Q&A with Adrienne Celt

Ever since it appeared in Carve’s summer 2012 issue, Adrienne Celt’s haunting “The Eternal Youth of Everyone Else” has been a favorite of ours. Adrienne has kept busy since then, publishing more short fiction, maintaining her weekly webcomic Love Among the Lampreys, and polishing her first novel, The Daughters, set to hit the market in summer 2015. We recently caught up with Adrienne and yapped a few questions at her about “The Eternal Youth,” writing, philosophy, and The Biz.

So I’ve got to ask about “The Eternal Youth of Everyone Else.” First part of the question: how did the story come about? Second part: how and why does it get under my (and everyone else’s) skin? I have my own theories, but I’m curious as to the intent of its engineer.

You know, at this point the story has such a beautiful life of its own I almost think it’s a shame to talk about genesis, because it’s inevitably going to be so much more expansive in the minds of readers than pinned down to process. But! Since you asked, I’ll give you a partial answer: the seed of the story came from hearing about two people I knew to be in love falling out of love, and being surprised by how hurt and vulnerable that made me feel (even though it had nothing to do with me)—how there is something innocent, even in adults, that wants love to be safe and permanent somehow, which of course it’s not. That feeling helped me find Benny, but once I started writing, the people and meaning in the story became much more complicated.

As to the second part of your question, I don’t know! I’m just happy it’s true. I suspect that there is something to that initial seed of my idea that resonates with people: we’re all vulnerable in the face of love that we feel equally inadequate to give and receive.

I’ve noticed a recurring motif in your stories: inexhaustibility, appalling and sublime. There’s the girl who cannot die, the fireworks that go on forever, the undiminishing distance between a mother and daughter in a riptide. Could you comment on this?

I love that you see this in my writing. I’m not sure it’s intentional, but the concept of sublimity very much resonates with me: I think I interact with a lot of concepts on that level. Which is to say, I feel like I’m always struggling to come to terms with how much bigger than me things are—bigger, even, than my ability to actually understand them.

This is really the last bone of Kant left with me from a philosophy degree in college: his notion that sublimity is the act or experience of human beings grappling to overcome something enormous, which threatens to overwhelm them. He says (or I am bastardizing him to have said) that we invented the idea of infinity because we are so terrified by its reality—that creating a concept around never-endingness is the human mind’s way of boxing that enormity in and making it accessible to us, even making us dominant over it (because we invented the word/idea). So we stare out, say, over the ocean (which seems infinite to the naked eye) and get dizzy by how small we are in the face of it; sublimity, then, is the simultaneous feeling of despair and triumph we get knowing we both are and are not masters of all that size and space.

Ok, to try and pin that back down to myself, I do think that one of the reasons to tell individual stories and become invested in individual characters is that human experience is, itself, potentially infinite. So writing (or reading for that matter) lets you access more of that potential, and can give you a (temporary, illusory) sense of control over it.

Ha. You probably had no idea you were asking this question of the part of me that’s still a nineteen-year-old philosophy student.

How else has philosophy influenced your writing? More broadly speaking, do you see any general points of convergence between philosophy and fiction? If so, what and where are they?

The way I approach philosophy and the way I approach fiction (as a reader and a writer) are, in some ways very similar: in either case, I’m interested in deep immersion. When I was in college, I always got annoyed when someone began picking a philosophical position or system apart before they fully understood it, because to me that suggests they weren’t seriously interested in teaching their brain to think deeply about the nature of existence—they were just interested in being “right.” No one has yet come up with a perfect (and perfectly catholic) philosophical system; you know there are going to be problems. So, taking an antagonistic approach to any given set of ideas suggests to me a sorry lack of curiosity. Even if an idea is crazy, I want to know how it works. I want to know why the philosopher thought it up!

Fiction, too, requires that you abandon yourself to the logic of the fictional world. You might get a deeply unreliable narrator. You might follow a character who is a terrible person, or a fool, or a sorceress in an alien realm (while not personally believing in sorceresses or alien realms). You still have to submit to the authority of their story, because that’s the pleasure of reading: intimacy with another mind. I think that reading a lot of philosophy helped me practice giving myself over to someone else’s thinking, which is key to my writing. Though of course, the fact that I was a big reader as a kid probably made me more open to studying philosophy in the first place. Similar toolboxes.

Tell me about The Daughters, your upcoming novel. What were the challenges you faced in calibrating your principles of composition to a longform narrative? (Or was it less challenging than a short piece?)

I actually found the change much less jarring than I thought I would. Maybe that’s because I eased myself into it a bit—The Daughters started off as a short story, and then became a novella, and then a novel. Also, I’d tried my hand at plotting longer works before (I did a NANOWRIMO novel that I totally abandoned once the month was done, for example, and I wrote a few chapters of a book that wasn’t quite formed enough in my head to move forward with), so I had already flexed the necessary muscles, to a certain degree.

But really, I fell into the process of writing a novel pretty naturally. I still write short fiction too, and the experience is just different—I don’t think one is easier or harder. Stories are so compressed, you need to be able to offer the complete picture of who your character is in one short sweep. Whereas in a novel, while you want your character to be distinctly themselves in every chapter, you also have a lot more space to let them change and become. I really enjoy that level of time and intimacy. (N.B. I’m in the process of revising my second novel now.)

Sometimes though, I do wake up and feel like I’ve spent too much time in a single world. When that happens I take a break from the novel to work on a story or essay—basically, I try to just do what my brain tells me.

A lot of aspiring novelists read Carve, and some might be wondering how you found your literary agent. Can you give them any advice?

Sure, though there isn’t really any magic to it! It’s mostly hard work and tenacity, with a bit of luck.

When I thought my book was ready (maybe three or four drafts in) I started researching agents and working on my query letter (which involved reading a lot of other people’s query letters online—Writer’s Digest has a great series where agents share successful queries, which I read with deep fear and enthusiasm). Basically, you’re writing jacket copy for your book: something short and sweet that will make someone want to invest time & emotional energy in the world you’ve invented.

I picked agents to query in a number of ways: first, I went to a bookstore (and my own shelves) and looked at the acknowledgements sections of books I loved to find out who represented them—in most cases, the author will thank their agent by name. I also worked in the reverse direction, looking through databases to find the names of respected agencies, and then figuring out which ones had clients (or client wish-lists) that were close to my writing style.

Then I made a mega spreadsheet to keep track of my progress, and started tailoring my query letter to individual agents—I never sent out more than, say, ten letters at a time, and each one was specific to the agent I wanted to work with. No carpet-bombing: it will not help you. In the end, I connected with a couple of people on that round who gave me great feedback but ultimately didn’t feel the book was ready, so I pulled back from querying for another six months or so and revised, then sent it out again. I ended up connecting with my wonderful agent, Emma Patterson of Brandt & Hochman, through a writer friend. But I still queried her! That’s really the way to do it. Forbear through the rejections and non-replies and good-but-not-quite replies just keep going. You’re looking for someone to fall in love with your writing, and that’s just as difficult and rare in fiction as it is in life.

(It’s worth mentioning that I was also contacted by a few agents before I started querying, based on stories of mine that they’d read and enjoyed. If this happens to you, awesome! But I’d advise writers not to be afraid of being candid and telling an interested agent that you don’t have something ready for them yet if that’s true. Don’t send out a half-baked book and miss your chance with someone: if they like your work, they’ll still be happy to read it in six months or a year, and they’ll respect your work ethic and honesty.)

You have a webcomic, Love Among the Lampreys. Does prose or illustration come more easily to you?

Prose, probably. Illustration is something I do for fun, and am completely self-taught in. So I’m a more confident writer.

That said, drawing often feels to me like a respite from writing, maybe because it’s more physical and meditative. I can just sit still and ink something for several hours, letting my mind go all over the place. It’s oddly restful, despite the hand cramps.

Tell me about your toolkit for Love Among The Lampreys.

It’s pretty low-fi! I start off by pencil sketching everything, and then I ink with a variety of black pens, and some Copic grayscale markers (which are expensive but so worth it). The physical process usually takes a few hours (say, three episodes of This American Life, give or take. Different animals offer different levels of inking complexity.)

Then I scan the comic, and use the image editing software GIMP to clean it up a bit. GIMP, I should add, is free and amazing. Depending on how much fur a given comic animal has (really, this makes a huge difference!) it usually takes me another hour or so to edit the image online & get it ready to post.

And that’s my whole toolkit!

In one sentence: why do you write fiction?

Because I think that reading and writing offer some of the most intimate and meaningful opportunities for human connection.