The Glory and Truth of Alexei Melnick
Alexei Melnick / A funny thing happened when Tweakerville hit bookshelves last year. People read it. The dark tale of the world of crystal meth somehow struck a chord with readers, spanning all age brackets and walks of life, and on May 14, author Alexei Melnick will receive the Cades Award for emerging artist, the most prestigious literary award in Hawaii.
Melnick sat down with the Weekly in the writing lab at Sinclair Library to speak about the book, his writing and his unapologetic views on the grittily authentic world he created.
Congratulations on the Cades Award. Did you expect Tweakerville to be received quite as positively as it was?
I guess I owed an apology to a lot of the establishment cause I didn’t have the confidence in other people to realize the inaccessibility of the material. Some readers [are going to] disregard it entirely but I’m really proud people made the effort to read it.
Who’s the establishment?
I just mean the established book community. I was asked why would you write about the crystal meth epidemic. My opinion is if you really knew the immensity of it, how could you write about anything else?
Who reacted that way [about you writing on the crystal meth epidemic]?
Not to get too specific but I guess there are people who feel the book unnecessarily glorified violence or [it] celebrates meth use or the glamor that surrounds the lifestyle. My feeling on the matter is, when in doubt, you have to tell the truth. There is a glory in this world. That’s why people are drawn to it.
For me, it’s funny you say that because when I read the book, not to do comparisons, but the first thing that popped into my head was Chris McKinney. And he almost revels in what maybe Mutual would describe as “the underbelly.” That’s why I’m surprised you received that kind of reaction.
Well, yeah, Chris has been a groundbreaker and if we think back a bit, Chris did receive a little criticism and I think he rose above it and if something does have purity, like Chris’ works, it’s going to cause a little bit of controversy.
What was inaccessible with your material?
I had a lady tell me that she was a 20 year resident of Hawaii and she said your book is in a foreign language to me. As a Caucasian, that’s kinda embarrassing to me that you can live in Hawaii for 20 years and have that work seem like a foreign language and I think that underscores the separation that goes on in Hawaii, that we live in these very isolated, incubated little parts of Hawaii and we don’t always feel responsible for what our participation in the greater mechanisms of society is. I think all things deserve to be represented in literature and this book was in part directed at the gated community crowd or the people that just want to block themselves off from [the] reality of what’s going on.
Were you surprised at the diverse groups of people reading it?
I knew people would read it. I wish people would try to overcome the language. Some of the people are hesitant to read books that aren’t written in standard English. That’s a real shame because we have a real culture so deeply indebted in language and it’s a wonderful language here in Hawaii and this is the language of the drug culture itself. It’s purposefully ambiguous. It’s hard to understand because you are dealing with an illegal enterprise so I commend anybody that is resitant to it and tries to fight through it.
If you were to pigeon hole Tweakerville, do you think it’s within a genre of other drug culture novels that came before it? Off the top of my head: Trainspotting, a memoir called Permanent Midnight, Less Than Zero… Do you see it as almost something along those lines?
The drug subculture is an enormous subculture worldwide. There’s a drama that takes place in this world, a fictional intensity maybe comparable to Russian literature; an intensity we may find lacking in suburban works that can be trivial. They don’t have that feeling of gravity sometimes. I think rap music shows that no matter how hard you try to suppress the views of a people or try to avoid them or ignore them or pretend they’re not there, they’re going to try to break out. In this case, rap music invented its own form. I try to achieve what rap music is: Which is not to augment your own set of morals or values to adhere to the mainstream but to present those morals and values unadulterated in their purest form; not to play God and try to make everything OK or try to be a pundit or be a spokesperson to the book, just let the world exist and then on the other hand, try to use things like metaphor and symbolism to convey any extra things you have.
I brought up those other novels earlier because it seems like they have an audience that really does like the themes and I thought your book was very accessible. There’s a whole bunch of people in their 20s… They love Tweakerville. Is that who you wrote the book for?
Well, who I wrote the book for is personal. Anybody that would have taken on a writing like this would have feelings that the drug–and by the drug what I really mean is the society that produces the symptom that is the drug–didn’t have a vendetta against it, for people that they lost too. Some of the moral-ist people I knew, some of the most intelligent people that I knew, sold drugs and did drugs. Good people going to jail is a definition of a failed society. And if you look at how much money we spend to export our prisoners, how late in their life it is by the time they enter the system and you ask questions what’s the next generation going to be like that, the drug isn’t the cause necessarily. The drug exacerbates it. The drug is the symptom of a lot of depression that is in Hawaii. And then there’s this awkward silence where we don’t wanna have that conversation what Hawaii’s gonna look like in so many years and instead of having that conversation, you end up taking a shortcut to finding a way out. Which is picking up that pipe. Which is like its own religion of misery. It’s a religion of engagement. You feel powerless, you feel helpless with the way things are. That drug will give you a sense of purpose. That drug will give you a feeling like you’re fighting a great battle but in truth, you’re only fighting yourself. It’s not a drug for social change. It’s not a drug for friendship. It’s a drug for total self-destruction.
Do you know of any meth addicts who’ve read the book? What did they get from it?
It was very positive. Very appreciative. There was a feeling I oughta keep going, I oughta write more. Some of ‘em suggested I write it in English to be able to directly confront those people that are gonna be put off by the language. That caught me off guard. You know you’re gonna get those people who… Meth addicts can be really unpredicatable people. There’s gonna be people who feel some things shouldn’t be said. That some things shouldn’t have been told. Maybe I wasn’t the person to do that. My response is great, go give seven years of your life and go do it. I would love to read your book. I’ll be the first person there. But overall, everything’s been very very positive.
If you want to show people the truth, there has to be a little… I don’t want to use the word “solution,” but that word keeps popping up in my head. Because you are showing the truth about a problem.
I see what you’re saying and that’s a really good point but in a tragedy, it just has to get us closer to understanding the beginning for the first time.
Have you used meth before?
The answer that I always give to this question is if a book is done well, then the truth is in the book. Does that mean I’m all the things in the book? No way. I want to make it very clear, the reason I was able to write this book was because I went to writing school. Writing is hard. Writing is something you live everyday like a meth addiction. There’s a lot easier ways to make money or prestige. I don’t believe people write out of posterity. I think if you want to be famous you can go on Dancing with the Stars. I think people write out of one of the purest needs we have which is just to capture a piece of the world in a unique angle and deliver it. Writers tend to be good observers of things. I’ve learned to try to observe things.
What kinda reaction did you get to that particular style of pidgin?
I don’t necessarily like that word… I think it’s important to distinguish largely the vernacular in the book is drug culture. It’s certainly not the pidgin speaking culture. Some of the characters speak ranges and ranges of dialect just like how people really do.
Was the glossary your idea?
Yeah, it was one of the first things I brought to Mutual. I really wanted that glossary in there.
There’s sometimes material that surrounds a book that doesn’t speak to its essence and that glossary shows how completely separate the world portrayed in the novel is. It has its own language that determines it. I also think there’s a real beauty in dialect. There are a lot of people who think books shouldn’t be written in pidgin and think that just shows how much more we need to do it. People need to take pride… I think the culture is embedded in the language. Maybe in proper American English you might say “I am a construction worker” and maybe in Hawaii people say “I work construction” and that way you’re not defined by what your job is.
Do you see yourself as a Hawaii writer?
I don’t know anything about the mainland but nobody wants to get called an anything-writer but if someone called me a Hawaii writer, I’d be very proud.
What is your background?
I was born and raised in Hawaii. I was lucky enough to grow up and have the chance to know lots of people from extremely different situations. The one thing I learned being born and raised over here is how important it is to listen. We have a conversational etiquette in Hawaii where people pause and people take a break for each other whereas I go to the mainland and guys just blah blah blah over each other and there’s the whole stereotypical… The Mainland haoles in college in class, you can’t get them to shut up and the local kids just kinda sit there and look bewildered at them. There’s a seriousness which we take everything we say and part of it is because we are from so many different backgrounds. Hawaii’s racial thinking is much more sophisticated than the Mainland. The reason why is because we choose what we say extremely carefully and we try to be very sincere about it.
How old are you?
What’s your ethnic background?
I’m not really honestly sure. I know that my dad’s side comes from the Rabbinic class of Jews so I’ve taken an interest in that. But if you’re haole and you grew up in Hawaii, then you’re haole.
So you’re full Jewish?
No no… I’d rather not discuss it. There’s a family controversy. It’s kinda stupid. I think in Hawaii people give you a break. They judge you on the way that you carry yourself, that’s why I hate it when they say Hawaii is racist. I grew up here my whole life. Nobody hates you from when they meet you. It’s more xenophobia than racism. I don’t think people call people “haole” for being haole, they call them that for acting like haoles.
What part of Hawaii did you grow up?
The Windward side. I lived in Makiki briefly. The book is not based on any region. There are different pieces of the book that have a landmark on the North Shore or maybe town but it’s so critical to say that crystal meth is everybody’s problem. You can’t regionalize it. Do you want to go out and make somebody’s town the spokes-town for crystal meth?
Where’d you go to school?
That isn’t really important. Who I am is gonna matter less than the fact that the book came from the right sources. If I start getting into all the details about myself… I think the book should be the story. I never wanted myself to be the story. I do these interviews to try to help the book but at the end of the day, the writer doesn’t make the book. The book should stand on the strength of itself.
Who influences your writing?
I wish more people would teach Joe Balaz. He’s one of the more imaginative artistic writers I’ve ever read of any genre at all. Ian MacMillan was a master. Chris McKinney, Lois-Ann Yamanaka… My favorite author period is William Faulkner.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read. Try to stay out of trouble.
Things that are not constructive.
What are you working on next?
I have over 1,400 pages of material for a prequel and a sequel. A lot of my favorite parts didn’t make it into the novel, but I’d really like to write something light and optimistic that celebrates… Sometimes as writers we’re dramatists, we want to victimize and smash and grab and make people cry and that seems to be the way to get people to understand greater issues but ultimately what I love so much about Joe Balaz’s work is his celebration of the beauty of Hawaii, what makes it so necessary to address the issues and the changes. He has this wonderful poem about the Hawaiian Renaissance and the optimistic tone of his work… I would love to try to find a way to bring that out.
So in the future we’ll see a happier Alexei Melnick on the page?
I sure hope so.