Chris Adrian, the author of two novels and a short-story collection, is one of our most interesting young fiction writers—he is also a practicing pediatrician, a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology, and a student at divinity school. Rivka Galchen, a novelist who also has a background in medicine, talks with Chris about his forthcoming novel, The Great Night, a magical retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in contemporary San Francisco. In the course of their conversation, they discuss talking bagels, the cult sci-fi movie “Soylent Green,” and how to write convincingly about fairies. Rivka and Chris were both recently chosen for the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list.
-Eric Chinski, Editor in Chief
Galchen: Who and what lives and happens in The Great Night?
Adrian: The Great Night is a retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in the summer of 2008. Three people—two men and a woman—get lost in the park on their way to a party and have a common adventure involving fairies, a monster, and the ghosts of their recently deceased romantic relationships. Around and in between the action of this main story, Titania struggles in the aftermath of the death of her adopted son and the subsequent breakdown of her thousand-year marriage to Oberon, and a group of homeless people stage a musical production of Soylent Green (called Soylent Green!) for the benefit of the evil mayor of San Francisco.
Galchen: I know it’s hard to say what idea or incident a novel grows out of, but what element do you think was there earliest for this novel?
Adrian: I think the idea of Buena Vista Park being an uncanny place probably came first. Viewed from my neighborhood at particular times of the day, it looks decidedly magical or spooky, and from the image of that park surrounded by fog under a full moon, it was a pretty minuscule effort to imagine that something really weird might be going on there. I’m not totally sure how that weird thing became a fairy adventure. It may or may not be because of the park’s reputation (rather undeserved these days) as a gay cruising ground.
Galchen: Fairies, the dead, avenging angels: these are normal denizens in your fiction. Does it change the way you think of the more straightforwardly “human” characters?
Adrian: I tend to think of those sorts of characters—angels and ghosts and fetuses and talking bagels—as human in pretty ordinary ways, though it always feels like a tall order to write well enough about them that the reader will see them that way, too. But in this story the main supernatural characters come to be intoxicated (and ruined) by their experience of ordinary human emotions in a way that called a much more explicit attention to the borders around and intersections between the defining desires of the “real” and “unreal” characters. The inhuman characters in the story long for and are oppressed by love, and the human characters long for and are oppressed by magic, and one of the chief discoveries of the writing was coming to understand how they are all longing for and oppressed by the same thing.
Galchen: The Great Night is your third novel, after Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital. How does this one fit, or not fit, among its siblings?
Adrian: It feels like a bit of a lark compared to those other two, though it was mechanically just as hard to write and emotionally much harder to write. It feels a bit less ambitious than either of those novels, but if I boil all of them down to one-line questions it seems to fall into place with them: if I can say that Gob’s Grief asked What shall we do about death? and The Children’s Hospital asked What shall we do about sin?, then I suppose I can say that this one asks What shall we do about love? That was certainly the question that was perplexing (and torturing) me during the time that I wrote it.
Galchen: I understand that this book’s ending kept revising itself. What power won out?
Adrian: I had the idea for the novel long before I figured out how to write it or became possessed of the sustained inspiration necessary to bring it out of the realm of daydreams into actual words that other people could read. What brought both of those things about was the disintegration of my relationship with my boyfriend. The novel became a sort of open letter to him about why it was in the universe’s best interest that we get back together, and at the same time it was a sort of weapon of mass emotional destruction aimed, rather angrily, at his heart. It was written out of order, so I had the ending done even when I had only about half of the total manuscript done, and near the halfway mark he asked to get back together, and suddenly it no longer seemed appropriate to seek to bring him to permanent tears by means of a national publication. The novel got a much happier ending after that, and the obsessive particulars of our relationship that had been figuratively transcribed into the novel got subsumed by a movement in the story that was considerably more general and generalizable. Which was all for the best, I think, though I kind of still want it to make him cry (a little).
Galchen: If this novel were a meal, a tiny feast say, what would it be?
Adrian: Probably an assortment of those odd-tasting foreign candies that you keep sucking because you can’t decide if the flavor is appalling or delicious.
“The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire,” by Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker
“A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian, The New Yorker