INTERVIEW: Adam Novy “the internet makes me anxious”
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I first met Adam Novy about four years ago when he was an instructor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, where I was re-taking English 101 because of a transfer credit debacle. When I talked to him after class, I learned that we’d been at Pratt Institute around the same time, lived in adjacent neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, and were both huge fans of The Smiths and The Replacements. Just as I was starting to take fiction writing seriously, he learned his novel, The Avian Gospels, would be published through HOBART’s SF/LD imprint in the summer of 2010.
The first run of The Avian Gospels sold out at the end of last year, and is now being re-printed in a handsome one-volume edition through SF/LD. On a recent trip home, I caught up with Adam in South Pasadena, and talked ska, books, high school coaches, and mythologies
— Ryan Chang for Electric Literature
LISTEN to the interview: Adam Novy Interview
EL: You’re a writer in LA: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the writerly-ness of the place.
Novy: Many writers live here but most of them work in Hollywood, for TV or the movies, or they’re trying to, but then there is this other culture of people writing fiction or poetry, and it’s really nice for us, because we don’t feel like we’re competing for oxygen. I loved Brooklyn, but there’s the old saw about how when you get on the Q, there’s like 12 other people there who are trying to do exactly what you do and you glare at each other and go home and update your Tumblrs with gifs that show how jealous you are. That hasn’t happened to me here.
Of course the weather’s lovely. There seems to be an absence of unhappiness and suffering, or at least the folks are keeping it to themselves. I’m never in a puddle. There is so much space. I can sleep like eight hours in a row. I know that these are all clichés but I am living them devoutly. In New York, it felt like there was a subway stop in my bed.
EL: I’m always interested in hearing about how writers stave off the crushing fear of, well, writing. Like, do you have a squeeze toy on your desk to fend off the demons?
Novy: First, I am very, very afraid of failure and it bothers me every day. I’ve started swimming in this incredibly beautiful pool in the middle of a canyon at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. I go for long walks all the time. South Pasadena’s a nice place to walk around, although sometimes you look crazy if you’re walking in the suburbs. I miss New York for that.
I mean, I don’t smoke. I quit Facebook. I quit Twitter. I’m definitely trying to eliminate ways to waste time. The Internet makes me anxious. It’s a place that people go to quell their anxiety but it only gives them more anxiety. So I have limited that fear, at least.
EL: Yeah, one of the big concerns of your novel, for me, is how we conceive our origin myths and legends, and especially how we now ingest reality. The dystopian qualities sort of allegorized the way we read Facebook: scrolling through confessionals, jokes, cat memes, Kim Jong-Un’s latest threat. Was this a concern for you? How characters — and we, as people — process political trauma and re-conceive reality?
Novy: I started messing around with this voice that generated this book right after 9/11. At the time, there was this origin myth about what had happened, about guys in caves and whatever, but of course it made no sense, and we didn’t understand what we had seen or who we were in relation to it. We didn’t know our relationship to Osama Bin Laden. The more confused we got, the more decisive we had to be. There wasn’t any time to stop and think.
At some point, we effected this radical separation from ourselves. We just turned into a completely different people, invading countries and destroying them, destroying ourselves, doing things we can’t take back. Maybe we had always been like that to some extent but something about this was new. I was really, really horrified by that, but interested in it as a writer. I could feel it physically.
I was interested in putting characters in a place where they had to be decisive even though they didn’t know who they were in relation to the world. And their origins were perplexing to them. The characters in my book have to act like people who they are not in order to be who they have to be. They have to be phonies.
EL: Yeah, like your narrator has to pretend to be the authority, but we watch this narrator break and become self-aware.
Novy: I was really interested in this high school teacher I had. He was this bullying fucking prick and the JV basketball coach. He was obsessed with the idea that FDR was a bad president and Herbert Hoover was a good president, and he thought Hoover’s reaction to the Great Depression was the right one. He would dissolve in class — we weren’t even talking about the Great Depression, and he’d say, “FDR got it totally wrong,” or, “Kennedy got it wrong,” or, “LBJ got it wrong with the Great Society, you don’t fight poverty that way, you make people pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” He loved the expression “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” but he couldn’t pronounce it at all, he spoke in wild grand repetitive loops, like someone obsessed, which he clearly was, and fired off spittle like a geyser. It was fantastic. What I saw was an individual in turmoil who’d been assigned a role of authority which he wasn’t suited for at all. So he was up there, in the middle of the day, ranting and being wrong, babbling to himself, and everybody else was sleeping except for this one guy, me, who was completely enthralled by the spectacle of this person who had authority and used it to discredit himself.
That’s what I really adore: the authority figure who reveals himself accidentally, in front of everyone. I really just channeled that voice — a voice that was telling a story it was clearly lying about, and clearly it felt bad, but it was also indignant and self-righteous and sanctimonious. I probably made the voice of the book more eloquent and pretentious than this teacher was, who was the least articulate person in the room.
EL: Your book ends in this really great and difficult spot: it’s cathartic, but not in that we experience schadenfreude and feel relieved. It forces readers to contemplate. It leaves them with a question.
Novy: I need a happy ending as much as any American and I feel existentially abandoned if I don’t get one, but I think happy endings make us stupid. It’s a little embarrassing that we have to cheer up the reader so much. Aren’t there drugs for that? I know why writers imply that we’re supposed to teach the reader to be more generous and more sympathetic, and that we create the possibility for something better by putting that better vision in our work, but I also feel like we have a job to give the reader the tools to understand loss. One way to say it is that writing can help us repair the world, but it can also help us understand loss, and maybe to know if loss didn’t have to happen the way it did. I guess I lean more heavily on loss, probably because of its relationship to power. Power is probably my subject.
The art critic Boris Groys, who I’m otherwise not so psyched on, says contemporary artists aspire to a balance of the elements in their work — loss, consolation, jokes, pathos, without any single one of them prevailing — to illustrate how democracy should work. In other words, it’s a kind of good manners. I’m so imbued with this idea that writing shouldn’t be political that it feels almost unprofessional bringing it up. I could really talk about this all day. Many fine writers, by the way, are writing books that simply don’t have any truck with politics and this probably doesn’t apply to them at all. But like I said before, my subject is power, so endings have a certain currency to me.
EL: Right. And amidst all of this, you also have this thriller/love story and gypsies playing ska. Can we talk about ska for a minute?
Novy: I really love ska. I made a decision years before I started this book that whatever books I wrote would have some kind of ska in them. And I really love gypsy music, which has some things in common with ska: they’re really anxious and exuberant and they’ve got this insistent beat. The melodies are sad and yet they celebrate. Ska added fun to the book.
EL: Your book inhabits this space between fiction and philosophy. Brian Evenson has this great essay in the journal symploke, and it was about the importance of strengthening the space and dialogue between fiction and philosophy in creative writing classes.
Novy: I like fiction with a lot of ideas in it. I haven’t read the Evenson essay, but I agree that fiction has a role to play in the history and the progress of ideas, and some of us need to take that role at least a little seriously. We can do things that philosophers cannot do. We can have dialogue with different voices. We can have debates. We can illustrate things through action and through the formal character of our work, and we can embody ideas and contradiction. And we can deal with difference in a very important way. In a better way than almost nobody else can.
EL: Are you working on anything right now?
Novy: I’m working on a novel about Perseus and Medusa before they get discovered. The early days of Perseus and Medusa. It takes place partially in mythic Greece and partially the suburb I grew up in. The characters are in the middle of mythic history. One thing about mythology I’ve always been really interested is what the characters know about their place and time in history. There’s this idea that the world is new and folks are creating meaning as they go along. Do they know they’re creating meaning? And what would it be like to be a teenager under those circumstances? Or a parent raising those teenagers, what would it be like? The prose is maybe more normal than The Avian Gospels, but the heart of the book is probably darker.
Adam Novy is the author of a novel, The Avian Gospels, and his work has been published in Dossier, The Believer, The Collagist, The Denver Quarterly, and American Letters and Commentary. He lives in southern California and teaches for at least two colleges.
Ryan Chang’s fictions and essays have appeared in Everyday Genius, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets at @avantbored