Hybrid Interview: Cara Blue Adams
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Cara Blue Adams and Sam Dilling, who also essays about Adams’s debut short story collection, You Never Get It Back. —CRAFT
Essay by Sam Dilling •
Cara Blue Adams’s debut short story collection, You Never Get It Back, is a nuanced portrait of love, loss, and longing. The stories follow the life of Kate Bishop, the central character, from childhood, through her twenties, and into her thirties. Throughout the collection, Kate grapples with periods of self-discovery in the face of unfulfilling relationships, a privileged best friend and roommate who doesn’t believe in second-guessing herself, and a stubborn bohemian mother and tenacious younger sister who’ve formed an inextricable bond since Kate left their working-class hometown for college. Adams touches on many subjects throughout her work—social class, gender, intimacy, ambition—but she explores the theme of loss expansively, through the structure of the stories as well as throughout Kate’s character journey.
With efficient prose and a sharp eye for detail, Adams plays with the use of empty space. Some of the stories are themselves succinct, like “At the Wrong Time, to the Wrong People,” which encompasses only five pages, or “Metaphor,” which consists of only four lines. While the title story, “You Never Get It Back,” spans a lengthy twenty-five pages. Adams leans into the flexibility of the structure of the linked collection, which is less rigid than that of a novel, while managing to keep the stories cohesive and alive. Through this intentional structure, Adams wields the white space to her advantage when moving each story in to and out of focus. In our interview, included below, Adams speaks about her process behind knowing how much of each story to include on the physical page and describes it as similar to fitting a key into a lock.
Adams also does an exceptional job of rendering loss as a theme within the stories themselves. In the collection’s opening story, which acts more like a prologue, “I Met Loss the Other Day,” Adams anthropomorphizes loss in a suit in a tailor shop. The first story of Part I, which is also the collection’s title story, takes place during a New Year’s Eve party, marking the end of a millennium. Through this story, the reader traces the passing of time, and Kate’s loss of innocence. In “The Sea Latch,” which finds Kate, her mother, and her sister on a vacation to York Beach in Maine, the reader senses a palpable emotional distance between Kate and her family that Kate is unable to bridge. In this story, the reader watches Kate grapple with the loss of ease with her closest family members.
Through these moments, Adams demonstrates her characters grappling with loss personally. In “The Sea Latch,” Kate reflects on her own idea of loss:
For months before I’d ended things with Javi, I’d felt that my life was not real; in an irrational but deep, instinctual way, I felt that if I did not get married; did not have children, if I held my breath, time would not pass and I would not age and the things that mattered to me would not fall away. But we can’t save ourselves. Her house on the hill by the sea, I think: surely she knows she will never get it. Doesn’t she want to see the ocean for these few days, while she can, while she’s spending this money she can’t afford to spend? What is she saving it for? Waiting, I think: we do it too well.
While exploring the theme of loss through the content and structure of her work, Adams builds trust with the reader. Rather than spelling out every detail, or including every thread of connective tissue from one moment of Kate’s life to the next, Adams leaves space for the reader to enter and understand the collection on their own terms. You Never Get It Back isn’t a colorful canvas with every brush stroke on display—it is a series of photographs tacked onto a wall, the gaps between each of the frames just as crucial to the collection as the images themselves. As the stories follow Kate through the first decades of her life, the reader witnesses Kate’s growth and maturity as she interacts with family, friends, and boyfriends. But rather than a front-row seat to the events of Kate’s life, the reader is only able to peek through a small window. Unlike in a novel, the reader isn’t taken through each event in Kate’s life chronologically, as though being led by an omniscient hand from one moment to the next. Instead, the reader is dropped in to and out of events and even people in Kate’s life with varying degrees of information. By structuring the collection in this way, Adams requires the reader to trust in her decision-making, and to go along for the ride.
Yet the reader never feels as though Adams is withholding. Instead, the choices Adams makes feel intentional and thus leave the requisite room for the reader to fill in the blanks. Even if the reader doesn’t know exactly the events that led to, say, Kate leaving her love interest from “The Foothills of Tucson,” the reader gets the emotional temperature of the relationship and the state of longing in which Kate left it. By withholding the more intimate details of the relationship, Adams communicates to the reader that the details themselves aren’t important and allows the reader to instead focus on Kate’s mental state. With decisions such as this, Adams demonstrates one of the many ways a linked collection can be structured.
While the linked short story collection isn’t a new genre, it is being explored in new ways. When a collection is linked by character specifically, the author is able to focus, as if with a lens, the moments through which they showcase a character’s life. This same effort is seen in Night of the Living Rez, Morgan Talty’s debut short story collection, which is also linked by a central character. Similar to Adams, Talty demonstrates how to use the gaps between the major (or minor) events of a character’s life to create snapshots that, when put together, create a larger, fuller picture. Talty, much like Adams, says as much with what he leaves off the page as he does with what he chooses to put on it. These two authors, along with others mentioned throughout the interview below, are paving the way for what a linked short story collection can do and be.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Cara Blue Adams over Zoom in April. We spoke about how You Never Get It Back came to be, what it means to build a relationship with your reader, the complexity of rendering social class in fiction, and more.
Sam Dilling: You Never Get It Back is an expansive short story collection that is primarily linked by a central character, Kate Bishop. Why did you choose to do a linked collection?
Cara Blue Adams: One thing I love about the linked collection is that each story is shaped around a moment of intensity or a moment of change. It crystalizes something in the character’s life. You don’t need the same sense of cohesion, or the same narrative through-line, that most novels need. I loved that there could be this cumulative effect of getting to see different sides of the character and understanding different important moments in her life in a way that hopefully makes you reconsider what’s come before. It didn’t have to be the case that I posed a central question or problem and just followed that all the way through. It felt more like life to me.
When I first started putting the stories together, I wasn’t sure what form the book was going to take. I came to see [the stories] were different in so many ways—in terms of setting, in terms of form—but they really needed a strong center to hold them together. I felt, as I moved my stories into alignment with each other, that this character was coming into view who was not totally in view yet. I had some female characters who were sort of similar, so at that point I thought perhaps I’ll make the similar characters into the same character. Once I made that decision, it just felt right.
SD: So you returned to what were, it sounds like, previously finished stories and turned them back into drafts. What was that revision process like?
CBA: It was interesting. A story in which I did that was “Charity”—the third story in the collection. Kate goes home from college for winter break and interacts with her family. In the first version of that story, which was published, Kate had a little brother. I decided Kate would have a little sister, so I needed to do some revision to make that character into this new character. It was less about breaking the whole story apart than it was making smaller adjustments. It felt a bit like when you go to the eye doctor and they are testing lenses and they say: “Is it clearer like this? Or like this?” I was just waiting for things to come into focus.
The other part of the process was writing some new stories. As I put these stories together, I came to see some gaps. There was this sort of electricity between the stories that were there that called some new stories into being. Those I found came really quickly, which was a thrill, because that’s not always the case for me.
SD: That electricity is so palpable on the page and it carries the reader through the collection so seamlessly. As I neared the end, I realized just how different the book would read if certain stories had been placed any earlier or later. Like “Seeing Clear,” for example, which is near the end of the collection. In that story, we learn more about Kate’s childhood and her relationship with her father, which would have read very differently had it been presented sooner. How did you choose the order of the stories?
CBA: I feel like I am, in some ways, the least reliable narrator of this process. [Laughs.] But there were some stories that felt like they needed to be in a certain relation to each other. For example, [in] “The Sea Latch,” Kate goes on vacation with her mother and sister. That one felt to me like it needed to be followed by “At the Wrong Time, to the Wrong People,” which is actually told from Kate’s mother’s perspective and it’s about a time in Kate’s childhood. It felt like some of the questions raised in “The Sea Latch” were not answered, but were addressed in some way in “At the Wrong Time, to the Wrong People.” I had a couple of these stories that felt like companion stories.
I started to think in terms of these three big movements of the book. Within those sections, I gave myself leeway to play around with chronology. I showed my partner a version of the book and he said, “What if it was entirely chronological?” We put it in chronological order, I read it that way, and I felt this almost visceral rejection. It’s something that’s hard to articulate but it just felt wrong. It was interesting to see how things changed if you did put them in chronological order.
So “Seeing Clear” is about Kate’s relationship with her father. It does things, I think, thematically, and in terms of geography that would read differently if they were at the beginning. I liked the way it asked the reader to look back over what had already happened and recontextualize it in the light of the new information.
SD: It sounds like you’re really building a relationship with the reader in the way you’re asking them to engage with the work. I imagine this requires a level of trust in the reader as well. How do you know how much trust to assume?
CBA: I think I write for the kind of reader I am. I’m sure that’s not the only way to write, but it’s the way I write. I like work that does trust the reader a fair bit. I was thinking, as you were talking, about reading a very commercial novel a couple of years ago. I realized one thing that novel did was repeat information a lot and give it to readers in slightly different ways but again, and again, and again. It would be a character’s birthday, and we’d be told that. Then her boyfriend would come in and be like, “Happy birthday!” Five words on every page to sort of get at this thing that was happening. Which, that’s a best-selling book, and I read it in a very distracted state and still was able to read the book, so there’s a place for those books.
I love work by writers like Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Jenny Offill, Joan Didion—who do make use of white space, who sometimes use poetic techniques, who ask the reader to spend a little bit more time and dwell with the implications of what’s been said, who don’t spell everything out in such a literal way. For me, that gives me pleasure to find space in the work to enter.
SD: I love that idea of “leaving space” for a reader to enter, and I think that goes back to the “electricity” you mentioned earlier. It’s almost like the collection has a pulse, and so much of that can be felt in the space between each of the stories. How do you maintain that and know where to begin and end your stories?
CBA: I think if I haven’t found the beginning of the story when I start, usually it doesn’t actually end up becoming a finished story. I need it to find my way through the story. I was lucky enough to study with [Alice McDermott] during a summer conference and she described the beginning as being like a pebble thrown into what she called this “still pond of circumstance.” You’re following the ripples out—which is a way of talking about a catalyst or what’s changing that sets a story in motion. I love that image. It’s helpful for me because it’s a little bit less mechanical. I think I wait until I have the line that feels like it’s starting to send the ripples out and I follow it.
I think that’s actually often true for the ending too. It’s the middle where things move around more. [Laughs.]But the ending, when it’s right, it’s almost like when you turn a key in a lock, and you hit that really satisfying moment where you feel everything shift inside the lock and there’s that click. I remember writing one story, which isn’t in this collection, although I pilfered it and stole a line because I knew that line had to be in the book, and I thought it was going to be like a twenty-page story. You know you have that feeling when you start a story about how big it’s going to be. Then I got to the fifth page and there was that feeling of the lock shifting and it was done.
SD: Something that really stood out to me about this collection was that the moments it centered around in Kate’s life were not what we would traditionally think of as “climactic” moments. They were subtler and more nuanced. But there can be a lot of emphasis on those “climactic” moments, especially when getting feedback in a workshop or an MFA program.
CBA: Charles Baxter sometimes talks about counterpoint as opposed to conflict. I like that idea a lot. Jenny Offill, who I admire a lot as well, talks about momentum in a story. So counterpoint, momentum—other ways of thinking about what pulls us through a story. Revelation, surprise. I think gender and class probably come into this in terms of what characters we understand as interesting, what we understand a risk to be, what we understand an action to be. Because being silent can be an action—that’s a choice, that’s a decision. Doing nothing can be an action. I hope as readers, we’re able to more finely calibrate our sense of those things. Another writer I would mention here is Leopoldine Core, who wrote a book called When Watched, and she’s great at writing the really compelling but subtle short stories. They don’t lean too heavily on huge action or conflict, and they’re still totally riveting.
SD: Esme, Kate’s best friend, is afforded freedom, in a way, because of her social class. She has no reason to doubt herself or think she won’t get what she wants. In contrast, Kate comes from much more of a working-class background, and with that, still struggles with certain doubts even as she “ascends” beyond that social class.
CBA: I think the experience of moving out of the social class in which you’ve grown up is a really kind of profound experience and one that I thought about as I worked on the book. Social class is so interesting because it’s a set of material circumstances and it has to do with cultural capital and education. It’s something you’re socialized in to or out of. In going to college when your family has not gone to college, for example, you’re entering a whole different culture, and a culture that changes you. On the one hand, you carry your class background with you. That doesn’t go away. But you also lose a sort of immediate or uncomplicated relationship to it. And, with it, an immediate, uncomplicated relationship to your family if they haven’t moved out of the social class. There’s a kind of alienation and loneliness, I think, that comes with that experience. It’s one I haven’t seen named or described or depicted in fiction very often. It’s something I want to understand better myself, and I hope other writers will have the leeway to explore more. I think it’s important just on its own terms, and it’s such a part of the American experience—even though we’re not nearly as mobile as we tend to think we are.
SD: That alienation and loneliness really comes through in “The Sea Latch” when Kate is at the beach with her mother and sister. She wants to connect with them by going to the ocean, because her mother has said she wants to buy a house on a hill by the sea so she can “see the waves crashing against the rocks” when she retires; meanwhile, Kate’s mother and sister are perfectly content to hang out by the motel pool for the whole trip.
But Kate wants her mother’s dream to come true, she wants her mother to see the waves. At one point, Kate thinks: “I have this sense that she is afraid, like if I can get her to go, she’ll be happy.” As though Kate is unable to see the way she’s been acting out of fear, too. We see these moments of disconnect in “Charity” as well. Kate says, “To my way of thinking, the past is the past, and there’s not much you can do about it. For my mother, though, the past is the present, its pain still sharp, and there is no comfort to be found in the months and years that go by.” But Kate and her mother are similar in that way.
CBA: In “The Sea Latch,” Kate sees her mother and wonders what her mother is so afraid of. She wonders what’s inside her mother that makes her so afraid, and she wonders what’s inside her that makes her so afraid. I think that’s a moment where she’s starting to understand it’s not as simple as thinking, “Oh, well, you are burdened by your past, you live in the past, but I, luckily, am totally free of that.”
It seems to her, as a college student, she’s leaving home and embarking on this life and this larger world. I love those moments in books when you can see something the character can’t quite see. It’s nice when you get some little confirmation from the author.
SD: There’s almost a dialogue between the reader and the writer through those revelations. Like, “We both know this character isn’t getting it.”
SD: The collection ends on somewhat of an open-ended note as to what’s next for Kate. Did you always plan to end the collection this way?
CBA: I like endings that make the story feel complete but also leave room for mystery; [that] leave you with a deepening but not an explanation. I knew I wanted the book to end in a way that felt satisfying, [but] I didn’t know for a while that I wanted it to end where it ends now. I initially thought I might end it with “The Most Common State of Matter,” which I thought was ending on a hopeful note. I showed it to some readers and they said, “You know, it’s maybe not quite as hopeful as you think.” [Laughs.] I thought, yeah, that makes sense.
I thought about some of my favorite books including Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson [and] Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which are not books that shy away from difficulty in any way. Both explore violence, poverty, suicide—all sorts of really difficult subject matter, and both end on a moment of hope for their characters. Which was sort of startling to see when I revisited Jesus’ Son—it’s not what you imagine in terms of where that book is going to end. But it feels so satisfying to me. It feels right. I thought, yeah, Kate has grappled with a lot throughout the book. I think I do want to end on a moment that feels hopeful, even though hopefully it doesn’t feel like we’re just leaving her in blissful happiness and her life is just going to be perfect from this moment on. It’s not that sort of ending. She still feels unsettled, she’s still asking questions. But it is a moment of lightness.
CARA BLUE ADAMS is the author of You Never Get It Back (University of Iowa Press, 2021), named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and awarded the John Simmons Short Fiction Prize, judged by Brandon Taylor, who calls it “a modern classic.” The collection was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and longlisted for The Story Prize. She has won The Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, The Missouri Review’s William Peden Prize in Fiction, and the ALSCW Meringoff Writing Award in fiction, along with a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellowship and selection as a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. Her stories appear in Granta, The Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor at Seton Hall University and lives in Brooklyn. Cara can be found on Twitter and Instagram @carablueadams.
SAM DILLING is a writer born and raised in western Pennsylvania now living and working in New York City. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Presently, she is at work on a novel and can be found on Twitter @knucklesamwitch.