A New York State of Mind: An Interview with Steve Adams by Jen Michalski

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams. His debut novel, Remember This, is now available from University of Wisconsin Press.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on Remember This, your first novel! We’re always interested in a book’s journey, especially for debut authors. Can you tell us how you wound up working with the University of Wisconsin on this project?

Steve Adams: It’s actually a long story, but I’ll try to shrink it. Basically, in 2012-2013 I had a finished draft of this novel. I was working three different part-time jobs, seven days a week, trying to keep myself afloat. Then I won a Pushcart Prize. It seemed like everything had suddenly turned in my favor, so I used the Pushcart to help get a top agent’s attention. She loved the novel, but top agents only have a limited amount of time and effort they can give to a new writer because there are million-dollar clients needing their attention as well. So, she gave it an honest shot, it didn’t hit, and she moved on. I’m not bitter about this—it’s business; I get it. The problem, though, is that once a book has been shown to even one editor at a major house it’s unlikely anyone else there will look at it. And this makes it even harder, should you get a new agent, to come back. I think editors and agents are so overwhelmed by the sheer number of submissions they receive that they use any means to reduce the pile, one being that a book has already been passed on. So there I was, on the outside now with a novel I loved, crushed and raw from the experience. I decided to put the book in a drawer and let things cool off. A year or two later I pulled it out, reread it, and thought, “Wait a minute. This is good!” So I made some edits and sent it to maybe a contest, maybe an agent. When it didn’t hit, I put it in the drawer again. The next year I did the same, reread it, was convinced it was good and sent it out, then tucked it away, raw from another rejection. Still, I couldn’t give up on it because I believed in it, and that never wavered, which is why I kept at it, even if my attempts were sporadic. I even started making jokes about how when I died they’d be burying me and my corpse would be pushing my novel up through the dirt toward the mourners and yelling, “Take it! It’s good!” And right about then I read that The University of Wisconsin Press had a brief window where they were receiving unsolicited submission, so I tossed it their way. Nobody was more surprised than me when they claimed it. And they’ve been wonderful to work with. Extremely respectful to the material and to me. I honestly think the years that have passed since I first showed it may have given it an advantage because now it’s more of a period piece than it was before. And there’s an old writers’ maxim—the important thing is finding your editor, and I found mine with The University of Wisconsin Press.

JM: I was struck by your portrayal of 1980s NYC in this book. It’s so vivid, and really its own character. For instance, I don’t think an affair with a married coworker would have been as compelling a read if it were set in, say, 1980s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Did you know when you decided to write this novel that it would, in part, be a love letter to a place?

SA: I’m so happy the sense of the city hit you like that. Actually, writing a love letter to New York was what initiated the whole project. Like John, my protagonist, I came into myself in the city, and I love it at a deep level. It’s a part of me, and I’m pretty much a New Yorker in exile, though of course I’m other things too. Truly I would live there now if I could afford it, but unless a patron or benefactor magically appears, I can’t see how it would happen. But I lived there three times over a total of 16 years spread over three decades. And in 2008 when the U.S. economy collapsed, my day job went out the window, and I knew I would have to leave. There were simply no jobs, and NYC is no place to find yourself broke. Anyway, I had unemployment to help carry the string of months till my lease was up, and so for that time I wandered through the city, visiting every park and restaurant and bar and street corner that had meaning for me, and I wrote. But I knew in order to make a novel out of my experience I’d need an actual story, and that’s where the idea of the affair with the married co-worker appeared. They have two months together, like I had my handful of months to be with my city for what will likely be the last time. And of course I have my protagonist wandering the city that means so much to him, like I did, when he’s not with his lover.

JM: As a survivor of codependency myself, so much of the novel struck me as a struggle with codependency. Was it a topic you consciously sought to explore through John, or did it surprise you as you began to dig into his character?

SA: Oh this is so interesting. I’d not thought about that exact term as far as John, but yeah, I can see it’s a very good fit. Trying to not give too much of the story away, that second storyline, John as a child with his sisters and mother, did not even exist in the first draft. It was only adult John (who has a tendency to be “the other man” in his relationships), and his lover, Alena, and the city he loves. But after I got that draft down, an editor, rather harshly I’ll admit, made it clear that what I had simply wasn’t enough. It shook me up, and I started pressing the material, looking for a new focal point to throw perspective on the main story and, it’s a longer tale, but basically the image of John as a little boy with three much older sisters popped into my head. And I just started running with it. I wasn’t super conscious of what I was doing—kind of like a carpenter isn’t analyzing every board that they plane or cut; they just drop into the activity with focus—I started designing and working through the childhood events so they would lead to John being the man he is in New York City in 1988, someone way in over his head in this affair and coming to learn more about himself than he ever suspected existed. So again, to answer your question, I was so focused on the nuts and bolts of that storyline I didn’t think about it in those broader terms, but yeah, it’s very much a part of his story

JM: There’s also a subplot regarding addiction. Was that in the original manuscript as well, or did it come to you later?

SA: The addiction stuff was not in the first draft; that came in with the family angle. I knew I wanted to remove both the father and the mother from the children—John and his three sisters—so I start that section with them getting ready for the father’s funeral, taking him out of play, and then making the mother a severe alcoholic, one that the children have to manage and who is emotionally absent, in order to basically put these three sisters and their little brother John on an island alone where they form their own family. And of course, trouble arises from that. Once I had that in play, much of the writing, including the addiction, was about following the trajectory that was activated. And I didn’t even think about that when one of the sisters turns up later with a similar problem as her mother. I wasn’t designing that big picture at first, connecting the two. It just seemed a logical outgrowth of following the storyline, what event should follow what event, and where it might lead.

Again, as once I get a story set up, much of the way I write is about just digging into scenes and trying to feel where the story seems to be trying to go, following it in kind of in a workmanlike, blue-collar way and dealing with everything in the moment, I didn’t even notice what a bar hound my protagonist, John is, until friends pointed out how well they thought I created the more divey bar scene culture of New York City, though admittedly it’s a part of the Austin section too. Well, John is not an alcoholic, which is merely the fortune of his genetics. But the bar scene was, and still is, pretty dynamic in New York, and he makes use of it, especially to manage the stress of this affair he’s fallen into. And I’ll have to admit I’m a pretty similar guy. I really like hanging out at bars in cities, especially new cities. You can get an immediate infusion of the local culture in a short period. The communal aspect is a big reason people go to bars. And yet, if you have addiction issues, it’s a real trap door. It’s got to be tough to be in New York if you’re an alcoholic, what with all the good times and temptation everywhere.

JM: As we discussed, this is a novel that’s really driven by place. Do you find that place plays in large role in your shorter fiction as well? What do you think the role of place plays in a world that, with the growth of the cheap travel and the internet, has increasingly become more homogenized?

SA: I just paused to consider this—in thinking about it, place is huge for me across the board. I may have a special sensitivity to it. It’s like—and I hope this doesn’t sound weird or pretentious, but it is my experience that I really “feel” the character or spirit or inscape of many locations. Some places really spook me just driving by, and with others it’s like I can feel the character and the generations of people who’ve live there since the horse and buggy. I know this is one reason I love New York City so much. There are older bars and buildings and trees there that carry a type of character and content and meaning, if only because so many people have walked there before me.

And I know people say this, about the world being more homogenized, and with reason. But in the way I feel the world, there’s plenty of differentiation, and maybe we have to pay attention more keenly to how different places feel now. For me they still feel different. For instance, I flew to Albuquerque a few weeks ago and could tell most of the people sitting in the lobby lived there. Part of that was the sun damage on their skin, but a deeper part of it was that these were people with a streak of stubbornness who didn’t care about the sun damage on their skin. It was just a part of who they were, and that affected their body language and clothing too. I live in Memphis now, and I drive back to Dallas frequently to visit my dad. And you know how it goes when you drive a long familiar route—you pick a place to stop off—so I usually hit a Wendy’s off the highway in Hope, Arkansas. And every time I step in there I’m aware of how specifically different these people in that Wendy’s feel. My family’s all from Arkansas so this is hardly unfamiliar territory for me. But if I were to hit a Wendy’s in Memphis, then stop at one in Hope, then end up at one in Dallas, they and the people there would all feel really distinct. And I think this is what we have to do with all the corporate chains and the cultural dumbing down they bring. We have to look past them, or more deeply into them. They’re just surface structures after all, and the culture and the people, the deep rich good stuff, remains just below the surface. That said, it crushes me when a favorite old bar or restaurant or music hall or tree gets bulldozed. It feels like a crime. The character these places hold can’t just be replaced.

JM: Are there any things you learned about publishing during the journey of Remember This that would be useful to other authors seeing their debut novels or collections published? For instance, I remember somewhere along the line about the different distributors that small presses use and how important it is to make sure your book is available—to independent bookstores, to libraries, even B&N.

SA: I’ll have to admit the more wonky aspects of book publishing, such as distribution, are still a bit foreign to me. The University of Wisconsin Press is big for a university press and they’ve got that stuff nailed down, so when I saw they were on it I let it go. Still, a new writer needs to keep an eye on that stuff to be sure things are lining up, and it’s good to ask these questions of a publisher up front.

The one thing I will address, and what has been really interesting, concerns the people who’ve been involved with helping get this book into the world. And by that I mean personal connections, whether via online or otherwise. I found that some people I thought would show up to help disappointed me, and others I did not expect to help floored me with their generosity and energy and support. Apparently, getting published is a real test as to whether your contacts are genuine or not. So be ready for that, and when people disappoint you, look around for someone else who might be standing by to lend a hand. My experience as far as promotion and publicity, which is definitely not my strong suit, is you do want to develop contacts along the way. Everybody says you should be a good literary citizen, and that’s true. You should do what you can to support other writers, not just because you want them to be there when you need them (though you do), but because you want to support literature and the literary arts. It’s this whole ecosystem we’re all a part of, and we want it to be healthy, so do put some energy into keeping it healthy, and out of that, almost as a by-product, people will be there when your book goes into the world and you need an “in-conversation-with” partner, or a connection to a bookstore for a possible event, or just some straight advice as far as what you’ve gotten yourself into and how to manage it. Generosity elicits generosity.

The last thing I’ll say, is that you may need to connect to your inner used car salesman. Trust me, I’m terrible at this, but during my recent book tour there were times when I needed to access this stuff, and no matter how humiliating it felt, I pushed through to talk to the book buyer at a particular bookstore, and the fancy writer at the book festival. At least as much as I could bear. And the good news for you writer types, is that you’re not going up against actors or dancers who spray charisma with each glance; you’re going up against writers, 95% of whom are just like you, introverted and uncomfortable with pushing themselves on people. You don’t have to be good at this, you only have to be as good as a writer, and the fact that you’re stumbling through it at all means you’ve already beaten the average.

JM: If you can get through it, the faster you can back to the best part, the part writers are good at, which is writing. Speaking of which, what are you working on now?”

SA: I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t fully spill the beans. I’m a little superstitious, and it’s very early in the process so there’s no guarantee this thing will work. Also if you say too much, too early, about a project it can feel a little like you took the cake out of the oven too soon. It can fall flat when really you want it cooking inside and building pressure. That said, I already had an idea for a new novel when Remember This was published, and my experience with my book has really given me an appetite to write more. So yes, I’ve got a bun in the oven. What I will say about it is it looks like it will be very southern and very American. It may be about the country through a specific lens. It’s a period piece too, so I’ll need to do a fair amount of research. Research is not my most natural aspect of the writing process, but you can’t let that stop you. Anyway, I’ve already begun. When I was in New York this summer I was feeling stressed and keyed up. I wondered if my having spent so much time away from writing while trying to tend to novel promotion was a reason (it was), so I went to a favorite old coffeeshop where I used to write. And there this character, my protagonist for this new novel, started talking to me and I wrote it down. Because of the research I need to do I’ve not gone farther with him—about 6 pages—but his voice is really strong and particular and I’m very drawn to it. Voice is a big deal for me. I get a strong voice going I can usually drop in and follow it. It’ll be in first person, like my just published book, which of course isn’t necessary for a highly voiced novel. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to about 6 months from now when everything’s quietened down and I’ve done enough research to settle into a regular writing pattern again.

Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Tide King and Summer She Was Under Water (both Black Lawrence Press) and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction, her latest of which is The Company of Strangers (forthcoming 2023). She’s also the editor in chief of jmww

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