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 Writers 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
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.
SE: 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, ones 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). TBRs 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, whos British, had never heard the term either. Salamandras 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 writeran ability to
emphasize, a good ear, and a talent with language.
Ive read some translations of my work, but am only
really competent in French so cant 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
isnt 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 dont know that Ive thought
about dialogue as a separate issue and when I work its 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
Fathers 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: Thats interesting. Youre pointing out a connection Id never
even noticed. So Im somewhat disarmed by the question. But now that I think about it
I think particularly in "My Fathers 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 its an outlet. Im able to get things into a
story that wouldnt 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 dont advocate people not taking their medication; I
dont 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 Ive 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
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
AH: Its not easy and Im lucky if I can. Thats a very tough
question to answer. I dont think theres 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 its a very difficult thing to accomplish. I dont 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 peoples exterior
lives, with the uniform rights that people have, whereas in my stories I am concerned with
peoples interior lives, with their souls". When you are writing how do you
investigate the "interiority" of your characters?
AH: Well, its kind of the whole shooting match for me. Thats really the
point -- I think its the act of imagining myself further and further inside, the act
of projecting myself into the position and situation Ive 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, its the same kind of trial and error and concentration. Some
days you can maintain it, and some days you cant.
SE: Youve previously discussed the differences
between creative writing and law, but do you also believe there are connections between
AH: There are so many different levels on which they may be related, but I
dont 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
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 peoples 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
doesnt mean its 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 persons 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
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
its a slice of life found in a particular moment, a clarifying moment captured.
Short stories have a poetic density to them that novels simply cant achieve. You can
think of them as one long exhalation. Its 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 Id say William Trevor, Joy Williams and
Alice Munro. My taste in novels is all over the place, but Im a bit of a modernist
fan: Faulkner, Joyce, James, Woolf, Mann, all those folks.
SE: Youve 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, Ive 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 Id 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
Im glad that Im able to be able do what I plan to do, which is begin work on a
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 dont suit
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 dont 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?
AH: I guess I would say dont worry. Keep the idea of the market out of your mind
for as long as possible, because it really doesnt 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 cant really say. I dont think I have an opinion on that one.
SE: Can you talk a little more about what youre working on now?
AH: Other than saying it is a novel, not really. Im 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
- ideal night out
a dinner party for eight at a friends 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. Im working with the Kerry campaign and I and my
friends will be doing everything we possibly can to defeat Bush. Hes a menace to our
countrys 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
- three things youve yet to do of the non-writing variety
file a case in court
get married (as you may have noticed its 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.