“That’s How Civilians Think”: A Failed Carpool Karaoke Interview with Daniel Alarcón

There’s an old joke: every writer secretly wishes they were a musician. Writing often feels so unsexy, and that’s what led me to pick up Daniel Alarcón at the airport with my friend’s GoPro to interview him in my car like James Corden on Carpool Karaoke or Jerry Seinfeld on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If we had a little fun, more people might see the genius of work like Daniel’s, or maybe confuse us with people associated with after-parties and milk-and-honey-river-access.

Screw that.

We gave our level best, joking about Ronaldo/Messi and how Daniel wishes he could sing like Freddie Mercury, but beyond the laughs sprouted something else. Vulnerability? Riding in someone else’s car is funky like that—a microscopic glimpse into a life—and I feel stupid wishing we could still be James Corden and Adele after he snuck his bag around the snow shovel in my trunk that I haven’t needed since Wisconsin. Thankfully, our conversational odyssey—from his fiction to his young sons and the role of optimism in the world—proved we’re just not YouTube material. A writer, to Daniel, is an observer, a kind of historian of the human soul. Our work is important—in some ways sacred.

So here’s some advice for a polite craft interview with a genius author: try a mahogany conference table. A clicky pen. Tell an undergraduate worker to fetch you coffee, establishing that you, too, have authority. But if you want something more, something human in a way only writers know, then leave your camera at home. Keep your shovel in the trunk. And when you hit record, give them your Spotify and ask them to play a song that reminds them of what they miss most.

Daniel Alarcón is the author of The King Is Always Above the People, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and won the 2018 Clark Fiction Prize, At Night We Walk in Circles, which was a finalist for the 2014 PEN-Faulkner Award, the story collection War by Candlelight, and the novel Lost City Radio. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Granta, n+1, and Harpers. He is executive producer of Radio Ambulante and teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York.

Ben: You’ve said novels are often short stories that spill over their edges.

Daniel: Right.

Ben: All of the characters in The King Is Always Above the People feel so well lived in. As a writer, how do you know when you know your characters well enough?

Daniel: I think the only way to get to know a character is to spend time with that person and to observe them in situations of great pressure. There’s a story in the collection called “The Provincials.” “The Provincials” was essentially a character study. I wanted to get to know Nelson, who’s the protagonist of my novel At Night We Walk in Circles. So it was an early version of Nelson. “The Provincials” has Nelson as a narrator and focuses on the relationship with his father. This was a way for me to get to know Nelson, and I think I couldn’t have written At Night We Walk in Circles without having written “The Provincials” first.

How do you know that you know whoever your best friend is? That you know them? Because you’ve seen them do things. You spent time with them. There’s no mystery to it, really, it’s just you have to spend time with them in the same way you have to spend time with people. The part that sounds weird to non-writers is that—What is this about observing people who only exist in your mind? But that’s how civilians think. To people who do what we do, that doesn’t sound weird at all. That’s the whole job: observing people who aren’t real.

Ben: One of the pieces I liked best in your collection is written in second person [“The Ballad of Rocky Rontal”]. That’s sometimes a choice readers or editors are uncomfortable with. How do you know a story is ripe for second person?

Daniel: That an interesting story—sort of an outlier in the collection—not just because it’s written in the second person. Rocky’s a real person. I’d done a piece about gangs in the central valley in Stockton and in Modesto [California], and I spent a bunch of time with former gang members. I met Rocky at a very pivotal moment in his life, between the time right after the man who killed his little sister had been convicted but before this man had been sentenced. So he was planning to make a speech advocating mercy, and he wanted to tell me his whole story. I just made a transcript of what he had said and then I started cobbling together a first-person essay out of what he had written. I wrote it specifically to be performed in front of people at an event called Pop-Up Magazine. The story is such a crazy story, such a violent story, it’s easy to sympathize with Rocky at the beginning. It’s hard to sympathize with him later. All fiction implicitly is inviting people to imagine if you were this person, but I wanted to make it explicit because I felt like otherwise people couldn’t enter into communion with a character like [Rocky].

Ben: I’m glad you brought up how you ultimately choose between mediums to tell stories. You work with radio; you write fiction; “The Provincials” switches into a screenplay format. How did you know it was time to make that call?

Daniel: That was really fun. [Nelson’s] father was disappointed that he had this passion for acting, but I needed to see him act. I needed to see him make that passion for theater explicit. I also wanted to play a formal game with myself. I was reading a ton of one-act plays and absurdist plays in order to get to know my character, and it was natural to say, ‘okay, I want to try my hand at it.’ It’s a kind of low-pressure play because it’s not really a play. It’s a scene. And the absurdity of it is drawn out. So it’s kind of this in-between space. It’s serving a role within the story, it’s breaking format and that’s interesting, but I feel it’s getting something you couldn’t get otherwise—which is, you get to see Nelson acting and you also get through the director’s notes to see the motivations and the way other people are responding to that. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense,being that the story is in first-person.

Ben: I know you think about that sort of curiosity. What’s got you curious right now?

Daniel: Wow. What am I curious about. As a human being or as an artist? Or both?

Ben: How are those separate?

Daniel: Well, I’m curious about everything that my six-year-old says. I feel like watching the development of a mind and a personality is greater than any novel that you could ever read or film you could ever watch or experience in terms of the sheer joy of discovery. He says so much crazy shit to me. I feel like every kid at that age is such an authentic weirdo. There’s no pretense in any way. There’s no acting. They’re these unformed, uninhibited entities. They’re not even experimenting—they’re being, but everything they do is an experiment in how to live and how to be. That’s one of the things that has me most curious in my daily life. I don’t know how, if, or what form that curiosity will take as an artist.

Ben: Are there elements of your art that you don’t consciously input, but they always wind up there? Topics or elements that keep coming up?

Daniel: I feel like politics is always there. I’m always trying to get it out, but I can’t. I feel like there’s always a bit of despair in everything that I write because, although I have a great life and I feel blessed and fortunate in so many ways, I also feel like the only reasonable stance on the future is despair. So that sucks. I try not to think about that, or sort of color the way I move through the world on a daily basis, but I’m not an optimistic person in general.

Ben: What gives you respite from that despair, or what makes it more concentrated?

Daniel: Hanging out with my kids is both. On the one hand, I feel like these two amazing boys that I have are such a joy to get to know every day, that I feel the world and the future are bright. At the same time, the responsibility I feel for their future—and by extension, the future of their generation—makes the despair more acute, the sense of guilt more acute, specifically around things like climate change or the erosion of democracy or the normalization of racism or the normalization of human rights abuses.

Ben: You open your book with a collective first-person story, “The Thousands,” and it evokes that sense of forming a community in response to a larger oppressive entity. Why is that the right story to open your collection with?

Daniel: It sort of serves as an incantation. It is not a story with a traditional plot. It’s more of a story that evokes a mood and a moment and also is the origin story for place names you’ll hear later in the book. I wanted it to feel mythical and to have that kind of aura and tone of folklore. I felt like that was a good place to start because while some of the stories in the book feel like realism—or in the case of [“The Ballad of Rocky Rontal”] are almost journalistic—it’s very important to set parameters for the reader: that this is fiction, that we are entering a world where even what feels realistic isn’t.