A Conversation with Christina Adam
Christina Adam, author of the short story, "Horse Heaven Hills," in the November, 1996, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, is a first-time contributor to the magazine. She was awarded the Idaho Commission on the Arts Fellowship in literature on the basis of her forthcoming novel, Canada Geese, and also received a Crazyhorse, the annual prize awarded for best story published in the journal of the same name. Her first collection of short stories, Sleeping With the Buffalo, will be published this winter by Confluence Press. She is currently at work on another collection, Horse Heaven Hills: Twenty Love Stories, and is co-editing the book Coming of Age in the West: Stories by Contemporary Women Writers.
Adam recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Ryan Nally.
CA: Absolutely. Idaho. Just prior to moving to Idaho I lived in southern California, but I could never write about Los Angeles. It's just too in-your-face. When I moved to Idaho, it was like being presented with a huge white canvas. Suddenly I had the freedom to create worlds of my own. Now I'm beginning to write about myself in Florida, where I grew up. I spent a lot of time wandering around in the swamps on horseback.
Q: This winter Confluence Press will release Sleeping with the Buffalo, the first collection of your short stories to be published. What should readers expect to find?
CA: Sometimes I feel as though I don't even know how I write short stories. With some notable exceptions, I don't like short stories. They seem like one-line jokes. A lot of readers whom I talk to feel annoyed by the short story, because they want to know what happens next. Anyway . . . many of the stories in the book deal with life-and-death situations. They're not about social interaction, urban angst, or male-female relationships. They're more about survival in both an emotional and physical way. I think we live in a very violent culture and pretend we don't. Exploring this violence in my characters is a way for me to get into people's inner lives.
Q: Many of the stories in Sleeping with the Buffalo deal with the crucial decisions people make when confronted -- often to a gruesome extent -- by adversity. What are you trying to achieve with these stories?
CA: I want to write stories that take on larger subjects and resonate longer than you would usually expect. Flannery O'Connor said that characters tend to reveal what's absolutely indispensable in their personalities when they're confronted with death. I've seen a lot of violence and death in my life. Once you've seen a lot of it, it's hard to go back to ordinary life. You tend to keep looking at issues of survival rather than philosophy.
Q: You taught creative writing, English and American literature, and film studies at the high-school and college level for more than fifteen years. Now you own the Lazy DW Cattle Ranch in Victor, Idaho, in addition to devoting time to writing. Is there a relationship between leaving teaching and producing your first book of fiction?
CA: Teaching is creative enough that it eats you alive. If you teach with any passion at all, you're never finished. My main feeling at the end of a day of teaching was that I wanted to go to a movie on a school night. I never have stopped writing in my whole life, but the point of going to Idaho was to start writing very seriously and full-time. I'll probably start teaching again soon; I'm ready after this long rest.
Q: You were the coordinator of a film program at the Oakwood School in California for three years and also taught an advanced course, "The Novel into Film," at Ohio University. Your Atlantic short story, "Horse Heaven Hills" (November, 1996), would certainly lend itself to a powerful screen adaptation. To what extent does the art of cinema inform your writing?
CA: That's a very good question. It obviously informs it on every front. When I'm actually sitting down and writing, I often see the story before me as if it were a dream -- all I have to do is transcribe it. I revise endlessly, though, trying to get it right.
Certain filmmakers have had a huge influence on me, particularly Podovkin and other Russians. Podovkin's theory was to build the film brick by brick. I always see a story in a linear narrative and then I see it in a horizontal layering of themes and images. Another big influence has been the American filmmaker D. W. Griffith who said, "The task I am trying to achieve above all is to make you see." To me that's what art is all about.
Q: You are currently co-editing Coming of Age in the West: Stories by Contemporary Women Writers (Confluence Press, 1997). Why the focus on the West?
CA: People are very attracted to western writing right now, for many reasons. The western film, which I am very fond of, reenacts the end of the frontier over and over again and is very rich in its iconography and what it has to say about the American psyche. We both want to grow up and we don't. We keep looking for new frontiers -- in All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy had to go to Mexico to find one.
If you look at a classic western, though, the ultimate scene is when the hero walks down main street to confront his fate. The woman is always saying, "Why?" One of the most powerful westerns ever written was The Misfits by Arthur Miller. In it Marilyn Monroe says to Clark Gable, "Why do you have to go bring in the wild horses?" She's practically in tears; it's one of her most touching performances. She's right, but she can't win, which is both poignant and tragic. These are all issues in which I'm very interested. There are a lot of anthologies out on western writing, but they're predominantly male. Both Shelley Armitage (the book's other editor) and I are very interested in finding women writers who confront the issue of western frontier mythologization.
Q: Do you see your writing as fitting into a distinct literary tradition?
CA: Absolutely. Art is a long conversation with the past. If you don't know where you belong, you don't know what to say. I came to full-time writing rather late in life, and since I wanted my writing to matter, it was difficult. I wasn't conversing with my peers; I was conversing with Faulkner, Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf. There's a sense of urgency in my work; I don't want to waste my time. I can see a direct relationship between my work and that of Woolf's "novel of sensibility" (in the words of Philip Larkin) that deals with the feeling of being alive. The other big influences, of course, are Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.