An Interview with Alexander Tilney, Author of The Expectations

Tilney has been called a dazzling new voice in American fiction, and his debut has been hailed as smart and shrewd. I’ll join that chorus and add that his brand new novel, The Expectations (Little Brown, 2019) is a stunning coming of age portrait that captures a young man’s struggle for acceptance and family, and his need to figure out who he wants to be. Not to mention the exquisite descriptions of squash games, courts and rules that gave me (an older squash player) goosebumps!

Set in the mid-1990s, the protagonist, Ben Weeks, arrives at a classic New England boarding school as a family legacy and champion squash player. From the outside he looks the part. Ben is groomed, mannered, dedicated to his sport and studies and heavy with the expectation that he will go to an Ivy League school. He makes sure to have the right clothes and posters. Everything is going according to plan until his assigned roommate, Ahmed, arrives. Ahmed is from Dubai. He is the antithesis of everything Ben dreamed a roommate at St. James should be. Even worse, Ahmed won’t participate in initiation activities. Being associated with Ahmed is a crack in Ben’s reputation, but it is only the first. As winter sets in, Ben is forced to question the morals of the school he’s been raised to love not to mention his sport and even what he thought he knew about his family. Throw in a love story and you have Tilney’s recipe for this debut.

Tilney’s descriptions of the fraught relationship between player and coach, advisor and student, are spot on. Not to mention his uncanny ability to capture the chaos inside kids’ heads as they face the line and try to decide whether they want to cross it or fall back. Read this book to be caught up, again, in those teenage years of impossible decisions. Because even if you weren’t raised in a privileged universe like Ben Weeks, you still fought to fit in, still had to decide who you wanted to be, and this book will make you remember why all of that is important. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when Tilney agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff:

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Alex, are you an outliner or a pantser? And how many drafts do you think you worked on for this novel?

I am definitely both! My book takes place during a single academic year, and parts of the plot revolve around Ramadan, so planning and synchronizing everyone’s calendar was essential. I spent months standing at my whiteboard, mapping out who was doing what when.

Nevertheless, the book would have failed without serious seat-of-the-pants time. The book took nine years (!) in part because of how many drafts I had to go through: I wrote an entire failed book about just the kids at the school, then one about just the adults (including a terrible part set in the New York City art world), then one that tried to combine the two, and finally the one that stuck, almost entirely about the kids again.

If I had rigidly stuck to any one outline, I would never have made it through all those necessary failed versions.

Sticking to craft, our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing The Expectations

All those drafts above are one answer. But the biggest change was part craft, part (for lack of a better word) guts.

A scene from the (only okay) movie Gattaca might help me explain this. In the movie, two brothers compete by swimming out from shore as far as they can go: whoever turns back first loses. After one brother keeps winning, the other asks in desperation how he manages it. The winner answers that he doesn’t save anything for the swim back.

As gloopy as it sounds, the biggest change I made in writing the book was sort of similar. For so long, I was obsessed with how the book was going to turn out. Was it going to be good? Was I ever going to finish it? If I didn’t finish it, would I be a failure? If I did finish it, would people think I was smart, capable, a worthwhile human being? Because I was worrying so much about future, I was almost always writing safe, holding something in reserve. I wouldn’t let a scene go really off-the-rails because I was worried about it not making sense. I would only shallowly invest in a character because maybe that character wouldn’t end up being important. That defensive mindset paralyzed me.

Eventually I got so exhausted with writing something perfect that I arrived at a not-saving-anything-for-the-swim-back. I just lavished attention on whatever part of the writing gave me pleasure. I didn’t worry about things not going back together if I took them apart. I followed whatever was most uncomfortable, most juicy, most dangerous, and I trusted that whatever happened would be worthwhile. Although I still worried about the outcome (of course), that shift in attitude toward abandon made all the difference. The book became more alive.

Now, let’s talk squash. You and I both played in college and we’ve talked before about aspects we both love and hate. Your character Ben seemed to have a similar love/hate for the sport. Why? And why did you put squash in this novel? 

Yes! I wrote about squash for so many reasons. Firstly, I wanted to call out how, in 2019, this world of boarding school and WASP privilege is waaaaaaay further outside the cultural mainstream than it was considered even 20 years ago. In 1998, John Irving published A Widow for One Year, which prominently features squash, but not one time in that book does he back up to explain what the hell squash is, what it looks like, how it’s played. The publishing world obviously still has such a long way to go, but the anthropological sections of the book where I have to introduce this extremely niche sport are one measure of how much more wide-ranging audiences and authors have become. And I loved writing those sections. Using squash as a way of emphasizing that (still incomplete) shift away from WASP culture as literary default also let me look at this culture freshly (I hope). I could more easily study what that culture demands both of the people born into it and those who are obliged to enter it for the first time to gain power in American society.

Squash also let me concentrate on so many aspects of the main character that fascinated me. Squash is a solo sport, and so I could drill into Ben’s isolation. Ben uses squash as an escape, but it also becomes a pressure trap for him, especially after his father goes bankrupt while raising the money for the school’s new squash courts.

Also, through squash I was able to write about physical bliss, which I love to read about in other authors (including Pete Dexter, Audre Lorde, and Ben Fountain, among many others). The very basic revelation of having a body sometimes gets lost in the cerebral world of fiction.

Finally, because squash is almost entirely unknown in the wider culture, it let me create a distance between the sky-high stakes Ben invests in this game and the reality that the reader perceives, which is that squash doesn’t really matter that much. One of the key differences I see between YA (which I love) on one side and fiction for adults about children on the other is the distance of the authorial voice: in YA, the author’s outlook almost always takes the concerns of the children as seriously as they do. Whereas adult fiction often acknowledges how important the stakes seem to the children, while asserting the heartbreaking reality: no one else on earth cares, and kids can’t quite perceive that. That kind of sincere ironic distance is one of the dynamics I find most powerful in fiction: it is sad when a character’s father dies; it is much, much sadder when the father dies while the patient in the next hospital bed is playing Candy Crush.

I believe you can’t make a character or set a scene without having some connection to the world you set out to build on your page. How did you use your own personal experiences to create Ben and the world of St. James?

No surprise: I did go to boarding school. And although I didn’t take it quite as hard as the main character Ben does, my palms always started sweating when it was time to go back, even as a spring-term senior. That intensity is common to everyone’s adolescence, but there’s a certain submarine feeling to attending boarding school: the adults who brought you drive away and then…it’s only you. I love writing about places that have that much pressure and inescapability.

Now that the book is done, I realize that it’s also about the internet, or about the negative space around the internet. The book is set in 1994 in a place where even an evening newscast is rare, and so it’s an uncomfortable love letter to the kind of absorption that I think is harder and harder to find now. (Books also offer this kind of absorption, and that’s why they are especially important to me in this era of constant distraction.)

Moving along to content, let’s talk about Alice. She works on a photo project and asks Ben to sit for a portrait. During the photo shoot she says, “When I was thinking about people to photograph, I just thought that you seem pretty self-conscious a lot of the time, as though you aren’t sure [camera snaps] how you come off to other people, and that difference between how you suspect you might come off [camera snaps] and how you actually come off is interesting.” Can you talk about this?

Alice might be the character I most loved writing. She simply arrived.

Alice is in a tough spot: she has very large breasts, and in a school culture obsessed with watching, with appearances, with ranking and sorting, she finds herself relentlessly looked at and assessed. She does not care for this one bit. Photography lets her do the looking for a change, but it’s also more than that: being looked at this way—observing people as they observe her—has made her into an exquisite see-er. Photography is an essential liberation for her, a way of turning this ordeal that’s happening to her to her advantage.

Ben’s financial predicament (among other things) also prevents him from getting comfortable at the school, and Alice can study her own uneasiness through him. She thinks discomfort looks interesting, and she should know.

And, finally, Alice is also just like so many of my friends from boarding school. These schools justifiably come under intense criticism for the sexism and sexual misconduct that persist there. But I lived, worked, studied, competed, and talked with fantastic women for four very intense years, and I feel grateful for the lasting relationships that came out of that time.

One of my favorite ways in which you show Ben’s life breaking down is your use of his actual cracks. He chips a tooth. He breaks a leg. All the while, he’s trapped on a campus that you describe as traversed by water. “Almost anywhere on campus a stretch of water reflected the surrounding buildings, trees and sky.” Can you talk about these aspects? Am I making a mistake by thinking they go together for a reason? 

I’m so glad you saw this! Ben keeps wanting his world to be complete: to culminate into something ideal, to be fulfilling once and for all, to be right. But of course that’s impossible for anyone, and so all these parts of the world obstinately refuse his efforts to make them finished. But, surprisingly, many of those incompletions, including his injuries, are also great for him. He loves the attention his broken leg earns, and the chipped tooth makes him feel kind of tough.

This happened again and again as I wrote the book: everything that I thought was only bad showed a sweet side, everything I thought was only good revealed its poisoned edge.

At one point, Ahmed asks, “Why do we even want to be here?” And “What are we all trying to be? My father is just as a man should be, and he never came here.” What did these questions mean to you? And what do you want your readers to think about as we read them? 

Firstly, I wanted to write about Ahmed and Ben as roommates. It’s a relationship I haven’t seen done very often in fiction: complete strangers who are immediately and uncomfortably intimate. Roommates know each other’s smell before they know if they like each other.

I also fell in love with Ahmed, and I was very interested in the double-bind he finds himself in. He arrives at this New England school from Dubai desperate to emulate one kind of idealized American leader (energetic, straightforward, principled, optimistic, ruthless only if absolutely necessary). But he runs into the reality of what privileged American scions actually were at the end of the twentieth century (cunning, status-obsessed, expert at cultivating appearances, trying not to let their tenderness get in the way of their success).

And so between these two models, Ahmed goes through an intense bargaining: what about his origin and his family’s origin is essential to his selfhood, and what is he obliged to do away with in order to succeed? His bargain belongs only to him, but it’s similar to the one I think many people who have only recently gained access to fancy schools and similar powerful institutions have to undergo. Women, people of color, gay and non-binary people—they have all changed these institutions significantly, but the bargains they face are still stark.

Ahmed’s bargain also let me see the bargain that Ben, whose family helped start the school, also can’t escape (even though he has so much more of a certain kind of power). Can he successfully become the right kind of person? The right kind of man? I think American society often motivates people with this kind of shame, of denying who you are for who you might become if you just apply more effort, of placing the assurance that you’re worthy of love always just out of reach. That never quite enough consumes Ben.

Both Ben and Ahmed find some freedom from their traps in different ways, and I think that’s how their humanity shines out.

Last content question because I can’t let you go without talking about Teddy, Ben’s older brother. Ben is called the un-Teddy. He’s constantly compared to his big brother and he hates it. Still, he wants what his brother had. Why did you make Ben a younger brother and not the eldest or even an only child? Why set up this dynamic?

I’m so glad you asked about Teddy. In part he was a natural character for me because I was the younger brother to very famous older siblings at my high school. (Mine were sisters; brilliant students and athletes rather than trouble-makers.) But that predicament of living your life out from under a legend felt very electric for me.

But, also, Teddy’s legend let me write about “tradition” at these schools in a different way. Fancy universities and prep schools are obsessed with tradition, and most readers understand parts of this dynamic already: the imposing architecture, the names carved in oak panels, etc. etc. But a lesser known aspect is the immense power of recent traditions. When I went to boarding school, we were fascinated by the students who had just left: we knew they were wilder, less rule-bound, more brilliant, more alive. That was the real school. But then when I came back for my tenth reunion, all the current students asked in hushed tones about my time there, back when students were wilder, less rule-bound…

My story revolves around people who are always comparing their experience to some idea of past greatness, and that dynamic pervades so much of American life (as our politics continue to reveal). Even when these schools have hundreds of millions of dollars, for example, they worry that they are just about to lose it, that they are on the cusp of a new era of decline. I wanted to find a way to write about that flawed nostalgia in a smaller, more specific way, and so Teddy’s legend, his past “greatness” that everyone wants to access, arrived like a gift.

And also, Teddy feels no responsibility to anyone, and those wolfish characters are always delicious.

Finally, what are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I have been loving Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. The only way to capture how the present feels is to go surreal, and his writing is searingly brilliant.

I’ve also just started The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger, and it does a spectacular job studying how insane education and college admissions have become. It’s also a fun and engrossing read. He’s written the inner life of all the recent cheating scandals, and I’m (obviously) extremely interested in the same thing.

In general I’m (anxiously) optimistic about the writing that’s happening now. Writers don’t get a lot of support in American culture—have they ever?—but there is more great work coming out now than any person could ever get to. Let’s go make even more.

About Alexander Tilney: The Expectations is Alexander Tilney’s first novel. He is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers and has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. His writing has appeared in The Southwest ReviewThe Journal of the Office for Creative Research, and Gelf Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner, theater artist Sarah Hughes.

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