Interview: Lorraine Adams on The Room and the Chair
Lorraine Adams’ The Room and the Chair was just listed as one of The Daily Beast’s best books of 2010. In celebration, we are reposting our March interview with Ms. Adams below. Enjoy.
Lorraine Adams is a novelist, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, critic, and essayist. Her latest novel, The Room and the Chair, was published last month by Knopf. It chronicles the intersection of journalists and soldiers, the pursuit of truth and obfuscation, cynicism and compassion, the real and unbelievable.
Her work is as notable for its basis in real life reporting on Afghanistan and Iran, as for the sparkling and challenging prose through which she describes her world. In the interview, Adams said that she is “always trying to push language to the border of what is understandable,” in part because the reality she describes — with two technocratic wars and the ambiance of technology and social networking — can bring us to the rim of reality.
Adams was a professor of journalism at The New School, and I would be remiss if I did not say that she heavily influenced my working in media, with words. To her students and me, she was always the journalist’s journalist — outspoken, tough-minded, rapid-fire. She struck fear into my heart on more than a few occasions.
But Adams’ shift to fiction, in both her new novel and her first work, Harbor, questions the loss of empathy in discourse — discourse that is informed by some of the very journalists with whom she used to work. The Room and the Chair is, at heart, a portrait of an artist now looking for subtlety, sensitivity, and understanding.
— Kevin Timothy Dugan
A/S:The reviews and interviews from The Room and the Chair and Harbor have focused on your experience as a reporter. Just bouncing off of that, going into a different area, as a novelist, the parameters of the world that you create in your novel are not always congruent with reality. And it seems to me that those parts based on reality would be the most difficult to insert into the world of your novel. Was that your experience?
Adams: In some ways, writing about the newsroom, which I had known on a daily basis for pretty much twenty years, was more difficult than writing about sledding on the mountain in Afghanistan, something I had never done — although I had been in Afghanistan and I had been in a very bad car accident, tumbling down a hill while I was there. I was on a very bad road, as most roads are in Afghanistan, and the Jeep flipped over and tumbled down a ravine. This was in the summer of 2006, and I was injured — it’s a long story, but I wasn’t seriously injured. So imagining events like flying a fighter jet — obviously I’ve never flown a fighter jet — those things were a little bit easier for me than writing about the newsroom. But I think that’s because fiction comes out of imaginative conviction. It doesn’t come out of copying a certain set of real events in your past. And I think there’s confusion about this. The thing that people imagine when they imagine someone writing a novel, is that we are trying to get it right. There are often locutions such as, “oh, you really got it right when you wrote about what it’s like being a newspaper reporter.” Well, when they say that you really got it right, they think, “oh, you have the right desk, the right kind of computer screen, the right kind of dialogue.” But I think getting it is really much more about, again, imaginative convincingness, if I can make up that word. It’s not a point-by-point congruity.
A/S:I’m thinking of this Norman Mailer quote, and I’m paraphrasing, but: the last defense of a bad writer is that it actually happened.
Adams: I think Mailer’s right about that. And I also think he’s a little bit wrong because there are certain things that happen in life that are very much appropriate to non-fiction telling or memoir. Even so I think there’s too much non-fiction in this world and there’s too much memoir. I think we are having an infatuation with both, and I think it’s deplorable. But I do think that certain stories are, on their face — that is even without knowing the things the people interviewed are trying to hide — interesting.
What I object to is that we assume that all these stories on their face that are interesting are all there is to life or the interior experience. And they are not the only things that happen. We are in love with surface stories. We are in love with the guy who puts his kid in this contraption and the kid floats off to the air, but the kid actually didn’t go in the air…and that’s an example of the type of story that blocks the telling of other stories that are actually more subtle and more useful to us as citizens, as humans, as creatures of love and imagination. And the crowding-out that these available media do — whether it’s cable TV or Twitter or Facebook, all of which I use — makes certain experiences that we need to know almost impossible. And I think that leads to political problems.
A/S: So the massive increase in media has lead to a breakdown of people’s understanding of subtlety.
Adams: Yes. When you look at the last ten years, and when you look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s missing from public discussion is the capacity among the discussers for subtlety. We are unable to make decisions as citizens about events and actions that will lead to the deaths of human beings. We can’t make those decisions because we can’t tolerate subtlety in public discourse. Public discourse is so degraded and so superficial and it masquerades as truth. And some people needlessly die. I don’t think it gets any more serious than that.
A/S: So the terrible endpoint of this is…?
Adams: You get someone like Judith Miller at The New York Times talking to someone like “Scooter” Libby in the Vice President’s office. Because you’re The New York Times, and the culture says that The New York Times is authoritative and the most noble and the best we have in terms of the pursuit of truth, then, whatever Judith Miller and “Scooter” Libby talk about between themselves becomes elevated to a sanctified state. That sanctification is so pernicious that it leads to war. I’m not saying that she and Libby are the only two people responsible for it, I’m not saying that at all. But what I am saying is that their platform is so high, that when they take a dive into the pool, everyone’s splashed. Absolutely everyone. At the same time, if we have trillions of people Twittering, how can we make judgments? So I’m not arguing for the complete democratization of discourse. I think there’s a dangerousness in that. But I think that at least if we said, “hey, what ‘Scooter’ Libby says is an opinion, what Judith Miller says is an opinion,” at least you’re able to take it with a more informed and aware ear.
A/S: Have you read James Bamford?
Adams: I admire Bamford, because I think that he’s writing about something that is so hard to write about — the National Security Agency. Look, he’s only getting a percentage of that truth, but at least he’s trying. And I think without him, we would know almost nothing.
A/S: You’ve spoken about art and its relation to truth. Do you see your work as art in the service of truth or truth in the service of art?
Adams: I think truth is obviously a problematic word, but a word we obviously need. It’s one thing to say, “in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland.” We can prove that happened. There is a solid set of experiences, remembrances, documents, that are indisputable. But very few things attain that level when you’re talking about the novel. When you’re talking about life a lot of things attain that level. I mean, we’re sitting here in these chairs and President Obama is running the country. But those things are not interesting, they’re just useful.
I think art is about what’s interesting. And I do believe that the pursuit of truth below the level of undisputed consensus, is the most interesting layer of the human enterprise. And it is that layer, where individuals are trying to get at truths that are disputed, contested, where a lot of inadvertently beautiful things happen, a lot of atrocious things happen, a lot of unbelievable things happen. And that to me is a very fecund area for art. And my art wants to be in that layer.
A/S: To hinge on that question: Art for art’s sake. Does that play into your writing?
Adams: I’m so open to so much when it comes to what I read or the art I see or the music I listen to. I did this thing for Large Hearted Boy, which is a blog, about the music I see as the soundtrack for The Room and the Chair. And the music I chose is all over the place. It has hip-hop, it has country, it has African chant, it has everything, rock, blues, you name it. But to answer you. I enjoy art for art’s sake. I love Duchamp. I also love George Eliot. I say bring it all to the table.
I think the one thing I’m trying to do that might be confused with art for art’s sake is that I’m always trying to push language to the border of what is understandable because I believe, again, that in trying to get to the layer of things that are not exactly known to be true, you have to push language. And in pushing language — some people think that my language becomes pretentious and showy. It’s not meant to be showy, it’s meant to be striving and a pursuit of that which is most difficult to get into language. Because that which is most difficult to get into language strikes me as the very thing that we need to know about the most. But that sometimes looks like, oh, she’s just trying to show that she’s literary. But there is a solid underpinning that informs that kind of language in my work.
A/S: There’s a real palpable love of words in this novel.
Adams: Believe it or not, this is just how I naturally write. It just isn’t that hard for me. What was hard for me was writing newspaper prose for twenty years. And I’m perfectly capable of writing a lucid sentence. But I write this way out of the pure love of language and what it can do. There are so many sensations that you can’t quite put into words. So many things you can see that you can’t quite put into words. That’s why we have music. Music is the most beautiful way of capturing the ineffable. I think that trying to get at the ineluctable experience is one of the most important aspects of literature.
A/S: This struck me as a novel that you probably read aloud to yourself a lot.
Adams: I didn’t. And in fact, when I was reading last night, it was the first time I had read any of it out loud. I found myself having a hard time.
On the page it’s very different from spoken. And on the page — rhythm, music: so important to how I write. I can’t help but write that way. I don’t know why people write these sentences that are particularly expository because to me, exposition dictates the everydayness of trying to get up, go to work, trying to do this or that. I’m more interested in the things that happen apart from the day to day. I’m interested in a language that isn’t just utilitarian, but a language that is also striving for something that, in our quiet moments alone, we want to talk about but we only whisper in the ear of someone with whom we are in love.
A/S: The Room and the Chair includes some very contemporary tools, such as Google, Facebook and Skype. Was that difficult to put in and not have it feel like a novelty?
Adams: Not difficult. There is a section of the book where the use of the internet is an organic part, and was intrinsic. That was the section in which Mary, the fighter pilot, is in Afghanistan and she goes out on a mission and bombs a house in a village. The next day, she receives a packet of letters from someone, and in those letters are the internet downloads of the photos of the people that she injured. This prompts soul searching, and it also prompts a scene where she’s accosted by this guy who has a crush on her, kisses her and all this stuff. So that ability to fire a bomb from an F-16 and then the very next day see the damage that you caused, that’s never happened in a war before. And I really wanted this book to have all of the existential problems that these new technologies prompt as central to the psychological development of the characters.
A/S: In the Washington Post, you said that you wrote “sentence by sentence.” But can you describe the revision and editing process, especially considering such an intricate plot?
Adams: One of the things I always say when I speak to young novelists is that the main thing that you have to understand is that revising is such an intrinsic part of writing. In other words, I revised every day from what I did the previous day. And not only do I do that, but after a week of writing goes by, I revise that whole week of writing. Then you hand in a draft, and your editor has something to say about it. I would say that there were about three drafts to this novel. And the complexity of the plot developed over the drafts. The plot is never fixed in my mind. I don’t do outlines. I don’t do even a rough sketch in my mind.
A/S: Even at a late stage where you’re plotting cause and effect?
Adams: At the late stage when I’m on a second draft, yeah, I’m definitely involved in, OK, how are these pieces going to fit? And, by necessity, some of the minute parts of the book, even paragraphs, even sentences, have to be changed because of a larger structural consideration.
A/S: Certain parts of the novel dip into the surreal. In one part of The Room and the Chair, you wrote that the war “hung from the side of the country,” giving it, literally, a meta-reality. Is this surreality a comment on reality or an intrinsic part of the way you write?
Adams: It’s a comment on our times. In the scene about the Iranian nuclear scientist faking his own death, there’s a reality insofar that he’s taken some medicine that will slow his heart rate and make him appear to be dead. But in the book, the news stories told about that reality are far afield from the reality. Which is a lot like the way reality was talked about and written about in the last decade. Then, in the sledding accident scene in Afghanistan, it’s so unbelievable that the people Mary is with just disappear, her experience has a surreal quality. And in the book that reality, that sledding accident, is never written about at all, it just disappears, the way the men do.
Those two scenes are meant to refer and allude to a larger phenomenon of the past ten years. A phenomena where men in power say they believe they create reality — though in the book we learn that nuclear scientist was unable to create reality. I’m thinking about a Bush aide who told Ron Suskind in The New York Times that America was no longer “in what we call the reality-based community,” that the Bush administration didn’t “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” SoThe Room and the Chair subverts that and tries to demonstrate, in other scenes, that temporarily it’s true.
And then I’m also thinking about this thing that Rumsfeld said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” I think he was actually acknowledging there that he can’t know everything and what scares him is what he doesn’t know enough to know he doesn’t know. And I found that less surreal than the statement sounded on the surface.
A/S: The plot of the book, at its very base, could be your basic John Grisham novel. There’s a government cover-up, a young journalist who investigates it, there is more to be known than what is merely revealed. What were the challenges in taking something that is so commonly seen as beach reading and turning it into something more literary?
Adams: I look at what Richard Price, the man I live with, does. And I look at Jonathan Lethem. I’ve always been intrigued by their work. They take certain genre scaffolding and then they change the normal construction of a house into a Frank Gehry. When you readLush Life, for example, it’s revealed in the very beginning who shot the guy. And in most police procedurals, who shot the guy isn’t revealed until the end. Well, in my book, Mary’s plane goes down and everybody’s trying to figure out why and how. Well, I reveal right away in the first chapter that it’s this guy running this secret program. The New York Times said, “Adams can’t seem to decide what she wants The Room and the Chair to be — a corporate drama about the newspaper business? A John le Carre-esque spy novel? A story about fly-boys on the front lines of the war on terror?'”
There are so many precedents in writing a novel that takes genre and plays with it, either by giving you the characters who are not only in a genre novel, like cops and victims of murders. Or in my case, I took characters who are normally in a genre and I subverted the plot line and deepened language, as Richard Price most certainly does, too.
I think one of the problems that happens when you get an unsophisticated reader of a book that’s playing with conventions and bending genre is that they are going to totally miss it. They want you to write in a recognizable form and I’m not very interested in writing in a recognizable form. For me the great thing about the novel is its capaciousness. It can include almost anything you want, and that capaciousness to me is why it’s a great playground for an imaginative mind. I like to read them for that reason, and I like to write them for that reason.
A/S: On your blog you said that you were dreading the publication of the New York Times Book Review. Was there a “great gnashing of teeth,” as you wrote?
Adams: It’s funny. I did get it in Barcelona. My first reaction was, I can’t believe they assigned this to a former Newsweek reporter. This is a book that most definitely takes issue with the Newsweek sensibility. And here’s a publication that has assigned me to write reviews and they take my book and assign it to someone who has completely bought into the enterprise of writing non-fiction books, who has no experience writing a novel. I’m not certain that a novelist who reviewed my book would love it. But certainly this book didn’t stand a chance given the reviewer they chose. It’s like assigning a cop to review Richard Price’s novels. What are the chances that a cop will be equipped to look at the subtle weaving of cop life that Richard does?
A/S: Speaking of the Book Review, you have mostly reviewed novels on foreign war, and much of that took place in the Middle East. Have these novels influenced your sense of interior characters?
Adams: These books had a huge impact on me. I took copious notes, I read all the work that an author has done and that other authors like them have done. That allows me to look at novel writing in a much more systematic way than when you’re just writing it. When you’re really looking at a book and pulling it apart, it is so instructive. So I have loved that process. I often wish I had more space to write. It’s basically 800 to 1200 words. That’s just nothing. But I’m very grateful for that process. I don’t know how that affects how I depict the interior life of my characters. I just know that it really makes me think carefully and deliberately about how characters get written and why they are moving or not moving, intelligent or less intelligent, all those questions.
A/S: One thing that struck me about The Room and the Chair is that its sense of timing was much more fine tuned than Harbor.
Adams: Well, that’s just a product of having written one novel already. You learn a lot when you write one novel, and you learn a lot from the criticism people give you. If you really want to grow, which I do, you attack a novel that is totally different than the one you wrote before. I could have written a novel that was very similar to Harbor, but I wanted to try. To fail a little bit.
A/S: Your website includes slideshows of people in Iran and Afghanistan. Do you consider this as a compendium to your work?
Adams: I took those photographs as note-taking devices. When I traveled, from 2006 to 2008, I took the photographs because I couldn’t write fast enough. And when I came back, I showed them to people who were curious about my trips and they’d say, “these are amazing.” I said, “eh, I don’t know.” After a while I started to think that maybe they’re just an interesting part. I’ve always loved the images in Sebald. I’ve often wanted to write a book that included photographs and text, and I may do that one day. Maybe this is an initial step. The new books that we write are going to be on electronic tablets and it may well be that there could be a whole new kind of novel.
A/S: Mary, as a fighter pilot, in very few ways resembles the kind of alpha-personality characters in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Aziz in Harbor is also much more complex than the stock character he could have been in another author’s hands. What brought you to go in the opposite direction of what both of these characters are normally perceived to be?
Adams: Based on a lifetime of personal experiences, as well as the kind of experiences that you get as a journalist, where you get to interview people who are in often glamorous or powerful positions, you realize the person that gets made into a persona. The persona of Barack Obama does not even remotely get at his person. And yet, we’re going to get a biography of Obama from David Remnick and it’s going to purport to be about his person, but it’s about his persona. I think fiction is about getting at the person. In that you get at the things that Obama would never tell David Remnick. The things that only his wife knows, or what his mother carried with her to her grave. These are the things that fiction is for. And without them, we, as culture, run the risk of believing our own self-promotion.
A/S: The Washington Post asked if this was a roman a clef. I think the real question is, is this a bildungsroman?
Adams: I think it really is a bildungsroman. It is about my journey as a young reporter, and in a way Vera resembles me. She’s the young cub reporter and she really believes in finding the truth, and her night editor also believes that there’s a way to get at the truth. They also have compassion for those they write about, which I think is a serious liability in this business, or the non-fiction book writing business. I think that my coming to fully comprehend that is a process that is foreshortened in The Room and the Chair, but is definitely in the book.