James McAdams’s 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: It’s 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 that’s 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, everything’s sad, but it seemed like something more. I think adding to her character a sense or recognition that her students didn’t 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 Plumber” character 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 I’ll 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: I’m 40, I think around the same age as you. I feel like I straddle the world of my students, who are like, Why wouldn’t our entire lives be mediated?, and the world of, say, my older siblings in their later 40s/50s, who really don’t care about this. So I’m in between and have both thoughts in my head all the time: I hate this but I’m on it 3 hrs a day. Ultimately, I’ll 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 can’t do this anymore. Can you? I need to be Mr. Promotion Machine on social media for the next few months but I’m pretty sure I’ll 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: I’m 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 I’m 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 you’ve noticed there’s 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. I’m 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: I’m 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 fans’ couches. 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. It’s 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 wasn’t a formal decision I made, it makes sense for a number of reasons, some practical, some neurotic: My attention span, because of THE OBVIOUS, doesn’t 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 don’t read anything longer than 2,000 words. I am not proud of this, but I can’t 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 doesn’t 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 wouldn’t build a 300-page on this foundation, but for a 500-word micro it’s okay if it sucks. Small achievements, weekly. It’s sort of a psychological trick, but I’m 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 Agee’s 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 Knausgård’s My Struggle trilogy is an amazing experiment about opening your brain 100% to readers.
It’s 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 I’m a DFW-fanboy…no 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 I’m just looking at bookcases…and thinking, “I need more non-white males,” so let’s stop here.
Except to say: I’m 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: I’m horribly lazy and have no self-discipline about the writing grind. Most of this collection was written between 2-5 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t watching The Sopranos reruns for the 25th time. I tend to write super fast and don’t 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?”/“I’m 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 don’t buy the dialogue that’s 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.
I want to say here, because we are literally deluged with two types of drug/addiction porn these days: the crime procedural like Ozark, Narcos, Zero Zero Zero etc. and the memoir or documentary, so Intervention, Dopesick Nation, writers like Augusten Burroughs…My book is working on a completely different, supply-side angle. What is it like to run these rehab scams, what’s it like to work there, what kind of people work these jobs? I know enough to understand these jobs pay like $12/hr for the resident advisor positions and so you end up with a curious irony where the people on the frontlines treating the clients in recovery often have the same issues with money, substance, fragile relationships, etc., as the clients themselves. So, this isn’t just another drug thing. I hope!