Alex McElroy is a non-binary writer based in Brooklyn. Their first novel, The Atmospherians, will be published by Atria in May 2021. Other writing appears in Vice, The Atlantic, Tin House, Esquire, and their first book, Daddy Issues, was published in 2017. Alex has received fellowships from The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, The Tin House Summer Workshop, The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Inprint Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The National Parks Service.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Grace Tobin. Of the process, she said, “Alex McElroy’s book, The Atmospherians is a fantastic satire addressing serious issues of fatherhood, toxic masculinity, and mental health. Their passion for storytelling and authenticity is striking in both their novel and this interview.” In this interview, Alex McElroy talks about their literary influencers, their extensive research on cults, and the importance of self-care when it comes to an artist’s relationship with their craft.
Superstition Review: This novel is described as a “dazzling and brilliantly satirical debut.” Your use of satire throughout the novel kept me laughing, and you are also able to approach topics with such gravitas. That contrast struck me as entirely effective. When you started writing, was it your original goal to use a satirical approach? How did that device develop as you wrote?
Alex McElroy: Thank you! I’m glad the satire appears to be effective in the novel. I don’t think it was my goal from the beginning to write a satirical book. However, over the course of a few years, as I revised this novel, I changed a lot as a writer and began to acknowledge my natural inclination toward humor. When I started this book, I was trying to create a capital-S serious novel about friendship, disordered eating, and gender conditioning. However, I don’t move through the world with that level of seriousness, and it became apparent, over the years of writing, that in order to finish the book I needed to embrace my absurd relationship with the world. Furthermore, this novel likely wouldn’t work as a grimly serious exploration of its themes. There is already so much in the book that is fairly morbid, and to write about those subjects using a self-serious or grim tone would oversaturate the novel. In final revisions, I made a point of adding levity into scenes or following moments of grief with moments of play. In this way, I was able to treat subjects with the gravitas that you remark on while also moving toward moments of lightness.
SR: Mat Johnson described your novel as “Fight Club for the Millennial generation.” You do an excellent job accurately depicting what life is like for a Millennial: namely, the themes of woke-ness and cancel culture by means of social media. How did you approach crafting this story to reflect our own time so accurately?
AM: This question reminds me of something Margaret Atwood said, funny enough, during a Q&A at Arizona State. When asked what led her to write political work, Atwood said that she hadn’t purposefully written with political aims but that the ideas and themes in her work were the subjects she spent her time thinking about. I think that speaks for most authors’ subjects: their preoccupations naturally shape their writing. I wrote this book during a time when I was thinking a lot about millennial precarit, desperation, and ongoing debates about cancel culture. People online joked about “getting canceled” with cautious irony—the phrase and the idea became ingrained in how people spoke to each other, and it couldn’t help but seep into my creative world, for better or worse. I also learned a lot from Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, which explores the unique economic conditions of millennials and their limited options for obtaining an economically-stable life compared to generations past. I was struck by Harris’s observation that social media fame is one of the few paths left for millennials to make it—and it’s a very precarious path. This idea inspired much of Sasha’s arc, and throughout revision, I worked on understanding both the life that would lead someone to pursue internet fame and what happens when that fame disappears.
SR: This text mirrors our reality entirely except for one aspect: The man hordes. The trance-like experience these men go through seems to tip the novel into speculative fiction. What was your process for coming up with this concept?
AM: The man hordes owe a lot to writers I admire, in particular Alexandra Kleeman. I read You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine as I was beginning to seriously draft The Atmospherians and borrowed from the Disappearing Daddies that appear in her novel.
The man hordes in The Atmospherians, though, work a bit differently. They serve as a
way to make concrete abstract questions about conscious versus unconscious motivations driving toxic male behavior. By ostensibly removing all agency from the men, the novel tries to render absurd defenses of male violence, especially those which fall under the category of “boys will be boys.” Even in a world where men literally lose all autonomy over their actions, they cause serious and irreparable damage to innocent people, and by the end of the novel, the ongoing infantilization and defense of their actions lead to greater tragedy.
SR: The Atmosphere is described as “a cult designed to reform problematic men.” The overarching storyline of this modern-day cult created a compelling mixture of humor and danger. What research did you do on cults for this project and how did that inform the fictional representation of them here?
AM: I did a fair amount of research into cults. I watched the documentaries everyone watched: Wild Wild Country and Holy Hell and Deprogrammed and others. I also read Jeff Guinn’s biography of Jim Jones The Road to Jonestown and Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich’s Cults in Our Midst, which gives an overview of cult leaders’ tactics and deprogramming methods. I even read a chunk of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, in part to understand how someone creates a system of thinking that a large group of people would wish to adopt. I found these texts gripping but draining, seeing lives destroyed after entering cults. But they also provided insight into the reasons people join these groups: they offer community during times of extreme isolation. Understanding that was very important to creating the men who join The Atmosphere; they’re looking for the same thing anyone is: people willing to support them and love them and be there for them in difficult times. I also learned a lot from novels that feature cults or cult-like groups, including Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Ling Ma’s Severance, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and, weirdly enough, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is maybe the original dude-having-a-tough-time-joins-group-with-charismatic-leader novel.
SR: This novel’s depiction of relationships is tangibly well-rounded. Through Dyson and Sasha, the reader is gifted an entire friendship in all of its glories and pitfalls. Can you talk about the process of creating these complex relationships?
AM: The friendship between Sasha and Dyson was a central focus from the beginning—in fact, the novel began with pages of dialogue between those two characters before I realized who they were or where they were speaking. I was interested in friendship as a lifelong bond. The unconditional love you share with a friend seems so much stronger than that you share with a partner. You can break up with someone and never speak to them again, no matter how intimate you were. With a friend, though, you can dive in and out of intimacy, and it’s profound when two people, after years apart, summon a shared language of love and care. I was curious about what would have to occur between people for them to maintain that connection after drifting so far apart. For Sasha, it is nostalgia and guilt. She loves Dyson, but she also feels like she owes him after a tragic incident between them as teenagers. Furthermore, Dyson reminds her of an easier time when they were children, a time that, for all its difficulties, was free from the terror of their adult lives. Nostalgia and obligation are not reasons to maintain a friendship, but neither character is in a place where they can see their bond as toxic. Instead, they cling to the parts of it that give them hope because they do maintain genuine affection for each other.
SR: Dramatic irony is used throughout the novel. You even told the reader very early on that one of the main characters was going to die which added a palpable layer of suspense. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to use this device?
AM: I used this device for a few reasons. First, dramatic irony, as you note, added suspense to the novel. By telling the reader that one of the characters would die, my intention was to charge each scene with that character, as any moment could be the one where the character loses their life. Second, this indicated that the story was being told further into the future. This helped guide me as I was writing while also, in the completed version, prepared the reader for the shift that occurs in the final section.
SR: The structure for the chapters is exquisite. The way you broke down the book into large sections and had special chapters dedicated to questionnaires, note-taking, and catalogs of the men intrigued me and added an exceptional balance of information and signs of progress. Could you describe how you created this structure?
AM: The structure evolved fairly organically but also out of necessity. The sections you bring up, that move away from traditional narrative form, were important for adding variation to the book and creating texture in a novel that mostly remains in one location for a long period of time. Writers like Valeria Luiselli and Helen DeWitt are masters at creating varied textures in their novels, allowing the reader to attain information through distinct forms and styles. For me, I have limitations as a writer and reader, and I sometimes grow impatient with traditional methods of characterization or scene creation. Admittedly, my interest in texture is, in part, an attempt to cover up for skills I don’t yet have as a writer. The lists and the questionnaire helped me convey details in nontraditional ways. Moreover, part of the difficulty of placing a novel in a single location, featuring a group trying to create a fixed routine—and routine can be the enemy of narrative—is that it can be difficult to build conflict, and the formal shifts helped weave in variation and suspense.
SR: In the acknowledgments, you stated, “I completed this novel during one of the hardest stretches in my life. No book, I had to learn, is ever more important than the life of the person creating it.” Could you talk a little bit about the balance between self-care and creative work?
AM: There is so much I can say to this question, but I will keep it fairly brief. For years, I believed in the myth of artists wearing themselves to the bone for their work, sacrificing sleep and relationships and their own health in order to make it as artists. This idea goes hand in hand with American notions of work ethic, the demand that people always be hustling to make it. Because American culture places so little value on artistic work, this can be especially harmful to artists, who end up hustling for “exposure” and very few material gains. A lot of structural change is required to give artists the support necessary to complete their work without sacrificing their well-being, and I feel fortunate that, for most of the time writing this book, I was in a place where I had a fairly stable standard of living, a life that felt comfortable and allowed space to write and take care of myself. During the final stretch of writing the book, however, I lost some of those comforts, and I was fortunate that everyone in my life, including my publishing team, was willing to give me the space to take care of myself before I returned to the book. That kind of self-care—or self-protection, learning to value yourself—is an essential part of obtaining the time and space to write, and I wish it for every artist.
SR: Regarding your collection, Daddy Issues, the Cupboard Pamphlet writes, “Through an accumulation of gears, string, and brute pectoral muscle, McElroy brings these daddies back to life that we may see them as they are, in all their splendor and flop.” In The Atmospherians, the way you portray this theme of “daddy issues'' continues to touch on the universality of this matter through the men at the camp. What is it about this subject matter that draws you to it so passionately?
AM: The short, glib answer is that I clearly have things to work out with my own father. That said, themes of fatherhood and inheritance are timeless, dating back to Oedipus and the ancient Greek lyric. My own father left my mother and me when I was a baby—though he remained and remains in my life—and that early rupture is something that I, likely, cannot get over or will ever truly understand because, despite his leaving, I remained so committed to him, desperate for his love and attention. Much of my writing, when I give myself the space to access that emotional core, emerges out of feelings of abandonment and a desire to understand how I could continue to love someone so deeply even after they left. This is a central question in Daddy Issues and integral to how both Sasha and Dyson relate to their fathers in The Atmospherians.
SR: A main theme throughout the narrative is eating disorders. You depict the tragedy of Dyson’s struggle with such gravity and detail. Later on, all of the Atmospherians seem to carry the same struggle. What role do you feel literature plays in addressing mental health issues such as eating disorders?
AM: I’m not sure about the role of literature in portraying mental health. Eating disorders are an especially fraught subject to portray, due to how they might trigger readers in recovery, and the responsibility of literature, when dealing with mental health, is to capture it in the most nuanced and authentic way without resorting to sensationalism or stereotypes. I hope, for instance, that literature would not replace mental health professionals—my book is not a doctor!—but it can help readers who are dealing with these issues feel less alone and give dignity to their experiences.