“A Book Is this Hopeless Task”: An Interview with James Tadd Adcox

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Make yourself a fly on the wall as AR Fiction Editor Jamie Iredell and James Tadd Adcox talk writing, teaching, Facebook, and more over beers and burgers in Midtown.

Jamie Iredell: So you have a year left in your PhD., and you’re doing it in lit, but with a creative dissertation. Is that the novel?

James Tadd Adcox: That is the novel. There was some confusion about whether or not I could use the book I already published [The Map of the System of Human Knowledge].

JI: I finished Map–when was that book published?

JTA: Summer of 2012. Are we interviewing now?

JI: Well, I’m just recording the whole thing. But this is stuff that I wanted to ask you about. I figured it would be a casual conversation. I won’t publish what you tell me about doing cocaine and fucking hookers and stuff like that.

JTA: We can talk about doing cocaine and fucking hookers all you want. I haven’t done either. I feel like I’m way behind on those things. I’ve been wanting to do cocaine for years, but it’s never around when–

JI: When the mood strikes you.

JTA: Yeah, you know, when you’re like, “I’d really like to do some cocaine.” Like at the end of my MFA, I was like, “Why wasn’t I doing cocaine all those times when cocaine was around?”

JI: Where did you get your MFA?

JTA: Purdue. And you went to Georgia State, right? How was that?

JI: It was great, I ended up writing a lot of “traditional” fiction, which was good, because it made the weirder stuff that I like to do better.

JTA: I think it’s good to be pushed to do things you wouldn’t normally.

JI: How did you end up deciding on the PhD. in lit?

JTA: I’d been living in Chicago for a while and I wanted to do a straight lit PhD., but I was talked out of it by one of my professors at Purdue. His argument was that it would put me on a certain kind of job track, which wasn’t the one I wanted to be on. Any creative publications that I might have wouldn’t have counted, and in fact would count against me. Like, they wouldn’t be considered “serious”: I should’ve been working on articles or a book of scholarship instead of wasting my time writing short stories. Which sounded like a bad deal. But then I was working at a lot of pretty bad jobs. I was a canvasser for Greenpeace for a while.

 

JI: You have a particular area for your PhD. that you’re interested in?

JTA: Postmodern fiction, sort of focussing on the encyclopedic novel. And aesthetic theory. Mainly continental and German Idealist aesthetic theory. Some of the early British guys too. I didn’t really get into the analytic aesthetic theory, although I’d like to. Analytic philosophy is kind of its own universe.

JI: Does that study inform your creative work?

JTA: I think so. It has certainly influenced how I view fiction and the purposes of fiction. The function of it. Though I’m not really happy with either of those words–purpose, function. I guess the reason why anybody is a writer is because you read a lot of books when you were young, and you liked that. But once you start considering yourself a writer, suddenly there’s the question of “What are you actually doing here? What good is this?” And I feel that that’s a question I’ve been wrestling with most of my life. I’m definitely proceeding poorly from a scientific perspective: I’m starting with the assumption that literature is very important and I have to figure out why. Which is a terrible method: starting by assuming what you want to prove. It’s as if someone started with the idea that men are more intelligent than women and then looking for evidence to back it up. Of course that’s going to skew all of your data and analysis. But I don’t know. I don’t think I’m likely to renounce literature and art anytime soon.

JI: Clearly it’s a big part of your life. You publish a lot.

JTA: I feel like I spend a lot of time just figuring out how I’m going to pay rent and eat while I’m doing this.

JI: You have a teaching fellowship. Do you teach creative writing?

JTA: Yes. A couple of lit classes, which are honestly maybe my favorites, probably more than creative writing.

JI:  [Are you] teaching lit survey courses?

JTA: I taught an intro poetry course two semesters back that is still probably my favorite course I’ve ever taught. I prefer teaching poetry to teaching fiction, though I don’t consider myself a poet; I’ve written some poetry, not a lot. But poetry is way more fun to teach.

JI: I like teaching poetry because, if you’re a writer, you learn more about writing in any genre by studying poetry than you will anything else.

JTA: I agree, totally. I think, too, that students know what a story is, a novel. They know what narrative is. Even when you show them things they should be surprised by they’ll restructure these things into something that they understand. (Whether or not they really understand it is a different question, of course.) But they don’t have any idea at all what a poem is. Most of them haven’t read a single contemporary poem. And every time I’ve taught poetry it’s the one subject where I’m gonna have at least one student who’s like “Oh, shit!” And that “oh shit” moment is incredible.

To a certain degree, I don’t want to be a “teacher.” I want to hang out with people and talk about poetry. That’s my ideal for teaching. I don’t like being an authority figure. I don’t like pretending I’m in charge when I’d rather be like, “Guys: Let’s read this stuff. It’s awesome.” That’s why I could never teach high school. I’d never want to be in a position where I had to discipline someone. The nice thing about college is that if anything ever gets out of hand you can just ask them to leave.

JI: I’m a professor, so I understand. I took a semester off once to just write, but I got pretty antsy. I looked forward to going to the grocery store because that would be the only human interaction I had every day. My wife would get home from work and we’d have dinner, during which I’d never shut up. But she’s a lawyer, and so is very busy, so we would both go back to work after dinner, then go to bed, and I didn’t talk to people very much at all.

JTA: Yeah, I had that situation last semester. At my school, after you finish your comps you get a semester of dissertation leave, so you’re just working on that, and you get paid for it. I made a terrible mistake with that, which was that I did not deactivate my Facebook sooner than I did. But I had an amount of the antsyness. I think a lot of that was due to being overly connected online.

 

JI: I didn’t realize that you’re off Facebook.

JTA: Oh yeah, it’s great. It’s wonderful.

JI: I’ve been wanting to do that.

JTA: Do it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll continue to find reasons not to until you just do it. I kept having reasons, like “I can’t do it now because this thing’s about to happen,” or “I need to invite people to this,” and I finally got to a point where I said I’m going to shut it off at 12:30 tomorrow. And I immediately felt better about life, and I have ever since. Which sounds stupid and new age or whatever.

JI: You think you’ll ever reactivate it?

JTA: My plan is to come back up maybe a month every year. There are some positive things about Facebook. It does some things really well. I think for many people it’s no problem at all; it’s a good tool. For me, personally, it’s very addictive.

JI: I’m totally addicted to it.

JTA: I would do that thing where I’d get stuck for two or three hours just staring at it, and afterwards I was never glad with how I spent those hours. It’s like someone after a drug binge: “Fuck. Really, I just did that? That was how I spent those days? Fuck.”

JI: I’ve managed to be fairly productive, despite Facebook. I work in this rhythm where I check my email, check Facebook, check Twitter, grade a student paper or do something for school, do my own writing for a while, check email, Facebook, Twitter, and back again to work and it goes that way all day.

JTA: It’s good for poets or flash fiction writers. I think the smaller the unit in which you work, the more helpful Facebook can be. If I’m publishing mainly short things, a lot of short things, it’s really useful to immediately post a link to Facebook. But if you’re working on a long project it’s deadly. I noticed when I was on Facebook there was this anxiety that if I didn’t publish something people would just forget I existed. And that’s good for poetry or flash fiction because it encourages you to produce these short engaging punchy texts. But it’s deadly if you’re working on a novel, or maybe a long poem, in that you’re like, “If I spend three years doing this…” I don’t know. This sounds stupid, even saying it out loud.

JI: I have the same feelings. It’s amazing how quickly people forget anything, not to mention individuals. And that, despite the probably tens of thousands who are publishing, it’s still a very small community.

JTA: I think Facebook helps to create that community. I know many writers in many cities whom I wouldn’t know without Facebook, and now I could just type in that city name and find those people I sorta know and say, “Hey, I’m coming to your city; we should hang.” But I think it requires us to ask what we mean by community, and I’ve been looking at this [not being on Facebook]as an opportunity to be more focused in my interactions with others. If you have a thousand-plus friends on Facebook you can’t have very focused relationships with any of them. Which isn’t bad per se, but I think it’s useful sometimes to focus down on things. Make decisions. What Facebook does really well is allow you to not make decisions, because you’re participating in this huge influx of data but none of your responses are really that important. The cummulative effect is perhaps very important, but no one single response is.

JI: I’m not even sure how important the cummulative effect is. A good example would be when the Supreme Court heard the DOMA and the Prop 8 cases, and everyone changed their Facebook profile pics to the pink field with the equals sign on it, and it was like, “What is that doing?” Probably because I’m a writer my Facebook feed is a liberal bubble. I don’t have very many friends who think differently from me. [Why change] my profile pic to say that “I agree with marriage equality” so that all the 1,200 people who are my Facebook friends who think the same way can see it, and we’re going to talk to each other about how we all agree with marriage equality in an online forum that is as ephemeral as today’s weather?

JTA: Well, I guess with that example, that was pretty effective at creating a news story. Like, major news outlets reported on the numbers of people changing their avatars, and I think the fact that it became a news story had some effect. That said, I didn’t change my Facebook avatar. I have this bad habit of, if I’m in a room full of people who all agree about something, I want to disagree. Even if the position everyone’s agreeing on is something I believe, it makes me very uncomfortable to be in a room where everyone agrees. It’s not even that I want to be a devil’s advocate or anything like that. There are people who do that who are just kind of assholes, who enjoy arguing for arguing’s sake, who want to piss people off. I don’t especially like pissing people off, I’m actually pretty nonconfrontational. But there’s something about a room full of nodding heads that makes me uncomfortable, when they’re all really proud of themselves for that, as if it’s difficult to think the right thing when everyone else thinks the right thing. Again, not to say that it’s bad to believe the right thing, but you don’t get bonus points for doing so.

JI: It’s a hell of a lot harder to stand up in Nazi Germany and say that you disagree with what’s going on, than it is to agree with it.

JTA: Right. For example, no one living in the United States today gets any bonus points for saying slavery was wrong. We all know that.

JI: Well, you hope that everyone knows that.

JTA: Okay, you get major negative points if you don’t believe that. Which is why every movie you see about how slavery was wrong or about how non-white people are actually human beings with feelings, etcetera, is incredibly offensive, because it’s just catering to people who want to be able to pat themselves on the back. It’s not saying anything that any reasonable, decent human being would disagree with.

 

JI: In Map one of the things that I’m curious about is that you published a lot of those stories in magazines under individual titles. So how did you arrive at “The Map of the System of Human Knowledge,” and how did you know that certain stories fell in certain areas? Are you really into epistemology?

JTA: I spent a year where every weekday I would write one flash fiction story. Which is a terrible idea. I have a tendency to make major decisions on whims and then end up being stubborn enough to follow through with them. Things that I think very carefully about I’m liable to give up in a week. Things I do just for the hell of it I usually stick to. So I decided I would write a story every weekday for a year, and I did.

In high school and up to college I never really had any interest in a foreign language. Then at one point on [a]whim I decided that I was going to learn Spanish and the next day I signed up to be an exchange student in Spain, and became a linguistics student, which was what I got my BA in.

JI: I don’t know too many writers–personally, that is–who speak Spanish. There are many, of course.

JTA: I think more writers are multilingual, maybe, than in the general population. But it is weird to me that more writers aren’t multilingual.

In terms of understanding how a language is structured, I was terrible with language in high school. Whenever we did language trees I could never get them right. I knew when a sentence was wrong, and I could fix it, but I never knew why. I never knew the parts of speech. Any time I had to take a grammar course I was bored to tears, and it seemed useless, because I already knew English. I thought, why do I need to know what this word is called if I know how to use it? So I didn’t know any of that stuff, about how languages are actually structured, until I started studying Spanish.

 

JI: It really is amazing how much you learn about your native language from studying a foreign one.

JTA: Absolutely. There’s that Goethe bit, that the person who does not know another language doesn’t know his own. Which isn’t entirely accurate, maybe, but it makes a lot of sense.

JI: Of course, obviously, a native speaker in any language is fluent, and knows how to use that language expertly, but there’s a different degree of facility when you’re versed in its grammar.

JTA: There’s a difference between being fluent in a language and being a good user. There are lots of different skill sets within a language. A native speaker is fluent. You might use a non-standard language, or your language might not have as much political power behind it, but you’re fluent in it. Of course it drives me crazy when someone says something about people not knowing how to “speak correctly,” which just shows that the person making the claim doesn’t know how language works. Still, there’s a big difference between fluency and being able to use language in an engaging way, the pragmatics of language. A politician’s skill with language is going to be very different than your average speaker’s. But yeah, likewise, the stuff you learn about the structure of language is a different skill set than fluency.

JI: It seems to be the writer’s trade, to understand these different skillsets.

JTA: A writer should know language in a very conscious way. If you’re not a writer, that stuff is maybe less important. You don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car.

 

JI: Back to the book.

JTA: Right. So yeah, I ended up with 264 stories at the end of the year and I didn’t know what to do with them. I spent another year or so getting rid of the ones I didn’t like, and rewriting those I did, and kind of finding a form for this thing as a book. It went through a couple of different forms. There’s something very interesting about attempts to systematize things. I had all these disparate pieces. I was looking at these Enlightenment ways of systematizing knowledge. The one that I settled on, this taxonomy form–

JI: Yeah it feels very Linnaean.

JTA: You have all these things you wrote at different times, in different states of mind. You’re kind of a bunch of different writers, but you’re expected to get all these things together to be a single thing. And this is a problem equally for novels as it is for a story collection. In some ways a book is this hopeless task.

JI: That’s a good title for this interview.

JTA: You’re trying make these things fit together and you’re working with them until you can at least produce the illusion that they go together. And this comes back to aesthetic theory. The power of a novel is that you have the illusion of everything fitting together, but just underneath that, there’s a ton of contradictions. The tension between those forces is what makes novels interesting. I’ve primarily worked on short things and very long things. Which I think is because on some level, maybe not entirely consciously, I’m interested in the aesthetic of the sublime more than the aesthetic of the beautiful. I’m trying to make something that’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and I think I can do that with very short things or very long things. The middle ground, the thirty-page short story, I think, is the realm of the beautiful. Novels can be beautiful. But you have the space to create something that is sort of bigger than comprehension. With flash fiction or short poems you have just enough space that if you’re going to do anything you have to set up a machine that’s going to keep operating outside of the text itself.

JI: It’s suggestive.

JTA: You’re putting two contradictory items together and saying, “These go together,” to the reader, then you leave it. In formal logic the problem with contradictions is that nothing follows from a contradiction. I think in art the advantage of contradiction is that everything follows from contradictions. If you put two contradictory things together [then]you have the potential to create an infinity.

 

JI: Where would you place the novella?

JTA: It could go either way. There’s a problem with terminology. I tend to think of novellas as around fifty to eighty pages.

JI: Forms in fiction are so nebulous. Most people talk of [Bradbury’s] Fahrenheit 451 as a novel and it’s like 45,000 words, or something, which would really be a novella.

JTA: That’s actually about the length I’m shooting for in the novel I’m working on now. But I’ve never thought of it as a novella, always as a novel. My ideal length when I set out was around the size of The Crying of Lot 49. But it never occurred to me to think of that as a novella. I guess it’s your willingness to call something a novel.

JI: You’ve heard the analogy before–I don’t know who said this–that the short story is like an iceberg. You only see ten percent of it, and that’s the text. The other ninety percent of it is under the water. You know it’s there but you’re not seeing it, and that’s the short story. A novel is kind of like a mountain. It’s got these different zones and ecosystems, the subalpine zone, riparian zones, the treeline. And we’re talking real mountains, so there’s a region where nothing could live at all.

JTA: I really like that idea that there’s a region in a novel where nothing could live at all. I really want to include that region in a novel. I’m not sure how that works, but I’d like to include some section in a novel where nothing could live.

JI: The spaces between quarks and gluons, or something.

JTA: Speaking of the length differences, the novella has the potential to operate either as a short story or as a novel. If it’s not an overgrown short story it is a novel. The novel is this kind of catch-all category. The book I’m working on now, I keep trying to make it into a 150-page short story, where I want everything to connect, for everything to come together, and even with symbolism and everything, for everything to be aligned. But you can’t do that in a novel.

JI: It’s got to be this glorious mess, right?

JTA: At some point you have to give up and be like, all right, we’re going to keep the plot going and basically make the characters make sense, and give up control after that. I tend to write, at the longest, ten-page short stories. There you really can get every single thing in that story aligned, not necessarily to a certain end or for a certain meaning or whatever, but all these things are going in the same direction. Anything not going in the same direction is very intentionally not going in that direction. So I guess with the novella, if you can manage for fifty pages for everything to be going in the same direction, then it’s basically working like a short story. If you can do that for a hundred pages, you’re still kinda writing a short story, just a really long one.

 

JI: So, the taxonomy structure of Map.

JTA: That was developed by Diderot and d’Alembert for the original Encyclopédie [mispronounces “Encyclopédie”]–I don’t know how to say things in French–so it was structured through this taxonomy. So all the categories in the book are part of that taxonomy. I had certain rules. I didn’t use the entire taxonomy, because it’s huge, but I had to use everything up to a certain level and if I didn’t have something that fit a particular part of the taxonomy I had to write something new.

JI: What drove you to the taxonomy?

JTA: It seemed interesting. It seemed like a perfect example of trying to make everything fit together, regardless. There’s a lot of stuff about it that was very progressive for the time, but then there’s a lot of stuff that’s totally left out. I’ve noticed, in writing flash fiction, I often end up writing about families because you automatically have characters that you can play against each other. If you say “This is my daughter,” there are certain expectations immediately there and you can start playing against them. If you only have five hundred words to work with, that’s really valuable, rather than having to define some new relationship. But families, family relations, family stuff, doesn’t even appear in this taxonomy. You’d think families didn’t exist if all you did was look at this taxonomy. Likewise, anything that had to do with cooking, or anything within the domestic sphere is just nonexistent as far as this taxonomy is concerned. I felt that the gaps within it were as interesting as its attempt at completion. I also thought it would be interesting to have stories written in a twenty-first century era, which is completely different than the era in which this taxonomy was developed. The friction between that and the friction in the stories about families in a taxonomy that takes no notice of the existence of families was interesting.

 

JI: Friction is required, right, for fiction? And it felt like the stories functioned on this humanistic version of the inverted pyramid that you get in journalism. And I say “humanistic” because the stories function on emotion, and traditional journalism is the antithesis of emotion. It feels very much like your stories start off with this broad base and work their way down to this point where we’re to imagine that the rest of the story, should it go on, will explode. Could you describe in your own words the design of your stories?

JTA: You get to the point where the machine functions and then you step away.

JI: So, from the excerpts we’re publishing from the novel, we have Robert and Viola, and this couple has got some problems. Could you talk about this couple?

JTA: These characters came out of that year in which I was writing the stories that went into Map. There was this couple that kept popping up, and none of those stories ended up in the book. But there were like five or six of these stories, and it seemed I’d keep coming back to them. I don’t know why. But there’s something interesting to me–in dramatic terms–about a couple that knows each other well enough to hurt each other.

JI: There’s this moment in the excerpts that felt so true, so human, where Viola has had a miscarriage and from her point of view we’re told that she can’t stand to be touched. She and Robert are in bed together, and we don’t know what kind of touch it is, just a touch to the shoulder to say goodnight, or to try to initiate sex, or whatever. That felt so painfully true about people, that at that moment the tensions between these two people came to the surface.

JTA: Is that where she says I don’t want to be touched right now?

JI: Yeah, she tells him that it will get better.

JTA: That’s a terrifying moment, right? When you’re told that your presence is doing more harm than good. Later on will be different, but it’s difficult to get past this moment. I think most people have been on both sides of that. Where you’re with someone you care about very deeply and just their presence is awful or overwhelming. There’s no way to explain that in a way that isn’t incredibly painful. So hopefully you’re able to just suck it up and deal with it and find some polite way of leaving.

I feel like I’ve read a lot of “the novel is dead” essays, and one of the lines of argument for that is that the modern bourgeois novel is modeled on the concept of marriage, and once you’re married you’re married forever, so the stakes are that much higher. And there’s this idea that without those kinds of stakes that come with marriage, that at least this kind of modern domestic novel can’t exist. But I think that you don’t even have to be married to be in this sort of relationship, where you cannot imagine being out of this relationship, yet everything is going badly. And that’s its own sort of high stakes. One of the lines I’ve had in my head in viewing this novel is that it is about the power of codependency. That might be slightly more cynical than I want it to be, actually. But you don’t need to have a situation in which divorce is the same as death in order to have two people who can’t imagine living without each other, yet can’t live together without hurting each other.

 

JI: How do you revise?

JTA: I’ve been reading all these novelists talking about how rewriting is so much better than writing. Fuck that. Fuck those guys. Rewriting is horrible. I have way more fun writing first drafts, generally.

It’s weird to talk about writing because so much of what happens does so in this incredibly boring headspace. It’s exciting for you, the writer. Most of what you do is make up shit that didn’t happen to people who don’t exist, and trying to have a conversation with someone in the real world about “What have you been doing the past three days?” your options are, “Well, I’ve been writing,” and that’s it; or, “Well, I’ve been thinking about this character, and I decided that his last name was ‘St. Claire,’ and I did a lot of research into St. Claire. It’s a really cool last name, because it’s a corruption of the name of a river in France. It actually means sinclair, and there really is no St. Claire.” Yeah, so that. Most people are just going to be like, “Why are you . . . Could we just talk about anything else right now?”

JI: It’s so self-indulgent.

JTA: It’s masturbatory. You’re having ideas and getting excited about your own ideas. Of course no one else wants to talk about it. But because you’re so into it, you have nothing else to talk about with anyone.

 

[At this point we began talking about wrapping up our interview, as we’d been talking for a couple hours, and eventually Tadd had to get on the road, so we started talking about where he was in Midtown, and how to get back to the freeway.]

JTA: The only other time I’ve been to Midtown was at this fondue place that I don’t think is there anymore; I think it closed down. It had live alligators and a pirate ship in it.

JI: Yes, Dante’s Down the Hatch. It did close.

JTA: Yes! That place was ridiculous. I think the place was threatening to close down for like ten years and it finally did. I’m curious what happened to the alligators. I don’t give a fuck about fondue, but I do love alligators and pirate ships, so it’s too bad. I would gladly eat there again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Foxtongue

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About Author

Jamie Iredell writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His books include Prose. Poems. a Novel.The Book of Freaks, and I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac. He lives in Atlanta where he works as a professor of creative writing.

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