Art Works Blog

Art Talk with NEA Creative Writing Fellow Adam Ehrlich Sachs

Let’s get one thing straight: newly named NEA Creative Writing Fellow Adam Ehrlich Sachs gets along just fine with his father, thank you very much. It’s a question that readers might find themselves pondering after reading Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables, and Problems, Sachs’s debut story collection which was published last year. The book meditates on the theme of fathers and sons through 117 vignettes, which are as universally (and sometimes disturbingly) relatable as they are preposterously absurd. It makes for a wry, insightful foray into one of life’s most studied relationships, one whose fresh structure and tone prevent the thematic repetition from ever feeling repetitious. We recently spoke with Sachs about dads, humor, and the often maddening process of trial-and-error inherent to writing.

NEA: What's your origin story as a writer? How'd you get into this whole thing?

ADAM EHRLICH SACHS: It was through comedy, through the Harvard Lampoon. I was studying atmospheric science as an undergrad. I can't remember why I thought I should [try out for the Lampoon] or why I thought I could make it on, but for some reason I did. There's a tradition of the Harvard Lampoon taking productive people—people that would contribute to society in helpful ways—and turning them into wastes of humans who go on to write for The Simpsons and things like that. It’s kind of this machine for taking scientists and turning them into writers. So that was my way in.

I left college and was a screenwriter for a couple years, and then got tired of that. I wanted some rigor back in my life, so I went back for a PhD in history of science, which I draw on and cannibalize a lot now in my writing. Then I quit for good, and since then it's been fiction. So it finally settled out, probably not in the direction my parents would have wanted.

NEA: Is it ever?

SACHS: No. Almost never. If it is, then you've done something terribly wrong. Or you're a doctor and everything's great.

NEA: I read that you tried for a long time to write a more traditional novel before coming up with the structure for Inherited Disorders. How did you eventually land on the structure for the book?

SACHS: The thing I had from the beginning was this theme of fathers and sons. I knew it was going to be about that. But I was still trying to figure out what kind of writer I was, and the default was this kind of realism. But I'm not a realist, and unfortunately I had no one to tell me that.

I had to figure it out over several years of restarting every few days, which felt like a gradual process of going insane. Opening up a Word document every two days, titling it the same title as the one before but with a new number after it, starting from scratch, and thinking that if I just started in an infinitesimally different way than how I'd started before, then finally the plot would unfold and I could write it.

After a number of years of failing to get beyond page 20, I remember being in a coffee shop [thinking], "I haven't finished a story in I don't know how many years and I feel like a crazy person. So I'm just going to take one of these ideas that I thought would be a 300-page novel and I'm going to finish it in 70 words, and maybe I'll do four of those." Finishing something for the first time felt very nice, even if it was less than a paragraph. Somehow the material started to work that way. Instead of iteratively failing again and again, I could write a story and slightly iterate on it and write another complete story.

NEA: When you were struggling with all this, how did you find the motivation to keep going?

SACHS: It must have been a kind of absurd narcissism or egoism telling me that I would eventually be able to crack this, despite failing. I had been a screenwriter and had written for money out of college, so I had a little bit of confidence that I could maybe write something that somebody might want to pay for. I also have a partner who believes in me, which helps. But there must be a good dose of egoism and narcissism in the mix. I can't quite reconstruct my confidence at that time—how I was telling my parents that I don't need to finish the PhD, that the writing is going well enough to continue. I'm not sure how that happened. Especially when I look back at what I was writing at the time.

NEA: You've used the word "failure" a number of times while we've been talking. That's something we talk about a lot at the NEA—how failure can help fuel success, and sometimes even seems to be a necessary precursor for it. What are your thoughts on that?

SACHS: That seems right to me. A novel essentially is a failed 300-page thing that you give up on at some point. Every work of art fails—it's never going to measure up to your initial conception of it. So it's this weird thing of starting out knowing you're going to devote three years to it and it will not be as good as the thing that inspired you to do it in the first place.

I write for four hours every day. It’s maybe three-and-a-half hours of failure interspersed with 30 minutes of writing that I like. But failure is everywhere. A lot of my book is fathers and sons failing to communicate and yet just constantly trying to. If we didn't have failure, I guess there'd be nothing to write about.

NEA: I have to imagine that the nature of this book makes readers intrigued by your own relationship with your father—this was certainly the case with me. Is it strange to have people speculate about your actual relationship with your dad based on this work of fiction?

SACHS: To be honest, I feel like I invited it. Even though the book is 117 stories, I didn't want it to feel encyclopedic or like some objective analysis of father-son relationships. I wanted there to be a feeling that there's one person behind this who is obsessed with this particular problem and is writing all these stories.

I like fiction that implicates the author in some way or invites you to wonder about his or her relation to it—Nabokov or Beckett. It's hard to think of a good book that doesn't do that in some way, where what feels at issue for the book doesn’t feel like it's really at issue for the writer too. If it doesn't feel personal in that way, then it's hard for me to get invested.

But my relationship with my dad is great—it's no worse than any other father-son relationship, and probably better than many of them. So I understand the questions [about my relationship with my dad] and am not surprised by them, but I never have anything interesting to say about that because I love my dad, and he liked the book. It kind of feels like a bit of deceitfulness on my part, because I invite the question, but then I have nothing interesting to say about it. At least nothing beyond what’s in the book itself.

NEA: Having people speculate about who you are as a person, or your relationships, almost seems to make you a character in the book.

SACHS: I think that's right. Some of these ideas that I have about the book only came as I was writing it. So 20 or 30 stories in, I'd start to wonder: What exactly am I obsessed with? Am I obsessed with what I think I’m obsessed with? And why am I obsessed with that? What exactly I am doing here? There started to be stories about sons writing about their fathers, and it's self-implicating in all sorts of probably annoyingly postmodern ways. But that definitely feels central to what I think I was doing.

NEA: I was wondering what the effect of mediating on a single theme was for you as a writer, and what you hope it will be on your readers?

SACHS: The actual effect seems to have been that it's extremely repetitive, and that the number of people with an appetite for the amount of repetition that I seem to like in art is much smaller than I hoped it might be. I think what a reader typically wants is to feel like they've been transported, they've come back home and something has changed—a book that lands you at some solution at the end of the narrative arc.

But I doubt that that kind of thing really happens. I want that feeling of something that is personal to the author being chewed over, relentlessly, again and again and again. My personal philosophical inclination is that no important issue that we are obsessed with is ever solved or even progressed on. I feel like it's more honest when nothing advances, nothing evolves. Though I like plot, too, and dislike plotlessness, so when it comes to art I also believe the opposite of all this. It should still be entertaining.

I think the use of this theme operated in part as a constraint. I like working with constraints, either ones I’ve imposed on myself on purpose or ones that my obsessive-compulsive disorder has imposed on me against my will. If you write a couple stories on a particular topic, you start with what everyone else thinks. But if you're forced to write dozens more and you can't escape and you can't move on to mothers or sisters or daughters, then you might be forced into weird, perverse areas of the relationship that you wouldn't have thought about at first glance.

NEA: What are some of your other writerly obsessions that you hope to explore in the future?

SACHS: I've always been obsessed with the question of solipsism. The fear that we're never able to get outside of our heads, never able able to enter another person's head. Can we know what someone else is thinking? Can we know that they are thinking? Can we really feel what they're feeling? Which, in a way, is sort of the question of art altogether.

NEA: Do you have a preferred space or time when you write? You mentioned constraints—are there particular constraints that you find productive to the writing process?

SACHS: I try to make it very regulated. I started with word counts—I think most people try to have daily word counts. But I'm just much too slow. That was always a depressing way to go about things because the number that I could hit regularly was very low. So I make sure to work four hours a day—usually ten to one, and then an hour in the afternoon. I tell myself no matter how many words I write in that time, if I can sit there without the Internet for that time, then I don't have to feel guilty, which is always the goal.

I wrote about one of my constraints. It's this little essay for The New Yorker about certain obsessions I have about how words look on the page in Microsoft Word. I wrote it as a story, because I felt ashamed if anyone would actually think it applied to me, but unfortunately it does. This is partly why I have trouble hitting those 500 words a day. I tell myself it serves as a constraint. Someone said it's like working with poetic meter, and that's probably a very generous way of putting it. But it slows me down and makes me go over the sentences again and again and again, not only in a maddening way but also in a way that maybe adds something to them. But it might just be a terrible example of OCD that I need to see a professional about.

NEA: You're very funny, both on the phone and on the page. Obviously every writer has to work on his craft, but is humor something you also have to work on, or does that comes naturally?

SACHS: Thanks. But, no, it doesn't come naturally, and I actually don't trust those avuncular, humorist personas who are naturally humorous and comical. Maybe it is something that comes a little easier to me, though, than suspense or some other effects that people might go for in art.

And I trust laughter as a response. I like that it’s reflexive. There are all sorts of reasons that people like art, and a lot of them have to do with whether other people like it. But there's something nice about the reflex of a laugh that makes me trust it. But it doesn't come naturally. Most of my day is sitting there trying to figure out comedy.

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