INTERVIEW: Adam Wilson, Author of Flatscreen — Learning to Be Bad at the Right Things
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I met Adam Wilson in the fall of 2010, at a reading for Tao Lin’s new novel, Richard Yates. At the time, I had just started writing for The Outlet, and he was still working at BookCourt. I got to know him better since then — we read together once for Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and I’d see him fairly often at events around the city.
I got to like him, too — both as a person and a writer. He’s seriously smart and seriously funny, and his writing reflects that. He’s also an amazing reader, with a style that’s theatrical in all the right ways. So I was really happy to hear that he sold his debut novel, Flatscreen, to Harper Perennial last year. Lucky for you, the book comes out today.
Flatscreen tells the story of Eli Schwartz, a recent high school graduate who’s having a hard time with growing up. He doesn’t go to college, doesn’t get a job, and spends most of his time smoking weed, cooking, feeling alienated, and apathetically fantasizing. He falls into a friendship with Seymour Kahn, a creepy old guy in a wheelchair with a penchant for all the good/bad things in life, a.k.a. drugs, firearms, and sex with young women. Hijinx and misfortunes ensue. In the end, the book showcases Wilson’s best signature writing: raunchy scenes, dark hilarity, and quick, taut prose. But there’s something else there, too — a sad sweetness that permeates through both Eli and the writing. And this is the book’s most enduring reward: the subtle solace that Eli finds by the end of the book.
I sat down with Wilson recently so he could talk to me about the book, writing, and life. We met at a little coffee shop in Carroll Gardens, at a place that offered cheap coffee and an old-school Brooklynese man who liked to yell instead of talk. Wilson started off by showing me the newly-released trailer for Flatscreen, which stars Stoya and Paul Dano and is about 5000% less boring than pretty much any other book trailer. Despite the big names, the video was created among friends — Adam’s brother, Gabriel Wilson, directed the trailer; his editor acts in it (he’s the one who takes his shirt off); Stoya and Adam met at a lit party last year (EL’s party with Flavorpill and Harper Perennial at the Standard Hotel, no less); and Dano and Wilson met each other years ago when they were both living in Austin.
Julia Jackson: I think the book had a really broad appeal, since it seems funny/pop culture-y/fast-paced enough to draw out light readers, yet the writing is good enough to please the book snobs.
Adam Wilson: It’s funny that you say that, because so much of what people said was that this book is really great but it has a really limited appeal, and I kept thinking that people would like it. But people thought the narrator was unlikeable, that women wouldn’t like it. I don’t know, everyone’s so scared these days — that is unless something fits perfectly into the box of what’s tried and true.
JJ: Which is stupid, because you’d think that people would want to be taking risks, since things weren’t working the old way. So was this book hard to sell?
AW: It actually sold quite quickly. It took me a really long time to get an agent, and that was a long and frustrating process. Once I had an agent — who is awesome — it sold very quickly. My editor at Harper is just awesome, and I think Harper Perennial is doing really interesting things, and taking risks. I think doing it as a paperback makes it easier, and you can take more chances. But yeah, once I had an agent who was enthusiastic, it was pretty quick. I sent out an earlier version of the book, but the book wasn’t ready and I wasn’t satisfied with it, so I went back and spent another couple of years on it.
JJ: How long did you spend on it total?
AW: Five years.
JJ: When did you go to Columbia? Were you working on the book there?
AW: From 2006 to 2008. Yeah, I had started on it shortly before I went there. Before I’d even started writing it, I’d been thinking about it, to the point where I sort of had a bunch of it in my head without anything written. Like this idea of, “If I wrote a book, it would go like this.” I knew there were certain elements I wanted to have, and I knew that I wanted to synthesize them in some way, but I didn’t really know how. I knew that it would center around this family that was falling apart, and this other family that was new and different, and this guy who is looking for new parental figures.
JJ: Your writing style — which I guess I would categorize as lots of sex and drugs, and then the short prose with the dropped pronouns, contrasting with the longer and more descriptive sentences — has this always been how you’ve written, or did you find that voice later?
AW: I don’t think that’s how I’ve always written, and I don’t know if that’s how I always will write, but it felt really right for this. I knew I wanted it to be fast. There were some earlier drafts that I felt were too slow, with these long descriptive sentences and backstory in the beginning that was really bogging it down. It was sort of a major discovery when I had the idea to cut 100 pages and replace it with the little chapters of lists in between the other chapters. It was a faster way of filling in information.
JJ: When did the movie endings come in?
AW: Pretty far along. I felt like one of my struggles with the book was that it’s in a genre, or mode, that has been done a million times. This coming-of-age, stoner book.
JJ: Or the “not-coming-of-age” type book that we see.
AW: Exactly. And I was really aware of that while writing, and I wanted to make sure that this was different. I thought that one of the character struggles, too, is that he feels he’s inherited all of these prescribed narratives from TV and movies, which was a reflection of my own struggle — and he’s struggling to find an ending for his own life. Because his family’s such a failure, so he doesn’t have any real point of reference, so he’s trying to imagine all these different endings for his life, but his imagination is compromised.
JJ: I feel that was one of the things that made Eli sympathetic in a way, because everything I choose to do for myself is going to be some kind of cliché. It just depends on what kind of cliché it is.
AW: Right. So that was something I was really interested in, and something that I think was there from the beginning. I wanted to have this character who knew a lot but wasn’t educated. He just had a lot of information available in this “information age”… is that an old term? Anyway, this idea that you could become really knowledgeable just from reading Wikipedia all day, and watching the nature channel. He’s educated himself, but there’s also this huge gap, which is knowledge of human relationships. All I knew is that I didn’t want him to get better and have everything be fine.
JJ: Are you into cooking, like Eli is?
AW: Yeah, I love cooking. I feel like people our age are really into cooking. I did briefly think of going to culinary school instead of doing an MFA.
JJ: I know I tend to — on an ideal day — be writing something, but then in between I’ll be cooking something, and it tends to break up the tedium, and I’m thinking with a different part of my brain.
AW: Totally. One thing I feel like is so important to my writing, or to anyone’s writing, really, but I don’t know if other people have experienced this — I find that the most helpful thing is to be thinking about the story when I’m not actually sitting at my desk to write it. And when I’m cooking, I find it a very relaxing time, and I’ll find myself thinking about the character without consciously realizing that I’m doing it and I’ll come up with something. Or exercising, which feels like cooking.
JJ: Yeah, one of my teacher’s at Brooklyn College — I forget which — was saying something about getting into “the zone,” which sometimes happens when you write, but more often it’s when you are doing something like cooking or exercising, and you get in this sort of transcendent mindset.
AW: I think that’s really true. I could never meditate because I just sit there and think too much, but these kind of repetitive activities where I can distract myself enough with these mechanical movements. I think yoga’s like that. So yes, I do really like cooking. But I also wanted the character to be good at something. I didn’t want him to be such a loser.
JJ: What about the competitive blow jobs on the hill (briefly mentioned in the first few pages of the book as an event during the senior class scavenger hunt)? Did that actually happen?
AW: Yeah, that’s true. I think there was a movie based on my high school about that, called like Scavenger Hunt or something. I went to a big public high school in a wealthy town, and I think that anywhere where you have stupid rich people, they do stupid shit. I feel like I could have put so much more stuff in about that, but that would have been a different book. I remember that the top item on the scavenger hunt every year was to steal the ‘V’ from CVS, and somehow every year someone managed to get up on the roof with a rope contraption. But then there was a lot of sexual stuff that I was never really involved in.
JJ: So what kind of person were you in high school?
AW: Just like, a pothead. I was on the fringe of many groups, but I had a pretty serious stoner posse. There weren’t many girls in it, no females, really.
JJ: Yeah, I was stoned from about age fifteen to age twenty.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson
AW: Yeah, me too. And then I stopped smoking pot at twenty.
JJ: Me too. I started getting paranoid from it and realizing I was spending a bunch of money on something that made me feel bad, and then I started drinking a lot.
AW: Yeah, same. We’re the same person. (Laughs.)
JJ: Exact same! So how was Columbia?
AW: It was great. I was in a very bad place in my life before Columbia. I moved to Austin after college, pretty much on a whim, because I heard it was cool and I knew I didn’t want to stay in Boston because I grew up there and went to college there. I was really ready to break away from my parents, who seemed to be everywhere [Wilson’s father is a professor at Tuft’s, where Wilson went to college]. So I moved to Austin with a friend and I had a very lonely time there — I was pretty sad most of the time. Had no idea what I was doing with my life, worked on a couple of movie sets, I was unemployed for months, then I had this horrible job — which I mention in every interview — holding up a giant orange arrow at a highway exit ramp. It was awesome. I was miserable. My parents had encouraged me to get an MFA, but I had this romantic notion that to be a writer I had to live deep in America and have adventures and not be just another kid who goes to New York to do an MFA. But I wasn’t having any adventures, and I was really unhappy, so I thought I’d consider it. But I also had really low self-esteem and thought I’d never get in. Then around that time I read Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, and I thought it was so good. I didn’t know that much about contemporary fiction — I mean, my dad’s a writer, but he was a Saul Bellow scholar, so I’d read a lot of authors from his generation. Which I thought was really great, but I’d never really connected to it in the same way. Home Land was a really important book for me. It was the first time I’d read a book and thought, “This really feels new, and contemporary, and it feels like my life.” I had one of this teenager-listening-to-Nirvana for the first time kind of things, where you’re like, He gets me! I Googled Sam and he taught at Columbia, and then I ended up getting my car stolen, and then I got this insurance money, so I went to Europe to see this girl who I thought would fall in love with me, and that didn’t happen, and then I was broke so I moved back in with my parents, which was terrible. So I applied to Columbia.
JJ: And that’s it?
AW: Yeah, I didn’t really know much about other places, or MFAs in general. But I really wanted to meet Sam Lipsyte. And I went, and I had just had the worst two years, ever. And suddenly I was just so happy. I had all these friends. There were all these people who were into literature and writing, which I’d never had before. I met all these people who wanted to be writers but weren’t writers, and were excited and nervous — and that was great. And I got to work with Sam, which was terrifying but also really great, and a ton of other really great people, and I met a bunch of really close friends.
JJ: I was thinking the other day — because I’ve been reading all those posts about “Why should anyone get an MFA?” — and I was thinking about, Why did I get one? One reason I did it is because it was the only thing I could think of that would enable me to try and be a writer without going insane.
AW: That’s true. I also think it’s really hard to get a job, anywhere. People say it’s not a useful degree, but it is because you can teach, which is useful. I’ve never understood that argument. It does make it easier to publish a book. I mean, you can publish a book without an MFA, but it’s much harder — and probably entails a lot of promotion in the internet world. You have to do all the networking stuff without any help. Also MFAs are just really fun. I think the biggest problem with that argument is it’s such a blanket attack. Every program is really different. Every class is really different. I feel like the people at Columbia who had the worst time were the ones who kind of thought they were too cool for the whole thing and never really embraced the community.
JJ: It says in your press release that through therapy and medication you became less lost. Do you want to talk about that?
AW: (Laughs.) I also think it’s hilarious that it says I have a “real, live girlfriend.” I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was pretty young, and it was something I was resistant to for a really long time, mostly because everyone in my family was really into both of those things. I felt like it was being pushed on me. But when I was living in Austin I was really desperate and like, I need help. Which is basically the only way you can come to terms with something like that. So I got a therapist and I didn’t really like him, and then I moved to New York and I had this chance to be a new person, this person who is happy and okay with who they are. So I went into therapy again, and I’d always been resistant to taking medication. I always thought it was something wrong with my situation, and not my brain — which is ridiculous.
JJ: Did it affect your writing?
AW: Yeah. I was really afraid that taking antidepressants would affect it, and that’s a fear that a lot of people have, a lot of artists — that it will numb your creativity, that you won’t feel these extreme emotions — but I feel like that’s a real myth.
JJ: I feel like that, personally, after I got everything settled with medications and therapy and everything, that my writing has been much better.
AW: Exactly. The truth is that when you’re depressed you’re not writing because you don’t get out of bed. I wasn’t so fatalistic anymore. I started waking up and thinking, I guess I’ll wake up and start writing, maybe have some breakfast. It helped me have the discipline to write a book, and see it through when it felt on the verge of collapsing. Which happens almost every day when you’re writing a book. I don’t claim to be cured of all issues or craziness, but my life feels more in order.
JJ: I think it’s a balance. You do need to be a little bit crazy to be a writer, but you can’t be drunk in bed at noon.
AW: Or you can be, sometimes. But just not every day. (Laughs.)
JJ: Who are some of the most influential writers, or books, for you?
AW: I really like this book called Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo, which is this Italian novel from sort of World War I era, and it’s about a hypochondriac who spends his entire life trying and failing to quit smoking and then dies. That’s one of my favorite books ever. I re-read that one pretty often. That’s definitely one of the books that was an inspiration for writing [Flatscreen.] Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March — I think one of the original ideas for my book was that it would be a modern version of that, which didn’t really end up being that. Although some things still remained, like the brother in Flatscreen, and the wheelchair mentor is sort of taken from that. There’s so much other stuff. Nabokov, in terms of prose style and sentences. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf in college. On the sentence level, she’s unbeatable. Philip Roth, definitely. Although he’s someone I struggled with for a long time, because, like Bellow, he felt like one of my dad’s writers, and also I felt like Roth was giving away all these parts of myself that I wanted to hide. That he was acknowledging all of these deep neuroses and maybe some sort of creepiness that I felt was inside of me. Parts of myself that I didn’t want to have. Things I hated about myself. (Laughs.) I don’t know, I read so many books when I was working at Book Court that it’s hard to say that there’s one model… there’s probably a million things I’m forgetting.
JJ: Have you read anything amazing lately?
AW: I just read this book by this guy Mark Leyner called My Cousin My Gastroenterologist that I thought was pretty amazing and strange. It’s a collection of stories that are almost prose poems. It’s very hard to describe… kind of like meta sci-fi. It’s almost like Barry Hannah was writing post-modern sci-fi. It’s pretty insane. I just read Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, which I thought was really great.
JJ: How do you manage to find time to write, with teaching and working for The Faster Times [which Wilson just recently quit in order to focus on the publicity for his book] and everything else?
AW: I think there are a few answers to that. One is that I just do. I hate it when people complain about not having time to write because they’re working too much. People seem to think that if you’ve done an MFA you’re somehow privileged to spend all your time writing.
JJ: I feel like, if anything else, if you want to write, you’re going to make the time.
AW: Right. And everyone has that problem. There’s like, five people in the world, and they’re all named Jonathan, who make their living solely from writing. So you have to do other things. But that’s been the case throughout history. If you really want to, you do find the time. The other thing I’ll say, which I say to my students and they think it’s ridiculous, is that if you know this is what you want to do and what you really care about, and you’re working a job, let’s say, that you don’t really care about — then be bad at the job. When I worked at Simon & Schuster, I spent tons of time writing my novel when I should have been working, and that’s one of the reasons I got fired. But it was worth it. You have to prioritize. When I was in grad school there were all these social events and it was all really fun, but people always said, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in so long,” and, especially in New York, you just have to know how to skip things. You have to know how to say no. It’s not like you can’t ever go out, you just can’t go out every night. Also: Caffeine. Coffee is like the best thing ever.
JJ: Yes. Coffee and cigarettes.
AW: Yeah, my plan is to quit smoking soon. But I think it would be so hard. I think if I quit smoking I would just start eating all the time, because I need to give myself little treats. I would start eating chocolate bars.
JJ: Do you think the internet helps or hurts you?
AW: Oh, I definitely spend too much time on Facebook. It’s so easy to. At the same time, I feel like Facebook has actually provided me a lot of material for writing. If you can’t think of a character or character traits, you can just look at people you went to high school with. You can look at all these pictures of people and then write descriptions of them. I often think of things, like I’ll just be wasting time on Facebook and I’ll be like, “Huh. There’s a profession called this.” Or like, “Huh. Someone I know is a dolphin trainer. I’m going to make someone in a story do that.” And also one thing I’ve really been interested in, for this book and also in general, is just the language of social media. In the new novel I’m working on, one of the characters works in a digital marketing company and does the Twitter for big corporations.
JJ: How far are you into the next novel?
AW: Pretty far in my head. I’ve been writing and re-writing the first fifty pages for about six months, but I think I’m getting close to that being right. My hope is if I get that right, it’ll be easier to go from there.
JJ: What’s it about?
AW: It’s set during the 2008 Wall Street crash, and it’s this dual narrative centered around this couple. The guy, who has just lost his job on Wall Street, has this vague notion that, now that he has this free time, he’s going to write this book about Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP — which he’s not actually ever going to write — and he’s having some sort of breakdown. His wife, who works at this digital marketing company, and their big client at the moment is this sort of AIG-like insurance firm who need this public make-over, and her company is doing a really bad job at that. Her chapters come in the form of letters that she’s writing to this death row inmate in Texas who she’s fallen in love with, and everyone’s going to end up in Texas and there’s going to be an execution. I don’t know. We’ll see. It might be too much. I like to start with a lot and then see what actually works.
— Adam Wilson is the former editor of The Faster Times, a former culture columnist for Blackbook, and a former TV blogger for Flavorwire. His journalism, criticism, and fiction have appeared in many publications including Bookforum, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, and The Rumpus. He holds a BA from Tufts University, and an MFA from Columbia University, where he received a Merit Fellowship.
— Julia Jackson is a fiction writer and the Editor of Electric Dish. You can find her on the internet here.