The 27th Letter of the Alphabet: A Conversation With Kim Adrian

Michelle Wildgen

A number of years ago, Kim Adrian wrote an essay for Tin House about red currants and Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Her task was to write about food in literature and food in her own life, and in the course of exploring the two she told a story about the only time her grandmother served her sweetened currants with biscuits and cream.

I have spent years thinking about that dessert. Perhaps it is because Adrian describes not just the sensory experience of eating but the lingering associations we have with meals that matter to us, the occasional wave of sensation that feels too sudden and engulfing to be mere emotion. Or because the dish of currants is not one of many sweet grandmotherly moments but perhaps the only one. Or perhaps it is because Adrian makes such painterly work of it all: that skimpy bucket of fruit against the peeling paint of a ramshackle house, the misty gray sky and wet green grass, the bright scarlet currants half-hidden in the bushes. I can see the vivid red stain of the fruit and the biscuit, the soft white cream, so clearly that some part of me is convinced I have made and eaten this dish too. But I haven’t. I just read about it and never forgot it. I haven’t been able to muster much interest in uncomplicated food stories since.

Her new memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, is not really about food, but it is about family, and Adrian’s writing remains hypnotic on every subject, a consuming plunge into each and every moment. Recently I interviewed her about her new book over email.

Michelle Wildgen: One of the things I love about your writing is how you use food, often as one point of beauty against a hard backdrop.  Can you talk a bit about how you think about food as a writer, as a reader? As an eater and a maker?

Kim Adrian: In my family, when I was a kid, food was exactly as you describe—“one point of beauty against a hard backdrop.” I’ve never understood exactly why, but as troubled as we were, my family often found a measure of harmony around the dinner table. Food was a Good Fairy in our house. It put a spell over us. Later on, as a young adult, I started cooking with James, my college boyfriend and the man I’d eventually marry. For the two of us, food has always been pure fun, pure play. After college, James worked as a cook at a couple of fancy restaurants, and I worked for a while at a bakery. We really got into it. Every meal was a mini-event. These days, I tend to think about food more philosophically. Partly this came out of working on a blog I created several years called “Food Culture Index” which looks at depictions of food in the arts. Around the same time, I started practicing yoga seriously, and both of these things—the blog and the yoga—led me to think about food in a deeper, more reflective way. Food, of course, is essentially an energy source that allows living things to grow and to sustain life. But it’s also suffering. Even if you don’t eat meat, you’re required to eat something that’s been alive if you want to stay alive yourself. Life sustains life, in other words, but only through death. There’s no way around that equation. To me, that’s an endlessly fascinating idea. One I’ve barely touched as a writer, but I think about it all the time.

MW: The portrait of your mother that emerges in here is obviously complicated and reflects years of slow change in what you knew of her and saw of her. How did you start writing about someone about whom you might have really layered feelings? Did you need to understand your own feelings to some extent in order to write about her, or did you have to write your way into self knowledge and the knowledge of how you see your family?

KA: Definitely I did a lot of personal work—a lot of therapy—along the way, and that helped in the sense that it allowed me to get some distance and perspective on some extremely painful memories and realities, and you need those things—perspective and distance—in order to write about your life in a way that has any chance of being meaningful to other people. But in terms of writing myself into some sort of knowledge…I’m not so sure. I do know this: I spent years trying to write this story, but feeling like I just couldn’t touch it in any real way. Recently I was sorting through a bunch of old files and storage boxes full of stuff I’d saved over the years, including a lot of old work—little vignettes and mini-essays about my family, in particular about my mother and her childhood, her mental illness, her family of origin. It was chilling to find things I wrote so long ago, in college and even in high school, and to see that I was dealing with exactly the same material I explored in The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, only I was writing in this very thin or maybe numb way. I wrote variations on the same themes, the same material for decades. It was frankly obsessive. Very circular and painful. It was only after I’d truly committed myself to writing this memoir that I realized I had to do something seriously different. I had to write differently—more honestly, more plainly. So, in a way you could say I wrote my way into that knowledge. But it felt more like I wrote myself into a corner and then wrote myself out of it.

MW: I don’t think I fully understood how central a nonfiction writer’s self examination can be until I began teaching nonfiction and was so often asking my students to delve into why a story mattered to them, why they think they did this or that, patterns we saw and they did not, what they thought then and what they think now. What’s your experience with this part of writing? Was there any thing, any question, you had to keep re-engaging with?

KA: Honestly, that line of inquiry never opened up anything really significant for me in terms of the work itself. Actually, I think I did too much self-examination in regard to this project. I just maintained this very psychological, very analytical position that if I examined my own motives closely enough, if I parsed the components of the story carefully enough, then the whole thing would reveal its shape to me, like magic, and everything would flow from there. But in the end the only thing that truly helped me get the story down on the page was to leave behind that critical, analysis-oriented mindset, and instead start tackling, much more directly, whatever fragments of the story I could grab onto. Basically, I started paying super close attention to specifics, especially sensory details. Only then did the story actually start showing up on the page. Details like the itchy feeling of a shag rug under my knees, or the way tissues of ice crackled under my feet when I went walking in the woods with my grandfather, or the sound of a baseball bat slicing through the air at the back of my neck… The story was hiding inside details like these. It was a tremendous relief to realize that.

MW: The tone in here is very even–for me it managed not to be castigating whether describing the merely frustrating or the truly abusive–and yet I also never feel you are holding back. Were there pieces of the story that had a big effect on the overall tone, pieces you maybe put in or took out that really shifted things?

KA: Before I realized I needed to write in a more raw way, I wrote a couple of drafts of this memoir that were pretty restricted feeling. I worked extremely hard on those drafts, but my efforts were focused on the sentence- and paragraph-level of things. Finding the right tone was key for me to be able to loosen up and tell the story as a whole. To write in this more expansive way meant taking more risks in terms of being more natural, more real, on the page. Early on, I was afraid this would also mean being personally unlikeable as a narrator. I suspect this is something female writers struggle with more than male writers, generally speaking. This may sound funny, but the tone I wound up with reminds me a little of wearing no make-up. When my sentences were, individually, very pretty, when I tried so hard to make each paragraph “beautiful,” it was as if I’d botoxed my prose. There was no traction. The story simply didn’t advance. It was static. Being willing to work without make-up (so to speak) made an enormous difference. Using a less self-conscious, more unadorned voice was scary, but it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that it was also incredibly liberating. It allowed me to write a lot of scenes I’d previously avoided. And those scenes opened huge windows onto the story. Scenes like the “booger board” in the laundry room, for instance. Once I understood the freedom this more straightforward approach allowed, it seemed only common sense to retain that tone for the entire book because I’ve never been interested in manipulating this story through things like tone, as you might do in a novel, for instance, or in a more plot-driven type of memoir.

MW: I’m thinking of hard it is to take the stew of associations we have about our families and make them into a story for a reader who lacks all the layers of backstory the writer knows. Did it you run into the issue of you thinking you clearly said something to your reader, who thought you were saying something different?

KA: Absolutely. In the early stages, I was often terrified that readers would misinterpret what I was saying, especially in the beginning sections of the book. This is partly why those early drafts were static. It’s why I revised individual paragraphs as if my life depended on it. Without realizing it, I was trying to get the whole backstory out at once, which, of course, is impossible when you’re using words. We write as we speak, word by word by word, and we read that way, too. It takes time to progress through a story. It’s not like a painting, for which you can get at least a rough overall impression at a single glance. But I kept trying to make paragraphs that functioned like paintings by cramming as much information into one spot as I could, like, “Oh, my mother’s crazy, but she’s also charming, she’s cunning and tricky, but also funny, she’s cruel, but also super intelligent, she’s degraded, but also beautiful.” Writing like this is homogenizing. It resists the natural linearity of prose, and leaves very little work for the reader to do. Eventually, I understood that I had to trust my readers to grasp the nuances of the story on their own steam, and that that process might take a long time. It might take the entire length of the book. Even now, when I flip through the first several chapters of this memoir, I feel anxious, because I know that only part of the story is there, and there are a lot of bits early on that seem very ugly, very harsh. Readers who stick with the story will eventually understand those same sections in more layered and complex way. But it will take time. That’s just the way stories work. They’re embedded in time, entangled with it.

MW: What were the biggest surprises for you in writing and publishing this book?

KA: The biggest surprise by far was how I felt when I realized I’d finished it. It was as if an enormous room had opened up inside my brain. There was suddenly so much space, where before there had been this story and the struggle to tell it. I still have that feeling of spaciousness.

MW: What do you kind of wish you would be asked about, and what would you gladly never answer again?

 KA: The kinds of questions we think up ourselves are the kinds of questions we don’t have the answers to, so anything I can think of as a question for myself would probably be pretty annoying for me to actually try to answer. On the second score, I’d gladly never again answer the question of what the “takeaway” of my memoir is. I know that’s important information for someone who’s trying to figure out whether or not they want to read a book, but I think the author is the wrong person to ask. A writer’s whole task is expansion. Writing a book is expanding an idea, or a range of ideas. Stating a book’s takeaway is exactly the opposite.

Kim Adrian’s first book, Sock, is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. Her essays and short stories have appeared in O Magazine, Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, and many other places. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, and she is currently at work on a novel based on the life and writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. 

Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House Magazine and the author of three novels, most recently Bread and Butter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and New York Times Book Review, O, the Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Best Food Writing, and various journals and anthologies.