By Leslie Santikian
Leslie Santikian: Your writing blurs the line between fiction and journalism, creating a hybrid that somehow touches both worlds; I think that's what makes me most enjoy reading your work. In light of the recent controversy surrounding John D'Agata and his philosophy that the search for truth doesn't necessarily mean accuracy and "fact," where do you think your work stands? Do you feel you have fewer boundaries to worry about because your work is technically "fiction"? Do you feel any obligation to "truth" or "fact" when crafting your books?
Adam Braver: In terms of this subject, my interest is not so much about a Truth that supersedes all else. Nor is it in the competition between fact and fiction. In fact, I’m most intrigued by how fact and fiction work together to create a so-called truth. Facts are facts. But it’s how they are arranged and linked and filled in that makes them become a truth or a history. And I just can’t help but believe that it is really the product of combining fact and imagination that get us to those truthful places. For the most part, I do feel obligation or allegiance to facts in my books. However, I also recognize the power of omission, as well as how a fact can have different implications when it is abutted or juxtaposed against other facts or imagined reactions, etc. That said, decisions do need to be made; and I strive to make them all from a position of strength, meaning if/when I might stray from the so-called factual, I know that I am doing it and have a definite reason (as opposed to it being from laziness or disregard). But the bottom line for much of this (in terms of my current thinking), is that I am much more drawn to collage—as opposed to linear storytelling. In part, it’s because I’m more interested in the ideas that attract me to the projects (as opposed to the storylines), and also because I’ve become more and more interested in space and spatial relationships in my writing. A more “collaged” style helps me get there. But as with a visual collage, the story and experience and theme it tells is all based on the relationships of the images to one another. And while all of those images are “real,” very often they’re only “real” in the most relative sense—meaning, that a cigarette advertisement from a magazine is just as fictitious as some made up story that might come from my head. But juxtapose that ad against a horrific wartime photograph, and suddenly they now are working in tandem to tell a real story that transcends their individual parts. Essentially, that’s what I’m trying to do with my writing these days. So, indeed, that the facts remain as facts is critical. But equally critical is recognizing that they only are facts, still waiting to be part of a story.
LS: Part of what makes your writing compelling is how far you take us into your character's lives: into their innermost thoughts, fears, wants, needs, memories. How do you get inside such iconic figures as Jackie Kennedy in November 22, 1963, and Marilyn Monroe in your newest work, Misfit, and show us who they are beyond their public personas? Do you have a process for doing this?
AB: One of those oft-quoted aphorisms about literature is that it can either show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, or show us the ordinary in the extraordinary. Obviously, with the two books we’re talking about here, the latter is the territory I’m wandering in. In as much as I have a process for this (and I use the word process loosely), it is about trying to access the ordinary in these people with whom we have anointed as extraordinary. So, for example, in writing about Jackie Kennedy on the plane ride back from Dallas, I am not trying to locate Jackie Kennedy and her persona, in as much as I am trying to identify with that base emotion that to me is universally human. By that I mean that one does not need to be Jackie Kennedy to understand grief and loss, or the fear at losing one’s sense of place in the world. Frankly, I’m finding those places inside of me, more than trying to identify them in these mythical figures. As I alluded to earlier, part of this stems from the fact that I’m less interested in the stories of these people as public figures, as opposed to making some kind of art out of their experiences to understand more universal themes on culture and humanity.
LS: Your new book, Misfit, feels especially timely, considering the recent, reinvigorated interest in Marilyn Monroe's life in popular culture—the movie My Week With Marilyn, the TV show Smash, etc. What drew you to Monroe for this book?
AB: Well, the timeliness is somewhat accidental. I had been challenged to write a short story about her—a challenge I accepted. I didn’t know much about her; she wasn’t someone who was ever on my radar, other than the basic biography. But as I began to research a bit about her for the story, she became intriguing to me as a character to work with. In part, I was drawn to her constant reinventing of herself, which seemed to me to be emblematic of how we view the dream of our culture. And perhaps most fascinating to me was the idea that one can reinvent one’s self to the point where the reinvented persona begins to overwhelm or overtake the person; in Monroe’s case, it was the idea that the persona of Marilyn Monroe became larger than the person who inhabited it. I saw this both a phenomenon of the larger culture, but also one that symbolized the struggle for individual identity.
LS: A prominent theme in Misfit is the tension between Monroe's public persona and private self—and, even beyond that, the love/hate relationship she had with that private self. What made you want to explore those tensions? Do you consider these tensions particularly powerful when you're writing iconic characters?
AB: I think that is a tension that I am generally interested in exploring—the negotiation between the private and the public self. In her case (as with most iconic figures) it seems to be greatly exaggerated, as that chasm often is what is so intriguing about them. Also, as with any character, I find those who are most enigmatic to be most interesting (I’m saying that, of course, as a writer). That unknown private world is the place I want to get to—often the place that I imagine has been buried or denied or forgotten; those moments where the people are stripped bare and ordinary and often at their loneliest because they have come to believe they are not allowed to be that person anymore. Or so I imagine it.
LS: You also seem drawn to how people become mythologized, shaped into a larger-than-life version of themselves. I'm thinking of Monroe, but also John F. Kennedy, Sarah Bernhardt, etc.—all subjects of your work. Are you speaking to our larger need for god-like figures in our society? To other compulsions?
AB: I think it’s more about being intrigued by the idea of mythology—both the notion of self-created mythologies, and culturally ordained mythologies (and perhaps the intersection of the two). You know, it’s a funny relationship between having these god-like mythical people (or at least reifications), because on the one hand they can validate some sense of who we are culturally, but individually it can also make us feel really small and wanting and not enough.
LS: Do you have any idea or person in mind for your next book? Anyone you've been waiting to write about?
AB: I’ve been researching (and doing some writing) about a woman named Kay Summersby, who was Eisenhower’s driver during WWII. There were rumors of an affair between the two of them—although that’s really the least of my interest. At this point, I’m much more intrigued by how this seemingly unlikely Irish woman would find herself regularly with a front row seat at major, worldwide historical shifts.
Adam Braver is the author of Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, Divine Sarah, Crows Over the Wheatfield, November 22, 1963, Misfit, and The Disappeared. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Border’s Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list; as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Turkish, and French. His work has appeared in journals such as Daedalus, Ontario Review, Cimarron Review, Water-Stone Review, Harvard Review, Tin House, West Branch, The Normal School, and Post Road.