First of all, my brother Sam, proprietor of the McNally Jackson Bookmongers blog, interviewed Chris Adrian for the Paris Review Daily coinciding with the coming out of Adrian’s new book The Great Night. Asks Sam, “Does your work come out of that place of not knowing why?” Answers Adrian, “…From story to story or novel to novel the shapeless, nameless thing that I try to describe will always be there in part somehow, but getting it wrong is part of the deal. And the compensation for getting it wrong is that you get to go work on something else and try again.” It’s a good conversation.
I went to see Adrian read last night in Cambridge. Back when The Children’s Hospital came out, I profiled Adrian for the Phoenix. And hearing him again last night reminded me firstly: what a voice. I wanted people to keep asking questions to keep him talking. He speaks softly, and slowly, and deeply.
One thing he said last night struck me. Someone in the audience asked him about important lessons he’s learned as a writer.
Adrian spoke about the first short story he passed in, a story in which Charlie Brown decides he’s had enough, fakes his own death with rabbit’s blood and a torn shirt, and makes his return as the new girl in town. Adrian’s teacher at the time, Padgett Powell (whose last book was written entirely in questions), made a note in the margins, and here Adrian’s voice was muffled a bit, and I’ll likely botch it, but it was something along the lines of “an improbable premise told improbably.” The gist was that Powell had praised him, said he’d succeeded in grounding the ridiculous, absurd, fantastical, in combining the improbable with the understandable and relatable. And Adrian said he kept this praise in mind when he was writing.
And what struck me: the expectation, when it comes to “lessons learned,” involves learning from mistakes, from fucking up, from getting it wrong. Here, Adrian kept this nugget of “you’re doing this right” in his pocket, as important a lesson, and maybe more so, than “you’re doing this wrong.”