All across America, Adam Gnade knows the blue highways and the sad honky-tonks and the names of towns that time will one day forget. He’s traveled this country enough by car, bus, train, and plane to make anyone want to stay home for a while. His home is the rural Great Plains of eastern Kansas, where when he’s not on the road performing talking songs and giving readings he’s taking care of a mini Noah’s Ark of rescue animals. This is where he does his real work of figuring out what he wants from this brief time we have.
At first glance, Gnade’s writing falls into the tradition of that simplest of literary pursuits — go out and live and tell stories. But where Gnade transcends that almost perfunctory role of the writer as casual observer is when he blends the technique with the system of beliefs he’s been refining over the years.
So that’s the pattern of his work — travel, gather stories, go home and write about that, too — and that’s all here in this new book, Float Me Away, Floodwaters. It’s one part A Do It Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad, one part Kerouacian travelogue and one part Southern Gothic life-as-it-is . All of it fiction, but told from the heart and soul of someone who has earned every story and bit of passed-on wisdom.
In this interview — full disclosure, I’ve been friends with Gnade for about 15 years and we consult one another on our work — I ask about his feelings toward this country, his fondness for autofiction, and how he’s able to write so generously about the people in his life.
How does this book fit into your universe of characters and themes?
Everything I write is part of a big connected universe. My books all share characters, this one included, and thematically there’s a lot of eating in this one just like in all the rest, a lot of driving around, and a lot of me trying to give people (and myself, I guess) reasons to not kill themselves. My next book will only be about eating. This is not at all a joke.
Can you talk a little about the title? What meaning do you think it imparts?
The title’s a prayer, but a secular one. Like, “Get me the fuck outta here,” y’know? “Save me from this awful, shitty situation I’m in.” It’s about trying to find a better, safer, happier place for yourself, and not just physically. As our country continues to fall down this ridiculous fucking shit-hole, a lot of people might be thinking along those lines. Like, “What the fuck is wrong with my life? I need something to change and I need it tonight.” That’s like every good Springsteen song ever, right? I’m constantly thinking, like, “Wow, man, shit is so fucked. What do I do NOW?” I think the best reason to write is to work out your problems so you’re not miserable all the time, and maybe help someone in the process. The rest is mostly showbiz. Of course showbiz is important too. I think I’m an exhibitionist introvert or something. Not in a sexual way; I mean as far as my own work, my life, my audience, the performative aspects of doing events and touring and of course social media, and the ways I navigate those as they connect. That’s showbiz too.
When you were writing this book and out on the road how did the country feel to you? And how do you think that’s changed?
I was on the road a lot when I was writing Float Me Away, Floodwaters and its predecessor, This is the End of Something But It’s Not the End of You. I imagine I took it for granted. Didn’t appreciate how good I had it. Y’know, wandering around like a dumb fucking idiot going to bars in the country and tossing myself in rivers and staying up all night with people in new towns. I’ve done that often and now … now in 2020 I stay at home and I write. I feel like traveling would be heavy these days. Check it out, I’ve written three books this year. That’s nuts to me, and fucking great, absolutely exciting; I’m very proud of that. They’re short novels like Floodwaters, but by year’s end I’ll have three manuscripts ready to be edited. I’ve been productive, but I don’t ever want to have a year like this again. It’s been rough for me besides getting a lot of work done. I was evicted in the heart of the pandemic. Had a very hard time landing a new place to move my farm. Some Secret of NIMH, Lee of the Stone shit. Got COVID right after that. A lot of the people close to me fell ill and some still are. I think one of the reasons I wrote so damn much this year was to take my mind off it all. Worrying about family, about friends, about my own future, about murderous cops, the rise of fascism, fucking new militas popping up like fucking warts, and whether I’d have a roof over my head a week from then. Thankfully I found a beautiful piece of land and I plan to hunker down here extravagantly for the rest of this pandemic. I’m very very lucky to be able to write for a living. That makes things easier.
What is rural life like in 2020? How do people seem to you?
We’ve got some mean bastards where I live. Antimaskers armed to the teeth. Confederate flags and Trump signs on their lawns. It’s always been that way, but it’s much worse now. There was a family of actual Nazis down the road from our old farm who thankfully split like a bunch of ghosts when their awful diseased troll patriarch died one night. They were not fun people to deal with. I really don’t like guns. I don’t like macho guys. Men out here mostly suck.
Part of this book is about how the climate is changing in the country — floods, extreme weather. What do you think that’s going to mean for the people you write about in the future?
I have no idea what’ll happen to me or my characters, but life is going to change dramatically, isn’t it? Climate change is the great war of our time. We all have to work actively to do our part. But we’re not. Most of us aren’t. Not yet. For every Greta Thunberg, we have a million people who will never change a thing about their lives even as the ship goes down. It’s frustrating. I don’t know what to do either. I think about it constantly and I feel lost. Especially when all the money you make goes to food and housing. How do you make a difference without greater resources? I plan to keep writing about it. That’s what I can do.
The country is in a lot of pain. Maybe it always has been, but it feels worse right now. Despite that, you seem to still be curious about this country and its people. What drives you to go out and travel and take interest in some of these places?
I like to see new towns. I like to go to different gas stations. Swim in lakes I’ve never swam in. Sometimes I like meeting new people. A lot of the time I’d rather be left the fuck alone to drive around and think. I love driving at night. It’s one of the things I love best. Driving at night and listening to music really loud. Of course in the midst of doing that you meet people whether you like it or not and I generally find myself thankful that I did.
You do a good job of being generous to your characters. You seem able to write about anyone and to describe them in a non-judgmental way. That’s harder than it looks. What’s your strategy when it comes to writing about people in your life?
I’m judgmental and I’m a terrible snob, and I fight every day to not be that way. Maybe that comes out in how I treat my characters. I try to cut people a lot of slack because being alive is like living in hell sometimes. Life is very gothic.
To that end, this type of auto-fiction you do — where it’s clear you’ve hewed closely to the events of your life but changed people’s names and allowed yourself some creative license when depicting the events — feels very relevant to our times in some ways. I know this is a type of writing more popular in other countries, France, for example, and the work of Karl Ove Knausgard and Roberto Bolaño are some other popular examples, but American writing seems to look askance at this style. Why do you choose to write this way, and why do you think American literature prefers fiction that’s less autobiographical?
The most straightforward answer is that it’s the kind of writing I most like to read. So, look, I’ve been working on a set of rules for myself this year and one of them is to only write books you would want to read but also to write books only you could write. Which to me means you write from your own experience and try to do so as truthfully and personally as possible. Why don’t Americans like that sort of writing? I’m not completely sure they don’t, at least right now, at this very moment in literature. Look at Ocean Vuong’s very successful–and important, beautiful, vital–novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. That’s the shit I shoot for. Also, most of the current poetry that’s popular is basically autofiction with line breaks. The people who read my own books are way more into them when they’re closer to true. Floodwaters and This is the End of Something are barely fiction at all and they’ve been much more popular than my earlier traditional fiction like Caveworld. I feel pretty okay about Americans’ taste in books. My audience is maybe younger than some. Early-to-mid-twenties mostly? So perhaps having grown up with social media they’re more geared toward autobiographical writing than the people of my generation and generations older than me. Either way, I feel great about people’s taste right now. I like that people like what I’m doing. It’s an exciting time to be alive in that regard. Maybe only in that regard. The rest is a nightmare.