A Q&A with Adam Haslett
Question: Union Atlantic
has two main story lines. One is about a conflict over a piece of land between two neighbors, Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher, and Doug Fanning, a young banker; the other is about the financial troubles at the bank where Doug works. How did these two events come together for you as you wrote the novel?
Adam Haslett: The characters are what came first. I created each of them separately before I ever knew how they would inhabit the same novel. The first was Charlotte’s brother Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, whose first sections I wrote ten years ago. I’d become fascinated by this idea of the anonymous power that the Fed and other public and private bureaucracies have over our daily lives and I wanted to place a character at the pinnacle of one of those organizations, mostly to discover for myself how that kind of mind would work. That, in turn, gave me the idea of a troubled bank that the Fed would be regulating, and thus a banker, who became Doug Fanning. Charlotte was the other major figure and it was in writing about her as she lived alone with her dogs in the semi-rural town of Finden that I came up with the idea of this land her grandfather had donated to the town for preservation and her anger at it being sold and a mansion being built on it. The last to arrive on the scene, so to speak, was Nate Fuller, the grieving teenager, who comes to Charlotte for tutoring and ends up with a crush on Doug.
Question: Which of these four main characters do you identify with the most?
Adam Haslett: I identify with each of them in different ways. Charlotte’s fierce convictions about the importance of history, literature, and art. Henry’s conflicted belief in both good government and keeping the system afloat. Nate’s sorrow and desire. And even the violence of Doug’s ambition. You have to expose part of yourself to create a character deep enough for readers to care about. You try not to because it’s hard and at times shameful, but then when you read those pages over and you see they have no life to them so you throw them away and force yourself to be more honest. So I suppose the answer is I see myself in all my characters, in their best moments and in their worst.
Question: Charlotte’s mental deterioration is both heartbreaking and chilling. She’s such a proud woman, with such zeal, but her thoughts are turning against her. Can you talk about the role her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie, play in this unraveling?
Adam Haslett: As with many of the characters from my first book, solitude is a basic fact of Charlotte’s life. The man she loved when she was young died many years ago and she’s lived on her own ever since. It’s her dogs who keep her company. And as we all know, owners speak to their pets. When I began writing Charlotte and figuring out how the intensity of her interior life would manifest itself, it occurred to me that she might hear the Mastiff and the Doberman speaking back at her. And because she is an upholder of what I see as a decaying tradition of humanism, I chose two figures who I think of as part of the superego, or guilt that lies behind American liberalism--the puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, and the black separatist, Malcolm X. They share a castigating, high-rhetoric that captures something of the violence Charlotte experiences in her own thoughts. And it’s their voices, the unconscious of her own tradition, which grow louder throughout the book, until eventually she is overcome by them.
Question: How and why did you choose Boston and its surrounding suburbs as the backdrop for your novel?
Adam Haslett: The simplest answer is that that’s where I grew up. First on the south shore, near Plymouth, and then later west of Boston. It’s the landscape I know best, the one where my memories run the deepest. It’s also a place where you feel the weight of the past quite easily, given its history, and the evidence of it, mostly in old buildings and houses. Charlotte and Doug’s conflict over the land that Doug has built his house on comes out of that history. She sees him as a tasteless intruder; he sees her as an anachronistic snob. And they both have their points.
Question: Most of your novel is written in a fairly direct, realist manner, which in the intense scenes, particularly with Charlotte and the dogs, rises a few registers into more lyrical language. Can you talk a little about the style of Union Atlantic?
Adam Haslett: For better or worse, I care a lot about holding my reader’s attention. Perhaps obsessively so. I think of myself as crafting an experience for her or him. And so I want them with me as I move through a scene or a thought. Once your reader is with you, they’re willing to go places, to take leaps. I think a writer has to earn that trust, in whatever style they are working in. And so ninety percent of the work goes into the sentences. Trying to create a rhythm in the writing that does more than just communicate information. That’s why in the end you can never summarize a book. It exists in the sequence of words that it was written in and nowhere else.
Question: The novel takes place during the lead up to the Iraq War and it involves a bank that has taken excessive risk, thus endangering the whole financial system. These two issues, war and finance, have dominated much of the country’s attention in the last decade. Was it your intention to write a topical novel?
Adam Haslett: I wouldn’t say I was aiming to be topical. I finished the book the week that Lehmann Brothers collapsed, so during the writing I was mostly worried that no one would know what the Federal Reserve was, or if they did they wouldn’t want to read about it in a novel. That said, I do feel a responsibility as a writer to try to understand what it’s like to be alive in the world today. We live in an insanely complicated and distracting culture which makes it very hard to slow down and think through the consequences of actions taken by individuals, governments, and corporations. I did feel a duty to try to dramatize at least some fraction of this maelstrom. You write the book you want to read, and I wanted to read a book that would bring together the micro and macro scale of contemporary life. That was my ambition, more than an attachment to any particular set of current events.
(Photo © Brigitte Lacombe)
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Starred Review. In Haslett's excellent first novel (following Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here
), a titan of the banking industry does battle with a surprisingly formidable opponent: a retired history teacher. Doug Fanning has built Union Atlantic from a mid-size Boston bank to an international powerhouse and rewards himself by building a rural palace in Finden, Mass. The land his house is built on, however, had been donated to Finden for preservation by Charlotte Graves's grandfather, and Charlotte believes she now has a claim on the lot. She may be right, and her disdain of modern decadence means bad news for Doug should she win in court. Meanwhile, high school senior Nate Fuller, who visits Charlotte for tutoring and Doug for awkward and lopsided sexual encounters, finds himself with the power to upset the legal and cultural war game. Haslett's novel is smart and carefully constructed, and his characters are brilliantly flawed. (Charlotte's emerging instability is especially heartbreaking.) This book should be of interest to readers fascinated but perplexed by the current financial crisis, as it is able to navigate the oubliette of Wall Street trading to create searing and intimate drama. (Jan.)
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