Alternate Realities, Clowes, and Kurosawa: James Tadd Adcox on “Does Not Love”


James Tadd Adcox’s novel, Does Not Love, is described by the jacket copy as “one couple’s attempt to overcome loss in an alternate-reality Indianapolis overrun by big pharma.” Strange as it may sound, it’s a near-perfect one-line summary I won’t embarrass myself trying to improve upon. Surreal and intelligent, every moment the book threatens to dip into familiar territory it takes an unexpected turn that deepens everything about the narrative. I hate the employ the old cliché, but I truly did read it in a single sitting.

Tiny Hardcore Press released Adcox’s first book, a story collection titled The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, in 2012. Does Not Love comes to us courtesy of Curbside Splendor Publishing. Adcox is currently touring literary sites; this is one such appearance.

How did you hit upon the idea for Does Not Love?

I was driving back to Chicago from Indianapolis— I don’t remember the exact circumstances; I don’t even remember why I was in Indianapolis—when around where 65 intersects with 94 the idea for the novel came to me all in a rush. I’d written some short stories about this couple, Robert and Viola, and one of them featured an FBI agent who appeared in the library where Viola works and started rather blatantly hitting on her. I must have been tooling around with these characters, thinking about them as I drove, but it was happening in kind of a background way, I guess. Mostly I had been listening to music and driving.

Did you write from an outline?

I mapped out most of the novel, or one version of the novel, in my head on the drive back to Chicago. When I got home, I wrote down as much of it as I could, as quickly as I could, as an outline. You know when you wake up from a dream, and try to describe the dream to someone, and realize as you are in the act of describing it, it’s already fading—like, maybe the act of trying to set it down in any solid or coherent form is causing it to degrade? It felt like that, like it had all been in my head until the moment I had started writing it down, but from that moment, I had to work as quickly as possible or I’d lose it.

What can you tell me about the period when you were writing the novel?

I don’t think I’m bipolar, but it felt like how I would imagine a manic phase would feel. I quit my job—it wasn’t a particularly good job—and spent the next three months writing a first draft. And then I wrote eight more complete drafts after that. Writing nine complete drafts of something, by the way, is a terrible idea, I’m pretty convinced of that now.

How did the book change from the first draft to the ninth?

There was a lot more plot in the earlier versions of the novel. The book started out kind of the same, but then got much, much plottier. I think the plottiness was a kind of anxiety, that if I didn’t connect everything together perfectly, some reader somewhere would call me on it, and I’d be exposed as a fraud. I feel like in revising I spent a lot of time smoothing out the places where I had gotten too plotty.

The Kurosawa film Throne of Blood plays an amazing role in Does Not Love. And in general there’s something quite cinematic about the book. Are you a film buff?

I wish I were more of one. I have a couple of directors whose work I love deeply—Kurosawa is one. David Lynch is another. I really like von Trier and Guy Maddin, too, but I haven’t seen as much of their work. Probably overall I’m more influenced by certain comics artists. When I was writing Does Not Love I was thinking particularly about Daniel Clowes, and how to translate certain things he does in comics to prose.

What kinds of things were you trying to translate from Clowes?

There’s a moment in a fairly recent book of his, Wilson, where one of the major plot points happens in the gutter, between the pages. Wilson, like Ice Haven and a couple of his other books, takes the form of an overall narrative broken up into comic strips—essentially chapters, each with its own arc, sort of following the conventions of the comic strip (a set-up leading to a punchline, or else a conspicuous lack of a punchline). And at one point, reading Wilson, you realize that this major, life-changing moment in the plot happened between two of these comic strips, and was never otherwise mentioned, and you only figure it out later on in the book. Clowes has solid artistic reasons for this, aside from it being a neat formal thing to pull off—the suppression of this particular plot point allows his protagonist to maintain a certain image of himself. But I was impressed by how much work he was doing in the white space, in the gutter, not just in big moments like that but throughout. It led me to think about how I use the spaces between sections and between sentences, how much work I can get them to do.

Is there a narrative connection as well, or was the Clowes influence purely technical? 

There are some narrative similarities between my book and Daniel Boring, the first of Clowes’s books that really blew me away. The way it starts off being one sort of recognizable story—you think it’s going to be one of these introspective, realist autobiographical graphic novels—and then, at a certain point, it rapidly spirals out of control.

That spiraling effect is certainly present in your book. It’s a nice trick, the way the stranger elements enter into the mix and establish a second level on which to experience the story. 

I feel like when readers aren’t sure whether something is funny or sad—when it’s right on the line between the two—it makes the experience of both much stronger. One of the strongest responses I’ve had to a book was when I reached the end of The Sound and the Fury, a book which up until that point I’d liked but hadn’t entirely connected with. I suddenly, right there at the end, at the last line actually, found myself simultaneously laughing and crying, forcefully, like something in the book had taken control of my entire body. Something similar, I hope, is happening with the mix of realist and non-realist elements—the contrast between the two, hopefully, brings each out more strongly.

I’m interested in how you fit, or maybe don’t fit, into a scene. Do you think of yourself as member of a community of writers?

I think there was something of an indie-press boom in Chicago, and probably nationwide, four or five years ago. It seemed like there were constant release parties, readings, etcetera. I think it’s calmed down some. A lot of the presses that were around four years ago aren’t now, there aren’t as many readings. Some of the energy that used to be around indie press readings has moved on to storytelling slams, variations on The Moth, which I’m not really that interested in. Certain presses that were around before that explosion, Rose Metal Press, Switchback Books, they’re going steady. And Curbside, which started during that period, has grown incredibly fast. There are still a lot of writers around—most of my friends in Chicago are writers—but as a “scene” we seem to have reached some kind of equilibrium, maybe.

It’s also possible that I’m just not seeing it as much. I used to write a lot of very short short stories, things that you could finish fast and send out and get published and have something new to read at a reading, and I think that kind of work—flash fiction and poetry—is really conducive to being in the bubbling of a community. Now I’m focusing more strictly on novel writing, where there’s not as much turnaround, not as much day-to-day collaboration and interaction. Writing a novel feels a little bit like taking a vow of silence, in comparison to the sort of literary activity I had been used to.

What are you working on now? 

I’m about 50,000 words into a very messy draft of a novel called The Liar.

Is each book easier than the last?

I keep thinking each book will be easier than the last. I often start out with fairly simple projects then find ways to immediately complicate them. Although, too, one of the things that is appealing about writing is that it’s always just slightly more difficult than you think it’s going to be—not so much as to seem impossible, but just enough to keep it from getting boring. There isn’t a lot in life that falls into this middle ground, between boring and impossible.

Do you have a sense of why you’re writing, what you hope to accomplish by it?

I’m trying to create something that’s worth being in love with. Something that can create a kind of fullness in the reader, something that’s valuable in itself. I’m ultimately very much on the side of art for art’s sake, what Walter Benjamin referred to as “a kind of theology of art.” Which I admit is a very privileged position to take. But I don’t think that art is a very good way to engage in politics, for example, at least not the kind of art that I’m interested in.


Drew Smith has written for The Believer, Tin House, The Daily Beast, The Millions, and others. He also runs /slashlit/, a blog and unified calendar of indie book releases.

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