I started The Ugly while at law school. The more time I spent studying law, the more I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer. This began as a vague feeling, a reaction against sterility and calculation, and became tangible while I was sitting at a café in Prague—all quasi-surreal, existentialist books are born in Prague—where I was working as a summer associate for a French law firm. I’d spoken English at the café so I wouldn’t get questioned about whether I could really afford the coffee (it was shortly after Czechoslovakia split in two) and a Czech table next to me was making fun of Slovaks as dumb mountain men who grunted and threw boulders at each other.
I absolutely loved the image. When I was younger, I had a bad habit of playing dumb whenever I noticed someone make that assumption—I was large, drank too much, fought a lot, and had an East European love of the absurd that North Americans sometimes mistook for stupidity—and when I heard that dumb-mountain-man stereotype I wanted to run with it.
At the same time, Harvard Law School really was a very alien place for me at first, and the boulder-throwing image became a shorthand for this sense of mismatch. At one point in the book, my main character, Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth, gets an anonymous letter stating that his admission devalued the Harvard name for everyone at the school. That was, nearly word for word, taken from a real letter I received in my first year. It was a very careful place, where nobody knew if the person next to him or her might end up being a Supreme Court justice, or the president of some little country. Or big country. People who had lawyers for parents knew that the most valuable thing at Harvard wasn’t the education or even the name, but the connections—my roommate, for example, was Samantha Power (though she was great; I’d never have made it through our Chinese Law class without her)—all in a hypercompetitive context. I preferred a directness that made me look like a caveman in comparison.
I thought it would be fun to bring a mountain man—not my half North Americanized version, but one distilled and fortified in the most remote mountain range in Siberia—to Harvard Law and see what happened. This is a natural setting for humor, which grows out of incongruity. The clash of Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth and Harvard has instant comedic potential, and stiff rule-bound places already lend themselves to funny situations. But at the same time, the juxtaposition allowed me to ask the question of “What is thinking?” which is what the book is about for me (though I don’t necessarily expect that to be the case for the reader.) There is the rational discourse of law school, with its various categories, but there are also forms of thinking that happen with the fists or the penis or the heart or the ear, poetry and visual art and math and bullets and sand, and I wanted to clash all these various ways of processing information into each other and see what happened. I didn’t approach the book with answers, just open-ended questions that I wanted to smash into each other as hard as I could. Those collisions are often inherently funny, and the fact that this is the place that creates the people who make the rules that govern all our lives makes it inherently dark. That became The Ugly.
How long did it take you to write your book?
The process for The Ugly was ugly, and not one that I plan on repeating. I spent six months writing the book and 16 years editing it back under control. I had the main character, Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth. I had the setting, Harvard Law School. I had a few characters I wanted Muzhduk to meet, and I had a few ideas I wanted to bounce into each other through their interaction. But I had no plans as to how those interactions would play out.
When I was a boy I used to make cars out of Lego blocks, and then smash them into each other to see which was the better design. The winner would get fixed, the loser would get disassembled and replaced with a new design. I took a bit of that approach with the people, settings and ideas in The Ugly.
About half way through I realized I was creating a monster with too many things happening to keep track of. Faulkner has a quote where he says you can learn how to write on your own, but everything will take twice as long—I’d never taken a writing class, though I’d written for school and humor papers, so I tried to sign up for one. I ended up at MIT with Anita Desai, and, lucky for me, she was at the other end of the spectrum from me in terms of style, which means I learned a lot. And my girlfriend my last year of law school—Stacy McKee who went on to fame as a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy”—was doing an MFA at Emerson. She was always a fantastic writer and let me peek at her notes, taught me some basic craft, and gave me great feedback. To this day, I’m grateful. (I don’t own a television, but have been told there are elements of a brusque ex-wrestler named Alex Karev in the early seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” that helped make it a fair exchange). But it took 16 years to carve back the essence of the book from the chaos I created in the first six months.
How long have you been publishing your work?
My first publication was with the McGill Red Herring, a school humor mag similar to the Harvard Lampoon—early precursors to The Onion. At Harvard, I was the chief editorial columnist for the Harvard Law Record, with a weekly column that gave me the freedom to play with everything from legal haiku to anarchist rants. I happened to be in Nepal when the king was killed, in June 2001, so after running around through tear gas with onions shoved up my nose (tips for tear gas, potentially useful in 2017: onions up the nose really do help, as does throwing a bucket of water on the tear-gas canister) I sold my first journalistic feature to the Toronto Globe and Mail. Then I was in Bali during the Bali bombing, and so on. By the sheer odd coincidence of being present at various tragedies, I ended up launching a nonfiction writing career. I started publishing fiction in literary magazines in the mid-2000s, including three excerpts of The Ugly, one of which became the official Bread Loaf nominee to the Best New American Voices anthology.
During a second three-year stint in Bali, I found myself running an international art gallery with almost no knowledge of art (though my wife at the time was a painter), then became an editor for C-Arts Magazine, which aimed to be the first pan-Asian English-language art magazine. I ended up doing the first interview that Damien Hirst gave after switching to painting, but then, just as I was “making it” as an art critic, I divorced and lost my transactional memory banks. I increasingly paid the bills by writing for Wall Street.
In the process, I’ve published a wide range of material, from experimental writing to art criticism to white papers on complex hedge fund instruments that I’m still not sure I understand. But all those were just ways of keeping things together while I finished and published The Ugly, which came out from the small but amazing (and 2016 National Book Award-winning!) Brooklyn Arts Press this past September.
What does your writing environment look like?
I spent years as a full-time single dad, which meant I had to work from home. Now I work out of a tiny home office, with a 200-year old Balinese teak door for a table top, mounted on an Uplift adjustable-height desk, with a Lifespan treadmill underneath. I can’t write while walking, but use the treadmill while reading. Around the treadmill and desk is a nearly chthonic chaos of paper and books buried under other books and paper. Fortunately, the office has high ceilings and I can keep adjusting my desk higher as the papers rise up to drown me. As I’m typing this, I’m realizing that I’m actually quite high up in the air, on a sort of precarious throne, with my feet roughly at the level of the window sill. Which isn’t bad, because I can see into the back yard.
Do you have any routines to help you write?
Although I’m generally visual and don’t read my writing out loud, I like to start my serious writing sessions by clearing my throat very loudly. My mantra, dedicated with love towards my son and girlfriend, is something along the lines of “Just because I work from home doesn’t mean I’m not working! Please stop walking in and out of my office and yelling up at me from downstairs and asking me whether we have mustard!” (Swap socks or playdate for mustard, mutatis mutandis.) Then I’m in the zone and can write.
Alexander Boldizar was the first post-independence Slovak citizen to graduate with a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. Since then, he has been an art gallery director in Bali, an attorney in San Francisco and Prague, a pseudo-geisha in Japan, a hermit in Tennessee, a paleontologist in the Sahara, a porter in the High Arctic, a police-abuse watchdog in New York City, an editor and art critic in Jakarta and Singapore, and a consultant on Wall Street. His writing has won the PEN/Nob Hill prize and was the Breadloaf nominee for Best New American Voices. Boldizar currently lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where his hobbies include throwing boulders and choking people while wearing pajamas, for which he won a gold medal at the Pan American Championships and a bronze at the World Masters Championships of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. For several years, an online Korean dictionary had him listed as its entry for “ugly.”