Thursday, July 4, 2013

Expat Author Interview with Alex Pruteanu

Author Alex Pruteanu

Alex M. Pruteanu emigrated from Romania to the United States in 1980. He has worked as a journalist, a television news director, freelance writer, and editor. He is the author of the novella Short Lean Cuts (Amazon Publishing) and Gears: A Collection (Independent Talent Group, Inc.).


Alex lives with his family near Raleigh, North Carolina.


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IMBO: Alex, we’ve traveled down some of the same roads. I also came to the US when I was young. OK, I was a year old. How old were you when you emigrated to America, and what was that like for you?

Pruteanu: I was a little over 10 years of age when the Romanian government finally allowed us  to come to America in late January, 1980. My mother defected to the United States the previous year and through help from various people, including a few she knew at the State Department (via her job at the American Embassy in Bucharest), my father and I were officially let go by the Romanian communist government under a “reunion of the family” provision, despite my mom’s official status as having committed treason against the State.

The time spent in Bucharest while my mom was working from the United States to officially have us released so we could emigrate, requires nearly a book’s worth of writing...we certainly had some interesting misadventures  and run-ins  with the likes of secret police agents who tried to intimidate my father and me during that time. Once, they even tried to run us over with a government car while we walked.

I actually have a full novel written based upon that time and the first year in the States.The tale is spun as fiction in order to eliminate time frame and particular dates. In 2004 it made the rounds with some enthusiastic agents, but eventually interest in it fizzled, as apparently “it wasn’t a timely subject” and communism was an outdated concept by then. It’s a good story, though, and I think most literary agents are often the opposite of prescient when it comes to good storytelling. I expect that, however...they’re not writers, they’re business people. I understand their missions: to make money.

IMBO: What an incredible journey--which really plays out in a lot of your work. In your short fiction, you describe places, people and scenes from Eastern Europe. If you were to choose one of these stories that would give us a feeling of the place you remember--the place where you grew up--which would it be?

Pruteanu: Yes, this is a good question and one I am probably not able to answer concretely. I use bits and pieces from different locales or time frames in my life for nearly everything that I write. So, for example, for stories set in other countries...stories like “Vanya” (Guernica, May, 2012), “Ma In Fragments” (The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, April, 2013) or “The Sun Eaters” (The Monarch Review, February, 2012), I’ll draw from several experiences living in peasant villages during my life in Romania.

My paternal grandparents lived in a small village in Moldova (northwestern Romania), and so parts of that territory show up in “The Sun Eaters” and “Ma;” my parents and I spent a few summers at the Black Sea, living as tenants in a peasant’s house in a village by the seaside, so parts of that locale show up in “Vanya” even though that particular story is set in war-torn Yugoslavia in the early 90s. Sometime around age 7, I believe, my parents and I toured most of our country by car and stayed nights with peasant families who would put us up in their homes; we even stayed at one or two monasteries. Parts of those locales are the background for other stories I’ve written and published.

I use the same philosophy for spinning or creating characters: there are often several people or types of people mushed together into main or even periphery characters. But to try to stay on course and answer your question: I tend to write in peasant life or village life much more often into my stories than city life. I was born and grew up for the first decade of my life in Bucharest, the capital. The majority of my boyhood was spent in a small, government-issued flat on the 8th floor of a nondescript, concrete building in the center of the city. For some reason, that experience didn’t affect me enough to write about it or incorporate it too often into my stories that are not set in America or the West. Although I can think of a few pieces which are indeed set in an anonymous Eastern-European city.


I suppose what really stayed with me is the pastoral life, although I must admit I do not like to live it now. I only like writing about it and setting characters within it.  In fact, after I left Romania I stopped enjoying it, though I think of it fondly and I think it belongs in fiction, for my taste, not in my real life. I do not like camping or anything that is done in nature, really. I despise bugs, insects, and any other creatures; they’re all attracted to me and bite me incessantly. I’ve had several spider bites in my life that have been painful for sometimes weeks. The Great Outdoors are for other people. I certainly don’t identify or celebrate my masculinity (if I ever do, and I don’t) by associating myself with living in nature and being “that brawny man chopping wood or hunting for his food” stereotype.  

I think I am a city person. I appreciate the vitality and energy of the streets in a city. I appreciate a well-designed city with public transportation. I appreciate all the cultural options a city offers. If you mention or suggest “going camping” to me, the conversation ends; respectfully, of course, but nevertheless it ends. I assure you that I will never, ever go camping. Not even if forced at gunpoint.  

IMBO: That made me laugh: the aversion to camping. You do write a lot about opressed people who do not live in a city but who work, well, in the salt mines. There are stories, though, about travelers. Are these imagined or have you really traveled to these places? I’m thinking, say, of Copenhagen.

Pruteanu: Rather, some characters appear who have worked in or been broken in salt mines or some kind of work camp/GULAG. Again, they are assembled from all sorts of travel, direct and indirect experiences, conversations with people, and years of listening to friends’ tales, trials, tribulations, and victories. I don’t quite remember why I decided to write “Surviving Winter in Copenhagen,” honestly, but there is a heavy sense of loneliness and displacement in the piece, one that I always find attractive, or something to which I’m drawn in art in general. Every time I re-read that piece, I get a strange, “My Own Private Idaho” type of vibe. I’ve yet to travel to Copenhagen, by the way. But the central idea of movement in all my short stories is extremely important and apparent.

IMBO: This makes so much sense: the “moving” character. I make this observation in my review of Gears at Fictionaut.

Pruteanu: This is why I chose the name “Gears” for my collection. Besides the fact that each of the 70 stories serve as little moving parts for the whole that is the book itself (I call it The Machine), there is a common thread of “movement,” whether metaphorical or physical, in nearly all the little tales in Gears.

In the stories set in the United States, the places or locales that show up are places that I have visited before. They are states or cities in which I’ve lived or in which I’ve spent at least a fair amount of time. Often I try to make them play an important part of the piece itself. They are mostly places which perpetuate or incubate loneliness for the characters. There’s a wonderful dichotomy that I find exists in these beautiful geographic features in America, maybe America itself; they’re vast and spacious; at first encounter they offer freedom and the possibility for a taciturn way of life; but they also engulf one with a profound sense of loneliness and even melancholy...isolation and timelessness, which more often than not works over the human mind and spirit and grinds it down. I’ve always been attracted to this double-edged dagger that is the geography of America (particularly in the west); it’s almost like bait or a lure: it attracts you, ensnares you with its geographic space, and then begins to slowly grind you down, isolating you from the rest of the human fabric. At least it does to me.

IMBO: In a recent conversation, you told me that the US sometimes feels like a foreign country. I have this feeling often when I return to the US, but I’ve been away for almost 20 years. How is our country changing?

Pruteanu: As an immigrant, I feel like I have my feet planted in each country---Romania and the United States. As much as I originally fought this, desperately trying to assimilate into American life as a boy, I now accept the reality of inextricable double connection to the country in which I was born and to the country in which I’ve lived  most of my life. It is part of my existence and I cannot deny that, whether or not I like it.

Over the last few decades I’ve learned to actually embrace the fact that I don’t feel like I belong in either country. In fact, I don’t truly feel I belong in ANY country. Which brings me to the absurd subject of delineated borders in between lands and that obtuse feeling of “patriotism.” It’s laughable to me to draw lines into the earth and call it owned territory.

On the same note, I don’t understand “patriotism.” I mean, I understand the innate, animalistic desire to dominate and conquer territory for mating purposes, but as human beings we’ve evolved to push past that. “Patriotism” to me is ludicrous and detrimental. It’s a manipulative, emotional tool for genocide, domination, dictatorship, and suffering. I stay away from those who declare themselves “patriots” for whatever reason they give me. Don’t read me wrong; I’m not one of those “can’t we all just get along?” types, because I know we can’t. We’ll never all just get along. I understand the innate desire for division and borders and physical barriers, but it’s laughable and absurd.

That said, it saddens me that in many ways, despite our advancements throughout history, we’re degenerate beings. Killing in the name of religion, “patriotism,” tribalism, “honor,” economic profit, and whatever other idiotic reason we can conjure up for our crimes is part of this devolved side we all harbor within us. Nothing perpetrated by humanity surprises me any longer; not the most heinous of crimes for the most ridiculously benign of reasons.

This is not cynicism, this is experience and observation. Don’t confuse my statement with support for these crimes, or lack of empathy toward victims. It’s an observation and the truth about how I feel. The human mind is capable of the most ghastly deeds. That’s good for fiction, but not for real life.

IMBO: I’ve often felt that we, not just Americans, are less and less able to discern between the real and the unreal--that we are desensitized to what is acceptable behavior in real life. From day-to-day communication to foreign policy--it just seems as if we’re all acting out a sitcom or a Tom Cruise movie.

Pruteanu: A variation on this very subject is something I explore in my novella, Short Lean Cuts. This desensitized detachment and blurred lines of reality that inevitably lead to a thirst for something (usually entertainment) increasingly extreme is a dangerous, slippery slope. In the novella, the main character muses on how long it will take before we have “Friday Night Executions” live on our networks. I reckon it won’t be too long. Snuff films have been around for a long time on the black market or “underground,” but just as pornography has entered the mainstream, I think violence...true violence like executions, for example, will follow shortly. And the tragedy is that audiences won’t look at that as anything other than entertainment. They won’t truly understand the gravity of the image...because the image won’t be any different from that in a video game. The Digital Age, if it has damaged anything within humanity, has killed our sense of empathy.   

Your question was: “how is our country changing?” In the nearly 34 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the beautiful, brilliant decline of America. Presently, income inequality is at the same level it was in the 1920s. Looking at the last 100 years, economists can point particularly to the years 1980-present as steady economic decline to the well-being of most citizens of the United States.

This country doesn’t manufacture anything anymore, and a country that doesn’t produce anything cannot be successful and prosperous. Those few at the top of the economic food chain don’t invest in goods; they invest in noncapital assets such as stocks, futures, and bundled mortgage products. Before its collapse in 2001, Enron was seriously looking into selling WEATHER futures; that is to say: futures for weather conditions! Investment in these types of assets don’t create any jobs and ultimately bring a country to the state of collapse we saw here in America in 2008, the effects of which have ravaged the middle and lower classes. The effects of which we are still feeling.

Add to all that the passing of the Patriot Act, which was quickly enacted as the result of fear and the ill-information of American citizens (who joyously voted for its passing and continued renewal), and we find ourselves now in a surveillance state...really not unlike the former regime from which my family escaped. I realize I’m drawing a controversial parallel here to a totalitarian system, but truly it’s not so much different when you step back and look where we are.

There are those who keep alive the marketing slogan ingrained into our psyches in the first half of the 20th century (particularly after WWII): America is the greatest country in the world. I don’t argue with those people, for I don’t have the time. But, in a comical type of scene, I see those trumpet bellowers much like a group of riders on a bus rolling violently into a ravine, while carrying on about what a wonderful situation they find themselves in.
". . . it saddens me that in many ways, despite our advancements . . . , we’re degenerate beings. Killing in the name of religion, “patriotism,” tribalism, “honor,” economic profit, and whatever other idiotic reason we can conjure up for our crimes is part of this devolved side we all harbor within us."
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I am pulling for this country, but I am not too hopeful of its fate. With nonexistent manufacturing, constant slashing of social benefits to its citizens (healthcare, welfare, housing), severe cuts to education, infrastructure, and public transportation, and perpetual gridlock in our government, I am seeing extremely difficult times ahead. I am concerned for the future of my young daughter.

By the way, I want to quickly point out that I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I am also not a Libertarian. In my mother country, politically, we had one party choice: communism. In the United States, we have two choices--which is really one party, really. Does that sound like we have that much better of a system?

IMBO: I share many, if not all, of your concerns about our country. Today is July 4th. Will you celebrate? Without asking you to save the world, what should our politicians be doing to reverse America’s decline? What can I be doing?

Pruteanu: I’m not big on celebrating holidays of any sort. A true  holiday for me is the one which I plan to be off from work and on which I go away with my small, immediate family. For me, mostly, July 4th is a big pain; for weeks before and after I have to listen to people setting off fireworks in their backyards.

I think this country won’t be going anywhere but backwards as long as corporations (lobbying) are allowed to pump money into the political system. Corporations and financial institutions are embedded in nearly every system in this country; from politics to education to agriculture (food supply) to water management and distribution. I don’t truly see how lobbying can be extricated from our politics, short of a physical revolution. That won’t happen in America; we’re too nonplussed about change, truly. Besides, participating in Revolution would mean missing out on our favourite “reality show.”

IMBO: I would hate to miss Germany’s Next Top Model myself. Before we go, Alex, I always ask the author to recommend another expat author for my readers. Who do you think we should be reading?

Pruteanu: We should all pick up a copy of Marcus Speh’s new book Thank You For Your Sperm. Marcus is a sort of “expat” in that he is German, yet he writes almost all of his fiction in English. And what wonderful, strange, and absurd stories he tells! Reading Marcus is like listening to Thelonious Monk; he hits you with ideas from these curious, playful, almost alien-like angles.

Another expat writer I think we should all read is the Russian Andrei Makine, who emigrated to France in 1987 and who writes exclusively in French. I would highly recommend starting with his The Life of an Unknown Man, then Dreams of My Russian Summers, and moving through his catalogue. In my opinion, Makine is the most important working writer, at this time.

Finally, I recommend the Romanian expat (living and working in Berlin since 1987), Nobel Prize winner novelist who writes exclusively in German: the brilliant Herta Müller. I suggest starting with her Hunger Angel.

IMBO: Great recommendations, Alex! And of course my readers can revisit my interview with Marcus Speh here at I Must Be Off! and my review of Thank You for Your Sperm at Metazen. Thanks so much for this conversation, Alex. Serious times. Thanks for your thoughts.

Pruteanu: It was a pleasure talking with you and meeting you earlier this year in Boston; and it was a pleasure also reading with you in Boston. Thank you.

Yes! That was a great time in Boston. Thanks again for stopping by, Alex! 
I must be off,
Christopher
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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations.