No Escape: An Interview with Adam McOmber
[caption id="attachment_1017" align="alignnone" width="252" caption="This New & Poisonous Air. Stories by Adam McOmber."][/caption] In his debut short story collection This New and Poisonous Air, Adam McOmber brings the influence of Angela Carter, Isak Dinesen, and Edgar Allen Poe to the next generation in stories that are a blend of the fantastic and the macabre. The book, a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, explores in dense, richly written stories the nature of fantasy and the obsessions that too often drive them. Recently profiled in Time-Out Chicago, McOmber is also the author of the upcoming novel Empyrean. His debut novel details the story of Jane Silverlake, a woman living in Victorian England with the unexplainable gift that allows her to see the souls of manmade objects. Jane’s greatest joy is wandering the wild, surrounding heath with her companions and neighbors, Madeline Lee (daughter of shunned photographer Adolphus Lee) and Nathan Ashe (son of Lord William Ashe). But as the friends come of age, their idyll is shattered by the complex feelings both girls develop for Nathan, and by Nathan’s growing interest in a cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic popular with London's wealthy elite. Day offers his followers the opportunity to explore dream manipulation, with the goal of discovering a new virtual reality, a place he calls the Empyrean. Through his nuanced, lyrical prose, Empyrean describes the story of a dear friendship as it evolves into a complicated love triangle where the object of both girls’ affection disappears from the streets of London without a trace. Adam returns to many of the themes that made This New and Poisonous Air so compelling: fantasy and escape, history and myth to create a deeply imagined new world and investigate the dark yet familiar corners of the human heart. McOmber's interview with BOA's own Albert Albonado discusses the influences on his work, the role of fantasy and simulations, and his writing life. Read the full interview here. Al: Since this is your first collection of stories, can you give us an idea of how long it took you to put together a collection that you felt was cohesive? Adam: I'd been working on a novel for years. This was not Empyrean. It was a novel called A Century of Progress. Time got away from me when I was writing that book. I didn't write any short stories--I had ideas for stories, but I put them aside. When the novel finally fell apart, I knew I didn't want to start another long piece. I couldn't. So I began working on short fiction. I moved away from the narrative voice in A Century of Progress, and I began to find the voices for the stories in This New & Poisonous Air. I wrote twenty stories over a two year time-span. There were all kinds of stories, but I realized I liked the pieces that had something to do with history the best. I composed a book of twelve stories. In the end, we cut two of those. One was "Night Is Nearly Done," a sort of medieval science fiction story that didn't quite fit in N&P but will appear in the upcoming anthology Altered States. The other was "Poet and Underworld" about a girl who gets lost at the fair and travels into the Greco-Roman land of the dead. I've been working on that story again recently. Al: A number of the stories featured in your book have historical settings. The title story “This New and Poisonous Air” takes place during the Black Plague and “There are No Bodies Such As This” is set during the Reign of Terror in France. Your latest novel Empyrean is also set in the Victorian England. What draws you to these periods? Adam: Writing historical fiction is a way for me to explore the fantastic. I'm interested in history--I do a great deal of research. But the research is just a jumping-off point. In the end, the historical settings allow me to feel that I'm inventing a world. I can unhitch myself from everyday life, and I get to control all the elements of the setting. The writing becomes a form of escape (both for me and hopefully for the reader). I like images that feel like pieces of dreams. The contemporary world and my common surroundings don't provoke those images for me. Many of the characters (Francini in "The Automatic Garden" and Madame Tussaud in "There Are No Bodies Such as This") are also involved with inventing their own worlds. Eventually, they lose footing. They're adrift in their own imaginations, which becomes a kind of poison. It begs the question, "How much fantasy is too much?" Or maybe, "Where does all this fantasy lead?" With Empyrean, I think I address that question head on. The main character, Jane Silverlake, has a hard time remaining in the confines of reality. Her unconscious mind lets in all sorts of otherworldly sensations, and of course trouble comes along with that. Al: I know you indicated that your surroundings fail to provoke those dream-like images that appeal to you, but when reading your stories, I felt the subject matter of fantasy is so timely when one considers things like reality television or video games like World of Warcraft, these fabricated worlds that people use to escape the daily grind. Do you see any parallels between society and the stories you've written? Adam: I think that's very perceptive. My writing is influenced by a wide variety of art forms. What appeals to me are simulations and constructs. Something like the simulated world of a video game definitely provokes my imagination (I've written a quasi video game story). Generally, I tend to look toward older modes of simulation though--film, wax, the act of storytelling itself. My characters inhabit those simulated worlds. The simulations are often so vivid that the characters begin to forget there is an actual world beyond the construct. I'm not sure if this will toward simulation speaks to contemporary society as much as it speaks to human nature. We want to get so wrapped up in something that we lose ourselves. There are times we want to forget our individual identities and momentarily become a piece of art. Al: Your stories sometimes feel as much about control as they do about fantasy, characters who are struggling to take control of their situation by constructing these simulated worlds to which they can escape. "The Automatic Garden" is a story that immediately jumps out at me as being an example of this. I think this especially interesting when considering the themes of sexuality that you explore in a number of your stories. What kind of relationship do you see your characters having with sexuality and fantasy? Adam: I think fantasy is generally a type of control. You make the world. You set the rules. Of course, the interesting thing about images of the fantastic is that they are often generated from the subconscious, and the subconscious is far from being under our control. No matter how careful we are when we build our fantasy, there will always be traps. We will be pulled back into reality or thrown into a more frightening type of fantasy. Francini in “Automatic Garden” thinks that he can regain a certain pleasurable period in his life if he builds a replica of it. But the Automatic Garden, his pleasure garden, is really just a trap. He gets stuck in that trap and then lost. In the end, it’s not even Francini who approaches Cornazzono in the cave, it’s a replica of Francini, and we are left to wonder what happened to the actual man. I think in terms of queer sexuality in previous eras, there was frequently an impulse to pull back from the world, to be private. Privacy leads to isolation, and isolation leads to all sorts of phantoms rising up. A man alone in a room is not really alone. Al: So let’s talk a little bit about your upcoming book Empyrean. How long had you been working on the book? I noticed a reference to the Empyrean in “The Automatic Garden,” which made me wonder if you were you working on the novel at the same time as This New and Poisonous Air. Adam: I wrote Empyrean over a three year period. Most of the short stories from This New and Poisonous Air were written right alongside Empyrean. I would switch between the short stories and the novel. It was great to be able to change gears like that, really refreshing. The concept of the Empyrean is important to my work in general. The word Empyrean refers to the seventh level of the medieval heavens—the level that is at furthest remove from human life. It’s where the angels and the spirits of saints are said to live, and it’s an utterly still place. Living there is like being inside a stone. For me, the Empyrean is a natural extension of the sealed gardens and museums in This New and Poisonous Air. Even the medieval walled city behind the movie screen in “Fall, Orpheum” is like that. It’s sealed off and inaccessible to most people. The Empyrean is an environment where the imagination can really go wild, but it’s a dangerous place too. Al: Earlier you suggested that the novel confronts in a more direct way some of the themes explored in This New and Poisonous Air. Could you say little more about what led you to write Empyrean? Adam: What led me to write Empyrean was this lonely voice, the voice of the main character, Jane Silverlake. She’s a character with a special gift; she can see the souls of common household objects, and this gift leads her into a variety of fantastic situations. She’s torn between living in isolated fantasy or joining the world. Jane chooses the later—actually she’s pulled into the world by two people that she loves. All kinds of problems come from this choice because of who she is. It’s as if Francini tried to leave his Automatic Garden or Madame Tussaud tried to escape her museum. Once you’ve created a such strange thing, it’s part of you. You can’t get away from it. Even if you walk away, you’ll find it’s still there inside of you. I think This New and Poisonous Air is about characters who go and hide, who want to remove themselves from pain. Empyrean imagines a character who isn’t allowed to stay hidden. Al: Since Empyrean tackles many of the ideas that the stories in This New and Poisonous Air often deal with, I wondered what you feel the format of the novel allows you to do that a short story can't, and vice versa. What does the short story allow you to do that the novel may not? Adam: For me, the short story form is about compression—how many things can I fit into this very small space? I tend to be a collector of ideas and pieces of history, and it’s exciting to me to try to create a pattern with those pieces that becomes a story. A novel is a very different thing. It’s expansive, and though writing a novel requires control, it doesn’t require the kind of compression needed for a short story. All of my ideas can walk around and breathe in the open air. Al: Martin Lammon at Arts & Letters has compared your work to Jorge Luis Borges and Henry James. Which writers would you say have influenced you? Adam: To name a few: Bram Stoker, Stephen King, Angela Carter, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Coover, Lord Dunsany, Gaston Bachelard, H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Ackroyd, Alan Moore, Annie Proulx, Donna Tartt, Charles Simic, Oscar Wilde, C.G. Jung, Isak Dinesen, James Frazer. I think that's a pretty good list. All of those writers are really important to me and provide a kind of foundation for what I’m doing. Al: With your recently released collection and the upcoming novel, you've clearly been very busy, any future projects on the horizon? Adam: I’ve recently completed three short stories. One is about Victorian Archeology, another has to do with an ancient god of wrath, and the third is a chronicle of a young woman who befriends the incorrupt body of saint. I’m hoping to put together a new book of stories in the next year or so. I'm also working on the second draft of my next novel which is about the rise of Madame Tussaud and the Reign of Terror among other things--lots of blood and lots of wax. Chicago resident Adam McOmber is the author of This New and Poisonous Air, his debut collection of short stories. The Assistant Director of Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches both creative nonfiction and mythology, he is also the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. His work has been published in Conjunctions, StoryQuarterly, Third Coast, The Greensboro Review, Arts & Letters, Ascent, North Atlantic Review, and Web Conjunctions. He has been nominated for two 2012 Pushcart Awards for “There Are No Bodies Such as This,” and “A Memory of His Rising,” both from This New and Poisonous Air. He was also shortlisted for Best American Fantasy of 2010 and received an AWP Intro Award for Nonfiction in 2001. His upcoming debut novel, Empyrean, is slated to be published by Touchstone in August 2012. You can read more about Adam McOmber at his website: adammcomber.com.
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