A Fundamental Sense of Mystery: Talking with Cara Blue Adams

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Cara Blue Adams’s debut linked short story collection You Never Get It Back follows Kate Bishop as she moves from a bohemian childhood in rural Vermont to an early adulthood spanning several states—geographic states, yes, but also states of identity and desire. Brandon Taylor called it “a modern classic” and selected it for the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; this collection embraces formal variety and humor while lingering in the quiet moments between losing and having.

Adams’s stories appear in Granta, The Kenyon Review, and American Short Fiction. She has been awarded the Kenyon Review Short Fiction Prize, the Missouri Review Peden Prize, the Meringoff Prize in Fiction, and a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, along with a Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellowship and support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Seton Hall University and lives in Brooklyn.

I spoke with Cara recently via Zoom about disjuncture, change, and linked story collections.

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The Rumpus: In her blurb, Laura van den Berg notes that the collection’s central character, Kate Bishop, learns that “the questions might matter even more than the answers.” How does that tension between questions and answers inform your craft?

Cara Blue Adams: I love that blurb because Laura’s fiction is so good at exploring moments of mystery or disjuncture and staying with those moments rather than trying to explain them. That feels so much like life to me.

There are so many moments in life when something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t fit easily into a narrative, or can’t really be explained, whether that something is an event or our own reaction. That’s something I’m interested in exploring in my fiction. That sense of mystery is fundamental to the way that I see the world.

Rumpus: Speaking of disjunction and change, Kate experiences a lot of change in geography and desire. The collection explores where desire comes from, whether from internal or external forces. In a linked collection, there’s room to explore the diffusion of want.

Adams: The book originally had an epigraph from “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass: “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.” I was thinking very much about desire and longing and the relationship between wanting something and having it, and how to untangle that question of which desires are given to us by the world, are produced socially or externally, versus which desires are intrinsic and personal. I was thinking about that question in all of the stories.

Rumpus: What did you enjoy about the process of writing a linked collection?

Adams: I love linked collections; I read a lot of them and think about them a lot. Even collections that aren’t explicitly linked by geography or character are often linked by a sensibility or voice and by a set of themes and concerns.

I developed and teach a course on the linked collection, and we start with a collection—sometimes Laura van den Berg’s The Isle of Youth, for example—where there’s no explicit linkage, but the stories still feel so much a part of a larger whole. Then we read stories that are linked explicitly by geography or by character. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout would be an example, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. We finish by reading a book like Justin Torres’s We the Animals, which began, I understand, as a set of stories and grew into a gorgeous, intense, sometimes brutal, and always very tender and lyrical coming-of-age novel.

I wrote these stories over many years, thinking about the stories on their own first, and I published something like twenty stories in magazines while thinking about what shape a book might take.

When I sat down to put together a book, I saw that the stories are set many different places, in part because I’ve moved around the country a lot myself. I’d been really interested in exploring the story form and its full range of potential, so some stories are very brief, the length of a prose poem, and others are thirty pages, which is quite long. I wrote realist stories and stories that have fabulist elements. With all this variety, I was looking for that thing that would hold the stories together.

My younger female characters had a fair number of similarities, something two early readers pointed out, so I began to think about whether some of those characters could be reimagined as facets of the same character and what that would mean. Exploring that idea—that perhaps the collection could be linked by character, as are many of my favorite collections, including Olive Kitteridge, along with Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness and María Gainza’s Optic Nerve—opened up so many possibilities. In some cases, I revised older stories so that similar characters became the same character. Then I started writing new stories along these lines. The book follows a young woman named Kate Bishop. She has a college roommate, Esme, who’s much more privileged than she is. Esme was such a great character, and I thought, What would happen if I brought her back later in life in some new stories? Charles Baxter, who writes beautifully on craft as well as writing insightful fiction, talks about characters he calls “Captain Happen”—these characters burst into a room and start making things happen right away. I think of Esme as that kind of character. It was really fun to put her in other stories to see what would happen when she showed up.

Rumpus: You work with a variety of forms in this collection, which could be seen as risky. How did you go about finding the form that would best fit each phase or each desire within Kate’s life?

Adams: The conventional wisdom in publishing is that collections are harder to sell to readers than are novels. People sometimes say that it doesn’t seem like that should be true, because the story is so short, you can read it on a lunch break or a subway ride, but it makes sense to me, because every time you present the reader with a new story, you’re asking them to enter a new world, a new set of characters and dynamics.

My collection is held together by character, but every new formal exploration also asks something a little bit different of the reader. I think that was one reason it felt important to create that cohesion through character, because I knew I was already asking the reader to go with me through this exploration of form. I hope that becomes a pleasure and a strength of the collection.

Rumpus: Absolutely, it does.

Adams: I’m glad to hear that. I think of the very short story, the story that’s under a page, as being almost a whole different genre than the thirty-page story. The fifteen- or twenty-page story, too, can do very different things in terms of how it goes about exploring material and bringing a world to life. So, I’m glad to hear that you liked that kind of variety in the collection.

Rumpus: You set up the terms of the collection and teach the reader to expect formal variety with the first story, “I Met Loss the Other Day,” which doesn’t explicitly connect to any of the named characters and which establishes loss as a theme.

Adams: That first story is one of the earliest stories I wrote. It’s unlike the others in that it’s a fantastical story. It comes out of my love of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino. It explores the question of what we do with the experience of losing something and what comes afterward. In that way, it is also in conversation with Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.”

In the collection as a whole, I am following this one character and exploring, among other questions, the question of what she loses, including an easy intimacy with her family. She grows up in a Bohemian household in Vermont, where there’s a fair bit of poverty and chaos, and she goes to college and moves out of the social class into which she was born. So that makes it tougher to go home because her family has a very different set of lived experiences than she does. She also loses various forms of innocence, as we all do. She loses people: an ex-boyfriend who is very meaningful to her and her father.

The epigraph comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping: “For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.” Loss is a necessary condition of moving through the world, of living a life. Change always brings loss; you lose something, and something new is created. I was thinking about that tension in our lives but also the way that craving something or having lost something and spending time with it imaginatively makes it into a kind of ghostly presence in your life. So, an absence becomes, in some way, a presence. In that very first story, “I Met Loss the Other Day,” we come across the idea of there being these three note cards that list what the character has lost. Then the book has three sections. I was thinking of it as giving, in three movements, a portrait of what the central character’s lost and what new thing has been created.

Rumpus: The book’s title comes from “Hills Like White Elephants,” which, in the title story, students discuss in a college seminar attended by the main character, Kate. Some students say the character in “Hills Like White Elephants” who speaks those words, “You never get it back,” didn’t even have anything to lose. I was thinking about the way Hemingway’s story is structured around a loss that is never named. Yet the woman in that story has an ambivalent craving for something that, to many, it seems she doesn’t even have yet.

Adams: Hemingway’s work showcases how an absence can be a presence. I love that about his work and the work of other minimalist writers like Amy Hempel, who can carve away from a story and leave what’s unspoken, or unnamed, as this silent presence that animates the surface of the story. I was thinking very much about both of them as I wrote the book. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” of course, we see a couple, a young woman and a young man, discussing something that’s never made explicit, but we understand it’s the question of whether she’ll have an abortion, which he would like her to do. She doesn’t want to, but seems willing to do it to please him.

My story, “You Never Get It Back,” is thinking about how the students in the class respond to various works and how the young men in the class sometimes respond to female characters in ways that show misogyny or a failure to really think through their reactions from the perspective of gender. The question of what it means to be a young woman in the world is really important to my work and to the book. That’s another sort of unnamed loss, perhaps: what you lose when you come into the world in a way that leads people to make assumptions about you. That’s true about social class, true about gender, true about many forms of difference. That story, “You Never Get It Back,” is certainly thinking about that question.

Rumpus: What questions have you been exploring in your writing lately?

Adams: What it means to live in a world that’s changing, both in personal ways and in environmental ones. I recently finished the first draft of a book-length lyric essay about climate change and motherhood. It began a few years ago, when my partner and I were discussing whether we wanted to try to have a child. I was feeling intense anxiety about climate change and thinking about how you can never return to your home, because people change and places change, and how strange it is when that’s true about the world itself as a home, too. I think the weather creates a kind of home for us, and now that home, which felt stable to me as a child, is rapidly changing. What had been essentially constant—seasons, climate, the weather—is now unstable. If I were to have children, they wouldn’t experience autumn in the same way I did growing up in New England. When and where, I found myself wondering, would they experience snow?

Rumpus: Is there anything that you’ve been dying to talk about that nobody has asked you about?

Adams: One thing I’m always dying to talk about is other short story writers who I love! A recent collection I hope more people will read is Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka. It’s an elegant and quietly innovative collection put out through a collaboration between A Public Space and Graywolf Press. She’s writing about a young woman from Maine—the stories are mainly set in New England, and largely in Maine—and about poverty and about the arts, and some of the stories are realist while others hover slightly outside reality, but in a subtle way that doesn’t announce itself at first and nonetheless works. It’s just a beautiful, haunting collection. I think she’s one of our best short story writers working today.

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Photograph of Cara Blue Adams courtesy of Cara Blue Adams.  


Kate Finegan is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Review, novel/novella editor for Split/Lip Press, and author of the chapbooks Ablaze (Sonder Press, 2020) and The Size of Texas (Penrose Press, 2018). She lives in Toronto. Find her at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter at @kehfinegan. More from this author →