Adam Peterson’s story “It Goes Without Saying” appears in the Summer 2011 issue and was the recipient of the Camera Obscura writing award for that issue. Associate prose editor Tim Horvath had the opportunity to ask him some questions, which are posted below.
TH: I’ve always had this fantasy of becoming a travel writer, and part of what I love about your story is how uninhibitedly it leaps into the head and body of Tom Trotter, a world-weary veteran travel journalist who lies, distorts, conflates, drinks like a Hemingway impersonator, and basically confirms the truth of what his first editor once told him, “There’s no truth in travel writing.” Have you traveled extensively? Have you tried your hand at the genre? How did you access Trotter’s voice and perspective so convincingly?
AP: Well, I’m glad to hear it’s convincing. I was never sure. I mean, I’ve travelled—including to Munich, the setting of the story—but I’ve never tried my hand at travel writing or really any non-fiction. I suppose that’s why Trotter’s version of travel writing is so loose on facts. Deep down, I probably don’t believe anyone wants to write the truth.
Travel writing seems especially fraught to me, wallowing as it does in that distinction between the “real” trip and the “ideal” trip, to prepare the reader for their own journey or to take them on one they will never make. Those are two very different goals, with two very different relationships to the truth, and I can’t imagine having to balance that dynamic while maintaining some kind of ethos.
Which is why when I read, say, travel writing in the New York Times, I’m always fascinated by what the author culls from what must have been far more complex human experiences. Even the bad stuff—a cold meal, getting lost—seems selected to present some kind of connection with the reader based less on the truth and more on some true feeling. Like, all of it on some level reads like the author saying, You too have been far from home.
TH: I’d like to zoom in on the opening in particular, because the story really drew me in. It starts, “He was nothing if not the consummate local. If a people were boorish he was boorish, if courteous then courteous. In Beijing he was anonymous, in Tokyo he was serious, and in Doolin he was a baritone. And, heavy and drunk at a picnic table in Munich, he was in a state of permanent appetite. A fly sentried the golden, salty chicken from which he tore a leg as the Germans around him licked the grease from their fingers and dried them on their shorts. So he too let the juices run down his chin then chased them with cetacean gulps of beer until his face shone…”
In its rhythms, this possesses the authority of a 19th century novel rather than a contemporary short story–the opening of A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. I also love how words like “sentried” and “cetacean” reveal a writerly mind, one who will favor the striking turn of phrase over proportion and proper usage every time. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how the opening came about, how it served you in propelling the story forward, and whether there are other authors whose openings you would put on the walls of a Literary Museum, seek to emulate, etc. Also, is there a Literary Museum? If not, why not? We have to go to every dead author’s house individually–why?
AP: I enjoyed writing that opening for a lot of the reasons you mention. It was as close as I got to being a travel writer myself, maybe, and I tried to think back to being in a beer garden and was surprised how clear my memory was on a physical level yet sort of muddled on a personal level. What was I thinking about? What did I want? Was I happy? Granted, the beer probably didn’t help those perceptions, but It gave me some perspective on who Trotter was and what he would write about, why he might be able to so easily manipulate the story of a trip in that sort of blur. There’s this illusion of constant motion in memories of a journey but really it’s the same 24-hour day, same you.
And, yeah, I definitely then set out to sort of mimic that style you see in older novels set outside the author’s home country. Maybe not as far back as all that either: Henry James, E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, Malcolm Lowry, etc.
Ford and Lowry can have wings in my literary museum.
And the answer to why we don’t have literary museums is probably all wrapped up in our sort of gossipy relationship with writers. We want to see who they were, where they did it. Their houses or offices might carry some residual genius—as if just existing was their greatest work—whereas a museum carrying Faulkner’s coffee mug only offers a coffee mug smelling of whiskey.
This personal relationship with an author was the genesis of the story, by the way. I was fascinated by how much mileage non-fiction writers could get out of dropping a personal detail here or there in otherwise unrelated stories. It was actually Bill Simmons, the sports columnist, who made me start thinking about that. Is that embarrassing? I’m not sure. In any case, I didn’t want to write about a sportswriter (thank you, Richard Ford), nor did I want to imply Bill Simmons made up his wife. Though I remain unconvinced.
TH: I first learned of your work through the Cupboard, which publishes excellent chapbooks–I haven’t been disappointed yet. But while this story has its heels pretty firmly dug into mimetic realism, I feel as though the Cupboard books tend to steer pretty far afield of that. One of my favorites, A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic by Michael Stewart, could pass itself off as a reference book, including entries on eccentric apocryphal magicians one wishes had lived, along with tricks you can do at home involving metaphysical impossibilities and murder. Obviously, your aesthetic taste is fairly wide-ranging. Do you even think in these terms when you approach your work and your editorial selection process? How fluidly do you move back and forth between mimetic work and that in which the artifice gets right up in your face?
AP: I used to be really concerned with this, and I’m happy to say that I was able to let it go a long time back. For a long time I had two short story manuscripts in progress, one realistic and the other about vampires or whatever. I eventually just had to grow up a little bit and ask myself what it was I honestly liked about the authors I was reading. It wasn’t just the oddity of someone like Kelly Link nor was it the emotional realism of someone like Madox Ford, it was something that went beyond those easy classifications. Or maybe I just didn’t want to choose. But at some point I gave up, and once I got beyond that paranoia of type, I think I naturally found my own relationship with the world. Most of my work now settles somewhere in between straight realism and, well, the “artifice” as you say. Or maybe individual pieces skew further one way or the other, but the things that interest me—fissures, obsessions, the hysterical—create a feeling that renders the other discussion irrelevant. That’s what I hope, anyway.
All of which is to say that like all of us, I probably just realized it was more important to figure out what I wanted to say whether than if it should be said with farmers or ghosts.
Even “It Goes Without Saying” feels that for me despite its mimetic qualities. There’s nothing supernatural about it, of course, but it still feels a little schizophrenic to me in a way, or at least it doesn’t solve all of its mysteries or end with a Carver-esque epiphany or whatever.
And now that I’ve said all that it seems clear to me that I still favor the odd or surreal, especially editorially. It just feels like a more appropriate representation of the world to me, most days.
TH: What’s something non-literary that impacts your work in surprising ways?
AP: I’m embarrassed by how hard of a time I’m having answering this question. My instinct is to say that I probably divide my life pretty strictly between literary endeavors and, well, life. I mean, read a lot of news, am interested in politics, teach, follow some sports teams, make Thanksgiving plans, and do all that other stuff people do. I never write about it though. Not really. Although “It Goes Without Saying” did break my rule about never writing about writers, I doubt I’ll ever be Stephen King in that regard or anyone else who really mines their life. Stealing a setting is about as far as I’ll go. Writing is pretty much me and my imagination, I think. And I say that knowing I sound like an asshole. I sort of want to answer “Illness” but that seems pretty literary to me.
TH: What are you working on currently? What can we look forward to?
AP: Looking forward to any of this seems like a terrible idea but:
I have a novel manuscript that’s been through a few drafts now and seems pretty close to me. And by “close” I mean, “close to me moving on.” It’s got one more shot to become the thing it’s going to be before I start another. I mean, I like it and maybe something will happen to it, but it’s not keeping me up nights anymore, if that makes sense.
I also have a short story collection more or less ready and a short short collection of about 75 pieces that I hope to get to 100.
As for completed projects, I have a series of prose poems coming out from SpringGun Press this February called The Flasher and another series of prose pieces coming out from Dzanc called [SPOILER ALERT] co-written with the lovely Laura Eve Engel. So…look forward to all that? Sure, why not.
*As a side note regarding Tim’s question about a literary museum, in the past year, I have received a lot of information on something called The American Writers Museum. Though I do not think it exists just yet. http://www.americanwritersmuseum.org/