The Cupboard Interview with Isle McElroy
Isle McElroy is a non-binary writer based in Brooklyn. Their first novel, The Atmospherians, will be published by Atria in May 2021. Other writing appears in Vice, The Atlantic, Tin House, Esquire, and their first book, Daddy Issues, was published in 2017. Alex has received fellowships from The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, The Tin House Summer Workshop, The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Inprint Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The National Parks Service.
You write prose! What excites you about prose forms?
I love prose for how it captures thought on the page, and how it is able to ground thought and emotion in character. That isn’t to say that only prose does this—poetry does, often better, and in a more concentrated form. But my personal temperament leans more easily into the space and expansion in prose, even in short prose forms. Moreover, I love how prose literature can imitate forms outside of literature—the menu, the birthday card, the street sign—in an effort to make literature out of the everyday, or simply to try something new and exciting.
Who are your literary favorites? How did their writings earn your love?
The writers I love most, in no particular order, are Robert Walser, Eileen Myles, Patrick Cottrell, Helen DeWitt, Alexandra Kleeman, Bryan Washington, Deborah Eisenberg, Percival Everett, and so many more I’m forgetting. What I love about their work relates to what I described above: all these authors are able to capture thought and nuance on the page in ways that surprise and inspire me. Moreover, they’re all fairly playful writers, either at the sentence level—Myles and Walser—or in a larger structural level—DeWitt and Everett. Humor is very important to me as a reader and writer, and I admire writers who are able to be funny on the page—Mat Johnson is especially good at this.
Daddy Issues (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2017) and The Atmospherians (Atria, 2021) both explore repeat motifs of failed and failing men—absent daddies, corpse-fathers, live-stream suicides, down-and-outer actors, and amnesiac man hordes run amok throughout your writing. What draws you to rendering this kind of failure?
This kind of failure seems endemic to masculinity and gender expectations generally. This is obvious in how femme people are asked to meet unrealistic demands of beauty and femininity—I don’t want to put the violence perpetrated against women on par with “ThE pLiGhT oF mEn,” or something like that. But in both Daddy Issues and The Atmospherians I tried to call attention to the ways that men invest in a vision of manhood that is impossible to obtain. This is not an intellectual exercise. The consequences of that failure are detrimental to them personally and to those in their lives. Often, this failure results in real life violence. And I hope that people who identify as male might begin to see the ways in which masculinity is built on a fragile foundation. The “failure” to meet toxic expectations of masculinity is not a failure but is the inevitable result of chasing after an impossible demand—that is what I hope to make clear.
The world of your writing are tonally frenetic, piquant, absurd and, simultaneously, grounded in the dismal quotidian. How do you strike this balance—one that tips readers from laughter to gut-punch sincerity and back again within the space of a few sentences? Will you be reading for this same effect in contest submissions? Are there other tonal qualities or issues that you would like to see submitters address?
Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad that comes across in my writing—those tonal shifts are definitely something I strive for. If that comes across in my writing, it’s because I’m deliberately trying to find balance, and it emerges from a practice of moving away from whatever direction where I am leaning. I have a tendency both in life and writing to undercut vulnerability—perhaps this is a conversation for therapy. When my tone drifts toward sadness or grief I like to counter that tone, either with a joke or by loosening up the language by using fewer consonants, lightening the sound of the sentences.
I can’t say for sure what tonal qualities I will look for when reading submissions. But, as I said above, I deeply admire writing that bridges disparate tones and subjects. And I love writing that risks inconsistency—I also kind of love inconsistency—as it strives to capture the tangled nature of how it feels to be alive.
What advice do you offer those who enter The Cupboard 2021 Annual Contest?
Submit the work you love most. Submit the writing you’re scared to share with the world. Be vulnerable, be ruthless, be funny. Submit what you would be most excited to read.