August 15, 2014
An Interview With Adam Berlin by Sara Whitestone
Adam Berlin is the author of the novels The Number of Missing(Spuyten Duyvil), the boxing novel Both Members of the Club(Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit adamberlin.com
An introduction by Adam Berlin
After an eight-year publishing drought, two novels came out in 2013 and my productivity doubled. Was I excited? That’s too strong a word. Was I relieved? Yes. Could I call myself a writer again without feeling like a fake? I could. But do I believe my writing life will get easier? That I’ll enter that elite circle of writers who never have to worry about rejection? That’s a tough one. Even a little success begets motivation—two new novels in one year infused me, and these days I pretend things will get easier. But just as I do in my fiction, I only pretend so much.
Whitestone: The theme for the writing class that I am teaching is fear, and we are talking about how we (even we professionals who do it all the time) have to face our fears when we write. I would enjoy having you talk a little about your writing process and any fears you might experience while exposing yourself in words.
Berlin: I’m happy to talk about fear (or fearlessness) in writing.
Whitestone: Do you think it’s easier (less scary) to write a piece of fiction than a personal essay? Can’t you just hide your truth in the fiction knowing that no one can decode which is which? But in creative nonfiction so much is laid bare, exposed, vulnerable.
Berlin: I try to write fiction that is raw and, because it’s raw, real. It’s a fine line because during the revision process, especially the later part of the revision process, I try to make the prose flow and think carefully about sentence rhythms and word choices. I work on the writing sentence by sentence. But I work hard to hold onto that raw quality that inspired my early drafts. And in many parts of my novels and short stories, it’s all me. The emotions in my characters aren’t fictional and much of what they do and say is from life. Of course in fiction you tweak reality a little more, but even in nonfiction there is tweaking, there are decisions that have to be made about what to present and what not to present. So in this way, both fiction and nonfiction have artifice attached. I never really care if people assume I’m the character or not. I’m fearless that way.
Whitestone: Many risks that I’ve taken have turned out worthwhile—like asking you to conduct this interview without knowing you well and then finding you as a friend on the other end of that risk. (Thank you.) But many writing gambles have stung me hard. How can I tell which is which? How do you know when to withdraw to safety or when to move forward in fearlessness?
Berlin: Risks are good as long as they don’t kill you—in real life I take some risks, maybe more and more lately, and I skirt danger sometimes. So far, I’ve avoided any serious stings, except the stings I give myself. With writing, risk-taking is important. It keeps you from writing the same old, same old homogenized, formulaic story. I try to push my characters to difficult places. And like in life, I listen to my gut. If the place is too risky for the character, or if it’s not written in a plausible way, I pull back.
You should probably do the same. In life, use your gut when it comes to risks. And you should probably do the same in your nonfiction. Trust your gut. And stay away from homogenized, easy moments. Write the hard moments. The gut usually knows how far to push. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Whitestone: In the past I have let people that were close to me cause me to second-guess myself, but now, my gut tells me it’s time to be more fearless. Of course this is why I chose the theme of fear for my English 101 course. We should write what we know but also teach what we are experiencing. That’s when our craft is both genuine and effective. What growth have you seen in your own writing? What experiences do you use from your own life?
Berlin: My first story ever published was a baseball story—simple premise, simple conflict, but a good simple, I hope. It’s a hit and pitch contest, a college baseball pitcher who’s in a fraternity and believes he’ll make the pros against a hitter who is fresh out of college and never made the pros. It’s a classic man-versus-man conflict.
Yes, I tell my students to write what they know, but to also keep it simple on the plot level, and then tweak it so that the drama (and ultimately the themes) come through without the reader seeing the writer pulling the strings. I think my stories became less plot-heavy as I grew as a writer. I have a lot of stories about men, stories that showcase men’s strength and weaknesses and their irresponsible behavior. I have a lot of stories about men picking up women in bars or looking for trouble or trying to prove their manhood. In many of these stories, men face their fears, but also recognize their fears and try to cope with them. In that way, fear is one of the obstacles in my work—not an obstacle to writing, but an obstacle that the character has to get around or go through, and these are fears that men have. I think my novels most show my growth as a writer.
My newly released 9/11 book, The Number of Missing, is my most difficult, and in some ways, most troubling novel—it’s about a man dealing with loss by drinking and going out all the time and being careless. Those ideas have been in my work forever, but in this novel, because it’s a larger canvas and because 9/11 was so momentous and brought out so much emotion, raw emotion, the carelessness and the recklessness are greater. My gut told me I could push these emotions, and I like to think this is my most raw and, because of this, my most honest novel. In many ways it’s my most autobiographical novel. This character spends a lot of time alone in bars and walking the city and so he reveals more.
My themes are often recurring but, and I like to think this is a byproduct of growing as a writer, I go to harder places with these themes. It’s like the adage—a writer writes the same story over and over. I’m hoping my stories are becoming better, more revealing, more honest, and that I’m better at writing the hard parts of the story, the part Hemingway often talked about, the part that’s hard to face as a writer but must get faced if you’re a real writer.
Whitestone: In your short story, “Romance of the Seas”, which is about a writer who is on a road trip to promote his latest book, the character uses a unique second person voice to write about his discontent:
You have no joy. You’ve heard that the hardest thing to write is joy, but that’s not something you would ever write about anyway. You are thinking that the hardest thing to feel is joy. You can’t remember the last time you were seriously joyful. You certainly have not found joy on the road. What joy is there in showing up in a city alone, looking at the buildings, passing the people, seeing the sights like a checklist with no one to share them with? Part of the romance of the road, of the true on-the-road experience, is to be on your own, but it’s also very depressing. It’s not the actual driving. The driving is fine. You have the feel of the car and the wheel in your hands and you have to concentrate. You can speed and pass and weave. You can play games with the other drivers, dare them to pass you, accelerate just enough as they’re going by that they have to accelerate even more, more than they want, more than they should, and sometimes a cop nails them just at that moment. You lift your hand, wave, let them know that the king of the road is sometimes the slower man. You drive and you get to your destination and you walk around and there’s nothing to do but drink, kill time, flirt with a stranger, wait until you have to show up at the bookstore so you can read a few pages to a few people and sign a few books and then, thank goodness, get in the car and drive.
Whitestone: Is the hardest thing to write or to feel really joy? The search for joy is one of my recurring themes, so I guess I am trying to answer that question myself . . .
Berlin: Yes, I think joy’s the hardest thing to write. At least for me. And I hate reading joy tinged with sentimentality. So true joy—in life and writing—is hard to attain. I hope I get down moments of joy in my work, but my taste (and moods) go to the flip side of joy. I’m much more comfortable in moodier, angrier places.
Whitestone: I think sometimes I have been guilty of writing with sentiment. But it is those works that get rejected by editors (as they should). Then I go back and write the essays better and am made a better writer each time. Once an editor told me that I didn’t have the right to even mention joy or grace or beauty until I had earned it through suffering. That rejection just made me fight harder to get my piece published elsewhere.
Berlin: Rejection as a catalyst to fight harder—that’s the right attitude. The best revenge is served cold and with publications. I don’t believe you have to suffer and be tormented to be a writer—or to earn the right to write joy. Maybe it helps, but if you can write and if you can feel, who gives a shit what your upbringing was. As for editors, de gustibus, as they say. Some editors are going to appreciate your work. Some editors are not. As long as you write what you want to read, you’re being true to yourself.
Whitestone: I don’t think it’s revenge that I look for in these rejection or acceptance situations. It’s validation. But even then, for me the validation is not what motivates. The passion to write is. I have to say that you have a great work ethic—lots of publications over many years to your credit. What keeps you wanting to do it?
Berlin: To say I need to write is a cliché, but I think I need to write. Not like I need to eat or sleep. A lot of writing is ego-driven. Any writer who doesn’t admit that is lying, I think. Unless you’re throwing your pages in the river after you write them, you write to be read. You write to have an audience. It may not be to show off, but you’re writing with the ultimate belief, after you write the story you want to read, that your work is worthy of readers. I can say this, unequivocally. Writing is the best part of me—I am careful and responsible and smarter and wiser when I write. I am also arrogant about my writing. And I am competitive—I want to win at this.
But not when I am writing. When I write, I want to write the great book, the one I want to read, the one I would finish and say, “That will stay with me.” And when I’m done writing, I want (and arrogantly expect) to get attention. I have had many fallow years, and I feel in so many ways I have not received my due—that also pushes me forward. But the writing is pure. And when I’m writing, I work hard at it. It’s why when people tell me they’re writers I don’t believe them. There are few writers and mostly amateurs. They don’t do the work. Even on the sentence level, they just fall into easy patterns—this is why it’s so hard for me to read and critique others’ work these days. I feel I can see right through everyone’s work and see if it’s true or bullshit.
Whitestone: How did you first decide to become a writer? What was the catalyst?
Berlin: I was acting and doing a little modeling in New York City, was in the unions, and I realized I was not a team player and hated being out of control, auditioning to just do the work. I was in shape as an actor when I finished college, but then it was all about making it in the business, and I didn’t care enough about craft. I stopped going to acting classes. I didn’t prepare for auditions like I’d once prepared. I had been writing all along. My personality—being in full control, working on my own—was better suited for writing. And I was better at it. I worked in a bar where a real writer worked, and I showed her some stories, asked her if I had potential. She said I should go for my MFA, and I did. In the MFA program I learned discipline. I learned about putting in the hours, about having to put in the hours. I stopped auditioning and started putting all my effort into writing.
Whitestone: I like what you say—when you write it is the best part of you. For me, I think I am most myself when I write. Pure is a good word for it. That’s why I think there is something deeper for those who really write or who do anything else in following their passions. It makes us feel alive. It makes us our best selves.
Berlin: Yes, the writing makes me feel alive. And calm. Usually. I write, and then I do the rest of my life. I’m pure when I teach, too—a better man when I teach.
Whitestone: Well, thank you for taking the time to teach me and my students about how you push yourself to write and your fearlessness in it. We have all been made better because of it.
About the reviewer:
Sara Whitestone is a writer, photographer, and teacher. In exchange for instruction in English, her students at John Jay College in NYC introduce her to the mysteries of the world. Whenever Whitestone leads a “Why You Need to Write” workshop, she is reminded of the metaphysical healing of words. Whitestone’s own words appear in The Portland Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Piedmont Virginian, Literary Traveler, and many others. Whitestone discovers writing through travel. Her current book-in-progress is a literary thriller set in Europe that is inspired by true events. To learn more about her inner and outer adventures, visit sarawhitestone.com.