We Make Our Own Traditions: An Interview With Adam Gnade


The last time I saw Adam Gnade he looked the best I have ever seen him look. When I knew him in San Diego his eyes had the non-blinking, focused, stressed intensity of his daily life co-founding the weekly magazine Fahrenheit. The magazine lasted a year and revolutionized the culture of the city, but it took its toll on nearly everyone involved.

When I knew him in Portland his skin had that soft pallor of living in a place with damp basements and months without sun. He had been spending his winters indoors writing his talking songs on his weird four-string guitar and writing his great first novel Hymn California. For all its health ethos, people in Portland are pale-faced much of the year. He was no exception.

I last saw Gnade (pronounced guh-nah-dee) at his country house outside of Lansing, Kansas, where he keeps chickens, sheep, goats and two rescue pit bulls, along with a garden that could almost be considered a small organic farm. It was spring and everything was young and green. He was working on his new book (which I just read and should come out on a major imprint next year if any agent has the good sense to pick him up.) He looked good. He moved faster than I remembered, with more purpose. He was stronger, too. His eyes were soft and he laughed more. In a word he was healthy. The country had been good to him and since he moved to Kansas he’s been making the best work of his career.

Gnade’s material is an interconnected world of characters, mostly based in San Diego and Tijuana, where he spent his childhood and early adult years.

“My root directive has always been to write something I would want to read and the regionalists move me more than anyone. Y’know, the ones who give you this self-contained universe you can come back to and know the people and the landscape, the streets, the bars, the shortcuts, the grocery stores, and you can visit this place and feel at home. Faulkner’s the best example of that. Coming back to his county every book I feel like I’m coming home. It’s satisfying. And when you really know the place you’re writing about, it’s a pleasure to go back there as a writer and see your friends and the places you love. I love all my characters even the total fucking assholes.”

When he’s not writing novels he’s writing novellas. He just released his sixth small book via Punch Drunk Press out of San Diego, titled The Growling Mouth. The book follows two storylines — one of a young man leaving Portland and another of an even younger man and his friend hearing a ghostly, horrific tale.

“The book’s about how you handle things like doubt and war and aloneness and how they shape you. You either ride away from what hurts you or you get taken out by it.”

Gnade will be the first to admit that he draws on his own life in his fiction. The tapestry of characters he weaves is made from the fabric of his past. But the stories transcend simple realism.

“I’m still writing about the same people and places, I just hide it better. If you want to know the dangers of writing autobiographical fiction read Harriet the Spy and You Can’t Go Home Again. They’re the same book.”

Music is a large part of how he functions as a writer and an artist. He was recently in Georgia working on a new record with the guys from Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters as his backing band. The album’s slated to be released in November on Blessing Force.

“We made something based around the characters in the novel and it sounds a lot like the book. Very American, y’know, trains, water towers, urban ruins, a shooting in the desert, loan sharks, teenage bonfire parties, motels, unrequited love, bars, pickup trucks, Indians, trailer parks, New Orleans, fishing. A lot of weird shit you won’t hear about in anyone else’s songs like Custer, juggaloes, NASCAR, strip malls, Pretzel Time, chain stores. There’s an election, Lonesome Crowded West vibes, lakes, highways, electric lines, phones, money, a big family dinner, debt, hospitals, jobs. The whole mess.”

The book he’s talking about is the same one mentioned above.

“It’s done and ready to be published once the edits happen. I haven’t started the agent search. Not looking forward to that. I’d rather put it out myself but it’s big — 130,000 words.”

When Gnade talks about doing things himself, he’s also talking about Microcosm Distribution and the new company he and a few others have started, based out of Lansing. The spin-off is a big development in zine publishing, as Microcosm has long been the giant in do-it-yourself print bookmaking.

“We split off from Microcosm Publishing and now we’re our own company. The whole staff (besides Microcosm Publishing’s founder Joe) came with us and we’ve got a ton of stock and I think we have a chance to do something good. Elevate the standard of self-published and DIY literature, expand the market for it, do our bid against e-books and 140 character messages as “entertainment” and the death of intellectuality that’s happening right now in America. I hate that people 100 years ago were smarter than us. The life most people are living right now is not real. We all need to step up and be better.” 

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