The Names of Things:
James Tadd Adcox discusses his debut novel
Does Not Love
An interview by Connor Goodwin
I finished James Tadd Adcox’s debut novel, Does Not Love, in just two days. I was dragged into a world of conspiracy, deception, and domestic trials. Afterwards, I got my hands on everything I could find by Adcox and read it with the same voracity.
I met up with Adcox before the Wit Rabbit reading series to discuss, among other things, the genesis of Does Not Love and writing under constraints.
So you studied Linguistics in college. Did you follow up on that? Or did you turn more literary or something?
I mean, I was never really planning on like doing anything with it. I was looking for a degree that would be pretty broad. At my school Linguistics didn’t have their own department, so we just drew classes from everywhere: Philosophy, English, Anthropology, classes in the foreign language department. It’s sort of the one degree that functioned as eight degrees.
I feel like it’s useful to know how languages work. But I haven’t really used it professionally.
When I came into school I didn’t want to be an English major, just because, you know, I like reading books I don’t need to be an English major. But I was interested in Linguistics for similar reasons, like how it would inform writing and stuff. So I took an intro class and the guy was really young and he wasn’t a very good teacher so that kind of turned me off of it. There was also a lot of stuff I wasn’t super into. I was more into the anthropological stuff, the philosophical stuff.
I really enjoyed phonology and phonetics. I got pretty into that. I’m fascinated by the sounds that we think we hear that we don’t hear. I’m fascinated by the split between phonology and phonetics.
Phonology refers to, sort of, like the Platonic ideal of a sound. Phonetics refers to how the sounds are actually produced. The reality of it. The interesting thing is how hugely different those two things often are—the gap between the sounds we hear and the sounds we’re actually making. And, I don’t know. Have you taken any Spanish?
Yeah, I do Comp Lit, so Spanish is my other language.
So you know how one of the hardest sounds for a native English speaker to make, when you’re first starting out, is the single R. That, like, flap. It’s incredibly hard. It’s not too hard to learn how to roll your Rs. Lots of people can do that. It’s kind of a party trick. But that single alveolar flap is really hard for native English speakers to produce.
Except for the fact that it does occur in English. There are words in English that have that sound in them. So every English speaker, or just about every English speaker, makes that sound on a semi-regular basis. But we can’t do it consciously.
Weird. Like, what English word do we use it in?
A phrase that usually works for people is “pot of gold”.
Pot of gold.
If you try to enunciate it you won’t make the sound, but if you say it naturally, like “Oh look, a pot of gold,” you’re gonna make that alveolar R sound. But we don’t hear it as an R, we hear it as a T sound. Or for example the word “writer.” If you say it in casual speech, that T sound in the middle is not a T, it’s an alveolar R. And “writer,” someone who writes, and “rider,” when you’re riding a horse or whatever, are pronounced exactly the same. Except that in one case we hear that sound as a T and in the other case we hear that sound as a D. But the actual sound we’re producing is the same as the Spanish single R. So I don’t know, stuff like that.
You always hear about how your understanding of language is so enriched by knowing another language, especially your writing. But, I don’t know, er, at least I don’t know how to really think about that or whatever.
Really? I mean, I totally buy that idea. I learned a second language for the first time pretty late, when I was 19 years old. You’re supposed to learn before puberty if you’re ever going to be any good at it, right? So I was super-late. Before that I was always a good English student, which means, I liked to read and I could write a correct sentence. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no conscious knowledge of English grammar for most of my life. I couldn’t understand why I should care, either—I could write a sentence well, so why should I know what the actual rules were, what you called the things that made up a sentence? I didn’t really understand parts of speech or anything like that until I started looking at other languages. But once I consciously understood the structure of English I could look at a sentence and break it down, rearrange it.
Plus it’s hard to have an idea of what English looks like or sounds like if you have no other point of comparison. I don’t know. I find it really helpful. But I can certainly understand how other people would be like “fuck that shit.”
No I’m the same. I’m also fucked in English grammar. But with Spanish I actually know the names of things. On twitter I saw you did a three-day novel writing contest. Why did you decide to do that and how was it?
Last summer I attempted to write a novel in a week. National Novel Writing month seems silly, so I guess I wanted to make it even sillier. That went pretty well. I got about 35,000 words in a week. That’s more or less a novel. So I tried to do a novel in three days. The math of this is not in one’s favor, as it turns out.
I think I’m a pretty slow writer compared to a lot of people. So part of doing these sorts of things is trying to stretch that. I was aiming for 30,000 words over the weekend, 10,000 words a day. I did 10,000 words on the first day. That’s not awful. 6000 words the second day. And 3000 words the third day. So I literally had an exponential decline. But I ended up at the end of the weekend with a draft of around 20,000 words that I think I can possibly turn into something.
Was this something you had been mulling around beforehand?
It’s something that I’d written some notes on beforehand. I didn’t want to actually start writing it beforehand, because I felt like that would violate the spirit of thing. But I had taken some notes. It’s sort of a re-writing of Kierkegaard’s book Repetition. And the title of my short book is, obviously, Repetition. Have you read Kierkegaard? He’s good. He’s an asshole. An incredible flaming asshole. Repetition was written under a pseudonym, Constantin Constantius. He always acted as though these pseudonyms were real people. In this case, he responded to several of his critics under the same pseudonym. All of his critics were like, “Kierkegaard, come on man, we know it’s you.” And he was like, “Nah, I don’t even know the guy. He’s clearly a very intelligent author, but no, me? I’ve never met him.”
In world of the book I was working on, Constantin Constantius is a historical figure. The book takes place at a conference for scholars on Constantin Constantius. So, you know. People get shot. It’s that sort of conference.
The three-day writing contest and some of your other stuff I’ve read online, makes me wonder how strongly constraints or other mechanisms factor into your writing process. Is that something you’re conscious of or actively explore?
One of the things that interest me is approaching writing as something that’s more like sculpture than painting. The traditional way people approach writing is sort of like painting, like they’re creating a new thing out of nothing. Obviously it’s a physical process. You have the canvas and paint, sure. But people tend to conceptualize painting as though you’re creating something out of nothing.
But with sculpture, you have objects and you put them together and once you put them together it becomes a new thing. So you’re not starting from nothing, you’re starting from these very concrete materials. And that’s kind of how I’ve been trying to approach writing. I’m taking objects and putting them together. Sometimes that takes the very literal form of doing a cutup. Taking writing from the world and putting it together as something new. Sometimes it’s like using this book by Kierkegaard to form the basis for a new book. But yeah, I think that constraints help to push you more in a sculptural direction than a painting one. I realize that was kind of a roundabout answer to your question.
Does Not Love is your first novel. Before that you’d written a linked short story collection, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. How did your experience differ in those two projects?
The linked short story collection actually began as another constraint project. I was writing one flash fiction story every weekday for a year. Which sounds like a really good idea when you start it, and then rapidly becomes… a lot.
The rule was I had to finish each story by midnight of that night. At the end of the year I had 264 stories, which turns out to be the number you get if you write one story a weekday for a year. Eventually the stories from that year became The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. Obviously I cut a lot of them.
While I was working on that collection, I started writing a couple of stories about these characters Robert and Viola. I had five or six stories with these characters. They were short, domestic stories that had this element of weirdness in them. I considered putting them in the collection, but I was worried that these stories were linked in their own way and that would be distracting from the rest of the collection. The FBI agent in the novel is in one of those stories. That story kind of became the impetus for the novel overall.
Is there anything that you’re reading at the moment? Or something you read recently that you really got into?
I recently finished The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. Fucking fantastic. The entire plot of the book is: a woman is cleaning out a room. While cleaning the room, a cockroach crawls out from a closet. She slams the closet door on the cockroach. And then has, like, an ethical break with reality. That’s the entire plot of the novel. Sees the cockroach. Kills the cockroach. And then a solid 120 pages of intense focus on this dying cockroach. It’s incredible.
So yeah, Lispector, and I’m around 900 pages into War and Peace… I’ve got a long commute. I’ve got like 3-4 hours every day where there’s not a whole lot else to do.
I feel like some writers can’t read and write at the same time. Is that ever the case for you?
I think I need to be reading to write. I take energy from it. I’m more likely to suddenly get excited about writing while reading something else. Although for whatever reason Tolstoy’s not really doing that for me.
Why are you reading it then?
It’s great. I really like it. But while reading it I don’t feel compelled to write. Whereas with Lispector I was writing constantly. I’d read a couple pages or a chapter or whatever and then I’d have to start taking notes before I could keep reading. And I feel like I get that way with most other writers. Tolstoy just doesn’t do that for whatever reason.
Are you into the mammoth-sized novels?
Kind of. I mean, I’m really enjoying War and Peace. In many ways it’s a very straightforward novel, even though it’s massive, it’s very linear. Stylistically, it feels very measured, very crafted. There’s not a whole lot of pure fucking craziness at any point. Whereas reading someone like Dostoevsky is a weird fever dream. You rush through a Dostoyevsky novel. With Tolstoy it’s all very paced. We’re talking about big world events and he’s very measured about them. It’s all very thought out.
It’s great though. Like Pierre. God, I have so much love for Pierre. He’s had a hard life. I mean, he brought it upon himself. He shouldn’t have married Helene. I’ve been texting my fiancée updates as I’m reading War and Peace about what various characters are doing. She has a friend who’s going through constant, massive relationship drama at the same time. She keeps telling me she can’t tell the difference between her friend’s drama and the drama in War and Peace. It’s like a soap opera, all these characters. Pierre marries the wrong woman. Ruins his life. Prince Andrew is about to marry Natasha, but that gets fucked up by Anatole, with the help of his friend Dolokhov, who Pierre had earlier dueled. Reading War and Peace probably contributed to the ending of the novella I wrote over the weekend. I probably wouldn’t have ended it with a duel had I not been reading War and Peace.
[a post-script, but one that I feel is probably necessary: while doing a quick search to check the spelling of “Dolokhov,” I discovered that there is, in fact, Anatole/Dolokhov slash fiction—not to mention at least one message board devoted to War and Peace fanfic in general. What I’m saying is, War and Peace is the overheated anime series of Long Serious Russian Novels.]
James Tadd Adcox
October 14, 2014