ALAN v28n1 - E-view with Adam Rapp

Volume 28, Number 1
Fall 2000

E-view with Adam Rapp

An E-mail Interview conducted by Ann Angel

Some Background Information

Playwright and novelist Adam Rapp originally thought he'd grow to play pro basketball. Instead he discovered he had a unique gift for composing stories when he signed up for a poetry writing class at Clarke College, in Dubuque, Iowa. He says he quickly learned to love the solitude of writing novels, but needs to break away from the intensity to write plays which come in "strange little fits."

Rapp's ideas for his plays and novels form while he's shooting hoops or just walking along New York City's streets. A blues and experimental jazz aficionado, Rapp says he loves to listen to the nuances and rhythms of Language, to imagine the personalities reflected in the unique tones and cadences of overheard conversations. He recently described the process in an interview with Audrey Danielson, a Book Bag reporter. "Sometimes I hear a voice on the street ..," he said, "… sometimes the language fascinates me, how it was constructed. I listen to a lot of street people in St. Mark's Place, the subway, and cabbies" ( ).

Once Rapp has a voice in mind, the character forms and takes the lead in his writing. Following a character's story led this author and playwright to his award winning first novel, Missing the Piano . In this novel, Michael, a high school sophomore who is sent to a Wisconsin military academy, confronts divisiveness and prejudice to learn the value of true friendship, responsibility, and love. Rapp captures Michael's heart and personal strength through the use of realistic language in this novel which was named a1995 Best Book for Young Adults as well as a Best Book for Reluctant Readers.

Rapp went on to create a gritty surrealistic world when he experimented with slang and dialect to depict the reality of Sura, a 12-year-old juvenile detention center inmate in his second novel, The Buffalo Tree . Incarcerated for stealing hood ornaments from cars, Sura transcends the brutality of detention center inmates and staff to retain his own innocence of spirit.

In The Copper Elephant , his more recent novel, Rapp continues to experiment with language. But Rapp also creates a raw and starkly horrifying post-apocalyptic world in this novel. Whensday, the 11-year-old protagonist in this novel, tells the story of how she relies on inner strength and new friendships to find a way out of the devastation. The Kirkus Review said of this work, "Envisioning a nightmarish future in which children deemed small or otherwise defective are worked to death breaking rocks, and the constant rain is so acid it raises blisters, Rapp ( Buffalo Tree , 1997) crafts another lurid shocker."

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Rapp graduated from Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he majored in Fiction Writing and captained the basketball team.

He has been the recipient of the Herbert & Patricia Brodkin scholarship, two Lincoln Center le Compte de Nouy Awards, a fellowship to the Carnegie Foundation in Cassis, France, and this year's Princess Grace Award for Playwrighting.

His play, Trueblinka , was presented at The New York Shakespeare Festival's 1997 New Work Now! and went on to the 1997 National Playwright's Conference. Ghosts in the Cottonwoods was selected for the 1996 installment of New Work Now! Festival, went on to the 1996 National Playwright's Conference, and received its world premiere in the Fall of 1998 with the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Victory Gardens in Chicago. This past spring it was produced at The 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles, where it was nominated for Best Writing in a New Play by the LA Weekly .

Last summer, Rapp's Finer Noble Gases was presented at The Ojai Playwrights Conference, received a workshop production in The Director's Lab at The Williamstown Theater Festival, and launched the Fore-play reading series at The Woolly Mammoth in Washington, DC.

This October, his play Nocturne received its World Premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.

Recently, he was awarded a Suite Residency with Mabou Mines in New York City, where he directed his play Blackbird . Other plays include " Black frost (a 1997 O'Neill Finalist), and the oneact Night of the Whitefish (commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival, 1998 New Work Now! Festival).

Under the mentorship of Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang, he recently completed a two-year fellowship at Julliard where his play Dreams of the Salthorse was produced this past spring.

Originally a fiction writer, Rapp is also the author of the novels Missing the Piano (Viking/Puffin), The Buffalo Tree (Front Street/HarperCollins), The Copper Elephant (Front Street/HarperCollins) and the upcoming Under the Wolf, Under the Dog (Front Street).

Interview with Adam Rapp

Q: All three of your novels, Missing The Piano, The Buffalo Tree , and The Copper Elephant portray innocent main characters caught up in violent and unforgiving worlds. Is the innocence portrayed intentional?

A: I would say that it is intentional. I think part of it is quite simply that it's easier to live with someone like Mike or Sura or Whensday for the months that I spent following them around in my head. I also get to relive something in me that was pure for a time.

Q: Robert Cormier once said some of his novels explore the idea that innocence in its extreme is evil ( The ALAN Review 12.2, Winter 1985, 14-18). Do you believe any of your novels explore this element of innocence or are they more likely to explore the ablity of innocents to overcome evil?

A: I think there is a complicated sideeffect to overcoming evil in that we are forever changed by it. I think after we ingest some of the cruelty of the world it takes years off of our lives but it also gives us wisdom and a little grace, hopefully a sense of compassion. I've gone through periods in my life where I've felt that the world is designed to destroy me. There will always be credit card bills, failed romances, cancer, venereal diseases, it's all out there. One of the things that I think makes us human is the need and ability to connect to others despite these odds.

Q: Although your characters' worlds seem to remain constant in that they isolate and beat down their inhabitants, your characters seem to learn, to grow emotionally and to evolve into hopefilled young adults. Yet you've said you don't intentionally end your novels with hope. As you set out to write a novel, what do you begin with?

A: It always starts with the voice. I have never successfully written in the third person. If there's a rhythm or a musicality that interests me, I become obsessed with the character and I just have this need to spend time with him or her. Sometimes I'll be in the park playing ball and I'll hear a kid say something that I've never heard before. Sometimes one word can set me off. In the past three novels, discovering a world and developing a language that is indigenous to that world was something that was equally as important to me as the voice-that the language itself constructs the world of the story. I think with the novel there is tremendous opportunity to explore this relationship. It's one of the things that really excites me about the form.

Q: While you were growing up, you attended a military school, much like Michael in Missing The Piano . Each novel you've written since deals with elements such as urban vandalism, juvenile incarceration and post-nuclear destruction. Do your characters evolve outside your own experience or from an emotional core within you as a writer?

A: Well, there are definitely things that I knew about the worlds of Missing The Piano and The Buffalo Tree . Although not autobiographical, I wrote from very personal places. I think it was simply easier for me to know the landscape, both geographically and emotionally. And when I needed to help the story along, I just made things up, so there's definitely some alchemy involved, as there always is. With The Copper Elephant , I had to find this entirely new sphere in my head. In some ways I think the landscape in this novel actually became more specific because it wasn't clouded by memory or poisoned by sentimentality. It felt just as personal, too, somehow.

Q: All three of your novels center on themes of isolation and alienation. Why is this such an important theme for you as a writer?

A: I think adolescence is fraught with so much uncertainty. Am I going to be tall? Am I going to be short? Will I ever get pubic hair? Am I going to get pregnant? Will I contract the AIDS virus? Will I score a thousand on my SAT? I personally didn't go through puberty until much later than the other guys in my school. I spent my junior year of high school wondering if it was ever going to happen. There was a kind of physical anarchy that dominated most of my younger life. I was always too skinny, not hairy enough, my voice jumped around. It was a thing that drove me away from towel lines in gym class. As a sophomore I was the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team but I was ashamed to get in a post-game shower full of juniors and seniors. So for me so much of it was waiting around for the hormones to kick in. I also had been separated from my family at eleven and fourteen. I'm sure this has enormous effect on my work, too.

Q: As you write, do you plan your characters' journeys and know the end, or do you allow their personalities to lead the journey?

A: I always allow them to lead the way. I have this simple belief that if I know where they're heading then the reader will, too, and there's nothing worse than knowing where a book is heading before you get there. There are definitely times when I see little sign-posts coming that excite me and I use them, so it's not all just some jazz riff, but I think I'm at my best when I'm discovering things with the character.

Q: How conscious are you of resolutions and endings as you begin to write a novel?

A: I'd like to believe that I have no idea where things are going to end, and that is true for Missing The Piano and The Buffalo Tree - both of those endings more or less found me. With The Copper Elephant seeing Whensday sort of suspended in the snow was something I saw very early on. I didn't know why or where the candle would burn out exactly, but the image haunted me and definitely led me to the end of the book.

Q: Do you intentionally set out to deal with world issues such as urban violence and nuclear destruction, or do you begin with a character or personality trait you wish to explore?

A: With the first two books I think I was more or less exploring character, voice, and setting and some social things like racism and the hypocrisy of academic structure. With The Copper Elephant I was sort of pissed off about capitalism and our country's obsession with commerce and how the industrial revolution has basically hugely contributed to the destruction of our environment. I wanted to create a world where Mother Nature had struck back in the extreme. I was also interested in dealing with how I see kids being treated. I remember seeing a picture of American Embassy soldiers torturing a child in South Africa. I was pretty angry.

Q: Your novels deal with pretty controversial topics and lifestyles. Can you think of any case where you'd discourage a young reader from picking up one of your novels?

A: No. I think kids are incredibly resilient and much smarter than we think they are. I hate the idea of sheltering kids from challenging books. It's just another form of conservative fear that promotes ignorance more than anything else.

Q: You've gone on book tours with other controversial middle grade/young adult novelists. I imagine you've talked about book challenges and censorship. In almost every case, these novels, like yours, deal with violent acts in a violent world. Yet the characters transcend violence. How do you believe it affects adolescents to participate in these journeys as readers?

A: I'm not sure. I don't know that my novels are in any way prescriptive. I don't think they will help stop violence or bad behavior. I would hope that they don't help promote it. I've heard the singer songwriter Elliot Smith once say that he perhaps writes sad songs because there is a kind of vaccination at work. If a bit of the poison is ingested it can possibly protect you from the disease. I'd like to think that this might be true of my work, too.

Q: Is it possible for readers to go along with your characters on their violent journeys and come away from the experience with a message of peace? Why or why not?

A: I hope so. Perhaps not peace. But I hope they identify with a kind of stillness or clarity. I think peace would connote that they have arrived at a place or certainty. A nice green pasture or a golden lake full of pontoon boats or something. I think at the end of the three novels, my characters are more on their way to something new. Mike goes into his imagination: a place where he can visit more, perhaps a place where he can heal himself. Sura starts running around a track but he's not racing for his life anymore; he's just running. Whensday is walking in the snow and finding it beautiful. Hopefully they'll arrive at that place of greater peace someday. I think they are more or less starting to take their first steps on a more important journey.

Q: How do you hope to affect your readers through novels?

A: First of all, I hope they have fun, that they laugh a times. I also hope they walk away feeling like they've r a friend. That was the greatest gift for me when I first started reading novels. I started making all of these 3 friends that I would have otherwise never met. I feel 1 know Holden Caulfield better than many of the guys I played basketball with in college.

Q: Your first novel, Missing The Piano , dealt with a realistic character involved in a real setting. In your second novel The Buffalo Tree , you created unique street slang and language while remaining in a real world setting. Your novel, The Copper Elephant , created a post-nuclear world of fantastic destruction as well as a unique post-nuclear slang and language. If you consider the creation of these languages and worlds to be elements of specific genres as science fiction or fantasy, what would you label and why?

A: I don't think of them a science fiction. I'm not s enough to write science fiction I'm also too lazy to do kind of research. I would say they're more like Dr. Seuss than anything quasi-scientific. And in terms of fantasy, I don't think I use enough sprite and fairies. I've attempted to write a talking dog, once, but it's buried in a failed novel. Also, I'm not good at writing magic or sex scenes. I think my stuff is more an exploration, language than anything else. I'm not sure how I would label the novels. Maybe little spheres of language. Language and a different set of rules than the ones we know.

Q: You once mentioned in an interview that you explore terns and nuances of dialect and slang because you like to capture the immediacy and musical rhythms of language on a page. You want to give your readers a sensation similar to that of listening to live music or a CD. How does exploration play into the creation of character and worlds in your writing?

A: Well, like I said before, when I start, the voice is e thing. And once I understand the rules of the voice -literate, how broken, how masculine, how feminine -I try and get really rigorous with the rhythms of it. spend an entire week trying to get the rhythm right few paragraphs. It does become a kind of music that in my head, but I'm also very interested in having music make absolute sense to the reader, that he c feels interested in collaborating in the discovery of the and the character. The challenge is making it accessible without compromising the nuances of the voice.

Q: Do you consider your work to be experimental fiction?

A: Only in terms of the language. The narrative is a point A to point B. I don't screw around with time much, but I'd like to. I think structure is my weakest point and I admire those writers who can jump around geographically and chronologically and not lose the reader.

Q: Do you plan to continue to create worlds and characters outside of realistic experience?

A: I have no set plans at the moment, but I'm sure I will. I'm actually working with more realistic/naturalistic stuff at the moment.

Q: You've created new language in two novels, and you created a new world in your last novel, what will you create next?

A: I'm currently writing a very straightforward contemporary novel.

Q: You have a new novel coming out in spring. What is this about?

A: The new novel is called Under The Wolf, Under The Dog and it's about a kid from the Midwest who is trying to navigate through the grief of losing his mother to cancer and his brother to suicide. It's been fun because he is not an innocent. He's actually sort of an anti-hero and he's really angry and screwed up and kind of dangerous.

Q: Did you experiment with nontraditional elements such as worlds, language, or character in this one?

A: The only experimental stuff has been writing some hallucination scenes because he takes drugs.

Q: You're also a playwright. How does this training help you in novel writing?

A: Enormously. Playwriting is such a difficult act of compressed story-telling. It forces you to organize information for an audience really clearly. You only have two hours or so to tell a story that may span weeks or months or years. I think structurally it is much, much harder than the novel. This has definitely bled over for me in a good way. Not so much in the initial birth of something as in the rewriting.

Q: Do you have a preference for one form of writing over another?

A: I love them both. I will say that I feel I write fiction with more authority at this point. I love the meditative part of writing a novel. The solitude and all of that. With playwriting there are so many other factors: what distinguishes it from prose? Can it be spoken? How can I tell the story through hard action? Do I want to deal with the egos of actors and directors and literary managers? Do I want to sit in an audience and bear witness to something that might fail? I tend to write plays in these strange little fits. They seem to burst out of me. The novels involve many months and seasons and different kinds of weather. I tend to take a break from the novel that I'm working on to write a play. And I always return with a kind of recovered peace. The theatre is hard on playwrights. There's very little money and so few slots for new work and not a lot of interest right now. Writing novels has kept me sane. Writing plays makes me go a little crazy. There are benefits to both.

Q: What writers or specific novels had the biggest impact on you as you were growing up?

A: Well, to be honest, I didn't start reading for pleasure until I started writing, which was when I was about twenty. The Catcher In The Rye had the greatest impact on me in high school. Rabbit Run, Slaughterhouse Five , and The Stranger were huge for me in college.

Q: As you make your life as a novelist, whose work do you admire most and why?

A: I admire Cormac McCarthy's phenomenal gift of language. I admire Don De Lillo's dark take on America. I love the way Denis Johnson can change the current of a story with one sentence. I re-read Salinger every year and I'm always amazed at how hard his characters try and his heartbreaking sense of humor. I think Michael Cunningham deals with mortality as well as anyone I've read. And I love Edith Wharton's ability to take me back to a time I didn't know and make me fall in love with her confused women. There are so many others. I could go on and on. So many playwrights, too.

Q: Who are your mentors and role models?

A: The playwright Marsha Norman has been a tremendous mentor and role model for me. She stepped into my life at a time when I was about to give up on playwriting and urged me to keep at it. She has been so unselfish with so many young writers and her work is profoundly important. In terms of role models I am amazed at the body of work by Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, how they both keep churning out these incredible novels and how each of them are able to reach such a large audience and yet remain totally uncompromising. I also love the work of playwrights Sam Shepard and Irene Fornes.

Q: If you could talk to a classroom of kids reading your novels, what would your message be?

A: Stop watching so much TV.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: Already Dead by Denis Johnson.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The new novel, Under The Wolf, Under The Dog , and a play called Animals and Plants .

Young Adult Novels by Adam Rapp

Missing the Piano (Viking, 1995)

The Buffalo Tree (Harper Collins, 1997)

The Copper Elephant (Front Street Books, 1999)

Reference Citation: Angel, Ann. (2000) "E-view with Adam Rapp." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 1, p. 10 - 13.