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.

In an article on marriage that you wrote for The New Yorker you asserted that "the words we use to describe our relationships are shared cultural property. There is no private language." You suggest that our sense of identity is often grounded in universal, culturally accepted labels—like "husband" or "father" and so on. Yet your stories often seem to emphasize that the characters you're writing about are much more complex than the labels that society would assign them; they have rich and distinctive interior lives.

Well, there's no escaping the fact that culturally agreed-on social categories are part of the landscape that any person's interiority has to play itself out in. But in fiction you're able to dwell in an ideal world in which full knowledge of other individuals is possible. In life itself, it isn't—we're locked away from each other. I think one of the pleasures of fiction is that you're given the illusion of going further inside, of experiencing more of what it's like to be inside another person's head than is actually possible. That's what makes it art—it's artifice in search of reality.

Do you ever have a political motive in choosing to incorporate individuals with certain experiences or certain identities into your fiction?

I'm not sure what you mean by political, but not really. My character choices mainly reflect preoccupations of one sort or another that I feel the need to dwell on—whether those are intellectual problems, or states of being that I want to express.

You've mentioned elsewhere that you think of the law as the study of exteriority. Can you say a bit about your decision to go to law school?

Sure. I actually deferred for a number of years. First I attended the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and then the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I had gotten into law school before I went to those places and I kept deferring. When I actually made the decision to go, it was really more a question of Why not? I didn't have a terribly good answer. That said, it wasn't by any means a purely negative decision. The reason I'd applied in the first place was a real intellectual interest in the law. I think the law is the language that power uses to articulate itself in this country—probably more so than in any other country in the world. And I do have an interest in understanding the psychology of power. Norman Mailer once observed that we have a lot of fiction about the underdog and the alienated, but we have fewer fictional representations of the powerful. It's a broad comment, but I've always remembered it.

When you did decide to attend law school did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve there?

I wasn't sure. I hadn't sold a book yet and I didn't have a real prospect of making a living from my writing. So I thought a mix of these intellectual interests and the practical side of a law degree might allow me to do something I'd enjoy. I had a suspicion that I might not end up as an attorney, but it wasn't clear. It's still not clear. I don't rule out the possibility that I might practice law at some point.

Can you comment on the experience of being a student of writing and then being a student of law?

Sometimes people ask me if studying law affected my writing. For a long time I didn't think it did. But what was actually helpful training was all the practice at being as precise as possible and using very plain, declarative language. While that sounds like a bit of a snooze, it's not a bad thing to try to master.

There's also a way in which I've come to think of good books as arguments, in the broad sense. The author has to win you over and make an argument for the world he's created and the themes he's presenting.

Does argument in both fiction and legal writing begin at the sentence level?

I think so. In fiction the argument for me is rhythmic. It's about the rhythm of the sentences. The argument is at least partly musical. I often think of it as something that has to operate on an unconscious level for readers. They're being convinced by a rhythm that they're not totally aware of. Careful readers are, I'm sure, but that's not the first thing that strikes them. They're taking in the content of the sentences. I think that's why I love giving readings and why it's great to hear stuff read aloud. Because you get to hear that side of the argument, as it were.

Is revising your own work a listening process?

Definitely. I was dyslexic, so I'm a very slow reader and a slow writer. Because I couldn't read when other kids did and had to be given special-ed training, I sometimes wonder whether I compute words differently than people who are able to read more easily. As a writer, it's always been a challenge to make progress, word-by-word. I'm not very loquacious on the page.

This past spring you were teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and next spring you'll be a visiting instructor at Columbia University's MFA program. I'm curious about your experience teaching writing.

I don't profess to have a radically novel way of teaching writing. Basically, I think of the workshop as a chance for people to have ten or twelve readers and to receive sustained comment on their work. They get to see if their writing is doing anything like what they want it to for their readers. Most of what I do is try to run a conversation that lets them hear their work reflected back to them.

When we discuss each person's work I do try to spend a certain amount of time reading sentences aloud and talking about particular word choices and what I call "small stuff." When teachers did this for me I felt I was definitely learning something, because it was very concrete and specific.

Since workshops are so interactive, has teaching really been all that different from simply being a participant?

You're right to suggest that the differences aren't enormous. In both instances, one is ultimately a participant in a conversation. But I think that a good workshop is also a conversation about ethics. Quite often the questions people raise about characters and plausibility are actually ethical evaluations of a character's behavior. I like to make people aware of that, so that we can separate our opinions about the work of prose from our judgments about how people behave.

Between going to school and teaching, you've had a lot on your plate for a number of years. How have you managed to make your own writing a priority, day-to-day?

The ideal is that I'd be at my desk every day from nine to two and deal with everything else afterward. There are stretches of time when my life allows that, and then there are other times when I can't sustain that five days a week. But day-to-day it's just an effort to keep up as much of that writing routine as I can and to treat everything else—teaching and journalism and professional stuff—as the other side of the job.

Do you get anxious when you're unable to write every day?

The question is do I ever not get anxious. It seems to me anxiety is a precondition of writing.

Do you have certain aspirations for your fiction in the future? How would you like to evolve as a writer?

I'd just like to write a novel. I mean, I'd like to finish the one I'm working on. I don't know that I think about it much beyond that.

Do you have any particular stylistic or thematic ambitions?

For now at least, I feel quite strongly an obligation or desire to try to represent what it's like to be alive in the world today. That's a pretty general statement, but I guess one thing it rules out is historical fiction.

Somewhere else you've said that writing a short story is like "one long exhalation." Is the process of writing a novel different?

I kind of hoped that the process would change somehow. But it still feels like the same activity. That is, I don't really know what the story is and I have to figure it out as I go. Once again, I don't seem to have outlines or a sense of what's ahead. I just find a character in a certain circumstance or place and start playing out the scene, and then see where it leads me.

Can you see yourself ever putting writing aside in order to practice law or something else?

That's a conversation I have with myself a lot. When the writing goes badly I tend to think about it a bit more than when the writing goes well. But I don't know. I'm a romantic; I believe that one's work ought to have some feeling of necessity to it. If that feeling were ever to leave me entirely then I think I probably shouldn't be writing.