In(habit)ing the World: In Conversation with Cara Blue Adams
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the twelfth installment of this series, Rachel speaks with Cara Blue Adams about her debut collection, You Never Get It Back, her love of poetry, and writing about the ordinary things in life.
In You Never Get It Back, Cara Blue Adams crafts a captivating portrait of life in motion. Across thirteen linked stories, readers get to know Kate Bishop while she grapples with early adulthood. From earthen landscapes to seaside towns, Adams renders vivid backdrops as Kate navigates more complicated, emotional terrains: family tumult, career changes, relationships with partners, friends—herself.
Though Kate's life unfolds in fragments, for Adams, paying attention is a through-line in her experiences. As she writes in the collection's final story: "I will tell her that I don't understand the world, that I have spent my whole life examining it and come to no conclusions, that the one thing I know is that I want to keep looking as long as I can."
Restlessness, loss, and yearning are present throughout the book, but Adams gracefully brings these feelings into focus beyond the page. She reminds us that there is still beauty to be found. I spoke with Adams about this remarkable collection, her reading habits, and writing about the ordinary things in life. — Rachel Schwartzmann
What are some of your ordinary habits outside of professional reading and writing obligations?
One habit that's been important to me is spending a little time in the morning reading for pleasure, curiosity—and reading on the page instead of a screen. This past year, my partner and I have been spending time up in the Hudson Valley, and I got a butterfly chair that I put near a window in this little nook of the house that we don't use for anything else. I only use that chair for sitting, looking out the window, and reading a physical book. There's something important to me about having that physical space reserved for that kind of attention. To remove myself from my phone, from my laptop, from my dog—whom I love [Laughs] but loves to play—and to have this physical space to enter this private protected space of attention.
What's a reading habit that you want to either build or break this year?
I really love to read poetry, and I've been working on making more time in my life to do that. That's a habit that I definitely want to build upon this year. I've been enjoying reading Alex Dimitrov's poems. He has a book called Love and Other Poems. His work has to do with joy. It's very funny and joyful—and also sad, he's unafraid of difficult things as well. There are a lot of poets who I love–like Robert Hass and Merwin—and want to spend more time with. So in the mornings, when I read, sometimes I'll begin by reading a few poems.
After years of reading a lot of fiction and contemporary fiction specifically—both in my practice as a writer and because for about five years, I was an editor at a literary magazine, The Southern Review—I've found that I love going back to older books. I reread Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion recently and also The Trial by Franz Kafka. That was just a deep pleasure to revisit those books. I've also enjoyed reading some nonfiction about a range of subjects, including other artists.
I loved You Never Get It Back, and I'm starting to realize how much I enjoy linked collections. As a reader, you engage with someone's story in a way that I think is more realistic—you dip in and out, people come and go. It's less linear. Did you have to build or break any habits to write this way?
Yeah. When I began writing the book, I didn't realize I was writing a book! So I think the first habit I had to break was thinking about narrative on the level of the story—or perhaps what I should say is the first habit I needed to build was thinking about narrative on the level of the book.
I wrote and published stories for a number of years before I decided that the book would be linked by character. It would follow this one character, Kate Bishop, through her twenties and early thirties. At that point, I started to ask myself about the potential of the linked story form. And as you say, it appealed to me because as much as I love novels, they tend to have a kind of central narrative thrust that does define the scope in some ways. The linked story collection feels a little bit more open and loose and playful. I like this idea of creating a kind of constellation of stories.
Oh, I love that.
Thank you. It's an image that helps me think about the form. I think each time you add a story in a collection, it sort of shifts the meaning of the stories that came before, the stories that will come after but not in any fixed way. I feel like the relationships between stories can feel a little bit more flexible—there's more white space and room for interpretation on the reader's part. Once I saw the possibilities of the form, I started to think about the book as opposed to just the individual story.
For those who haven't read the collection yet, can you introduce Kate Bishop via an ordinary habit that you think best describes her sensibility?
Oh, that's so interesting. In a story called "Vision," Kate has left a career as a scientist and has begun writing. She's at an artist residency, and she finds that she can't write and is not sure if she has anything to say. Kate copies lines that other people have written—from writers she loves—and pins them around her studio on these note cards. She also looks out the window at the world. I think that act of paying attention both to language and also to the world—and that act of looking—is something that's really central to her as a character and is a constant presence in the book even as her life changes in some significant ways.
Yeah. That's beautiful, and it's so true. How you write about all of the different settings that Kate finds herself in sets the tone. "Vision" definitely was one of my favorite stories. And in that story, she meets a painter who teaches her the word iberpotshke, which roughly translates to "overwork." She asks the painter, "How do you know when to stop?" And he goes on to tell her that it takes practice (and confidence). I thought that exchange was so poignant, and I'd like to pose that question to you: How do you know when to stop?
That can be such a hard thing to know as an artist. I love visual art, and I always love to see sketches—the work that an artist did before creating a final piece. There's something just elegant and appealingly spare to me about the sketch. So I think my challenge as a writer is always to make sure that I've gotten enough on the page but no more than the smallest amount that I need to create the effect that I want to create for the reader.
Sometimes that's a process of writing a draft that's a little bit sparer and then adding to it, going back, and seeing what I can carve away from what I've added. So the story will expand and contract and expand and contract. Often I don't keep very much of what I've added, but I keep just a little bit. I think it's sometimes the little bit extra—that takes a lot of work to arrive at—that ends up being what makes the work feel finished.
Later in that story, Kate ponders, "What is a life? A practice? Can it continue to move through space once it dies?" I realized how much of this time in our lives is spent grieving. I also realized how much Kate is grieving, too—for some things that haven't even happened yet. It's such an ordinary feeling now, sadly. I know the collection has been coming together over several years, but what is it like to write, read about, or look at grief today, given all we've been through?
That's really interesting. I think that grief and love and joy are all deeply intertwined for me—you only feel grief about something if you feel its absence, and it's something that brought you joy or something that you loved. Or if you anticipate its absence for the same reasons.
There's a poem by Mark Doty called "Visitation," and it's about a whale who swims into a harbor. The speaker of the poem is feeling an intense sense of grief and reading about this whale who seems to be trapped. At the end, the whale is able to make its way out of the harbor, and the speaker meditates on joy. The poem ends with the lines: "What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?" There's a sense that joy is just as momentous, weighty, important, and layered as grief and has as much weight. But I love how that poem brings those two things together—joy and grief—and suggests that living in the world means experiencing both things.
I think right now, the sense of grief that a lot of us are feeling—both looking back over the past year and a half and looking forward—has to do with the pandemic, of course, climate change, among other things. I think it's also a chance to think about what gives us the most joy in our lives. What we love the most about the world and what we want to pay attention to; what we want to spend time with and save or protect.
The big and small things.
Exactly. The small things are, in fact, sometimes immense.
On the subject of grief and joy, why is it important to read about—to write about—the ordinary things in life? What has it taught you about participating in the world?
One thing I've loved about doing interviews like this is they lead me to think about the world in new ways. Your questions are doing that. It's a real pleasure.
As you were speaking about the word "participate," I was thinking that it can be easy to either be in a place where you're receiving information and stimulation, [or] you're in the role of an observer rather than participant. It can feel easy to let the world live you a little bit; for your responsibilities and the pressures of the world—and the demands on your attention—for those things to be what guides you.
So to think and write about the ordinary involves, among other things, a depth of attention. To look at something closely and to really see it as opposed to finding what you expect to find, to move past that. And then to push yourself to capture it feels crucial to me in terms of participating because that's when you really meet the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.