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The Humor in It:
An Interview with Alex Stein
by Jason Miller

Alex Stein’s Variations in the Key of K (Etruscan Press, August 2020), retells the story of Franz Kafka, the tortured Czech writer most famous for his novella The Metamorphosis, a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a large insect. Kafka’s other work, particularly his novels The Trial and The Castle, explore the surreal and are steeped in a sense of alienation and dread, so it is odd to think of their author as a humorist, but this is one of the ways that Stein sees him.

“Kafka is said to have laughed until he wept reading aloud from The Metamorphosis,” Stein wrote in response to my question asking what connects the main characters, and subjects, of Variations in the Key of K: Franz Kafka, William Blake, and Pablo Picasso. “All three possess comic genius,” Stein wrote. “Thomas Mann called Kafka a ‘religious humorist.’ Algernon Charles Swinburne, in his sympathetic biography of Blake, wrote of ‘the cool insanity of Blake’s humor’ and Picasso was a clown, from crown to toe, and intended to be. Three hilarious humans. Blake coined such comic gems as, ‘The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom,’ and Picasso was really just a comic actor playing the lifelong role of the creative genius.”

Stein first became interested in Kafka as a teenager: “A neighbor to whose house I had come trick-or-treating put a copy of The Trial in my Halloween bag.

‘It is scary,’ the neighbor told me. ‘And it won’t impact your oral health the way candy would.’

I must have been about twelve. The neighbor was rationalizing because they had forgotten it was Halloween and were not expecting any trick or treaters. After I left (I had dressed as the ghost of Elvis) they turned off their porch light. I kept the book around, never thinking to read it. It was a rotten trick to play on a kid. Kafka instead of candy. But a few years later I was recovering from an illness and had read through everything else in my bedroom, so I picked up The Trial, read it, squinched up my face and read it some more, and discovered something important about myself. I am the sort of person who enjoys reading Kafka. It turns out there are many of us. But we are still very rare.”

It was around the same time, although for different reasons, that Stein decided to try his hand at writing, an occupation that sprung from his desire to be a professional talent show emcee: “My job would be to introduce a curious or comical or death-defying or thrilling or poignant or balletic or triumphant or nerve-wracking act. Afterward, I would make remarks about the performers. ‘They looked nervous out there,’ I would imagine myself saying of a dance troupe as they absented the stage. ‘Next time they should try to think of everyone in the audience as wearing only top hats and undergarments. That’s what I do.’ This sounded in my head as I imagined it, at the age of 14 or so, like sophisticated repartee.

Unfortunately, there turns out to be no such job as talent show emcee. (Anyhow, there are very few such jobs). If I wanted to host a talent show I had two choices. I could pretend to do so, as I had always done, or I could give up wanting to do so. I preferred continuing to pretend. Pretending led to writing.
Writing was not as satisfying as doing the thing for real, but it occupied my imagination and that was important to me, even as a kid. If my imagination was not occupied in a focused way, it would wander all over the place.”

Variations in the Key of K itself is like a talent show, exhibiting the skills of some of the modern world’s most interesting (and humorous) folks. What type of an audience did Stein envision for such a piece of art? “People from the future,” came Stein’s answer. “I would say the people of 2060. They will have the perfect perspective. It is only two generations from now. Forty years. Not long, really, for a book to find its audience. Some books, of course, find their audience overnight, like lightning. Other books take hundreds of years to find their audience. The vast majority never find any audience at all. Forty years is nothing. Of course my parents will most likely be dead by then and I would have liked to make them proud with my literary success but who knows, maybe if I tell them what a big deal my book will be in the future, they will be proud just to know that.”

A sense of humor is necessary when you’re a writer, especially when you are writing in, and about, a world that makes little sense most of the time. His latest project is a three-act play about the end of time: “The stage is dark, empty, and silent, through the first two 40-minute acts. This is meant to build tension for the last act which I call, ‘the germ of a new universe.’ The play is still in an experimental phase. I am road testing it, virtually, reading all the parts online to friends around the country. It takes two and a half hours. Two actors. One onstage, one offstage. So far none of my friends will sit through, even, the first two acts. ‘It is too conceptual,’ they complain. ‘But that is exactly the point,’ I reply. They don’t get it, though. Which is irritating, frankly.”

Alex Stein was born in Washington State and raised in Canada. He is the co-editor of Short Flights, an anthology of modern aphorisms. He received a doctoral degree in Writing and Literature from the University of Denver. He works as a research librarian at the University of Colorado.

Jason Miller earned a M.A. in Playwriting and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the Maslow Graduate Program at Wilkes University, where he served as a graduate assistant for Etruscan Press.

New Releases from Etruscan

We are proud to welcome Spring Ulmer’s Bestiality of the Involved to the Etruscan family.

What does it mean to want to become a mother as children around the world die of treatable diseases, are killed by bomb or bullet, are held in cages? Waylaid by tragedy, Ulmer questions in this collection of essays, that explores the world around her, just how we might move beyond guilt into another ethical paradigm—one that cultivates emotional intelligence—and in doing so, refuses any easy answer.

Ulmer is the author of Benjamin’s Spectacles and The Age of Virtual Reproduction. She teaches at Middlebury College.

Hampton University Students
Expand Etruscan’s Outreach Program
to Virginia and Beyond


Etruscan Press is dedicated to fostering a vibrant community built around books and the people who love them. As part of this ongoing mission, the Press continues to partner with academic institutions to expand the community outreach programs that are a hallmark of Etruscan’s mission.

Etruscan author and Hampton University’s English and Foreign Languages Mellon Foundation Endowed Chair Laurie Jean Carter developed an internship project with the Etruscan Press editorial team during the Fall of 2020. This internship required students enrolled in Hampton’s Senior Project English course to expand Etruscan’s outreach program and develop opportunities for literary outreach in the communities where the interns live.

Hampton University students were tasked with selecting nonprofit organizations they were passionate about. These organizations were required to provide outreach initiatives that aligned with Etruscan’s mission, and be willing to circulate recycled books published by the Press. The recycled books were excess inventory or returned from book sellers, which could not be resold.

The interns faced the challenge of meeting with Etruscan’s managing editor virtually instead of in person, yet each of the interns became innovators as they developed ways to reach out to potential partners that did not require face-to-face contact.

Through social media, email, and other creative approaches, each intern researched nonprofit organizations with limited access to literary works. Using online resources, the interns identified organizations and contacted them to determine if there was an interest in partnering with Etruscan. These networking opportunities introduced the interns and Etruscan Press to other nonprofit organizations.

The internship provided Hampton University students with real world community outreach experience by reaching out to organizations with limited access to literary works.

In less than a month, the Hampton interns developed a list of nearly thirty nonprofit organizations as potential Etruscan outreach partners based in Georgia, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The accomplishments of these six young women demonstrate the importance of literary citizenship.

The following six Hampton University students served as Etruscan interns during the Fall 2020 semester:
Inayah Avant
Shannteas Davis
Thandie Evans
Cassie Herring
Kourtnei Sims
Madison Townsend

The entire Etruscan family thanks these budding publishing professionals for their contributions!

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Etruscan Press has been unable to deliver the traditional outreach events to underserved communities, where authors share their work with senior citizens, students, adults, and incarcerated citizens; however, Etruscan continues to explore alternative ways to reach out to these communities. Many Etruscan authors have answered the call to participate in virtual events, which are available on YouTube and archived on the Etruscan website.

For further information about Etruscan’s internship opportunities or community outreach programs, please visit our website or email us at books@etruscanpress.org.

About Etruscan Press:

Housed at Wilkes University and partnering with Youngstown State University, Etruscan is a non-profit literary press working to produce and promote books that nurture the dialogue among genres, cultures, and voices.

For the latest Etruscan events, please visit our website.
Copyright © 2021 Etruscan Press, All rights reserved.


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