In a series of short films debuting exclusively for Document, the author offers cinematic interpretations of scenes from her upcoming novel
Nada Alic came of age in the early era of blogging which was defined by an earnestness that now feels cemented in the past. Today, contemporary internet culture, and consequently, culture at large, seems almost wholly engrossed in sarcasm and cynicism, and anything saccharine is assumed to be a phonily-filtered version of reality. But that earnestness still exists in some form, stripped down to its barest bones in the form of unselfconsciousness. Only now, being “genuine” more often takes the form of vulnerable admissions that are not sweetly endearing, but intentionally unflattering and darkly witty.
Alic’s debut book, Bad Thoughts, is exactly what its name implies. In a collection of bizarre ruminations on modern life, a woman feels a gross rush of power when she imagines her hand subtly and pseudo-accidentally grazing the pants-covered dicks of unsuspecting men in public spaces. A ghost baby yearns for its proto-parents to have sex amidst a dry spell. A lonely woman’s depraved fantasy becomes a reality when a plain Mormon man unwittingly agrees to go home with her. The women imagined in the author’s world are perverse, arrogant, and aspirational for all the wrong reasons, reeking with a desperation that allows its reader to feel both superior and understood at once.
Alic doesn’t expect a smartly written blurb or any form of critical acclaim to charm potential readers into becoming actual readers. In a series of short films debuting with Document, she translates three scenes from the story collection into book trailers, shot on Kodak film, imagined by the community of artists who also serve as friends to the author. Alic joins Document to discuss the making of Bad Thoughts, the playful allure of fiction writing, and translating a text to screen.
Megan Hullander: It’s been awhile since I knocked out a book as quickly as I did yours, which usually happens when there’s a strong narrative pull, which is very much not the case, at least in any traditional form, with Bad Thoughts. How do you go about creating, or avoiding, narrative in your writing?
Nada Alic: I’ve always been more interested in interiority and voice. I’m not from the literary world, and so, I think I approached it with this sort of naive purity. I read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I write something more conversational; oftentimes, I sacrificed saying something in a way that might make me sound smarter for the sake of the character who would never talk like that. And I do a lot of readings, so I was really paying attention to the reader’s experience. I’ve so often been bored by books, and I feel like [writers] don’t always consider the person on the other side of it.
It’s probably a combination of going with my gut and doing what I think is funny, and really not worrying about it, because I’m not even competing with that world. I admire a lot of writers and their craft, but it’s almost freeing to be like, We’re not even in the same lane. I’m over here doing my own thing.
Megan: The characters you’ve created feel very real. How much of their identities are grounded in your reality—whether that be through yourself or people you know—and how much of it is imagined?
Nada: There’s a lot from my life and my friends’ lives, whether it’s a scene, a character trait, or some tiny thing that I pick up on. But, obviously, it’s exaggerated. These are terrible characters, but I’m sort of able to humanize them. I think there’s a lot of pathologizing and moralizing in culture these days. And there’s something about humor, too, that’s really disarming. You can exaggerate a character and make them a caricature, and it allows people to laugh, but then also find something to relate to.
My best friend—in the acknowledgments, I’m like, ‘She’s my muse’—we’ve been friends for 14 years and so, a lot of the traits in certain terrible dudes are from old boyfriends that she had. They have no idea they’re being immortalized. Or even, we went to Cabo for her bachelorette and her sister, who’s Christian, blurted out, ‘What if this is hell?’ And I immediately clocked that that was gonna be the first line of the story and just built it from there.
I think a lot of people shit on autofiction, and it’s sort of a derogatory term, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I could never write a memoir or straight up nonfiction, because that’s scary. Fiction is a workaround where you can say most of the truth and then just be like, ‘JK.’
“There’s something about humor that’s really disarming. You can exaggerate a character and make them a caricature, and it allows people to laugh, but then also find something to relate to.”
Megan: Did you follow ‘Bad Art Friend’? Were you ever worried it’s going to feel like that?
Nada: So cringe. She donated her kidney, right?
Megan: Yeah and a fiction-writing friend wrote about it without her permission. It kind of falls into that gray area of like, when are you taking inspiration from people when are you just airing other people’s shit?
Nada: It’s a gamble. I played it pretty safe with this one. All of my friends have read it, and I don’t think anything is disparaging. But I have a novel that I’m writing now, and that’s a bit more top of mind. It’s still gonna be, like, all jokes. But it’s about intergenerational stuff and family, so I think it’s something I’m grappling with more. But with the collection, it’s so goofy silly that no one can take offense like that.
Megan: How does your muse friend react to it?
Nada: She’s the reason why I started writing. She’s a painter. Her name is Andrea Nakhla. Years and years ago, she encouraged me to write these little stories and she made these paintings to go along with them. We weren’t living in the same cities at the time, so we started making them into a zine, called Future You, as a way to connect. And then I moved to LA. I’ve always sort of lived to impress her because I think she’s the coolest person. And she’s read every story [I’ve written]. She used to subject her dates to readings of my stories. I wouldn’t even like that. She’s the only person I know that likes being read to and reading [to other people].
After I got my galleys in and the first thing I did was give her and her husband the first copies of it. You know when you’re so close with someone that you’re basically sisters and all niceties go out the window—we don’t even hug. But she called me and she was like, ‘I’m so impressed. This is a real book.’ It totally made my day. I don’t care what happens with this book now. I did it. I impressed her.
Megan: Do you have a process for getting to the heads of your characters, or does it feel really natural to be writing from someone else’s perspective?
Nada: As you can tell, the character is quite similar across many of the stories with different iterations that as if it were evolving as a person or devolving. First person is fun because I can cosplay as a total asshole or be uniquely cruel. It’s fun to do that in a controlled way, and then also to find certain elements of humanity and parts of myself inside of that.
Megan: It seems that a lot of fiction writers are grounded in this sort of belief that they want the reader to create the world for themselves. You creating these book trailers is very much subverting that ideology that’s become the standard. Why did you decide to make them?
Nada: I had not considered that I was subverting. I was so desperately lonely. The process of writing a book is just being with yourself for so long. I always knew I wanted to make a book trailer, I had seen a couple, but it’s not really a thing. The cool thing about being in LA is you realize that there are no rules, and people are just making stuff. An old friend of mine, Brandon Tauszik is a director, and one of my best friends, Kenny Laubbacher is a producer. I pulled a couple scenes that I thought would maybe translate well. And I was like, ‘Let’s do these little, weird short films.’ And so and then we just got a bunch of artists, comedians, actors, musicians who don’t act. It was just so fun to collaborate on something that was my idea, but then let all of these other people bring it to life in this new way. And that really scratched an itch for me.
And also, there’s, like, 5 billion books that come out every year. There’s so much noise. How can I get people invested in wanting to be a part of this story? And then, how do I do something a little bit different?
Megan: And the writing is very much rooted in internal worlds. I imagine externalizing that without a corny voiceover would be difficult. What was that kind of process of translation like?
Nada: I basically scanned the book and tried to find the most visual scenes that weren’t as introspective. Some of them just come at you out of context, and that was sort of the point. I didn’t want to fully spell it out. You’re just getting a taste of the absurdity and the surrealness of the world. So, maybe you don’t know that ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is a flashback scene. Or with the sisters, you don’t really know what’s going on. It sort of builds up in the end that there’s this competition between them. And the bedroom one, I just thought it’d be so funny to have my friend climb through the window.
“Writing is the perfect outlet for someone who has a lot of feelings, but is mostly embarrassed to say them out loud.”
Megan: Being that you weren’t ‘classically trained’ in the form that you think most of your contemporaries might be, what is it about that medium of writing that appeals to you, and works for the kind of stories that you want to tell?
Nada: I think it came from years of growing up around bands and touring with bands, being in close proximity to musicians and feeling totally silenced, like furniture in the room—and to no fault of their own. It is a boys club. I grew up as a hardcore music fan and was obsessed. And I married a musician. Now I just, like, listen to podcasts. But if I had to psychoanalyze it, I think I started writing because I had a music blog for like, six years back in the day—don’t Wayback Machine it, I was so earnest. Inside my head, I felt like there was a world of things that I could say, but I wasn’t able to articulate. And I hadn’t grown into myself yet, I wasn’t confident enough. I took to writing because it was a controlled space for me to get exactly what I wanted to say down. I think it was just finding a voice in a way where I can [say] this exactly how I want to and I will force you to be my captive audience. I’m now using the book as a jumping off point to get more into performance and feel more comfortable with that. But writing is the perfect outlet for someone who has a lot of feelings, but is mostly embarrassed to say them out loud.
Megan: It’s funny, because I feel like that sort of earnestness that’s signature to that era of blogging has a rawness to it that also exists in your book, but it’s almost also the opposite of it in the way that the honesty comes through. I feel like that kind of applies to a lot of what younger generations are grappling with right now, that need to be very genuine and putting everything on display, but also navigating the balance between the internet self and the real self, and how those two exist at once.
Nada: Somebody posted this thing the other day, it was this kid that was like, ‘I am done with being authentic.’ So I’m going to start saying things like, ‘My life is going great.’
Megan: You mentioned that your next book treads more into autofiction than your first one did—how are you approaching yourself as a character? Does it require a heavy sort of psycho analysis? How do you attempt to externalize yourself and make proper judgments of your own character?
Nada: It’s been this growth that is in tandem with having a new relationship with my parents and my family that is a lot more honest, and bringing them into it. I can’t imagine writing a whole book and being like, ‘Gotcha!’ And that’s sort of what the book is about, this kind of delusional performance artist girl who seeks revenge upon her family once she learns what the word trauma means. She goes to this therapy retreat, where they were like, ’This is what childhood trauma is, and everyone has it and this is why your parents are to blame—which is actually an experience that I had. And you sort of leave naively feeling filled with self righteousness, and you just want to tell your parents, ‘You fucked me up!’ This was a few years ago, I’ve calmed down, but it’s this idea that I think it’s really plaguing a lot of millennials especially.
We have this language for trauma now and centering ourselves in a victim narrative, and in some ways it’s healthy and therapeutic, but in some ways is actually a pretty disempowering narrative. Growing up and being closer with my parents, even though they live in Croatia now, and understanding them as humans has given me so much more compassion and respect for them. They were truly babies when they had me. It’s been a full circle moment where I can still dip my toes into somebody who is just blinded by their anger towards their family while having this zoomed out perspective of looking at every family member’s experience of the past, and how everyone has a different version of an event. To me, it’s so much more of a whole picture.
Bad Thoughts (Vintage/Knopf)is slated for release July 12, and is available for preorder now.
Written by Nada Alic. Director Brandon Tauszik. Starring Morgan Jean Quinn, Tim Davis, Tom Patrick Clancy, Dell Budiyono, and Alejandro Fuenzalida. Executive Producers Matty Lynn Barnes at Sprinkle Lab and Nada Alic. Producer Kenny Laubbacher. Cinematographer Peter McCollough. 1st Assistant Camera Hannah Platzer. Gaffer Tu Do. Audio Tim Iler. Production Assistant Ryan Hahn. Editor Brandon Tauszik. Score Kurt Lyndon. Sound Design & Mix Adam Myatt at Roast n’ Post. Title Design Andrea Nakhla. Color Derek Hanson at AFX Creative.
Written by Nada Alic. Director Brandon Tauszik. Starring Kate Jean Hollowell and Anna Seregina. Executive Producers Matty Lynn Barnes at Sprinkle Lab and Nada Alic. Producer Kenny Laubbacher. Cinematographer Peter McCollough. 1st Assistant Camera Hannah Platzer. Gaffer Tu Do. Audio Tim Iler. Production Assistant Ryan Hahn. Editor Brandon Tauszik. Score Ryan Hahn. Sound Design & Mix Adam Myatt at Roast n’ Post. Title Design Andrea Nakhla. Color Derek Hanson at AFX Creative.
Written by Nada Alic. Director Brandon Tauszik. Starring Grace Mitchell and Anna Seregina. Executive Producers Matty Lynn Barnes at Sprinkle Lab and Nada Alic. Producer Kenny Laubbacher. Cinematographer Peter McCollough. 1st Assistant Camera Hannah Platzer. Gaffer Tu Do. Audio Tim Iler. Production Assistant Ryan Hahn. Editor Brandon Tauszik. Score Jerry McHoy. Sound Design & Mix Adam Myatt at Roast n’ Post. Title Design Andrea Nakhla. Color Derek Hanson at AFX Creative.