Two months ago, Matt Lauer was asking Adam Haslett LAW ’03 how to pronounce his last name. Only seconds later, Haslett appeared on NBC’s “Today” show to discuss his book “You Are Not A Stranger Here.”
Two weeks ago, Haslett’s collection of short stories was named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.
In a span of only a few months, Haslett (whose last name is pronounced HAZE-lett) has gone from life as an unknown law student to a life of breakfast with ceramic bagels on morning television.
Now, while his classmates contemplate where to begin their legal practice, Haslett, 31, already knows he will not spend next year as a lawyer. Instead, he will be working on his first novel, a follow-up to a book that has earned critical and popular success almost unheard of for the debut of a young writer.
A dual life
Even as he finishes his legal training this year, Haslett is balancing his studies with his literary career, living in New York and traveling across the country to promote his book. After his acceptance to Yale Law School in 1996, Haslett deferred entrance for three years, working on his fiction at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
“One of the other aspects of law school was to figure out whether or not I needed to be writing,” Haslett said. “It’s become clear to me that I do need to be writing.”
Haslett said he remains uneasy about relying on book contracts as a source of income, despite being nominated for one of the nation’s most prestigious literary awards. Although he has gained national recognition, Haslett noted that since so many people at the Law School are recognized for their various accomplishments, he does not think his success is perceived as anything special.
For Haslett, this modesty has translated into pessimism, which the author described as “dispositionally anxious.” Evident in both his life and writing, the outlook has led Haslett to pursue law both as a subject of intellectual interest and a backup plan should his literary career fail.
While the typical lawyer may turn to literature as an escape from the pressures of the legal world, Haslett looks to law as an alternative to the introspective life of the writer.
“The law gives me a world to be a spy in,” he said. “There is a particular self-consciousness to being a writer, and if you’re always in writing circles, you want to see how people are behaving and operating in less self-conscious ways.”
But law is more than a diversion for Haslett.
“He is a very serious student — engaged with ideas and theory in interesting sorts of ways,” said Paul Kahn, who has taught Haslett at the Law School.
Jonathan Franzen, author of the National Book Award-winning novel “The Corrections,” said writers with a legal background like Haslett tend to be “wonderfully ambivalent” in their work.
Yet Franzen said Haslett possesses an extraordinary literary talent that had already begun to manifest itself 10 years ago when Haslett, as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, took an undergraduate workshop Franzen was teaching. Though Haslett’s work was “incredibly riddled with misspellings,” Franzen said many of his stories already seemed ready for publication.
Having already reached a broad audience — and drastically improved his spelling — Franzen said Haslett may feel a responsibility to his audience to continue to produce serious work.
“If you’re as multitalented as Adam is and can go in many directions, the existence of a readership can be an agent to draw you deeper into the world of fiction,” Franzen said.
When editor Nan Talese first read Haslett’s story “Notes to My Biographer” in 1999, she said it was the most brilliant piece of writing she had read in a long time.
“The energy of the writing and the use of language — the getting inside the mind of a manic-depressive, the sense of humor, the compassion he has for his characters — I thought it was just extraordinary,” Talese said.
That story, which opens “You Are Not A Stranger Here,” is written from the perspective of an elderly inventor who suffers from paranoid delusions as he attempts to reconcile himself with his son. Haslett said his work illustrates his concern with “people in psychic extremis.”
In particular, Haslett said he enjoys writing short stories because they create an “elegiac effect” well-suited to the themes of pain and loss that are prominent in his fiction.
Haslett, whose family has experienced problems with mental illness, said that while none of his stories are literally autobiographical, he views his fiction as a method of understanding the “problems of mental life.”
Yet this concern with internal disarray has also earned Haslett criticism from some reviewers who label his writing as excessively bleak or trite. In The New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “The problem is that the stories — are almost uniformly flawed by overly tidy, melodramatic plots or trick endings meant to make an ironic point.”
But Haslett said he thinks his efforts to evoke real emotion in his work are less depressing than many critics suggest.
“To say a story is dark and depressing — that does not reside in the outcome or plot but in whether or not human compassion has been portrayed,” Haslett said. “I think the mandatory happiness of a lot of pop culture is actually more depressing to some people [than work] that may evoke an angle of real life.”
Yet Haslett said he attributes the success of his book to “great good fortune” as well as its merits as a literary work, especially since “You Are Not A Stranger Here” has taken a somewhat unconventional path to popularity.
While it takes many authors years to gain a wide audience for their writing, Franzen’s selection of work as the second installment of a book club on the “Today” show was a key element in creating buzz for Haslett’s collection almost overnight, Talese said.
“Momentum built completely on the brilliance of Adam’s writing and in Franzen’s generosity in telling everyone about it,” Talese said.
J.D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review, said he was delighted that Haslett’s “delicacy of touch” had reached such a wide audience.
“I’m somewhat surprised by the success of the book because the stories are ‘grown-up’ stories,” McClatchy said. “I hope that [Haslett’s popularity] signals a sea change in the intelligence of the American reading public — but I have my doubts.”