James McAdams

James McAdams’s debut short story collection, Ambushing the Void, was published in May by Frayed Edge Press. He teaches literature at the University of South Florida, Ringling College of Art+Design, and Keep St. Pete Lit. He is Flash Fiction editor of Barren Magazine. Currently, he’s working on a novel WIP about rehab scams entitled The Florida Shuffle; Or My Summer in Rat Park II. You can find him at jamesmcadams.org and follow him @jamestmcadams on Twitter/Insta.

“FIND THE PATTERNS”: A Review of Chloe N. Clark’s Collective Gravities by James McAdams

To lift one particularly apposite description of a character in “Like the Desert Dark,” Chloe N. Clark “likes thinking about 'ifs.’” Collective Gravities, her third collection (The Science of Unvanishing Objects, Finishing Line Press; Your Strange Fortune, Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), posits a world replete with paranormality. Like a symphony, these stories repeatedly touch upon the same subjects, explored, revealed, and experienced from a diverse variety of narrative perspectives. We can represent the frequency and range of this symphonic collection numerically.                    

Subjects (admittedly subjective):

# Stories these subjects occur in:

astronauts/paranormal investigation


undiagnosed illness/epidemics


near-death/no-death phenomena


mental illness




magic/card tricks


jumping off bridges




ecological disaster


The horrors of online dating

1 (!)


There’s something oddly soothing about this thematic accretion. As you read further into the collection, you continually confront these motifs, creating a limpid “repetition with a difference” feeling. It’s subtle, but it works. It’s like wading into a pool, stepping slowly, freezing at first, and then once you're immersed in it, the swimming is captivating and you forget for a second what it was like to be back on the shore, dry.

For example, the collection is bookended by two pieces about astronauts convening at a memorial for a deceased member of their operation team (“Balancing Beams,” and “Between the Axis and the Stars,” respectively). Both memorials stress the significance of remembering and storytelling as a way to deal with death. The second story foregoes an actual traditional memorial, instead placing the characters in a room with the grieving Mom of their friend, where they simply tell stories about the deceased. “Between the Axis and the Stars” (and the collection as a whole) ends here, in a country field in Iowa:

“After, I walked outside to find Peter. He was sitting in the grass, staring up at the night sky.

'We don’t have stars like this in Boston.'

I sat down beside him, laughing. 'You’ve literally been to the stars, why do you need to see them from so far away?'

'I can see them all at once like this. Find the patterns.'”

My two favorite stories, both concerning the power of referentless words, are quiet pieces of flash, published initially in Noble/Glass Quarterly and Bartleby Snopes (R.I.P.!!). In “This is the Color of Your Eyes in the Dark,” the narrator, informed of the sudden death of a girl she was briefly friends with in middle school, remembers:

“When we went to Mindy’s house, we always took long walks in the trees behind her house instead of going inside. She’d tell me the names of each tree. Not like the scientific names, but the names she’d given them. I asked her why she named them and she answered me, as if it was the silliest question in the world, ‘don’t you like to say the names of your friends’? Her favorite was a pine that had been struck by lightning. An arc of scarring went down one side of it. She would put her hand against the mark and just hold it there, eyes closed, as if she was trying to heal it.” 

Meanwhile, in “Topographical Cartography,” a woman’s boyfriend begins to suffer from a vague, ill-defined disease (see above) whose symptoms are the appearance of an X-axis along his back, and then the appearance along the axis of “words and symbols. Under each dash: ‘sugar,’ ‘Oak,’ ‘fine,’ a picture of an eclipse, more and more words without context.” Then, after he dies, the narrator awakens to find a similar pattern of words and symbols on her back, only this time as a Y-axis. This is a numinous description of love. I mean if I know anything about love from watching TV: one person’s X fitting into another person’s Y.

Paranormality probably isn’t a good description of Collective Gravities, since it sounds like X-Files fanfiction. Magical realism doesn’t work, because the stories here are too realistic, too detailed (in a good way); neither does surrealism work, since the plots and narratives are tightly controlled and cogent. If we wanted to coin a term for the “slanted truth” nature of this collection, that term could be pulled from the collection’s first story. The narrator describes a painting hanging on the wall. “The colors were slightly off,” she writes, “leaves a blue-green and bark a red-brown that wouldn’t exist in nature.” The characters discuss what’s wrong with the painter, suggesting she’s color blind among other things. Ultimately, they determine the word for it, and for Collective Gravities, is “Almreal...almost real, not quite, not surreal.”

Furthermore, it works organically, meaning it doesn’t feel like marketing agenda or strategic little phrased inserted in pre-publication to make the collection seem “whole” or “novel-like,” like those collections marketed as “inter-linked short stories” with the same character(s) or place. Those are mostly bullshit excuses to make something look like a novel.

Possibly Irrelevant Addendum I Couldn’t Fit Into the Review: Two cool facts I learned while researching Chloe Clark and word west press. 1) Chloe, part of the editorial triumvirate of Cotton Xenomorph with Tea and Hanna, has designed a class on the literature of space. Enrollment is open, check it out here. 2) word west press, in recognition of Chloe’s affection for space, actually bought her a star. That’s awesome. Great work Chloe and word west press!

Pick up a copy of Chloe Clark's Collective Gravities here!



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Sadonna was always my last visit that summer before she died. 

At Derek Jeter Rehab Center-Delray, we dispensed meds between 1900 and 2100. I’d start with the early sleepers at the sober house on 999 Swinton, then swoosh on Freaky Fred’s moped through the back alleys and garbage docks behind the strip mall to the sober houses on 9th and 10th streets, between the head shops and the Amscot. I dispensed Suboxone, SSRIs, SNRIs, B-Vitamins, and retrovirals for the former needle users. On a PRN basis, I distributed: hemorrhoid cream, Midol, hydrocortisone, aloe vera for suntan relief, dimethicone for chapped lips, and Immodium A-D. 

We didn’t all take this route. Abdaliz drove the facility Astrovan the other way on Swinton to her complex, Sea Oak, on the fake lake with the sad ducks. She’d put her babygirl to bed and then get high and grub McDonald’s with her cousins. 

Freaky Fred hit the NA/AA circuits in Delray to recruit new clients. He had business cards with QR codes, fake sobriety chips, addiction stories stolen from Reddit or Discord. He gushed about finding sobriety at Derek Jeter-Delray. He’d normally return with one or two new clients a week. We secretly called them “Coins,” as in cryptocurrency, untraceable cash. We split $5,000 between us for each client, Abdaliz, me, and Freaky Fred; the rest went to our employer, a Big Pharma consortium that owned hundreds of sober houses across Florida and Arizona and got rich on unregulated urine tests, patient brokering, and what one Florida congressman called the “lethal cycle of intentional failure.” 

Those were the good days. They’d chain-smoke under the carport where everyone watched COPS while we verified their insurance. Whenever we brought in someone new, we had to kick out someone old. That’s math. When he recruited Sadonna, it was my responsibility to get rid of Tara.


Sadonna sat lotus-positioned on a deflated air mattress stricken with claw marks when I finally came in at 2105, finished for the day. Always. It was her time to meditate, which involved listening to old Howard Stern in the background. She’d moved into the vacant room after Tara’s overdose. 

“Best thing about the air mattress is you can balance your phone on the creases to watch stuff,” she explained, blinking her eyes and flinging her wrists around. She was trying to be positive. 

We sat on the mattress together as I got out her EZ-pack and whatever fast food I’d picked up on the way. She identified her meds and signed her initials, a forensic S K, and then we made out for a while until our hips and elbows speared the floor through the flat mattress. We always just fooled around like middle school, even though we were both almost 40. 

I balanced a plastic table over the deflated mattress as she separated the burritos, rice, and Mountain Dew from plastic containers into two bowls, two plates, and two glasses, which she called her “good China.” We gripped plastic utensils stolen from Taco Hell. I closed the windows against the sound of people kicking vending machines and ravaged calls for Naltrexone! Naltrexone! 

“What did you learn about yourself today?” I asked. I was joking, she knew, but it was also a part of the script, which I later figured out she knew as well. The routine was an important part of our relationship. 

“I learned what you did to the girl here before me.” 


Sadonna and I still talk even in here, the private prison operated by the GEO group. They busted me as the first violator of Florida Bill 807, which criminalizes patient brokering, in addition to more obvious charges like manslaughter, pharmaceutical fraud, and online solicitation. Body Brokers, Zombie Hunters, Junkie Flunkies, Naltrex-Heads: whatever you call us, the other inmates despise us. Therefore, I stay inside my cell 24/7 reading memoirs Sadonna scans into my brain—Herr’s Dispatches, Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Karr’s The Art of Memoir—to prepare me to write my confessions about The Florida Shuffle, so her death will have meaning, she says.

She hovers in the corner of my cell, still wearing the It’s Always Sunny in Philly hoodie she overdosed in. Just like old times, she asks: “What did you learn today, honey?”

“Mary Karr says good memoirs are vivid and detail-driven.” I notice I project my voice toward her hovering form.

“I miss details, everything’s so blurry when you’re dead,” she rues, looking down at me not with love but something like a new emotion. 

We just look at each other until I ask what’s the matter. 

“You still haven’t confessed,” she reminds me. 

And I say, like I always do: “I’m afraid if I do you’ll never come back.” 

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James McAdamss Ambushing the Void is released this month by Frayed Edge Press. I caught up with him for a chat about his book, his writing process, and his inspirations.

JV: Ambushing the Void is a collection of stories drawn together by themes such as relationships, loss, and nostalgia, and told through truly memorable characters. Professor Pankova and Teo are two of many that will stay with me. Did you draw from real life counterparts for these and other characters?

JM: Its pretty easy for me to look at a person, or read/hear about a person on a podcast or Tweet, and then imagine them into some weird scenario combined with my experience of the world. I guess thats true for all writers. Teo, however, I have no idea where he came from. I think I had the idea to write about this immigrant character from the 1980s, but I do think some of his determining characteristics (being a young baseball player) was probably taken from a documentary of Yankees players from the Hispanic world, maybe? Professor Pankova is modeled after a Russian literature professor from the Czech Republic I had at the University of Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by how enthusiastic she was to share her heritage with the students (cooking for us, showing us pictures of her hometown, dressing in weird post-Soviet almost-gypsy garb) combined with the utter indifference of most of the class, who were busy sleeping or texting or laughing behind her back. It was sad I guess, everythings sad, but it seemed like something more. I think adding to her character a sense or recognition that her students didnt care makes the character work. I hope this is the case. Other characters: Joe the Plumber (My Friend Joe) is based on the Joe the Plumbercharacter from some of the idiotic Sarah Palin rallies in 2008 and beyond. The most literal kidnapping of a public person for my purposes comes in Somewhere in FL, an Angel Appeared,which Ill get to.

JV: The use of technology is a recurring theme in these stories. How do you feel about modern relationships’ reliance on technology, and is there a wistfulness for a time when social media and the Internet weren’t integral to our lives?

JM: Im 40, I think around the same age as you. I feel like I straddle the world of my students, who are like, Why wouldnt our entire lives be mediated?, and the world of, say, my older siblings in their later 40s/50s, who really dont care about this. So Im in between and have both thoughts in my head all the time: I hate this but Im on it 3 hrs a day. Ultimately, Ill just be old and say 1) there are dopamine functions that the software and hardware and application developers are manipulating and exploiting and there will probably a class-action lawsuit in a decade or so, just like what happened to Pharma and Big Banking;  2) the old Pascal quote, viz. something like the most important skill for a human being is to be alone in a room: I cant do this anymore. Can you? I need to be Mr. Promotion Machine on social media for the next few months but Im pretty sure Ill be off everything by the end of 2020. I would like to go off the grid and hike to Alaska or something but I have literally zero abilities to take care of myself without things like microwaves and YouTube recipes and WikiHow instructions so.no off-the-grid for me unfortunately.

JV: Drug use and addiction are peppered throughout the collection; what inspires you to explore them through your writing?

JM: Quick answer, which is true: Im writing a novel set in a rehab so a lot of the later stories in here (Delray,” “Red Tide,” “Somewhere in FL…”) are from that. Longer answer, which Im not sure is true: I think drug addiction is another side of love. So I think you can have love (for a person, or a higher ideal maybe) or love for a drug, or even a phone or app (as I said above), or whatever pings your dopamine. And as youve noticed theres like zero romantic love in this collection, because love is boring to write about IMO, so to fill that vacuum I went with drug addiction, which is just another, less culturally-sanctioned, form of love. Im not sure this is true as a sociological insight. Do you buy any of it?

JV: It makes sense, having read your book! Talking of, tell us a little about the inspiration behind the story, "Somewhere in Florida, An Angel Appeared." It’s a beautiful piece, quietly moving, and one that leaves an impression, possibly asking more questions than it answers…

JM: Im happy to! The piece was initially dedicated to Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, but we removed it because I have a big heart and was dedicating every piece to thousands of people until it annoyed my poor editor, despite her patience...Anyway, Amanda has one of the more famous TED Talks called The Art of Asking,which she later expanded into a book. It pretty much explains the rationale for the move around 2005-2010 to artists just giving away their work for free online as a reaction to piracy. Anyway, she tells a story about touring with the Dresden Dolls in her 20s and crashing on fanscouches. In one story, she talks about her band (so we imagine a bunch of loud young brash punks) staying over at a small little hut in a Hispanic enclave in Florida. In the morning, she recounts being woken up by the Colombian grandmother and some other elders, who, while teaching her how to make authentic breakfast burritos (or whatever), thank her repeatedly for saving the life of their little girl who loves her music so much. Its around the 3/4th part of the video, I highly recommend it.

JV: What attracts you to the form of short and flash fiction?

JM: The earlier works in this collection average 4,000 words, the more recent fewer than 1,000, which is the consensus cap for flash fiction. While this wasnt a formal decision I made, it makes sense for a number of reasons, some practical, some neurotic: My attention span, because of THE OBVIOUS, doesnt work anymore. I base my TV shows on those I can watch with 33% of my brain, so I can read with 33% of my brain and listen to music with 33% of my brain. Online, I dont read anything longer than 2,000 words. I am not proud of this, but I cant be alone. Even most podcasts nowadays are moving towards 15-minutes

I think Rick Moody wrote this once, but the cool think about flash is that you can do any weird experiment and if it doesnt work, then who cares. For example, I just published a piece about a M2F Trans worker who creates fake profiles on online dating profiles in the form of a Reddit AMA. I wouldnt build a 300-page on this foundation, but for a 500-word micro its okay if it sucks. Small achievements, weekly. Its sort of a psychological trick, but Im writing a novel now cut into discrete, 500-1,000 word chapters. This way, at the end of each week, I have chapters done, chapters I can publish, that make it easier to concentrate on writing a novel for 3 years.

JV: Who influences your work as a writer?

JM: This will seem crazy after what I just wrote about flash, but I love the big old Russian-Soviet books: Gogol, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Bely, Nabokov, Pasternak...as well as the poets like Akhmatova, Mayavosky, Tsvetaeva. James Agees Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been my muse for the past two years; His A Death in the Family is pretty good too. Also, Karl Ove Knausgårds My Struggle trilogy is an amazing experiment about opening your brain 100% to readers.

Its sort of like what Howard Stern does on the radio since 1980 in terms of pure confessional mindfulness that makes even the most banal quotidian events (10% of My Struggle is Karl feeding his little kids) seem numinous and holy. As for more contemporary authors, DFW (I realize I just lost 40% of sales because people will think Im a DFW-fanboyno footnotes in this collection, I promise), Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead (he of the repeat Pulitzers), George Saunders, J.M. Coetzee, Denis Johnson, Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann, now Im just looking at bookcasesand thinking, I need more non-white males,so lets stop here.

Except to say: Im lucky to be Flash Fiction editor at Barren Magazine, so I get to read real-time Indie authors like Marisa Crane, Chelsea Laine Wells, and Cathy Ulrich, who you probably know about it. Wish more people did!

JV: Cathy Ulrich is a hero of mine! Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you allocate time to your writing every day? How much of your writing time is rewriting and editing?

JM: Im horribly lazy and have no self-discipline about the writing grind. Most of this collection was written between 2-5 a.m. when I couldnt sleep and wasnt watching The Sopranos reruns for the 25th time. I tend to write super fast and dont revise all that well. I will say, 99% of my editing goes into dialogue. I slash and slash and slash at dialogue until I find something that sounds true but unique. I have a rule where if I can tell what the next line is (Hello, how are you, Sally?/“Im fine, Reginald, how about you?), then it gets deleted automatically. I stole a lot of dialogue techniques from William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. As an editor, if I dont buy the dialogue thats something I really have trouble getting over.

JV: Finally, what are you working on now? Has the lockdown has afforded you time to write much more than usual?

JM: I’m writing a novel-in-flash about The Florida Shuffle Rehab facilities have sprouted everywhere, many of them nefarious, profiting from insurance scams and general duplicity, referred to as “The Florida Shuffle.” "Delray” and “Red Tide” from the collection are in this.

"Ambushing the Void explores the margins of 21st century America, with characters confronting new worlds, new technologies, and new social structures while attempting to retain their identities & worldviews. These quirky, off-beat stories (with a tinge of the weird and disturbing) are thought-provoking takes on the post-modern search for meaning."

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Here’s a pic of Dad and me marching at the Inauguration Protest, January 20th, 2017, he’s holding the IMPEACH TRUMP sign I duct-taped to his hand. He voted for Trump but that didn’t matter—what mattered, according to his neurologist, was that he get fresh air, sunlight, and exercise, away from the confinements of Lush Horizons. This one, yes, that’s him marching with the pink Breast Cancer Awareness cap at the Women’s March, January 21st. His gait palsied, hands slapping the air, mind still in the 60’s, the decade he said changed everything, the decade I was born.

At the airport, on January 28th, we marched against the Trump Travel Ban.

In the county park, on April 29th, we marched for People’s Climate Change.

During the marches, he had lucid moments when he’d look around at the spectacle of half-clothed college students taking Instas and Snaps, middle-aged women screaming into megaphones like rock stars, the squeal of the vuvuzelas. He’d croak my name questioningly but I’d just push him on, saying “Everything’s okay, Pop,” as he glanced skeptically at his T-shirt captioned “LIAR” in Republican colors.

Was it wrong of me to do this? Maybe it was because every time I watched the news I thought of him, a sort of “double consciousness,” always arguing against him in my head.

“You love him too much,” my therapist said.

“I can’t stop thinking of him,” I said.

She smiled, folding her hands. “Love can be a very frustrating emotion.”

Is my account of Alzheimer's just literary, a figuration, a synecdoche for media saturation? When Obama was elected, Dad, still lucid, entered a different world. FOX News. Drudge Report. Breitbart. Limbaugh. Our weekly dinners devolved into polite discussions about the weather and traffic, tending to Mom’s grave, was I dating any special women. I was 52, he was 75. We’d drink two Yuenglings then shake hands. He spent his days reviewing the HOA budget for his condo association, walking the streets to ensure nobody had modified their external structure.

We joined the National Pride March, June 11th.

We joined March for Black Women, September 20th.

We joined March for Our Lives, March 24, 2018, three weeks before I removed him from the ventilation machine.

After March for Our Lives, I put him to bed in Lush Horizons, changing his diaper and applying lotion to his lower joints. He was exhausted, but made a clicking sign that meant turn on the TV. FOX was running a story about Hillary’s servers. Dad sighed. I remembered that sigh from childhood, when I’d appear at the dinner table with black nails, claim Reagan was a war criminal at family parties, refuse to attend church.

I got into bed with him and secured the bed rails. “I love you too much, is the problem,” I whispered.

He motioned me closer, his face grimacing, and pointed at the TV. “Lock her up.”

“Yeah,” I said, placing another pillow under his withered head. Then I rested my cheek against his heart, back like when I had nightmares. “Lock her up, Pop.”

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