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An Interview with Adam Horvath, author of Melancholia

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Adam Horvath grew up in Bayside, Queens, and studied English at Columbia, where he was infected by Chaucerian irony and the “metaphysical ideas and scholastical quiddities” of John Donne & Co. He never recovered. After a two-year stint as Navigator of the cargo vessel USS Arcturus, he embarked on a career as a senior acquisitions editor at several university presses and a trade book editor for McGraw-Hill. His translation of Alejandro Casona’s play Suicide Prohibited in Springtime was published in Modern Spanish Theater (E.P. Dutton) and was performed on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio network. He once memorably had breakfast with the great Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. His desert island reading list includes Don Quixote, Archy and Mehitabel, and everything by Thomas Bernhard.

A devout polysemist who also relishes the occasional pun, Adam now lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with his wife, Julie, and a pack of very frisky pet peeves. He is also the author of Conundrums and Flamingo Heaven & Other Lofty Concerns, both published by No Reply Press. He is preparing two new collections of his poems, Chuang-tzu Rides Again and Invasion of the Clerihews.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a writer. But it wasn’t until late in life that I finally “found my voice”. I grew up surrounded by books, and I remember feeling sorry for friends whose homes had none at all. My father was a successful author of books about salesmanship and marketing. Topics that could not have been more foreign to me! And yet, he had chosen “Descartes” as my middle name and read books by Schopenhauer. He was a bit of a conundrum to me. In a sense, what he wrote about was irrelevant. What matters is that he modeled being an Author for me and imprinted me with a desire to be one too.

I can still picture my father composing his manuscripts. They were literally “manuscripts,” composed in longhand using an elegant fountain pen. In this respect too we were utterly different. I am impatient when I am forced to write by hand. Before there were computers my writing tool of choice was the typewriter. I never thought I would get rid of my Selectric. And if I had to write by hand, it would be with a ballpoint pen, not a fountain pen. Probably a Bic. My father wrote only on yellow pads with legal lining, in lines whose margins grew narrower as they progressed down the page, as if he were writing some form of concrete poetry. I remember being fascinated as a child simply by the act of his writing like that, and later by seeing the published books that resulted. My father died when I was 16. I wonder what he would have made of what I’ve become and of my own writing. So different from his.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

After graduating from college I was Navigator of a pretty big cargo ship, the USS Arcturus, for two years. I was responsible for charting a course that would get the ship from Norfolk, Virginia wherever it was headed, usually somewhere in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean region, without running aground or getting lost in the fog. A pretty heady responsibility for someone who had been an English major! This was before GPS existed. We had radar and a somewhat sketchy navigational aid called LORAN, but I mainly relied on good old-fashioned celestial navigation to find out where we were. That meant using a sextant at dawn and again at dusk (visibility permitting) to record the position of various stars. On days when limited visibility made that impossible, a lot of guesswork was involved. It took some nerve to live with the uncertainty that involved. But I am here to tell about it, so you know I never ran the ship aground.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The title of my book, Melancholia, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I always tell people “It’s not as grim as it sounds! It’s actually pretty funny in many places.” Here’s the back story to the title. I had written something called “Rainbow.” It was partly inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Gubbinal.” Stevens wrote:

That strange flower, the sun,

Is just what you say.

Have it your way.

The world is ugly,

And the people are sad.

In “Rainbow,” I dreamed up a dystopian realm and decided to call it “Melancholia.” In my Melancholia, the world is indeed ugly and the people are indeed sad. My publisher (Griffin Gonzales of No Reply Press) placed that poem right at the beginning of the book and called the whole thing Melancholia. We made that decision together on the spur of the moment. So the title happened pretty quickly.

We next decided to divide the contents into five parts, and gave them names like “Melancholians Grapple with the Inscrutable” and “Into Deepest, Darkest Melancholia.” But it was just a loose concept, and we more or less shoe-horned the things I had wanted to include in the book to make them fit into, even though many of them were by no means conspicuously “dystopian.” A lot of them are supposed to be funny, and when I read aloud to an audience I get a lot of laughs. Remember, even Anton Chekhov and Franz Kafka considered much of what they wrote to be comedy.

One reviewer captured the overall spirit of the book: “Reading straight through Melancholia is like eating the best chocolate bon bons one can imagine, one after the other after the other.”

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I was over-the-top happy when my publisher agreed to use a painting I had found by the great early 20th century Italian Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico for the cover. Di Chirico’s moody painting suits my book perfectly. It depicts a statue of a pensive female figure reclining upon what appears to be a tomb. To top it off, the base of the tomb is inscribed with the legend “Melancolia” (as spelled in Italian). Two solitary figures stand slightly apart from each other in the distance casting long shadows that impart a pervasive sense of loneliness and gloom to the scene.

As for the rest of my book’s physical appearance, it opens with a two-page map that whimsically depicts many places referred to in the book. This was my publisher’s idea. And there are funny drawings scattered throughout, signaling that the contents are not so grim after all!

It was a thrill to hold an advance copy of the finished book in my hand. I consider myself lucky to have worked with a publisher who really “got” my writing. Not everyone does! And getting published turned out to be a true collaboration between us at every step of the way. We would toss around ideas and argue about their merits. But Griffin always left the final decisions up to me. So yes, I had a great publishing experience.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Great question! I wouldn’t have thought of it myself. “My Melancholy Baby,” of course. Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight.” “Falling” (theme from Twin Peaks). “Elinor Rigby” and “Nowhere Man.” Jim Reeves’ “Two Shadows on Your Window.” “What a Day That Was” and “Burning Down the House” from Stop Making Sense. Hank Williams singing “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive.” Something by Elvis Costello.

Or you could just play the complete soundtrack from Blue Velvet.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

My “perfect reader” is anyone who isn’t sure (s)he really likes poetry! I love to quote Marianne Moore. She wrote a poem about poetry and called it, simply, “Poetry.” It opens provocatively: “I too dislike it.” It turns out she didn’t really dislike poetry, of course. Just things written by what she calls “half poets.” But don’t we all have days when we question whether we really love poetry? I certainly do, especially when I read some of the stuff published in a couple of the most esteemed periodicals that leaves me scratching my head. Being ponderous or hermetic are the two big sins to me, and I try hard not to be either in my writing. I love reading aloud to an audience or handing guests copies of my poems and inviting them to read them aloud. The reactions I get tell me immediately and viscerally whether or not I am reaching my audience. And I sometimes learn to hear my own writing in a different way from listening to others read it.

What would I like readers to take away from my book? Maybe that although we find ourselves in an inscrutable and seemingly indifferent universe, that shouldn’t keep us from enjoying our time here or even from seeking purpose or meaning in it. Just don’t expect to find any!

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

Of course being a published author is exhilarating. If you’ve spent all your loving books how could you not long to write one yourself and see it on the shelf with the books of all the authors you admire? So yes, it is exhilarating. But also humbling because, if you look around you, your book, which looms so large in importance to you, is merely a drop in the bucket. As the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes famously observes, “of the writing of books there is no end.” Walk into any first-rate bookstore and you will get dizzy just looking at all those slender volumes of poetry, into each of which someone has poured her or his heart, all competing for readers’ attention. But still, it is exalting to have met the challenge to “either put up or shut up” by expressing oneself publicly. What was it Milton hoped for for Paradise Lost? “Fit audience ‘tho few.” If that was good enough for Milton, it should be good enough for me!

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

Right now, I’m translating a bunch of microcuentos (“flash fiction,” stories that range from just a couple of sentences long to a page or two) by Latin American authors. They tend to be surreal and are a lot of fun to translate. The resulting book will be published in a limited edition by No Reply Press in Portland, Oregon.

I am also working on a book to be called Chuang-tzu Rides Again. I have already written half a dozen poems in which I try to channel the ancient Chinese poet and sage, Chuang-tzu, whose life straddled the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Chuang-tzu is admired for his subtlety and sophistication and is often considered a “proto-Zen” writer because of his skepticism, whimsicality, and love of paradox. I turn him loose in modern times and try to imagine how he might have responded.

Last, I am trying to find a publisher for a volume of clerihews, possibly (but probably not) to be called Clara Who? or What the Heck is a Clerihew Anyhow? A clerihew is a short comic or nonsensical verse, typically in two rhyming couplets with lines of unequal length and referring to a famous person (whose name forms the opening line). It is named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who invented the form in the 1920s. W. H. Auden was enamored of clerihews. He included about sixty of his own in his book American Graffiti. I have written around 150 clerihews by now and am looking for someone to provide whimsical illustrations for them. One is about Albert Einstein:

Albert Einstein,

when he drank beer, only drank Ein Stein.

If he drank any more,

Space & Time’d whirl around and Gravity’d pull him right down to the floor.

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