by Riley Rant
I’m at a San Francisco startup appearing hard at work, while secretly corresponding withAdam Klein through the interwebs. He’s in Kabul at the moment. And between writing, teaching, and recording a new Size Queens album, "Save the Plant!" the author of "A Hardship Post," and the editor of the forthcoming anthology by Dzanc Books, The Gifts of the State: New Afghan Writing (a sample can be read here: "The Sea Floor,"), is also addressing eight strange questions I’ve posed. I use my monitor as a reflective device to ensure no one’s coming up behind me. And as I nervously click in and out of my window into this man’s existence, I hope I don’t get caught.
Fourteen Hills It’s weird that you don’t have a Wikipedia page*, because with all the stuff the Huffington post bio had on you, you probably should. I was thinking we could create a brief Wikipedia page
for you today. Let’s start with the basics like: Where are you from? When did you start writing? And what are you up to in San Francisco now?
Adam Klein I lack a Wikipedia page because I have no MINIONS! Where are my MINIONS? Here’s my proposal: instead of the birth certificate, each of us is born with a Wikipedia page, and purely as a punk gesture, everyone will work really hard NOT to do anything with their lives, so it will just be a bunch of stem sites: time of birth, place of birth, when and where they croaked.
If you really wanted to start a site, I guess you’d have to start with my place of birth: Coral Gables, Florida. I didn’t live there, though. We moved to Southwest Miami. Modest house, lawn, bullies, above ground pools. A surviving middle class. Father was a traveling camera salesman. Mother: a full-time shrew. Dropped out of High School, got GED and went to Miami Dade Community College. Wanted to study fashion. Fashion and poetry. So yeah, I was writing from twelve years of age, but after graduating, studied at University of Iowa under Marvin Bell. I wanted to study under John Ashberry in NYC. My mother wouldn’t have it. She thought the middle of the country would keep me in line. You could still get eyedropper LSD in Iowa City in those days. Did that for a year. Saw the Stranglers perform in Madison, Wisconsin. Dropped out after a year and a half. For another decade, I wandered the country, shoplifting and taking brief, pointless jobs. In Boston, I worked at a Mrs. Fields and as a security guard on the U.S.S. Constitution, midnight shift in the bitter winter. (Speaking of Wikipedia and Mrs. Fields, I encourage everyone to read the moving Wikipedia profile for Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics. She was in a war with Mrs. Fields.) I lived in Chicago, Boston, and eventually San Francisco, where I worked at the Lumiere movie theater. I hear that’s gone. Everyone passed through it: the artist Jerome, whose monograph I co-wrote, the artist Travis Somerville, and Maragaret Cho’s father owned the bookstore across the street, Paperback Traffic. Everyone who came out of there was screwed for life. If not, they were already dead. San Francisco is a bunch of RIPs for me: The Lusty Lady, Clown Alley, Zim’s. Ben-Her, The Strand, Church Street Station, Club Uranus and our former recording studio, Closer. I only fly into the city now to record records (in Oakland) and visit friends. It’s too cold for me. I’ve lived in South Asia for too long: Bangladesh, India, and for the past three years in Kabul. I’m really only happy in Dubai.
*Between this interview and its publish date, an Adam Klein Wikipedia article popped up.
Fourteen Hills In your short-lived life, what has been your finest moment? What would you call your crowning achievement? What would your parents call your crowning achievement?
Klein: After birth, my parents never acknowledged any crowning achievement. My mother, before she died last year, said, “You are an ethical person, loved by people around the world.” It was her way of saying: OK, I accept that you will never earn real money. I’m glad you’ve learned to be a good houseguest. I feel my anthology of Afghan writing, The Gifts of The State and Other Stories, is a way of showing gratitude for all the confidences shared with me. I love the stories in my own forthcoming story collection, “The House of Songs.” Ira Silverberg and Amy Scholder changed my life by publishing The Medicine Burns and I’m very grateful that both of my early books will be in Dzanc’s rEprint series. My happiest moments came from the work I’ve done with The Size Queens. Especially the records “III” and “Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea.” They were exhausting to make, but conceptual breakthroughs. I have my collaborator Michael Mullen to thank for those, and the fantastic musicians who have followed us down the rabbit hole.
Fourteen Hills: If you were to write your own epitaph, what would it say? Along the same lines, if you could choose your last meal, what would it be?
Klein: Epitaph: Nothing Was Good Enough For Her.
Last meal: This is tough; I am a serious food person. In NYC: Polpette and black sea salt Ceasar Salad at Supper. In Dubai: Eggs benedict at TWG. Radicchio salad at the Cheesecake Factory (with a coupon!). Or a good Reuben at Sherman’s in Palm Springs. Everything served with the best Earl Grey tea I can find.
Fourteen Hills: What’s your least favorite writing story? Either a story that you’ve written that maybe you hate, or a moment with a professor that rattled you, or perhaps an exchange with another writer that chapped your ass? Why?
Klein: OK, I’ll be honest here. I was at the Disquiet conference in Lisbon. I didn’t know anyone. Deb Olin Unferth and George Saunders did a reading together. A really fantastic reading, though I hadn’t before that time liked reading them. I read Deb’s work prior to going, since she was giving workshops. Anyway, after the reading I was in a cab with maybe four other strangers, and I was saying how much I loved Deb’s reading, but had hated the book. Maybe I said it sucked. I don’t think so. I think I said I hated reading Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. I was trying to make conversation, and really talking about how I couldn’t get the voice, hadn’t found the humor in it until she read it. Well, word returned to her that I said SHE sucked. She didn’t know me, and intellectually I can ask, ‘why would anyone be bothered about my opinion? I’m nothing. I’m not reading with George Saunders. I’m just this guy at the workshop with a big mouth.’ Of course she confronted me on it the very next morning. I tried to clarify what I said and what I meant, but everyone is sensitive, even successful people. You can’t forget that. I wrote an email to her, apologizing, asking her for a chance to talk. I don’t think she was ever comfortable enough to take me up on that, but she responded kindly enough. It was not the only case where I had an opinion that wasn’t warranted and shouldn’t have been uttered. I was rattled for most of the trip. Lesson learned: the world is full of people who take risks in different ways. I like grim, unhappy, and for the most part, unfunny novels: Rhys, Duras, Irmgard Keun. And yet, my music uses humor. It’s my own mental block—not wanting to read humor in fiction. I love Lynne Tillman’s work, which can be very funny, though. In either case, I’m sorry I said it.
Fourteen Hills: Hemingway didn’t like other writers because he looked at them as competition. Do you like hanging out with other writers? Do you share your work with them or hoard it away for editors and publishers and eventually audiences?
Klein: Well, I don’t compete with writers. Not consciously. I love the company of many writers, not all. I like to talk to Rick Moody about music. I like to talk to Mary Gaitskill about almost anything, but especially faith; I think it is a subject she has a deep investment in – though I’m not speaking for her. Patrick McGrath oversaw my thesis: I like to talk to him purely for the spirit of merriment, sometimes for his psychoanalytic perspective. Lynne Tillman also is great fun to talk psychoanalysis with. Just ask her about “The Piggle!” – and read it! Guillermo Gomez-Pena evokes the circus of dying bohemians on their way into a mythic dustbowl. His passion derives from statelessness and I feel very close to this: I simply can’t find anything benign about the idea of the state. I collaborate with Chin-Sun Lee, and share my work with a former contributor to Fourteen Hills, Liz Bull. I love writers. They see the world as story. How can that be anything but a pleasure, a counter to the inevitable end—which is death?
Fourteen Hills: After reading “A Hardship Post,” I looked at American tourists like they were assholes. Do you get the feeling that Americans look at other countries as fantasy lands and not real life? Can you explain where you were coming from in writing this piece, and what you were trying to say?
Klein: Not just Americans. Fantasy is acquired in language: in words like “love”; “beauty”; “accomplishment”; “significance”-- whatever. Translate that to whatever language you like. I lived in India during the “India Shining” campaign. What a joke. The pride some Indians possessed because they could at last say the wealthiest man in the world was Indian. I would tell them they should embark on finding the poorest man in the world for the next cover of Newsweek or Time. Let’s see him! Or Her! I’m sure you could have found them in India. “A Hardship Post” is about an expatriate couple. Card is an alcoholic, closeted, whose ideal is Ollie North. When I was in Peace Corps, I met many expats who HATED the country. They couldn’t get work in America, so they stayed. It was easy for them to be predatory about the new, young Peace Corps volunteers, drinking at private “American Clubs” in a dry country. When you earn 300 bucks a month, any contactor can take you home – you can’t afford a hotel for god sakes! I had many modernist ideals before the Peace Corps. I imagined I’d be Paul Bowles, or more likely, Gertrude Stein. I feel more like Alighiero Boetti these days, but only geographically. No one can rival his brilliance. But people travel for job opportunities today, not for art – or at least rarely for art—and then usually on an expropriating junket. There’s a very thin global dialogue I am privy to. I have some close artist friends in India with whom I correspond. Now, I have close contacts in Afghanistan, too. But true engagement requires long-term exile, perhaps a lifetime of exile. Dubravka Ugresic writes about this silly conundrum best – because exile is a cliché, too. It’s not romantic.
Fourteen Hills: You’re the lead singer/songwriter for The Size Queens? Can you tell me a little bit about writing songs vs. writing other forms? How is it different? How do you feel completing one vs. the other?
Klein: For me, writing and recording songs is a very spontaneous act. It’s fleeting, catching something that is already flying off. And it must fly off; you can’t cage it in pro-tools or re-takes. We never –any longer—spend more than three times trying to get a song, and we never seem to have completed songs when we go into the studio. We wrote “Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea” in one sitting. (We later added “Crocs”) – and then we had to learn how to play it exactly as it came out – with no regular choruses or phrasing. We didn’t change one thing that I remember – so if a line was clumsy, it stayed clumsy. Done. NOTHING WAS CONSCIOUS. On the other hand, I’m not a personal advocate of automatic writing. It feels like a whole other area of my brain is in there, making decisions about words, sentences, characterization, motivation, and plot. I want to be more fluid, to have greater access to my unconscious when I write, but a much slower, neurotic interpreter intervenes and so my writing is mostly filtered, concentrated, and bitter.
Fourteen Hills: What’s the best advice you can give aspiring writers?
Klein: Try not to take other writers’ advice too seriously. Do not look for rules in creative writing – either to abide or break. Trust people. But trust yourself more. Treat yourself really well WHILE YOU WRITE! Molly Giles helped me see that buried within a story, frequently just peeking out, is the real heart of what you want to write. Look for it like you’re tearing down wallpaper. Something brings us to writing, and then we just keep peeling away the surfaces to find out what it is.
Adam Klein’s new book, The Gifts of the State: New Afghan Writing published by Dzanc Books, is due out this December and is available for pre-order almost everywhere. Early response to the anthology of stories includes these effusive words: "Though it is set in a place we think we know (Afghanistan), this continuously startling and often very moving book opens up a new country, a fresh and diverse landscape of human striving and disappointment. With grace, melancholy and wit, it describes the joys and sadness of ordinary life obscured by the last decade of shrill headlines. Everyone should read it."—Pankaj Mishra
His other books, The Medicine Burns and the novel Tiny Ladies will also be available in the Dzanc Books rEprint series this December.
The new Size Queens album, Save the Plant! is set to release on Tax Day, April 15, 2014. In the meantime, you can check out their sounds (and get their music at the price you want) at http://thesizequeens.bandcamp.com/. Listen to their song, "Fifty Shades of Pale," right here.