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Fashion, terrorism, and New York City

Photo of Author Alex Gilvarry on stage with Professor Elizabeth Dillon

Some 2,800 first-​​year stu­dents filled the floor of Matthews Arena to hear a talk by Alex Gilvarry, author of the book From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, which was mod­er­ated by Eliz­a­beth Dillon, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Eng­lish.

Alex Gilvarry made a pact with himself.

If his first novel got pub­lished, he would con­tinue writing. If not—if the man­u­script was rejected and left to yellow in his desk drawer—he would relin­quish his dreams of becoming a sto­ry­teller and move on with his life.

I knew how hard it was going to be,” Gilvarry explained on Tuesday evening at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, “but I wanted to take that chance.” He was dis­cussing the trials and tribu­la­tions of writing his debut novel with the university’s 117th entering class. “I could either fail mis­er­ably,” he said, “or get published.”

As it hap­pens, From the Mem­oirs of a Non-​​Enemy Com­batant was pub­lished by Pen­guin Books in 2012 and quickly began gen­er­ating buzz in the lit­erary world. The 320-​​page satire—which fol­lows Boy Her­nandez, a Fil­ipino fashion designer and Guan­tanamo Bay detainee—won a pres­ti­gious Horn­blower award and gar­nered crit­ical acclaim as a “left-​​handed love letter to America.”

The rest is his­tory. Gilvarry went on to con­tribute to Vogue, The Nation, and NPR’s “All Things Con­sid­ered.” He was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list in 2014 and is cur­rently teaching fic­tion at Wes­leyan University.

‘The sen­tences tickled me’

Northeastern’s First Pages pro­gram required all freshmen to read From the Mem­oirs of a Non-​​Enemy Com­batant, which was selected by a com­mittee com­prising stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff.

Some 2,800 first-​​year stu­dents filled the floor of Matthews Arena for Gilvarry’s talk, which was mod­er­ated by Eliz­a­beth Dillon, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Eng­lish. She began by asking him to describe how he became a writer.

I wanted to become a writer when I was in the third grade,” he replied. “I liked the way it sounded, and I liked the reac­tion I got from the other students.”

Gilvarry went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts in cre­ative writing from Hunter Col­lege, where he worked under Gary Shteyn­gart, the author of Absur­di­tion and Super Sad True Love Story. Shteyn­gart, Gilvarry explained, “was writing the kind of books that I wanted to read,” and quickly become one of his favorite authors.

Another writer who inspired Gilvarry for his “tech­nique, lan­guage, humanity, and humor” is Don DeLillo of White Noise fame. As Gilvarry put it, “The sen­tences in that book tickled me.”

Good books have the power to pro­voke thought in a way that no other art form can,” Gilvarry explained. “For me, reading lit­er­a­ture is like med­i­ta­tion, it’s con­cen­trated thought.”

‘A happy accident’

Dillon, for her part, praised Mem­oirs, saying that it was “simul­ta­ne­ously quite serious and quite funny.” She asked Gilvarry to explain how he dreamed up the novel, which fol­lows a New York glamour junkie who is locked up in Guan­tanamo and accused of being linked to a ter­rorist plot.

Gilvarry said the award-​​winning results were “a happy acci­dent.” First and fore­most, he noted that he wanted to cap­ture the post-​​9/​11 years, the decade in which he came of age. He was par­tic­u­larly cap­ti­vated by Guan­tanamo, he said, where hun­dreds of sus­pected ter­ror­ists were being held in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

I would turn on the radio and hear some­thing about the deten­tion camp,” he recalled, “espe­cially sto­ries of men who were cap­tured there without due process.”

At the same time, he had been watching Project Runway and working in SoHo, a neigh­bor­hood in Lower Man­hattan rife with models and famous designers. “Fashion is easy to poke fun at,” he said, “and I could get a lot of humor out of it.”

One of Dillon’s favorite aspects of the novel was the dia­logue, which she called “deeply plea­sur­able.” “Your char­ac­ters jump off the page through dia­logue,” she told Gilvarry. “How do you get into character?”

In the case of the Boy’s FBI inter­rogator at Guan­tanamo, Gilvarry looked to TV, to late actor James Gandolfini’s por­trayal of Tony Soprano. “I had never met an FBI agent, so I didn’t know how they talked except for what I heard on TV,” he said. “I had been watching The Sopranos, so I just started writing dia­logue for Tony.”

‘Reading lit­er­a­ture is like meditation’

Later on, Dillon noted the decline of the book lover, citing a recent study that found that 25 per­cent of Amer­i­cans did not read a book last year. Then she asked Gilvarry to explain why fic­tion mat­ters, why reading is good for all stu­dents regard­less of their major.

Good books have the power to pro­voke thought in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “For me, reading lit­er­a­ture is like med­i­ta­tion, it’s con­cen­trated thought.”

The Q&A proved that stu­dents had care­fully con­tem­plated the ins and outs of Mem­oirs. One freshman asked Gilvarry whether he wanted readers to feel sorry for Boy, who is some­thing of a womanizer.

As a nov­elist, I don’t tell you how to feel,” he replied. “I just want you to expe­ri­ence the feeling.”

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