The short-story writer Adam Haslett, who will be in Abu Dhabi this week for the International Book Fair, talks about his acclaimed debut novel, Union Atlantic.
Flush with drama
Adam Haslett admits that the advance acclaim for Union Atlantic, his just-published first novel, might be something of a double-edged sword. "The first great novel of the new century that takes the new century as its subject. It's big and ambitious, like novels used to be. It's about us, now. All of us," trumpeted Esquire magazine. "Union Atlantic will possibly be the quintessential American novel of the first decade of the 21st century," heralded the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, while The Guardian arts section gushed from the Frankfurt Book Fair: "This year's hot read is a first novel by American Adam Haslett - It's kind of a parable for our time." Thanks to the financial crisis and "all the headlines about banking, the novel piques people's attention", says the 39-year-old writer, speaking from his home in Brooklyn before coming to Abu Dhabi for the International Book Fair, where he'll be a featured author. "But it's only the backdrop I've chosen to play out a drama that goes beyond banking." Besides, he adds with a laugh, "I didn't think I could write a novel about interest rates. That would be a bridge too far for readers." Haslett - shortlisted for both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here - could make any subject and any setting compelling. The writer's gift for language, his unerring eye, his honesty and his compassion for his characters, many of whom are deeply flawed and deeply troubled, puts him in the company of the best authors writing in English today. "Adam Haslett's tone is one of delicate, understated heartache - he never lets the reader forget that he is shining an unflinching light on those types of human suffering that cannot be cured, only endured," wrote The Sunday Times when the stories were published in 2002. This might sound like fiction to be endured, but in Haslett's hands, there's also humour, insight and a shard of hope. In Notes to My Biographer, the first story in You Are Not a Stranger Here, a man in his seventies, bipolar and driving those around him mad, has a moment where the beauty of the world shines through. Taking in the lights along the boulevards of Santa Monica, he realises: "I've always found the profusion of lights in America a cause for optimism, a sign of undiminished credulity, something to bear us along." Yet Haslett felt he needed "a broader social scope" than the short story for his next book. "Union Atlantic is more outward-looking. It deals with issues of public significance," he says, though he acknowledges that "my same preoccupations" - estrangement and the desire to connect - are very much present in the novel. "Each character is seeking intimacy with varying degrees of ability and success." The first character that came to Haslett in what would be a five-year writing process was Henry Graves, the president of the US Federal Reserve. "Henry is sitting in his office, looking down at people on the street," he says. "There's a billboard of a Seurat painting outside and Henry's thinking about that and the banking crisis. There was something in that image that made me think about the people making these totally abstract decisions. You move a decimal point and it all changes. I wondered: what is the mind that sits in that chair?" Henry is one of the more sympathetic characters - certainly the most stable - among the novel's quartet of complicated personalities: Harry's sister, Charlotte, argues with two beloved dogs who have begun to speak to her in accusing, punitive voices; Doug Fanning, a veteran of the first Gulf war, and a rising, if opportunistic, star at Union Atlantic Bank, is Charlotte's next-door enemy since building a mansion on what seems to be her land. Then there's Nate, a lost boy of 17 who tumbles into all their lives. "Nate was the last character to come into focus," says Haslett, who spent the first two-and-a-half years "working on individual characters with only a hazy sense of how they were going to connect. They were like continents which had yet to drift together." While each character in this very American novel has a distinctive voice - even the dogs - he sometimes worried how "one world of words could come together with another world of words. I was always trying to press these characters into one world". Still, the greatest challenge, Haslett admits, was "finding the rhythm of the language that reflected the interior life of each character". This is what matters most to him and what ultimately makes reading his stories so emotionally satisfying. "Fiction," he says, "has the power to take you into the texture of the experience of another person." Fanning, one of Haslett's least likeable, honourable or transparent characters, someone whose experience a reader might feel even reluctant to share, dominates Union Atlantic. "Doug is an angry person," admits Haslett, explaining that he observed "two strands in American culture during the Bush years: militarism and the financial bubble. In both spheres certain kinds of male anger are the main emotion. Just look at the present day: the rage of bankers that they're not getting their bonuses. I felt that Doug was channelling a dominant emotion in American life." Of course, Doug must face a reckoning - Haslett is a deeply moral writer, though never instructive - and will find, by the novel's end, a channel of sorts for his demons. The novel's beginning and end are set in Bahrain and Iraq, respectively, with Haslett capturing the physical sense of the region so well that it's difficult to believe he's never been here. "The parts of the novel set in the Gulf are all based on research," he says. "That's one of the reasons I'm really excited about coming to the Abu Dhabi book fair." But before arriving in the UAE capital, he's been on a cross-US tour and taken in a book fair in Paris. It's a public life for a basically private person. Haslett, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, as well as a graduate of Yale Law School (he's never practised), laughs when asked about something he said in an earlier interview: that silence and patience feed his imagination. "It feels like an act of resistance to this culture to be quiet," he says. Still, Haslett meditates before starting to write most mornings, then turns off his phone and avoids the internet "until I'm done for the day. These are very practical things which I think are important". Because of a packed speaking and signing schedule - Union Atlantic came out in the United States two weeks ago - he'll only be in Abu Dhabi for a few days. But he's hoping for at least one quiet afternoon: "I really want to go out to the desert," he says. ? Adam Haslett will be at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, appearing at the Kitab Sofa with the former National Review editor Peter Baker, on Thursday from 8-9pm. Haslett will sign books afterward.