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In conjunction with the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, Quiddity's "Better Angels' issue features a collection of creative responses — including poetry, artwork, fiction, essays, and a radio play — to Abraham Lincoln's literary essence from new, emerging, and established writers. The “Better Angels” issue was generously funded with a grant from the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

For this issue, with its highly specialized subject matter, Quiddity's editors were joined by the following guest editors:

Dan Guillory
Professor Emeritus and Author
Living with Lincoln and The Lincoln Poems

Kathryn M. Harris
Director of Library Services
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

John A. Lupton
Associate Director/Associate Editor
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln

1.2 Table of Contents

Journal - Volume 1.2 - Winter/Fall 2008-09

Interview with Adam Braver


adam_braver ADAM BRAVER’s books include Mr. Lincoln’s Wars (HarperCollins, 2003) and November 22, 1963 (Tin House, 2008). He holds an MFA from Goddard College and teaches creative writing at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Quiddity editor Ted Morrissey contacted Adam Braver by email, then sent him the following interview questions, to which the novelist generously responded in a series of audio clips. An edited version of the interview appears in Quiddity 1.2.

Adam Braver Interview Questions

Q 1. Obviously Abraham Lincoln is a global figure—evidenced by the fact that if you hang out on Sixth Street in downtown Springfield, especially at the ice cream place a couple of blocks from the Presidential Library and Museum, you see and hear folks who have traveled from distant countries to visit the Lincoln sites—so one doesn’t have to be from Illinois (or Indiana or Kentucky) to have a deep interest in him. But you seem to have had a bicoastal existence, growing up in San Francisco, then going to school and teaching on the East Coast, so I’m curious if you recollect a specific Lincoln encounter that perhaps seeded your imagination and eventually yielded Mr. Lincoln’s Wars.

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Q 2. The thirteen stories tend to be set in the final years of the war, but they’re out of chronological sequence. In what order did you write them, and what led you to arrange them as they appear in the book? Was there much editorial negotiation involved in their final sequencing?

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Q 3. Did you originally intend to write a single story and then the project became larger? From what I’ve read, it sounds like you were conceiving of a collection of sorts from at least an early creative stage, if not the very beginning.

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Q 4. NPR interviewer Linda Wertheimer refers to Mr. Lincoln’s Wars as a “cluster” of stories as opposed to a “collection,” implying I think that the stories work together or piece together in interesting sorts of ways that typical “collections” don’t—typical collections being ones that offer a hodgepodge of stand-alone short stories. I want to get to some of that specific interplay in a moment—especially as it relates to Lincoln and his assassin—but I’m also interested in how these clustered stories must have played off of and informed each other while you were writing them. I suspect that working on a new story suggested ways of revising stories you’d already written for the book. Is this the case; and, if so, can you speak to a specific instance of
creation -> suggestion -> revision?

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Q 5. Maybe this is the same issue just dressed up differently, or maybe it is different, but in any event: What storytelling opportunities were opened up to you by writing a cluster or collection that may be unavailable to the stand-alone story writer? Now that you’ve gone on to write three full-fledged novels, in retrospect, was there anything liberating about working with a clustered collection of stories compared to writing a novel, which, I suppose, is expected to be more unified—temporally, thematically?

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Q 6. Coming back to the idea of interplay in the stories, it seems to me you’ve connected Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth in some intriguing ways. For example, they both have profound issues with their fathers—issues that ultimately shape their lives and bring them together in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. In fact, there are Oedipal nuances at work—Lincoln’s closeness to his stepmother, and Booth’s relationship with Mary Surratt, who is old enough to be his mother, and whom he imagines while masturbating. Interestingly, the sentence in which he “diddle[s] his mickey” immediately precedes, “Then kill the president.” The story “Zack Hargrove,” which is third in the collection, overtly explores the psychological ramifications of the beloved mother and hated father via its titular character, foreshadowing (foregrounding?) these same issues and images in the Lincoln and Booth stories to come. With apologies for the long preamble, I’m curious about how much of that complex interplay was intended when you began writing, and how much grew organically while soldiering your way through the collection?

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Q 7. Shakespeare also connects Booth and Lincoln, a connection of course that is historically accurate in that Booth was a well-known Shakespearean actor and Lincoln a great admirer of the Bard (it seems Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln once saw Booth act, in a non-Shakespearean production, The Marble Heart, and enjoyed his performance.) In your book, Booth comes to think of “John Wilkes Booth, Presidential Assassin” as a role he’s playing, even testing out a line from Hamlet to utter after the climactic shooting of Lincoln. (His sense of stagecraft ultimately makes him select another, zippier utterance.) This connection, plus other interviews you’ve given, makes me suspect that you saw a natural dramaturgy in Lincoln’s life, perhaps especially in its premature ending. Is this the case? And if so, I imagine it was a tricky balancing act to accentuate the inherent drama without overplaying it. How did you manage it?

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Q 8. “The Necropsy,” the collection’s penultimate story, is by far the longest in the book; and it is unique in its being divided into five, numbered sections. Then the final story returns to brevity. Therefore, I see the overall book as having a dramaturgical arc, with “The Necropsy” working as the climax and subsequent falling action, and “A Rainy Night in Springfield, Illinois—1849” as the dénouement, even though it is jarringly out of chronology. (This structure is perhaps suggested by the five sections of and by Booth’s theatrical musings in “The Necropsy.”) Is this a fair description of the book’s structure? How else might you describe its overall movement? (I’ve been helped along in this view by reading interviews in which you refer to Lincoln as a “tragic character” and compare our ceaseless fascination with him to our ceaseless fascination with Hamlet.)

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Q 9. You begin each story with a Lincoln quote. How did you go about selecting the quotes for each story? At what point in the process did you decide to use the epigraphs?

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Q 10. So far in the interviews with you and the reviews of Mr. Lincoln’s Wars that I’ve read, I don’t recall anyone making hay of the fact Wars is plural—suggesting that Lincoln’s life was a constellation of battle fronts: warring with his past, with Mary’s imbalances, with his grief, with financial debt, with his public persona . . . not to mention that pesky Civil War. Could you elaborate on your choice to pluralize war.

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Q 11. Speaking of Mary Todd, she seems to be a character and a presence in the book almost as much as Lincoln himself. (In fact, I must confess that some of my favorite stories are Mary stories, for example the beautifully haunting “The Willie Grief.”) Did you find yourself as drawn to Mary as you were to Abraham? From a storytelling aspect, what do you think the fundamental differences are between Mary as a character and Abraham as a character?

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Q 12. You told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that your second book, which became Divine Sarah (Bernhardt, the actress), “was going to be Part 2 of the Lincoln book.” You don’t say much more beyond that in the interview, so I’ve been wondering—given your obvious interest in Mary Todd and the fact that a famous female became the focus of the novel—if you had designs of zeroing in on Mrs. Lincoln in that second Lincoln book? What made you abandon Lincoln Part 2? When I contacted you about doing this interview, I was hoping to unearth an unpublished Lincoln story or two—but you said Mr. Lincoln’s Wars is all of them. Do you toy with doing more with the Lincolns, or do you think you’re probably finished with their stories? Why, either way?

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Q 13. In a video interview online (vimeo.com), you say that for your new novel, November 22, 1963, you did copious research at the Kennedy Library. Yet, my impression (again from other interviews) is that you did some research but not copious research for Mr. Lincoln’s Wars. In the video you discuss that one of the reasons you felt compelled to do so much research on the Kennedy book was that there are still many people alive who recollect Kennedy’s assassination and you needed to get things right. I have a whole host of questions I’d like to ask connected to this issue, but one I’ll actually put out there is, How does temporal distance from an event impact storytelling technique? Also, is the latter half of the nineteenth century far enough, or do you think you might be inclined one day to tackle a story set in, say, ancient Rome, or further back still, in biblical times, or prehistoric times? Heck, while I’m at it: How do you feel about fiction set in the future? Could that be your cup of tea?

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Q 14. Speaking of November 22, 1963, you return to the topic of presidential assassination. You have talked about being interested in “the compelling moment . . . when everything changes [. . . a]nd nothing’s going to go back to what it was” (quoting here The Providence Journal interview). Obviously a presidential assassination is such a moment in spades, but beyond that, are there any other reasons that have drawn you to dead Presidents in fifty percent of your books (so far)? Besides the obvious fact they were both presidents, what would you say, based on your creative explorations, are some key similarities between Lincoln and JFK, or perhaps between their times?

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Q 15. Mr. Lincoln’s Wars isn’t a biography, nor is it intended to be. Yet I suspect you learned something about Lincoln by writing about him, even though (or because) it was in a fictional mode. Did you have any insights about the sixteenth president?

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Q 16. The only criticism I’ve heard regarding your book—and criticism is too strong of a word—has to do with your having Abraham Lincoln drink alcohol from time to time. Lincoln folks say that he never used alcohol. I don’t care to have you defend that choice, but rather could you speak to how much freedom (or lack thereof) you felt to invent things about the Lincolns or their time period? In your Author’s Essay on the Borders website, you say that you felt some “freedom to invent things off the historical record and to get to places where historians are often not able to go.” So I guess I’m asking just how much freedom you felt, and if you established any boundaries for yourself?

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Q 17. Your interest in the compelling moment that changes everything is especially fascinating in light of the fact that all of your books have been published (written?) post-9/11. Is it possible that at some level your books (especially the Lincoln and Kennedy stories of national crises) are a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001? Have you thought about joining the growing list of artists who have composed 9/11 tales (I’m thinking here especially of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man)? At this juncture in the United States’ history, at least, 9/11 seems to be the paragon compelling moment that changes everything.

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Q 18. In The Providence Journal interview you said that you’ve been influenced by Anton Chekhov—a point I found especially interesting because this past spring break I treated myself to a Shorter Works of Tolstoy Fest and read “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and “Master and Man.” Then a couple of months later I was reading Mr. Lincoln’s Wars as a possible text for the short story class I’m teaching this fall; and I kept having Tolstoy déjà vu. It was almost at the unconscious level, so I didn’t try to articulate what I was experiencing—and in fact didn’t think anymore of it until I read about your Chekhov influence. Besides common folk facing extraordinary circumstances or vice versa, do you sense any other connections between the Russian masters and your narrative techniques?

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Q 19. In spite of all the great press that Mr. Lincoln’s Wars received, I must admit that I found it via a happy accident. I was looking for a collection to use in my upcoming short story class that will allow us to study the aesthetic bridge between story and novel. Your book is pedagogically perfect, for many reasons, not the least of which being that it purports to be a novel in thirteen stories. What is your sense of that aesthetic bridge? At what point does a collection become a novel? For the apprentice novelist, how important is it to be a short-story writer first? You have followed Mr. Lincoln’s Wars with three novels. Are you still interested in writing the short story?

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Q 20. You told Bill Thompson that you thought there was a “big rise” in literary fiction with historical figures (as opposed to, simply, historical fiction), meaning that more and more such literary fiction is being published. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that assessment (my skepticism is no doubt fueled in large part by my own troubles in finding homes for these sorts of stories). Moreover, the acknowledgements page in Mr. Lincoln’s Wars indicates that only two of the thirteen stories appeared in print (both in Cimarron Review) prior to the book’s publication. One interpretation would be that you had some difficulty placing these excellent stories as individual pieces. Or was it a matter of timing? Did you already have a publisher for the collection before there was opportunity to shop around the bulk of the stories?

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Q 21. Finally, I’m especially intrigued by your course at Roger Williams, “Special Topics: PEN Collaborative.” Could you talk about the course a bit, how it got started, what the objectives are behind it; and are you far enough along to have some sense of its effectiveness thus far?

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