Interview with Author James Tadd Adcox

LARB A.V. spoke with James Tadd Adcox and filmed his reading from Does Not Love at Stories Books in Echo Park.

LARB A.V.:  Let’s talk about your new book, Does Not Love. 

JAMES TADD ADCOX: The book is about the surveillance state, it’s about pharmaceuticals, it’s about an apocalypse towards the end, and it’s about a young married couple in Indianapolis falling apart. Hopefully, it’s funny and very sad. Funny and sad, somewhere between those two. There are human guinea piggers, a sadomasochistic FBI agent having an affair with one of my protagonists, and yeah, things blow up.

Can you tell us more about the couple at the center of the story?

Yeah, this couple named Robert and Viola. Robert is a not very successful lawyer in Indianapolis who’s not yet made partner after seven years a law firm, which does not look very good. The wife is a public librarian. After a series of somewhat traumatic events in their marriage, she starts having an affair with an FBI agent who’s investigating her library; and Robert, kind of, goes off the rails in his own way. He gets caught up in a conspiracy involving volunteer human test subjects for the local giant pharmaceutical company. There are a lot of very strange elements in the book but they tend to be an externalization of the things that are going on inside the characters. So, rather than external things being internalized it’s more their internal states are externalized in the events of the book.

Your last work was a book was a collection of flash fiction pieces — could you talk about that and what you like about the form?

I’m real interested in formalism; I’m interested in the idea of constraint, but I’m also interested in writing that pushes against the forms that it’s in. In my previous book — it was composed of all these flash fiction pieces and in some ways this book is an attempt to write a flash fiction piece that is 220-something pages long. So, I tried to write with a lot of that same sharpness, quick turns and very quick movements from sentence to sentence. I’m just trying to stretch that form and see just how far it can go; how long you can write using that flash fiction rhythm.

How would you say it starts to differ when you’re trying to write a novel?

There’s tension between the length of the thing and the form of the thing. So, it almost reaches a breaking point where the form is being stretched so far that you get the sense that it might snap at any moment. With flash fiction you can’t quite do that in the same way. Flash fiction is almost always about setting something in motion, stopping the story, and hopefully for the reader that thing continues into motion. I hope that happens in this novel as well, but on top of that there is tension of the longer form where every sentence has this sort of speed and weight that is in flash fiction but you have that played out over 220-something pages. So, you have that same tension from sentence to sentence. The pacing of most novels is much more this long, steady pace; you don’t have this friction between sentences as much as flash fiction. Here, I was trying to write a novel where every paragraph felt like it had an arc, every sentence had an arc; the movement from sentence to sentence always has that snap that you often get in flash fiction — and trying to maintain that for the length of a novel. So, hopefully that’s exciting, a little nerve-racking, a little gut-wrenching for the reader.

Your two protagonists in this novel came out of some of those flash fiction stories.

Yeah, they came out of some stories that were written during that same period of time. I have a number of short stories that are based on these characters. Two of those short stories lead to this book itself, in particular. One of the flash fiction stories was about this couple dealing with multiple miscarriages and one of the other flash fiction stories was about the wife, Viola, not having but contemplating an affair with an FBI agent who was appearing at her library. This was written right around the whole Patriot Act thing. So, the idea of FBI agents in libraries seemed new and exciting back then whereas now it’s just normal. A lot of these surveillance state concerns and security concerns in this book have become very normalized since I started writing this book, which somehow makes them seem much weirder when you pay attention to them.

What were you reading when you were growing up?

What was I reading when I was growing up? I read a lot of Encyclopedia Brown, actually. Which I think might have something to do with my interest and form because those are all very formal stories. They each had a very specific form. I also read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure, which ties in with that, too. A little later on, I read the Illuminatus! Trilogy, this crazy, huge conspiracy-theory book from the 1960s. That was this book that just blew my mind. I haven’t gone back to it, and I’m a little afraid to because what if it’s terrible? At the time, it just seemed like this really amazing, huge, encompassing book. History was involved, but you couldn’t really be sure what parts of the history were totally real, what parts sort of real, and what parts were totally bullshit, totally made up. I was also obsessed with Bridge to Terabithia for a while in fourth grade. I feel somewhere mixed in all the formalism there is this emphasis on affect and sentimentality. I like formalism but I don’t like “cold formalism.” I like things that use forms in ways that are actually kind of heartbreaking.