My friend and coeditor James McAdams and I have coordinated our mild tech-savviness to meet via Zoom so I can interview him about his debut short story collection, Ambushing the Void, released in May of this year. It seems more significant to mark this interview by paying homage to the 2020 virtual fad than by using a simpler or more trusted platform—say, FaceTime—but eleven minutes in, it becomes clear Zoom might be too ambitious, the interview having not yet started due to my illiteracy with a platform I've been using in increasingly complex ways since March. Rude.
When I finally give James the password (which I didn't know I'd required) and release him from the confines of the waiting room (which I didn't know I'd enabled) into the fresh air of the meeting, he appears weary, put-upon, and done with my crap.
Not really. James is one of the most gracious, patient people you will ever meet, so when he finally appears, the man is chill. He's set up in a room that, in typical English professor fashion, is outfitted with bookcases absolutely packed with texts (the industry term for "literature"), several of which look suggestively like overdue library books—but are probably Norton readers or Penguin classics.
Doctor James McAdams's impressive array of fiction, poetry, and articles have appeared hither, tither, and yon; he is a professor of literature and writing at the University of South Florida—Tampa; and he is a flash fiction editor at Barren Magazine. He grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but currently resides in St. Petersburg, where he often teaches at community literary and writing events. He's pretty fancy. His fiction—and Ambushing the Void is no exception—often centers around dysfunction, addiction, and what he calls "refracted relationships."
Reading James's collection and sitting down with him to chat is an opportunity for me to get an inside peek at what informs my coeditor's tastes in literature and his ethics—and maybe sneak some free education for myself and other English lit nerds like me.
I'm always curious about the first spark of an idea for a story or a book, that first thrill of excitement, rapid breathing, increased heart rate when an author sees the first mental image that will open the floodgates of plot. So I ask him about that. What sparks a story for him? How did this book of stories get started?
James has a way of thinking that, in psychiatry, is called catastrophic thinking—"which isn't actually fun," he says. In this mode, he imagines terrible things happening and the outcomes of those situations. Not terrible as in dying-of-COVID-19 terrible, exactly. For example, he relates a story of listening to Howard Stern recently (he asks tentatively, "You're familiar with Howard Stern? You may not like him. . . anyway. . . "), with the volume cranked up and his windows open, when a suggestive sound clip came on, and as it proved to be an extended clip, he turned it off.
"I just started to think, what would it be like if I were walking around my development and I heard porn coming out of the same apartment every day? Would the HOA come in? Would they have to write a letter to the person saying, 'You have to lower your porn'? Or would somebody say, 'Hey! I like that porn too, we should hang out!' Given this ridiculous premise, logically developed—which is actually what David Foster Wallace is really good at—start with some bullshit, and then everything develops logically."
For another example, he talks about the genesis of the story "Such Strange Suns," in which he read a post on Reddit about a man whose five-year-old daughter somehow accidentally addressed Alexa in prayer. The story germinated from there.
But in terms of how the whole collection started, James says it was, at first, a gathering of his best stories. He wanted to avoid what seemed to him the over-interconnected models of collections like The Dubliners or The Things They Carried, which seem like cheating: "If you're going to write a novel, write a novel." Ambushing the Void later morphed into a conglomerate revolving around technology and addiction, although those themes didn't necessarily converse. So, then, how to organize them?
"My editor, who was pretty cool, said, 'have whatever order you want, but think about the order.' And I was just sort of embracing randomness . . . and saying, 'Here, the random generator gave me this order' . . . I didn't want it to be overthought and wrapped that way. Then I got to some weird eureka moment where I thought, 'no, there should be some logic or structure to it. . . It's cleaner that way.'"
He developed a structural innovation—"I don't mean 'innovation' like I'm Steve Jobs"—in which he bookended the collection with two significant stories.
"'Ambushing the Void I' and 'Ambushing the Void II' . . . were published under different names and it just sort of pounds the Ambushing the Void title into the structure. I wanted to start with the one and end with the other. Those stories really encapsulate the collection to me, especially the last one, the one about the obituary writer who needs to learn how to describe lives. . . . It's sort of meta because the practice there of writing about a life became all the other stories in there. I think the last line of the collection is the narrator wondering how these fourteen or seventeen stories work, and that's actually a reference to the stories in the volume, not necessarily the stories he made up in the funeral job—and that's the structural organizing principle."
I want to know more about the addiction theme. As a coeditor working behind the scenes with James at Barren, I have the pleasure of reading his snarky comments, and something that comes up frequently is James's impatience with stories that portray addiction inauthentically. So, fo'sho', I want to kno' where James is sitting in life that he can spot a fake a mile away. I worry, is all.
James admits he's a bit persnickety when it comes to portrayals of addiction. "I’m pretty much a baby when it comes to drug use, so I don’t have any interesting soap operas to tell. I’ve probably used all the normal ones a four-year-old druggie from Philly would use." But he spent his time between ages 20 and 25 working in rehabilitation clinics and community transition facilities surrounded by people in recovery for their mental health or from addiction. But also, he says, if a story reuses all the tired clichés that you see all over TV, that portrayal becomes superficial and appropriated. He emphasizes that, in writing about these things, an author must have the self-awareness to be able to admit to themselves,"that’s not new, it’s not sensitive, it’s not subtle, it’s not interesting—it’s a movie I saw." He calls out thin dystopian plots also—something I've learned is a pet peeve of his—for their lack of originality and emotion.
Another theme that recurs in the collection is indicated by the image of the dirty plush monkey that graces the cover of the collection (photography by Asher). I am, of course, very smart to have noticed this literary device and want James to tell me all about how right I am, so I ask him to elaborate on his use of this symbol. It's not, like, 'cause I'm unsure or anything. I'm for sure for sure. Check out the video below for a peek into James's intention for that image.
My experience as an author has been that my characters tend to represent some fringe part of my own character. So you know I wanna know: does James see himself most in the five-year-old girl? The conman?
In a self-deprecating response very on-brand for James, he says,"I think the guy who is in that stupid job,"—he's talking about the obituary writer in the final story, "Ambushing the Void II"—"the sort of character who's living at home and has no idea what he's doing and is sort of immature for a 35 year old man and hasn't accomplished anything and doesn't have any idea what he wants to do with his life still."
And yet, by now we all know that James is full of crap about this, having been awed by his credentials as a compassionate, academic, intellectual seeker of authenticity. So what does this immature loser want to communicate to readers with his collection?
"Finding the beauty in dysfunction, finding the beauty in ugliness, and finding the beauty in not being perfect," and the beauty of people coming together, saying, "'Hey, I have this problem, you have this problem, let's talk about how we fucked up and not be ashamed about it and find humor in it and find friends out of it.'" So immature.
But James turns the question around on me, asking whether there were any characters that seemed more biographical than made up. First, I pee my pants: now I'm on the spot. But I got dis, and I rub my hands together in typical cartoon villain fashion.
K: What I was thinking when I was reading this was the fact that there have been times where you’ve commented on stories that we’ve had at Barren Magazine—
K: —and you’ll say funny things like “this kind of romantic wishy-washy whatever doesn’t appeal to me, no wonder I don’t have a girlfriend”—or whatever kinda silly thing—and I think what I saw was that several of the characters had these insecurities about whoever they were dating, and so, I think for me, that’s where I saw you a little bit was in this vulnerability and insecurity.
>>> Note: don't send James McAdams love stories. Also, don't send dystopian stories.
J: That’s insightful. A couple of people who know me shocked me by telling me “I just read your book,” or “I liked your book,” or whatever—they just have to be polite. They were like, “I was surprised how it really seemed to be about unrequited love. . . ." And I never thought of it that way, and then I looked through it. And I don't think there's a love story, I think all the stories are refracted love stories, because they all fail. . . . I think it’s more interesting for me to write about failure than, say, a lifetime movie about two people who have the perfect wedding and then the perfect child.
K: . . . several of the pieces had this . . . dysfunctional aspect to them, especially in terms of relationships between two people, so between that and the technology themes that came in every once in a while, it almost felt a little dystopian, and I was like, “Uh oh, James! What is this somewhat dystopian theme that you’re using”?!
J: Yeah, you got me there.
For realsies, though, James isn't hardcore opposed to dystopian or apocalyptic literature, he just wants the story to do more than describe a situation. He wants it to mean something. For example, he was a big fan of this piece of flash fiction we published recently in Barren Magazine.
I'm curious about James's writing style, so the conversation shifts in that direction. First, how does being a Philly native influence his writing?
James has a dexterity with dialogue, and he credits Philly for giving him a love of dialogue that's mispronounced or fragmented, that doesn't make sense, or in which people are always interrupting. It's alive and messy as opposed to quid-pro-quo and obvious. That messy, gritty nature of Philly seems to translate also to the tone of his writing, casting it as darker and bleaker.
In the same way that fiction can be categorized into different genres, I often categorize writers by their prose style, so one of my favorite questions to ask is, If you could compare your writing to another author's, who would you say your style is similar to?
"If I'm aware of ripping someone off," James says,"if I write like anyone, [my] newer [stories], which is the shorter stuff, and the stylistically much more simple stuff, is modeled after Denis Johnson." James's intention, in using Johnson's style as a model, is to write more concise, humble, quick stories.
We turn to address James's experience as an editor. There's an enlightening dichotomy that develops for writers who become editors and gain insights into the broader pool of submissions. For James, this experience has reinforced his commitment to treating people like individuals who have value. So I ask him how that manifests.
"I bet you're even more like this than I am, cause you're probably even nicer than I am,"—this guy can't go two seconds without complimenting summody, honestly— "But for my cover letters, I do hours of research so I can be like, 'Hi, Katie! Here's a story for you. Hey! I noticed you're from Baltimore, and I heard you have a piece coming out in Riggwelter, and I'm excited to read it!' And honestly, I don't do it to butter people up, but just because I know that they're people just like you who are doing this out of love, and I want to give them that love . . . it's not like we cry when we get a copy/pasted thing, but it's so nice when it's like, 'Dear James and Katherine, How are you two doing? I used to live in Philadelphia,'—just anything! And you're like, 'AWW!' I spend too much time just trying to give a detail to every person. And I might be creepy. I'm like Mr. Too Much Information. I just hate formality."
So, of course, I start asking less formal questions.
K: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one movie, one book, and one album, which would you choose? This hypothetical assumes you have a fabulous entertainment system at your disposal, obvs.
J: Movie would be Almost Famous. Music: Neutral Milk Hotel's album In the Airplane Over the Sea . . . it's this pop/punk theme album about Anne Frank. It's just beautiful. The book would be some Russian . . . [he thinks, barely] Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky.
K: What's in your guilty pleasure/stress relief reading pile?
J: My entire quarantine I've been listening to like eight different podcasts and reading books about true crime. I’ve just become Mr. True Crime. So, I’m reading a book called I’ll be Gone in the Dark, which is an HBO show on Sunday nights about this California serial killer it took them like forty years to find, and they only found him because of these new websites like Ancestry.com and stuff. So they can take the DNA from like forty years ago and upload it to the site and the site will sort of ping with somebody else who might be a third cousin, and they’ve been finding a lot of people that way.
Finally, the question that must be asked of any Philly native:
K: Pat's or Gino's?
J: Gino's. Or neither? I'm vegan. I dunno if one of them has vegan options yet. I've figured out how to make a vegan Philly cheesesteak; it's pretty good!
I had so much fun during this interview with James, I ended up asking WAY too many questions and not knowing where to put them in my article. Check out the video below, where James discusses the literary qualities of professional writing.