Adam Peterson is the coeditor of The Cupboard and the author of The Flasher and My Untimely Death. His fiction can be found in Indiana Review, Normal School, Southern Review, and elsewhere. His story “Knock, Knock” appears in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Knock, Knock”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I’d wanted to write about a stand-up comedian for awhile though I couldn’t exactly say why. I suppose comedy is just having its moment a little bit—one it has for five years every ten years, really—and I was looking for a way to get into what jokes represent as art distinct (or not) from poetry and fiction. I also think I’d been turning a lot of stuff in my own life into stories and was wondering how that process—and the cost of that process—might be fictionalized without it being, you know, about a fiction writer. I had no interest in being that writer. So I cheated to avoid the hard part. Which is why anyone cheats at anything, I suppose.
Your story in KR, “Knock, Knock,” accomplishes a rare feat–the protagonist, a comedian, is truly funny. Did you approach writing her jokes as a separate project from writing the rest of the narrative, or did the full story come together as a whole?
They were written alongside every other line of the story and, I think, probably changed significantly less than others through the story’s drafts. And it’s not that the bits are funny—though thank you—but that they’re kind of drafts themselves which meant I didn’t want to polish them into performable jokes. Also, there’s the matter of me being in no way capable of doing that. A part of me once wanted her to be less funny, honestly, though I ultimately felt that kind of obvious contrast struck me as false in a few other “serious” representations of comedians I’d seen. Or maybe just clichéd. I thought I had to be fair to who this person would actually be, not make some point about the painful origins of humor. I wanted her hurt but talented, and I did my best to mimic that talent.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I sincerely wish I had a good answer to this question, but I don’t other than to say I’ve grown to not worry about the writing process (especially now that I’m not teaching). That might say everything about my last five years, but basically I just can’t bring myself to care as much about a lot of the aspects of writing outside writing. I’ve taken to just having images of certain projects—just broad feelings, really—and I try to get them as close as I can. Honest. I’m trying to be more honest, I guess.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
God, I don’t know about most—it’s all just one sad manuscript factory over here—but I think I have an answer for the least: location. I recently moved from Houston to Portland—two very different cities—and I’ve pretty much kept on doing my work. Which is both reassuring and terrifying.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Of all the things I could be doing, I’m bad at most of the things.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I can’t believe I so cavalierly wasted my thing about honesty before so now I have to pretend that I believe in two things.
Really though, that honesty thing is a big one or at least the most prevalent in my current thinking. It’s interesting to me because it feels so obvious when reading yet what exactly is giving rise to that feeling can be a lot of things. That I’m not really concerned with defining it might be a result (and benefit) of stepping outside of academia, as if I’m on a vacation from intellectual accountability. But I suppose I can say that that concept has nothing to do with representational honesty and more to do with a writer’s vision being true (in the sense of aim as much as anything else).
Which doesn’t mean neat either, and in fact for me usually the opposite. But I’ve come to admire work where I can sense an author doing exactly what he or she means to do, as vague and personal as that sense might be. I think I gravitated toward this kind of reading because it frees one to sort of revel in the excitement and openness of art without getting bogged down in a particular mode or charge. All of this is, of course, the opposite of having some kind of critical credo. And thank god.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’ve just completed a new draft of a novel I’d put away for a year—one that had already been through several drafts—and I’m surprised to find myself really excited by where it’s at. It’s about family and fear and billionaires. Before it was about those things and other things, and I finally had the distance to carve it into what it needed to be. No idea what’ll happen with it, but if nothing else I’m glad it’s made it there.