In Nine Island, Alison tells the story of a solitary woman living in a Miami high-rise apartment, who considers retiring from love and is obsessed with Ovid’s poems.
The narrator of your book, J, spends a lot of her time looking out the window of her high-rise, yet her apartment is covered in mirrors. Is she more interested in looking outward than looking inward?
Interesting observation. She does spend a lot of time thinking about—obsessing about—pondering issues in her inner self, so it’s a relief to cast herself outward. She is fascinated by how other people—or pelicans or iguanas—behave and almost loses her own sense of self when watching. She’s also at an age when her own bodily reflection is more irritating than anything else. But those mirrors are good for expanding the sense of space, doubling the sky.
Like Ovid, the narrator is in exile. How does her solitude play into her affection for Ovid’s love poems?
I hadn’t thought of her in exile, strictly, but you’re right — if by exile we mean isolation from any notion of belonging. (Big difference between belonging and longing.) The Ovid who wrote The Loves, Art of Love, and even Metamorphoses was still the man-about-Rome, though, not yet in exile (those sexual poems might well have sent him there). Yet the figures in his Metamorphoses prefigure Ovid’s own exile from home, language, and culture in that these figures often transgress—by wanting or doing something very wrong—and as a consequence lose their form and human tongue. The new body (as a tree, a bird, a newt) is strange and estranging, something like the state of exile. In the case of my character J, the estranging transformation, the “exile,” might be from youth, from loveliness in all senses of that word, and ultimately from the natural order of human procreation. She’s an island.
You’ve written on Ovid before. Are there other parts of this book that are autobiographical?
The book is a nonfiction novel, or autofiction, or a semi-imagined memoir: the lines between fiction and nonfiction and poetry seem even more unhelpful. Ninety percent of the incidents portrayed here are based on experiences I’ve had, although I did compress the events of two summers into one.
What is it about Miami that the narrator finds alluring, or at least compatible with her life?
Maybe the nonhuman elements. The shifting sky, restless water, sea grapes, and anoles and gumbo-limbos and parrots. She feels a comforting affinity with other creatures, other bodies, that hold traces of the changeableness among forms, if only in imagination: an iguana that plops into the bay and suddenly looks like a fish with wings; a tree that looks like a girl who dove into the ground, legs swaying; a rock made of hundreds of petrified corals, their fans or labyrinths intact; metamorphic clouds drifting across the sky.
A version of this article appeared in the 07/04/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Difference Between Solitude and Loneliness