Aspen Times Weekly: Strangers, strangely familiar

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Writer Adam Haslett appears for a reading on Monday, Sept. 23 at the Woody Creek Community Center.
Brigitte Lacombe |

A reading by Adam Haslett

Monday, Sept. 23 at 6 p.m.

Woody Creek Community Center

The characters in Adam Haslett’s books are disconnected, often hopelessly so, and sometimes to desperate extremes, from their families, their communities, their sexuality, their own histories. When they do try to connect, they efforts tend to be awkward and only moderately successful. In the short story “The Beginnings of Grief,” an outcast high school boy makes advances on a classmate and ends up in a physically abusive situation. In another story, “Notes to My Biographer,” an older man tries to rekindle a relationship with his son; the reconnection doesn’t do much to erase the disillusion and depression.

Yet the writer believes there is a more significant sort of bond being formed with his work. “For me, the question of a sense of connection is between the reader and the book,” Haslett said. The people who populate Haslett’s writing tend not to exit the stories in an upward arc, but the redemption of these characters is not what interests him most. “To me, the question of happy endings doesn’t reside in the outcome of a plot. It resides in the reader’s engagement. It’s a happy ending if the reader is engaged. That’s a goal.”

Thus, the title of Haslett’s first book makes much sense. The 2002 story collection is called “You Are Not a Stranger Here,” and while the characters are indeed foreigners in their worlds, the “you” of the title is directed at the reader, who is likely to find a resonance in the episodes of pain, estrangement and confusion. “You Are Not a Stranger Here” was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, was named by Time magazine as one of the five best books of the year, and was translated into 16 languages. Haslett followed with the 2010 novel “Union Atlantic,” which remained in emotionally troubled terrain, but expanded the thematic landscape to touch on war and Wall Street.

Haslett will appear for a reading on Monday, Sept. 23 at the Woody Creek Community Center. It appears unlikely that he will read from his work in progress, a novel titled “Kindness.” In our interview, all Haslett would say of the book is that it is “about a family … contemporary … told from five different points of view,” and that he is in the stretch run of writing the book, which he has been working on for three years. Haslett declined to answer several questions, not, seemingly, out of being difficult or even particularly alienated himself, but out of a desire to protect the writer’s sacred space.

Since the beginning of September, Haslett has been in residence with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. The recently reinvigorated residency program places writers, one each month, on a secluded property tucked away in a picturesque canyon in Woody Creek. There is no phone service or Internet access and the 42-year-old Haslett, a Massachusetts native who lives in Brooklyn, cherishes the isolation.

“I can’t see another building. I’m surrounded by valleys and hillsides,” he said by phone from Woody Creek. (Haslett preferred to speak by phone than in person.) “There’s an ability to slip right into that. The space of solitude means that this writing world I’ve gotten in doesn’t get interrupted at all. The line between your work and your world remains porous. In the city, that gets broken up and hardened. I’ve done a number of artist residencies with a number of other artists, and that has its benefits. But at this stage, the solitude has been very welcome.”

Haslett wrote his first short stories at Swarthmore, a tiny college outside Philadelphia where he studied literature and philosophy. He first fell in love with the writing of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

“I think the people who excited me most are those who got pathos into their fiction,” Haslett said. “And where there was a relationship between the music of the words and the content. That was the enchantment.”

Haslett spent several years working for nonprofit organizations, then made his way into the top tier of programs for aspiring writers — a year at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, at the tip of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod; a stretch at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He graduated from Yale Law School, but never practiced law, preferring to focus on writing — his works of fiction; political commentary, often for European newspapers; and a piece on gay marriage for the New Yorker.

Haslett notes that he is hardly alone in writing about people in extreme states of agitation and loneliness. “Lots of fiction writers do that,” he said. But he also believes that much of the reason he has attracted an audience is that he has explored “situations that are not frequently represented. The texture of people’s lives in extreme states — mental pain, sexuality — are some things that are less frequently mapped.”

Haslett doesn’t believe that downbeat emotions are inevitable in his writing. “My goal is always to be inside people’s experience. And that’s open-ended,” he said. He noted that Nate, a central character in “Union Atlantic,” a teenager in a harsh relationship with an older man, seems to be finding some sense of equanimity, no matter how delicate and foreign, in the final pages of the novel. This is what passes for a happy ending in Haslett’s writing. “There’s a signpost of something better for him,” Haslett said.

“I tend more toward the tragic than the comic. ‘King Lear’ is my favorite play,” he said. “There’s a strain of American culture that forces a certain optimism on us. But the tragic is an ancient strain. It’s present in all of our lives. I don’t apologize for it. I understand it as a strain.”

There came then a discussion — a short one — on whether there were elements of comedy, or at least levity, in Haslett’s work. I noted the two dogs, Sam and Wilkie, who belong to the aged, disturbed Charlotte Graves in “Union Atlantic.” Yes, the dogs spoke in dire tones, echoing Revelations and Malcolm X. But hey, talking dogs — that’s got an element of comedy.

Then Haslett chipped in, offering what he saw as evidence of a lighter element in his writing.

“Kids on drugs,” he said.

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