The Writer’s Hot Seat: Kim Adrian

09 November 2018 on Nonfiction, The Writer's Hot Seat  

Kim Adrian is the author of The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, a memoir that David Shields calls “a stunning merger of form and content,” and Sock, which is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series and described by the Los Angeles Review of Books as “illuminating, erudite, deeply intelligent.” Her award-winning stories and essays have appeared in Tin HouseAgnithe Gettysburg ReviewBrevity, the Seneca Review, and many other places. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Borrow Readymade Forms, which The Millions says “provides a sense of hope about literature and its capacity for evolution and change.”

Interview by nonfiction reader Wes Hood

Sock and The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet were published about one year apart. What was that like? I imagine the proposing, writing, and editorial processes of each overlapped. Was it difficult almost simultaneously working on both, with two presses nonetheless? 

My memoir was pretty much finished by the time I started writing Sock. At some point during the research phase of Sock, I sold the proposal for the anthology I edited (The Shell Game) to the University of Nebraska Press. Shortly after that, I sold my memoir to them, as well. This meant that for a while I was juggling three different projects in three different states of completion. That quickly proved impossible, so even though my memoir needed only minor changes based on the suggestions of my editor, I put it to the side and focused on the other two books just to get them out the door because I didn’t want to be distracted when I did that final bit of work on The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet.

Was it difficult to transition from writing mainly essays to writing a memoir? Did it feel different from the get-go knowing you were writing/setting out for a larger piece? Or was that not even on your mind, did you see it as just a long-form piece? 

I started out writing fiction. In graduate school I started writing essays, and, shortly after that, I began my memoir, so it never really felt like something that evolved out of the shorter nonfiction work, just something I did alongside it.

Why socks? Or currants? Or etc., etc., etc.? What I mean is why specific items and objects as topics of entire pieces. I know that for me when I set out to write essays about specific objects, they often end up incorporating many, many more issues and ideas. Is that the case for you? How do you take often overlooked objects or moments and transform them? 

Finding links between small, specific objects and larger ideas and realities has always been a preoccupation for essayists. Montaigne wrote about thumbs. Borges wrote a very funny, very short essay about his own toenails. Dillard wrote about a weasel. I like to read—and write—essays that are firmly rooted in ordinary life, but that at the same time branch out to explore unexpected implications. The most obvious and mundane objects in our lives are as interesting as the most exotic and esoteric. It’s just that it’s harder to notice them, to truly pay attention to them. I don’t see working in this way as a process of transformation, just of looking carefully and being curious. Also, letting your mind off its leash. Because it’s important to let your thoughts wander, to let the work go where it needs to go as you pursue interesting connections.

Melanie Brooks writes in Writing Hard Stories that memoirists and memoir as a genre “venture to shape hard life into beautiful art.” For you, what was the process of writing about trauma like? Was it difficult and traumatizing to even begin thinking about? Or was it for you as Brooks states, more along the lines of you knew you had to shape it into beautiful art?

I started out writing this memoir wanting to do just that—transform something brutal and hard into something beautiful. It seemed sensible. Lemons and lemonade. But I don’t think of it that way anymore. Actually, in the end, I feel this idea was really counterproductive for me. I worked on The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet for a long time—twelve years—and for most of that time I felt like I was running in circles. I think this was at least in part because I was trying so hard to transform one thing into another—hard experience into beautiful writing. But that’s a kind of a fantasy. Writing isn’t alchemy. At least I no longer see it that way. Although I’m happy whenever someone finds something beautiful in my work, I’m not personally interested anymore in writing beautifully. I’m interested in illuminating my subject, whatever that might be. It gives me a lot more energy to work in this way. And it doesn’t necessarily preclude beauty. Because if you illuminate your subject well, whatever beauty is there will be revealed as a matter of course. Maybe I’m being too literal, but this idea of making beautiful art out of hard experience was for me a very dangerous one, and it took me a long time to wean myself of it. But I’m glad I finally did. It’s incredibly liberating to be free of it.

As a lyric essayist myself, I find it extremely encouraging that you edited an anthology of just lyric essays. Often times I feel like the form gets overlooked and brushed aside by more traditional forms/writers. What was the editing process like?

Finding the essays to fill the anthology was more challenging than I’d expected it to be, even though there were over 500 submissions. It was interesting to be on the other side of that process. Some people didn’t read the guidelines at all. A few even sent in short stories. It was absurd. I learned that you can tell a lot about a writer just from their cover letter. A bombastic or an apologetic attitude in a cover letter very often meant a bombastic or apologetic voice in the piece itself. Finding an essay that was a good fit for the anthology was always a cause for celebration. Once, I found two excellent essays in a single day and it felt like I’d won the lottery. During the editing process itself, I tried not to get my fingerprints on anyone’s work. I’ve had the experience of dealing with editors whose suggestions seemed arbitrary or too personal or seriously off the mark. So it was an interesting exercise for me to try not to do that, but instead to help the work be more fully what it already was. Some of the essays needed only very minor edits, some more substantial. Two or three needed nothing at all. In the end, I found it surprisingly gratifying to work with other writers in that capacity.

I’m sure you get this question all too often, but I find that I must ask it: What advice do you have for writers who find themselves straying from traditional conventions of style, space, etc. who may feel as though their writing won’t be received well or won’t get published?

I think you have to make a choice: either you prioritize the work itself, or you prioritize selling it. Both are valid options. They’re just different paths, with different outcomes. If you’re interested above all in getting published, I suggest you hone your conventional prose practices. But if that’s not your deepest commitment, stick to your guns, write what you need and want to write, and hope for the best. But don’t get depressed if it’s hard to sell. It’s really important not to let the marketplace get you down if you prioritize the work itself. The marketplace wasn’t built for unconventional work. The word “essay” is a dirty one on the marketplace. So is the word “experimental.” Any intersection between this kind of writing and the marketplace is a little miracle. You can hope for it, but don’t count on it. I know commercially-oriented writers who think of themselves as hacks. They sell their work with relative ease, but on some level don’t respect themselves because they feel they’ve betrayed their artistic vision. And I know more genuinely literary writers who take every rejection to mean their work is inferior. But it’s critical not to confuse quality with salability. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don’t. It’s important to consciously make your choice and be at peace with it. If you don’t, you could do yourself a lot of psychological harm.

 

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