By Producer
msnbc.com
CHAT TRANSCRIPT

Adam Haslett, author of the August selection for NBC’s Today Show Book Club, chats with MSNBC.com about “You Are Not A Stranger Here.” Questions were relayed over the phone to Haslett in New York City. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Mr. Haslett.

Question from Paul: Were you surprised that your book was chosen? No offense, but your book isn’t very “perky morning show.”

Adam Haslett: I was certainly surprised, it’s unusual for a short story collection to be chosen. I am glad they considered it a worthy choice. I think it’s a book that both has compassionate moments and sad moments, so it’s a mix in that way.

Question from Haley: Have you heard from the mental health community on your book?

Adam Haslett: I have been asked to speak at a university department of psychiatry so I’ve been contacted in that sense.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Generally supportive feedback?

Adam Haslett: In terms of feedback, I haven’t gotten any formal feedback.

Question from Jonas: Do you consider yourself an activist for the mentally ill?

Adam Haslett: No, I don’t. Some of the stories in my book deal with people who are suffering from mental illness or who are suffering from extreme mental states and I just consider it all sort of part of the human condition that I’m attempting to portray. So I don’t really have an editorial position about how mentally ill people ought to behave or how people ought to behave about medication or anything like that. I don’t see that as my position and I’m not an authority, I’m not a doctor, I’m just trying to write about characters as honestly as I can.

Question from bookworm: I think the main theme of the book is nature versus nurture. One one hand he seems to blame people’s parental past for their problems, but on the other hand there are several mentions of mental illness being hereditary.

MSNBC-Will Femia: No question there, but would you like to respond to that analysis?

Adam Haslett: I wrote these stories over the course of four years. Each one I wrote individually, so I didn’t sit down and plan any themes out. In fact, the thing that has surprised me the most is all the various things that people have found in the stories when they read them all together. So, I guess that certainly wasn’t any conscious decision. I think, as I said earlier, it’s a matter of attempting to give as realistic and compelling a portrait as I can of the various characters. If that comes out I guess I can see it, but it’s not a position I consciously take one way or the other.

MSNBC-Will Femia: You mentioned being surprised at consistencies people found in the stories, did you also find consistencies once they were grouped?

Adam Haslett: I actually never sat down and read the nine all straight through like a book, I ordered them in a certain way but…. To me the consistencies are about investigating characters’ interiority and just trying to put the reader as thoroughly as possible into the head of another person. They’re often about two characters and the characters are trying to connect with one another, trying to make an emotional connection with another person. In some ways one of the linkages I see is people seeking love and companionship and wanting to be understood. I think in almost every story there are characters who are reaching out in one way or another, and sometimes they are successful and sometimes they aren’t. But the struggle to make those connections is what I hope people identify with.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Is this reflective of your system of writing? Do you start with two characters and pick a relationship and go?

Adam Haslett: No, that again is more something I see in the stories later on. The way that I go about writing is really very much based on the language and sitting down and finding a rhythm in the language that I’m writing and the rhythm of the language eventually suggests a character and a voice and then a setting and the plot all follows along after that. It’s kind of an organic process. It takes a lot of time. I throw away a huge amount, and what I’m left with is hopefully a story that I’m happy with.

MSNBC-Will Femia: You mentioned the order of the stories...

Question from Hubert: I ended up reading the stories out of order (no reason really). Did I miss anything by doing that?

Adam Haslett: I don’t think so really. For me the ordering was really about wanting to give a certain flow to the experience of reading. But they really are meant to be entirely self contained so there’s no way in which the stories follow on from each other. In my own mind I think of the last story as the kind of the end of the book, but there’s nothing plot-wise that a person would miss from not reading them in order.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Back to your writing procedure...

Question from Dorothy B.: Why did you not take any of these stories and flesh them out into novels? How did you decide when to start them and end them?

Adam Haslett: The short story is a very particular art form. There’s an economy and a brevity of treatment of character. You can really capture the most important moment of a character’s life in a brief amount of pages, so it’s just really the form I was working it. I guess I just wasn’t thinking about a novel, so I would cut a lot of these things out. A novel is what I want to work on next, what I’m working on. But for me the short story is a very particular form and something I enjoyed working on. It’s like the difference between writing a poem and a piece of fiction, just different choices about different forms.

Question from Charles: What do you think of the market for short stories? Obviously there is success in it since you’ve done well with this book, but most short stories and short story collections -even good ones- get lost in the shuffle. What did you do that others don’t?

Adam Haslett: To the second half of the question, I think I tried to write the best stories I could and then had a very good editor and was just very lucky to be well reviewed. I don’t know what I did, I think I did what other good short story writers do and I have been very fortunate. It’s a privileged to have the number of readers that I do.

I think overall it’s ironic to me because literally 50 or 60 or 70 years ago you had writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald who would make their living on short stories and used to complain that they had to write another short story for the Saturday Evening Post so they could get some money before they could get back to their novel.

Certainly the questioner is right that the market is flipped entirely and I think that’s unfortunate. I think there’s a lot of incredible writing being done in the short story form. So I feel very lucky that mine has done well, and I hope that as time goes on more readers will think of short stories like they think of novels.

Question from Brenen Gates: Are you gay?

MSNBC-Will Femia: We can maybe broaden that to ask how much of what’s in the book is reflective of yourself personally?

Adam Haslett: As I said on the Today Show, my father was a manic depressive so the theme of mental illness that comes out is certainly reflective to some extent of my experience of that. None of the events in the book are autobiographical, all the stories and all the plots are entirely imagined. But in terms of my interest in the topic and what compelled me to write about these things, there certainly was personal experience on the mental illness side and the same goes for the material about gay men in the book. I am gay and that’s part of my experience so it comes out in the work. But in both instances these are things I don’t think about in advance. I don’t plan to write a story about a gay man or plan to write a story about mental illness, I start with just putting myself in front of the computer and trying to concentrate on the language and things follow from that.

Question from Pelly: In “My Father’s Business’ was he cured at the end? Or had they found a successful drug regimen?

Adam Haslett: My temptation, of course, is always to rely on the work and suggest the reader’s might have different impressions and that would be what they took from the story. But I think it’s supposed to be a little ambiguous. He’s in a temporary state of lucid thinking and so he’s able to understand what’s happening. But he’s left the hospital so I think the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Or is he dead? Since he’s visiting his friend the grave digger?

Adam Haslett: No, he’s not dead in my understanding of the story but I emphasize that my interpretation isn’t the only one.

Question from Richard Moto: Are you totally freaked out by the reviews you’ve gotten? I would be afraid to write another book after being called a genius after the first one. How’s the pressure feel? LOL!!!

Adam Haslett:

Well, I actually am looking forward to the idea of writing more. I think writing is a kind of refuge from the world in a way so I enjoy getting back to it. It’s a kind of ordered world that I enjoy being in. The other thing is that I think because the reviews have been about the short stories and I’m working on a novel, somehow it feels like it’s a review of a different genre so I’m not reallly worried about writing in direct response to anything that’s been said.

Question from Jenna: What are you working on now? Will you try a full length novel?

MSNBC-Will Femia: Are you finding it a very different process from writing a short story?

Adam Haslett: I’m just in the beginning stages of a novel, I couldn’t really talk much at this point about the content of it. I think my method of writing is not different, it’s still a matter of getting fully engrossed in the characters and listening to the language as it comes along.

The fundamental method of how I go about it in a day’s time is not different, my relationship to it is not different. It will certainly be a different artistic endeavor but it doesn’t feel entirely divorced from what I’ve experienced so far. I’m looking forward to having a bigger canvas to work on.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Do you live in New York or England?

Adam Haslett: I’m half English, my father was English. I have lived most of my life in this country but I was partially educated in England.

Question from Shannon Lanis: Are you still writing depressing stories or did you get it out of your system with this book? Will your next book be about happy, well adjusted people?

Adam Haslett: Tune in next time! I don’t think of the stories as themselves depressing. Because something doesn’t have a happy ending doesn’t mean to me that it’s depressing or pessimistic. In fact, a lot of the readers that have responded, the response is that get a real emotional connection to the characters and that, to me, seems really an optimistic thing. The fact that a reader is connecting to an emotional experience, that’s the moment of optimism. The fact that the actual plot may not turn out well… literature and film and TV are full of plots that don’t turn out well, but it doesn’t necessarily make the whole thing depressing. I certainly am not approaching the novel with any though of, “Well, I wrote a sad book and now I’m going to write a happy one.” I’m just going to keep going.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Mr. Haslett for taking this time with us. We look forward to your next work. Can you give us some closing comments as we reach the end of our chat?

Adam Haslett: Since the book has come out, the thing that’s been most surprising and gratifying is the range of people that have responded. I’ve gotten letters and notes from people who are in their 60’s and in their 20’s, just all over the map in terms of their backgrounds. They seem to find things in different stories. To me that is gratifying because I feel the stories are communicating something to people and you can’t, as an author, ask more than that.

MSNBC-Will Femia: More information on the Today Show Book Club and an excerpt from “You Are Not A Stranger Here.”

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