Adam Haslett came crashing onto the literary scene in 2002 with his debut story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, was named a Time best book of the year, and was a New York Times bestseller. His awards include the PEN/Malamud Award for accomplishment in short fiction and the PEN/Winship Award for the best book by a New England author. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Haslett’s fiction and journalism have appeared in countless publications, including The Financial Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and Best American Short Stories. His most recent book, Union Atlantic, a novel, was released in 2010.
Haslett graduated with a B.A. from Swarthmore College, a M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He has taught writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Columbia University. He has also helped write a number of books on U.S. tax politics and policy with a former professor of his from Yale (you know, for shits and giggles).
Haslett is half American, which may explain his level of ambition and devotion to advanced degrees, and half British, which may explain his bloody great sense of humor.
Do you remember the first thing you read that stirred the writer’s desire in you?
Being dyslexic, my greatest achievement was finishing a book at all. I remember clearly being home sick from school when we were living in England (I was probably twelve) and reading A Brief Life of Benjamin Franklin in a single day, a fact I was tremendously proud of. But that wasn’t the beginning of the writing urge. That I’d have to date to sophomore year in high school, reading the plays of Eugene O’Neill. Ice Man Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Strange Interlude, More Stately Mansions. It was my first experience of tragedy and I was hooked. I wanted to devastate people as I had been devastated by those plays.
How did you go about becoming a “writer?” Did you keep journals?
I began writing in a journal on January 15,1988. I was seventeen and was leaving that day on a trip to Nepal with one of my best friends. I believe the first line in the journal was “And so the adventure begins…” We flew to Katmandu via Paris, Cairo, Dubai, and Karachi. My mother had been against the trip but I’d been obstinate. I was in love with the guy I was going with and the idea of spending two months in a tent with him was simply irresistible. As a side benefit, we’d learned to meditate together, something I do to this day. I filled three journals on that trip to the Himalayas, full of descriptions of travel and lovelorn angst. Once formed, the habit stuck. I have stacks of those journals in a box somewhere. They were certainly never shown to anyone.
Six months after the trip to Nepal I got the idea I could write a piece of fiction, something invented, something with shape and meaning, and I began working on my first short story. I hadn’t thought of it before, but perhaps travel made the difference.
You went to law school after you graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I often ask writers if they ever considered a more “stable” career path than writing for a living, since we all know writing for a living is a rather precarious thing. Was going to law school and becoming a lawyer your Plan B? Or was it another kind of plan all together?
The honest answer is I went out of intellectual curiosity and a desire to engage again with ideas, as I had as an undergraduate studying philosophy, but this time ideas that had traction in everyday life. I knew I wanted to keep writing and I hoped I might be able to combine some life in the law with writing. Trouble is, it’s not a part time profession. Getting a law degree is much like graduating from medical school: you need to complete a residency before your competent to practice. In the law that’s your first job out of law school.
I had taken a year off after my first year to complete my first book, and it then came out during my third year, so by the time I graduated I had the chance to keep writing full time and that’s what I chose. I enjoyed law school a whole lot, and many of my closest friends are people I met there, so I don’t regret it for a minute. In some sense if was a test of whether I’d be happy not writing, and the answer was, I wasn’t.
With all these graduate degrees under your belt, you were immersed in the academic world for quite some time. Did you have jobs along the way to support yourself?
Out of college, I helped organize large charity benefits in Manhattan for a society fundraising consultant. I did things like escort David Bowie to his table (he’s very short). It was an education in the ways of the New York rich. In my interview for the job, my employer, a heavy drinking homosexual of impeccable taste, asked what I’d studied as an undergraduate. When I told him literature and philosophy, he stroked the cat on his lap like Don Corleone in The Godfather, and said, “We don’t do anything nearly so important here, but you’re welcome to start tomorrow if you like.”
I remember meeting Jackie Onassis at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. As soon as our hands met to shake, I was struck by the thought: She was in that car in Dallas; these are the hands onto which the blood of the dying President seeped. The phrase “touching history” had never made sense to me before that moment (she too was very short).
So I did that for a while, and then I did the same job for Lambda Legal Defense, the gay rights group. They were filing the first gays-in-the-military and same-sex marriage cases. I remember sitting around the conference table as they argued over the strategy of aiming at what seemed then like impossible goals or trying to be more incremental. Celebrating the New York marriage equality law down at Stonewall the other week, I was reminded of those days, and felt the stretch of time.
When was the first time you were published? Do you remember the feeling you had when you saw it?
I believe it was in a magazine called the Alembic out of Rhode Island and I don’t recall what the piece was. I was living in Provincetown on a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center and someone from the magazine asked if I’d contribute a story. The publication was stapled and if I recall correctly had a rather drab and inscrutable cover. To be honest, I don’t recall exactly what my reaction was, but probably something along the lines of, “Oh, well, there it is.”
Your first published book, a story collection, shot into the literary sky like a rocket. Nominated for a Pulitzer and a National Book Award…wow. What was that kind of early success like? Surreal, amazing, terrifying?
I actually managed to enjoy it, which for someone who spent as much time in his twenties quietly savaging himself as I did was something of an accomplishment in its own right. Also, it didn’t happen all at once. There’s the excitement of an editor’s interest, there’s knowing your book will come out, there are reviews, and in this case wonderful surprises that came many months later, so the process is attenuated. I was also working at a law firm as a summer associate when most of it unfolded, so I had that counter balance of a job I had to be at each morning, and one I quite enjoyed.
How did your colleagues at the law office react to the success of your book? Did they know you were a writer? It seems, in some ways, like it would have been a strange (yet maybe strangely wonderful) situation of dissonance, or worlds colliding, or something of that sort.
One of my best friends from law school was working at the same firm with me and she certainly knew about my book. Some of the other lawyers took an interest and read the reviews in the papers. One particularly friendly counsel who knew I was beginning a novel, Union Atlantic, that involved the Federal Reserve and who’d worked there, took me down to the Officer’s Dining Room at the New York Fed, which was (it’s now defunct) a grand room with thirty foot ceilings and satin wall coverings, very Medici, in keeping with the Florentine design of the building.
Looking back on it, it wasn’t much of a clash of worlds. Lawyers write for a living. That’s what they spend most of their days doing. Many of them harbor a desire to write more than legal briefs. They were generally happy for me, and because I was a summer associate with relatively light duties, doing events for the book didn’t impinge too heavily on my other work responsibilities.
After the first huge success, did you ever feel daunted to write something new, to, in a sense, top yourself?
Two nautical analogies. You’re shipwrecked in the middle of an ocean surrounded by flotsam and jetsam. The clouds part and a voice says: “With your bare hands, as you tread water, take these broken pieces and build a new ship. And by the way, make it a beautiful one while you’re at it. Delivery expected in, say, five years.” That was one experience of writing Union Atlantic. The other: “Imagine your mind as a Roman Galley, commanded by a brutal and impatient captain and powered by a deck of slaves chained to their oars. You are the captain and the slaves.” You might call it a master-slave dialectic. Which is to say that I believe writing is, as James Baldwin described it, a process of “delicate, arduous, disciplined self-exposure.” To write anything worthwhile you must confront shame, i.e., the judgments of others and your judgments of yourself (or silence the shame with substances and blow on through it). There’s blood on the floor.
I wrote most of You Are Not a Stranger Here without any sense that the stories would comprise a book. I was just writing stories, each with its own satisfactions and costs. To the extent that I knew from the outset that Union Atlantic was a novel and that it would be published, the pressure was no doubt greater, but the underlying psychic economy didn’t change. I’ve always been a fierce critic of my own work. I don’t type sentences until I’ve composed them in my head and much of what I write doesn’t survive later revision. But this I think is quite common.
Can you recall early challenges you faced, writerly or otherwise?
Well there was depression, anxiety, horrible stomach problems, horrible back problems, loneliness, horniness, dread, fear, and recurring radical doubt as to the worth of my endeavors, but other than that it was all quite effortless. At my nadir, I was reduced to lying beneath a glass coffee table and reading books placed faced down on top of it, which made page turning a bit of a production. Relief consisted of aquatic aerobatics classes attended by the aged and nearly dead. My malady? Life, really. Old-fashioned neurasthenia. The impossibility of everything. That, and the effort to write.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yes, indeed. And what stopped me was what the British call bloody mindedness. I would be damned before I gave up.
What about early triumphs?
The satisfaction of writing a well-struck sentence is, for me, the basic unit of pleasure without which I wouldn’t keep at it. Thus, I wouldn’t use the word ‘triumph’ to describe the joy in the work. I’d say quiet victories over meaninglessness. Little bits of transcendence contrived from the rhythms of English.
Where did you live in your salad days? What did you eat?
I lived in a fifth floor walk-up with no sink in the bathroom at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal in the Village. Two bedrooms, $850/month. As a post-college crash pad it housed a rotating group of friends and travelers. This was in the early ‘90s heyday of the slacker aesthetic when political disaffection, dysthymia, poor diet, economic recession, and soft drugs sent up a kind of penumbral haze around recent humanities grads.
My diet was ironclad: bran cereal with water and banana for breakfast; a turkey sandwich on whole wheat for lunch; and penne in a sauce of ground tomatoes heated up in a saucepan with raw garlic and covered in the best parmesan money could buy. Wittgenstein once said, “I don’t care what I eat so long as it’s the same thing.” Back then, I agreed with him.
Is there anything you would like to tell Adam of that earlier time?
Be less ashamed.
How do you look back on that time—fondly, or not so much?
Fondly, very fondly. I was often quite miserable but there was euphoria too. And friends. People I’m close with to this day. So, no regrets.
At a certain point I realized I had to get out of New York if I was going to get any work done. I couldn’t afford not to work and I wasn’t willing to give up my social life, which meant I didn’t have enough time for my own work. I had to figure out a way to live more cheaply and get support for my writing.
So you went to law school.
Law school is simultaneously highly structured and freewheeling. I was surprised to be given a locker for the first time since high school. Meanwhile, I could take classes in other graduate departments in things like intellectual history and get credit for them. Yale in particular gives you wide latitude to figure out what interests you. At first, I was most struck by the bright, open, cheerful sense of entitlement, an often apolitical ethic of hyper-achievement in the post-modern meritocracy that tends to dress class privilege up as pure smarts. Everyone seemed so happy. But eventually I self-selected and found a few leftist malcontents with whom to commiserate.
Was having an artistic community important to you when you were just starting out— did you have many friends who were writers or artists?
I had a few friends, but the first place that I found a real community of artists was at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. There’s no other place like it in the country in as much as it’s dedicated to giving young artists who haven’t published or shown a substantial amount time to work. That’s it, nothing else. No classes, no courses, just time. I learned the discipline of writing that year.
What are your work habits like now? Have they changed over time?
They haven’t changed much over time. Shower, breakfast, meditation, at my desk in my apartment by 9:30ish, no food until I’m done around three. This is probably not good for my stomach, but whenever I eat, my brain goes fat and sloppy. Some of the most productive hours are those low blood sugar, early afternoon times when I’ve exhausted my internal editors but am still awake enough to make use of the freedom.
Finally, any advice for young writers?
Write every day. Ignore all things related to the market, professional literary life, and the publishing world until you’ve got a sense of what interests you about your own work, and then ignore all that stuff for another few years while you make the best work you can. Despite the swirl of anxieties people can get into about how to cope in the ever changing world of literary commerce, getting published isn’t the ultimate challenge. Making good work is. The rest will take care of itself. Or it won’t. But if it doesn’t, you’ll still be an artist. Success alone won’t make you one.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo © Beowulf Sheehan