Interview with Adam Haslett

I have known Adam Haslett for over half of my life. He’s not the first person I thought of for Machismo. But as Norman Mailer is no longer with us . . . Adam was the second person. He’s been thinking about issues of masculinity for as long as I’ve known him, and writing about them as long. Masculinity, and mental illness. Which subjects—and exquisite writing—earned his debut story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, accolades including a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim, and the PEN/Malamud Award. Not straying from his core themes, Adam’s new book, Union Atlantic, is about the atomic failure of an outsized bank, the war-hardened financier responsible, a brilliant but borderline retired schoolteacher, and a grieving gay teenager. Finance and militarism in sum, which Adam explains are contiguous aspects of machismo. Amity Gaige, also an old friend of Adam’s, a fellow and spectacular writer in arms, probes him for details on his latest foray into these matters that we New Englanders consider (shhh!) taboo. —M.P.

AMITY GAIGE: I’d like to start by talking about “The Volunteer,” the final story in your collection You Are Not A Stranger Here. The story has so many resonances with Union Atlantic. There’s an elderly woman, visited by a teenage boy who is volunteering at her structured living facility as a means of shaking off his own recent trauma. I see Nate in that story. I see Charlotte. I hear the voices. I also see the gaudy mansion that functions as such a freighted setting for the conflict in the novel. What was it like to recognize a novel in a story? And what was it about the short story, if you can remember, that felt like the seed of Union Atlantic?

ADAM HASLETT: I’d actually begun writing the first character in the novel before I wrote “The Volunteer,” so it wasn’t so much that the story was a seed for the later book as it was a matter of material that had begun to preoccupy me. That said, it was also the longest story—the one where I think I finally felt there could be scenes or sections, where the pleasure was sideways—not always directly narrative. Also, most of the stories were from one point of view, whereas in “The Volunteer” I was writing from two totally distinct points of view. There was something about writing two whole consciousnesses whose development and arc was important—as was the movement between them.The idea of writing a novel at that point seemed natural enough.

AG: You recently said that the drive to elaborate what it’s like to be alone with your own mind is what made you write in the first place. Is the writing mind its own unique mind state? 

AH: One way I think of it, which can seem too precious, is that it’s like your entire life is about creating mental focus for the five or six hours that you’re going to write each day—everything else in your life is organized around that. Frankly, that can make you a little neurotic. . . . It’s like you’re curating your own mind.

AG: You remind me of something you once said to me, I think I was griping about my own struggles to keep my novel on track and you said that “writing a novel requires a psychotically consistent persona on the part of the novelist.” This seemed woefully true, and I find myself repeating it to other writers when they complain about the same thing. By saying it takes a psychotically consistent persona you mean that it’s somehow odd and at the very least unnatural to succeed in sustaining a consistent tone and attitude throughout the number of years it takes to write a novel. We change daily, because life requires it of us. So is this writing of novels over the course of a decade a perverse thing to do? Is there something to be said for the rare novel that reveals its inconsistent process? Can you at least bring the dynamism of writing a story to a novel? 

AH: I’ve never been a fast writer so even short stories require their own sort of miniature psychotic consistency. But the question remains—is the case for writing any book on some level simply about having the discipline over a length of time? To concentrate over that length of time is just an exceptionally difficult thing to do.

I’m reading Robert Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which is this shaggy, multiform novel; there are tens of different voices, and practically everything is tangential. I envy that looseness and I think that when I make the comment about psychotic consistency, it’s that I have tended to write in a very controlled manner. I am obsessed with the reader’s attention. The reader’s mind. Being able to structure a moment of consciousness within the reader. It’s one of the reasons I love to read aloud because I can then deliver the rhythm in addition to the sequence. I feel like I have even more control over their experience. There are benefits to this, but it’s also a personal and aesthetic matter. And it seems that it has costs too. Personally, because the self-excoriation can be a little much, and aesthetically, because there are all sorts of things that Bolaño gets to do, or Roth, or Bellow or other people who are unhinged in some ways. One of the things I feel after having finished this book, is that I’d like to become more unhinged over time.

AG: It seems that we’re often trying to smooth over the novel to make it seem as if it were written in as short a time as it takes to read it. Which is difficult. And inaccurate. Yet, I wonder if there are ways in which the novel can reveal the constantly changing persona?

AH: True. Well, I’m easily bored when I read and often ascribe that to the writing—the writer hasn’t been sufficiently captivating. There are a hundred different ways to be captivating, but it’s always about a very close attention to taking a reader into some compelling and particular rather than generalized world. The interesting thing is that you could see Bolaño as very shaggy, or as an incredibly controlled performance of a certain sort of shagginess. There’s a way in which there is real consistency across these voices and their habits of mind. The Savage Detectives is deeply nostalgic in some ways without being maudlin; he creates this sense of innocence in the beginning of the book and the rest of it is all a falling away from that.

AG: Henry James once disparaged the novels of Tolstoy by calling them “loose, baggy monsters.” John Gardner took the idea further by sayng that a novel cannot  “be too loose, too baggy or monstrous; but a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use.” The choice, given these terms, seems to be either to let a novel be loose—of course James also uses the word monster—or neaten it into obsolescence. 

AH: Well James did both! I suppose I’m closer to the teacup and I would like to at least work towards the baggy monster. One of the reasons I may have needed to exercise that kind of control is that in a way the genre of the novel intimitated me. I wasn’t raised on the grand narrative of the development of the short story, and so I didn’t feel the need to justify myself in writing stories. Whereas I had been taught literature in the grand tradition of the novel and so stepping up to that plate, justifying making a contribution to that genre was intimidating.

AG: So maybe next you’ll write a loose, baggy monster, but after your story collection, what was your ambition for this novel? 

AH: About ten years ago I became interested in the Federal Reserve and got excited about the idea of placing a character there because of the breadth of vision such a person could have over our entire economy. That’s where it began. At the same time, I didn’t want to let go of what was happening in the stories, such as the intensity of individual consciousness. So if there was a guiding ambition, it was to combine the social scope of the nineteenth century novel with a modernist intensity of consciousness and interiority. Those are two things I love in literature and you always write the book you want to read.

AG: You have said that one inspiration for Union Atlantic was your urge to explore “the consequences of militarism and finance capitalism and their effect on the old humanist tradition.” Can you expand on that, especially as it pertains to your feelings about the old humanist tradition? Union Atlantic feels like kind of a love song for this tradition.

AH: Well, a lot of people went into making the character of Charlotte. One of those people is my aunt, who has been very influential in my life. She is a museum curator and taught me everything I know about art history; she also has an incredible sense of cultural history and the idea of a tradition as a living thing composed of books and ideas and philosophy and the humanities. She lives in New York—not surprisingly. So, on 9/11, once I finally reached her and found her safe but upset, she said to me:  “You know what they’re doing? They’re bombing the last city of the Renaissance.” I borrowed that line from her to give to Charlotte. It was so striking to me that in this emergency, this moment of physical violence her first reaction was based on five hundred years of history. The image of New York as the last city in America on the European model, that’s still based on banking and art, in which art was still a romance. Hearing in her that level of passion and directness—about something immaterial. Well that’s obviously just one point. But I also feel that it’s increasingly an act of resistance to insist upon the relevance of past achievements. Achievements in concentration, you might say, to go back to what we were saying earlier. In a world of the dying concentration . . .

AG: Dying concentration?

AH: The dying ability to concentrate. I’ve got this idea at the moment that the future will belong to the slow. It’s probably totally wrong—a recipe to be unemployed, but that’s how a novel is done. This stretching out of concentration we were talking about, to attend to the day-to-day consciousness and detail of the physical world. That’s the pleasure of reading, to think—Ah, yes . . . I recognize something in this vision, fragments of it already existed in my head but I’ve never slowed down to take it in. That’s what a novel can provide: the space in which to contemplate.

AG: There’s a part where Charlotte says to her brother Henry, who is the President of the New York Federal Reserve: “such an anonymous sort of power you wield. So far from the madding crowd. It’s always intrigued me. Thinking about the people affected by what you do. The fact that they’ll never know you [ . . . ] It’s not a criticism. It’s just I wonder sometimes what it does to you. What it’s already done to you. The abstraction. Lives as numbers.” 

AH: I think a lot of us grew up with the vague sense that there was “a system,” a kind of omnipresent force of convention that authentic people spent their lives resisting.Obviously as you get older and dig deeper, everything looks a little more complicated and you become implicated in various systems and you can’t really think in those black and white terms. But this is a case where there actually is a system. People in Washington meet to decide where to set the interest rate and depending on what number they chose, they are determining a kind of misery index. What is the acceptable level of unemployment? What is the acceptable level of inflation? We’ve given Economics the status of natural science, and the Federal Reserve is not elected, so we as citizens don’t have direct control over it and yet it’s arguably far more important to the day to day life of the economy than most of what congress does. I wanted to explore the life of a man who made those decisions.

AG: You made Henry a very moral and thoughtful man.

AH: He’s a New Deal Democrat. He’s old enough to have grown up in the shadow of Roosevelt and the notion that a public servant serves the public good. In the book, he is sort of between Charlotte, who is a more extreme advocate for art and literature and history as religion, and Doug, who is the unfettered Capitalist.

AG: In an overt way, the character of Doug Fanning is Henry’s contrast—a banker who takes incredible financial risks but no emotional risks. And he’s invulnerable.

AH: Seemingly . . .

AG: He represents himself as invulnerable, and creates a lot of damage. I don’t want to necessarily ask if Doug is a symbolic character? But there seems to be an implied comparison between the old guard and the new. 

AH: Your question is about whether, if I have ideas that I’m interested in elucidating or investigating—do I have the idea and then find the character? Do I work in a sense from the top down, where the character is the expression of the idea?

I found Doug through the other private banker in the novel, Jeffrey Holland, who is the head of Union Atlantic. I started writing about him and he just wasn’t that interesting. The person who was political enough and bland enough to get to that position, just didn’t have an interesting interior. Then, I wrote a scene in which his second in command comes in the door and suddenly this guy is doing all these strange things. And that guy was much more interesting to me, and he became Doug. But I always wanted to get at the character’s interior life, not so much to editorialize about any of what I might think about finance capitalism or liberal humanism, as to explore the consequences of believing in either. This is pretty central to the book: What are the consequences of living strongly with your ideas? Ideas as entities that press on you. It’s not as if Charlotte’s embrace of liberal humanism and the fervor in which she advocates it is some panacea. That has harsh consequences as well. In that sense, I think they are in dialogue with each other, but I was trying not to choose sides.

AG: Charlotte is an incredibly beautifully complex character. I love when she says to Nate: “Tell me, why is the world a problem for you?” And he asks her what she means and she explains, “For some people the world is a more or less obvious place. It’s transparent to them. It isn’t, in itself, a conundrum to be overcome. Which means their interests are simply tastes or preferences. But if the world is a problem to you your interests are different. You’re conscripted by them.” . . . So, do you have a book of believers? 

AH: Yes

AG: Are the characters conscripted by these beliefs?

AH: They are all in a sense conscripted by a felt necessity to behave or be true to certain ideals. Except for characters like Jeffery Holland, who I was uninterested in because he’s the ultimate chameleon. And I think that has been one of my frustrations about contemporary fiction. One of the reasons I love your work is that the intellectual life doesn’t get left out of the equation. Sometimes it’s as though we’re afraid to have characters who might have read as much as the writer. And there is a way in which especially younger writers can end up condescending to their characters, because you want control—A leads to C leads to D. In order to do that, the characters have got to be kind of simple. Those formulas don’t work on real people.

AG: You write about extreme mind states and in some cases, insanity, without denying those states their reasonable content. It would be easy at times to dismiss the mania of someone like the father in your heartbreaking story “Notes to my Biographer,” but his speeches are totally engaging and emotional. And I feel that way about Charlotte in the novel. I suppose she’s insane—she does hear the voices of her dogs talking, but I believe what she says. So, what do you think has made her “insane,” and what does she refuse to accept about reality? Was it the loss of the beautiful young man she loved, or more about her attachment to her beliefs?

AH: I think it’s the ferocity of her attachment to her beliefs. When you first meet her, she’s alone, as are most of the characters in the book. In some way what I’m suggesting is that her solitude is so well populated by her imagination and her interior monologue that at some point the latter takes over. I imagine it as the decay of a mind. When the boundaries between what should be kept inside as interior voice begins to slip out into the world. I don’t make any clinical claim or decision about it. I suppose it’s a sort of senility, but that makes it sound like a loss of capacity.  It’s more as if her mind is expanding into the world. And that of course at some point becomes deeply impractical and creates the problems.

AG: She’s tired of limiting her thoughts.

AH: And they’re coming back to her with a kind of force. The force of her own beliefs is coming back to bite her—through the voices of the dogs.

AG: I do love the dogs. There’s a mastiff that speaks in the voice of Cotton Mather and a Doberman that talks like Malcolm X. It sounds whimsical when I say it, but these are serious and righteous voices. Charlotte was a history teacher for many years so it’s plausible that she’d have these historical voices in her head. But why did you choose a Puritan preacher and a radical Black activist as the voices of consciousness here?

AH: Well, I’m glad you ask that! Part of that decay I was just talking about—what’s decaying along with Charlotte’s mind is what I think of as the liberal conscience. The postwar American, left-of-center liberalism that I think has been routed since Reagan and I don’t think the Obama administration really so far has represented much of a return to that. I feel the continuity of living in a more conservative world since 1980. This may have a New England tinge to it, but I think of that liberal conscience as having two building blocks: one is this originally religious but now secular self-excoriation, an edict to work harder to help the sick and the poor and the down trodden and there’s a noblesse oblige associated with that—but it’s a punishment of or a denial of pleasures for yourself in order for other people to benefit somehow. Along with a belief that everybody should act exactly like that too; and they’re horribly reprehensible if they don’t. On the other hand there is this primary guilt about America for the original sin of slavery. Something about the idea of a Puritan preacher and Black radical seemed like two foundational ingredients of this liberal conscience. They don’t fit in a neat philosophical way, but they are the id of that liberal conscience. The dogs are like the explosion of an intellectual id.

AG: I love the moment where the mastiff, Sam, is chiding Charlotte for her grief over her long ago lover, Eric, by talking about how he lost thirteen of his fifteen children and you mourn “one loss of a man not your husband?”
AH: Mather did lose thirteen children.

AG: Those are direct quotes?

AH: It’s a mix. Some are lifted from actual sermons by both of them but then it’s obvious that when they’re directly addressing Charlotte—I made that part up.

AG: You make a bold and wonderful gesture by beginning the novel with a key piece of one character’s dark history—Doug Fanning’s complicity in shooting down a civilian airplane when he was a soldier. You open the novel with that. Why?

AH: I didn’t know if I would use that. It wasn’t the first thing I wrote and it’s the only thing that takes place outside of the one-year span of the book. I think I wanted to give the reader a way of seeing him with some depth of field. He’s a banker, but the fact that he comes from the military is very relevant—how, why, he got into the military. His experience, not as an officer, but as an enlisted sailor. The resentments he has in life that follow out from that experience. In some sense it was just context. But his overall character has a certain kind of machismo, which seems contiguous from the military to the financial world. Two forces that over the last decade of American life have been most empowered domestically and internationally. The emotion that seems to vivify both fields is a certain kind of male anger. It’s better disguised in finance, but very much there. So the opening scene in the gulf was both context and a connection.

AG: You’ve been doing some nonfiction writing lately. Is that a nice break from solitary writing days?

AH: It’s been good. So incredibly different. What you call upon to be a good disciplined writer has nothing to do with being able to be out in the world. Especially in this current environment where there’s an apocalyptic feeling hanging over so many things including the publishing industry. One of the effects of this on writers is to intensify their focus on publicity. Writers have to be so much more knowledgeable about the business of writing than thirty or forty years ago. That can easily be distorting; and disturb the writing process. How do you create contexts of meaning and meaningfulness in reading and writing that survive the vicissitudes of all these market values? It’s not a matter of retreating into some high romantic vision. You write to communicate, so of course you want people to get the communication. But if you’re writing as a profession you can’t ignore the world. So how do you concentrate on writing, and still somehow work as a professional in the world? Maybe it’s having some camaraderie with people who are confronting the same dilemmas and share the same values. I’m thinking of A Moveable Feast, which I read recently for the first time and expected more warmth from—F. Scott Fitzgerald in a café yakking it up—but it was altogether more scathing.

AG: Of course A Moveable Feast was the last book Hemingway wrote before he died, and he was looking back at this time and his first marriage and his life before fame, though not before ambition. What I love about the book is how much he seems to be calling for that spirit of play and shameless sincerity that one has when one is starting out as a writer and still has hope in the process for its own sake.

AH: And absorption. That full absorption in writing, reading and conversation. The writer sitting in a Paris café has obviously gone on to become a clichéd vision. But that quality of absorption is hard to achieve in our world. And it seems to me worth fighting for, making some space for. It is also about granting, or creating for yourself a renewable resource, or font. It’s only then that you actually connect to the pleasure. One of the great satisfactions of Union Atlantic came in the last eighteen months. I actually did get to the point where there was a lot of pleasure in the writing and I allowed myself to enjoy that part. I was awake to myself, able to think: “this is the good part.” Don’t breeze past, because this is the moment.

AG: I was just going to ask you to tell me one reason why you’re grateful that you’re a writer. 

AH: It’s the absorption. The self forgetting that comes at the best moments when you’re transported into what you’re doing. There’s a line in the novel where Doug is imagining himself as an artist of the consequential world instead of this effete writer that his secretary is trying to become. I often put into a character a kind of writerly consciousness in a different context. Doug is always trying to control the world and that’s obviously one impulse of the writer, to control by narrating. But in the most satisfying moments you’ve done all that work. The satisfaction and gratitude is in that limpid peaceful absorption.

AG: Can I finish off with one quote that seems related? It’s my favorite line in the whole book. Henry is thinking about observing his daughter, Linda, when she was little—she’s grown now, she’s not really in the book—but he’s remembering her as a child: “Maybe it was just that Henry, as an adult banished from the kingdom of mystery, could never fully credit its existence for his daughter, and could only fake a belief in it for her sake in the hope that somehow, on the far side of that impenetrable divide, the garden was still damp and lush and time had yet to be invented.”

TLR: Machismo cover
TLR Machismo cover. Art by Stephen Ferry “Marisol Khali Takes Her Lumps” (c) 2006 Stephen Ferry. Courtesy of the artist. stephenferry.com

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Amity Gaige is the author of three novels, O My Darling, The Folded World, and Schroder, which was shortlisted for The Folio Prize in 2014. Schroder was named one of Best Books of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review, The Huffington Post, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, The Women’s National Book Association, Cosmopolitan, Denver Post, The Buffalo News, The Millions.com, Amazon.com, Bookmarks, Publisher’s Weekly, among others.  Amity is the winner of a Fulbright Fellowship, fellowships at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies, and a Baltic Writing Residency. Her short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The New York Times, The Literary Review, The Yale Review, One Story, and elsewhere.

This interview originally appeared in Machismo: A Field Guide (TLR, Winter 2010).