Interview with Adam Klein

Adam Klein: I’ve been writing for the past 15 years. I went to school for poetry at the University of Iowa, dropped out, and returned many years later to San Francisco State to get my MA in fiction. During my graduate years I concentrated on the short story, and at a local reading I was pulled aside by the designer of High Risk books (Rex Ray) and asked to submit my writing to Amy Scholder, who was the current editor at the time. I did, and a few weeks later we were signing a contract above City Lights books in San Francisco. This must have been 1993. I finished the collection of stories, The Medicine Burns, and it was published about a year later. I then went on to publish stories in a variety of periodicals, but also concentrated my efforts on working on an artist monograph of the San Francisco painter Jerome Caja. That book, Jerome: After the Pageant, was an enormous undertaking and a very emotional process. Jerome was deteriorating from AIDS and went blind during the process. Thomas Avena (the book’s co-author) and myself were desperately trying to raise the funds to have it produced. Many of the sources that suggested they would help in such a venture dried up when they realized that the subject of the book was literally on his deathbed. They dried up and we sped up, but we weren’t able to get the book out until about a year after his death. He was an important figure in painting, and a powerful teacher in my life. Once that book came out, in 1996, I settled into writing Tiny Ladies. I kept imagining it would be finished quickly, but I really had no knowledge of how to write a novel. I had many lessons of faith during its undertaking.

I started working with Roman Evening probably in 1999 or 2000, but Michael and I had written a few of the songs from our first album quite some time before this. It was very exciting to work with Michael Belfer, Tim Mooney, and Glen Swarts. They’re all incredible musicians who’ve been deeply involved in the music scene in San Francisco for years. They’re distinctive players, and they brought so much to our first record, Together Now.

DOA: Sounds like – even more in the song “Casework” than in the book – that there’s a serious frustration there with the limitations of the state’s ability to help people and the impartiality a caseworker must feel. Is that based on your personal experience, and is that the way you felt when writing the book?

AK: I’m glad the song conveys that frustration. It’s undoubtedly based on my personal experience, or lack of experience. The states, and a number of nonprofit organizations, hire job counselors with no formal training in psychology. They probably encounter the most difficult, challenging populations. They may get a couple of days training that focuses on things like potentially violent clients or basic ethical considerations, but for the most part, the field is wide open to quackery or genius. I think you get a bit of both.

DOA: How much of the book is autobiographical? Have you seen caseworkers like Carrie who have truly lived the lives of their lowest customers and gained an ability to empathize better?

AK: The book isn’t autobiographical, but it draws on my experience and the things I know. In my case, some terrible, dire years have helped me to empathize with clients. I’ve had to learn some lessons first hand. I’ve seen caseworkers identify too closely with clients. I’ve also seen some people with no powers of empathy doing the same job, maybe even doing it better.

DOA: I’ve found many writers have difficulty writing from the perspective of a main character of the opposite sex, but Carrie feels extremely real to me. Was it difficult getting into her character, or was there some sort of composite of people in real life you used?

AK: I absolutely used a composite, but Carrie is basically formless. I didn’t know who she was until I watched how she reacted to situations that came up in the book. The only sense I had for her – and really the only reason I wanted to write from her perspective – was her deep and unshakeable sense of remorse, the feeling that there was a pall over her life. This, I felt, was what the book should contribute, some insight into this state. It colors everything for her. She is both complicit and absent.

DOA: Which came first in your life – the writing or making music, or does one carry over to the other?

AK: I’ve always sung and made up songs, and I’ve always written. I got paid first for writing. For some people that means something. I’ve applied myself to music much more intensely in the past few years. I think it’s because I realize that you get collaborating musicians only for a short time; chances are they’ll get married, find another project, get strung out, or decide to write their own material. Writing books and writing songs – they carry over in a broad way, but I feel strongly that the best lyrics aren’t necessarily a great read. It’s wonderful when they are, like The Shins, Vic Chesnutt, Kristin Hersh, or Joni Mitchell. And then some songwriters like Dylan or Neil Young, Alex Chilton, or a band like For Stars – they can have some ridiculous lyric that is perfectly in order (that’s not to say they don’t often write incisively, just that there’s a certain freedom and looseness that they’re smart enough to take advantage of). I like taking the risk of being elliptical in a lyric. I’m less willing to do that in a book.

DOA: Why did you decide to write a soundtrack to a novel – something you don’t often, if ever, see? How successful do you feel you were at capturing the mood of the novel?

AK: That’s exactly what I was trying to do – to capture the mood, and perhaps to linger a little longer on this character I’d spent the last six years with. Michael was excited about doing it. Once he began playing the theme, I knew we had to do this project. There was a sense of brooding and melancholy about the theme, and even a faint kind of hope. It was wonderful to engage in a process that is so much more immediate than writing a novel, and to use it to re-create the narrative arc of the book. It just felt right.

DOA: How do you feel the album ties in with the novel? In other words, should a reader listen to particular songs at particular points, or is your attempt to capture the book’s mood and overriding storylines with the songs?

AK: I see the CD as the narrative played out from within Carrie’s psyche. It’s a much narrower aperture than the book, which involves other stories and motivations. The CD, I hope, stands alone. Most of the songs are more impressionistic than narrative, except “Casework.” They should mostly conjure mood, and complement each other. “Changed by Your Face” conveys a different kind of tenderness after you’ve read the book. Likewise, “Owls” might only make sense after reading the book, and even then…well, it’s a bit oblique.

DOA: Maybe you’re not like me, but when I write, I have to be listening to music, and sometimes the music I listen to influences the mood of my writing. What did you listen to when writing the novel, and did it have any influence on the mood of the book?

AK: Well, I spent a lot of years writing it, so I absorbed a lot of music in that time. Some of my standards are Tuxedomoon, Steven Brown and Benjamin Lew, Steve Reich, Cluster, and over the last year St. Thomas. Cat Power’s Moon Pix got played quite often. So did Mark Kozelek and Hannah Marcus.

DOA: From your website, I gather Roman Evening is primarily the project of yourself and Michael Mullen, with a variety of other musicians assisting throughout. Was it difficult relying on others to capture the mood of a work you created, or were you intimately involved in the music as well as the lyrics?

AK: Michael and I write the material together. He mostly comes up with the chords. He has all the initial musical ideas. I write the melody and lyrics over it. We’ve been working as a partnership for years, and the other musicians we work with can usually take a modest amount of direction from one of us. We’re very fluid in our assumption of roles as good cop/bad cop. I may be bad cop more often. Yes. I’m definitely bad cop more often. But the people we work with are consummate musicians. They’re artists. They don’t need to be told. Walt Szalva and Sharky Laguana (from Creeper Lagoon) were impeccable contributors to Tiny Ladies. Time and money are the only problems we confront, the only real pressure.

DOA: Why the name Roman Evening for the band? And do you feel Tiny Ladies adequately represents the band’s sound, or is it a special direction to complement the book?

AK: The band name comes from the title of a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini. It describes the riff raff on a Roman street. We liked it because it seemed both pristine and dirty.

And yes, I do think this record, while a little less song-oriented, puts across what we do as a band. There’s always some conceptual angle to our work.

DOA: Tell me about your musical inspirations?

AK: I think my period of musical inspiration is primarily the 70s and early 80s. I felt there was something very open about the material being produced then, truly uncharted and idiosyncratic. I like the early Big Star records, though I think I’ve overplayed them. I love Neil Young; I listen mostly to Decade now. I also love Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John. There was something spiritually probing about the songs of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen. They were ferociously internal and complex. Sextet by A Certain Ratio has always been a favorite record, as has Metal Box by PIL. I also liked the noise stuff of that period, especially early Cabaret Voltaire around the release of Live at the YMCA and Mix-Up. TG and many of the ZickZack label records were important to me. I’m a fan of Mercury Rev, Lambchop, and Sparklehorse. I guess I lean toward psychedelia, krautrock, and Americana. Michael likes 60s Italian pop music and 60s folk.

DOA: What’s next for you, both musically and in your writing? Are there other outlets for your creativity as well?

AK: We’ve just written a group of songs for a CD, hopefully to be released in 2004. It’s called Heaven Will Not Delay a Traveler. I think they’re lovely songs, dark, austere, and oddly patterned. In the first week of August 2003 I’ll leave for Bangladesh with the Peace Corps. That’s why we’re working on recordings now for a 2004 release. I’m also working on a new novel entitled The Forks. I am painstakingly practicing my Bengali script. It’s not an easy alphabet! Michael and I have talked of recording in Bangladesh or India with local musicians there. We’ll see if that comes to pass. We will undoubtedly continue working together, unless I decide to become a holy man and renounce all my prior efforts. I don’t think that’s likely, though.