Pushed to the edge of the world

An interview with Alistair McCartney about his stunning first novel

by William J. Mann    
Published: June 28, 2008 in A&E / Life&Style

Currently, the prospect of the end of the world is on everyone’s minds; it’s on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s dreams. We see images of it wherever we turn.

Alistair McCartney’s first novel, fortuitously titled “The End of the World Book,” is poised to make a big splash on the literary scene. Darkly comic and deeply erotic, I can promise you that once you read it, you’ll never look at apocalypse or global warming quite the same way again.

The book heralds the arrival of a daring new voice in literature, the literary equivalent of Todd Haynes’ collaged post modern films, Slava Mogutin’s edgy urban photographs, Hernan Bas’ paintings of decadent dandies, and the Magnetic Fields’ merging of irony and classic poignant pop.

Some readers will recognize the author’s name as the partner of one of America’s major queer performance artists — the exuberant and anarchic Tim Miller. Although partnered since 1995, as a bi-national couple (one American citizen, one non-American) McCartney and Miller have found their lives dramatically affected by the lack of rights afforded to U.S. same-sex couples, specifically the inability to marry.

Miller has paid homage to his and Alistair’s love and brought the injustice of America’s biased immigration laws to light in shows like “Glory Box” and “US.” Yet U.S. immigration laws remain as is, and McCartney’s visa is about to expire in less than a year.

Just as McCartney’s “The End of the World Book” comes out, the couple once again find themselves in the midst of their struggles to stay together, potentially having to dismantle their home in Los Angeles and be pushed to the edge of the world.

I recently visited McCartney in the bohemian home he shares with Miller in Venice Beach, where we talked about his book and his life right now.

So, tell us how you came up with the idea for “The End of the World Book.” As I read it, it struck me as your own personal encyclopedia, your own very Queer 21st century version of the “World Book Encyclopedia.” It’s a brilliant idea — we all grew up with the “World Book Encyclopedia,” right?

Well, it really begins with a deep lifelong passion I’ve had for the World Book. The process was pretty organic, and like most things in my writing I stumbled upon it by accident or by surprise.
I was born and grew up in Perth, Western Australia, which in that other World Book Encyclopedia is always listed as the most isolated, industrialized city in the world. Growing up there you feel really separate and apart from the world, in your own world as it were. I was also the youngest of seven kids — my nearest sibling was six years older than me, so I kind of had the experience of being an only child in an odd way.

Both those factors saw me spending a lot of time by myself, daydreaming. Like most families we had our edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, and given the isolation of where I grew up, and being the youngest, the World Book was my constant companion throughout childhood. I must have spent thousands of hours obsessively going through every volume.

So when did you actually start writing your own encyclopedia, as a kid?

Oh, no. Once I grew up, left Australia in ’94 and moved to London, then met Tim and moved to L.A., I sort of forgot about this passion or obsession of mine. I was living it! But then I went back to school in 1997 to do my MFA in creative writing and I was really struggling with form. I was working on creative non-fiction essays, but felt constrained by that notion that one had to always tell the truth. I tried writing traditional fiction and that didn’t fit either; somehow making up plots and characters felt constricting.

Well, one day I was just writing, I think it was about lust, and I put a big letter L in big font at the top of the page, then the word Lust, just like you would see in an encyclopedia. I started playing around with more letters; W came next, for an entry on the World. It just unfolded from there. The form I needed to be working in suddenly seemed so obvious, but of course it took me years and years to get there. The A to Z structure gave a system and an order to my anarchic imagination, which of course then freed me from the constraints of both creative non-fiction and fiction.

So you’re an encyclopedist?

Absolutely, but one who describes and categorizes directly from his unconscious. And I’m equally a novelist. Although I always use real names and often write about real scenarios, I’d never call what I do non-fiction. It’s all filtered through my imagination and dream-life.

So, it’s pretty interesting timing that just as both you and Tim are potentially about to be pushed to the edge of the world, your novel “The End of the World Book” has come out. How long before your visa runs out? How have your struggles informed the writing of this book? Does the book address your immigration struggles directly like Tim’s work?

Well, yes, as you say the timing is pretty interesting, to put it lightly. Basically my current visa runs out February ’09, so I guess that gives us right now a little under a year. While I’m incredibly excited to have my book coming out, at the same time, while I begin promoting the book and a national tour, Tim and I are also trying to figure out how we might continue to stay in this country. So, it’s obviously been an incredibly stressful time, filled with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.

Who are your models as a writer? Who informed the kaleidoscopic vision of this book?

In a way, I think my work is a weird alchemical combination of writers who were important to me as a teenager — Genet, Mishima, even Burroughs. That pre-Stonewall queer voice is utterly imperative to my development, along with the whole transgressive school of writing, Wojnarowicz, and still very much to this day Dennis Cooper. That combined with some more recent influences — like Tolstoy and Proust and George Eliot.

I seem to spend most of my time reading 19th century novels. I’m really interested in combining the so-called experimental, which I don’t think is that useful a category to describe writing these days, and the so-called traditional. Music continues to have a deep effect on my writing. In a sense, Morrissey and the Smiths are my biggest models. And you mentioned Todd Haynes — that queer cinema explosion in the early ’90s, seeing work like “Poison” really set me dreaming. He’s an inspiration up until this day — the Dylan biopic was sublime.

And what can we expect on your book tour?

My readings tend to be pretty lively. I love to chat with the audience in between pieces. I’m really trying to channel Oscar Wilde’s spirit on this tour, and do a 21st century updating of his lecture tour through America in the 19th century that was such a big hit. I’m going to perhaps play with incorporating projected images into some readings, PowerPoint images of some of the subjects in my book. So expect dueling mashed-up images of the Bronte Sisters versus Cholos, for example, of Franz Kafka and Freddy Krueger.

Are you working on a new book?

Yeah, tentatively working on two new books. Both will be novels slash encyclopedias, though I’m leaving the alphabetical structure behind, at least for now. I want to take the encyclopedic structure to the next plateau. Both will feature a character who just happens to be called Alistair McCartney. The next book will take off from where the first book did, and so on; I’m working on a sequence of interlocking novel-encyclopedias, like Proust.

And do you have any idea where you and Tim will be a year from now?

Right now, no. It’s pretty scary and I can’t lie and say it doesn’t overwhelm me, because it does. I’m just trying to not let it invade my spirits, and to really unleash this book, with all its twisted beauty, out into the world.

— William J. Mann is a best-selling novelist and author of the biography “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn.”