Q and A with Alex Higley, CARDINAL
In Cardinal and Other Stories, Alex Higley’s debut, a man returning a tuxedo suddenly follows a parking lot attendant home; a volunteer recovery worker finds himself re-enacting a deadly fire; a husband parses the meaning of his wife's online banking password; a hack musician travels to a German math institute. Post-Facebook, post-subprime crisis, the fearlessly deadpan characters in Higley’s stories navigate the bleak and surreal suburbs from Phoenix to Chicago with minimal instincts for self-preservation—and with quietly explosive results.
Stylish, perfectly controlled, and pleasurably shocking, Higley’s brilliantly subversive portraits of a lost generation reconfigure and reinvent the increasingly complex relationships between art, life, and the people we love.
1. There's a sort of half-menacing, half-comic David Lynchian quality to stories such as "Tom's Wrong," "Surfers," and "Cardinal”—would you say that even when you're writing about characters on the verge of a serious emotional reckoning, you're most interested in the strange, the ironic, the humorous?
I would say that’s probably true. That’s how I experience the world in my day-to-day life. Always wanting to turn to a friend, co-worker, my wife, and say “Did you see that?” or “Did you hear that?” Strange, oddly funny moments or bits of phrasing are often what I enjoy most in the books and movies I return to. You mentioned Lynch. It’s certainly there in his work, even in the quiet moments. Like in The Straight Story when Alvin Straight says, “What’s a Miller’s Lite taste like?” Hard to explain why a slightly misspoken corporate brand name can be beautiful other than specificity shows attention and dignifies the characters in their particularity. Great concern for the specific in fiction, or any art, matters to me and I think has much larger ramifications in our daily lives than is immediately obvious.
2. The western U.S. settings of many of your stories is atmospheric and powerful; would you say that setting comes to you before the characters and/or the story theme(s)?
I will usually have an opening line that will arrive in tandem with a setting. Or I will have some sense of a setting and a predicament. With the title story, I had that San Diego parking lot, the highways, the nearby football stadium, the chaos of that place. And I had the tuxedos and the narrator not wanting to go to dinner. Character usually emerges from the predicament for me. I never think about “theme.” That’s not to say they (themes) aren’t there, of course.
3. Who are some of your influences? I know you studied with Stuart Dybek in graduate school, for example, and have admired his work for a while, and Brad Watson also provided a blurb for Cardinal.
Stuart and Brad are two heroes of mine. Their generosity as people and their work have been instructive for me. I’ve given Brad’s Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives as a gift probably more than any other book. I love how varied that collection is, and would say that that kind of story-to-story variance was something I was going for with this collection. And Stuart’s most recent collection is my favorite of his; I find that so heartening. He’s still plugging away. Other writers that I admire enormously: Mary Robison, Joy Williams, James Salter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Donald Antrim, Frederick Barthelme, William Maxwell, Thomas McGuane, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Wright Morris, Lindsay Hunter– the list goes on.
4. You write in third and first person point of view with equal dexterity - do you, however, prefer one to the other?
I tend to naturally default to the first person. It’s the tense most opening lines will come to me in. I don’t know if I have a preference, really. But, I will say that many of my favorite stories and novels are in the first person: “Reunion” by John Cheever and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell come to mind immediately.
5. What are you working on now?
I have a short novel that should be coming out the middle of next year with an independent Chicago publisher. And I am working on a longer novel that as of right now I don’t hate.
Alex Higley lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife, daughter, and dog. Cardinal and Other Stories is his first book. HIs second, the novel Old Open was published last year by Tortoise Books, an indie press based in Chicago.