March 28, 2002
YLS Student and Author Adam Haslett '03 Interchanges Law and Letters
Author and law student Adam Haslett '03 says there's a division in his mind between legal studies and the art of fiction. "It's two different sides of my brain, and I feel like I want both of them. They're both parts of my mind that I need to nourish." His collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, is due to be published in July, which will be the end of his second year of law school.
The intertwining of law and letters in his life goes back to when Haslett applied to law school several years ago--and also applied to creative writing fellowships. He deferred his admission to YLS to live in an artists' colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for a year. Then he got into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and YLS "gave me another two years [deferral]; it was very generous of them," he reports.
After three years writing short stories and developing his prose, Haslett decided "it was time to go to law school." And in the press of first-year courses, he had to put writing aside. However, during his second semester, an editor at Doubleday publishers--after first reading one of Haslett's stories in the magazine Zoetrope: All Story--offered to publish a collection of his fiction.
To do this, Haslett had to switch tracks and again put law aside in favor of letters. He had several stories written, but the book was only half done. So, he took a year off from law school and wrote more stories.
"The writing process for me is laborious, and slow, and totally unpredictable," says Haslett. The stories in his collection are the result of hours in front of the computer, producing sentences, pages, and ideas, many of which he eventually throws away. He recalls often writing ten or twenty pages, only to discard all but a paragraph. "Eventually something cohered enough that I continued and finished it," he says. "But the proportion of what I write to what I keep is very high." In fact, Haslett estimates that he spent four years worth of full-time work crafting the nine tales in You Are Not a Stranger Here.
But the result of all this refinement and care is emotionally intense and lyrical fiction. Jonathan Franzen, winner of the National Book Award, has said that Haslett's writing has "something urgent and fresh and fiercely intelligent to say." The first story in the collection, which is also the one that grabbed the attention of his editor, is a first-person narration from the perspective of a 74-year-old inventor in the throes of manic exuberance. "Notes to My Biographer" was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. The end piece to the book, "The Volunteer," tells the very different story of how the lives of a high school student and an institutionalized schizoprenic intersect. Haslett says that this is his favorite piece in the book--if only because it was the last he wrote and so is still close to him.
Although the stories in Haslett's book differ in tone, setting, and perspective, he says that the "impetus" for each is the same. "I'm aiming to move people," he says. "I think the degree of clarity, or the pace of the story, or any of those other techniques are about retaining the reader and pulling them in. . . . I sometimes have a romantic conception of the task of writing."
This is where Haslett's writing differs dramatically from his studies in the law. "The thing that I enjoy about the law is precisely its lack of interior, the intellectual formality and, in a sense, the abstraction of it." Haslett says that when he finished his year of working on the book, he was eager to get back to classes. Similarly, when he's immersed in his studies, he longs for more time to write. "But that's good," he says. "It gauges whether or not I feel compelled to write . . . and I want to write things that I need to write."
Haslett plans to find ways to balance his devotion to law and his devotion to writing in the future. This summer he will be working at a legal job, but he will also do readings in support of his book's release. And he has an idea for a novel that he wants to start putting on paper. But given his working habits, he says it's likely to be a tentative process. "As soon as I sit in front of the computer, two years of thinking could disappear."
But there will also be one further indentureship to the law that Haslett foresees will keep him from writing much fiction: after his last year at YLS, he'll spend a year clerking for a judge.
(Haslett's story "Notes to My Biographer" is available online, through the website of Zoetrope: All-Story magazine. Follow this link.)