Madam, I’m Adam: An interview with Ariel Schrag

Editor Alicia Anstead talks about craft with Ariel Schrag.

Author Photo - Ariel Schrag credit Chloe AftelIn the summer of 2006, Adam Freeman, the teen protagonist of Ariel Schrag’s novel Adam, goes to Brooklyn to stay with his post-grad sister Casey. The vibe around him – gay marriage demonstrations and the rise of transgender rights – challenges the kid’s sense of identity. Casey is entrenched in a wild lesbian subculture, and Adam finds himself on the fringe of that. When he meets Gillian, a lesbian, and falls in love, he games the system: Passing as a trans guy might work in his favor. It’s a comic conceit, given that Schrag’s goal is to make readers laugh. Her own teen turbulence is chronicled in four graphic memoirs, the first of which was published when she was in high school. She went on to study English at Columbia University and also wrote for TV’s How to Make It in America and The L Word. Adam is her first novel, and, once you know Schrag’s background, the story acts as a cumulative lift from her childhood, LGBT culture and her work as L Word’s youngest lesbian writer who cruised dyke clubs to report back on twentysomethings. At HBO, her co-workers were five older lesbians and the straight-guy Adam Rapp. His presence made an impression. Here’s Schrag: “The older lesbians knew about long-term relationships, parenting and career woes. But what, I would often think, staring at Adam Rapp in the writers’ room, was Adam’s role?” Would he go to dyke bars, too? The amusing idea eventually morphed into the novel. Adam is about a teen boy’s search for identity amid a sea of options. Harvard’s poetry professor Stephen Burt, in the New Yorker, made these observations: “Between the depictions of teen-age yearning (erotic and otherwise) and the practical lessons about sex, it’s a novel that many teens really ought to read, though it could not be promoted as Y.A. … Schrag’s novel – and the publicity behind it – represents a giant step forward from the times when trans people were portrayed as objects of pity, or serial killers, or symbols of dreamlike weirdness.” Schrag and I talked at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Alicia Anstead
How did you mine the setting in this book? What did you want to accomplish by the very specific spots you name in your book?

Ariel Schrag
I basically was interested in writing a book about my life in my early 20s in the queer subculture of New York City, but I didn’t want to write a memoir.

Anstead
Why not?

Schrag
I wrote a series of auto-biographical graphic memoirs about myself. My life aged 15 through 18 is very detailed, very richly documented, and I wasn’t interested in doing that anymore. I wanted to try writing fiction. And I also thought it would be really fun and funny to talk about this world that I had been in through the eyes of an outsider. So that’s sort of the approach that I took to the book. All the spots that my fictional protagonist goes to are spots that I inhabited and experienced.

Anstead
So it was your revisiting them and knowledge of them that made you want to do that?

Schrag
Yes.

Anstead
I was thinking of this as I was reading your book: Were you hoping that you could represent something in the queer and trans culture for those readers or for readers who maybe didn’t know what it was? Or both?

Schrag
I didn’t have a specific intended audience. I figured there would be jokes that only queer and trans people would get, and I also figured there would be information that was written in a way to make it comprehensible to people if they might not be familiar with things. It might seem obvious to people. So a little bit of both, I would say.

Anstead
Since your work before this has been primarily in memoir, how did you go about developing character? Was it the same for you developing a character who is real and developing a character who is not real?

Schrag
I don’t know. I didn’t think too hard about it. I just came up with the characters that I felt would tell the story I wanted to tell. Nobody is directly based on anyone I know, but people have the characteristics or the personality traits or aspects of people I know. For instance, the girl that Adam ends up dating, Gillian, is sort of a mesh of all the girls I’ve dated in my past, but I wouldn’t say is any one of them.

Anstead
So many of the books I’ve read recently are about sex. And all of them have sex scenes in them, which – I’m not a prude; I don’t care – but it made me wonder about writing sex scenes and what that’s like. Is that also based on real life, or is it an imaginative thing? How do you write a sex scene?

Schrag
The sex happening in my book is sex that’s happening with a teenage boy. I have had sex with one teenage boy when I was a teenage girl, but I only did it once. So my actual experiences with teenage-boy sex are very limited. So there was a fair amount of imagination involved there, but, yeah, other than that, you kind of take from what you do know.

Anstead
Did you talk to people and ask them about it?

Schrag
No. Nothing that he gets involved in is not something that I was somehow involved in.

Anstead
Is Adam you as well?

Schrag
Yeah, he definitely has aspects of me for sure.

Anstead
What parts of Adam are you?

Schrag
I guess maybe certain personality traits. He’s a little bit on the quiet side, but then when he’s around everyone he knows, he becomes more chatty. I think I have that. I guess some of his more judgmental aspects are things that I’ve had. Hopefully, his sweetness is something people think that I have. But he also is very much not me sort of in his ignorance and cluelessness about stuff. I mean, I grew up, I came out when I was 15, I’ve always been kind of entrenched in queer culture, so I’ve always had a hyper-awareness of what is and isn’t OK, and what the correct language to be using is. And he just doesn’t know anything. But it was fun to kind of write from that perspective.

Anstead
I can tell you as a reader, him not knowing anything was really helpful to me. And I’ve been on the fringes of that culture, but this book is on the inside. You know what I mean? It’s not the life that I’ve lived. I’ve lived around it, but not in it, so for me as a reader, it was really interesting having a “guide book” in him through this. Tell me a little bit about the plot, figuring that out. Do you just write and it happens, or do you plot it out?

Schrag
I had a sense of where I wanted the story to go and there were certain key moments that I wrote towards, but I try not to box myself in too much and see where it goes.

Anstead
Was there discovery for you along that path?

Schrag
Definitely.

Anstead
And what does that look like?

Schrag
Honestly, I would say that there was more editing down than discovering. My original scope of the book was much bigger, and there were scenes that I imagined happening that just felt redundant with other scenes. They would both be interesting in their own way, but basically they’d be saying the same thing. So I would cut them or just never end up writing them even though they’ve been in my mind. But definitely I would say discovering the characters’ personalities came through writing them. The characters were much more one-dimensional in my mind, and as I wrote them and wrote their dialogue, they were able to come alive.

Anstead
The transition for you from visual and memoir to written and fiction, was that a natural movement for you? Did it take some extra discipline? How did you make that transition?

Schrag
There’s much more discipline involved in drawing comics because they require so much labor. When I’m in the middle of writing a comic, I’ll have to work on it 10 hours a day to maybe two hours of writing and eight hours of drawing. The book, I could get away with two hours of writing a day, so that was nice. But in terms of the switch over, probably the most challenging part was writing visual description because I had been used to just being able to draw that, and you never want to describe anything visual in a comic because chances are you’ve drawn it and then you’re just repeating yourself. So I definitely had to work a little bit harder at describing things, whereas the sort of internal monologue and the dialogue came very easily because I’m used to writing that sort of thing.

Anstead
How did you learn how to write?

Schrag
Just doing it all the time and reading a lot.

Anstead
Did you always know that you’d be a writer?

Schrag
Mm-hmm. Yep.

Anstead
That was it? There was no other career?

Schrag
Well, cartoonist. As a kid, I was always very set on being a cartoonist, and I feel like now in my adult life, that’s segued more into writing. I also write for TV, and now I’ve done the novel.

Anstead
Do you have a preference for one of those genres?

Schrag
Comics will always be my heart, but I truly do love all of them and hope to do all of them and continue to do all of them.

Anstead
That’s a nice portfolio to have, right? You’re never going to be bored.

Schrag
Yeah. I really like mixing it up. I think I get a little bit weary of all of them, so it’s nice to switch around.

Anstead
The novel and your graphic work, they’re different from TV in that with TV you’re working –

Schrag
Collaboratively.

Anstead
Collaboratively. What’s that like for you?

Schrag
It’s great. It’s great to get out of your own head and of your office and meet with other people. I really enjoy that.

Anstead
Is there a competitive vibe that’s helpful to you under that circumstance?

Schrag
Yes and no. When you’re working on a show, all the writers are there to serve the show runner or creator’s visions. There’s definitely a little bit of competition in, like, “Oh, he said a good thing in the group today” or “I said a good thing” or “Did I say enough?” There are little aspects of that which maybe get me thinking harder, I don’t know. You’re all kind of there with a common goal.

Anstead
I like that idea, and I talk to a lot of TV writers who say a very similar thing, like, you might score the joke and they’re thinking: “Shit.” But it’s also: “Shit! That’s great!”

Schrag
Yeah, totally. I think if you go two days and you haven’t said anything good –

Anstead
You get fired from that.

Schrag
You start to get antsy. And yeah, you get fired. But there’s definitely a sense of “Fuck, I really gotta come in with something good today.” But it’s not like, you know, you’re all creating the same thing.

Anstead
How about young writers – and I don’t mean that as an age term – who want to write and don’t really know how to get started on it, don’t know that they’re scared? What do you say to them? How do you help them get over that?

Schrag
What I have found really helpful and what I did with Adam was I wrote down how many hours a day I worked so I had to do a minimum of two hours, and at the end of the day, I would write down in my little book “two,” and if I didn’t write, I’d have to write “zero,” and that was very shameful. So I basically forced myself to write out of avoiding shame. And chances are, once you sit down and start typing, something happens.

Anstead
That’s the best advice I’ve heard in a really long time, I have to tell you.

Schrag
I’m glad.

Anstead
That is going to be such a takeaway for readers.

Schrag
I hope so.

Anstead
No, that’s terrific: No star today.

Schrag
Yeah. Nobody wants to see that zero.

Anstead
Anything else about the craft that you think is important to say? We didn’t really talk about revision.

Schrag
Many people differ on that. One thing about TV is you’re, of course, getting feedback all the time. I don’t really like to show stuff to people on the early stages. I like to feel like it’s very personal, and I’ll do three drafts of my own before I show it to anybody. And that’s just my personal thing, but it’s a way to kind of feel an ownership over it or a personal connection to it before, because once you start getting contradictory advice, you can sometimes lose sight of it and not even know what you’re trying to say anymore.

Anstead
It’s not a committee process, right? I mean, at some point, it becomes something like that. But you have to own it first.

Schrag
Yeah. So I would say write something you’re really happy with and then show it to people, but for me to show something to somebody midway doesn’t help.

 Jacket Image - ADAM_hresAn excerpt from the novel Adam.

“I’m out,” said Adam.

“Good,” said Casey, not even looking at him.

“Why was your brother here?” Adam heard Hazel asking as he walked toward the door. He kept walking before he could hear Casey’s answer. He got to the door. He stopped.

No.

He was not gonna bail.

He was not some pussy.

Maybe nothing would happen with that girl, but he had to know that he fucking tried.

She was somewhere in this apartment, and no matter what he was gonna force himself to talk to her.

Fuck Casey, fuck Hazel, fuck Boy Casey, fuck June, fuck Agnes, fuck Mom, fuck Dad — he was not going home until he knew that he tried.

Adam whipped around. Headed straight for the liquor table. Threw some ice in a cup. Filled it to the brim with vodka. Took a swig. Felt a lot better.

He saw Casey and Hazel talking where he’d left them and didn’t give a shit if they saw he was still here. In five minutes he’d be talking to Redhead and what could they do then?

“Adam, I thought you were leaving?”

“Um, I’m in the middle of a conversation? Do you mind?”

Adam rotated his head a slow 180 degrees, scanning the party for the redhead like a superhero with “infrared-head” vision. “Infrared- head.” Ha-ha. That was funny. He was funny!

He spotted her. Standing by the window. Talking to some girl.

He imagined his vision like in Terminator 2, targeting in on her, giving him all the necessary stats. Everything was coded in fluorescent green. He was moving in. Nothing could stop him. He started walking toward the window. Took another swig of vodka. But how? How would he get her attention? What do they do in the movies? On TV? They’re walking down the school hallway, they bump into each other,  the girl drops her books, and the boy picks them up, something like that; he was getting closer, two inches  away — DECISION! DECISION! Alarms were going off, he had to act now — now!!!

Adam threw his drink on the redhead.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Ariel Schrag  © 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer. She has been a fellow at Columbia’s National Arts Journalism Program and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.