Narrative 10

On the occasion of Adam Haslett’s stunning new novel, Imagine Me Gone, being published, Narrative has a few burning questions for the author.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction?

At the moment—and it does change over time—I’d say the narrator of a Joy Williams story. Her new and collected stories is a masterpiece. Her narrators vary, of course, but they have in common a god’s-eye view of human impermanence and folly, and it is always a relief to spend time with them.

2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?

There are too many to count, often not even complete lines, just phrases, and they are my favorites because the satisfactions of their music and their meaning are inextricable, twinned pleasures. Two current ones:
“The more withered the reality, the more gigantic and tyrannical the dream.”
—Mary Gaitskill, Veronica
“Likewise the imaginative woe,
            That loved to handle spiritual strife,
            Diffused the shock thro’ all my life,
But in the present broke the blow.”
—Tennyson, In Memoriam

3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time.

“Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin.

4. Best part of the day?

Between one o’clock and two-thirty or so in the afternoon, when I’ve exhausted the critical voices in my head, my blood sugar is running low, and after hours of editing and scratching, I’m finally able to write.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

To remind myself that just because I had a bad day doesn’t mean my book did. And to remember that imagination and art don’t conform to a capitalist’s ratio of productivity to time, however easy it is to succumb to the wish that with enough effort they could be made to.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

Luckily, I have no idea, as I’ve never gone through what I’m sure would be the mortifying process of discovering the answer. I think just would be high on the list, both on the page and in life, one of the reasons being the particular power it has, described best by Marilynne Robinson in Gilead:
In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word “just.” I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed—when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge-. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

7. What’s your current obsession?

Besides writing fiction, I write about politics and law, and so I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my current obsession—and that is the right word—is the historic collapse of the alliance between economic elites and the national defense establishment on the one hand and working-class social conservatives on the other, which has defined the Republican Party since before I was born. It is the most dramatic shift in American politics in my lifetime, and exposes what has always been there to see—the electoral reliance of the Republican Party on appeals to racial hostility. In Europe, they are used to right-wing parties that espouse these kinds of views, and it clarifies people’s choices. Perhaps it will in this country too.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

In response to one of the first essays I wrote in college, on Euripides’s Bacchae, a professor, who later became a good friend, pointed out that my analysis of the play was rife with anachronism. I’d assumed that my own culture’s arrangement of human identity was universal and ahistorical. He rid me of that illusion, which taught me something deep not just about history (there it is again, “just”) but about how to imagine character and experience beyond my own.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I knew, without knowing, that time doesn’t matter much, and heaven knows I wish I knew that with the same unthinking conviction today.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

That no emotion is more mummified in cliché and thus kept from us by our own words.