Turning Yourself into a Character Is Hard: A Conversation with David Adjmi
By Suzanne ScanlonSeptember 10, 2020
Back in the early ’90s, we both knew we wanted to be artists, but I don’t think we knew what that meant. Neither of us knew we’d be spending our 40s writing books. Of course, writing books is another iteration of what we did know back then: that art matters above all — theater, literature, film; this is where truth is pursued.
For decades now, David’s plays have been produced to critical acclaim, and he’s received multiple prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a Whiting Award. His play Marie Antoinette (2013) received a critically acclaimed world premiere co-production from the American Repertory Theater and the Yale Repertory Theater, and a New York premiere at Soho Rep. It was later produced at Steppenwolf and many other theaters across the United States and Europe. His 2018 play Stereophonic will premiere on Broadway next year, with music by Arcade Fire’s Will Butler.
David’s memoir Lot Six, just out from HarperCollins, is the story of an artist coming of age. To read the memoir is to experience a life lived in art — from David’s earliest inklings of what that might mean to his writing of plays that explore, among other themes, displacement and exile, family and community, injustice and transcendence.
SUZANNE SCANLON: I’m interested in the relationship between your somewhat religious upbringing and your work in the theater: both offer structure and templates for spiritual knowledge. You write of your time at the yeshiva and your skepticism for the Old Testament as neither true nor spiritually edifying.
DAVID ADJMI: The Bible never felt true to me, and the rabbis at my school were really invested in selling it to us as documentary realism. I found that very bizarre. They were very literal, and everything was so bleak. And God seemed very authoritarian and shitty. The gist of the Torah was that the Jews were oppressed and treated badly, but in fact they were better than everyone. I found that message kind of smug. Dreamgirls, which I saw when I was 11, has essentially the same theme (Effie is fat-shamed and treated badly by her band, but then becomes a huge solo artist), but it was inclusive and moving and very visceral. When she sings her big song about her abjection and betrayal, I was physically trembling — everyone in the audience was freaking out, you could feel it. That was what I needed. The world around me was bleak and exhausting, and I wanted to feel more alive. If religions can’t connect people back to their own humanity, what’s the point? Did you ever read about Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomians? She was basically saying to the Puritans, “Fuck you, I want an unmediated relationship with God and I want to feel it in my heart.” To me, that’s the experience of theater — it’s an unmediated relationship with the divine.
I love that. I’ve thought, too, about Pedro Almodóvar and his 1999 film, All About My Mother, and his somewhat recidivist Catholicism. Like Almodóvar, your work considers your mother, examining her yearning for culture, and her own disappointments. This is similar territory to what you wrote about in your play Stunning (2008). Can you talk about how you approached this same material in a play and then a memoir? Did your understanding of your mother’s story change at all?
There’s so much shaping and crafting that goes into a memoir; it was a lot closer to writing a play than I imagined. Obviously, you can’t invent facts, you have to adhere to your lived experience, but it’s still curated and distilled for truth. Fiction and nonfiction aren’t discrete categories. Of course, you have more imaginative latitude writing a play — and, by the way, Stunning wasn’t written as autobiography, it was a free adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire that I sort of mashed up. I borrowed bits and pieces of my own life, but it was essentially a fantasy. The protagonist in that play is a 16-year-old newlywed, and my mother was married at that age, but I didn’t base the character on her — at least not consciously. With the memoir, though, I was consciously exposing myself and my family, and the moral lines felt — and still feel — very unclear. My mother is super private, and I’m actually very private, so I didn’t feel comfortable or happy sharing actual details about my family history. Memoir is testimony, and I think it’s important to share these artifacts and personal histories, but it’s troubling — and it’s really difficult to do. Turning yourself into a character and crafting your experiences into narrative arcs is insanely hard.
Yes, and it was a testimony to art, which validated your emotional experience. You describe your childhood vividly: your experience of depression, your growing awareness that adults were flawed, that life was, as Sweeney Todd sang, “a great black pit.” How did you put yourself back into that childlike perspective?
I have a very fetishistic memory. I can remember weird details and call them up really easily — like, I can remember what outfits people wore on specific days, or the patterns on coffee cups. My editor read an early draft and said that the level of detail felt obsessive — he didn’t say it to pathologize me, it was a compliment, but I remember coming home from that lunch with him and thinking, “Am I actually obsessive?”
As a kid, I felt so gaslighted, my reality was constantly squashed and undermined, so I became very introverted — and, as a coping strategy probably, I ended up keeping a very vivid mental diary of life. That’s probably why I have this very granular memory. But I feel like all lonely kids do this, they learn to archive — it’s a way of being in conversation with something when you’re alone. Kind of like that movie where Tom Hanks is stranded on the island and befriends the volleyball. There’s nothing on that island to mirror his reality back to him, so the ball becomes the repository of his experiences and observations. That impulse feels very familiar to me.
Lot Six sharply and hilariously reveals the absurdity of childhood education. Yet you made a world out of this absurdity. Your friendship with Howie becomes an early tool for subversion, the creation of another reality. You describe that formative quality of friendship, the fact that the “tenor of reality could change so drastically by seeing it through someone else’s eyes.”
I can’t even explain how miserable I was at the yeshiva. My classmates were all normal and happy, and I couldn’t understand it. The rabbis were so adversarial; they would read us for filth, and drag us around by our collars, and call us names — I was so bitter all the time, I hated it. I felt completely alone. And then, in sixth grade, I met Howie, who was hilarious and really charismatic — and he was an archivist, like me. He noticed all this stuff most people ignored. We were both outsiders, and we shared a sensibility.
Howie was a brilliant impersonator. He would do these scarily accurate impersonations of our teachers, and he was really funny. He was brilliant. And I got into it too — we’d write satirical novellas and plays about the teachers, and the people at my school. And suddenly the framework of my life inverted. I was no longer on the outside, I was inside a sensibility; I shared the intimacy of a perspective and I felt protected by that. That friendship was probably the beginning of my artistic consciousness. I saw how you could recenter yourself inside a system that victimizes you. It’s like Sarah Cooper’s political satire on Twitter: she’s using a language of the oppressor to subvert that language from the inside. You don’t escape an oppressive reality by denying it, you escape it by really entering into it. Art is always about dominion, and Howie taught me that.
You also write about fashion, how you made a self out of the culture. Your burgeoning sense of style became a symbolic tool for rejecting family and religion. I was moved by your thrill at rejecting religion — the adolescent self-righteousness, which reminded me of my own experience with Catholicism. I also connected to the absence, the gap that’s left after such a rejection.
I mean, it’s true that I was self-righteous, but my righteousness came from a deep fear that I would be trapped in this extremely claustrophobic world for the rest of my life. I couldn’t figure out how to detach from the Straight Jewish Republican Gaze. I felt I needed to smash this illusion those people had of me to free myself, but my tools were really limited — I had no tools. I had no ideology. I had no knowledge of life.
The one thing I understood was optics, because the Syrian Jews were very fashion-conscious and materialistic. So, in high school I started to get very focused on my outfits. I don’t know if this filled the void of religion — it wasn’t exactly a spiritual turn. I wasn’t thinking about fashion as a way to liberate or express myself, I just wanted to micromanage how I would be seen. I was curious about how being seen in new ways would change me. I thought that, if I was seen differently, I would magically float into some new life. Actually, there was sort of a religious component to it, because I really did think some transubstantiation might take place with the outfits — that my development wouldn’t be psychological and incremental, but that I would be changed because of some new outfit, that the outfit would regenerate me on the inside. I actually really believed this; that’s how desperate I was.
There’s a beautiful scene toward the end of the book where you recognize in a cousin’s eyes the same fear and discomfort you once felt, trying to fit into a group that would never accept you. You were a Lot Six, a stranger, and you’ve discovered the relief of acceptance, of relinquishing altogether the desire to fit in. I love this link you make between being outside of something, literally or figuratively, and becoming a writer. The whole book is about this journey — to accept that, to let go of the pain of non-belonging, which isn’t wholly possible, and yet …
Yeah, the pain doesn’t go away, but I did stop blaming myself for not being liked. There’s a kind of loneliness specific to young artists, and a feeling of alterity we often confuse with worthlessness. So to find the courage to leave bad relationships — which for me was every relationship I had, including the one with myself — and embrace that loneliness, and embrace my own difference, and make myself a writer, and, to quote William Empson, “learn a style from a despair,” was very hard. Becoming a writer, in the beginning phases especially, is like mapping out a place that doesn’t exist. It’s scary. But as you build your body of work, you’re also building yourself. And it’s true, I didn’t want to give the illusion of “now I finally belong!” at the end, or to imply that the pain of all those losses just goes away. It doesn’t. But I feel very sated by writing. I think I am suited for it, and I feel incredibly lucky to feel suited to something. I desperately wanted a normal life, and even though my life is emphatically not that, I’ve found a niche. The title “Lot Six” refers to a kind of person who is fundamentally unassimilable to the dominant culture — whether that’s an artist or a queer person or what have you. I’ve come to feel that, in many ways, that’s a privileged position.
The ending of the book returns to your mother’s story, and your recognition that you were the inheritor of her non-story and that your job as an artist was to make her life matter.
The book opens with my mother taking me on these trips to art museums in Manhattan to experience what she called “culture.” But my mom wasn’t an aesthete, she was a high school dropout, and she hadn’t taken art history courses, she didn’t understand the contexts of works of art. So there was always this sense that we were supplicants looking at the art — that we were in some way inferior to it. The art had some gigantic godlike aura around it that we could never penetrate, because we weren’t meant to be in conversation with it, because we were outside of all important conversations. It’s hard to explain, but I just never saw myself as being a person the way other people had personhood.
So, at the end — without giving anything away — I return to this relationship with my mother, and everything has inverted: not only our relationship, but my relationship to art. The book ends with this very complicated blur of artifice and reality, the past and the present. That felt like the right stopping point. I wanted to end at the moment where the bands of the Möbius strip flip and those distinctions vanish.
You recently told me that you think of books — literature — as being about consciousness, unlike the theater. I think of William Gass’s essay “The Book as a Container of Consciousness,” his idea of the book as a way to contain the mind, which is how I’ve found communion in literature. Can you say more about what these two mediums mean to you now, after spending so many years shaping a book while still writing plays?
For me, the pleasure of reading is in getting lost in these minutely described psychic states — like really nuanced observations, micro-etchings of details we all recognize but bury over the course of our daily lives because we have too much to do. I don’t really read for plot so much, I read to feel an intimate communion with another mind. Theater isn’t like that. It doesn’t exist inside an individual consciousness — even at the most pared-down atomic level, it’s a shared dialogue between an actor and an audience. It’s demotic and political, because there are bodies in space — and it’s about witnessing. It’s an event. People are doing things, and we aren’t necessarily told what they mean, we’re not steeping in interiority. It took me a long time to figure out how to do interiority on the page, because it’s not part of my skillset as a playwright. I like both for different reasons. Theater is a collaborative medium, and I actually love that. I started out more autocratic, but I think I softened and have come to love collaboration. You do form these little extemporaneous families during production, and it’s sweet. With a book, you’re kind of on your own. I thought writing a memoir was hell, to be honest. It was a love-hate relationship. I would probably do it again.
Suzanne Scanlon is the author of Promising Young Women (Dorothy, 2012) and Her 37th Year, an Index (Noemi, 2015).
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