issue 41: March - April 2004 

see the short story The Beginnings of Grief

Adam HaslettInterview with
Adam Haslett

by Sherry Ellis


Adam Haslett is the author of You Are Not A Stranger Here, a short story collection that portrays pivotal moments in the inner lives of characters who suffer from estrangement and psychological disturbance. Craig Seligman in his New York Times Book Review wrote, "There's not a clinker in the group, and this consistency, along with the maturity and the austerity and the exceptional tact of the writing, gives every indication that unless something goes radically haywire, You Are Not a Stranger Here is the herald of a phenomenal career."

In 2002 You Are Not A Stranger Here was a finalist for the National Book Award and in 2003 it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The story "Devotion" is included in the anthology: The Best American Short Stories 2003 and "Notes to My Biographer" was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. In August, 2002 You Are Not A Stranger Here was the selection of the NBC Today Show Book Club.

Haslett completed his undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College where he studied with Jonathan Franzen. He subsequently received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Center, the Michener/Copernicus Society of America and Breadloaf. In 1999 he received his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s workshop. In 2003 he won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. A man of many talents and interests, in 2003 Haslett earned his law degree from the Yale School of Law.

He divides his time between New York City and England. Recently Sherry Ellis spoke with him by phone at his home in New York City.

Sherry Ellis: You Are Not A Stranger Here is a collection of stories that contains the themes of estrangement, suffering and the desire to make connections. "You Are Not A Stranger Here" is also a line in one of your stories. How did you choose it as the title of this collection?
Adam Haslett: It did come out of a story. It was in the story first, certainly, and the story was actually titled "Wars End" when it was first published in Bomb Magazine. And then I ended up deciding to re-title it and I liked the title, so I used it for the book. "You Are Not a Stranger Here" was the only one that struck me as inclusive of all the others, in a sense, addressing the reader, inviting them into the book.

SE: When did you know that the nine stories in this anthology were short stories and not novellas or novels?
AH: I was always writing short stories. None of them were longer pieces that were cut down. They were written as short pieces, and I wrote at least two-thirds of the stories before I even conceived of them as a collection. Only the last third were written with the book in mind. At that point I had contracted to complete a manuscript.

You Are Not a Stranger Here : Stories by Adam HaslettSE: As the story "The Beginnings of Grief" draws to a close you describe a visit between a violent teenager and a recently orphaned classmate who takes solace in physical pain. "He came on a Tuesday. Rain was falling through the naked branches of the trees onto a carpet of rotting foliage". Is the vocabulary and metaphor you use in this passage an example of what you describe as finding "the correct rhythm" in language, and can you describe the process of trial and error that you use?
AH: To answer the process question first, the trial and error is really just a repeated reading of the sentences over and over again, to try to discern the rhythm of them, to find out if the second sentence is obeying the rhythm of the sentence before that. It is another way of describing the editing process. I think of each story as having a rhythm, an intensity, and I am always trying to find the rhythm that fits a particular story. In the first story in the book the rhythm is quite fast, and in others more deliberate. As for "The Beginnings of Grief" there is a certain kind of emotional detachment in the narrator. The ambition was to allow that detachment to filter down into the semantics of the sentences.

SE: Do you plan the direction your stories will take before you begin writing, even if they happen to veer off somewhat differently in the process? In "The Beginnings of Grief," for example, was that specific ending planned from the beginning?
AH: I generally have a sense of where the story is headed emotionally, i.e. I know where I want to reader to end up, the feeling I want them to end up with and the process is writing the story toward that end, hoping to get at that ideal balance you have in your head at the outset. Obviously, one’s ideas develop as you go along, but the emotional key rarely changes.

SE: Last year TBR ran both a Spanish and a Catalan translation of "The Beginnings of Grief"; the Spanish translation of You Are Not a Stranger Here had just come out (Salamandra, 2003), and the Catalan version of the collection is due out April 2004 (Anglés). TBR’s editor said: "The earlier Catalan version had been done by a class of translation under the tutelage of Matthew Tree, writer and translator. They had a hard time with ‘sloppy joe,’ and Matthew, who’s British, had never heard the term either. Salamandra’s Spanish translator, Eduardo Hojman, went with ‘bocadillo,’ but the Catalans tried for the more literal ‘la carn picada amb tomàquet’ (hamburger with tomato). ‘Helicopter "wings"’ gave them pause, too. But generally speaking, Matthew said what the students found tricky was maintaining the fine balance between the literary register in the story and the free use of colloquial American English, which works fine in the original but in Catalan is difficult to slip in and out of from one register to another." Might you have any general comments about the art of translation? Have you ever read any of your stories in translation?
AH: Let me first say I have enormous respect and gratitude to my translators. It is a greatly unappreciated art and I feel very fortunate to have had such good translators thus far. Pocia, my German translator was particularly careful and thoughtful. Sometimes I get questions from them about particular idiomatic phrases that they are having difficulty translating into their native tongue and I try to offer more background or alternatives. In the end, it seems to me what one wants in a good translator is the same as what you want in a good writer—an ability to emphasize, a good ear, and a talent with language.
      I’ve read some translations of my work, but am only really competent in French so can’t judge most of them. The Greeks could have put a cookbook between the covers and I would have been none the wiser

SE: Allan Gurganus once said that, "Dialogue isn’t what characters say to each other, but what they do to each other." Do you want dialogue to have the effect on your characters of doing something to one another? And what other function(s) do you hope your dialogue serves?
AH: I think I agree with Gurganus about that. You want it not to be simply giving information but to be characterizing and active. I don’t know that I’ve thought about dialogue as a separate issue and when I work it’s all part of the rhythm question, deciding when dialogue or description makes more sense.

SE: In "Reunion" a young man with AIDS uses writing to have imaginary communication with his deceased father. In "My Father’s Business" letters between psychologists are the means through which the primary character is revealed. In "Devotion" letters demonstrate sabotage in a complex, oftentimes symbiotic relationship between middle-aged siblings. What led you to use written communications in these different situations and what do you think they help you to achieve?
AH: That’s interesting. You’re pointing out a connection I’d never even noticed. So I’m somewhat disarmed by the question. But now that I think about it I think particularly in "My Father’s Business" and "Reunion" and less-so in "Devotion" letters give me the ability to use another written form within the story, to get at information and the world in a different way than standard realist narrative. So in a sense it’s an outlet. I’m able to get things into a story that wouldn’t otherwise find a way in.

SE: In the story "The Volunteer" you explore psychopharmacological treatment and its impact on perspective and creativity. When a woman with schizophrenia decides to stop taking her medication she ''wakes to colors more vivid: the Oriental carpet's swirls of burgundy and gold; dawn kindling the sky an immaculate blue.'' It seems from this story that you might be supportive of people who stop taking their medicine. How did you become interested in exploring this theme?
AH: Well, I certainly don’t advocate people not taking their medication; I don’t really have an editorial position on that. My goal is always to take the reader as far into the minds of my characters as I can get them, and in a few of the stories in the book that means taking the reader into the lives of people facing the dilemma of whether to take medication, what it does to one and so forth. So in that story, "The Volunteer", I think it had consequences both good and bad for her. And in terms of how I came into all this I’ve said in other places that my father was a manic depressive and there is some family background as to the question of taking medication or not.

SE: Many of your characters are complex, multifaceted individuals who are diagnosed with psychiatric problems. For example, in "Notes To My Biographer", Franklin Caldwell, the protagonist, is a seventy-three year old inventor who has had mental health problems since his youth. He comments on the many Robert Wagner look-a-likes he sees. How do you balance humor and pathos in your characters?
AH: It’s not easy and I’m lucky if I can. That’s a very tough question to answer. I don’t think there’s anything deliberate or intentional about it. I get lucky with a certain voice that allows me into a certain mind like his and a certain sense of humor can come out. But combining humor and pathos is a pretty tall order and it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish. I don’t feel I have much control over doing it.

SE: In an article in "The Yale Bulletin & Calendar" you are quoted as saying, "The law deals with people’s exterior lives, with the uniform rights that people have, whereas in my stories I am concerned with people’s interior lives, with their souls". When you are writing how do you investigate the "interiority" of your characters?
AH: Well, it’s kind of the whole shooting match for me. That’s really the point -- I think it’s the act of imagining myself further and further inside, the act of projecting myself into the position and situation I’ve made up for my character, and then trying to imagine in as much detail as possible what a human reaction would be in that circumstance. So, it’s the same kind of trial and error and concentration. Some days you can maintain it, and some days you can’t.

SE: You’ve previously discussed the differences between creative writing and law, but do you also believe there are connections between them?
AH: There are so many different levels on which they may be related, but I don’t think that the main preoccupations of each are related. I mean the exterior/interior is divided pretty clearly. But I think lawyers are fictionally very interesting characters, as people who find themselves advocating for things they may not believe themselves. Also, law is the language that power speaks through in this country, so if you want to get at the social fabric it can be an important discourse. I suppose the big, obvious thing is the story telling aspect, that when you go into in the courtroom you are really trying to tell a story; but the stories that writers and lawyers are each telling are so radically different, and hopefully a good lawyer is restrained by the facts.

SE: "The portrayal of the dark side of human experience is not a pessimistic act," is a comment you once made. Can you further explain what you mean?
AH: Well I guess some people’s reaction is that the stories are depressing. It seems to me that response comes out of a sense that something is depressing or not because of how it ends, which to me seems too literal. Something could have a dark ending but that doesn’t mean it’s a pessimistic experience to read it, because the optimism may arise in the identification the reader has with the predicament of a particular character. That usually involves some kind of emotion. I think of any emotion, even sadness, as different from depression, which is really a numbness, a lack of feeling.

SE: In "The Good Doctor" a psychiatrist visits a female patient at her home with the goal of enticing her into treatment. He finds her in a very bleak and disheartening circumstance and experiences "a familiar comfort being in the presence of another person’s unknowable pain...more than any landscape, this place felt like home". How did you choose the title "The Good Doctor"?
AH: The title just captured something about his intentions and what would become of them.

SE: William Trevor has said of writing short stories, "I think it is the art of the glimpse". Can you discuss this comment in regard to your own experience of writing? AH: William Trevor is one of my favorites. I think he is an incredible writer. I guess I take him to mean that it’s a slice of life found in a particular moment, a clarifying moment captured. Short stories have a poetic density to them that novels simply can’t achieve. You can think of them as one long exhalation. It’s one of the things I like about writing them; their emotional intensity is quite satisfying.

SE: Who are the other writers that have inspired you?
AH: As to the short story I’d say William Trevor, Joy Williams and Alice Munro. My taste in novels is all over the place, but I’m a bit of a modernist fan: Faulkner, Joyce, James, Woolf, Mann, all those folks.

SE: You’ve lived, and continue to live, in England for extended periods, and several of  your stories are set there. Can you give us a quick personal take on the US versus England - the people, culture, etc.
Actually, I’ve lived most of my life in the US. I spent three years as a kid in Britain and I visit there and Scotland a fair amount, but my social and professional life are definitely based in America. As for cultural differences I’d have to say the most pronounced is the continuing thickness of class differentiation in Britain, tied to accent mostly, that is far less on the surface in America. The United States is very divided by class, but there is almost no acknowledgement of this fact and whenever politicians even mention taxing the wealthy they are accused of "class warfare." The myth of egalitarianism runs very deep in the US, less so in Britain.

SE: How challenging has it been for you to cope with all the praise and attention, and the resulting changes in your life?
AH: Well, I think I had the good fortune of being in law school when a lot of it was happening, so there was a balance because of all the other things I needed to deal with and attend to. I guess I feel incredibly fortunate that the book has had the life it has and the recognition it has got, and most centrally in terms of it effecting my life I’m glad that I’m able to be able do what I plan to do, which is begin work on a new book.

SE: Do you have any suggestions for writers who are trying to develop themselves and become part of the literary marketplace?
AH: I was actually rejected from a lot of MFA programs and I have a fat folder from literary magazines filled with rejections, so I went through that whole process. Sometimes I think it is just endurance, spending enough time at it, arranging your life so that you can work; MFA programs are one way of doing that for awhile, though they don’t suit everyone.
      I guess my real break came when the woman who eventually became my editor read a story of mine in a magazine and asked to see more. That was the beginning of the book being bought and eventually published.

SE: And once you started to get your stories published did your writing career fall into place easily? Did you still receive many rejection letters?
AH: Oh yes, there are always rejection letters coming. I don’t think you pull a switch, and I think any other author would confirm that.

SE: So, do you have any suggestions or words of encouragement for beginning writers who want to be published?
I guess I would say don’t worry. Keep the idea of the market out of your mind for as long as possible, because it really doesn’t matter when you publish something. There are people who will eventually know the difference between something that is really good, something that is carefully attended to and thought out. I have taught and my advice to my students is to keep the whole idea of marketing out your mind, until you feel you have something very strong, and then worry about it.

SE: "Devotion" is included in The Best American Short Stories 2003. If you had been asked to choose one of your stories for this anthology which one would you have selected and why?
AH: I can’t really say. I don’t think I have an opinion on that one.

SE: Can you talk a little more about what you’re working on now?
AH: Other than saying it is a novel, not really. I’m a little superstitious when it comes to talking about new work.

Off the cuff . . .

  • New York versus London
    I find London far more peaceful, less harried, and therefore, in the end, somehow less interesting to me.
  • some living icons
    Senator Edward Kennedy
    William Trevor
  • ideal night out
    a dinner party for eight at a friend’s house
  • best fuel for the imagination
    silence and patience
  • a few favorite films
    Distant Voices, Still Lives directed by Terrence Davies
    Drugstore Cowboy, directed by Gus Van Sant
    Brideshead Revisited, the BBC series
  • Kerry versus Bush
    If Bush wins this election we are headed into an even darker age than he has already brought us into. I’m working with the Kerry campaign and I and my friends will be doing everything we possibly can to defeat Bush. He’s a menace to our country’s future and the future of global peace and justice.

    On this note, I did want to add that I was particularly glad to see Aznar defeated this past week and hope this will be the beginning of a serious international response to the Bush aggressions.
  • three things you’ve yet to do of the non-writing variety
    file a case in court
    get married (as you may have noticed it’s not legal here at the moment)
    take up another art form for pleasure
  • a favorite lawyer joke
    A lawyer who has himself for a client is a fool.
© TBR 2004
© author photo Suzanne Plunkett/AP
see the short story The Beginnings of Grief

This interview may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

Sherry Ellis is at work on The Goode Books, a novel. She also coaches and teaches creative writing. Her interviews with Jill McCorkle and Lise Haines can be read in Agni on-line. Her interview with Paul Lisicky is published in Provincetown Arts 2003 and her interview with Elizabeth Searle will be published in Post Road.


issue 41: March - April 2004 

Short Fiction

G.K. Wuori:Naked With Boys
Nelly Reifler:Personal Foundations...
Pat MacEnulty:The End
Paul Bergstraesser: Humility
Colm Clark: Mimes for Christ
picks from back issues
Javier Marías: Fewer Scruples
Adam Haslett: The Beginnings of Grief


Gretchen McCullough:The New Beirut


Adam Haslett by Sherry Ellis


19th-Century English Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz John Steinbeck

Book Reviews

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
The Furies by Fernanda Eberstadt
Dead I May Well Be
by Adrian McKinty
Boy A by Jonathan Trigell
The Language of Sharks by Pat MacEnulty

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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