by Safy-Hallan Farah
Geniuses is a series in which we interview geniuses from all walks of life. For the fourth installment of Geniuses, we’re talking to writer @AlanaMassey.
Do you consider yourself a genius?
Because I’m making a sincere and concerted effort to take more cues from Kanye West, I want to say, “Yes. Absolutely.” In reality, I go back and forth between thinking, “You are a goddamn fucking genius, Alana” and “You are ordinary in every way, destined to die alone and be buried in a potter’s field, Alana.” There is no middle ground.
Can you elaborate a little on why you’re taking cues from Kanye?
I’ve always passively loved Kanye’s music but last year, I went through a really rough patch personally and professionally where I just wanted to give up on everything. One of my best friends who is this amazing 21-year-old Kanye disciple made me go out and I was kind of sulky and she launched into this earth-shattering monologue where she was like, “Kanye wouldn’t give up when people said he couldn’t do something! Kanye would go home and make FAT. BEATS.” I honestly wish I had the whole thing on video. She was so fired up, it was like watching Edward Norton in the mirror in The 25th Hour or Bill Paxton on the back of a truck in Independence Day. You know, CLASSICS.
So I ended up doing a deep dive into the archive of his media appearances and he’s not only always had this unflinching confidence but he’s had this sort of eerie ability to predict his own success for the future too. He also works insanely hard, which makes it possible for him to produce so much incredible work that actually qualifies him for the genius label. So many people are busy quietly believing in their own genius and waiting for others to say the word, Kanye was like “Fuck the middle man, I’m a genius,” and he works hard all the time to keep it true. I admire that a lot.
Have you ever predicted your own successes?
No, because I always predict catastrophic failure on the micro level in order to prevent disappointment. So I am always like, “Don’t get your hopes up, dummy” about individual pieces or projects. It makes it a very pleasant surprise when something is a success but I’m always prepped for a personal apocalypse. But in my macro view of the entire future, I can imagine nothing short of my wildest dreams coming true. That part of my imagination is wired so that I always get absolutely everything I want.
What are your goals professionally, personally and otherwise?
So I was a walking cliche of disastrous 20-something in New York: I treated mental illness with alcohol and drugs and bad sex with much older men. I had a series of bad assistant and PR jobs and would fall back on stripping and fetish work when I inevitably quit my jobs or couldn’t cover expenses. I enrolled in Yale Divinity when I was 25 in the hopes that if I just got a good helping of Jesus, I’d be cured of my debauchery and sadness. While I was there, I halfway cleaned up my act in terms of my health and my priorities and realized that I had been embarrassed by all of the wrong things. So when I returned to New York and my relationship ended, I decided not to ashamed of my creative ambitions or of the fact that I worked in the sex industry. I was told that the best thing about surviving being a chaotic fuck-up in your 20s is turning it into something worthwhile in your 30s, which is what I am trying to do personally and creatively now. Empire out of suffering, etc.
Tell me about your book.
All the Lives I Want is an essay collection about me and several of my imaginary friends, all of whom happen to be famous women from the last 60 years of popular culture. I worship a lot of celebrities so it covers everyone from Sylvia Plath to Lil’ Kim. As far as “issues” go, it gets into the fate of occupying a human body, making a living off of the labors of your body, inadequacy and incompleteness, illness, and ultimately coping with the sneaking suspicion that you live in a world that wasn’t made for you. Because it wasn’t.
Have you ever seen To Die For with Nicole Kidman? She plays this fame-seeking psychopath that ruins a bunch of lives. Kidman has this perfectly delivered mini-monologue where she says, “You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.” I realize now that it is supposed to be a cautionary tale about a deranged narcissist but when I saw it in middle school, I was like, “Girl, I know.” I have a hard time finding anything I do worthwhile if it does not have public approval. I’ve always low-key desired the visibility of celebrity but was too scared or self-conscious to seek it. I hope that I’ve developed a more nuanced relationship to celebrity than when I was a scared adolescent who simultaneously wanted to die quietly in a burlap sack and be a movie star but the ideas of perfection and hyper-visibility remain both alluring and repulsive to me.
When was the earliest time you sought public approval in the creative sense?
When I was super small, I had two imaginary friends named Anky and Chancy. Anky wore a bone in her hair like Pebbles from The Flintstones and Chancy was kind of a third-wheel. Adults found the stories about them absolutely riveting and I realized that I could just make up all sorts of shit that we had done together to keep that attention coming. Mostly we just chilled out and played Barbies but I was like, “Oh yeah, we’re fucking time travelers and met this archaeologist from Tampa” or whatever. Even when I stopped believing in them, I kept them around as a conversation starter to get people to talk to me and think I was precious.
Did you ever tell lies (as a creative outlet or way to get attention) long after having imaginary friends?
Oh man, all the time. I would make up really elaborate family background stories as a kid and part of the fun was challenging myself to keep up the lies. At one point, I was claiming to be the youngest of 12 children and I had to keep their names and birth order straight. My fake ID in college was Israeli and we had to concoct a big back story for why I didn’t speak Hebrew and my birth place on the idea was Hosea, Russia so I had a good time keeping that story straight to make sure I didn’t get kicked out of bars. Another favorite is lying to men in bars when they’re hitting on me. So often if you tell a man you’re a writer, he interrogates your reading and writing habits in this way that is meant to make himself seem smart but really just comes off as challenging my own authority in my field and I find it really tiresome. My go-to lie is that I’m a marine cartographer because most people have absolutely no fucking idea what goes into making maps of the ocean and when they try to challenge you on any of it, I shut them down with completely made up shit about the ocean floor and the leading theories in the field.