Rogue traders. Cover ups. A bank bail out. Big box real estate. Patrols on the Iranian border. Civilian casualties. This may seem like a list of topics more likely to appear on CNN than in literary fiction, but they’re just some of the hot button issues explored in Adam Haslett’s first novel, Union Atlantic, out tomorrow. The 39-year old author began working in earnest on the book, his follow-up to the acclaimed short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, five years ago, long before the economic collapse become headline news. But the confluence of circumstance hasn’t exactly hurt the book’s hype– when an except appeared in Esquire, the magazine referred to it as “The first great novel of the new century.”
Focusing on the buzzwords, however, obscures the fact that Atlantic, like Haslett’s short stories before it, is a series of character studies. The novel tells the interconnected tales of retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves, whose dogs have begun talking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X; her new, despised neighbor Doug Fanning, a former GI-turned-slick money man overseeing the shady growth of a huge financial institution; Nate, a grieving high school senior who becomes sexually involved with Doug; Doug’s boss, Jeffrey Holland; and Charlotte’s brother, Henry Graves, the man in charge of the New York Federal Reserve. Haslett, who also has a law degree from Yale, sat down with BlackBook in a Brooklyn coffee shop to discuss the novel, working through “radical doubt” and how angry stock brokers are.
The timing of this book seems really fortuitous. I wasn’t sure about it, initially, if the book was going to feel like it was scooped, or if it was validated by the financial crisis. But, I’ve been delighted honestly. I have no complaints that people are interested.
You said in a previous interview that you know where you want a story to take readers, and what feeling you want to leave them with. What was that for this book? Since 9/11, I have never looked at the newspaper or opened a web browser the same way as I did before. The world is tense enough, that god knows, on any given day, what you might find there. So everybody’s been amped up on all these macro issues, and yet our lives don’t look that different on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to write a book that moved between those two registers. Between the macro and a more day-to-day, as a way of giving people the opportunity to slow down and think, contemplate that relationship. I think that’s one of the things that novels do unlike any other medium. They require the reader to slow down. It takes time. So if you can get your reader to come with you, then they’re in a suspended place. I wanted an opportunity to think these things through. I wanted an opportunity to know what my relationship is to these macro things when I’m living my everyday life. I want to write characters who are moving between them and not people who somehow, despite the world we’re living in, have not been lobotomized from the subject of politics.
Your recent New York profile said that you had the beginning of the idea for this book ten years ago. What was the piece you started with? The piece was actually the part in the book– it’s now three fourths of the way through–where Henry Graves is in his office at the Federal Reserve and he’s looking down from his perch, at the people on the street going by, thinking about how money circulates. He’s got the bird’s eye view. When I first wrote it, he had a whole different back story that I got rid ofeventually. But he was the first character.
What was it about him that appealed to you? Why write that guy? He’s the gray man. The gray civil servant. The believer in good government. The dying breed of New Deal Democrats of a certain generation who had belief in the system and mainstream good government. A person who is therefore caught in the predations of the new, while holding some ideal and belief in the system that he works for.
So you come up with your characters before your plot? I always think you write against what you’re weakest at, and I always think what I am weakest at is plot. So I ended up with a book with a lot of plot. But to me, the real work is creating a rhythm, a music, that I think is actually compelling the reader as much as the plot. There is an unconscious effect on the reader in the rhythm of the prose that propels them along. That to me is the whole challenge. Plot problems are kind of just there. To only have the plot, that’s not enough. When I’m working on a character for a long period of time, I’m trying to get the rhythm of the language. I want to give the reader something about the character that’s not just the stated content, but the habit of mind. The rhythm of the language that Doug is written in is very different than the rhythm of the language that Charlotte is written in. The question is how are they going to live in the same verbal universe. Virtually every chapter and every scene is a very close third person, so there is not a master narrator. This created problems for moving the plot forward because I didn’t have a voice to say “And then…”
Were you concerned that you wouldn’t be able to fit all these characters together? Certainly at various times I thought that a certain section might not make it into the book. And of course there were dead ends in characters. Like Jeffery Holland, who was the head of the bank, I spent a fair amount of time on, but then CEOs are so bland. The more interesting people to me were the people who were more operationally involved. There were times when I felt like I was at sea, trying to keep myself afloat, and I doubted that I would ever be able to make it work. I would say if there is one thing that I have learned from writing a novel, is the ability to survive radical doubt about whether the project is worthwhile, whether you can complete it, whether it is going to hold together. If you can’t survive that in large doses, you will doubt it out of existence.
Charlotte, and Doug in his way too, are both very critical of, well, how bourgeois the bourgeoisie have become. Like, if they could see this coffee shop, they would both be grossed out. Do you have a similar critique? I think there are so many things you can say after the fact. The danger is to make any of these people representative in a systematic way. Charlotte and Doug are both absolutists. Henry and Holland are pragmatists. Nate is the romantic. It’s fairly obvious I was raised in a tradition that values what Charlotte’s advocating in a sense, but I am more sympathetic to Doug then it might seem.
Doug is sort of single-mindedly dickish, but I found him… there’s something sympathetic about him. He’s not a brat. I think that a lot of people read Doug and Charlotte as kind of good versus evil, mean guy versus wonderful teacher. I hope it’s more complicated than that. The thing I eventually realized to get the voice of Doug, was that he has a certain kind of male anger, which seems to me to be an emotion vivified in militarism and finance capitalism. If there has been an emotional key that those two obsessions of the last decade have played out in, it’s anger. In the military it’s so obvious because it’s physically aggressive, but in finance, one thing that is fascinating, in a dark way, is watching how angry these finance guys are about being denied bonuses. “I earned my 100 million dollars!” Doug is like that. He is a live wire of that emotional key.
Was Doug the last character you wrote? No it was Nate. I was avoiding him.
So you knew he was there, waiting for you? Well, I had him in a different form with a different back story. In the end I just had to write what I knew on that front. I mean not in turns of his relationship to Doug, but that sort of high school scene. I was drawing on some personal experience.
Why did you pick Cotton Mather and Malcolm X as the voices that Charlotte’s dogs speak to her in? I read this biography of Cotton Mather. He fathered fifteen children and thirteen of them died. Not all in childbirth, but like at 6 months, 2, 5, 7, 20. He’s the most prolific author in American history. He wrote more prose than any other American. Just shelves of it. I do think of Charlotte is the representative of a kind of dying, liberal, humanist tradition. Sort of art and culture as religion. And that particular American liberalism seems to have two roots, two sides. One side of it is a castigating, religious voice. The other is the original sin of slavery. The ultimate American liberal is an abolitionist, if you go back far enough. In a way what’s happening to Charlotte is the voices of her tradition are coming back to drive her crazy.
Did you feel pressured to write a novel, as opposed to short stories? I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I wrote these stories and, you know, I was aware of the world of publishing, but the fact is by the time I finished the story collection, I was starting to write longer and more novelistically already. There’s all sorts of stuff in this book that could never get into a short story. The discipline of writing a short story is such that literally you have to ask every sentence “is this additive?” And if it’s not, it’s out. The satisfaction of a novel can’t reside in a single breath and then an ending. The image of a carnival– of all these different voices and moments happening, that kind of endless variety in life bubbling up– I wanted to explore that. I just read The Savage Detectives, and I felt like [Roberto] Bolano taught me something about shagginess and the benefits of meandering.
Do you read a lot? Sure, but I grew up dyslexic and I read very slowly still, because I don’t know how to skim. I read every word of every sentence in order. I think I am very attuned to the sound of a sentence because of this. I know some people can take in a paragraph just by putting their eye on it, but I can’t. Like when someone says, “I just read a Trollope on the beach,” I don’t do that. I don’t think I have ever read one book in a day in my life.
Will you go back to writing stories at some point? Yeah, but I don’t think I’m done with wanting to explore the intersections of things, of characters and levels, of what’s going on in culture and politics.
Are you working on something right now? I’ve begun character sketches and research for a new novel.
When people ask you what you’re writing about, what do you say? I’d probably just say I’m writing a novel. If they ask what it’s about, I would probably avoid the question.
Because answering is too complicated or because it’s just a bad idea? Just because the frustration is you want to say, I’m writing about this word, that word and just give them the whole novel. It’s the summary that feels like a violence.
When you sit down to write, how much are you writing on a good day? A good day is 500 words over about six hours. And half that will probably be erased the next day.
Do you have internet on your computer that you write on? No. I have two different computers that I write on. I turn the phone on and don’t have email or internet until the end of the working day, at like 3 o’clock. The only thing harder than working is not working. It’s miserable. You feel like someone who has been locked out of your house and you’re staring in at the warm part and you’re out in the cold. You just want to get back inside. It’s a weird, kind of psychotic endeavor to try and write for a long period of time. It’s distorting. Nothing else in the culture is moving at that pace. I want to think the future is slow, but that’s probably not true. But in a speeding culture, it’s a pleasure to slow down.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe