A Conversation with Adam Haslett, Author of Union Atlantic
Q: Union Atlantic has two main story lines. One is about a conflict over a piece of land between two neighbors, Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher, and Doug Fanning, a young banker; the other is about the financial troubles at the bank where Doug works. How did these two events come together for you as you wrote the novel?
A: The characters are what came first. I created each of them separately before I ever knew how they would inhabit the same novel. The first was Charlotte's brother Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, whose first sections I wrote ten years ago. I'd become fascinated by this idea of the anonymous power that the Fed and other public and private bureaucracies have over our daily lives and I wanted to place a character at the pinnacle of one of those organizations, mostly to discover for myself how that kind of mind would work. That, in turn, gave me the idea of a troubled bank that the Fed would be regulating, and thus a banker, who became Doug Fanning. Charlotte was the other major figure and it was in writing about her as she lived alone with her dogs in the semi-rural town of Finden that I came up with the idea of this land her grandfather had donated to the town for preservation and her anger at it being sold and a mansion being built on it. The last to arrive on the scene, so to speak, was Nate Fuller, the grieving teenager, who comes to Charlotte for tutoring and ends up with a crush on Doug.
Q: Which of these four main characters do you identify with the most?
A: I identify with each of them in different ways. Charlotte's fierce convictions about the importance of history, literature, and art. Henry's conflicted belief in both good government and keeping the system afloat. Nate's sorrow and desire. And even the violence of Doug's ambition. You have to expose part of yourself to create a character deep enough for readers to care about. You try not to because it's hard and at times shameful, but then when you read those pages over and you see they have no life to them so you throw them away and force yourself to be more honest. So I suppose the answer is I see myself in all my characters, in their best moments and in their worst.
Q: Doug Fanning, who we first meet as a young sailor on a navy ship in the Persian Gulf back in 1988, and who goes on to a career in finance, is in many ways the most charged and conflicted character in the book. Some readers might see him as an indictment of the greed and moral bankruptcy that characterized the first decade of the 21st century. Was that your intention when you set out to write the novel?
A: No, it wasn't. And my hope, at least, is that readers will see by the end of the book that Doug Fanning is not simply a stand in for the avarice of the age. Indictment is easy enough, but it doesn't make for interesting fiction. Though he may not understand them very well at the outset, he has his reasons for acting as he does. Like everyone in the book, he wants intimacy of one sort or another. But the only way he knows how to seek it is by exercising power over others. I think that's true for a lot of men. And the two strands of American life he comes out of-the military and the corporate world-are places that embody that particular kind of machismo, which can be as much of a prison for those inside it, as it is an oppressor of those it takes as its object. As I see it, my job as a writer isn't to judge, but to take a reader as far inside as I can and let them dwell there.
Q: Charlotte's mental deterioration is both heartbreaking and chilling. She's such a proud woman, with such zeal, but her thoughts are turning against her. Can you talk about the role her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie, play in this unraveling?
A: As with many of the characters from my first book, solitude is a basic fact of Charlotte's life. The man she loved when she was young died many years ago and she's lived on her own ever since. It's her dogs who keep her company. And as we all know, owners speak to their pets. When I began writing Charlotte and figuring out how the intensity of her interior life would manifest itself, it occurred to me that she might hear the Mastiff and the Doberman speaking back at her. And because she is an upholder of what I see as a decaying tradition of humanism, I chose two figures who I think of as part of the superego, or guilt that lies behind American liberalism-the puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, and the black separatist, Malcolm X. They share a castigating, high-rhetoric that captures something of the violence Charlotte experiences in her own thoughts. And it's their voices, the unconscious of her own tradition, which grow louder throughout the book, until eventually she is overcome by them.
Q: How and why did you choose Boston and its surrounding suburbs as the backdrop for your novel?
A: The simplest answer is that that's where I grew up. First on the south shore, near Plymouth, and then later west of Boston. It's the landscape I know best, the one where my memories run the deepest. It's also a place where you feel the weight of the past quite easily, given its history, and the evidence of it, mostly in old buildings and houses. Charlotte and Doug's conflict over the land that Doug has built his house on comes out of that history. She sees him as a tasteless intruder; he sees her as an anachronistic snob. And they both have their points.
Q: Tell us a bit about the nature of Doug and Nate's relationship. What insecurities and/or vulnerabilities do they take out on each other?
A: Their scenes were the toughest to write. Nate's desire was the easier to understand. He's got a crush on Doug, and he falls for him with that teenage abandon which blows everything else out of the water and makes him willing to sacrifice a lot to be close to him. What Doug needs and wants from Nate is more complicated. The challenge for me was to write scenes in which a man who'd never been with another male sleeps with a guy without leaving the reader with the impression that he is 'coming out'. What Doug sees in Nate is weakness. But he also, without realizing it at first, sees part of himself. Which elicits both the desire to love and to destroy. It's a volatile situation. And a struggle to get onto the page. But I wanted very much to portray what I think of as a specifically masculine form of desire that's more about power than object choice. It's all around us, but the clichés of identity tend to keep it hidden in plain sight.
Q: Most of your novel is written in a fairly direct, realist manner, which in the intense scenes, particularly with Charlotte and the dogs, rises a few registers into more lyrical language. Can you talk a little about the style of Union Atlantic?
A: For better or worse, I care a lot about holding my reader's attention. Perhaps obsessively so. I think of myself as crafting an experience for her or him. And so I want them with me as I move through a scene or a thought. Once your reader is with you, they're willing to go places, to take leaps. I think a writer has to earn that trust, in whatever style they are working in. And so ninety percent of the work goes into the sentences. Trying to create a rhythm in the writing that does more than just communicate information. That's why in the end you can never summarize a book. It exists in the sequence of words that it was written in and nowhere else.
Q: The novel takes place during the lead up to the Iraq War and it involves a bank that has taken excessive risk, thus endangering the whole financial system. These two issues, war and finance, have dominated much of the country's attention in the last decade. What is your intention to write a topical novel?
A: I wouldn't say I was aiming to be topical. I finished the book the week that Lehmann Brothers collapsed, so during the writing I was mostly worried that no one would know what the Federal Reserve was, or if they did they wouldn't want to read about it in a novel. That said, I do feel a responsibility as a writer to try to understand what it's like to be alive in the world today. We live in an insanely complicated and distracting culture which makes it very hard to slow down and think through the consequences of actions taken by individuals, governments, and corporations. I did feel a duty to try to dramatize at least some fraction of this maelstrom. You write the book you want to read, and I wanted to read a book that would bring together the micro and macro scale of contemporary life. That was my ambition, more than an attachment to any particular set of current events.
Q: You've now written one acclaimed short story collection and one novel. Will you return to short fiction after this publication. What's next for you?
A: Since I finished the book I've been working on non-fiction mostly. I've written one short story, but at the moment most of my ideas are for a new novel, the characters of which I've begun to think about and sketch a bit. Hopefully, I've taught myself something about how to write a novel with Union Atlantic such that I'd be able to start the next one with a little more confidence. I emphasize the word, hopefully.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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