Adam Gnade’s (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described “talking songs” in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. His last novel Hymn California was a fast-paced, raw story of movement, of finding truth in travel, and American life. He calls the collected storyline of records and books We Live Nowhere and Know No One. Gnade currently lives on the Hard 50 Farm in rural Kansas where he’s finishing up his second novel. Find him on Tumblr at: http://www.adamgnade.com and on MySpace at: http://www.myspace.com/gnade
The first thing you need to know about where Adam Gnade lives is not about him. It’s about the former tenant. On the lam up from Albuquerque the man brought his extended family to Kansas after killing four men. By all accounts a good, kind man with a temper, the young Mexican went to town one night after living in the Kansas farmhouse for a year, got drunk at one of the local saloons, and shot and killed a man. On his way back to the farmhouse the police caught up with him and took him in. The house, now called the Hard 50 Farm, is named in tribute to the man’s sentence—a hard 50 years, no chance of parole. After a rain you can find 9mm shells in the yard. A running joke among Gnade and his housemates is speculating where bodies are buried.
To get there you take the 70 east toward Kansas City. From Highway 7 it’s a few miles of cornfields, a farm supply superstore, a Sonic, a Waffle House, the sign for a Buffalo Soldier Monument, then a left on the gravel road of Gilman. The next few miles are hard driving, rutted sand and dirt road, a horse ranch to the left, the landfill, hills rolling with pasture grass and corn, Virgil Johnson’s cattle ranch to the right, and then another left, on another dirt road, and follow that up past two more cattle ranches to the crossroads of Wolcott and Stranger.
Gnade’s place is on the far eastern edge of town. Sitting to the south of the old apple orchard turned cow pasture on Stranger, it’s a small, white, clapboard home near the road with a long, forked gravel driveway with a beat-up 4×4 Jeep parked at the end of it, windows down, doors unlocked, rifle on the passenger seat. There are tall oaks, one of which boasts a rope swing with a wooden swing. The house—two stories, four bedrooms, unused basement—sits on the sharp end of an isosceles triangle of land, three sprawling grassland acres. Near that tip is the house itself and a barn converted into a garage, then converted back to a barn. Between house and barn is a double paddock made from horse fence and t-posts with two young lambs, Bohdi and Billy the Kid, and three pygmy goats, Jefferson, Jackson, and Dixie, all under two months of age. Next to the parked Jeep is the propane tank half covered in weeds, then a view of the land.
From the window of Gnade’s yellow and baby blue wood-paneled solarium you can look out on rolling green fields stretching down the hill-land into the distance. Beyond that is a blue shimmer of lake on the cattleman Ward’s acres and a thick line of deep woods that lead first to the catfish pond of the Lost 80 Park, then the trailerparks outside Leavenworth and then to the small, prosperous town of Lansing. It’s a view of what the land looked like a hundred and fifty years into the past—frontier land, the hills of prairie grass, agate blue sky, scattered wildflowers blown by breeze, cows pulling up grass beneath trees older than anything else around. It’s a rugged, heavily wooded land thick with life—coyotes prowling in packs at night, deer stepping quietly through the fields, snakes and snapping turtles on the roads up from the ponds, wild turkey in the clearings.
In front of the house, facing the road, which is really the back of the house, as used by the tenants, is a square patch of crop rows—tomatoes, kale, potatoes, green onions, leeks, sweet red peppers, green bell peppers, beans, cucumbers, and rosemary, basil, and mint.
The house is wood-floored and simple. Starkovski crystal prisms hang from fishing line in a few windows, casting refracted squares of rainbow light across the walls. The kitchen is large and clean, incense burning in one window sill next to a mason jar of purple field flowers and a colorful row of paper seed packets. The bedrooms are bare to the point of monastic. The front room is empty and window lined and has one bookcase filled with a small number of books, two of them Gnade’s novel, Hymn California, and his novella, The Darkness to the West. Today Gnade’s three housemates are gone, one rehearsing for a play in town, and two on the road headed to the deep South, gone adventuring until next month. Now it’s quiet. Nothing but wind in the trees surrounding the house and the distant sound of cattle baying. Later the cicadas will drone and crickets will fiddle and the frog choirs will start. It’s 1p.m., the time that Gnade begins writing work for the day. His schedule is free, but regimented. Farm work, book work, farm work, then dinner, after that nothing planned. When he leaves the house it’s to go sit beside the Missouri River along the Louis and Clark trail and read. Trips to town are to buy hay, booze, and the groceries he can’t grow for himself. The only bar he likes is a half hour away in the old boom town of Weston, RJ’s Saloon.
Gnade’s bedroom was his writing room until the heat came and now he sits outside the open door of the barn on an old metal blue folding chair with a short brown plastic table in front of him piled up in notebooks and source material and sharpened pencils and an ancient laptop computer that looks almost like a typewriter. Behind him is the square mouth of the barn. It’s clean and well-ordered—small tools and coils of wire on nails along one wall, farm chemicals and livestock mineral on a shelf, a row of pitchforks, shovels, and brooms up against the rear wall, and along the northeast facing wall two bales of local brome hay on a short wooden stand, a vertical standing coil of 6′ x 35′ wire fence, and an American flag, hanging stripes facing down to the cement floor, nailed up next to the hay.
Gnade, just done with the morning’s farm chores, wears the clothes you wear when you work in hot, dusty, conditions like this—tall boots thick enough to keep him safe from the many copperhead snakes on the land, slimfit gray jeans, and a plaid checked western shirt, pearl snaps, torn along the back of the arm, open low at the neck, and thin to the point of see-through from hours spent drying on the clothesline after a hand washing. In the corner propped up against the wall is a shotgun. His face is sunburned and his dark hair hangs over his forehead and covers one eye when the wind blows it. Next to him on the gravel and grass is a beaten yellow straw cowboy hat and when the sun moves overhead and rests above in the space between the trees, he puts it on. This conversation took place in the summer of 2010.
Do you find pleasure in the act of writing?
I do. Once you know your message and your story and how you want to say it, it’s about the best thing you can do. (If you stay excited.) Soon as the farm work is done I sit down and that’s the best part of the day. It took a while to get there. Hymn California was my first book published but I’ve written five or six of them before that. None of ‘em worth a damn or worth publishing. I needed the practice though. Needed to work things out for myself before it was any good.
You seem to be able to avoid the problem a lot of freelancers and work-from-home types have with distractions, namely the internet and domestic tasks. How are you able to do that?
Out here I live a very simple life that doesn’t require a lot of money. I don’t watch TV at home or a lot of movies or own a cellphone. Where I live it’s very pared down. There are farm chores but I need those to write. I need to be physical before I can get in my head. As far as the internet goes I don’t have it at my house and there isn’t much I want from it. There aren’t a lot of websites I like to look at and I don’t care for things like Facebook or emailing much—though all of it is a tool and I use it for what I need. Also I’m more or less in complete social exile. My latest philosophy is less friends, better friends. I don’t hang out, in the regular sense. But when I am finally around friends it’s better than it used to be when I was around people all the time. I love people—I just don’t need to be around them all the time. I need to be alone. As much as possible. Even when I’m not writing.
Your work focuses as much on place as it does anything else. What is it about places that attracts you so much?
We are not us without the place we were born, the places we’ve visited, and the places we want to go. Place is everything. We’re all just reflections of our environment.
Right now you’re living in Kansas. How is it different than Portland or Virginia or San Diego? What are you finding out about life there? Does living in the center of America symbolically or otherwise appeal to your sensibilities as an American writer?
It’s quiet and it’s pretty and I can think. Here I’m writing about California and this is such a world removed that it makes it easier. Where I live I look out the window of the solarium that I write in and I see oak trees hundreds of years old, cattle in the fields, goats and sheep in their pen, green as far as you can see. The sounds are all cicada, frog, cricket, wind in the trees. But I can close my eyes and see palm trees, the ocean, sand, freeways and I can see them clearly. Portland I’ve nearly forgotten about; it never made sense to me. Good for some people. Not for me. Virginia is like Kansas with the ocean. I miss it, but I feel more balanced here. The wide open spaces and all the land let me slow down and process.
It never gets too quiet?
It does—it did when I first got here. I’d hear something in the night after silence for hours and go to the window with the rifle, my blood pumping. You figure out the sounds pretty quick. That crash in the brush on the far side of the wire is not the previous tenant’s tweaker friends coming back to take their stash of money and drugs from the attic—it’s a night-roaming cow. The car slowing down as it passes the drive is not slowing down for you. Clear your head. Shake off the paranoia. You learn fast.
So you’re writing about San Diego, right? Can you talk about the new book a little bit?
The new book is one long linear story, unlike Hymn California, which was pretty experimental and fragmented and strung across a changing timeline. It’s about people in San Diego and Tijuana. It’s a border book in that sense, the characters crossing over, crossing back. I think it’ll be a scary book to some people in that it’s very violent—in a human sense, nothing action movie-style of course—and it’s very druggy and mean and dark, but at the center of it is a very gentle, goodhearted, realistic love story. I like the idea of all this meanness going on and then something good and sweet sailing down the middle of it all, unaffected by the darkness, trying its best to stay pure (but not always succeeding. In that sense it’s a very happy book. Even the worst, meanest people in the book are happy. Happy in a joyous, fighting, struggling, hard-living, life-enjoying sense. As dark as it is it’s not a downer. It’s more a long, ongoing battle. It’s also very detailed—very, very detailed and geared toward the senses. I read somewhere that to write well you need to be a sensualist. I really like reading Garcia Marquez in that regard. For this one I wanted to make something very rich and evocative of its place, a whole sea of details and color and senses. I want people to see and smell and taste everything. It needs to spring right off the page or plunk you down in its landscape. San Diego is one of the main characters. I want to tell that place and its weather and people in its entirety—in the entirety I know, anyway. I like regional writers—people who tell their places and tell them expansively, like a big wide-spanning panoramic western movie.
Hymn California was a book of movement, of travel, of escape. You seem to be in a different mode at the moment. Is this growing up, or something else? Another experiment in ways to live?
One of the big things about coming out here was to live a better, smarter life. And by that I mean financially. Living in the city during this recession I was fighting to make rent every month, fighting to pay bills. The move out here was about living closer to the land but it was also about cutting the amount of money I need so I could travel more.
You’ve talked about Hemingway and Steinbeck as benchmarks in the past. Don’t you think they’re a little old-fashioned for today’s readers? Norman Mailer said he didn’t trust a young, male writer that wasn’t influenced by Hemingway, but he was also from an older generation. Is their type of traditional writing still relevant?
For me they’re good but they’re too slow for most readers. Not for writers who are readers who look for different things in a book, but you wouldn’t want an audience built up of writers; you’d never make a living. At some point we were told that literature and genre fiction don’t mix, but there’s a lot to learn from genre fiction. The action, sex, the violence, adventure. I don’t want to write like John Grisham but I’d like to write a book that pushes you forward while still giving you bigger ideas and truth. Just the same I don’t like to read a lot of contemporary, faster male writers because they write feminine. They’re not men. They’re very self conscious and they’re very clever and sometimes they’re funny but at some point someone cut their balls off and I’d rather read the work of a bull than a steer.
How do you approach the idea of tradition and influence? What do you make of Cormac McCarthy’s statement that all books are made from other books?
I love McCarthy’s writing and he’s a very smart guy, but I think that’s old thinking, an idea we can and should move beyond. Books being from other books… it’s true… it’s true in that writers are too caught up with being writers—the holiness of the pursuit—and writing about writers and writing characters who are as well-read as they are. It’s a show-off. Hymn California was about a writer and it was about writing, so was The Darkness to the West. This next book isn’t. My main character is not a writer. He’s not concerned with myth and history and he’s not well-read or interested in the referential. His experience doesn’t reflect back to what he’s read and it’s not based on the Odyssey or Joyce or the Bible or anything like that. It’s a human life. We have so many books written from the first person perspective of writers it’s killing our audience. Where are the books written about people? Are all our readers writers? No. That’s why people turn away from hard literature and look to things like fantasy writing. They can’t relate. For this one my characters are just normal folks and I think I owe it to the readers to do that.
What do you think it takes to be a successful American writer? What qualities must one possess?
The perspective enough not to judge. Not to demonize or lionize. To write about the country without taking a political or moral stance. If you want to write well about this country it’s a big responsibility. You need to look at the people and the times and the land without editorializing too much. What I want from American writers is characters as real as they can be—no good guys, no bad guys. I want an engaging story that doesn’t waste my time and I want the writer to back off from saying this is right and this is wrong and tell the story. A good work of American fiction should be more camera lens than opinion page.
That’s a very American approach to writing about your country. To take the politics out of it. Writers, big, important writers from all over the world except America, often the Nobel Prize for Literature winners, try to portray the current climate of government in their work. Why do you think American writers avoid that? Are we too concerned with identity? With domestic problems? Is it possible that our government is too unobtrusive or mercurial to accurately characterize? Or have we just been indoctrinated to keep the politics out of our writing?
American novels tend to be apolitical and, yeah, that’s one of the reasons foreign critics write American authors off as unimportant or socially irrelevant. I think one reason that might be is we’ve had a more or less static government since the beginning, two revolutions aside. Overseas it’s countries changing names and assassinations and regular revolution and a healthy protest and overthrow system. Here we don’t even have people protesting this current war (to a substantial degree). Americans aren’t so worried about the life and death side of politics and revolution. And I think for good or ill the books reflect that. We’re concerned with love, work, and money. And death. It’s a very selfish set of concerns but I’m not going to pretend I’m holier than thou in that respect. The way we’re apathetic about politics is unhealthy, sure, but I’m not writing manifestos. I’m writing about how I see people, how I see them living, and I’m not going to bend the truth to add political agenda. Still I think that’s going to change as our empire continues to die. Things might get interesting in that respect. And maybe the books will reflect that. Me, I’m writing about love, work, money, death. I’m writing within the sphere of my selfish and myopic experience. But I don’t think we should let that invalidate what we’re doing. Fiction can be history—you can look at what people wrote in fiction about how they were living and find truth about how it was to live in that place, in that time. It’s our duty to future generations to tell how it was to live in the time we lived and how we saw it. That’s an important thing.
About the author:
Bart Schaneman is an American writer living in South Korea. He recently finished a memoir called Take the Ride. Find him on tumblr here: www.bartschaneman.tumblr.com.