When I spoke to Adrian Todd Zuniga about his debut novel, Collision Theory (April 2018, Rare Bird Books), we were on opposite sides of a continent, he in New York and I in Los Angeles.
Communicating over long distances is a common theme in Zuniga’s life. He has spent the past twelve years circling the globe as the co-creator and host of Literary Death Match, a staged reading circus that vaults from humorous to heartrending as its featured authors and judges read and critique new work. He is also the founding editor of Opium magazine, and a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer of short fiction. Most recently, he was nominated for a Writer’s Guild of America award for his work on Longshot, a playable film feature of the Madden NFL 18 video game.
His novel follows the travails of Thomas Mullen, a peripatetic writer whose search for love and creative fulfillment is complicated by the specter of a woman who he witnessed jump to her death. Zuniga has created a heartbreaking story full of mystery, missed connections, mistaken identities, and Elvis-worshipping extraterrestrials.
We recently talked about the search for home, the challenge of creating art in a world of constantly changing content, and what to drink in Stockholm when you’re broke.
The Rumpus: You dedicated the book to your mother with the beautiful inscription, almost a little poem: “To my mother, who loved when I was at home reading because it meant I was near her, which meant I was safe.” How old were you when you realized that your mother was going to die?
Adrian Todd Zuniga: I feel like I had a relationship with loss very early on. We moved a lot when I was young, and I think the way I came to best understand loss was to take it to its extreme: death. So, in feeling loved and loving my mother so deeply from as early as I can remember, I reveled in the positive, but my mind also zipped to the negative, which was her inevitable passing. I’m wracking my brain to remember a time where my mother’s eventual death wasn’t a facet in my life, and I can’t. She passed on January 28, 2011, and it’s the most important thing to me that I was with her then, holding her hand.
Rumpus: How has death impacted you and your writing?
Zuniga: I remember being at my Uncle Carl’s funeral when I was fourteen or fifteen. My family loved him, but we were never that close as I was much younger than everyone else, and didn’t get to interact with him in his heyday. But at his funeral, I remember losing my shit and everyone was comforting me, and I was like, “No, I’m crying for you all. For your loss. For your grief. I’m fine.” I didn’t say that, because I was coming to understand it in that moment, but I remember that very clearly. And that was really it for me until my mother’s passing. And no question, my mother’s passing changed my life, and my writing. It’s like I was writing in the equivalent of an underground pool before that, and all the sudden, I was in the ocean, and the depth and pain and grief I could access could go down and down and down forever. As a reader, now I feel like I know when it’s real and when it’s not. It feels like there’s a texture to writing that has been there. Though, maybe I’m wrong on that, and sometimes get duped by super-talented writers.
Rumpus: The titular theory, as explained by your main character Thomas, is that for a meaningful relationship to form, two bodies meet with a strong collision, the more forceful the crash, the greater the resulting bond.
Zuniga: Yes. It’s bullshit. Here’s the reality: You and I grew up in an era where romantic comedies were a real deal, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. I grew up in a world where love is that. When the reality is this: love is being there for someone in the struggle and pushing through, supporting one another amidst insecurity, and pain, and job loss, parental loss, with every single struggle discovering how to stand up and try to mesh together.
Romantic love is great, but it literally is a brain chemistry thing. After three months you look around and think, who is this person? Do I know them and actually like them? The reality of love is: Are you capable of it yet?
I’m forty-three. I grew up chasing this idea of romantic love because eventually I thought it would turn into a relationship that would make me feel protected and safe in the world. Then I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. Now that I have a relationship that is everything I dreamt of without even realizing I was dreaming of it, I’m like, Oh! That’s what love is.
I think that when we are struggling to find the thing we want, sometimes we feel lost and we think “I must not be doing it right.” In the book, Thomas gets into a place where he wants a different life, thinking “I’m in pain, so I’m going to try something else,” and he ends up creating more suffering for himself. This idea of a romantic moment that he is searching for is nonsense. It is very hard for him to come to that knowledge, but I think he gets it at the very end of the book.
Rumpus: There’s one scene where Thomas is going into a pitch meeting. He’s talking to a receptionist and out of nowhere he mentions his mother’s first name. It’s such a poignant shift in a very anxiety-ridden scene. Where did that come from?
Zuniga: Using humor to set up a sad or poignant moment is something I really love doing. It’s a joke—because a joke is basically creating tension and releasing tension.
I’m terrible at analogies, but here’s one anyway; it’s like I try to get someone running into a wall. I try to get them to believe that running into a wall is a good idea. Then, right before they hit the wall, I pull the rug out from under them and they crash and tumble into this unexpected place. Like all the dishes on the shelves inside of them crack and all the dishes fall. That’s what I’m trying to do.
That scene you’re talking about really is quite emotional to me. Because Thomas is a very disconnected person and he only tries to connect every once in a while. In this tense moment, he’s still trying to cope with sad things that he’d rather forget.
Rumpus: You’ve taken thirteen years to write this book, but in that time you’ve pitched and written short stories and podcasts and video games. When you were a kid reading on your mom’s couch, did you ever imagine a future in which you would be nominated for an award for writing a video game?
Zuniga: The swirl of waiting for the thing to take the shape it needs to take is fascinating to me. I’m glad that I have more buckets to put a story in and test it out.
I always thought of my life as if there is a point way, way, way out in front of me that I’m running toward. Life is really good at shoving you, or guiding you, in different ways. There is a straight line that I’m trying to run, but I’m going about it congress-style, sort of veering off into different points. It’s quite incredible.
I wrote this book, it got agent-ed, and it didn’t sell. And then every other year I would do a rewrite of it. During that time I had written another novel, and I wrote short stories, then a thousand-page novel that I went back to edit a couple years ago and the first hundred and fifty pages I turned into twenty-two pages. And I was like, Oh, this book isn’t good enough at all; I’m smart enough now not to edit this whole thing. I know what it needs.
Moving to LA was significant in my life because once you’re in LA you sort of go, “Eh, I should write a screenplay.” Why not? People are doing it.
Learning screenwriting was really important. Because then my best friend of thirty years called me and said, “I’ve been reading your script; you’re really great. We want to write this playable movie that I’ve been trying to get into the pipeline at EA [Electronic Arts] for years.” Then we wrote this playable movie that was a two-hour cinematic thing, where you made dialogue choices. Mahershala Ali was in it, and Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights.
It helped me to realize that I didn’t know anything about story structure. I was really good on a sentence level, but here I was learning “Oh that’s how it’s done!” That was massive for my book writing. It definitely influenced Collision Theory’s final edits.
Rumpus: It seems like your travels have, too. Thomas is always on the move and the place he considers home and what other characters assume his home to be frequently changes. What does home mean to you and where do you consider home now?
Zuniga: That’s touching at the very core of my soul, that question… We all have these questions in us, these confusions and problems that we are addressing in our work over and over and over, because they are unanswerable but we have to keep trying to answer them.
For my work, two of my major obsessions are maternal death and a search for home. I’ve been writing about my mother’s death since I was young, not even knowing that’s what I was doing. And the search for home, that’s the other thing.
We moved around a lot when I was kid. I grew up in the Southeast, then we moved to St. Louis, and then I went to school in Chicago. As an adult, I’ve lived in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Toronto and New York. Paris and Los Angeles and London. I’ve always tried to find a place that was home and I’d never done it until I moved to Los Angeles.
I love the world. I love different places and different countries. It’s a hard thing to have access to world and also not be sure where you belong. Which seems sad in a way, but then it’s a motivator for my writing and the characters in my writing. We’ll see if they ever land in a place they feel is home. Then we’ll know I’m healed.
Rumpus: Thomas is deeply fluent in the language of survival. He is constantly aware of how much a cup of coffee or a train ticket costs as well as how much money he has in his pocket. Is that the survival instinct of the traveler or of the artist in him?
Zuniga: When I first drafted the book, Thomas was obsessed with numbers; everything in the world was a math equation that he was trying to figure out, like the address to a building plus a license plate. I ended up editing that out but what took its place was this idea of tension around money.
I think that’s the survival of an artist-traveler. Where you know that if you visit Stockholm, to get a cocktail you’re going to spend fifteen to twenty-three dollars. A beer will put you in the nine to eleven dollar range. Beer is horrible in my belly. I can handle one to two, but I really don’t like it. But then I’ve been in Stockholm where I want to socialize and, well, I’ve had a beer. My relationship with money has always been: how much do I need to do the great thing, and also be at peace to create?
Rumpus: Collision Theory seems formatted to be a great book for a commute. Chapters are short, and the whole thing is the length of a Fight Club or Great Gatsby. How important is narrative efficiency to you?
Zuniga: I’m obsessed with narrative efficiency and engaging readers on the same level as great films or TV shows engage viewers. Everything is competition, so I hope to write in such a way that the reader says, “Okay, I’ll read one more chapter.” And before they know it, they’ve read five or six more. I wrote short chapters for Collision Theory, and that’s in part to keep the pace high, but it’s also because I edit with the purpose of cutting everything.
If I can cut a chapter to a sentence, I’d feel like a champion. But I haven’t quite gotten to “My mother is a fish” levels quite yet. I used to say there’s no reason for a book to be over three hundred pages. Which is nonsense. But it kind of made me laugh, to say something so untrue and so extreme. At the same time, look at Housekeeping, Bright Lights, Big City, and The Handmaid’s Tale. They pulled off some serious magic in that three hundred-page range, but as importantly, visually to a reader they say, “Yeah, I can get through that. I’ll give it a shot.”
Rumpus: Over the years, you’ve worked in so many of those “competitive” mediums. What advice do you have for other writers navigating the constantly shifting creative terrain?
Zuniga: There is this idea that we have to race. We have to be one of the thirty under forty, the twenty under twenty, the nine under eight. But the reality is what we really need to do is create the most excellent work we can at whatever stage of our life we are.
I took thirteen years to write this book because I had to grow up to be able to complete the book to make it as excellent as I could. I hadn’t matured enough as a person.
I think the ultimate goal is to succeed in whatever success means. Financial success is not necessarily success; it’s just an easy marker.
My dad asked me once how much I got paid for the advance for Collision Theory, and I refused to tell him. For him that’s what he understood. But that has nothing to do with the fact that my dream just came true and somebody was going to publish my book. I feel hugely successful that my book—that I worked on forever and deeply love—is now available for people to read.
Signing books has been great. I love telling people how much they mean to me, or saying “Thank you for buying my book; thank you for existing.”
Rumpus: You are excellent at signing books; I’ve seen you in action. There are dates and hashtags and riddles involved.
Zuniga: I always like weird little ideas. So when I’m signing books I put a literary fact in the book, with the hashtag #CollisionTheory. I’ll put that same fact in only one other book. So I have all of these literary facts, like Lord Byron called William Wordsworth William Turds-worth. Or William Faulkner was five foot three. That seemed like a fun way to do something that speaks to the title of the book, Collision Theory; I’m creating a collision between two people who will never meet. It takes longer to sign them, but it creates an intimate moment with a total stranger.
Rumpus: Which is the promise of the book, really.
Zuniga: It is. Which—as I’ve already said—is bullshit.