The list of reputable writers who have worked in the medical field is long and distinguished—Chekhov, Bulgakov, William Carlos Williams, among many others—and yet the promethean doctor-divinity-student-novelist-daredevil Chris Adrian, who recently turned forty-one, doesn’t seem entirely out of place in such rarefied company. Like Bulgakov, Adrian blends the magical and the mundane in ways which are surprising and, somehow, improbably probable. And like WCW, his every sentence seems to bleed a bountiful humanity.
It’s appropriate, then, that Adrian first turned his novelistic gaze upon multitudinous Walt Whitman, in Gob’s Grief, before he tackled maternity wards, meteorological calamities, self-governance, and the biblical story of Noah’s Ark in the apocalyptic The Children’s Hospital—one of my favorite novels, the kind of book you will immediately start urging all your friends to read once you start it. And I wasn’t the only one: a Guggenheim, a place on New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and a prestigious Cullman Center fellowship followed. Now Chris has published his third and arguably most emotional novel to date, The Great Night, a kind-of retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in contemporary San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, which happens to be infested with faeries. Yeah, faeries.
The Rumpus: Doctor, divinity student, and novelist. How do you find time to balance all your hats?
Chris Adrian: Part of the reason I’ve managed to do lots of different stuff is that I’ve been doing a lot of it as a student or trainee, which has limited my professional responsibilities to some extent. And the people in charge of me have always been very nice about granting me time away from one place or another. That will all get a little more complicated as I grow up as a physician and have to find an adult job in the world of medicine.
Rumpus: Novel-writing isn’t an “adult job”?
Adrian: It’s a grown-up enterprise, but probably not one you can reasonably expect to feed yourself with.
Rumpus: That’s interesting you said that, though, because you’ve talked about how your “real job” drives your “need to write.”
Does the influence ever run the reverse way?
Adrian: As much as I like to spend time in the extended Smurf village of my imagination, there’s something nice about getting to go to a day job where there are concrete expectations of you and concrete things to be done that generally are helpful to other people, whether that’s something as complicated as organizing a course of treatment for a child with cancer or just writing an antibiotic prescription for an ear infection. But it doesn’t take much time spent in either world to want to go back to the other.
Rumpus: Working in such an emotionally charged environment must be exhausting. I can’t even begin to imagine. How do you not get overwhelmed by all the sadness and—I mean, how do you manage to write after a full day at the hospital?
Adrian: I usually don’t! Though it’s more often physical instead of emotional exhaustion that gets in the way.
Rumpus: If I’m remembering correctly, your first excerpt, from Gob’s Grief, about Walt Whitman caring for the Civil War wounded, was published before 9/11. It’s interesting—and, I’m guessing, no accident—that your work has become more magical since. Has this been a guided evolution or are you simply tracking the way the world has changed?
Adrian: That probably has more to do with my own particular involutions of style and obsession than with anything else. 9/11 led me to wonder about the intersections between personal and national ethics in a way that I find somehow easiest to express by writing about the moral agonies of Cheerilee the My Little Pony. But the project I’m working on now depends a little more on Cotton Mather than Cheerilee, so maybe that will change in the next couple of years.
Rumpus: Has Cotton Mather been hovering in the back of your mind for a while now? I’m not sure I’d be entirely surprised.
Adrian: Yes, he’s got a little daybed in there.
Rumpus: The Children’s Hospital are filled with moments of otherworldly beauty, of course, but The Great Night—I mean, Shakespeare, the faerie kingdom, and yet the book’s still gritty, still grounded in death and disease. I kept thinking of the faeries as kinds of cells trapped in the body of the faerie kingdom in Buena Vista Park, which might make the menace Titania unleashes the ultimate cancer.
Adrian: Well, the intersection between Titania and human illness was deliberately engineered, but I guess I saw the fairies as a neutral force, even if they are largely amoral. Perhaps this was a holdover from my D & D training as a kid. Aren’ t elves generally neutral good, at best? I suppose I meant them to stand in for a particular type of person (like myself) whose moral education is necessarily incomplete until they fall in love for the first time.
Rumpus: And that’s what the humans learn over the course of their “great night”?
Adrian: Something like that. It’s probably a little different for each of the three of them, but basically they all learn that magic and love are both change, and that this is an open secret that stands in opposition to the open secret that says we’re all going to die, and it’s all for nothing.
Rumpus: “Thank God Henry had lost his pants […] and thank God the girl was such an anxious bitch”: The Great Night, more than your earlier books and stories, is wickedly funny. Was that kind of levity something you wanted in the book to balance out the fanciful flights, or did it grow from reinterpreting Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Adrian: Probably both, though there was a lot to try to live up to in the play, in terms of echoing or even just acknowledging the humor in the original. A very large part of the story is based on my own misadventures in a failed-and-redeemed relationship, and part of what made that bearable to write about was making fun of myself, even if the jokes ultimately only make the fullest sense to me and that one other very special person.
Rumpus: There’s also something bittersweet about the humor in the book. As you write in reference to Molly and Ryan’s relationship, “There was always going to be intimations from the world that there was more to be had, something different and something better, beyond what they were sharing together.”
Adrian: My favorite part of the play is the Pyramus and Thisbe bit that the Mechanicals put on, precisely because it is simultaneously absolutely hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. The places where I approach that sort of thing in this novel are a retarded and degraded version of what’s done in the play, but I feel like I would be happy with even achieving .00001% of that.
Adrian: The structure was set form the beginning, in part because the novel’s structure was built off the play’s structure. But the structure did change as I worked in the sense that I felt increasingly liberated upon further readings of the play to work away from it, or at least to let what felt compelling to me about what I was adding to or changing about the story of the play to make room for itself. And a lot of that change came in the form of those layered narrative sneaking into or hiding within the main story.
Rumpus: Speaking of layered narratives, I’ve noticed that you’re creating a self-contained fictional universe a la Faulkner, filled with characters appearing and reappearing from book to book. Jordan Sasscock pops up in The Children’s Hospital, and so does Pickie Beecher; Pickie’s also the abortion in Gob’s Grief, as Alexander Chee pointed out to me.
Adrian: I think it’s probably more a matter of having too much affection for some characters to totally let them go than it is a matter of trying to construct a coherent world inhabited by everyone in all the novels and stories. In Pickie’s case, I felt like I had left him hanging in a way that he probably didn’t deserve at the end of the first novel, and so I tried to give him a happier ending at the end of the second.
Chris Adrian photo by Gus Elliott