Alex Poppe: Putting Words to the Messy Edges

I spent most of 2006 to 2021 living abroad, much of the time in conflict or post-conflict zones. Perhaps that is why my stories are written from an outsider’s point of view and fueled by real-life instances of injustice and despair. I want my fiction to represent the world in which we live because I want my stories to spur the conversations which drive social change.

The decision to backdrop my narratives with social justice issues is not a choice. Rather, instances of injustice hijack my attention, driving me to research. Inevitably, what occupies my conscious mind infiltrates my writing. I had already heard an interview with the film makers behind The Invisible War, which led to the writing of “Room 308,” part one of the novella Jinwar in Jinwar and Other Stories. It tells the story of a survivor of rape in the military who is denied due process and dishonorably discharged. She finds herself working in a hotdog truck shaped like a penis during the Kavanaugh hearings. Everything that happens to the main character in “Room 308” happened to a real-life person. I condensed the experiences and gave them to a nameless narrator to represent all women. My hope is that people will read the story, want to know why military rape cases are not heard in a separate military tribunal, and vote for change. I have also used real-life people as characters, such as when I made Kalief Browder, the Bronx youth accused of stealing a backpack who spent almost three years at Rikers’ Island awaiting trial, a character in my novel Moxie to underscore the desperate need for criminal justice reform. When I queried a New York City-based agent for Moxie, she sent me an email saying she found Kalief Browder’s story unbelievable. I was stunned, for his story had taken place practically in her backyard. I sent her links to Jennifer Gonnerman’s excellent reporting for The New Yorker.

People are messy; they have edges. My characters are often tough, damaged, vulnerable women trying to understand the world and their place in it. I am interested in how we become who we end up being. How experiences, whether traumatic or privileged, shape us. After we break, how do we heal? I don’t think we return to our pre-broken state; there are scars. There is beauty in the ugly of living, in the struggles and the defeats and the triumphs, so I will make a character unlikable if it serves the storytelling.

I can’t write anything worth reading unless I have an emotional connection to what I am writing. I was an actor before I became a writer, and that creative discipline informs how I write. Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field once described her acting preparation as a metaphorical exfoliation of her skin, removing layers of deadness to open herself up so she could feel and then act/react in a scene. I bring a similar sensibility to writing. I may not have experienced what I fictionalize, but through imagination and embodied cognition, I feel an emotional truth as I write. The emotional truth fuels the imagery, which sets the mood of a piece. I learned about having an emotional connection to what I am writing at The Writers Studio.

To access emotional truth, I might warm up with an acting exercise such as sitting in my chair with my feet planted on the ground, hands on my knees, eyes closed, and center my breathing. I give myself over to the character’s given circumstances and use sense memory to live inside the character’s world. For example, the main character in Moxie is a supermodel named Jax, who lost half her face in a bomb explosion in Marrakech. I am not a supermodel with a half-destroyed face, but I know what it feels like to be ridiculed for my looks. Tapping into those memories turns on the emotional connection and prepares me to write.

At the beginning of new work, I create a preamble, which stays at the top of the page until I have the voice of the persona narrator in place. The preamble sets out what craft technique I want to accomplish with a piece of writing. At minimum, it lists the mood and tone of the piece, so I can make sure they are different enough so as not to collapse in on each other. I will specify the point of view, if the persona narrator is mobile, and the qualities of its personality. The persona narrator is a container or a construct to give Alex, the writer, distance from the “I” of the story if I am writing in first person. This distance allows me to change the chronology or other facts from which I fictionalize. I still create a persona narrator if I am writing in third person. The persona narrator’s job is to reveal the characters and entertain the reader. The preamble will change if what I am writing is not working. Creating the preamble is another craft element I learned at The Writers Studio.

If I can hear the main character, writing is easier. Duende, my coming-of-age novella which uses flamenco as a metaphor for becoming, was difficult to write because, at first, I could not hear Lava, the narrator, whereas Moxie was easier to write because its main character, Jax, was screaming “Fuck!” in my ear from day one. In my short story “Family Matter,” the main character, Nastasia (whose name came from a barista in a Leipzig café where I used to write), barged into my consciousness with the line, “I’m pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to.” I was writing something else, but this voice pestered me until I embodied it on paper.

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I write beat by beat, starting over at the top of each writing session, rewriting as I go along, so I don’t plan characters. Jax’s backstory, especially the breadcrumbs about her upbringing, were revealed to me as I wrote her. The same was true for Lava. Because I couldn’t hear her voice in my head for a long time, the early versions of her story were radically different: dystopian, a character on the run in a charred cityscape. I had her name, which hinted at the roil underneath her inscrutable façade, but I didn’t yet know her story.

I write trusting the reader to make connections while, at the same time, accounting for the fact that he/she/they might not. For example, some readers will know who the person disappearing young women in Duende is by the end of the novella. If readers miss those clues, they can still follow the main narrative. Not knowing who is disappearing young girls works on a secondary level: I intended it as a societal critique because too many cases of missing girls go unsolved, especially if those who are missing lead unconventional lifestyles. 

My writing is deeply rooted in place. My first short story collection, Girl, World, and my latest, Jinwar and Other Stories, feature many stories set in Iraq or the West Bank, where I have been lucky enough to live. Moxie is my love letter to New York as Duende is to Seville. In those places, I listen to the city’s soundscape. For Seville, it was the rhythmic gallop of horse-drawn carriages competing with the machine gun fire of flamenco heels pounding the pavement. I watched how sunlight imbued the pastel-colored building lining the Guadalquivir River in a sherbet glow. How the high morning sky was a Windex blue, backdropping a fireworks explosion of violet bougainvillea before it turned an astringent pink at sunset. These kinds of details are the basis of imagery, which fuels mood.

There are as many ways to write as there are writers. Perhaps the best advice comes from my mentor, Jere Van Dyk, who gave me the push I needed to go to northern Iraq in 2011. “Live your dreams and then write about it.” That is a great place to start.

Alex Poppe is the author of four works of fiction: Duende (Regal House Publishing, 2022), Jinwar and Other Stories (Cune Press, 2022), Moxie (Tortoise Books, 2019), and Girl, World (Laughing Fire Press, 2017). Girl, World was named a 35 Over 35 Debut Book Award winner, First Horizon Award finalist, Montaigne Medal finalist, was shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize, and was awarded an Honorable Mention in General Fiction from the Eric Hoffer Awards. Jinwar and Other Stories was an International Book Awards finalist. Poppe completed her third and fourth works of fiction with support from Can Serrat International Art Residency and Duplo-Linea De Costa Artist in Residency programs. In 2021, she was an artist-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, where she began a memoir through essays about her time living and working in Iraq. When she is not dining with pistol-packing Kurdish hitmen or being thrown off the back of food aid trucks, she writes.


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