Editor’s note: Room 220 will host contributing writer Michael Jeffrey Lee alongside Adam Tipps Weinstein and Laurence Ross at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 18, at the Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Ave.).
I first met Adam Weinstein in Tuscaloosa, that notorious Alabama town with the famous athletics program. Adam and I had come seeking Master in Fine Arts degrees in creative writing, along with several other lost souls. We received good instruction and did pretty well. Actually we became excellent friends, and, except for one night, when we had a shockingly violent wrestling match in my car, managed a great deal of kindness toward one another. After earning our degrees, I headed south, and Adam went west to seek his fortune—at the PhD program at the University of Utah. We lost touch for a bit, but now his first book is about to come out and he’s headed back south to do some readings. Wanting the best for Adam and his terrific book, I decided to interview him for this publication.
Incidentally, this book, Some Versions of the Ice, soon to be published by Les Figues Press, is a collection of ruminative and mysterious fictive essays, whose speakers discourse earnestly on subjects such as graveyard shoes, slicing nails, and false pigeons. Sad, weird, erudite, and frequently comic, these pieces also make great use of appropriated text—sometimes of dubious origin. For example, one might happen upon a quote from Jonathan Edwards in its original form, then immediately encounter an Emerson in someone else’s mouth or a counterfeit Thucydides. I sent Adam some questions about his new book via email, and here are his responses.
Room 220: How did you go about researching this book? Did you, like the protagonists of the essay “Scenting Braille,” collect disinterestedly? How did you find what you found?
Adam Weinstein: I think the essays are actually more like maps of my research than the results of research. I don’t start with a hypothesis and then set out to find evidence to prove it one way or the other. The logic of any given piece follows all the bits I read and collect on a given subject. I might be thinking about a place – Antarctica, for example – and then I start reading, follow hyperlinks, jot down quotes, go to the library, find books that get footnoted, etc. It feels like following clues, and each essay ends up being a pretty loose process of discovery. My favorite part is going back to the mess and trying to sort it out, which means eliminating almost everything. I’ll look for themes and start to shape the essay into whatever it seems it’s become.
Rm220: What are some of your principle anxieties as an artist?
AW: I don’t often think about being an artist, or even having goals. If anything drives me, it’s the moments when I feel genuinely happy. Like: being human is sometimes pretty okay. I try to remember those moments and let them be my motivation to keep going – some of which comes from writing, some from eating a good meal; last night, it was giving my daughter a bath. I struggle more with things like boredom and depression. I usually have a cast of characters in my head (often people I admire) and think: what would that person do – because I don’t trust or have enough faith in myself. It’s totally self-defeating. But there are those rare moments, and many of those moments come when I’m writing something that is totally engaging my imagination.
Rm220: Fanny Howe, who chose Some Versions of the Ice as the winner of the NOS Contest, called this a “happy” book. Do you agree with her? Do you find yourself more often writing from a position of joy or despair?
AW: A lot of the writing has roots in – not despair, exactly… maybe sadness? – but the writing process serves to balance that out. I like that Howe thinks they’re happy pieces because they certainly make me happy, but underneath the writing are all the things I think are most important to me, which are also my deepest worries.
Rm220: The report contained within “Small Fingers” alternates between a no-nonsense, contemporary voice, and the testimonies of individuals speaking in Puritan English about a completely different subject. Actually, there are so many examples of collaging in the book—the argumentative thrust of the essay is constantly being augmented or interrupted by other voices. How does you see the other voices working within the pieces? What kind of relationship are you looking for with the reader?
AW: One of the most common comments I’ve gotten on quite a few of these pieces is that the quotes often come out of nowhere, that they don’t seem to follow (maybe if they’re supposed to be some kind of evidence), which is funny because I think they make perfect sense.
That piece you’re mentioning is really just about a group of people overreacting to a mysterious, but basically benign plague. I think of the Salem witch trials the same way. It’s like, “Hey! There are devils in our village!” But instead of thinking that’s pretty damn cool – if there were devils in my village it would be terrifying, yes, but it would also be confirmation of the supernatural, and I can’t overstate how amazing and game-changing that would be – instead, those assholes burned people at the stake. And I don’t mean that lightly. The worst people are the people with no imagination, no sense of wonder. I have a huge problem with dogma for that reason.
As to the relationship with the reader: a few nights ago my wife was reading a passage from Frankenstein aloud to me, and she happened to read a line that I’d (purposefully) misquoted in one of my essays. That little moment of confusion: it’s as if a space opened up between two worlds that was totally unfamiliar to me. A place of uncertainty. That’s a pretty good feeling, and I hope that’s something that comes across to anyone who might read my work.
Rm220: The narrator of “Some Remarks on Teeth” concludes, rather unexpectedly, that if humanity were freed from its teeth, especially the “incised language” such teeth help the tongue produce, that man might naturally return to its Edenic state. The reader is permitted to laugh here, and yet I sense some real feeling or wish on your part, something deadly earnest. Am I onto something?
AW: The ending to “Teeth” is one of those conclusions that, to me, just followed. I had no intention of arguing that we should get rid of our teeth. But in the end it seemed like the only way that piece could go. That said, yes, every one of these pieces is absolutely sincere.
Rm220: “Graveyard Shoes,” “Slicing Nails,” “Small Fingers”… did the essays take shape around the names of these things? Or perhaps, did the names of the things produce the voice that described them?
AW: That’s a good question. I think I do often start with titles; but then the titles get changed almost daily, depending on how I read the piece that day. “Graveyard Shoes” is one of the few essays in the book that is more or less didactic. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and what I wanted to satirize. My only regret is using the word pulque. While it works to describe the process, it points to a tradition that has nothing to do with the essay. It’s misguided appropriation that I’d change given the chance.
Rm220: Is this book a response to any trends in contemporary fiction or theory? Or would you say it’s more the result of private obsessions?
AW: If you would have stopped at that first question mark, I probably would have given you a long, theoretical answer. But then you throw in “private obsessions,” and I’m like, yep. That’s it.
Rm220: At the close of the “sub-plots” essay, after a beautiful description of the growing cycle of a garden, the narrator concedes that there will always be a “lurking space” that causes anxiety, a “neurosis of the terra.” Are you still an avid gardener and occasional farmer? How do you think about “the land” these days?
AW: I’m still an avid gardener, and a lot of the essays in this book occurred to me while I was planting this or pulling up that. Gardens are a great writing laboratory. One thing I’ve come to learn about gardens, though, is that if you think you can make plans, that you can count on the garden doing what you want it to do, you’ll probably fail. There’s always going to be something unexpected, and you have to be able to cope with that. Most of the essays are (to me) just alternate takes on what could be. None of it seems impossible. And so each essay is kind of a reminder to me that whatever I think is, probably isn’t. That said, they also demand their own logic which, if I’m in a really good head space, I’ll follow to a natural and often unexpected conclusion. If it’s not working, I just get a bunch of weeds. For me, that’s doubly my own version of ecology. Variation, unexpectedness, inter-relationships: those are solid gardening principles and good uses of the land; the opposite end of the spectrum is monocropping, which I could draw out into an extended writing metaphor, but I’ll just say it’s uniform, expected, and in the end, totally short-sighted.
Adam Tipps Weinstein is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, and Steffensen-Cannon fellow at the University of Utah. His first book, Some Versions of the Ice, was chosen by Fanny Howe for the NOS Book Contest is forthcoming from Les Figues–he is also nonfiction editor for Quarterly West. He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Emily, and daughter, Zella Mae.
Michael Jeffrey Lee‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in BOMB, The Collagist, Denver Quarterly, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. His first book, Something in My Eye, received the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande. He teaches at NOCCA, Tulane University, and for the Loyola Writing Institute.