Alexander Weinstein: On Writing a Thematic Short Story Collection

Author Alexander Weinstein discusses how he came to select the theme of his new short story collection, Universal Love, and what it was like to see those themes reflected in the real world.
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Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections, Universal Love and Children of the New World, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a best book of the year by NPR, Google, and Electric Literature. His fiction and interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone, World Literature Today, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award and has been awarded the Lamar York, Gail Crump, Hamlin Garland, and New Millennium Prizes. He is the Director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a Professor of Creative Writing at Siena Heights University.

Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein

In this post, Weinstein discusses how he came to select the theme of his new short story collection, Universal Love, what it was like to see those themes reflected in the real world, and more!

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Name: Alexander Weinstein
Literary agent: Adam Eaglin
Book title: Universal Love
Publisher: Picador
Release date: January 21, 2021
Genre: Short Stories
Elevator pitch for the book: Universal Love welcomes readers to a near-future world where our everyday technologies have fundamentally altered the possibilities and limits of how we love one another.
Previous titles by the author: Children of the New World (Picador, 2016)

Universal Love: Stories by Alexander Weinstein

Universal Love: Stories by Alexander Weinstein

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What prompted you to write this book?

I was interested in the strange and unsettling ways that technology has crept into our ability to love one another. Whether it’s our dating apps (that teach us to swipe unwanted partners into the trash) or our struggles connecting with our children (whose eyes seem eternally glued to the small screens in their hands), it seems that technology has quickly become one of our first loves in the 21st century. And so, I wanted to write the stories of families, couples, and friends who were working to find love in a world that had become technologically amiss.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

I spent a year creating the stories in Universal Love, and perhaps what changed most was that technology kept catching up to my most dystopian ideas. No sooner had I written a story wherein children are begging their parents for cybernetic implants ("We Only Wanted Their Happiness") than Elon Musk publicly announced his work on Nerualink brain implants. No sooner had I written a story about replacing parents with holographic replicas ("The Year of Nostalgia") than Whitney Houston’s hologram went on tour! So the challenge was to continually evolve the stories to be just slightly more dystopian than where we find ourselves today.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

For my first collection, Children of the New World, I like to say that I had a decade to write the stories. It was my debut, and since it was my first publication, I could take as long as I wanted! The deadline for the publication of Universal Love, on the other hand, gave me a year and a half. One year to produce the stories and six months to edit. Working with deadlines taught me how to produce like a professional author. It required that I write every day, and I quickly had to become my best own editor. I learned to be both incredibly prolific as a writer while also being deeply compassionate but unforgiving as an editor. The result was creating a nurturing and productive creative process that has fueled all of my current work.

(Expanding a Short Story Into a Novel)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

One of the main elements of my writing process is to incorporate surprise into the process of writing itself. I used to be a very controlling author, in that I wanted to know my beginning, middle, and end before I began. Over time, I’ve learned to become much freer. My job is simply to follow the story, becoming part-detective, part-inventor, and to allow the characters and story to come alive on the page. 

The result is that the stories/characters will often surprise me, either in what they do or say or in the underlying metaphors they hide within their core. For example, when writing the story “Islanders,” I knew that the setting was a post-apocalyptic world where nearly all the earth was covered in water. There were only pockets of islands where the elevation had been high enough for people to survive. On one of those islands were a father and son diving to the drowned civilization below to bring up treasures from the old world. And yet, it wasn’t until I was fully drafting the story that I fully understood the metaphors buried beneath those waves. The surprise was that I was writing a parable about my son getting ready to sail off to college, and my hopes that he would bring the buried treasures of our shared history with him. It’s these kinds of heart-opening surprises that writing every story in the collection brought to me as a kind of gift.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

A belief in the power of human connection to help make this world a better place. I am an optimist at the core, and this element of hope and love is at the center of everything I write. Beneath the malfunctioning robots, or the dystopian-Tinder apps, or the cybernetic disconnection in Universal Love, are stories of love, of human resilience, and of our potential to come together and work to make this world a more beautiful and loving place.

Alexander Weinstein: On Writing a Thematic Short Story Collection

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Believe in your writing and commit to the process again and again. I cannot tell you how many years I spent wrestling with the Inner Critic—that awful internal voice that knows exactly how to deflate your motivation and creativity. The key is to send the Inner Critic out to lunch (or better yet, to go travel the world) while you allow the Inner Writer to finally play fearlessly.

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