Authors / Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

I Couldn’t Give Up On It: Q & A with Steve Adams

by Ramona Reeves

Steve Adams grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas, and like the main character in his debut novel, Remember This, knows plenty about moving from Texas to New York. Adams’ novel follows John who moves to New York City in the 1980s and falls for a married woman. As the affair unfolds, John’s childhood bubbles up to reveal a link between his past and present. Meanwhile, the specter of AIDS haunts New York, forcing questions around notions of beauty and love. True to his other work, Adams writes intricately about place. His writing has won a Pushcart Prize and been listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays. He’s won Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, been a guest artist at The University of Texas, and had plays produced in New York City.

Ramona Reeves: Hi Steve, it’s great to chat with you about your debut novel, Remember This, out from University of Wisconsin Press in October.

Steve Adams: Thank you. I’m excited.

RR: I’ll start by asking you to tell readers what your novel is about, without giving anything away.

SA: It’s funny, I’m still learning to give a pithy response to this question. It’s the story of a young man who flees his home in Texas to move to New York City, where he finds himself in an affair with a married woman who has an eighteen-month-old daughter. She also happens to be his boss, and they have two months together before she has to return to her husband. The year is 1988 and AIDS is everywhere. There’s a second storyline that tracks his childhood in Texas with his three older sisters and shows how he became the person he is.

RR: How did the idea for the novel come to you?

SA: The answer comes from something I have in common with my protagonist, John: New York City was important to me as a young man. I came into my own there, as my protagonist does. I lived there during three different decades, about 16 years in total.

In 2008, I had a good day job in the city until the economy collapsed. They basically shipped my job overseas. I knew I wasn’t going to find work and would need to leave. I had several months of unemployment before my lease was up and didn’t know if I’d ever return, so I spent that time wandering the city and revisiting places that had meaning for me, including going to the big public library and writing. And I wrote and wrote.

Eventually, I realized you can’t just have a sad guy wandering New York City and make that work as a novel. So the idea came to me of a character who’s involved in a love affair. I added to the story a clock that’s ticking down—they’ve agreed the affair will end in two months when her husband returns from overseas. I made the woman he’s involved with the love of his life, gave her a child, etc., to raise the stakes. In a way, I was writing through my own loss of the city. And having that time to wander around the city and take notes is how it all came about.

RR: As you mentioned, the AIDS epidemic looms in the background. Did you always know that would be part of the novel?

SA: Yes. I was there in the mid-80s to early-90s. It was one of those periods in my life where I felt I was most fully alive. I was a theater person at the time and was having plays produced, but I was also losing heroes to AIDS. To see the government not do anything for a very long time was painful. And of course one of my main characters is gay.

I wanted to place the story within that intense time, and convey the feeling we had. We didn’t really know where AIDS was spreading. It complicated love in New York, evoking the question, “Am I going to love?” and if so, “How am I going to love?” In the city, there were so many beautiful people, and you felt alive, and then you would see somebody who was sick and it was such a shock. That moment had so much intensity in my life, and I wanted to write about it.

RR: As you were responding, I thought about how those losses serve to intensify the losses John experiences. I also thought about place. You write well about New York City. Your subway stations and Irish bars, for example, are rich with details. I felt I was there. Can you talk about the idea of place in your work?

SA: Place for me is deep in the bones, far below the surface. When I’m writing a story, I set it in a place that has resonance with me. Place seems to come together in my stories organically. It’s true I love places and I love objects. I’ve been to places where I immediately knew, “I could never live here,” just by the feeling in the air, and other places where I felt I’d found a home on sight. Place is just something I experience, like smell and taste, especially when visiting cities—I love cities.

I experience settings intensely, which is one reason I love New York so much: it’s such a rich and intense place. It has its own life, and if you live there, you’re a part of that life. And so I wanted to write about New York that way, as a living place.

RR: What was your favorite part about writing this novel? And in general, what is your favorite part of the writing process?

SA: I feel like I’m a natural at the shorter form. It took me years to get a handle on the longer form and a narrative that could stretch out. One of my favorite things about writing is the discoveries, and I find the longer form of the novel forces you to discover a lot. Staying with it when it seems like it will never end and when you get lost is hard, but if you keep going, something will shift and you’ll make a discovery. Maybe you’ll discover something about a character or something else that snaps other moments into position.

RR: Did you follow an outline or wing it when you wrote the first draft? How did you go about plotting the two timelines between Texas and New York?

SA: I studied screenwriting, and used the three-act structure. Once I got those bones into the story, then I could travel and explore for 300 pages. As a writing coach, this is something I recommend for writing a novel; I have a chart I give to clients that shows the three-act structure. It’s standard in screenwriting, but I think we should teach it more in prose writing.

In terms of three acts, there’s the initiating event that triggers the story, the end of the first act, the midpoint in the second act, the “all is lost” moment at the end of the second act, and the climax and denouement in the third act. So when I take off with an idea for a novel—I’m working on one right now—I like a sense of that shape. It’s helpful to know what’s going to happen, so you don’t need to solve the puzzle of the entire novel while you’re writing the early draft. Some people outline in tremendous detail and some people don’t. I need those points of the three-act structure in order to set off on the adventure.

For this novel, my first draft was only the main storyline. And then I landed back in Texas, and I paid an editor to give me feedback on the novel. She said it wasn’t working. What I had wasn’t enough. It was crushing, but she was right. After I crawled out from under my bed, I was talking to my sister and she told me about Jack Nicholson’s complicated relationship with his older sisters, and it stuck with me.

Not long after, I was flying back to visit New York and an image of a little boy and his three older sisters popped into my head and I thought, “Oh that’s the main character as a child.” It really came to me like that—poof!—and I knew the two stories needed to interplay so that readers would understand why John enters into the relationship in New York. At first, I alternated the two timelines and realized that wasn’t working, so I began organically grouping chapters by “feel” into these little arcs and placing the arcs against each other. At one point, I wrote a summary of each chapter on slips of paper and went to a coffee shop and moved the chapters around on a table until the order seemed right.

RR: After you finished the novel, how long did it take to publish it?

SA: I had a fairly polished draft around 2013, when I had the fortune of winning a Pushcart Prize. I thought, “Oh, here we go.” I got a top agent but my novel didn’t sell. That was pretty crushing, and it all happened really quickly. After I crawled out from under my bed again, I put the novel away and started writing other things. Over the years, I would pull it out and read it through and think, “Wait, this is good,” and every now and then send it out again. I didn’t carpet-bomb because I was still raw over it not hitting. But I couldn’t give up on it. I really believed in it, whether the world did or not. I became fatalistic, joking with friends that when they buried me, my hand would reach up through the dirt pushing my manuscript at them while my corpse yelled, “Read this—it’s good!” So, it was great and unexpected when the University of Wisconsin Press wanted it. They’re a great university press, and I’m just so happy to be working with them.

RR: What advice would you give to other writers trying to publish their first book?

SA: Show your work to good readers and get feedback. You want it to be as good as it can be. If you believe in your book and you know you’ve done the best you can, don’t let rejection be the final say. A lot of this is luck and timing. I think timing helped my novel this time around. And remember, the creation of a work is the most important thing. Once you’re sending a manuscript out, begin writing something else. That will help keep you sane because publishing can be a rollercoaster, and it can also take a long time. And if it takes you five years to find a home for your novel, by then you will have another book written.

RR: I recently read your newsletter and you said your parents were avid horse racing fans. I thought that was an interesting detail and wondered if you’ve ever written about that world or if you think you will?

SA: My dad still watches horse racing on TV. It seems like more of a generational thing, big in the 1950s and 60s. My parents were from Arkansas and had in their blood that Southern horse tradition that stretches into Kentucky. I went to races with my parents, and they were cute together and had fun, but I don’t think I know enough to write about it. I would need to do a deep dive to understand that world. The really cool thing about it is when you arrive before the races and go down to the track to see the horses. They’re just incredible, huge, beautiful animals that know they’re special. You also can smell the dirt of the track, feel the heat; it’s a very visceral thing. And when they come thundering by, it’s intense.

RR: That’s fascinating, and there’s your sense of place again. My last question is who are some of your favorite writers and why?

SA: One book I always think about is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I was transported by it, amazed that such magic could happen in a novel. I don’t know that it’s something I could do, but it’s incredible. I loved The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. When I read it, I thought, “Look what you can do, look what you can do.” I also like Cormac McCarthy. I think my favorite of his is All the Pretty Horses. That was a novel that really hit me. I like a lyricism and language that transports me. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was a big one for me, too. I read a lot of these when I was in New York and getting my MFA, and it was as though a little bell was ringing inside me when I read them.

RR: I love that image. And speaking of bells, I can’t believe our conversation is already over. It’s been great chatting with you, and I’m so happy I had the opportunity to read Remember This. I know it’s a novel I’ll remember.

SA: Thank you. It’s been great.

Ramona Reeves writes fiction and essays. Her linked short story collection, It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories, won the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published Oct. 4 by University of Pittsburgh Press. More about her is available at www.ramonareeves.com.

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