her personal experience with the experiences of others, alongside vital occurrences in society, and gives way to a novel that will make you laugh, cry, and grimace
throughout its pages. Poppe is notoriously not a "happy ending" person, and while I am, I wasn't disappointed. I don't think you will be either.
M: Alex, in our last conversation you mentioned turning Moxie into a novel. Now that it's out, can you discuss your thought process in writing the book, converting it from short story to novel?
A: Converting Moxie from a short story into a novel was an exercise in faith. There were so many times that I doubted what I was doing and then I'd have one of those serendipitous moments that are golden for a writer: Something I had seeded earlier connected to what I was writing at that later moment in a way I couldn't have foreseen. Those moments gave me the faith to keep going.
I wrote the majority of it from late 2015 through 2016, stopping to read craft books about plot, etc. Then, as I encountered things I liked, or issues that mattered to me (criminal justice system reform and immigration being key), they became incorporated into Jax's story because they were burbling about in my subconscious. In that way, the story whispered itself to me.
Finally, I really missed New York City while I was writing Moxie. It was a transitional time, so Moxie became my love letter to NYC, especially to lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. At times, characters barged their way into the narrative as Marlowe did. Once she started talking inside my head, there was no shutting her up until she was on the page.
M: Protagonist Jax was a famous model before a bombing in Marrakesh scarred her face and changed her career trajectory. You've worked as a showroom model and an actress - how did this inform Jax's backstory?
A: I worked as a showroom model for the designer MoMo FaLana in the early naughts, which really meant I wore their clothes at trade shows or while working in the showroom. For Sex and The City fans, MoMo FaLana created Carrie's "Coat of many Colors", which SJP is wearing in Central Park when Miranda's water breaks. Maureen, part of the design duo/creator behind MoMo was the "Cuddle Soap Soft Girl", and a model, and she used to tell me stories about when she shared an apartment, I think, with up and comer Janice Dickinson. I created from that. I also created from the models who walked in MoMo shows. They were compensated with trade, so I would help them pick out their clothing items after Fashion Week was over and they'd come to the showroom. I got to know a few of them that way, and I embellished from their stories. I always say, "be careful what you say around writers" because we listen and then we take and fictionalize from what we see and hear.
Being an actor influences my writing in that I am aware of how what I write will be visualized by the reader. It unfolds inside my head like a film as I consider the story from many angles. Also, I often act things out as I write, which can make writing in public spaces a bit embarrassing, but the acting out strengthens the emotional connection I have to the material I am writing. I learned how to write at the Writers Studio, New York, and integral in that school's methodology is the writer's emotional connection to his material.
Finally, voice drives how I write. I need to hear the character inside my head before I can put him on a page. I think that may come from stage acting, listening to other characters, the rhythm of how they speak, cadence, intonation.
M: The title Moxie comes from the name of Jax's dog, who she actually loses and does not recover in the novel. What about Moxie and Jax's trajectory with her made you select that as the overall title of the book
A: Picking out titles is always really difficult for me, almost as bad as writing endings, and most of the time, my titles are absolute crap. One of my friends still mocks Girl, World every time he says it. I didn't title the book as much as it titled itself. For me, the word moxie is equal parts grit and verve. Jax embodies the quality of moxie because she embarks into her old world, utterly changed. I am always amazed when I ask students in northern Iraq, where I currently live, who they would be if they could be someone else and they never want to be anyone but themselves. I always wanted to be someone else when I was younger, and that someone was usually someone who was pretty and thin, qualities I don't associate with myself. Jax is forever disfigured and yet she retains her former self. She engages with the outside world. She has the audacity to think a man might desire her and goes after him. That requires courage, gumption, moxie.
M: Moxie (the dog) gets rescued by a theatre director, and ends up staying with him despite Jax's initial efforts to get her back. Why did you choose to keep Moxie with another owner? What might it signify about Jax?
A: Jax doesn't get Moxie back because she doesn't deserve her. She was careless with Moxie because she is self-centered. No dog for her. I don't mind being mean to my characters. I also don't typically write happy endings. The world is messy and unfair. Look at our judicial system. The Plowshares peace activists have been in jail for over a year for protesting nuclear arms while the Stanford Rapist served only about three months before he was freed. Harvey Weinstein has yet to be punished. Don't get me started on Trump's corruption.
I want what I write to reflect the world I live in. When I was an actor, I had the typical, egregious situation that usually happens to models and young actors happen to me with a producer from a very popular late night show . It was the catalyst for the Marty scene in my book.
M: Is Moxie your first novel? How did the experience differ than writing a short story, besides length and time spent?
A: Moxie is my first novel. I like the compression of a short story and its economy of language because everything in a piece of short fiction has to work on multiple levels at the same time. Writing a novel requires stamina and patience. I have stamina but I am super impatient. I am not sure how I feel about the long format. I like the depth it affords a writer but I am not sure it is the right format for me.
M: With Moxie out, what are the next projects on your plate now?
A: I finished a novella that uses flamenco as an extended metaphor for the process of becoming in the first part, explores the folklore around the witches of Montserrat and weaves in old Norse poetry in the second part, and has an epilogue that hopefully ties it all together. I play with structure with that piece, and I hope it works. The first part experiments with narrative structure: each section echoes the same beginning before spinning the story in a fresh direction. Imagine each section as a piece of colored tissue paper which get stacked one on top of the next and then are spun. The center of the stack is opaque and form the story's core. However, each edge retains its distinct hue; likewise, each story frames its own narrative. Taken together, the narratives are, hopefully, bigger than the sum of their parts.
M: We last spoke in 2017. What is the greatest change that has happened in your life so far?
A: I haven't had any great big changes in the last two years, but I have had a bunch of great experiences: I worked on some education projects for the State Department in Panama and for Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad. I presented at a few conferences in Cairo, Baghdad and Sulaimania. Moxie found a home, Girl, World won a couple of awards, I won a few art residencies. All these were firsts for me and all along the way I met people who inspired me with their stories. I feel very luck for the opportunities I have in my life. I teach at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and I am constantly inspired by my students. They are survivors of the genocide in Sinjar, kids who experienced the 2003 invasion first hand, kids whose families still live in refugee camps and they are so generous of spirit, so kind. I feel very fortunate to know them. I'm grateful because it's been one wild and joyful ride.