Interviews Fiction Issue 2005

Aural Argument

Adam Haslett talks about the rhythm of language, studying law, and "City Visit," his short story in the fiction issue

Most law students don't find themselves in the running for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and a National Book Award. Neither do most beginning writers. But that's precisely what happened to Adam Haslett, at the time a student at Yale Law School, after the publication in 2002 of his debut short-story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here. The nine stories in that collection—haunting tales of grief and frustrated affection—were widely lauded by critics. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Craig Seligman pronounced the collection "the herald of a phenomenal career." Despite the sudden recognition, Haslett went on to complete his law degree, though he is currently occupied as a writer and not as a lawyer. This month, The Atlantic's first annual fiction issue includes a new short story by Haslett called "City Visit."

The story is narrated by Brendan, a Missouri teenager on a birthday trip to New York City with his mother. He has taken advantage of this weekend excursion to arrange a date with Tom, the guy whose online journals and photos he's been fantasizing about for months. If only he could ditch his mother, her outmoded clothes, her depressed silences, and her terror of urban crime. For Brendan, the city shimmers with possibility, and his rendezvous with Tom promises a temporary escape from his nothing life in a small-minded Midwestern community. When Brendan finally arrives at Tom's apartment on the Lower East Side, however, he encounters a subculture that he had not imagined from the safety of his personal computer.

Haslett's prose reflects that rare thing: an awareness of the subtleties of human drama. In "City Visit," Brendan's struggle to understand his homosexuality, to accept the sadness that pervades his family life, and to manage the difficult business of growing up is all touched off by something as simple as a description of a bedside table:

Together there on the dark wood surface, the objects appeared so masculine somehow. It was nothing like his father's dresser, with its crumpled receipts and dog-eared copies of the catalogues he used to sell to his customers from. His mind leaped to the forbidden idea that Tom might be more of a man than his father: stronger, more powerful, richer. At that moment, more than wanting to be touched by Tom, Brendan wanted to be him, to live inside the sculpture of his body, inside the life he'd made here, surrounded by these clean things. When the older kids had pushed him against the lockers last year and started kicking, they kept saying she. "She's a pussy." "She's a fag." "Look at her." He couldn't forget that word: she. It wasn't true.

Haslett's stories expose the robustness of our inner lives—the workings of memory and the imagination's struggle to turn what we desire into what we know. This vibrant interior world sometimes threatens to deliver his characters into a far more terrifying, even violent, reality. Brendan, for example, finds himself in the apartment of a young man who sells sex. And other characters in Haslett's stories suffer from suicidal depression or mania, turn to masochism, wander out into a winter storm in the dead of night. What brings them all to the edge is their desperation to communicate with those around them—be they mothers, sisters, spouses, or strangers. By penetrating through to that which is buried or veiled by our everyday language, Haslett quietly protests the crude labels we have for things like mental illness, homosexuality, and drug addiction. Ironically, his stories seem to suggest, it may be our struggles with aloneness that help us find connection with others.

Haslett's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Yale Review, and Zoetrope: All Story, and has been featured on National Public Radio's Selected Shorts. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in New York City.

We spoke by phone on June 14.

Kathryn Crim

Adam Haslett
Adam Haslett
(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)   

I was hoping you could say a little bit about the origin of "City Visit"—what sparked the idea for it and how it was written.

I had read something—I forget now what it was—that began with an argument between two characters. I was thinking about how quickly you can get character on the page when people are arguing because it sets them in relief against each other. And so I began "City Visit" with Brendan and his mother in a taxi, having their little squabble. As is often the case when I write a short story, once I had that initial situation I began to ask myself a series of questions: Where are they headed? Why are they fighting? What lies in their recent past? And the story evolves from my answers to those questions.

Is that how you typically begin a new piece of fiction?

Often, yes. I have a situation in my mind that I'd like to explore. In this case I suppose I had a sense of wanting to play with something technical, and then that led into the story. I usually don't begin things with people in discussion with each other. So in that sense this story was different.

What develops out of this initial conflict is a coming-of-age story. The reader gets a glimpse of the mother's isolation, but for the most part we're in Brendan's head. His sense of loneliness and desperation is sharpened by an intimation that something larger is just out of reach—a bigger city, a real sexual relationship, an adult self. He believes that he needs to turn his sexual fantasies into experience and make them real. Would you say that he discovers, however, that it's more important to recognize his fantasies as fantasies?

Your question makes me think of the title of a book—The Plague of Fantasies—by this guy Slavoj Zizek. One of the things he talks about is how our hyper-visual culture has created—and the Internet is obviously a big part of this—the ubiquity of very vivid fantasies. And they're powerful things. I was a big brother once for this nine-year-old kid and we played video games together. The video games were so sophisticated and so visually stimulating that I thought, If you were nine years old why would you do anything else? I think that virtual experience is often more stimulating than real experience.

And yes, in this story Brendan first encounters this dream guy over the Internet and then meets the real person. I'm not sure he really reconciles them, but the difference makes him confront something in himself.

What kind of challenges does writing from the perspective of a modern teenager present?

There are some small-bore things: I'm not a teenager now, so I've got to make sure my references are right. But that's more of a technical thing. When you're writing you end up distributing bits of yourself among characters all the time. And Brendan isn't such a stretch, given that I was once a teenager myself, and a gay teenager at that.

There's always the question of how to identify with or write from the perspective of someone who isn't you, how to cross gender or race lines or whatever else. As a writer, I guess you always end up assuming, perhaps solipsistically, that people aren't as different internally as external differences might make us believe.

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