August 2008

Drew Nellins

features

An Interview with Chris Adrian

No one writes like Chris Adrian. His work, like his life, is utterly original. After graduating from The University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop and publishing his first two stories in The Paris Review and Story magazine respectively, Mr. Adrian continued on a path that would be unimaginable for most writers with an early taste of success. Rather than dedicating himself to a writing career, he entered medical school and eventually completed a pediatric residency. Now a working as a pediatrician in Boston, he is also enrolled at Harvard Divinity School.

Between professional milestones, he has published two excellent novels, the first of which was released the year he received his M.D. Gob’s Grief, set during the American Civil War, follows several characters -- among them Walt Whitman and real-life suffragist, Victoria Woodhull -- as they collaborate in building a machine designed to abolish death. His second novel, The Children’s Hospital, is an epic apocalypse story in which God floods the world a second time, sparing only the occupants of a pediatric hospital. In both books, Adrian contemplates the crossroads of reality and the supernatural, brotherhood, mortality, the grief of loss, belonging, and the very question of life’s meaning.

When not working, studying, or publishing novels, Adrian has been placing stories in some of the best magazines: The New Yorker, Zoetrope: All Story, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and others. A Better Angel (released this month by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), collects nine of these stories, written over an eleven year period. As with his novels, Adrian uses each story as an opportunity to worry his favorite obsessions and to wrestle with literature’s biggest themes.

Mr. Adrian spoke with me via telephone.


I like that your phone number has three consecutive sixes in it.

Yeah, it’s the devil number. I didn’t do that on purpose.

I wondered. Well, I thought we should get out of the way that you’re probably self-conscious about how accomplished you are in general. I read a quote somewhere that you were cautioning people not to think that you were smarter than you are.

I think I sound fancier than I actually am. I’ve just tried a lot of different stuff, but I’m not necessarily very good at any of it.

How old are you?

Thirty-seven.

And you’re a pediatrician, right? At Boston Children’s Hospital?

I work in the ER there. I’m just a regular pediatrician. You can train to be an actual ER pediatrician, but I never did that. I just work in the ER as a regular pediatrician.

Do you like it?

Yes. I was lucky to get the job. It’s a great place to work. And they’ve been nice to me about being in school. I mostly just work on weekends and go to class during the week.

You’re in a doctoral program?

No, just a master’s program.

At Harvard Divinity School.

Right. I should have finished this year, but I took a couple of semesters off, so I have one more year to go.

One thing I wanted to talk about -- you went to Africa for a period after finishing medical school, right?

It was a little while after that. I went Malawi, I guess two years ago. It was the year after I came to Cambridge, about a year after finishing residency. I went with my old boyfriend, who was doing a public health project over there. I basically just helped him out, measuring kids’ heads.

That sounds like a lot of fun.

Yeah, it was really neat. I was actually going to go back this summer and work in the ER in the hospital in the town where I was in Malawi, called Blantyre. I had that all set up, but I ended up taking a job in San Francisco that will start next month.

You’re moving to San Francisco?

In August. I’m going to be a fellow in their pediatric hematology/oncology program, which is what I always wanted to end up doing.

Nice. To get to do what you always wanted to end up doing at thirty-seven. That’s not such a bad wait.

It takes three years to do the training, so I’ll start this year and then if everything works out I’ll start doing the pediatric oncology stuff out there and then next summer come back here to finish the divinity degree. And then go back to San Francisco for another two years to finish the oncology.

You are an overachiever, it sounds like. This is your third book you’re releasing now, and I don’t think you even collected all of the stories you’ve published.

No. It’s most of them. There were a couple more at first. A couple of them, my editor was not so fond of. And a lot of them tend to be the same story told over and over again.

That’s funny. I don’t see that at all.

Some of them seem pretty similar to each other, and others just were kind of wacky in a way that the rest of them weren’t wacky.

I notice that whenever you write stories about doctors, the protagonist has something like the opposite of a God complex. They seem to feel totally incompetent most of the time.

A lot of the stuff I wrote from that perspective, I did during residency, when I felt incompetent all the time. It’s less of a problem now, because as with almost any job you do as a physician -- unless you’re one of those insanely smart, capable family practice people who are in the middle of sticks doing a little bit of everything -- you tend to do a lot of the same things over and over again, so you finally start to feel comfortable with it. But I guess I still use the fiction as an occasion to cultivate my feelings of inadequacy. I’d be worried if I didn’t feel inadequate in some ways, working as a doctor.

It’s interesting that most of your characters are struggling. I mean, it’s not as if most of your stories begin happily and then the characters are confronted with a problem they have to cope with. They start out troubled.

Often the same kinds of trouble. It will be interesting to see what people think of the collection.

What are these themes you’re worried recur too frequently?

I guess, in the way that we ended up setting the stories up was that I tried to group them to in pairs. There was a sort of Noah’s Ark-y progression of obsessions. So there’s the “High Speeds” story. That’s the first one. And it’s supposed to be paired with the last story, which is about a guy who tries to get in touch with his father with an Ouija board, and actually reaches his father, but it turns out that his father is Satan. And so, the progression of both those stories is sort of similar. In the first story, the kid is a lot more -- even though he does something sort of drastic and gross at the end of the story -- I think he’s more innocent about the way he decides to acknowledge the sort of fundamental evil of his nature. In the last story, the character does a similar thing. He sort of lets go and decides it’s okay. He’s going to be Satan’s child, whatever that means, for better or worse.

Each of those pairs is grouped around the one story that doesn’t have a companion, which is the title story -- which is sort of in the middle. It was supposed to have a companion story, but I couldn’t write it in time for the deadline.

One of the things about your work that I really like is that you don’t mess around. You consistently take on themes that are difficult.

Yeah, it’s usually something that’s been getting me down, or sticking around in my head in a way that’s unpleasant enough that I go do the work of writing to try to either feel better about it or get some perspective on it.

Is it that self-conscious for you? “Now I’m going to go get some perspective on this?”

I don’t know that it… it almost never works. I mean, I can describe it in a way that feels conscious, but it’s not as clean-cut as that. It’s more that I feel kind of awful about something and I go write for a while to feel better -- which describes everyone I know who writes.

Do you know a lot of writers?

Well, all the people I know from grad school who I kept in touch with.

You went to the University of Iowa?

Yes. You could tell who had got their writing done early in the morning, because they were in consistently better moods throughout the day.

Do you read a lot?

I’m pretty poorly read, and always have been. But I’ve gotten a little bit better in the past couple of years, mostly because I’ve had to start reading stuff for class.

I think I read that you see this as a period for filling the gaps of your knowledge.

A bunch of it I should have learned as an undergrad, but I was sleeping.

So what are the big gaps as you see them?

Especially working on the sort of stuff I had been working on, during and since The Children’s Hospital novel, I was sort of pretending to know a lot more about theology writing that book than I did. Or still do. But working on that book I discovered that there was a whole line of dead German men who had thought about the same things I was thinking about and had written about them with a lot more intelligence and clarity. So it seemed like a good idea to start with that, to be able to put together a sort of story in my head about the progression of liberal, protestant thought, from the early to mid-1800s till the end of the twentieth century. And I think I more or less failed at that.

I have a feeling you’d say that about anything.

But I’ve gotten pointed in lots of interesting directions. And I’ve had time to read a little more fiction too.

Based on your books, I’ve always assumed you’re a Christian. Is that right?

I grew up Catholic, but I haven’t been to church for, gee… I guess I was in church a few weeks ago, but that was for my mom’s funeral. Besides that, I haven’t been to church for a long time. Being in the divinity program, there’s a little spot on this card where you’re supposed to tell them what you are, to sort of identify with one thing or another. I still haven’t done that, and they don’t seem upset about it.

Do you have any religious beliefs?

I sort of came to div school to figure that out. I’m still figuring it out. But I think I heard Nathan [Englander] describe himself as a lapsed atheist, and I identify with that.

Supernatural experiences are a big part of your fiction, but while there are other writers, like Kelly Link or Amiee Bender who use the supernatural or the fantastical as devices in their fiction, I don’t see you as part of that tradition. Do you?

Not so much, though I like those. Those are the types of writers that I think are interesting. I think all that stuff is neat. If there’s a magic pony in the story, chances are I’ll read it. I feel like I write about magic ponies a lot. Part of that is what keeps me interested, but also that I have a hard time telling the stories or, not so much the stories, but the sort of emotional transformations that occur to me, as possible and interesting to describe. I always have a much easier time with the help of a magic pony or a crabby angel or a ghost of a suicide or whatever.

That’s one of the things that’s surprising about your work in general. The choices you make for the books are best for the books, and I like them a lot, but they just seem like such an unusual, difficult way to go about it. If it were me writing this, I would say, “We’re going to skip this scene” or “I’ll do a little magic trick to make this not an issue.” But those are the moments when you seem to really dig in.

I feel like I paint myself in a corner a lot. But I don’t know any other way to do it. I seem to muddle through.

Yeah, you manage to get out of it. So many of your scenes stand out because most writers wouldn’t even attempt them.

Because they’re smart.

Do you believe in the supernatural? There’s so much of it in your work.

I think it’s neat. I think I would trade being a divinity school student/pediatrician for being an X-Man any day. I’d much rather have superpowers than write nifty stories. But, being a sort of pseudo-scientist as a physician, I’ve never run into anything that convinced me one way or the other, though there is a lot of strangeness and mystery in medicine -- things that happen for reasons no one can explain. Times when someone who was supposed to die or was overwhelmingly sick and managed, despite all the objective evidence that they should not be alive, manage to hang on for weeks or months for some reason that doesn’t make much sense objectively, but makes a kind of subjective sense, like wanting to see their child again, or sister or brother who is on their way to see them.

I was going to ask whether your sense of the supernatural has been challenged or reinforced by medicine. It sounds like it’s been sort of reinforced, which seems an odd effect.

Yes, kind of complicated by it, I guess. Nobody has super powers, but things are stranger and more mysterious than I think most people are comfortable talking about or acknowledging.

It’s interesting. I didn’t expect you to be so ambivalent, if that’s what you are, about your own personal beliefs.

Oh, yeah I am. I wish I wasn’t. If I can’t be Jean Gray, then I would settle for being Marilynne Robinson, but I’m not. I’m not Marilynne Robinson either, unfortunately.

I would settle for being Marilynne Robinson, too.

She sort of has super powers.

Have you read much sci-fi?

Uh huh. I still like it. I don’t read very much of it anymore, but that was mostly what I read growing up. I read all sorts of goofy stuff until I was twelve, when I was in the hospital for five days, and my dad brought me a box set of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books. I had looked down on science fiction as too silly before. I took myself very seriously back then and thought I was a lot smarter than I actually was. Within just the cover with the almost-naked John Carter, and, within a few pages, the largely naked Dejah Thoris, I was already hooked. I was halfway through the box set before I left the hospital. After that, I had the opposite problem. I couldn’t read serious stuff anymore. I would just read science fiction.

The Children’s Hospital is a really big book. Was it longer when you started editing, or did it just keep getting larger?

Eli [Horowitz], the editor at McSweeney’s, and I cut out about four hundred manuscript pages. Almost none of it was stuff that happened on the hospital -- except for the big zombie scene.

I’m really, really upset that I’m never going to read the big zombie scene.

The zombie nurse attack.

That’s unbelievable. You’ll have to send it to me.

I tried to find it. When I was doing readings, I thought it would be more fun to read from the stuff that had been cut. But the zombie scene is now truly lost.

One day someone will find it in a trunk, like Emily Dickenson’s poems. The big zombie scene. Do you know that you have a Wikipedia page?

I do?

Yeah, I just pulled it up. It lists every story you’ve ever written and the date it was published. It says that your novels “bend toward surrealism, having mostly realistic characters experiencing fantastic circumstances.” Lucky you.

Holy cow. I always thought it was the author himself or herself putting those pages up.

I know you’ve talked about this before, but of the nine stories, three of them have to do with September 11th. I wonder why you took 9/11 so personally.

I think I thought everyone was taking it so personally. Everyone should take it personally. Even the few weeks and months afterwards, people were taking it personally, and then… it got foisted on everyone, this revenge fantasy. Taking it personally became the national trope. I mean, for those first few months afterwards, I couldn’t understand how I or anybody else could write about anything else. How there was room to write a delightful novel about shoes and living in New York? Which I actually like to read about -- shoes and living in New York. I was sort of obsessed about it in a way that made it feel that my imagination had been hijacked.

Brothers are another big topic, really in almost everything that you’ve written. Gob’s Grief definitely, and The Children’s Hospital definitely, and in several of the stories. Did you actually have a brother that died?

Yes. He was three years older than me. He was 25, I was 22. That was back in 1993, when I was just graduating from college. A lot of what was going on in Gob’s Grief and the novel that preceded that -- which was basically the same novel but told in a different way, and even with the same title, even when it was about a soap opera doctor with superpowers. Every iteration of the story was about somebody trying to bring their brother back to life, and trying to get some peace about that person’s death.

Did the writing of that book pay off in any way? Did it help?

I think it helped somehow because there’s room to write about something else. Not every story is a story about somebody whose brother died.

Gob’s Grief was released by a corporate publisher. For your next book you went to McSweeney’s, which is a really independent publisher, and now you’re back with a more corporate publisher, FSG, who is really at the top of their game with fiction right now. Were your experiences very different at an independent press?

It was a very different experience with McSweeney’s than with Broadway. I gave the book to my editor at Broadway, or actually he was at Doubleday, and he couldn’t even finish, it actually.

He couldn’t finish The Children’s Hospital?

No. Of the fifteen or so people we submitted it to originally, the only one who finished it was Eric Chinski, who is my current editor, who also rejected it. It went around for eight months until I finally said -- there were still two people who said they were going to try to finish it but at that point I was so depressed about it -- I said, “Stop.” To make myself feel better, I started to destroy it. I sent out letters to the editors who hadn’t finished it asking them to destroy their copies.

That’s really sad.

I never believed people when they told me that the right person would find it eventually, but I think that’s what happened. It only happened because a friend of mine from Iowa who hadn’t read the book but knew I was working on it and that nobody would pick it up, mentioned it to Dave Eggers at dinner, and he wanted to see it. He and Eli read it in three days and said yes. It was very dramatic how different the response was.

So you got a lot of editorial attention there?

Yes, definitely. Eli worked really hard and basically line edited the whole thousand page manuscript and lobbied pretty hard for the cuts.

Was that similar to your experience at Broadway?

They were different. Mostly because I had four different editors at Broadway. It was kind of a weird situation. They bought the novel based on the excerpt that was in The New Yorker. I told them it was going to be a weird book, but they didn’t quite… when they got it, I think it was a bit weirder than they thought it was going to be. In that draft there were things like… Gob could fly at that point. And he was having an affair with a horse.

I bet they were really surprised.

So part of what was different with them was that people kept getting other opportunities and taking them. It’s hard to get promoted within the same house as an editor, so they kept leaving for other houses.

That must have been pretty traumatic for you doing your first book. That’s a lot of moving around.

It was kind of weird, but they were all good people. They all tried hard. Even the guy who came in at the very end. I was lucky he got involved because the story was getting weirder and weirder -- it was getting less weird from the sex-with-a-horse perspective -- but getting structurally more complicated and I made a couple of tough decisions about the structure that the editor, the one who had been there the longest was not too excited about. And the new senior editor was the tie-breaker. He encountered it for the first time and said, “It’s fine. Take it away from him.” They basically took it away from me before I could screw it up, and published it.

The work in this new collection basically took place over your entire career. What’s it been like looking back at all of it? Have you changed it much?

It’s interesting to read the stuff that’s really, really old. Like that first Paris Review story that didn’t make it in. A professor at school was actually helping me with the collection as a school project, to try to sort of figure out which stories belong together. It wasn’t the most successful project ever, but what we were doing was trying to decide if there was anything theologically consistent about the stories, if there was any way of grouping them or not grouping them or putting them in or leaving them out. We had a lot of fun.

I like the sequence. I like ending with “Why Antichrist?”

The book was supposed to be called “Why Antichrist?” but they wouldn’t let me call it that. I wanted it to be a black cover with a little upside down white cross on it, but they seemed to think no one would buy it.

That’s too bad. That would be great.

When my teacher read that story, The Paris Review story, she asked if I’d just written it. I thought that was funny because it was the oldest story and she said it seemed a little tossed off to her and not polished.

I bet The Paris Review didn’t feel that way.

That was exciting when they took that. It was the first one anyone ever took.

Were you submitting a lot then?

I was. As a student at Iowa, I sent a lot of stuff out, mostly to Lois Rosenthal at Story Magazine. I sent her like eleven stories and she sent back increasingly useful comments and always was very encouraging. She finally took one right at the same time as The Paris Review took that story.

Wow. That must have been a red letter month.

Yeah. It was crazy. It was just after I had started med school.

What’s your writing life like?

I tend to get more done, I think, when I’m supposed to be doing something else. When I have time to just write, I don’t always go do it. It’s somehow easier to do it if it’s a little bit illicit. FSG bought a novel with the stories. I was supposed to turn it in this summer at first, but I’m not going to make it. And then I’m working on a couple of stories that I was supposed to finish for the collection but didn’t finish in time. And then I’m doing a goofy kids book.

A kids book? That’s interesting. Is it already written?

I wrote one draft of it, and it got rejected from about, I guess, fourteen or fifteen children’s book publishers. The common refrain was, “What made you think this was suitable for children?”

That’s hilarious. So, have you found someone who does think it’s suitable for children?

No, but my editor at FSG is interested in seeing it. He heard a little bit about it and thought it sounded relatively neat, so I think he probably will say the same thing, but his being interested in it made me go back and look at it again. It’s fun to work on it anyway.

How does writing fit into your view of yourself? It seems like you are a lot of different things.

I’m not doing it for a living, or not depending on it for a living. I think that makes some kind of difference. But when I have a bad day as a doctor, it contributes to my sense of self-worth somehow. When people ask me, “If I was holding a gun to your head and you had to choose between writing and being a doctor to avoid being shot in the head…”

This seems like a pretty likely scenario.

I usually say I would pick being a doctor. I have a hard time imagining either thing, but it’s harder to imagine not being a doctor.

Does it matter to you where you fit into the larger stream of literature?

I don’t know. It’s probably just enough that people are reading the stuff and if people are talking about it, that seems like a lot more than you can reasonably ask for. It’s so beyond your control that it seems silly or at least not very useful to think about it.

Incidentally, I don’t think of you as a gay writer, or someone who’s writing gay stories, but you’re clearly not in the closet either.

Someone looking hard enough at my books could probably find some stuff that makes sense in that way. But I never thought I warranted a cover with a shirtless guy with 3D nipples. That’s what seems to be on the cover of a lot of gay writers’ books. You get the shirtless 3D nipple cover.

Is it something you prefer people not mention?

No, it doesn’t matter.

Does your gayness go over at divinity school? Has it been an issue at all?

Everyone else is gay there too. Not really, but there are a lot of gay people there. It is decidedly not a problem. I’ve been lucky in that way. There are a lot of gay people in pediatrics too.

There’s this gay doctor who appears in your all of your books, Doctor Chandra…

Whose name…at one time you could rearrange the letters of his name to spell Chris Adrian.

I wondered how much of was a self-flagellating kind of thing. You’re always sort of bullying Dr. Chandra in your books.

I think of him getting bullied, not so much because he’s gay but because he’s incompetent. I guess it’s gratifying in some way to exaggerate that aspect of myself in a way that’s scary for the poor patients, I bet. I had a mom realize that I was the person who wrote that just as I was about to put a needle in her son’s back.

I wonder, do you think that, for you, becoming deeply religious is an inevitability?

I don’t know. I used to be a lot more religious. I was a pretty serious little Catholic up until around the end of high school. In some ways I think I would like to be. It would be neat to be ordained. But it would be a big change to get that kind of basic level of belief or faith that lots of my classmates have.

It’s interesting because it seems like so much a part of your work.

I think about it a lot. I’ll just have to see how that all changes over the next year. Then I’ll have a bit more experience taking care of sick kids, taking care of dying kids. That will change a lot next year, doing oncology all year long. I’ll be in much closer relationships with those families in a whole different way. I’m sure it’ll have an impact on the way that I think about that stuff, and even on the way that I feel about it.

Do you mind saying what your new book is about?

It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco.

What gave you that idea?

I like the play a lot. When I had gotten depressed and had gotten kind of fed up with The Children’s Hospital for a while, that came up as something else to work on. Part of it is that I’ve always wanted to write about San Francisco again.

I saw you had a small piece in The New York Times Magazine section a couple of weeks ago.

That was from a sermon.

You write sermons?

That’s the only one so far. There’s a service every week at school. Every now and then a student gets to give a sermon, so I got to do that one. It was a lot longer, and I think a little funnier. They had to cut out a lot to make it fit on that one little page.

How was it received as a sermon?

People laughed, so that was good. They laughed where they were supposed to laugh. That was all I could ask for. Nobody left or had a conversion experience.