In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—David Aloi
“People Here”, your story in Vol. 24, immediately transported me to my middle-school days crowded around a friend’s computer, the sweet sound of the dial-up connection whirring, hoping we could find some harmless fun in a chat room, much like a teenaged Anthony seeks in The Bonfire. Tell us about the inspiration for this story.
It was truly a unique time to be a kid, right around when the internet was taking off. And no one really had any idea of its power. There’s a scene from Seinfeld when someone is explaining to Jerry how this new thing called “email” works and he says, amazed, “What are you a scientist?!” That’s kind of how everyone felt, that it was something from another world, beyond our comprehension.
When it came to chat rooms, this idea of talking to someone you didn’t know was thrilling for me. I didn’t have the best time in school growing up so there was this clean slate feeling of the internet. I could sign on to AOL with a fresh start. I can still close my eyes and see the chats piling on top of each other in these rooms: a/s/l, a/s/l, a/s/l. It was like a new language. And I wanted in. I was learning about the internet at the same time I was learning about myself. And I think that’s where the story came from.
Below the surface-level humor suffused throughout the story, there’s a real sad truth to Anthony’s life experiences. He’s very alienated from his peers and his mother, so his source for human interaction comes from anonymous people he meets on the Internet. Without giving away the ending for those who haven’t read it yet, can you give us some context to your plot decisions whether to make this story veer into very dark territory or something safer for Anthony?
This story was always going to be dark. I think it’s a good example of my style as a writer. I hope to be light, funny, charming, kind of la-di-da, then boom. There’s this “game” Anthony and Todd play, and when I recalled it from my actual childhood (which is crazy to think we played it), I knew it had to factor immediately into this story. Also, I knew I wanted the reader to feel more aware of what was going on than our main character. Almost like watching a scary movie and you’re yelling at the screen, “No, don’t go in there!”
In that same vein, are there parallels that you notice between Anthony’s experience to our very real existence now when so much of our lives are online? How might this story be different for Anthony had you set it in 2021?
That’s an interesting question. I initially thought ‘Oh, well Anthony probably would use Grindr and meet people’ but I think actually any social media app would give him access to strangers. If the story took place today, I think the majority of it would stay the same, but maybe the speed at which things would happen would be quicker. In terms of the technology, there would be no learning on Anthony’s part. It would be innate. Oh, and the moms wouldn’t be mall walking because what is a mall? I suppose they could speed walk through an Amazon Fresh store but that would be weird!
“People Here” is the chat room function noting the count of people in The Bonfire. What made you make this the title of the story? It poses so many possible interpretations for different readers. What does it mean to you?
The original name of the story was actually “The Bonfire.” But I felt it didn’t quite capture the feeling I was going for. And you’re right, “People Here” indicates the count but also lists all the screen names of people in the chat room. And they were never real names, it was always something made up that may or may not have something to do with the human who was behind it. Yet that became your identity in this new world. It’s something so common now—screen names, usernames, handles, etc.—but back then, it was novel. I remember looking at the list of strange names in chat rooms and thinking ‘Who are all these people?’ And I think that captures the feeling of the story much better.
Switching gears, you have this lovely essay from INTO dedicated to Robyn, and an essay from Cuepoint about Mazzy Star. You write quite a bit from this purview of teenage-ness, often tinged with nostalgia and perhaps a little kindness for the younger self (which I love, by the way!). Where does the well of content come from for you? How influential is pop culture to you for writing ideas?
It was nice of you to read all that old-ish stuff. As I mentioned before, I had a tough time in elementary and high school and I think when we go through hard times, we are forever attempting to process it. For me, writing about those times is cathartic, or it must be, right? Like I’m trying to figure something out or maybe, get something out of me. So I can move on. As for pop culture, I’m still super into it. I grew up consuming music, books, TV, and movies. It’s a huge part of my identity today. I applied to NYU because I heard them sing about it in RENT (I didn’t get in). I realized that gay people were actually happy and danced at a club called Babylon from Queer as Folk. I discovered a big part of my authentic young self through Ani Di Franco’s early music. Other people’s art showed me and continues to show me a bigger world beyond myself.
Since you’ve written a lot about music, I have to know: does music factor into your creative process as a writer?
For sure! I think music was my first introduction to art to tell you the truth. I remember when I was rejected by a girl (via folded note) in sixth grade. I ran off the bus, into my room, and wept to Des’ree’s “Kissing You” from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. And just kept reading the note and repeating the song. Little did I know I was participating in art, commiserating with it, and expressing myself. Since then, I’ve just been a mess with music. I make all sorts of playlists for myself and my friends. I think I just love feeling intense feelings and get that so much through music. Still to this day. It inspires me to create and see if I can give back in some way.
If you could only ever read three books again in your lifetime, what would they be, and why?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower because it was a revelation for me in high school with gayness, with music, with darkness; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius because it made me move to San Francisco after college and be a writer; and Interpreter of Maladies because of its beauty and patience and masterful lessons in short fiction.
You’re working on your debut collection. Can you tell us more about it? What other projects are you working on right now?
Sure, it’s a collection of around fifteen stories that all feature protagonists who are gay, but none of the characters meet their big tragedies because they are gay, if that makes sense. I’m at the homestretch with it now: writing the last two stories, editing, sending a couple more out to magazines. Also I’ve heard publishers want novels so I have that going as well. There’s this whole business side of writing that’s new to me. I don’t have an agent yet so I’m kind of just figuring out what I need to do and doing it. Just learning as I go.
David Aloi is a writer living in Los Angeles. He received his MFA in fiction from California College of the Arts and has worked at Grindr, Medium, and McSweeney’s. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Review, CutBank, The Rumpus, and Flaunt, and is forthcoming in Joyland. He has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, Lambda Literary, and Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Currently, he’s finishing what will be his debut collection. You can learn more about David and his work at his website, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.