Introduction to the Interview
by Ashley Farmer, Fiction Reader
HOW DO YOU BECOME A FINALIST FOR BOTH THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD AND PULITZER PRIZE WITH YOUR DEBUT COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES? You write nine tales that explore the fractured and often desperate lives of people we know (but don't know that we know). You render them with compassion and humility, and convey reverence for human relationships in all their complexity. You remind us how brutal it is to be young and how fragile we can become when we're older. You give ordinary moments grace, imbue struggle with hope, and disarm us with humor where we least expect to find it. You, finally and permanently, dispel the rumor that people don't read short fiction anymore. You up the ante on Keats' theory of negative capability. Then law school. A novel. And "extraordinary" appended to your name.
Interview conducted by Ashley Farmer via email
First off, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.
I wondered if you could begin by catching us up. I know that you received the tremendous attention and accolades for You Are Not a Stranger Here when you were in law school. I understand that you’ve both taught and worked as a legal consultant since that time. Sounds like you’ve been busy. What have you been up to and what are you doing now?
Well, thanks for your interest in doing an interview. It’s a privilege to have people show an interest in my writing.
As to what I’ve been up to the last few years, the answer is that I’ve spent most of my time writing a novel. I graduated from law school back in ’03 but haven’t been practicing as an attorney. The legal consultant work you refer to has consisted of helping to plan out and write a few books on tax policy and American politics, which have been interesting projects, particularly one on the inheritance tax, or as the Republicans would have us misleadingly call it, the “death” tax. This latter project offered a great deal of insight into how issues and legislation are pushed for in the age of lobbying and multi-media campaigns, and in particular how the right is good at using faux populism to advance the interests of the super-wealthy. Along the way I’ve taught a few times, one semester at Iowa and another at Columbia. But the real bulk of my time has been spent at the desk on the new book.
Speaking of law, I wonder if you could comment on how this part of your life informs your writing life, or vice versa. I know you’ve said elsewhere that you’re interested in the psychology of power, and many of your stories certainly speak to that.
Law school effected my writing life in two ways. For one thing, it brought me into contact with a lot of very smart people who were and are thinking about the rules and institutions that govern public life. And those friendships have been sustaining ever since. Secondly, it’s allowed me to be a fly-on-the-wall in a number of settings—from corporate board rooms to immigration detention facilities—that I would otherwise never have entered. And, frankly, for me, that’s just good material. It feeds a native curiosity about ‘the system’, if you want to call it that, and gives me ideas and scenes which might one day wind up in a story or novel or piece of non-fiction.
I’ve heard that you’re at work on (or perhaps have finished) a novel. Is this true? I wonder if you might tell us about that experience. What is/was the process like for you? And can you share what the novel is about?
Yeah, I’ve been working on a novel and am glad to report that I finished it this September. As for the experience of writing it, it fell into two fairly distinct periods for me: for the first two-and-a-half to three years I felt like a man in the middle of an ocean trying to make a beautiful ship with my bare hands out of the debris floating all around me. Most weeks were a defeat. I swore if I ever finished the book I would never write another. It was lonely and pretty miserable and I didn’t see the point of it. But I believe in the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention and slowly, though definitely not surely, characters I believed in did emerge from the piles of discarded pages; a tentative plot emerged; and I kept going. For the last two years, though particularly in the last twelve months, what had seemed a painfully slow, hesitant, halting process sped up (marginally) and I had a sense of momentum going into the final stretch this past summer. What I feared most from the beginning was that I would write a book I didn’t consider strong enough. But after five years, I’m reasonably proud of what I’ve managed to do. What readers will make of it, I obviously don’t know. But I think all writers know that very private, internal moment when they have a sense of whether they’ve achieved their own goal. That opinion shifts, you grow closer or farther away from your work over the course of time, but I think without those satisfactions, however fleeting, it would be hard to keep writing. There has to be some pay-off which has nothing to do with what others think.
I tend to revise and edit as I write. I’ll write a sentence or a paragraph and immediately start editing and reworking it before going on to the next one. Once I have a page, I’ll usually go back and edit that several times before moving forward. And so on with sections and chapters. What this means is I never get a complete draft until I’m almost done. I wrote the last chapter of my novel in the final days of my work on the book. I knew by then what would happen but I hadn’t drafted any of it beforehand. I hasten to add, I’m not at all certain this is a good or productive way to go about writing, especially a novel. If I write another one, I imagine I’ll try to outline more than I did this time around. But that’s how I wrote my stories and I didn’t know any other way to proceed.
As for feedback, I tend to wait until fairly late in the process, once I’ve worked out most of what I want to do before giving it to a few friends to get a sense of how the piece is reading. Again, there’s good reason to think it might make the process less lonely and speedier if I were to share pages earlier but I can then run into the problem of being distracted from my own vision. For me, the task of writing is making my own unformed instincts and arguments about the world articulate. Which means, at the outset, I have to live in the uncomfortable condition of not knowing what I’m doing.
And what do you think about workshops? How did your experience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop influence the way you approach your work or the work of others?
I went to Iowa expecting a shark tank and instead found myself amidst a rather lovely group of people. Marilynne Robinson and Frank Conroy were wise teachers. And I had the luck of sharing my time there with a cohort of graduate students most of whom were thankful for the chance to spend two years writing and open to enjoying themselves at the same time.
My one general piece of advice on the MFA front is don’t go too early, i.e. straight out of undergrad, because you are less likely to appreciate the freedom and the time and others’ opinions are likely to have a larger and perhaps disproportionate impact on your work.
I know this is the usual question, but I’m fascinated with process. Could you tell us a little bit about your process and how you work your way into a story? What are your writing habits?
When I’m working, it’s Monday through Saturday, nine to three. I almost never write on Sundays. Obviously, this isn’t a schedule I keep up fifty-two weeks a year. I tend to go through six or seven week spans and then end up, whether I want to or not, having a down week where I can’t get anything done. The longer I do this the more I realize it’s best to simply give in to those down times, which are part of the process, and not fight them or indulge in too much self-recrimination.
In “My Father’s Business,” Daniel Markham’s history is revealed to readers through a series of letters and tape transcripts. In “Notes To My Biographer” we come to understand Frank’s mental state, in part, through what he scribbles down about himself. I wondered if these approaches to unveiling your characters’ emotional/psychic landscapes were strategies you toyed with or if they occurred organically?
The transcripts in “My Father’s Business” were inspired by William Gaddis’ novel JR, which is eight hundred pages of unattributed dialogue. It’s amazing how Gaddis manages to reproduce both the disjunctions and flow of real conversation rather than the standard use of dialogue in fiction, which tends to be a series of small set pieces that take place at the ‘significant’ moments. My own story, of course, has none of that same breadth but I wanted to play with dialogue in more extended form and the transcript tapes was one way of doing that.
The notes in Notes to My Biographer were more a product of inspiration. They sprung up out of the intensity of the narrator’s need to act, speak, and write in his manic state. In a sense, they’re attempts on his part to control that explosion of insights he’s having by catching the thoughts before they disappear.
And a follow-up question to that: do you encounter many moments of surprise as you work? How do you negotiate or balance the intuitive and inventive moments of writing with more formal concerns?
I do experience moments of surprise and they are important moments, times when long held intuitions suddenly take shape on the page, which is satisfying. But these moments are rare. They usually only occur after months or even years of work and under the pressure of needing or wanting badly to finish something. For me, writing has always been a matter of organizing my life is such a way that the most important thing each day is to arrange my routines of sleeping and eating and seeing friends in such a way that I’m rested and alert and able to focus each morning when I arrive at the desk. Often, of course, despite all my efforts and attempts to control the variables, I’m still not able to focus but I keep on with it, trying to get in as many good days in as I can. Eventually, you’ve written enough bad prose and dead-end scenes that amidst all that rubble there are some worthwhile sentences and paragraphs. The surprises are when you can link them up and make meaning from the history, as it were, of your own efforts.
**In your story "City Visit," a teenage protagonist thinks about being pushed up against lockers and kicked by the other kids because he's gay. It felt like this could be read as analogous to the internal and external conflicts a writer faces – how he or she has to battle internalized discourses of accepted knowledge in order to write honest fiction. After all, beginning writers rely on clichés and platitudes that tame or shape a member of society's worldview. How did you personally overcome society's herding instinct to write honestly about the human heart?
Though I didn’t necessarily see this at the time I was writing them, in retrospect the stories in You Are Not a Stranger Here are loosely unified around an effort to bring readers in close to the phenomenology of my character’s psychic pain and distress. That is, I portray moments of suffering and ask the reader not to look away. I try not to sensationalize the suffering, nor romanticize it, but rather, in a sense, reproduce it on the page in such a way that a reader can enter into and yet still be held in a meaningful world—the constructed world of the story. I think that’s one of the functions of art: to suggest the possibility of meaning in a world in which meaninglessness is a constant threat. The starker, Beckettian approach is to insist on a direct confrontation with meaninglessness as a kind of existential and philosophical point of honor. But to be honest, I don’t think that’s how most people encounter the problem of a loss of a sense of cultural and personal meaning. I think they encounter it within the open-ended narratives of their own lives that they always, already have. The self may be shaky—it often is—and it may even be contrived but at least from the inside, it still exists.
**I wanted to ask you about technology – after all, we’re speaking via e-mail and soon this conversation will be online. With so much publishing happening on the web, submissions being sent electronically and works from traditional print journals now archived on websites, do you think technology is changing a writer’s life?
I think technology is changing the way we attend to the world—all of us, not only writers—and in that sense, yes, I think it does alter how writers work. It strikes me that particularly in the last ten years, one might even say since 9/11, a frenetic, antic disposition has become more and more prevalent. Low grade anxiety is endemic, it seems. This works against people’s ability to focus. And by focus I don’t simply mean turn off the television or avoid the email, though obviously that’s part of it. I mean being able to achieve a kind of calm that allows the ambient worry in the culture to drop away at least for a few hours each. In my experience, at least, it’s only in that quiet that the less fully formed intuitions I have about whatever I’m writing about can emerge. If you’re already anxious, you’re already trying to protect yourself, and if you’re already trying to protect yourself, it’s that much harder to let the undercurrents of your own thoughts and emotions emerge because they themselves are a threat to your sense of self security. Yet without the material that lies beneath your most conscious intentions it’s hard to write worthwhile fiction.
I know you’ve said elsewhere that you’re superstitious when it comes to talking about work-in-progress, but I’m afraid I can’t help myself: what can we look forward to from you? Are there any projects you’re interested in exploring in the future?
Having just finished the novel I’m having a little down time now before going back for a final edit of the manuscript. After that I’d like to get started on something new, though I’m not certain what it would be yet. Probably some non-fiction. I’d like to get out into the world a bit after spending so long in my head. Fires interest me. Forest fires in particular. I might read up on them.
And finally, a political question. Maybe it’s watching the presidential debates, but I’ve been thinking about your introduction to George Washington’s Rules of Civility (110 rules written when he was a teenager – many of which are timely and relevant and funny). I know there’s no short answer to this, but do you think our country has changed much in terms of civility since you wrote the introduction in 2004?
Being a political junky my first answer is that it’s gotten worse. We trust each other less. I think that distrust has been growing as more and more people intuit that the systems we live within—most obviously at the moment the financial systems (about which I write in my novel)—are unsustainable. Because so many people have so very much at stake in maintaining and living off of the existing order of things and because the major issues of the day have to an unprecedented extent become neatly aligned with the two parties (one right-wing, the other centrist), a kind of perpetual distrust and even derision has come to exist between two large swaths of the population.
My second answer, however, is that much of this conflict is more imaginary than real. Symbolism has come to dominate our politics and in an anxious, frenetic age, that symbolism is being reinforced twenty-four hours a day in the media and on the web. But regardless of how potent and even alluring this conflict has become—and certainly I am guilty of falling for its allure myself (what better feeling than being right?)—I think it represents a kind of luxury, one that may quickly be disappearing. Our response to the coming downturn in our economic life could of course simply serve to worsen the divisions but I don’t see that happening. I think this reckoning will up-end much of the current political landscape in ways we can’t yet predict.
Thank you, Adam, for spending time with us.
**These questions were a joint collaboration between Ashley Farmer and Justin Nicholes
Adam Haslett is the author of the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Zoetrope All-Story, Best American Short Stories, The O'Henry Prize Stories, and National Public Radio's Selected Shorts. In 2006, he won the PEN/Malamud Award for accomplishment in short fiction. He has been a visiting faculty member at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Columbia University and currently lives in New York City, where he is working on a novel.
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