Instead of being inspired by Dickens and Joyce, creative writing assistant professor Alexandra Kleeman looks to decidedly more modern subjects as fodder for her writing: apocalypses and plastic.
Kleeman has been teaching creative writing workshops at Columbia since 2015, three years after receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing from the School of the Arts. Her undergraduate courses have ranged from advanced fiction workshops to an upcoming class on apocalyptic novels—the latter inspired by her upcoming novel, a “mid-apocalyptic” endeavor centered on the impact of plastic.
“I’m really fascinated by plastic because it’s a substance that doesn’t naturally exist in nature. ... Over the years we’ve made so much of it and it’s had a dramatic effect on the world,” Kleeman said.
But Kleeman doesn’t want her work to be just another apocalyptic novel.
“One thing that has troubled me about post-apocalyptic novels is they take place at times when the thing’s already happened,” she said. “But if you look at the moment when things are actually turning, what can we see about ourselves in the way we react to threat?”
For Kleeman, questions of technology, diversity, and the effect of the modern world in literature are the most important conversations happening within the publishing industry. Her first novel, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” explores how technology shapes the ways in which we see the world and how it impacts our communication with others. She has also released a collection of short stories, “Imitations,” in 2016, and her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, and Guernica.
Being in close proximity to the New York publishing world, Kleeman said, gives Columbia writers the opportunity to see conversations about technology and diversity taking place and add their voices, whether in the classroom or in their own writing.
“There are other questions too like technology, social media, and different ways of connecting with one another that make up such a big part of our daily lives,” she said. “It’s hard to find a book that has a text message in it or a Facebook post.”
Kleeman also said that a strength of the Columbia writing program is its ability to bring in an array of working writers who are engaging in these conversations. Illustrious faculty members populate the writing department’s roster, allowing for students to engage various voices and approaches to writing.
“In other schools, if there’s a strong voice in the program, they can sort of make that voice the model for the writing that takes place in their program,” Kleeman said. “Here, we have so many different models to choose from, we have so many different ideas of what good writing is.”
In teaching writing, Kleeman hopes to give her students the opportunity to consider the different ways of approaching a problem or a story. She thinks it’s important for students to reject the idea that there’s only one way to write a story. According to Kleeman, studying only finished works can sometimes keep people from seeing new ways to approach literature.
“There are so many decades sometimes, or centuries, between what you read in class and study as a finished work of literature and what you see yourself writing,” she said. “I want my students thinking about how you’re writing literature in the now and how it may or may not resemble the literature that’s come before you.”