Alia Volz on Not Settling and Being Difficult to Manipulate

An interview with Alia Volz, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Alia Volz’ stories and essays are found in Tin House Magazine(forthcoming), ZYZZYVADefenestration and The Writing Disorder’s “Best Nonfiction of 2012” anthology. She lives on the foggiest block in her hometown of San Francisco with a bewhiskered bookseller and two rabbits. Alia has recently completed her first novel, a mean little cowboy noir in which all of your favorite characters die. Stalk her at or @aliavolz on Twitter.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?

I’m a Spanish interpreter by trade, so I usually start there. I might also wiggle my fingers in what I think of as the universal sign for writing. It probably looks like I’m threatening a tickle attack.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

I’m a perfectionist. It can be positive, in that it forces me to craft sentences carefully. But it slows me down. I over-analyze and agonize over inessential details. I spent four years on a novel another writer could have done in two. I am learning to let go, but it’s hard.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Travel. Get lost. Don’t wait until you have enough money in the bank; just sell your shit and go. Buy a plane ticket and trust yourself to scrape cash together in time. It may feel like you’re living in the world, but you’re only living in one version of it, one paradigm among infinite possibilities.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Not really. That’s probably for the best. If I thought I was a big fat success, there would be no reason to write better.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

I’m supposed to link to some silly/snarky clip, right? Nein! I burn time online like everyone else, but not when I’m upset. I gripe, cuss, drink my weight in bourbon, slam doors and cry like a brat. I storm melodramatically down foggy streets with mascara streaming down my cheeks. YouTube is a fine antidote for boredom, but not for rough emotions. If I don’t allow myself to experience discomfort, I’m not living in full color. As an artist and human, I need to feel. Bring on the shit.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

As an only child, raised by a single mom who was estranged from her family, I grew up disconnected from my ancestors. Recently, I began sorting through the writings and ephemera they left behind: 1,000 pages of memoir penned by my eccentric great-grandmother; my grandmother’s paintings; my great-aunt’s poems published in Ladies’ Home Journal. I feel intimacy with these women — but it’s grown from their art and the stories I make up to explain it. I can’t pick a favorite… though my great-great-grandmother Gertrude Arbo wore the best hats.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I wanted to be a professional equestrian. There was nothing more thrilling to me than galloping on horseback. And that’s still basically true. I volunteer with the Mounted Patrol in the Marin Headlands, so I ride every week.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

I’ll do just about anything — for the good of literature.

I would start in a dress made of forgotten paperbacks and rip the pages off one by one, while the audience is forced to read them. It might take a while, but eventually I’d get naked…

There you go, Litquake. There’s your next fundraiser.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

I just got back from France, so… uh… rien. I do still have a few lonesome Euros rolling around. Do you take Euros?

What’s wrong with society today?

Ha. I don’t know where to start. We’re doomed.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Are you ready to get bowled over by a speeding cornball? I keep falling in love with my own husband. It happens at odd moments, like when I’m writing and he’s singing along with records in the other room. We’ve been together seven years, and the little nothings still do it.

I used to be horribly unlucky in love — until I struck luck. So if you haven’t met your match yet, hang tough. Settling is for the rubes.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Los Angeles destroyed by a Mothra-sized horse.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

I used to worry that my writing wasn’t political enough, that by not focusing on current events, I wasn’t doing my job as an artist. But I’ve come to see all art as political. Even a simple artistic act, like drawing a daisy, is a kind of affirmation of individuality. A flexing of perspective. I think art makes us more difficult to manipulate. Especially these days, with the constant barrage of media manipulation, we need strong inner-worlds, muscular minds. It’s more necessary than ever.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

I’m into horseback riding. Did I mention that? Yeehaw.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve recently begun a novel based on my great-grandmother’s memoir of her forty-year marriage to a ghost. Ouija board courtship, invisible hands, spectral sex… Things are getting weird.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I’d love to see people look up from their interweb gizmos. Visiting France reminded me that modern living doesn’t require being plugged-in 24-7. Parisians have personal devices, but they don’t stumble around with their noses smashed against screens, bumping into signposts. Cafes are for chatting with other humans, rather than diddling laptops. It depresses me to see MUNI filled with people lost in their gadgetry, avoiding eye-contact. It’s a sad day when Paris seems friendlier than your hometown.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Horse sweat, lemons, the skin behind my husband’s ear. Those are free. For hard-earned cash-money, I splurged on a French perfume built around blood notes (made with real blood!). I feel like such a badass.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I’d take a dirigible to Paris with Mark Twain. Then I’d go on an absinthe binge with Oscar Wilde, talk midnight smack with Dorothy Parker, slurp oysters and white wine at dawn with James Baldwin and walk the dogs with Gertrude Stein at a civilized mid-morning hour. Somewhere in between, I might let James Joyce smell my farts.

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