Adam Gilders and ‘Another Ventriloquist’
May 6, 2011 | by Craig Taylor and Deirdre Dolan
In 1998, Adam Gilders, a Canadian writer, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Before his death in 2007 at the age of thirty-six, he wrote close to two hundred stories. Though Gilders’s fiction has been featured in The Paris Review and The Walrus, two of his friends, Jason Fulford and Leanne Shapton, decided to publish a more comprehensive book of Gilders’s writing under their independent imprint, J&L Books. Together, with Geoffrey Bainbridge, Miranda Purves, John Zilcosky, and Adam’s mother, Carla Gilders, they edited Another Ventriloquist, which debuts this Saturday, May 7, at the J&L FUNdraiser. We spoke to Jason and Leanne about the book.
Another Ventriloquist is an unnervingly good read. Can you talk about the status of the book when Adam died of a brain tumor in 2007? Had any of his friends discussed with him the possibility of gathering his writing into a book?
He never talked about publishing a collection of his stories. That was all our idea.
When he died, he had around two hundred unpublished pieces on his computer. One of the first conversations we had with his mother and friends after the funeral was about needing to get his stories collected and published. We never even knew he wrote so much. He was very critical of his own work and most of it he would have never brought forward for publication, especially not the older pieces or funny stuff like “Michael Douglas.” This is the one silver lining we can see to the situation—we get to read all these stories.
Did Adam build up his stories incrementally or cut them down from longer drafts? How did he work? Was he a relentless cutter?
Adam was a relentless cutter and a word-by-word perfectionist, which is why it was hard to put this book together. We were working with stories that had many different drafts. He would obsess over the smallest details. We didn’t do much editing at all. We just decided on the best and did minimal clean up. Part of being friends with Adam was listening to him read drafts over and over as he worked. Of course the great what if? is what would his final version have been like?
J&L usually specializes in photography or books of illustration. What drew you to Adam's fiction?
We’ve been fans of Adam’s writing since before J&L was founded. I [Leanne Shapton] was roommates with Adam in Toronto in 1995. We were drawn to his fiction the way we were drawn to him—how he interpreted the world, dressed, wrote, spoke. We published a dozen of his stories in our very first book, Sunbird (2000) along with my [Jason Fulford] photographs. Another of his stories appeared in J&L Illustrated #1 (2001). At the time of his death, he was working as the commissioning editor on a new issue of J&L Illustrated.
Where are the stories set?
The settings are unspecific North American cities that resemble Toronto and Ottawa. Adam would spend his afternoons in coffee shops. He also spent many years in and out of hospitals, and at the University of Toronto where he studied and then taught. He liked brightly lit restaurants and “public” spaces. When we’d visit him in Toronto he would take us to the Tim Hortons and discuss other regular customers. He made a friend, Zbigniev, at the Second Cup in the Rideau Centre in Ottawa. We never met Zbigniev, but Adam would talk about him a lot.
Wellness, fate, the cruelty of illness—were these subjects that arose with Adam’s illness or had they always been on his mind? How much of the book was written while Adam was sick?
Not long after he and Geoffrey met in high school they were listening to “End of the Night” by The Doors. Adam quoted the line “Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to the endless night.” He said Geoffrey was one of the former, and he was one of the latter.
Adam was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. It was an oligodendroglioma.
Most of the material in the book was written after that. There are only about ten older pieces included. A few years before the diagnosis he had got frustrated with trying to write fiction and given up. But he started again shortly after. He decided that trying to write was something he wanted to do in his life and it was now or never. Many of his characters also deal with illnesses. We think he used it as a subject to explore miscommunication. If we think of illness as the human misunderstanding writ large (who is this body betraying this mind?), it is the great incongruity. He was always interested in the grotesque, which made up a big part of his earlier writing. This might have been about his love for Beckett, but it also had to do with his love of what was off or odd—the offness of being—and illness is a part of that.
The stories also deal with the problems and impasses of humans becoming socialized and adapting to love, marriage, their dogs. Often after an encounter he liked to carefully think through what had happened in an analytic way: if some awkwardness occurred with a woman that made him feel misunderstood or embarrassed he would noodle it in his head and on the phone with friends, until he’d found a way to be okay with it. And this was never annoying or neurotic. It was always fun, because it was a rigorous process rather than a rant or self-absorption. He was also a good storyteller.
David Foster Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch has talked about how moving the process of editing The Pale King posthumously was—how, in a struggle to keep his emotions under control, he frequently fixed his gaze at the ceiling. Can you talk about the emotional process of editing the book, particularly as a group?
The act for us of admitting he wouldn’t be editing his stories, by making the decisions ourselves, was a painful reckoning with his absence, but it was worth going through that sadness. It took a little longer than we expected because we each had different ways of working through our grief. His presence is very strong in the stories, and for some of us having him feel so close was something we indulged in. It was a small denial he was gone. But for others it was overwhelming.
The book begins with a startling image on the cover and ends with a mysterious photo of the author peering through foliage on the back. What is the story behind the images?
The cover image was a painting Adam displayed in the hallway of his apartment. He found it in an antique shop on Queen Street in Toronto. He loved art, and he collected both found paintings and contemporary art. The photograph on the back cover was taken by me [Jason Fulford] during a fashion shoot for the National Post in 2003. The concept behind the shoot was “Men lost in the jungle.”
Some of the stories are a single sentence printed in a slightly bigger font. Could you explain why?
Many of the very short pieces were typed by Adam this way. We found them like this on his computer. We loved how they looked and how they sounded like Adam—he used to speak in an exaggeratedly loud voice sometimes—and so we kept them that way.
Adam seemed fixated on the small irregularities that occur in the course of everyday interactions. Why do you think he focused on slight moments of change?
Adam was interested in how people want to be both special and normal. This is a funny and rich junction. His stories are strange, but by staying within a limited scope of the everyday—the library, the garbage, eating lunch—they are relatable in their strangeness. Dreams, delusions, rationalizations, these are loud and in your face, but the moment when a new reality dawns is small and quiet.
Adam’s sui generis dedication letter begins “To whom it may concern” on the very first page. In it he writes, “Learn to impersonate the person you have always wanted to be. Learn to be the person you have always wanted to impersonate.” Do you know who some of his literary (or other) heroes were?
Adam loved Beckett. The last book he read was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. He gave us books of Paul Celan, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, August Strindberg, and Daniel Paul Schreber. He quoted Johnny Cash at his wedding and used to play us King Tubby and Neko Case.
He had at one point, on his bedroom wall, taped up a picture of Sylvia Plath, and also one of Burt Lahr as the cowardly lion.
Another Ventriloquist is available online at J&L Books. Check back soon to read selections of Gilders’s work on The Daily.