Adam Braver is the author of Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, Divine Sarah, Crows Over the Wheatfield, November 22, 1963, Misfit, The Disappeared, and Rejoice the Head of Paul McCartney.
His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Border’s Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list; as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Turkish, and French. His work has appeared in journals such as Daedalus, Ontario Review, Cimarron Review, Water-Stone Review, Harvard Review, Tin House, West Branch, The Normal School, and Post Road.
Braver also edits the Broken Silence Series for the University of New Orleans Press, a book series that tells the firsthand accounts of political dissidents. In addition to being the Associate Director and a faculty member at the NY State Summer Writers Institute, he serves as the Library Program Director at Roger Williams University, where he is also on faculty. He lives in Rhode Island.
Hi Adam, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you tell us about your latest book, Rejoice the Head of Paul McCartney, and what inspired you to write it?
The book is set against the backdrop of an incident that took place in 1969, in which a billboard advertising the newly released Abbey Road was vandalized by someone cutting off Paul McCartney’s head. The novel is about how that small act—really a desecration of a symbol of an entire era—affects a web of different people, both at that time and then throughout their lives.
There are a variety of characters in the book, from a terrorized couple who won’t leave a bedroom, to a student accused of being a domestic terrorist, to a young boy obsessed with finding the McCartney head, to a Hollywood legend and his aspiring actor son – just to name a few.
Much of the inspiration or drive to write this book came from thinking about the bridge between idealism and cynicism, and how people (the characters) might have been shaped by this small but symbolic act. There are some novels that are premised on a series of cause-and-effect, and others on the ripples of a single event. As with most of my books, I was driven by the latter.
One last aspect was that I was a very young kid in Los Angeles in 1969, and that was a space and time that very much haunts me (as far away and distant as it may be now), and I kind of wanted to exist in there again in order to explore it, consider it, wonder about it.
What was the creative process like for writing the book? Can you take us through from your initial idea to the final draft?
From the start, I wanted to write the novel as a series of suites, with each suite being composed of small, almost short-shorts. Each piece within a suite would have different characters, but taken together would have the musicality, if you will, of a song suite. (And, of course, all the suites would add up to a single narrative.)
Pretty quickly, I knew that I would have a revolving cast that would come and go through all these various suites—sometimes moving back and forth in time, but always moving forward in terms of evolving the sense of consciousness and identity. The plan pretty much held true throughout most of the writing.
The way the novel reads is pretty close to how it was drafted. I think the only real change from the initial draft to the final draft was the ending. Originally, I’d had a final suite that sewed up everyone’s stories. But it felt too much like a “conclusion,” as though it was a wrap-up. So, some of those pieces were moved around in the narrative, which I think was also more effective (and perhaps more realistic), as people’s issues or stories rarely all conclude in unison.
In general, as I write, I rarely see anything set in stone. I like the idea of moving pieces around—be they chapters, paragraphs, sentences, etc. The combustion that can come from shifting the linear order can be very powerful and offer a meaning that just wasn’t there in the first run-through. The risks of playing with linear-ness are always exciting to me as a reader, and very fulfilling and inspiring as a writer.
Can you talk about your role as the editor of the Broken Silence Series for the University of New Orleans Press and how you approach editing the firsthand accounts of political dissidents?
Yes, this tracks back to work I have done with the NGO Scholars at Risk (SAR) – specifically their Scholars in Prison project. Years and years ago, I started to engage students in the work of advocating for free expression, thinking specifically about writers and scholars under authoritarian regimes who are silenced for their expression through unjust imprisonment. That turned into a course called the Student Advocacy Seminar – a course that has now grown into a worldwide program, and in which I coordinate for SAR.
Through that work, I met many scholars who had been detained (and/or their families), and I often was so moved and inspired by what I heard that I wanted others to have that same experience. Thus, the series was born.
In general (and often with the help of a student intern), I conduct a series of interviews with the person, and then later edit them into something that resembles a narrative. Sometimes that is by chronology, sometimes by specific ideas, etc. My hope is always that the books capture some of the essence of what it is like to be in that person’s world at the specific moment of time in their life.
As the Library Program Director at Roger Williams University, what role do you think libraries play in promoting literacy and a love for reading?
So essential, I think. I mean, the world of language and ideas and history and culture are all housed in those spaces. It is somewhat romantic, I suppose. Especially as a child, I, as so many others, understood a trip to the library was a portal into other worlds, other people’s minds, multitudes of concepts, artistry, beauty, etc.
The roles of public libraries have seemed to change a little these days, as they find themselves having to also serve needs that other sectors of the civic infrastructure can’t provide, but at its heart, especially for children, the magic of the books on the shelf, the librarian who can inspire, and the ability to walk out with those books under your arms and bring them into your home for a time still is so crucial and so beautiful.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I try to engage in writing every day, at least on some level. An ideal day finds me working first thing in the morning, most often trying to generate some new words on the page. Later, during the day or in the evening, I’ll dedicate time to revising those earlier sentences, and/or work on the larger aspect of the narrative.
How much time I can give to both of those aspects often depends on what other demands or obligations are coming at me during particular days or weeks. Also, where I am in the writing project will influence how I work – for example, if I am in later drafts, more energy will be devoted to revising sentence by sentence, structure in sections, etc.
How do you overcome writer’s block and keep your creativity flowing?
Mostly, I just try to write through it. I’ve written more than my share of terrible pages and stories, always keeping in mind that I need to trample through the muck to get to the shoreline. Out of that, usually, comes some spark, or some entry into the space or world that I wasn’t finding, or was trying to force, or was too self-conscious of.
Sometimes I think it is a matter of divesting my head of all awareness and premeditated ideas and ambitions, and instead letting the unconscious take over. Still, it takes a lot of reminding, and fighting off all the critical voices that are in one’s head anyway. As well as remembering that failure is part of the creative process.
How do you balance writing with your responsibilities as an Associate Director, faculty member, and Library Program Director?
By nature, I am pretty focused and disciplined when writing. It has always been very easy for me to exit the world I am in and to enter into the world I am writing. Almost all my writer friends work in some capacity (most often teaching), and all of us have to find ways to balance the need for our time against the needed time for others. It’s an ongoing conversation.
Luckily, for most of us, there is some intersection between the world of, say, what we’re teaching and the artistry of writing. But for a writer always looking for the gift of time, a good helping of selfishness can go a long way.
Can you share any tips for writers looking to develop and stick to a writing routine?
I think just that – get a routine. Much like exercising, when one stops, it only gets harder to start back up. But one needs to find a routine that realistically fits their life. For example, mine was very different when my son was little, and I had to think about time and attention in a different way. That changed and shifted as he grew older.
But most importantly, I think it is important to find a regular time of day to engage in your writing. That can be trying to get a new sentence or two or dozen out. It can be re-reading and revising. It can even be a long walk to think about where you are structurally in a book or story. But as with any creative endeavor, there always can be a million-and-a-half reasons not to do it—especially if going through a difficult patch in the narrative, so it only behooves a writer to have a consistent working pattern. Ideally.
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
There are so many. The two who jump right to mind at this particular moment of time at this particular hour on this particular day are Anton Chekhov (for his short stories) and Milan Kundera (for his blend of idea and storytelling and narrative structure).
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?
For reasons that I am still trying to work out, beginning with the pandemic lockdown, I have found myself mostly reading books in translation. It was not a conscious decision, but just something I found myself continually drawn to. I think there is something to the different sensibilities of form and style that makes me see the world in a more connective way.
Again, hard to explain. I just went through a phase of reading through several books by Scholastique Mukasonga and Jenny Erpenbeck, as well as a slew of Norwegian and Japanese novelists. At the moment, I am reading a Kurdish novel called The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
It is pretty nondescript. A basic desk with a desktop computer, a stack of slips of paper where I’ve jotted down notes that I’ll never look at. I do like to be surrounded by books, so I have a couple of shelves that hem me in – mostly signed books from friends and colleagues, or others I’ve admired. They keep me company, and inspire me in one way or another.
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