Alex Pickett’s life has been, in a word, interesting.
While some might consider his residence in London and the release of his first novel, “The Restaurant Inspector,” noteworthy enough, most likely aren’t aware the 2000 Milton High School grad has:
--Inspected restaurants and hot dog carts in New York City.
--Worked in four different factories, two different cemeteries and also has been a film extra.
--Been a copywriter, comedy writer and taught creative writing to undocumented refugees and asylum seekers.
--Hitchhiked his way back from Alaska, where he served as a winter caretaker at Denali State Park in Trapper Creek.
Leading up to writing his book, Pickett earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at UW-Madison, graduating with distinction in 2005. He added a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Florida in 2016, and “The Restaurant Inspector” started as a thesis paper for his MFA. Pickett’s past work has earned various undergrad honors and consideration for story prizes, not to mention nomination for a Pushcart Prize, which recognizes excellence in poetry, short fiction, essays or literary works.
Support for Pickett’s writing comes from his wife, Elena, who is a professor of film studies at King’s College in London and an author in her own right. The couple adopted Milo, a senior Bichon Frise/poodle mix Pickett says is “the bane of our existence and the light of our lives.”
Locals interested in reuniting with Pickett or checking out his work can do so at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17, when he appears for a live reading from “The Restaurant Inspector” at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Road, Milwaukee.
Pickett’s book is available through Book World of Janesville, 2451 Milton Ave., and online through the University of Wisconsin Press, Amazon.com, GoodReads.com and several others. He can also be reached through his website, rapickett.com, or via Twitter @alex_pickett1.
1. What was the impetus behind your new book, “The Restaurant Inspector”? I worked as an inspector in New York City and I wanted to explore the strange and often awkward or unfair relationship between inspector and inspected. I also grew up in four different small Wisconsin towns—Prairie Du Chien, Stoughton, Neillsville and Milton—and I always planned on setting my first novel in a mixture of these places. I’ve found that moving to a new city turns you into a kind of inspector. You’re always assessing how you fit into where you live just like Arthur, the inspector in the book, assesses both restaurants and his life in this new strange town.
2. You wrote your book before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but the story alludes to a mysterious illness that creates mass panic and forces people to wear masks in public. Are you from the future? As soon as masks and curfews became the norm, I got a text from a friend that simply read “You jinx!” But the idea arose from a need to give an inspector something to do, and what better villain is there than an illness? I wanted something that affected everyone in the town equally, but it needed to be invisible, so they can blame their fears on whoever or whatever is most convenient. I believe that reacting to an unseen enemy is a good way to expose character, and that’s often been borne out during this pandemic.
3. You currently live in London, England. How does a kid from Milton end up in London, England? First, you need someone very smart to fall for you. Then they get a job as a professor at a London university. After enduring the hassle of visa paperwork and international moving companies, you hop on a plane and land in London. Finally, you start calling French fries “chips,” remember to say “pounds” instead of dollars, add “u” to words such as “colour,” and you put commas outside of quotation marks.
4. Name your favorite Muppet. I always liked Gonzo. He’s a daredevil, and his girlfriend is a chicken.
5. For a time, you lived in Alaska as a student and warehouse supervisor. What led you to relocate to The Last Frontier? I wasn’t doing much else. I had dropped out of college and was working at a factory in Janesville and donating a lot of plasma so I figured what the heck—Alaska is as good a place as any to get some thinking done. Got off the plane in Fairbanks with my duffel bag and had no idea where I’d sleep that night. Worked out in the end.
6. To what do you credit your interest in writing? You know, I don’t really know. Maybe it started when my mom and I wrote a book called “The Adventures of Rocky Raccoon” when I was 4 years old? Or reading Dostoevsky in my cabin in Alaska? It’s always been the only profession that makes sense to me. Lord knows I’ve tried to do everything else.
7. You spent three years as an inspector for the New York City Parks Department. What did that job entail, and did it have any influence on the story line for “The Restaurant Inspector”? I inspected anything that made money on parks property: hot dog carts, marinas, horse stables, Tavern on the Green restaurant, Shea and Yankee stadiums, etc. I was once locked inside the Central Park carousel by some angry carousel employees who didn’t like me poking around. No doubt it influenced the story line for the book. Inspecting is a strangely intimate experience with messed up power dynamics, which makes it perfect for both comedy and drama.
8. Share something that is markedly better in England than it is in the U.S., and vice versa. Health care is much better in England, as I learned firsthand during a recent six-day hospital stay after my appendix burst. Plumbing is markedly better in the U.S., as I learned firsthand during a three-year stay in our previous apartment.
9. When you decided to leave Alaska and head back to Wisconsin, you hitchhiked your way here. What did you learn through that experience? I learned just how big Canada is. I also learned that hitchhiking is exhausting: not only does it involve a lot of hiking, but when you are eventually picked up you’re expected to be genial and gracious company which, to me, is a lot of work. I also learned to fear buffalo more than bear.
10. When you got back to Wisconsin, you took a job working at a cemetery. Which one, and what was your role there, and what prompted you to seek out that job in the first place? I worked in the office at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee. I prefer to take interesting jobs to learn aspects of the world I otherwise would never know, though that tendency hasn’t endeared me to prospective employers in my qualified field. (Forest Home) was actually the second cemetery I worked for. At Northern Lights Memorial Park in Fairbanks, Alaska, I mowed the lawn, helped with burials and dug the children’s graves.
11. Do you have any writing rituals? I stick to a strict routine. Every day, I eat the same exact breakfast (oatmeal, one egg, coffee), read for a while, and write for four to five hours before I break for lunch. After lunch, I’m generally useless with the writing, so I take walks or do related work like filling out questions for the kicks section of the Janesville Gazette.
12. What are some of the more fun bits of British lingo you’ve picked up since moving to London? I’m a fan of “chuffed,” which means “pleased.” Also they call a “station wagon” an “estate car,” which I find funny.
13. Share something you learned growing up in a small town that you have been able to apply to your life in the different places you’ve lived. I always felt monitored growing up in a small town. Everyone knew everything about everyone. That taught me to live consciously and to be aware of my surroundings, since someone might be watching. I’ve found this is wise counsel whether I was living in Neillsville or New York. Either that or I’m just paranoid.
14. What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while writing your novel? I learned that my first thought is definitely not my best thought. I can make myself sound much smarter than I am if I spend time editing what I originally wrote.
15. British food can be an acquired taste. Share something you have eaten that you deeply regret and something that you are surprised you enjoyed. Once, as an extra on a movie set, I accidentally took a big bite of a cheese, onion and mayo sandwich, which is inexplicably popular here. The director was next to me so I had to swallow my bite and later chucked the rest of the sandwich into the woods. I was surprised to enjoy honey roasted, ham-flavored potato chips. Apparently ham is a good chip flavor.
16. What are the top three things left on your bucket list? Write a second book. Write a third book. Teach my dog to roll over.
17. Share the best piece of life advice you’ve ever received. Who gave it to you? I have two. In a writing workshop, novelist Padgett Powell said of a story I wrote, “If this was what Mr. Pickett wanted to do, then he has succeeded.” It wasn’t a compliment. He meant I was playing it too safe and achieved an easily attainable goal. I took away that goals should be lofty and failure should be spectacular. Also, my friend Sebastian texted me this the other day at 4:22 a.m.: “I told you about the Pascal thing, right, the thing about recognizing that the condition of your life is precisely that it’s not eternal, and may not even last one more hour?” If it’s not the best advice I’ve ever received, it’s the best advice I received this week.
18. What is your favorite book, and who is your favorite author? Lately, my favorite author has been Penelope Fitzgerald. She writes beautifully about misfits, which is a subject close to my heart. My favorite book these days is “The Dog of the South” by Charles Portis. A nice writer recently compared my book to it, which made me feel right chuffed.
19. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. I have delayed sleep phase disorder, so I’m an extreme night owl. Usually I can’t fall asleep until four or five or, on bad days, six in the morning. It’s a huge hassle and most people think that I’m weird and lazy and just want to sleep late. I do get a lot of reading done in bed, at least.
20. When I think about it, the single coolest thing that has ever happened to me is: It’s corny, but the coolest thing that has ever happened to me is that I met my wife, Elena. Well, either that or the time I found a $50 bill in the Culver’s parking lot.