The lesson I most needed to learn, the truism I most doggedly and stupidly resisted, was realizing that I had to justify every withholding in a story, and to move away from twists or even the sense that things should happen gradually.
Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself.
Samuel J. Adams was born in Tokyo, Japan and grew up in the eastern exurbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. He studied literature and philosophy at the Evergreen State College, and after graduating worked as an English teacher in Estonia, a dishwasher in Baltimore, and, for five years, a coordinator and case manager in programs that served adults with developmental disabilities in and around Napa County. He completed his MFA at Bowling Green State University in May of 2018. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Spork, Ruminate, Literary Orphans, BULL, Beecher’s, Right Hand Pointing, and elsewhere. In September he will begin a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City, Nebraska. He loves the small mammals of the Midwest and the fruit trees of California. He can play harmonica and guitar at the same time but he will absolutely stop if you ask him too.
CB: How did you come to fiction?
SJA: I doodled when I was kid and I got pretty good at it, and I grew up in the nineties when newspaper cartoonists were retiring rich at like fifty-two (Gary Larson, Bill Waterson, hell, even Berkeley effin’ Breathed), so this wasn’t a bad dream for a kid to nurture. At some point, the idea of drawing permutations of the same thing over and over again seemed too hard for me for various cognitive reasons, so writing began to appeal as a route for creativity. When I was fourteen, I skateboarded into the same cult of the individual every sardonic longhaired, blazer-wearing dude who thinks he’s unique does and read accordingly: Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Kerouac. Then I discovered some writers—William Saroyan, Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers, Nathaniel West, Saki, Whitman, Basho, Richard Wright, Jane Austen—that made me see things in a way that could eventually lead me to develop a style, a sensiblity, a worldview. Also, the pedantic journalism teacher at my high school was on some principled and pouty year-of-absence the year I joined the newspaper, so I got to experience some level of appreciation for the dishy Gonzo nonsense they let me publish. I was also having pretty heavy mumbling/cluttering speech issues so it was nice having access to the pleasures of language in a way that evaded these obstacles. In college, I preened about writing fiction more than I wrote it. After that, I had little assignments writing for lifestyle magazines, and other than that my writing basically consisted of filling notebooks with illegible drafts and having a reputation at work as the funny email guy. I started working four days instead of five so I could write during the other three. I wrote the novella that became my MFA sample.
CB: What is the most rewarding aspect of writing?
SJA: I can’t really nail down one thing…I guess it’s that we’re all going to die, and that many of us will be overlooked and forgotten while we’re alive, and our best experiences are fleeting, and our favorite stuff is so much ephemera, so it gives some comfort to believe a story or a play or a poem or a sentence can be a little sanctuary where these small matters of our lives can be gathered together in a way that ennobles them and gives them, if not a chance at immortality, then a chance to wear the trappings of a thing that could last and matter. I also like that anything can be ennobled by being on a page, how everything potentially fits somewhere: “Mr. Vegas” was spun out of an overlong stay at a shitty motel, and the bags of beer bottles that tripped me walking down the stairwell fit nicely in the world of my story. Even the shitty art I made in other mediums (my many dumb songs and kooky high school movies) has lately drifted into my fiction.
CB: What advice to new and emerging writers could you give?
SJA: I’ve only just finished my MFA—which I’ve no bones about admitting was a corrective, needful thing for me to do—so we’ll see what lessons learned there truly stick. But the lesson I most needed to learn, the truism I most doggedly and stupidly resisted, was realizing that I had to justify every withholding in a story, and to move away from twists or even the sense that things should happen gradually. Frontloading feels like a workshop-y, invasive thing to do to your story, but it’s not a slick, modern approach. Both Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” summarize the major plot elements in like the first two sentences. Summaries aren’t needed, but introduction of the big stuff should happen comprehensively and fast.
My more organic, homespun realization—based on my being a conflict-averse guy who doesn’t instinctively love the music of arguments in fiction or life—is that tension can occur at pre-plot level from colliding binaries together, finding contradictory energies in images (a rabbit in an elevator, say, or a hat in a tree), or genres (my Mr. Vegas collides noir, speculative fiction, travel writing, and spoofs of these tropes), or just someone’s way of being different from others or of noticing something peculiar. There are lots of things to dramatize besides just, you know, being dramatic.
Other than that, you should laugh when you write something funny, cry when you write something sad, squirm when you write something gross…you should do this emotional work to yourself if you want the same physiological functions as your readers. When I was young and overromanticized the matter I thought being stoic was the way to work; now I get worked up or it isn’t working.
And when you do a reading, for the love of God perform the reading. Your interstitial banter isn’t that good. Really.
CB: Who are your influences?
SJA: Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, Mary Robison, Shakespeare, Basho, Knut Hamsun, Ibsen, Simpsons seasons 1-9, Willa Cather, Beryl Bainbridge, Paul Beatty, Nathaniel West, Machado de Assis, Robert Louis Stevenson…it goes on. Lately, I am trying to get influenced more by shattering individual works rather than oeuvres. “The Heat Death of the Universe” by Pamela Zoline did this recently, as did “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover.” And I am influenced by my brilliant fiction-writing friends! Bridget Adams, Rebecca Orchard, Nick Heeb, Nathaniel Meals, Nicholas Rys, Katy Cesarotti, and Graham Todd all inspire me. And the recently retired Wendell Mayo needs a shout-out here too, as his brilliant teaching changed my life.
CB: Physical books or e-readers?
SJA: Physical books, but two out of three stories I read lately are short-shorts I read on my phone, so go figure.
CB: Are you a planner or a pantser? Tell us a bit about your writing practices/ Do you have a designated space for writing? Tell us about it.
SJA: It’s 2018, so I’m not going to be pantsing anybody.
But as far as planning goes, I have no schedule, no quotas; some days it’s nine hours and some days it’s twenty minutes. I’m not sure if my process is deliberate or daffy. If I were to pull back and examine myself I would say that the way I work seems very dumb. I usually have word documents of six-ten stories-in-progress open on my computer and sort of write them in fragments at the same time until one of them seduces me as the easiest to finish. Then I take a few long weekends with that one and basically write several chunks, most of them near the beginning of the story, one closer to the end, over and over and over again until they have the texture and concerns of the story I want to tell, until I know and love the characters, until the fragments feel clipped from a story in a real book. After that, I counterfeit the book. Then I write the missing parts, sometimes very rapidly, and arrive at a first draft where some things feel very intact and some things do not. Sometimes, with flash especially, I’ll write the whole thing in a sprint, but usually I have to erase so much this way; I don’t like seeing placeholder sentences in any draft of my story—they’re unwelcome guests to the party I’m trying to throw and they harsh the vibe. I would much rather produce pretty sentences that have to be cut and pasted and recombined than a bunch of serviceable sentences I have to later make pretty.
But I wasn’t cognitively able to focus enough to type a draft of a story, even a bad one, until I was twenty-nine, so I am open to new approaches in the future. I may someday look at these comments as the ravings of an undisciplined lunatic. I am open to growth.
CB: If you could give a PSA to journal editors, what would it be?
SJA: Please respond to submissions alphabetically by last name, thank you. Asking for a friend.
CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.
SJA: I feel like I fear the usual stuff: flying; cancer; Trypophobia (lotus-flower fear of little holes bullshit) gets me everytime; cancer; Cops, jail, prison; the present administration; Texas; bitter young men shooting up public spaces and mowing people down with cars; the increasing range of tick-borne Lyme disease; earthquakes; tornadoes; comets; having a bug on my shirt; seeing people (esp: children) in white nightshirts standing by the roadside; cancer again; the Democratic Party’s unhealthy relationship with technocratic centrism; barnacles; working on roofs; rattlesnakes; astrology being real; astrology not being real; my credit score; being out of work; going to work; necrotizing fasciitis; getting too drunk and waking up in the French Foreign Legion; being a dull date.
CB: What draws you to dark fiction? How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?
SJA: I love dark stories that repulse and seduce with the same sentence; I love creating an welcoming and thoughtful space for the worst fears and thoughts; I love the feeling that the depths of our inner ghoulishness are fathomless; I love how much darker The Turn of the Screw gets when you don’t read it as a straight ghost story, but I also love how you taste and shiver at the sheet-like phantasms in M.R. James. I love how darkness expands our empathy, but how it also challenges and complicates the almost touristy idea that an empathetic relation to a character is the highest feeling to have in fiction (Adam Johnson’s “Dark Meadow” kind of plays with this tension).
In my “Mr. Vegas”, the darkness exists in tension with the comedic styling of the piece; Marceau and Julie are wisecracking layabouts fighting boredom and trying to keep their relationship sweet while they wait to commit heinous acts. The darkness also feels sociological/economic–they’re prisoners of their medical fragility and the expenses it incurs but the grim relatability of their plight doesn’t absolve them of their evil.
CB: Tell us about your book / publication / web site / promotion.
SJA: I don’t have a website yet. I make quips and oafish attempts at self-promotion on twitter, @Bib_Zone .
Read Samuel J. Adams’s “Mr. Vegas” in issue 1.2 of Coffin Bell!