How Reading for a Literary Magazine Honed Cara Blue Adams’s Fiction
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Cara Blue Adams is the guest. Her debut story collection, You Never Get It Back, is available from the University of Iowa Press.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: You’re somebody who, I think very logically, said to herself, I need to learn how to write a story before I write a novel. First learn to walk, then learn to fly or whatever. And then you took a kind of scientific approach, studying short stories, trying to figure out how they worked, reading craft books and all the rest. You also edited The Southern Review down in Baton Rouge for five years. And that job, I want to say I read an interview you did, and you referred to it as every bit as much of an education as the education that you received in college or in your post-grad work. Can you talk about what editing the Review did for your understanding of fiction and short fiction in particular?
Cara Blue Adams: Yeah, that really was such an informative time in my life as a writer. I think it pushed me to both articulate to myself my own values as a reader—what it was that I was looking for and why.
Brad Listi: What are you looking for, and why?
Cara Blue Adams: Well, one thing is, I want to believe what I’m reading. It’s so basic, it’s so fundamental, it seems kind of silly to say it. But I really want to believe that if you mail me a short story, and I know who you are and I see your name on the manuscript, and it’s narrated by an old woman who lives in France and raises parakeets, I really want to keep sort of checking to make sure that you—not an old woman who lives in France and raises parakeets—wrote this story. I want it to feel real, even if it’s narrated by, you know, a talking dog. I want to fully believe that dog is real, even if I intellectually know that’s not the case. And that has to do with detail and just with honesty, with a kind of rigor and a kind of honesty on the page.
Amy Hempel, I had the pleasure of studying with at a summer conference, and one thing she would say in the workshop sometimes is, “Tell the harder truth.” So don’t just tell the truth, tell the harder truth. By which I think she meant be more honest. Be honest, but then be a little bit more honest. Be a little bit more rigorous, be a little bit more surprising. And that’s really something that I found I was wanting in stories. When I stopped being able to believe this story, that was a real problem for me as a reader.
I also wanted depth and humor and surprise. Often even writers I didn’t think of as funny I came to understand were funny in some way; there is some sort of wry sense of humor at work there that was pleasurable. And of course, you can be honest without being surprising. So that’s another element. Even if I was involved in the story on page one and enjoying it on page five, when I got to page nine, I wanted something new to be happening. And that could have to do with plot, it could have to do with how the character was being revealed, it could have to do with all sorts of things, but I wanted to continue to be surprised. And depth—I wanted there to be depth there.
So I think that, you know, seeing thousands of stories every year—and at first, I screened every single submission that came in. As I got more senior, I ultimately had an assistant who would screen things for me, but I would work with her at first to make sure we were on the same page about the determination she was making, and then I would look at sort of the top percentile of manuscripts that she found, once I made sure I could trust her assessments as lining up with my own. But you just saw again and again—as a writer, you just see what you’re doing on the page, and then you see the published work out in the world. But when you see that in-between moment of a manuscript’s life, when it’s a part of a mass of manuscripts that are all trying to do something, you see something a little bit different. You see things that people do again and again and again and then why they do or don’t work.
Cara Blue Adams’s fiction appears in Granta, the Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, EPOCH, and Narrative. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Seton Hall University. Adams lives in Brooklyn, New York.