photo of Alex DiFrancesco

On Monsters and Mythology: A Conversation With Alex DiFrancesco

Let me tell you about Alex DiFrancesco: they have strong convictions about right and wrong, and they are a relentless advocate for the people they love. They’re brilliant, ethical, and won’t back down from speaking truth to power. And yet, they are also one of the most tenderhearted, thoughtful people you’ll ever encounter. When I first met Alex, they were living and working in the Catskills, recuperating from a messy divorce. Their days were spent baking pastries for a restaurant and devoting the rest of their time to writing. I remember wondering how they did it. How did they write through all that pain and anger and still create such singular works of beauty? And then, the more I got to know them, everything became clear: writing is not just something Alex does because they enjoy it; it’s something they must do. It’s how they process and explore the world, its people, and their own place within it.

From the first story in their forthcoming book Transmutation, out June 22 from Seven Stories Press, DiFrancesco takes readers by the hand and guides us into the darkness so slowly we don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. They’ve pulled us entirely away from reality, from the comfort and safety of the things which we assumed to be true. They make us confront the darkness of others and ourselves in ways that are both disorienting and enlightening. They show the ways people reach for each other, and seek to understand, and they write about characters who only know how to violently isolate themselves from others and from their own humanity.

These stories are ostensibly about monsters, but really, they explore what it means to be human. Monsters are the things we carry with us, the things we want to escape, but DiFrancesco shows us monsters are also nothing to fear or run from. Monsters are outsiders and outliers, creatures who live on the boundaries of society and demand to be seen or feared, but they can’t be ignored. In Transmutation, the monsters are honored and welcomed as a more true version of their original form, if they started as human, or an idealized version of human potential. They are, too, the creeping horror of monsters that live among us—seen, but still not known until it’s too late.

Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseWashington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was the first finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards by a transgender author. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications. DiFrancesco is the human companion of a rescue Westie named Roxy Music, Dog of Doom.

I was delighted to have the chance to talk with DiFrancesco about their book, monsters, and the messy work of being human.

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The Rumpus: Children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak had this great anecdote: “Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it… I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim: I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received… He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

Alex, I want to eat this book, your book, about monsters. The thing is, and I think I’ve seen you speak on this a little on social media, stories about monsters can be a hard sell in the publishing industry. So, why monsters? What is it about monsters that made them the right vehicle to tell these stories?

Alex DiFrancesco: Jess, I love this quote. It reminds me of one of my favorite films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, when the main character does his most monstrous act—pretending a telegram was delivered announcing the death of the son he and his wife have made up and told stories about for years—and in protest she asks where the telegram is, and he replies, “I ate it. I ate it all up.” That’s so monstrous to me, the act of eating the evidence.

The short answer to your question, though, is that I was in graduate school and reading Fred Botting’s essays on the Gothic genre. At one point, I underlined a phrase about how monsters were the outsiders to colonialism. As a trans person with the knowledge that transness in indigenous and non-white cultures was a victim to colonialism’s goals, I felt a deep affinity (though I cannot fully understand it) to this concept of the strange, the outside, and the reviled. The collection grew from that concept, and the idea of, If we are monsters, let us be monsters in all our complexity and glory.

I can’t say I ever worried if it would sell, as I write from what resonates with me rather than what I think might be popular.

Rumpus: That’s one thing I love about you as an artist and writer. You are dedicated to your vision and to your characters, and you nurture them and let them grow in a really organic way. The resulting stories are complicated and interesting and real, but also full of surprises to where the reader can’t predict what’s going to happen, which makes them particularly satisfying. I was seriously geeking out this entire book. Okay, this is turning into a love-fest rather than a question, so I have to ask: Am I making you embarrassed?

DiFrancesco: Ah, Jess, the love is absolutely mutual!

Rumpus: All this stanning is actually leading somewhere, incidentally. I happen to know that two stories in the collection were inspired by music, “The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre,” and “The Wind, the Wind.” Can you tell us a little about each one, how the music inspired these stories?

DiFrancesco: When I was in my early twenties, I was absolutely obsessed with Neutral Milk Hotel, and the story of Jeff Mangum’s disappearance from music. The Jack Tran storyline in “The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre” is loosely based on that, and the story of the two young girls locked in a room is also very, very, very loosely based on where he took his inspiration for the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I say it’s loosely based on that in that I wanted to replicate the idea of being young and not really understanding the tyranny—in the case of my story, of the mother’s mental illness—of being locked in a room for your formative years, struggling to make sense of it. Incidentally, I met Jeff Mangum at Occupy Wall Street shortly after that story first appeared in a literary magazine, and tried to tell him about writing it while I was locked in a mental hospital for a summer, and I am pretty sure I terrified him.

The second story you mention, “The Wind, the Wind,” is based on the structure of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” which is a song he based on an old French resistance song from WWII. I had always found his last lines, “The wind the wind is blowing / Through the graves the wind is blowing / Freedom soon will come / Then we’ll come from the shadows” incredibly ominous. So, when I was creating this third-generation reiteration of that song, I added four characters from each of the major demographics killed in the Holocaust, and then the idea that each of these characters was carrying a monster associated with their culture: the Jewish character, a golem; the Romani character, a vampire; the mentally ill character, the Furies; and the queer character, Odin (who is often looked upon in relation to queerness as his alter ego was an old woman he gender-shifted into).

Rumpus: You just reminded me of another thing I noticed and geeked out a bit about—names. Many of the characters you portray remain unnamed, even main characters. I went through every story, honestly, looking for patterns about the significance of names versus anonymity. Can you speak to that a bit? I’d love to hear about some of the choices you made in both naming and erasing.

DiFrancesco: I think sometimes, in the case of first-person narrators, it’s a conscious decision; I am giving them so much space in the story that naming doesn’t seem as significant. The girls in “The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre” had had their agency so firmly removed that letting them remain nameless also felt like a conscious choice. In other stories, like “The Wind, the Wind,” the characters were not given proper names for their own safety; as resistance soldiers, they went by ad-hoc “nomme de guerres.” The narrator of “The Pure” seemed a bit beyond naming, in that she was ageless, had been many people, and would continue on after the story. Thinking about her now, I think of her as someone with many names which change as her life is forced to.

As a trans writer, the idea of naming becomes important to me, because we are people who are often named, then choose our own real names later. Names play a significant role in “The Ledger of the Deep,” in that the story revolves around a father’s resistance to his son’s initial declaration of transness by transferring all his thoughts on it into the fact that he’ll have to rename his boat named after his child now that the child’s name has changed. There is this idea in sailing lore that if you change a boat’s name without proper ceremony, it’s viewed as an attempt to “deceive” Poseidon, which becomes particularly significant in relation to the idea of trans people as “deceptive.” The weaving of this concept of boat renaming with a child’s transition seemed like a really important way to illustrate some struggles trans folks have without being overt about them, a way of saying the unsaid by transferring it to something else.

Rumpus: “The Disappearance” touches on the importance of names, too. It’s brief but incredibly meaningful, and college professor Kaj is the perfect person to tell this story. He is at the epicenter of this great paradigm shift: as a witness, watching the gradual and quite literal disappearance of Dr. Allen, while at the same time being able to act as a guide and mentor, a psychopomp, if you will, for his student Kamron. This story was like watching years of history unfold in just under six pages, and the ending is really sweet. Can you talk a little about how this story came to be?

DiFrancesco: I spent a semester as a teaching assistant while getting my Master’s degree, and I was really surprised by how often undergrads wanted to talk to me not about creative writing, but their own coming into queerness as young people. The English department at my college was overwhelming cis, het, and white, and I found myself realizing that I was probably the first openly trans person in a position of professor-ish-ness that many of these students saw.

The story grew out of these experiences happening at the same time that Bob Hicok posted his awful screed about how he, a cis het white man poet, was being “replaced” by minority poets. So, a lot of this story was me thinking, hell yeah, let’s replace these people. The young people coming up very literally need us to. Though, I will admit that, sadly, I’ve since given up on the idea of ever becoming a professor, because, after seeing what I saw in my MFA program, I know I would just burn any English department like that to the ground and salt the earth behind me. I mostly teach in community settings now. I hope other trans people have a better basis for entering academia and becoming the professors these students need.

Rumpus: Talking about the toxicity of academia reminds me of another thing I love about your book: your writing makes readers reconsider everything we think we know about monsters and the nature of “good” and “evil.” You show us how monsters lurk in places you least expect, and you also show us how monsters are sometimes not even monsters at all. In your stories, were there any monsters in particular that surprised or moved you? Did any of your own monsters sneak up on you and make you think, Woah, where’d that come from?

DiFrancesco: One of the things I explored a bit in this collection, with the stories “Hinkypunk” and “I Was There, Too,” is the monstrousness of whiteness. As a white person, it was important for me to explore this not from a PoC perspective, but from my own history as a person who was raised with racism and strives daily to be antiracist. Therefore, the perspectives these stories came from was the knowledge that this is something insidious, lurking behind all our best progressive-white-people intentions. That this is something real in the people we may love, who may be our family, who are close to us. I never wanted to shy away from this or be like, That’s others, not me. I wanted to delve into it without looking away from the harm it causes, and without making these harms explicit, as much of racism in America is something that lurks under a veneer of civility.

Rumpus: I think we’re getting close to the end, but before we stop, is there anything I missed? Anything that you’d really love people to know about this book?

DiFrancesco: This book, in many ways, was a product of my own trauma. My trauma that came from childhood, that convinced me to overwork instead of look at it head-on (it was my “secondary” thesis project in my MFA, the work I did while writing a four-hundred-page experimental novel, too). It was my trauma in being considered “too much,” “too political,” and “too aggressive” in my call-outs of discrimination in my time in my MFA. Trauma that came from the local writing community’s poor reaction to my outing another member of the community as someone who had assaulted and abused me over the course of our interaction. It was my embracing of the monstrousness that I believe we all have in us. It was my saying, If you can easily dismiss someone as a monster, maybe you haven’t thought about what it means to be a monster quite enough.

View this Interview on The Rumpus

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Photograph of Alex DiFrancesco by Christina Ramirez.

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