in conversation with Alex Shephard
Chris Adrian fields more autobiographical questions than practically any other contemporary novelist. That’s not particularly surprising though, if you consider that Adrian is arguably the most educated contemporary American novelist: he has degrees from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Harvard Divinity School, and is currently a pediatric fellow in hermatology/oncology at the University of San Francisco. But I think that there’s another reason for all of the questions about Adrian’s life story. While his weird, magical fiction is not autobiographical in any traditional sense, when reading Adrian’s fiction one gets the sense of a man wrestling with fundamental, mysterious, and all too familiar questions: what does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to love another person?
Adrian’s latest novel, The Great Night, is a “reimagining” of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Titania sets Puck loose in order to find her husband, who has disappeared after his adopted mortal son succumbed to leukemia. Of course, Puck is not Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow: he has no intention of finding Oberon, and instead sets out on a campaign of eating every fairy and sprite he can lay his hands on. The park is quickly sealed off, but 3 broken-hearted mortals and a cast of mentally ill homeless people who are putting on a production of Soylent Green are trapped inside. In one the novel’s most brilliant and moving turns, Puck appears to each character as the first person who screwed their love life up. As Jesse Montgomery wrote in his excellent review of the novel, “When Puck appears to a character in the form of a dead lover, for example, he quite literally represents the presence of a world of pain within that person and the unpurged grief that conditions their life. …. The Great Night is a lively dramatization of the grief that attends love and its loss and the complicated ties that bind the present to the past.”
Adrian is also the author of two other novels, The Children’s Hospital and Gob’s Grief, and the short story collection A Better Angel. Full Stop spoke to Adrian over the phone about reimagining Shakespeare, national identity, and writing a story about a man who thinks Anne Hutchinson’s vagina is talking to him.
Why set The Great Night in Buena Vista Park? Why not Golden Gate Park, for instance?
I thought about Golden Gate Park – it’s a lot bigger and has buffalo in it, which is really exciting. It has a border on the ocean and a little windmill, all sorts of fun things. But the short answer is that if I had to walk through Golden Gate Park on my way to work all the time I might have picked that instead. But there’s something about the whole city that’s really physically striking and some places are beautiful in a way that’s kind of otherworldly. Especially when the weather and the light come together in the right way.
I live – or have lived, off and on – in the shadow of Buena Vista Park. It’s always been there, looming, looking kind of spooky in the late afternoon and at night. It was always just kind of there, as a creepy place to set a story.
You recently moved to San Francisco to become a fellow in pediatric oncology/hermatology at UCSF. Could The Great Night have existed if you hadn’t done both of those things?
I don’t think the story would have turned out that way if I hadn’t moved back and if I hadn’t started actually working at the oncology ward, as a junior, kind of playschool level oncologist. I had been working on the novel for a year or so – or trying to – before I moved back and [I was] not getting anywhere. So [moving] helped turn [that process] around; it helped me figure out what needed to happen with the story, which was that Titania and Oberon had a child who had died from leukemia. I don’t think that ever would have ever occurred to me as a narrative possibility if I hadn’t been working at the job I was working.
What was the engine of the novel-in-progress before you figured out that Titania and Oberon’s adopted son would die of leukemia?
There wasn’t much novel, I guess. I just had the notion of retelling [A Midsummer’s Night Dream] but no real idea about how to do it. I knew I didn’t want it to just be a novelization of the play. There had to be some kind of compelling reason on my end to tell it. [Before I moved back to San Francisco] there wasn’t one, and I guess that’s the reason why it wasn’t going anywhere.
The Great Night is a fairly loose retelling of the A Midsummer’s Night Dream — it could probably be described as a “reimagining.” Did you ever write a draft of the novel that stuck more closely to the play? Was that something you worried about?
When I started off, I probably meant to do it pretty close to the play. But as I got further into the story and read the play over and over, I got to know it more and I felt better about branching off into different directions. There wasn’t any time when I worried that [the novel] looked too much like the play, but there was a time when I was worried about the opposite question: I started to worry that it didn’t work enough like the play.
Did reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream over and over again change the way you understood the play?
I liked it more every time I read it. It didn’t change my favorite part of the play, the part I respect the most, which is [the play within a play] Pyramus and Thisbe.
But as I read it over and over again, I ended up admiring it more and more. As I thought more about it, there were a couple things that became more interesting to think about. …. One was wondering what it would be if Puck got to do whatever he wanted. That made the story a little darker than the play is, but it reflects the fact that I found him to be kind of a scary character as a kid.
The other thing I wondered about on successive reads of the play was that there might have been all sorts of offstage (or not explicitly detailed or described) sex happening.
That was one of the ways that The Great Night altered my reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — of course everybody was fucking.
Yeah. Especially in the part where all sorts of time passes, when they all lie down in the woods.
In The Great Night, Puck is more enigmatic and more anarchic (and more likely to rip a fairy in half and eat it). Why?
As I figured out more of what the story was about, he started to represent not just the bad or dangerous part of magic, but also the bad or dangerous part of love. Of being emotionally vulnerable in a way that you really need to be to fall in love with someone. And the fact that the mortal people see him as reflections somehow of their first experience of love gone awry – Puck’s badness had a kind of purpose for the story that went beyond the fact that he was just going to eat everybody.
For those three people in the book – they’re all having serious trouble with the past, that’s interfering with their present happiness. For Henry, it doesn’t just reflect the problem — Puck is the physical representation of the actual problem. But they try to dissociate in whatever ways they can in order to live in the real world.
Preparing for this interview, I thought of a question we asked Aimee Bender, whose work is occasionally compared to yours. Do you think of yourself as a fabulist?
Uh, I guess I’ve never consciously thought of myself in that way.
Thinking about it now, it is kind of a silly thing to ask somebody.
[laughs] I feel like that it takes a very particular skill set to write a fable that resonates with somebody. Maybe a good way to think about [what I do] is that it’s a lot like a fable, except for the end part where it tells you what it’s supposed to mean. But that’s a little more appetizing or palatable to me, though I’ve got nothing against a well constructed fable, nothing against Aesop.
But I guess I do worry a lot about, or write about people who are wondering about what it means to be a good person. I think that that is creeping up more and more in the stuff that I’m working on. That’s probably the main question that characters in this novel seem to struggle with: how are they going to manage to be happy, given that people die? What does it mean to try to love somebody when it feels like it went so wrong the first time around? I think that part of that question ties in with spending quite a bit of time thinking about death. As I move forward to other projects, all of that stuff is still going to be there, but I’m thinking about other questions like what does it mean to be good individually? Or what does it mean to be good as an American? Those sorts of questions are beginning to feel just as pressing as the [other ones] that have bothered the characters in [my] earlier books and novels.
You often make connections between magic and medicine in your work. Sometimes it’s pure magic — characters healed by some supernatural force. Sometimes it’s more mundane: cancerous mutations lead to a growth of fungus in the bones, all of which seems to be conjured (even though it isn’t).
The most, frankly, magical iteration of medicine in the stuff that I’ve written is the stuff where [Jemma in The Children’s Hospital] starts to be able to heal people just by wanting to do it. I think that’s something that probably grows out of feeling frustrated or impotent or powerless as an intern and resident, when I was first learning pediatrics – that feeling of wishing that you could just lay your hands down and make everything better. I’m certainly not the first person with pediatric or medical training to feel [that way].
That sort of, frankly, magical iteration of healing is probably a response to the sometimes enormous frustration of not being able to help, no matter how much you want to. [Of witnessing] how frustrating and horrible it is for parents to try, with whatever tools that are available to them (which are different from those of physicians and medical providers), to try to make their kid better, but still failing at it. You’d think because of how much they wanted it, the universe would just give it to them. I think there’s also probably just a weird aspect in the stuff that I write that probably just comes from prolonged exposure to the hospital world, which can be a really weird and surreal place.
I’m particularly fond of Oberon’s response to a successful round of chemotherapy in The Great Night: “you’ve poisoned him masterfully!”
[laughs]I think we’re getting a little better at that, but the majority of treatments are poisons of one kind or another that we just calibrate very carefully. I explain them that way to parents sometimes, and their jaws drop. It gets a totally sensible reaction.
What are you working on now?
A book of short stories that I’m actually going to have time to research starting around September. They take place in or around Boston between 1650 and now, they are more or less either about Puritans or about people who can trace their feelings of general guilt back to Puritans or Puritanism. There’s that, and a kid’s book about a girl who goes looking for her mom in a sort of alternate America that’s full of trash and old ideas that aren’t very popular anymore and forgotten bits of history. And also a a graphic novel about a lady who’s possessed like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and has children.
Are you collaborating with an illustrator for the graphic novel, or are you doing the drawings yourself?
I am, very badly. I feel like it’s probably okay if it’s terrible. It might get mistaken for a style.
What’s it like switching back and forth between those different mediums and forms?
It’s nice to be able to switch back and forth. The graphic novel is the one that will probably take the longest to finish and the one I have the least stamina for. But it’s neat to go from working with something where there aren’t very many words, where you’re trying to tell a story as a succession of images, to the kids’ book, where there’s not a lot of fancy/boring exposition. I’m trying to not fill it up with that kind of stuff. I feel like I can be a little more heavy-handed about ideas.
You spoke earlier about thinking more and more about what it means to be an American. The Children’s Hospital dealt with that question to a certain extent. How does it factor into the short story collection you’re working on now?
It probably never would have if 9/11 hadn’t happened. I had been working on The Children’s Hospital for a year before that happened and it became a very different book, even though nothing really changed plot-wise, just the idea of the story suddenly had a different weight to it, or a different set of consequences to it, when you had survivors thinking they were chosen by God to prosper. And it turns out the answer is a little more complicated than that.
When 9/11 happened, it seemed to have consequences for the idea of American exceptionalism — that ended up sticking in my head in a funny way. I was already obsessively writing about death, but when the World Trade Center attacks happened, suddenly it was possible to be fixated or obsessed with death in what I was writing about, but hard not to have the questions of national identity. It became more important to wonder what the relationship between personal morality and national morality was. A lot of that weird, obsessive rumination about, “What did I do to cause the World Trade Center attacks?” generated some weird, magical thinking. Among the weirdness, there is a serious inquiry that becomes more and more urgent to consider as things get more, frankly, weird and scary in the political landscape.
Part of the idea of the stories [I’m working on now] is to look back and ask, story by story: What did it mean for somebody to not just wonder if they were a good person, but to also wonder if they were part of a group of good people — if the moral project they were engaged in as a community was worthwhile? Which was very explicit in 1630. I’m asking what it’s like to wonder about those things, which has become, for me, more interesting and compelling. And the idea of asking that same question in 50 year intervals, between 1630 and now, I hope will make things make a little more sense for myself — though not necessarily for anybody else — about what happened, and how things have gotten so enormously strange and dangerous and dispiriting.
What kind of research are you doing for the short story collection?
It’s somewhat goofy, but the outline for the collection was my thesis for grad school. They very nicely let me do a creative piece so I wouldn’t have to do serious scholarly work. They sort of let me make a plan for doing that kind of work so I wouldn’t actually have to do it. They only wanted 40 pages, so I wrote a 20 page story and an outline that took the form of a dismissive, scathing article by an academic lady. The idea was that she has read the whole collection and has ideas about why it sucks. It’s a long review that tells you a lot about what the stories are about.
The process for the stories: I generally set on one interesting person in the historical record who I think it would be fun or compelling, or both, to write about. And then start to pile up books about them. The first story is probably going to be about a man who thinks Anne Hutchinson’s vagina is talking to him, and saying really profound and scary things to him. So I have a pile of Anne Hutchinson books and background Puritan reading about what was leading up to those couple years in Boston where there was a popular movement against the official line of the ministers.