Editor’s Note: UConn Today recently spoke with UConn alum Alena Dillon ’07 (CLAS) about her newly published collection of nonfiction humor essays, I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean, and Other Amusings from a Girl in Sweatpants (Martlet & Mare, 2013). In vignettes bearing such titles as “Romance Is Dead. I Killed It,” and “I Hate People, They’re the Worst,” Dillon shares the awkward moments and misadventures of her everyday life – from her disasters in babysitting to the crushing anxiety she endures at the hands of a disparaging boss better known as “Cruella.” A native of Fairfield, Conn., Dillon has an English degree from UConn and an MFA from Fairfield University. She is an academic advisor and an adjunct professor of creative writing at St. Joseph’s College in Long Island, where she lives with her husband.
UConn Today: What were you like growing up?
Alena Dillon: I always wrote. I started writing my first book when I was 10 on my dad’s clunky desktop. I read a lot. I also was not very cool. I wore all my older brother’s hand-me-downs, so everything was a couple of years out of fashion and for the wrong gender. I was always kind of chubby, and I was not very athletic.
UT: How would you describe I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean …?
AD: It’s a collection of humor essays broken into anecdotes, musings, and satire that kind of capture the absurdity of life from the perspective of an everyday woman. But I guess I’m just reading from the back cover of the book now.
UT: You share a lot of real-life, embarrassing stories, and some of them literally had me laughing out loud. What gives you that sort of comfort level to reveal your imperfections and the mishaps you have?
AD: I feel like sharing all these embarrassing things about me kind of takes the pressure off of who I am as a person, because people kind of lower their standards. [Laughs] So that actually makes me feel more comfortable.
UT: Do you have a favorite vignette in the book?
AD: I really like the title story. I also like the one about dieting after 9 o’clock, because I like how it ended with, “The devil is in the Doritos.” I like that pun.
UT: Have you been compared to any other writers? I thought of [UConn English professor] Regina Barreca right off the bat, and you’re also like a Lena Dunham to me, too. Your writing’s got a self-deprecating humor and a quirkiness, and I laugh when I read it. That’s hard to do.
AD: Thank you. There have been one or two reviews where people have mentioned Sloane Crosley [author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake], which I take as a huge compliment. Another said David Sedaris [author of Me Talk Pretty One Day], who I also really like. They are two of my favorites.
UT: How do you decide what’s worth writing about?
AD: That’s tough. People always give me suggestions: “Oh, you should write about this” – and it sounds like a good idea, but if I don’t have the inspiration myself, it’s hard to force something. Funny and embarrassing anecdotes come really easily; a sentence will come to me or something that strikes me as being absurd or ridiculous from the everyday, and it’s kind of looking at it from a different way to draw out the absurdity in it. … I remember in one of Regina Barreca’s classes, she told a story about how she was struggling to become a writer. All of her teachers told her she had to be lyrical and literary, and then one day she passed a shoe store, looked in the window, and said, “You know what? I want to be able to buy those shoes. I’m going to write something that sells.” And that’s how she kind of geared her writing more toward the commercial side. So that has been a big influence on me as well. I’ve heard the same kind of pressures from academia – to stay literary. But sometimes you just want to write something entertaining that maybe isn’t so philosophical. That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to write this book.
UT: How did you end up landing the book deal for this book?
AD: My blog [alenadillon.com] has gotten pretty good exposure; I have about 2,000 followers now. It was read by a colleague of mine from my master’s program who launched his own publishing press, and he asked me if I’d be his first book.
UT: Do you write only nonfiction?
AD: I also write novels. I have two completed novels that are with an agent – she’s been shopping them around to publishers – and I’m in the middle of writing a third. The nonfiction is kind of like my playtime. The novels can be pretty emotionally exhausting and stressful. So I had started writing little nonfiction, lighter essays in my blog as a kind of side project – and that ended up being this first book.
UT: What are your novels about?
AD: They’re completely different from the nonfiction. The first book is a psychological drama about a girl who loses her twin sister, and then she starts hallucinating her deceased twin and doesn’t tell anybody because she’s so comforted by her presence. That one is kind of a thriller and not very funny. The second one is about a girl who lives her life very timidly and then is diagnosed with cancer and, faced with her death, has to learn how to live for the very first time. That one, actually, has some elements of humor, if you can believe it. And the one that I’m working on now is about women during World War II and how they were called to the workforce for the first time and were working in factories. My character in particular joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots; they were flying all of the military aircraft in the United States and then when the war ended, they were all dismissed.
UT: How is it different for you writing nonfiction humor versus these novels?
AD: The nonfiction comes really naturally. I can spit out 1,000 words really quickly; it’s kind of conversational. The novels I really have to work at. They’re ultimately more satisfying because of the work, but they don’t come as easily.
UT: Do you ever get writer’s block? What’s your advice for tackling it?
AD: Yes, especially after writing a novel. It’s a kind of binge-purge process, where I’ll be all about writing that novel, and then when I finish it, I have to wait for all the inspiration to pile back up again before I come up with another idea or enough creative energy to do it again. And as far as the blocks for the humor essays go, sometimes I can’t really force myself to sit down and wait for an idea to come, but I haven’t had a period of maybe more than like four weeks before something comes again. … Everyone has their own process. Find a routine or process that works for you. I like to get up and write in the morning with a cup of coffee. But if something’s not coming, it’s best to walk away from it, in my experience. Everyone is different. Go for a walk, take a shower, or clean the dishes, and put your mind’s attention on something else, let that creative part of your brain kind of relax, and it’ll come back to you.
UT: Who are your favorite writers?
AD: For nonfiction, David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, Nora Ephron. And for fiction, Ann Patchett, Wally Lamb, Sue Miller.
UT: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
AD: To prepare for interviews, maybe. [Laughs] You’ve stumped me. Oh, wait, I’ve come up with it: To write because you love it, and not because you think that you’re going to get published. If that’s your goal, it’s too hard. The love is going to be what pushes you through. … [There are] days when nothing comes, and it’s so frustrating. My husband asks me, “Do you love writing? Because you complain about it all the time.” But then you write one great sentence; or you read something and you say, I want to write like that; or your character surprises you in a way that’s exciting. There are days when it’s agonizing, but then there are days where I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
UT: What do you want your readers to know about you, or about this book in particular?
AD: It’s all real. What I really try to do in my book is stay close to the truth because I want people to relate to it. I want them to see themselves on the page and, while they’re laughing at me, be able to laugh at themselves. I think that’s a real survival technique, but also a way to enjoy life.