Alex DiFrancesco is the author of the essay collection Psychopomps, and the upcoming novel All City published by Seven Stories Press in June 2019.
All City envisions a near-future version of New York City that has been destroyed by a superstorm, and which is now only occupied by those who had nowhere else to go. In this destroyed metropolis, a group of forgotten civilians squat a luxury apartment building and begin to rebuild their lives. At least, until the owners of the block return and demand it back.
What was the writing process like for this book?
All City took 5 years and at least as many drafts. At first, I put together a list of what-ifs, a sort of “and then” exercise that built off of itself. The first draft was a sloppy 40,000 words written in National Novel Writing Month. I gave it a little time to rest, then I started rewriting it, chapter by chapter, for my writers’ group. I did another draft after that. Then, because I felt stuck on it in many ways, I gave up my apartment in NYC and went to work as a baker at a resort on the top of a mountain for a summer. In my three-day-on, four-day-off schedule, and in the seclusion we had there during the week, I was able to create an entire new draft. I ran this through my writers’ group again, taking their feedback very seriously. Then I went on to create the final pre-acceptance draft, which was picked up by an editor at Seven Stories. Of course, the file marked “ALL CITY-FINAL DRAFT” was only the final draft until my editor sent me through more rewrites. So, six rounds of drafts with plenty of input over a 5 year period. All novels are long-haul collaborations, in my experience.
How do you think aphantasia shapes your writing? Do you feel you have a greater handle on creating imagery through language and sentence structure than other writers may have?
Words are a constant with me; they make up my entire inner life. I didn’t realise I had aphantasia until last year, and suddenly how relentless the words in my head are made so much more sense. I don’t know that it gives me an edge in terms of writing, except in sheer volume of the words my mind produces. I do a lot of pre-writing and drafting in my head before it ever gets onto a page. There are no pictures in my mind, so when I read, I read just for the words. This has helped me be able to see things like how to structure a novel almost reflexively. I have many writer friends who had to study craft books to figure out how writing is supposed to be structured, but I never remember a time when I wasn’t able to see the structure of stories, books, and words just by example. It’s also very instinctual in that, as a child, I failed at grammar classes and thought I was behind in learning English before they just let me just write.
How was it different from writing Psychopomps?
Psychopomps was written in under a year. Early drafts of essays in it had come out of me long before that, but they were nowhere near the final form. Psychopomps was a chapbook when it placed in CCM’s Mainline competition, and I was asked if I’d like to sign a contract to develop it into a full-length. I had the wonderful luck of catching Zach Savich in his one semester teaching at my university while I was writing it. The way he taught creative non-fiction helped shape that book. But it was a quick, intense, period of writing that produced Psychopomps, and a long, sustained, fleshing out of worlds and characters that produced All City.
How did you go about the world-building for the novel?
The book is soft sci-fi at best, though I consider it more a speculative work. There are a few things that make the world different from ours – the implanting of screens into the body instead of phones for the rich, micro-technologies, the effects of climate change on the coastal cities, and the ideas of desirable places to live having radically changed. But mostly it’s just a peek around the corner. It’s a world and future that are coming very quickly.
How / why did you decide on the different perspectives and voices for the novel?
I know this will sound a little mystical, but those were the voices that spoke this story to me. I, of course, put work into crafting who these people where, rounding them out, making them full characters. But I always knew that there were certain voices telling this story, and they were from very different places. The work, then, was figuring out who those people were beyond the voices that first spoke the story when I free-wrote it in 30 days.
Did you struggle with adopting any voice more than the others?
Evann was the hardest. She took so many drafts, even after the book had been picked up for publication. She’s the villain, but I didn’t want her to be one-dimensional. I wanted her to have thoughts and feelings, even if they were ones that I didn’t agree with, that could be considered real. She’s from a very different place in life than I am, and I struggled to find a way to figure out the true north for her character, the place I could keep the compass coming back to. The artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat proved to be a huge part of that place. In the last months I was living in Brooklyn, I serendipitously lived right across the street from the cemetery he’s buried in, and I used to take walks to his grave, thinking of Evann doing the same while thinking of him.
Was there any voice or scene that you particularly enjoyed writing, or felt flowed easier than the others?
The scene in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC where the two street punks, Lux and Jesse, stand in front of the van Goghs. This moment was, for me, what I wish art was always about, not the commodification, not the ownership, not who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, but this moment when we can reach right into each other. When we can show life and beauty. That’s one of the most important scenes in the book for me.
What section, line, etc., are you most proud of?
I’d have to say the epilogue, told at a close-third person to Alejandro. It’s grim but it’s not without hope. That’s my worldview in those few pages. This section reads, at one point, “Beauty was beauty, hope was hope, but there was then, and had been ever since, so very much more to be done.”
What made you decide to include your own slang in the book?
I was a huge fan of A Clockwork Orange when I was very young, so I think it’s probably an obsession that started there, thinking it was really neat to build pieces of language from evolving things. Much of the slang in the book is done through abbreviation, bastardisations of Spanish and French, depending on what character is speaking. It also helped differentiate worlds and voices. We all have our own verbal tics, but a little goes a long way with those in writing. What’s more fun, interesting, and challenging is to create a scenario where you’re teaching readers how to read the language being spoken as it’s spoken. I think reading the working-class Scottish dialect in the stream-of-consciousness novel How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman several years back made a huge impact on this idea of training a reader outside the dialect how to understand it as it goes on.
What does writing about the climate crisis get wrong? What does it get right?
I think we’re in a moment when these big reports are coming out that Climate Change has arrived, is irreversible, and we’re doomed. True, likely. But Climate Change dystopias have been here. In the US, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 created a true sci-fi dystopia. It was a warning. We didn’t heed it. We kept doing what we were doing. I was in NYC for Superstorm Sandy, did a bit of recovery work after it. That time, my eyes opened to what was happening, what was already here. I think we’ve just gotten to the point where people on a large scale are unable to close their eyes to the inevitability of these things – but the warnings happened so long ago. We made it inevitable.
I’m working on three projects. One is a collection of short stories that are largely Gothic-inspired and revolve loosely around the theme of transformation. One is a multi-genre post-modern inspired novel about a group of artist/servers at a fine dining restaurant in SoHo, Manhattan in 2000, who are hoping that David Bowie and Iman come in to eat there, and pass the time creating stories revolving around him. The last is a new creative non-fiction project exploring the idea of queer loneliness and isolation.
All City by Alex DiFrancesco is out 20th June from Seven Stories Press (9781609809393, p/b, £12.99)
Fancy a copy? If you’re a UK book blogger or reviewer ping us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get one out to you.