Meet the 2011 faculty: Adam Haslett

Posted by on June 14th, 2011

Adam HaslettThe beginning of Adam Haslett’s literary career is the stuff of fiction writers’ dreams: An undergraduate degree at Swarthmore, where he worked with novelist Jonathan Franzen; a year-long fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center; an MFA from the University of Iowa; and a debut short story collection, 2002’s You Are Not a Stranger Here, that was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani announced Haslett’s arrival in glowing terms:

Adam Haslett, the author of this debut collection of stories, possesses a rich assortment of literary gifts: an instinctive empathy for his characters and an ability to map their inner lives in startling detail; a knack for graceful, evocative prose; and a determination to trace the hidden arithmetic of relationships — between fathers and sons, sisters and brothers, lovers and friends.

The intimate scope of the stories gave full rein to Haslett’s penchant for mining the interior depths of his characters. He told the Barcelona Review, “Short stories have a poetic density to them that novels simply can’t achieve. You can think of them as one long exhalation. It’s one of the things I like about writing them; their emotional intensity is quite satisfying.”

But Haslett was hardly one to bask in the heady launch of his success. In fact, when the fanfare erupted for _You Are Not a Stranger Here_, he was hard at work finishing his second year of law school, at Yale University. Although he never practiced, Haslett finished the degree; he told The Atlantic that he’d embarked on it in the first place because of “a real intellectual interest in the law.” He explained,

I think the law is the language that power uses to articulate itself in this country—probably more so than in any other country in the world. And I do have an interest in understanding the psychology of power. Norman Mailer once observed that we have a lot of fiction about the underdog and the alienated, but we have fewer fictional representations of the powerful. It’s a broad comment, but I’ve always remembered it.

When Haslett read a book about the Federal Reserve — which he called an “unelected but hugely powerful institution … that makes decisions which have an enormous impact on millions of people’s lives but which is largely obscure and poorly understood” — his interest in power found a focus that would fuel his next work, a novel set “in the world”, with a broad scope. In the Fiction Writers’ Review, he noted that works as diverse as Tom Wolfe, Zola and cable TV have employed such an approach — which, he argued, is crucial to portraying a complete world.

Zola is someone who was fascinated by—the way The Wire is—social strata. In The Wire, you know by what kind of car they drive where they fit into the Baltimore world, and one of the things I love about reading Zola is, like, one of the first things you learn about someone is how much they earn. Not because he thinks it’s the deepest thing, but because he knows how close to the surface that is in everybody’s understanding of how people fit in. … the curious outward-looking part of me … wants to have that—and also, just as someone who reads a lot about politics every day in the news, and thinks about it a lot, and gets worked up about it a lot, it is frustrating to read so much contemporary fiction that has essentially lobotomized what is an omnipresent, 24-7 flux of stuff that’s coming at us. So, unless that’s sort of justified, it’s beginning to border on the inexcusable. It’s an incomplete rendering of our experience.

Haslett’s novel, Union Atlantic, describes a world of high finance on the brink of collapse. The story pits an investment banker against a retired history teacher, examining what Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles called “their moral capital.” Haslett balances the dizzying backdrop of global markets with the impact of individual actions. As New York Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger put it,

This timely novel demonstrates not only how the financial crisis happened but why — by documenting the intersection of big, blunt historical forces with tiny, intricate, cumulatively powerful personal impulses. Businesses become too big to fail, Haslett suggests, because individuals fail one another, in a snowball effect.

The book was released in early 2010, which made it seem ripped from the headlines — but in fact, Haslett had been far-sighted rather than reactive; he’d completed a draft the week Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. Haslett told the Wall Street Journal,

I remember I was up at MacDowell, at the artists’ colony, finishing the book, and I remember walking into the little central hall there and seeing the headline about the Dow dropping 700 points and Lehman Brothers, and it did feel a little bit like my head was exploding into the world.

Despite being so presciently attuned to “the omnipresent, 24/7 flux of stuff,” Haslett maintains that escaping from the flow of information is crucial to the creative process. “Low grade anxiety is endemic, it seems,” he told Our Stories. “This works against people’s ability to focus.” He elaborated,

I don’t simply mean turn off the television or avoid the email, though obviously that’s part of it. I mean being able to achieve a kind of calm that allows the ambient worry in the culture to drop away at least for a few hours each.  In my experience, at least, it’s only in that quiet that the less fully formed intuitions I have about whatever I’m writing about can emerge.

Unplug with Haslett this summer at the conference’s readings and lectures — and meantime, here are more links:

 

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