Sunday, September 15, 2002
New York Read the stories in "You Are Not a Stranger Here" and you might expect author Adam Haslett to be a dark, brooding man with a few nervous twitches and a taste for prescription drugs.
But over breakfast at a downtown restaurant, the tall, slim Haslett offers a firm handshake, a wide smile and a warm hello. His shirt is clean and buttoned, his pants are tailored and, in his hand, he carries a well-read copy of The New Yorker.
He has had a busy time promoting his collection, even appearing twice on the "Today" show, which picked "You Are Not a Stranger Here" as its August book club selection. The anthology has made The New York Times best-seller list ï¿½ an unusual feat for a work of short stories ï¿½ and has more than 100,000 copies in print.
Meanwhile, Haslett finished working at a New York law firm for the summer and returned to classes at Yale Law School.
Law school had long been a dream for Haslett, who grew up in Wellesley, Mass., and England with his parents, brother and sister.
"Lawyers fascinate me," he says. "They run the gamut in terms of humanity. You've got everything from ambulance chasers to human rights activists."
He didn't enroll in law school until after he had earned a master's of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where he wrote fiction. He also spent a year at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown on Cape Cod, working on "You Are Not A Stranger Here."
His biggest challenge is to find a way to balance both aspects of his life ï¿½ law and writing. He is not the type of person who can get up early in the morning, write for a few hours and then go on to his law life. His mind runs more on one track: He likes to commit himself full time to writing or full time to law.
He took a year's leave from Yale to write full time so he could complete "Stranger," which took four years to write. All the stories were inspired by random things that interested him at the time.
Haslett knows that his stories are dark and are all connected by a common theme of depression, but he says they're not dark for the sake of being dark or gimmicky. And even he is a little surprised about the details in some of his stories, such as the son who chops off his mother's fingers in a fit of rage or the gay teen-ager who allows a classmate to repeatedly beat him.
Haslett likes to see the inner workings of people through their emotional problems. He is fascinated about how a personal crisis can become a medical condition for some and not for others. And he is curious to see how people are affected by medication.
More than anything, though, he wants to show empathy for those who struggle.
"There is nothing pessimistic about these characters," he says. "They just have a lot to deal with."
One character in his story, "Notes to My Biographer," is an angry 73-year-old man who goes to visit an estranged son. A physician in "The Good Doctor" becomes fascinated with a patient he visits in his rural practice.
Nan Talese, Haslett's editor at Doubleday, discovered the author by accident. While vacationing in California about two years ago she came across "Notes to My Biographer" as she flipped through Zoetrope magazine. It was the first story she had read by him.
"What struck me was the manic energy in the piece," she says. "The mania drives you along but underneath you know that there is something very serious."
Craig Seligman wrote in The New York Times Books Review of Haslett, "Haslett writes precise, pulled-back sentences that go down without a fuss. Only when his character are truly out of control does color start to seep in."
When Halsett's characters start getting a little colorful, their voices practically scream from the page.
"Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and I have never joined a support group in my life," Haslett writes in "Notes to My Biographer."
"At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. ... I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed 26 patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did getting his pound of flesh. Bureaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid."
Haslett graduates from Yale next June, and he isn't sure what he'll do with his degree.
But he likes criminal law. And although he would like to write a novel, he has no plans to follow Yale law professor Stephen Carter, author of the best-selling "The Emperor of Ocean Park."
"I can guarantee you I won't be writing any legal thrillers," Haslett says with a smile.