Adam Prince is Angry and Determined

Adam Prince, the 2010 Wabash Fiction Prize winner, has been on quite a roll recently. Besides winning the 2010 Wabash Prize for his story “Island of the Lost Boys” which Peter Ho Davies noted for its “acute observations, wry wit, and delicate characterization.…The result is a quietly, almost furtively, heartbreaking story.” Beyond winning the Wabash Prize, Prince also won the 2010 Narrative Magazine Winter Contest, and his stories have appeared in many journals including The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review and LIT among others. Sycamore Review’s Fiction Editor Conor Broughan wanted to check in with Adam to find out the secret of his recent success and to ask a few questions about “Island of the Lost Boys,” a story that we here at Sycamore Review are proud to have published. Find an excerpt of the story here.

Sycamore: For many writers, a story starts with an image, an article in the newspaper, or a phrase overheard at a bar or coffee shop. Can you tell us where the idea for “Island of the Lost Boys” came from and how you went about turning that germ of an idea into a fully realized story?

Prince: I grew up on Newport Island, where the story is set. And there was this older guy who was always inviting the kids over to his house to use his computer (this was back when very few people had computers). Anyway, he eventually moved out, and my best friend and I sort of co-opted the vacant house. One day, rummaging around in the attic, we found this photography book with a bunch of naked boys in it. It was all artfully done, but we knew what it probably meant about him. For years, there had been rumors.  It was a small neighborhood, and we knew how rumors could go. He’d never crossed any lines with us and actually treated us sort of like peers, like fellow-adults. So we’d been inclined to ignore the rumors up to that point.  And the mix of feelings we had looking at that book was really complicated. I still wanted to defend the guy. I reasoned that if he was attracted to us, he’d done what he could to fight it. I thought there was something heroic about that, and I still think so. But, at the same time, as we flipped through the pages, we were looking at ourselves as he probably saw us.  And that was disturbing.

So this started as being about the time my best friend and I discovered that book. But it just didn’t work as a story. I’ve often found that autobiographical projects are easy at the stage of the rough draft, because the people and details are so vividly present. But then during revision, I inevitably run into this hitch of never being able to get enough perspective on the real-life people to make them into well-rounded fictional characters. So I had to yank the whole thing out of reality, scramble all the characters around. The result is something that, aside from setting and mood, doesn’t at all resemble its earliest drafts. I’d just grabbed onto the story from the wrong place entirely, so the revision took a massive amount of time—about five years from start to finish.

Sycamore: Peter Ho Davies, the judge for this 2010 Wabash Prize in fiction, noted that “Island of the Lost Boys” has a “complex central character, a risky choice of protagonist who could so easily collapse into sordid stereotype, but who is here delineated with an exacting and surprising sensitivity.” First of all, I want to mention how impressed I was with the subtle complexity of Ted Asmund, the protagonist of the story. When you were writing this story, did you ever consider how risks that a character like Ted could create, and was there ever a moment that you were nervous about drifting towards the “sordid stereotype” mentioned above? If so, how did you overcome this and manage to keep Ted complex without becoming a stereotype?

Prince: I’m just now finishing my first collection, The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men. The stories are all about men trying to negotiate this very primal, very elemental thing on the one hand with the expectations of everyday decency in the contemporary world on the other. At the time I wrote most of these stories, I had what in many respects was a really solid, wonderful relationship, but I couldn’t seem to make it work because I was always panting after waitresses and actresses and women pushing their carts in the supermarket. It was a quality I disliked in myself, a destructive force I couldn’t seem reason with. So, odd as it sounds, there were elements of Ted I could related to, though, of course, the specific nature of Ted’s lust and situation was distant enough that I could write about him with perspective and a sense of discovery. So I think that’s one reason why Ted isn’t a stereotype. Another reason is that the nascent idea of the character came from a real person I was trying to understand, although, again, Ted didn’t end up being very much like him.

And still another reason is that I worked on the damn story for so long. A lot of revision is just getting to know your characters the way you get to know someone in real life, and that’s often what you’re doing even when you think you’re working on story structure or on the syntax of a particular sentence.

I was definitely worried about the way the story would be received. But there’s always something to worry about when you’re writing a story, and increasingly I’ve found that it’s just wasted energy. You get caught up in whether a story is good, whether you’re going to be able to pull it off, whether people will like it and so on, and eventually you’re so worried that you’re not writing anymore. So it’s starting to seem to me that when it comes to questions about subject matter, the only one worth asking yourself is whether you’re interested in it. And if you’re interested, really interested, then you’ll find a way to make it work.

Sycamore: The title of the story is very evocative in its nostalgia for the Peter Pan myth of a never-ending childhood. Ted pines for his childhood friend and the simpler life they lived on the manmade island of Newport Beach, CA. This title was so perfect on many levels and I wondered if the title existed before you wrote the story and, if so, how much it informed the story?

Prince: I’m glad you like the title. I wasn’t so sure about it. I love the thematic resonances you mention, but it’s been pointed out that the title doesn’t quite seem to fit tonally—or that it leads the reader to expect a very different kind of story—an adventure story like Peter Pan. But I like that quality. I like that the title is so whimsical and then the first line of the story sounds like a word problem from a math class. There’s something satisfying about undercutting a reader’s expectations, keeping a reader a bit off-balance. And really there are two competing tones in the story. There’s the repressed, clinical tone of Ted’s real life, and then there’s the whimsical tone he associates with his childhood. Ted idealizes that childhood, and that’s the story he wants to be true, the story he’d like to tell you. But then reality comes in, undercuts it.

Anyway, I didn’t name the story first. It came out of the scene when Ted is very young and his mom tells him she’s going to marry a man who will take them to an island. So then he starts dreaming about all these islands he’s read about or seen on TV. I wrote that scene and then I later saw that it would make a good a title. A lot of writing works like this.  It’s accident or it’s your subconscious. Revision often means discovering those accidents and then developing them.

Sycamore: Can you talk about how important place and setting is to this story? Newport Beach is described in the story as “a small cluster of wealthy, suburban blocks surrounded by a channel—a beautiful place certainly, but quite developed, and whatever resemblance it came to have to those islands that so captured Teddy’s imagination, whatever magic, had far less to do with its physical characteristics than with the friend he met there.” The setting is an island, but not quite an island. What role does artifice play in the setting and the story at large? Ted’s mother comes to mind with her constant remodeling and remarrying.

Prince: This is another one of those things that started either as an accident or else with my subconscious mind being smarter than my conscious one. Basically, since the story I thought I wanted to tell had actually happened on Newport Island, I set it there. And when I figured out that I wanted to tell a completely different story, the setting stuck around, because it worked. It worked because Ted himself is so isolated and because the island’s being paved over speaks to this theme of artifice and what’s underneath it. Now, Ted’s mother is interested in artifice to such an extent that, for her, it may not even be artifice anymore. In some sense she is her beauty, the dresses, the house, because the surface is her territory. I think Ted has picked up on that quality of hers, but in him, it manifests very differently. He seems to believe that if he can just maintain the outer appearance of calm and goodness, just be polite, wear professional-looking clothes, and so on, then he can successfully make himself into the man he appears to be.  And, of course, that doesn’t work. Two of those great illustrations from Amber Albrecht evoke that particular theme really well, but I don’t want to reduce their effect by trying to describe them here.  Anyone who’s interested should look at the journal.

Sycamore: Many of the readers of Sycamore Review are writers themselves, so I wanted to ask a question about your process. Where and when do you prefer to write? Do you write with music on or do you need complete silence? Do you have any rituals that you need to perform before you can sit in front of the keyboard be productive?

Prince: My writing process aims toward all practicality and no superstition. I write in the morning because my brain is at its freshest and most active then, and because people don’t tend to come by or call. Also I figured out at some point that I can stay heavily focused for about forty minutes at a time. So in the morning I get to writing as soon as I can. I write for forty minutes, take a twenty minute break to clean up around the house or take a shower, then another forty minutes of writing and so on. I try for three of these forty-minute increments in a day, followed by another one of reading something that pertains directly to what I’m writing. And I try to take one day off from the writing schedule so that I can attend to other things and actually kind of have a life.

I avoid writing rituals because I think they lend credence to this belief that there’s something magical about writing. But writing isn’t magic; it’s a magic trick. That vicious Bible salesman and Peter Walsh fooling with his pocket knife and the entire town of Mocando often seem like they were conjured out of nowhere or like they emerged complete from the mouth of a muse. But, really, that’s the effect, and not the cause.  In reality, they were built. They came from memory, maybe or the subconscious, but mostly they came from a lot of patience and sharp-minded hard work. I think that if, as a writer of fiction, you believe too much in the muse, then you’re going to be spending a whole lot of time just waiting for her to appear. And all the while, there’s work to be done.

Sycamore: I am sure that you have too many favorite writers to list, but can you talk about some of the writers that have influenced you throughout your writing career? More specifically, are there any writers that directly influenced “Island of the Lost Boys”?

Prince: One of my biggest influences is James Salter. Partially that’s because his themes and mine are similar. And then I’m always a sucker for any writer whose craft I can’t quite figure out.  He works almost entirely with these short declarative sentences that say so much more than they seem to. It’s Hemingway’s technique, but polished up into something brighter and more cutting. For instance, he really uses the spaces between his sentences. By leaving out certain transitions and letting the sentences to sort of bump into each other, he manages to really evoke what’s not being said. That’s a trick I picked up from him, but my version isn’t nearly as good.

Alice Munro is another one I can’t figure out. She introduces so many different narrative strains into a single story, so many points of entry, that it almost seems random. But then every different strain is actually adding another dimension to the characters and events, so by the end of the story, it all fits, thought I’m often at a loss to explain quite how. I try to do something like that with my story, though, again, it isn’t even close to what she can do. “Island of the Lost Boys” has three different time lines, three different chains of events. They each come in at different points along the way, and they each impact the way we understand Ted and his situation.

Then there’s John Cheever. He influenced the physical descriptions of the places and the creation of Ted’s mother, too. He was the master at portraying upper class life, partially because he had such mixed feelings about it and was smart enough to learn how to use those feelings to create tension in the work. So even while he seems to be criticizing these upper class people, his work simultaneously makes this implicit argument for how appealing a nice house, a quiet neighborhood, and cocktail hour can be.

Also, all these writers offer work that’s somewhat unsettling, and that’s very important to me. I think that one of the main differences between a literary genre and a popular one is that the first reveals what the world is and the second what we wish it to be. Historically, then, literary fiction has been unsettling because the real world can be that way. But it seems to me that over the past ten years or so, much of contemporary literature has moved away from an attempt to confront the world in an honest way and into something far more airy, something that never really makes the reader squirm or reveals much about who we are. A novel like the The Lovely Bones only pretends to confront real world issues, but ultimately it’s built to offer some false, Hollywood-style comfort.  I mean, even the title does that. So, in this one sense at least, the book doesn’t offer up a literary experience.

Sycamore: You attended the MFA program at the University of Arkansas and are now a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. You have had a lot of great writing instructors, including, I presume, Michael Knight—one of my favorite short story writers and one of America’s most underrated writers. What is the best piece of writing advice you have received and if you can give one piece of advice to a beginning writer, what would it be?

Prince: It’s hard to give advice about writing if I’m not looking at a particular piece to give advice about, because the lessons one learns are very provisional and case specific. So, for instance, that whole “show, don’t tell” bit is sort of like a high school teacher telling students to write a conclusion to an essay that just repeats what they’ve already said. High school teachers say that because writing an effective conclusion is incredibly hard to learn, so even though the repetition ends up limiting their essays and making them sound a little dim, this provisional lesson stands in place of something they will hopefully learn later. At a certain point, “Show, don’t tell,” is good advice for a writer, because a writer needs to really understand the power of specific detail to make a story feel real, and also because “telling” is a far more nuanced skill to learn, a skill they’ll start to pick when they’re ready. So maybe what I’m saying is that it’s far better to learn techniques than rules.

I learned the most about writing when I was doing my MFA at the University of Arkansas. Partially, that was because I just had a whole lot more to learn at that point and partially it was because of Skip Hays. He writes under the name Donald Hays, but everyone calls him Skip. Anyway, he’s an incredible writing teacher, because his feedback is very case specific. He meets a story exactly where it is; he references all these other examples of how past writers have negotiated the same aesthetic difficulties that this particular story is up against and then he offers actual, workable suggestions that somehow never seem to co-opt the story into something else. So even when he would reveal what an utter mess a story of mine was, I’d always leave that workshop jittery with excitement about how great this mess of a story would eventually be.

Michael Knight is a great teacher, too. It took me awhile to figure out just how great, because he’s so understated, so self-effacing. He really allows room for students to voice their opinions, and he’s encouraging in a way that’s very real.  Oftentimes in workshop, he’ll preface a point with something like, “Now, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here . . . “ or “Obviously you all are a lot smarter than I am . . .”  and then he’ll come in with some massively insightful point. If you spend enough time in Michael’s classes, he can teach you almost everything you need to know about writing and he’ll still manage to preserve the illusion that you somehow discovered it all yourself.

In a lot of ways, I think the best advice about writing has more to do with mental toughness than with writing itself, more to do with sticking around long enough to learn what you need to and with figuring out how to take good advice when you hear it while still retaining your own vision.  So maybe the best advice I ever got in writing came when I was undergrad at Vassar.  The professor had brought in some agent or other—I can’t remember his name—and the agent said, “Writing is hard.  It’s incredibly hard.  So the best advice I have for all of you is to quit.” That advice really bothered me. It made me angry and very determined.