The Meaning Is in the Scale: Talking with David Adjmi
I met David Adjmi when we were just little sprouts at Sarah Lawrence College. I think we were at a dinner at an apartment in Park Slope and David had come with a bunch of bananas. It’s funny the things you remember. I know it was 1995. I know I was taking as many poetry courses as I could, and that I was also watching so many poets and teachers I loved lose people to AIDS and to the complete disregard of the American government. David was one of the first artists my age who I could see had a true vision for themselves and their work. The other was Robyn Schiff, who I was somehow lucky enough to be in poetry workshops with. David read more than anyone I knew, appreciated food more than anyone I knew, and liked Falcon Crest almost as much as I did. David was the friend I’d talk to all day and then go home and call on the phone. I can still hear his mother picking up to ask him if he’d fed the cat or if he’d eaten all the peanuts.
My partner Angeline introduced me to David. We haven’t seen him in person for over a year now because we can’t get out to LA (where he lives) with this pandemic and us in North Carolina. It feels so good to have David’s memoir, Lot Six, as my companion, as I miss him. And also, I’m so struck by how much I didn’t know about David. How this book does what all great art does in that it takes a world I thought I knew and opens a vast new realm of experience.
David’s plays have been produced to critical acclaim, and he’s received multiple prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a Whiting Award. His play Marie Antoinette (2013) received a world premiere co-production from the American Repertory Theater and the Yale Repertory Theater, and a New York premiere at Soho Rep. Stereophonic is scheduled premiere on Broadway next year, with music by Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, and his commission for Lincoln Center, The Stumble, will be excerpted in an upcoming issue of the Paris Review. David’s memoir Lot Six, published by HarperCollins in late June, is about how we build our identities, but more than that, it’s about how art and culture can rescue people who feel displaced in the world.
The Rumpus: You know, your memoir made me realize that although I read a lot of memoirs I don’t find many of them very fulfilling in a literary sense. With yours, I really had that sense of full immersion I get with a great novel.
David Adjmi: Oh, that’s really nice to hear.
Rumpus: I wonder how you did that. I mean, you’d never written prose of any kind before.
Adjmi: I think my ignorance helped me. I didn’t know what a memoir needed to be, or what the conventions were, and I certainly didn’t know what sort of life I had, or who I was, or why people needed to read any of it. Like, does anyone really want to read about a playwright looking back at his life? Yuck. But then I remembered, you know, Madame Bovary, and Zola and Proust—and also, like, Italian neorealist movies with no real plots, and how they accumulate in very profound ways. I thought if I built the book like fiction, and sort of examined the construction of identity on a very close molecular level, that that could somehow become a plot. And to do that I had to paint with a tiny little brush, to get all the textures. I worked like a miniaturist. So, I kind of made up a process and a style, and was like, I hope this works!
Rumpus: Would you call this book a memoir? I mean, I know it’s about you but how do you think of it?
Adjmi: It’s not an autobiography, and it’s not really, like, “the life and times of David Adjmi.” It’s not about how important or amazing my life is, or what an amazing artist I am—it’s the opposite of that. It’s about the anguish of building a self, the difficulties and failures and stresses that go into becoming an artist. It’s not really conventional, because it is so much about psychic states, and these shifting tectonic movements of consciousness. But I would say that yeah, it is a memoir. It is very much a memoir about crafting a self.
Rumpus: We spent a lot of time at the Tea House at Sarah Lawrence, which happened to have been Joseph Campbell’s office. I was thinking about this while I was reading Lox Six and how The Hero’s Journey is something that is worked into here. I would say you are heroic in this book from the very first. In the most human and wonderful sense.
Rumpus: From the minute you appear on the first page I’m rooting for you and also feeling so upset for you and with you. It’s a different dynamic that the alliances I feel with the characters in your plays and I don’t think the book being “about” you has a lot to do with it. Could you talk about the idea of heroism in this book, or the idea of the narrator’s journey?
Adjmi: I had a terrible time constructing a persona for myself in the book. I wanted to be honest and unflinching, but I also wanted to create a compelling protagonist for a book. And I don’t think of myself as a protagonist. I feel more—like in my everyday life, and in my work as a playwright, I am thinking about and analyzing and building out other people’s stories, but not my own. So the first drafts of the book had almost nothing to do with me. My editor kept going, “You’re really good at describing all these people, but you’re not really in your own memoir. Why is that?” Writing the book forced me to think about myself as the center of my own life. That was very frightening.
I had this kind of awful fear that I was boring or not engaging or unimportant. But being a playwright helped me, because with my plays I don’t think about whether characters are likable, I just write down what they do. At some point in the process of writing my book, I began to treat myself as a character in one of my plays; I gave the character actions and obstacles. I thought about narrative build and reversals. It’s all Aristotle. The difference between theater and prose, though, is that in theater there is literally no interiority. You are utterly limited to action. But a memoir without interiority—which is what I had initially, when I handed in the first couple of drafts in to my publisher—is sort of incoherent. So I had to learn techniques for building intimacy with the reader. If you can generate intimacy in prose, it’s very powerful.
Rumpus: Yes. I think one of the things that really struck me was how intimate the book felt. In a novelistic way, I got really lost in it. And I know you! But still, to me it did great art and also (bear with me) prayer can do, which is create the most extraordinary privacy where it’s just you and this thing that you’re inside of. It really saved me, this book. Because it was June when I got it, and it had become clear UNC Chapel Hill, where I work, was going to try to send us back in person. And I honestly felt like I was living in a nightmare. And this book took me out of that, and allowed me the space to remember what was possible in art, but also in human relationships. Because I also kept thinking about us. When we were young and at Sarah Lawrence and just really scared and also really hopeful. And also just searching.
Do you remember Ms. Anna? That psychic on Broome Street that we used to go see in the ’90s.
Adjmi: Oh my god, Ms. Anna.
Rumpus: Remember how we used to go all the time? That part is not in your book. And yet. I think it is of the book in a way.
Adjmi: Remember when things went really south with her after she exhorted you to buy the expensive crystal that would cleanse the negative energies in your aura? And then two weeks later I saw her in Midwood at the Key Food on Avenue J buying vegetables. She had her little kids with her, and I remember feeling kind of sad but also sort of titillated that she lived in my neighborhood.
Rumpus: Do you know that I went to her so many times (on my own, too) that she finally felt so sorry for me she told me to stop coming? I will never forget the look on her face. And I was like, “But what about the evil shadow that is always lying next to me that you told me about!?” She sort of said to let it go.
Adjmi: Wow, I did not know about that.
Rumpus: I’ve been asking myself what I was looking for. Could you say what, if anything, you were looking for all those times we went back to Ms. Anna?
Adjmi: I guess I wanted Ms. Anna to be a liaison to God, or something, even though I didn’t believe in God. But—and I talk about this in the book—I’ve always had this deep attraction to the occult. I’ve always been looking for some secret trapdoor to some other realm. I used to think that was a universal desire, but most people I know are obsessed with being sensible and rational.
Rumpus: One thing I have always loved about you and that we’ve always had in common is a love of food. I was going to say “and pleasure” but is that it? I’m not sure.
I would like to know about the food. And about just the ideas of food and pleasure and luxury. Because I think that’s also something we shared, growing up in the places we grew up. We both grew up in families where there was lots of money and then there was none. Or a lot less. But always the story of having been very wealthy.
So, I’d love to know about food and luxury (but also the idea of quality) in terms of eating and wearing and living.
Adjmi: One thing I love about reading Proust is that Marcel is incapable of being in the present moment. His pleasures are always in the past or future. Literally, the whole series of books is him anticipating or looking back. I guess that’s very French, but I relate. Actual moments of pleasure are so fucking fleeting in life, and it’s so horrible to let go of them because they’re so infrequent. So, when I decide to make lasagna, there’s this whole buildup. I have to research it into infinity, and figure out the best bechamel recipe, and what kind of wine to use for the Bolognese sauce, and on and on into infinity. I can go on like this for days. I get very obsessive, because I am fantasizing about this platonic ideal of lasagna, and all the transcendence and magnificence I’m going to experience. Does this sound nuts to you?
Rumpus: No. It does not sound nuts to me about the magnificence and transcendence and lasagna. I don’t research and get as in depth in the detail as you and Angeline, which maybe makes you two true artists and me… something else… but I do get obsessed.
For me, food has always been about imagining what it would be to be really safe and be able to afford to have a home just how I liked it. Even when my family was wealthy I had this fantasy around food. So it makes all the sense in the world to me.
I know this book took you a long time. And I know that one thing I’ve always respected so much about you is I honestly don’t know any writer who has remained as true to their artistic vision as you have. Much to your financial detriment, in some ways! I can’t even put into words how much I respect this about you. And it’s been true since college. How did you hold onto your sense of what this book was even as there were lots of pressures to “finish.”
Adjmi: But the thing is I didn’t know what the book was. I kept waiting and hoping it would materialize. Eighteen months ago I was still banging my head against the wall and going, What is this book?! I was reading all these manuals on developmental editing, and doing reverse outlines that went on and on for a hundred pages. It was excruciating. I would have loved to have written more quickly—I was trying so hard! But at the same time, I didn’t know how to take any shortcuts; I could only follow the process as it unfolded.
Rumpus: Why do you think it was so hard to locate the subject?
Adjmi: Because it really was a memoir about these fluctuating ideas I had about myself—this, like, Jenga puzzle of the self—and I initially didn’t know how to make that into a book. And again, I hadn’t ever written long-form prose, so I was stumbling around blindly for a long time, learning the basics. Maybe it looked from the outside like I was being very strong and intransigent, but from the inside I felt like I was going insane.
Rumpus: We’ve both had those times of crisis that led to something really important changing in our lives. Your book is so incredible to me because I both know those stories and also I learn so much just being older and being your reader and not just your friend. It’s really sacred to get to be both. I’m grateful. Who’s someone who you’ve sort of grown up with as a person and also gotten to know them through their work? Or vice versa. Is there another playwright or an actress or actor who you keep meeting and re-meeting and growing up together?
Adjmi: A very old friend of mine just had this huge success with this play that went to Broadway. It’s extremely autobiographical, and she wrote and performed in it. It’s super raw and personal, and I was kind of blown away. But there was all this stuff in the play I knew nothing about. After I saw the play, we went up to my hotel room on the Lower East Side, and we talked about all this stuff, but not about the content of the play. Like, some stuff is so private it can only be revealed as public document. So I understand this distinction between knowing someone as a reader and knowing them as a friend. There’s sort of a holographic relationship between them—but they can feel shockingly distinct. Friendships, even the most profound and deep ones, have conventions and boundaries and lines you don’t cross. But in art, you do cross those lines. You have to.
Rumpus: We haven’t talked much about politics but your answer to this last question has me thinking about permission and power. And I think our work, albeit in different ways, is actually a lot about both of those things.
Rumpus: Everyone’s getting asked these questions but I do wonder, not so much what art has the power to do and the permission to grant in this time but what it can’t do, and how that knowledge influences your work and/or your person right now.
Adjmi: Well, art can’t change reality. It can represent, and it can illuminate, but it doesn’t actually provide a way out. That’s pretty obvious, I guess—but I think that’s the main thing it can’t do. One film that dramatizes this is Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, where Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow play musicians who are taken from their homes by some scary militia in the middle of the night. They’re like, “Oh, no, we’re artists, and we don’t really follow politics,” but of course they’re doomed. I think it’s a little heavy-handed, but I know what he’s getting at.
A lot of artists feel shame about their art or feel their art needs to have an expressly moral purpose or political utility in order to justify what they do. And yeah, I feel the weight of that responsibility sometimes, but it never helps my writing. Like, I will donate money to campaigns, and make phone calls and go to marches, but as a writer, I can’t have an agenda. If I try to extort anything from my writing, I get blocked. And honestly, I think that trying to ascribe some kind of practical utility to art is kind of missing the point.
Photograph of David Adjmi by Tana Gandhi.