Monday, January 9, 2012

GIVEAWAY + Q&A with Alex Givarry, Author of "From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant"

Alex Gilvarry might not be the typical author you read if your normal fare is YA.  He's debut novelist and his new book,  From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, hits the shelves today .  However, his work is creating major buzz with its 'coming to America' story infused with politics, satire and a heady dose of fashion.  I'm a third of the way into the book, and twenty-something Filipino implant Boyet Hernandez is charming me with his humor, naievete, and his devotion to succes and all things beautiful.  I'm happy to host Mr. Gilvarry on Bibliophile Brouhaha today. Be sure to read to the end for a chance to win a copy of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and to view the book's trailer!  For more, check out this nice piece from The New York Times, "The Tale of a ‘Fashion Terrorist’".  My full review is coming soon!

Q: How did you come up with the idea of having a fashion designer get caught up in a terrorist plot?

A: When I thought of the book I was working for a children’s publisher in SoHo where I was surrounded by fashionable people—models, designers, boutiques—and my girlfriend was a model, therefore I spent a lot of time at fashion shows and parties. I was an observer, really. This was during 2004-2007, which, in my mind, were some of the most violent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every morning there was a report on the radio of the war against terror. Guantanamo was also ever-present, specifically the stories of innocent men mistakenly locked up or sold for bounties. Men imprisoned without due process. This really struck a cord with me, to the point of obsession. So when I started writing the novel, the two worlds met in my mind and somehow they made sense to me as a storyteller. The plot grew out of the convergence of these two worlds.

Q: This story was, by turns, funny and frightening. How did you balance these two extremes without losing the impact of either?

A: That's the line you walk in satire. A comedy needs to know when to be serious for it to have any lasting impact, emotionally or politically. Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, Gary Shteyngart. Along with laughs, they're hitting a nerve that’s wired into some kind of truth. Now while there's nothing funny about what happens at Guantanamo Bay, the situation is absurd, it almost sounds made up… It feels like fiction, but it is real. I just needed to know when to hold back on the funny and simply describe the place and the state of the men who are there. The prisoners as well as the guards. One of the characters, a guard named Cunningham, has several funny exchanges with the narrator, Boy, his prisoner. It's the situation which remains frightening. In my novel it was important for me to have fear and comedy side by side.

Q: Why did you decided to make Boy an immigrant? What do you feel his experience as someone new to America added to his story?

A: A lot of my favorite novels are about immigrants, people on the periphery, trying to get in. This is what Boy, the narrator, is trying to do in the fashion world, and through a turn of circumstances winds up a suspected terrorist. I also wanted to write about the Philippines, where my mother is from, and where some of this book takes place. Because the Philippines has a lot to do with America. When I go there everyone speaks English, what I described in the book as an “American English.” I wanted to touch on America's hand in that country, and more broadly what America means to a Filipino man like Boy. I wanted to imagine America today through an immigrant's eyes in the aftermath of September 11, not just for the purpose of the novel, but for myself too.

Q: What sort of research did you do while writing this novel, both with regard to the fashion industry and the life of Gitmo detainees?

A: Well I didn't go to Guantanamo. It’s not a place where they let novelists in. So I read anything I could. Books by lawyers who represent detainees—Clive Stafford Smith, Joseph Marguiles. Also memoirs by former detainees such as “Enemy Combatant” by Moazzam Begg and “Five Years of My Life” by Murat Kurnaz.  These are some of the most important books about America written in the last decade in my opinion. On the fashion side I simply read about women's fashion. Boy is a designer of women's wear, and so I read what I thought he would read. Fashion magazines and biographies. All of this helped make everything more real and suspend disbelief.

Q: Boy makes sure to tell everyone that, though he is a fashion designer, he isn’t gay. How did you go about confronting other stereotypes that might creep into characters like those in this book?

A: I love narrators that lie to you much more than the ones that tell you the truth. It was important to me that Boy be in a sort of denial with the reader, and himself, yet to project a machismo attitude that we find in many American Bildungsroman tales. Boy’s story is not so much a manual of how to be a man, but how to be a man if you're a designer of women's wear. He's not your stereotypical fashion designer. Really, I don’t see him as straight or gay. In the end of the book he ends up falling in love with a transvestite. I saw Boy as a different kind of man. A more modern man. Like David Bowie in the 1970s.

A: I share a childhood with the hero of my novel, even though he’s a fashion designer from Manila and I’m a novelist from Staten Island. Like my hero, I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid—YA fiction wasn’t as tremendously diverse as it is now—but when I finally fell in love with books as a teenager, the age of the protagonist didn’t matter to me. Good stories transcend any genre and tend to stick around. Here are some of the books that shaped my head and prepared me to write novels.   

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster & Jules Feiffer
Initially, it was the art of Jules Feiffer that drew me in. Illustrations were a break for a kid like me who couldn’t sit still for very long, but Feiffer’s art reacts so well with Norton Juster’s text. If I ever write a YA or fantasy novel, this will be my guide. Eventually I watched Feiffer’s Carnal Knowledge, which had a huge impact on me, dramatically. The film was a lesson in good dialogue.

Getting Even by Woody Allen
One of the first story collections I ever owned. This is how I learned the power of comedic timing, at least on paper. There are plenty of classic Woody one-liners, but the way he litters them throughout the narrative is just masterful. Especially good are “A Look at Organized Crime” and “A Twenties Memory.”

This is a novel of class and immigrants in 1940s Montreal, following the young entrepreneur and social climber, Duddy Kravitz. Like the hero of my novel, Duddy is driven, and sometimes blinded, by the need to succeed. He’s the classic underdog, perhaps Richler’s alter-ego, and he makes an appearance in several other Richler novels.

I was twenty-one when this novel came out, and I thought to myself, finally, here is a man writing the kind of books I want to read. The rise and fall of Valdimir Girshkin, from New York to Prague, from lowly clerk to feared gangster, is a classic for our time. Shteyngart is a master of tempo, comedic timing, and language of Nabokovian scale. I later got to work for him as a research assistant, where he taught me much about the writer’s life. Work, drink, therapy—it’s not as easy as it sounds. 

Well, Alex just put that last one on my list!  As promised, please find the book trailer below in which the author pokes fun at himself and the book a bit (disclosure: language - I wouldn't play this one at work (like I did - whoops)).  

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry

High fashion and homeland security clash in a masterful debut. 

Boyet Hernandez is a small man with a big American dream when he arrives in New York in 2002, fresh out of design school in Manila. With dubious financing and visions of Fashion Week runways, he sets up shop in a Brooklyn toothpick factory, pursuing his goals with monkish devotion (distractions of a voluptuous undergrad not withstanding). But mere weeks after a high-end retail order promises to catapult his (B)oy label to the big time, there's a knock on the door in the middle of the night: the flamboyant ex-Catholic Boyet is brought to Gitmo, handed a Koran, and locked away indefinitely on suspicion of being linked to a terrorist plot. Now, from his 6' x 8' cell, Boy prepares for the trial of his life with this intimate confession, even as his belief in American justice begins to erode.

With a nod to Junot Diaz and a wink to Gary Shteyngart, Alex Gilvarry's first novel explores some of the most serious issues of our time with dark, eviscerating wit.

A native of Staten Island, New York. His novel has been selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover pick, and an Indiebound Next pick. He's been a Norman Mailer Fellow, and his writing has appeared in The Paris Review and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn and Cambridge, Massachusetts.


This contest is open to all U.S. and Canadian addresses.

To win a brand-spanking new copy of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant courtesy of Penguin, leave a comment below with some reaction to what you read in the Q&A session above.  Be sure to leave your name and email address, as well.

For an extra entry, tweet this post and leave a direct link.

Giveaway will be open until Wednesday. January 18th at noon EST.

IF YOU have trouble posting a comment, please email me ASAP at OR tweet me @bibliobrouhaha.


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