Devil’s Lake


Interview with Becky Adnot-Haynes

Q: Often, while I’m reading a collection of stories, I find myself reading along a particular thread—either a setting or a tone or voice or character type—that seems to run through all the stories, putting them together and making them pieces of a larger whole. Something that seemed cohesive and like a natural repetition in The Year of Perfect Happiness was the way you create situations that are at the same time both profoundly funny and a little depressing. In “Baby Baby,” which opens the collection, Mina’s wearing of the foam pregnancy belly had me laughing, but I also felt really sad for her, and a bit scared by her behavior. This happens again with Nell’s online message board activity in “Rough Like Wool” and the trapeze artist’s total life upheaval in “Planche, Whip, Salto.” Do you agree with my assessment that these women’s situations are all balancing on humor and melancholy?

Sometimes they’re funny because they’ familiar and identifiable neuroses. Other times they’re funny because they’re so absurd. Other times they’re not that funny, which is okay too.

Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. There’s sometimes a fine line between hilarity and melancholy, and I like trying to dig into that overlap. I often find that when I write toward a character’s fears, or anxieties, those things can end up manifesting in very funny ways. Sometimes they’re funny because they’re familiar and identifiable neuroses. Other times they’re funny because they’re so absurd. Other times they’re not that funny, which is okay too. I do try to push myself to write comic fiction that’s more than just satire. I think it’s much more interesting when comic characters maintain—or gain—a degree of redemption.

Q: What would you say are some threads you find yourself writing through—do you have other ideas about what holds a collection together, or whether you even think that the kind of cohesiveness I’m talking about is important at all for a book of unrelated stories?

I like writing about people acting out their secret desires, especially when those secret desires are weird and inexplicable and unacceptable to their exceedingly normal friends and spouses. Topically, I find myself writing a lot about pregnancy, oddball sports, and bad marriages. And, as someone once pointed out to me, vegetarian food—oddly enough, since I’m not a vegetarian.

I do think a certain sense of cohesion is important—I didn’t want my book to seem like The Collected Graduate School Stories of Becky Adnot-Haynes. So there’s the thematic connection—people acting out their secret desires, to various outcomes—and also, I think, a similar tone and worldview.

Q: I wanted to ask you about process. I remember a few years ago you describing yourself as a “binge writer.” What does that mean, exactly, and are you still working this way?

Yes, and it’s a terrible habit! Usually what happens is I think of a concept, let it rock around in my brain for a while, and then start writing furiously. The early writing sessions are really productive and exciting, and then increasingly less fruitful and more difficult as I begin to have to choose paths for the characters and plot. The whole process can feel a bit wild and unpredictable and doesn’t easily lead to one having a responsible, adult-like schedule. That said, I’ve tried the keep-your-butt-in-the-chair method and ended up with a lot of mediocre pages that way.

I think of a concept, let it rock around in my brain for a while, and then start writing furiously.

Q: Maybe it sounds a little clichéd to say, but so much of writing is about inspiration and following the right ideas. The ideas in The Year of Perfect Happiness—the plots and scenarios—feel wholly original to me, even while I recognize perfectly the world they take place in as my own, one I live in every day. Could you talk a little about your ideas for stories?

Thank you! That’s a hard question. I think, or I like to think, that my ideas come from a lot of different places. I’m often inspired by settings, or by people who feel slightly out of place in the world—especially when that out-of-placeness isn’t understood or apparent to others.

Other times I write from emotions I’ve felt myself, observed others feeling, or imagined deeply. When I can find the tension in a scenario—whether it’s between characters, between a character and a setting, or within a character—then I can start to figure out what the story is actually about.

When I can find the tension in a scenario … then I can start to figure out what the story is actually about.

Q: When and where do you find yourself doing your best thinking about your writing?

Without fail, I get my best ideas when I’m on the verge of falling asleep. It’s incredibly annoying. It’s like that Mitch Hedberg joke: “Sometimes in the middle of the night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought ain’t funny.”

Q: In all of the stories, I couldn’t imagine these situations happening to anyone except for the characters you’d created. For example, in “Grip,” I believe Ewan trespasses at the high school to pole vault in secret, but only because I believe so fully in Ewan as a character. Do you find yourself drawn to characters or situations first, or do these two things feel like two sides of one coin to you? I guess I’m asking which tends to come first.

Seventy-five percent of the time the scenario comes first—like you mentioned, a guy pole-vaulting secretly in the middle of the night, or a woman going around wearing a fake pregnancy belly. After I ruminate on the situation for a while, the characters often begin to emerge. Sometimes they have clear intentions; sometimes their motivations are murky, even to themselves

Q: Would you mind talking about what you’re working on now?

More stories! And also a novel. Superstitiously I don’t want to say too much, but right now it’s about people who work at a secret copywriting agency. It’s supposed to be funny. I hope it’s funny.

BECKY ADNOT-HAYNES’s short story collection, The Year of Perfect Happiness, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published by UNT Press in 2014. She has published short fiction in literary magazines such as The Missouri Review, The Indiana Review, The Literary Review, West Branch, and Hobart, where her story “Baby Baby” won the Buffalo Prize. She earned her PhD in English (fiction track) from the University of Cincinnati, where she was associate editor of The Cincinnati Review. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and three pets.