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Adrian Koesters

Adrian Koesters is a poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Her first novel, Union Square, was published by Apprentice House Press in 2018, and her two books of poetry, Many Parishes (2013) and Three Days with the Long Moon(2017) were published by BrickHouse Books. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Blurbs

Scenes from this deeply evocative novel will stay with you like strange and unforgettable images from your dreams.

– Mary Helen Stefaniak, author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia

Adrian Koesters shines as a brave new fiction talent in Union Square, a story that reverberates with rawness and truth-telling as a family confronts the darkness of its own secrets against the backdrop of the corruptions in their community.

– Jonis Agee author of The Bones of Paradise

Really—if you have another novel you've started, put it aside and read this one. The other one will wait. This one will pin you to the wall.

– Kent Meyers, author of Twisted Tree

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Union Square

A Conversation Between Kelly J. Beard and Adrian Koesters: Part One

08/20/19

Authors Kelly J. Beard and Adrian Koesters got together for a conversation on their new works, and talk about poverty, violence, faith, and coming to literature a bit later in life. Here is Part One of their conversation.

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AEK: I thought I would begin by saying that in my novel, Union Square, my main intention, other than to tell a good story the best way that I could, was to describe this place that was such a mixture of so many realities, people, skin color, religious belief. I wanted to set up the story so that that they all could (in theory) find each other in this small neighborhood, relate to each other, and within the strict confines of the time, not see each other as particularly unique or exotic. In part, I was trying to both address identity and provide a foil for some of the more excessive expressions of identity politics, which in my view, at least in literature, has something of a short shelf life. I also wanted to show how important the veneer of respectability is for the people of such a place, that has to do with race, but I would say much more with class and poverty.

KJB: That’s such an interesting observation about the shelf-life of identity politics in literature. I hadn’t thought of that with particularity when writing An Imperfect Rapture, but I have been chaffing at the narrowness of our individual (and collective) apertures for some time.

AEK: In terms of family violence, I guess the advantage I have in this conversation with you is that I’m discussing a work of fiction, while you are talking about your life, your relationships and family. So while the themes are certainly in accord, I can kind of side-step some things if I wish, at least as regards the novel. Someone asked me, “So, you are Catherine, right?” No, I’m not Catherine—I wish I had been Catherine. As a matter of fact, in this novel, there are only a small handful of instances drawn directly from my life experience. For example, for the novel’s denouement, I put together eating a cracker I found on the floor of my babysitter’s house when I was seven years old with waking up at a party when I was fourteen or fifteen, where I didn’t know anybody, sick from having taken God knows what, placing the party of the novel in a house on Charles Street I always wanted to go into but never had the chance.

Having said that, the greatest fear for me has been in people reading the book and saying, it was never like that, these people are not like that, she got it all wrong, who does she think she is—and these would be fears or questions that relate to memoir and non-fiction rather than fiction, but that was and is still hard to grapple with. So that gives an idea of the weight of writing the book, with the last question obviously the most crippling. I think if we heard as kids, Who do you think you are? once in a week, we heard it a hundred times.

The other difference in terms of the violence experienced in my own life is that there was not a person, as with your father, who believed he had the right to punish the members of his household. Though you and I both lived in a certain kind of very familiar poverty, and the massive disruptions that come with it, the only real continuity of family I had was with my two sisters and in my grandmother’s house. So a lot of my memory is very disturbed and discontinuous, and the terrible episodes of violence were less predictable and were not only from one or two other people. The violence and viciousness between me and my siblings was also less predictable and more explosive than what you describe. But I feel that the hallmarks of both our situations come directly out of poverty and the particular violence that goes with it, because I think that violence is so often fueled by shame and a desire for some kind of power, however meager. I suppose not everyone would agree that poverty violence is any different from violence engendered elsewhere, but I think it is.

KJB: I don’t think I fully grasped the connection between violence and poverty or violence and religious fundamentalism until writing this memoir. Even more importantly, perhaps, I hadn’t made the connection between my experience growing up in that particular American shadowland with some of my own rage and inability to navigate the world with any measure of equanimity or inner calm. I practiced employment discrimination law for a lot of years, and have a near-pathological commitment to justice and fairness, and yet the legal system is singularly unfair and unjust to the poorest members of society. One of the things I hoped to do with my writing was to show the rest of the world what it means to be ignored or abused because of one’s class, and to try to open the eyes and minds of readers to how impermeable the barriers to class mobility (at least from poor to middle or upper class) are in this country. It’s a fallacy to think that without intentional, guided assistance people born into poverty – especially generational poverty – have any real chance of getting out of it.

And I do think poverty violence is more pervasive and relentless than what the middle or upper classes choose to believe. I also think you’re right about it being fueled in part by shame and the desire for what one is excluded from – any sense of power or true autonomy — and the rage this fuels is something few writers explore. One of the first (and only) contemporary memoirs that really puts this on the page (in my opinion) is Townie by Andre Dubus III. He does a brilliant job of showing the continual micro- and macro-levels of violence inextricably bound up in the experience of being poor in this country. In truth, poor kids are far more likely to be raped, sexually abused, physically assaulted -to be targets – and perpetrators – of all kinds of violence. Middle and upper class folks are able to ignore or discount this fact by telling themselves, “Well, they’re doing it to themselves. We’re not driving down from our estates to beat up some poor kid.” That’s a subterfuge. Cause and effect aren’t that linear. Every time the wealthy classes choose to ignore or discount the truth of those living in poverty, they are affirmatively reinforcing the oppression of the poor.

I had a girlfriend in law school who came from the wealthy classes – huge money – but she competed with me for a $5,000 scholarship intended for law students with financial need. She knew the judge. She had connections. She won the scholarship. I was already $65,000 in student loan debt – a debt that felt so burdensome as to be almost unbearable – while her family traveled the world and spent summers sailing around the Maldives. How does someone like that justify applying for (let alone taking) a scholarship intended to help the truly disadvantaged? That’s just one small example of the kind of behavior I’m talking about when I say that too often those with means fail to see (or don’t care) how their conduct oppresses, damages, and degrades the poor.

Almost every time I give a reading or talk to folks about my book, I get asked about one of two recent memoirs: J.B. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” or Tara Westbrook’s “Educated.” With respect to both of these writers and the difficult circumstances they surmounted through ivy league educations (Yale and Harvard, respectively) the truth is that this isn’t a realistic formula for more than the teensiest percentage of kids born into poverty. The message strikes me as not only unrealistic but actually damaging because it allows the middle and wealthy classes to (continue to) remain willfully ignorant of the prison generational poverty creates for most people born into it. I didn’t even know what an ivy league was when I was in high school, let alone have the slightest notion of how to get into one (or the slightest chance of getting into one).

That’s not to say I think education isn’t – or can’t be – part of the path out of poverty, and it certainly affected my life and world view, but it doesn’t address the ways in which our culture condones and even encourages the emotional trauma and psychic stunting of the poor. I’m probably misquoting my own work, but at one point I’m writing about the experience of discovering classical piano in college – and how, ultimately, I realized that no matter how much I loved it, how much talent I may have had, how many hours I practiced, or how much I longed to be a classical pianist, I could never make up for the years I’d lost. I quote Yeats’ comment about Keats growing up looking through the window of a “Sweet Shop.” Some of us grow up not even knowing a Sweet Shop exists. And, not to be cynical, but I often wonder if the greater culture prefers it that way.

AEK: This gives me so much to think about! And is perfectly expressed. You could describe the “emotional trauma and psychic stunting of the poor” to those who have no idea first-hand what it means until the cows come home (presuming you even knew when that was), but I don’t think there any way to let them know. For me, there is no very good way to understand why they don’t know, or can’t, whichever it is. There was a wonderful penny-candy store on the way home from one school I attended in 4th and 5th grade, just a little thing run by a little old lady, but the view of the potential world from that “Sweet Shop” where I spent a penny on the afternoons I had one (mostly during the milk surplus when milk cartons were less than a penny each at lunch time) was the first place of longing I can remember fully–and it was in part because I had read “The All-of-a-Kind Family” books in second grade, that had a memorable scene of two little poor girls and their wild indulgence in penny-candy store wares.

Beyond that, I was really lucky–a relative plucked me out of Baltimore to Washington State, just at the moment in junior high when I was about to succumb to drugs and promiscuity. Whatever else that experience was about, there is no doubt that it saved my life. Had I not left, if I were still alive it’s doubtful I would have the tools or the psychic energy to reflect on these matters, much less to have this conversation. What I find with Mr. Emerson, for example, is that readers either get him immediately, or don’t really understand his place in the book. He represents that psychic and intellectual stunting, which he overcomes for a brief period in his life, until the entirety of his circumstances overwhelm him again, and finally.

KJB: Well, that’s one of the aspects of your novel I loved so. You didn’t over-tell or over-explain the characters, which I suppose will leave some readers thinking they don’t get Mr. Emerson or some other character, but really it’s brilliant to leave that measure of mystery. You offer the reader the best gift a writer can, I think. It’s so much more interesting to read work by a writer who trusts the reader’s intelligence and imagination.

AEK: Thank you so much for that—I feel the same about your memoir, that even when you write about getting older and more able to articulate your ideas and beliefs, you don’t insist that the reader accept them or be converted by them.

We also talked a little bit before about both of us coming, if not to writing, to publication pretty late in life. That in my case was fueled by the twin sisters of fear and recrimination, what someone I know calls the very real consequences of breaking the family rules. For twenty years, I didn’t write anything, and just thought, well, you know, I guess I’m not going to be a writer after all. Every time I took up the pen, I thought I was going to die of terror. I suppose that’s not something everyone can related to, even if you have a massive case of writer’s block, but for me it was the thought that someone was going to show up at my door with a shotgun and that would be the end of that.

Slowly, though, and by grace is how I would put it, since I love to write, I began to write poetry, not just because it’s a quick in-and-out (which I think is why a lot of people start with poetry), but because the sheer pleasure of making that music had always been what I loved more than anything. And then I wrote a small book about how praying the Rosary helped in healing post-traumatic stress disorder. From there, I started taking classes in creative writing at the university where I was working, and had some idea that telling stories was pretty great, too, and here I was with this monumentally hilarious and tragic and fascinating backdrop from which to tell a good story. The fear is far from gone and in many ways hardly subsided, but I have learned some tricks and strategies to jump the fence. Teaching for a few years also helped enormously, because I could see that the strategies I had developed for myself as a student were also helping blocked student writers in my classes. Not much has been as professionally rewarding as that, so I thank those students from the bottom of my heart.

KJB: We’re so alike in this! I started writing poetry in high school (actually I plagiarized the hell out of Rod McKuen when I was in grammar school trying to impress my childhood sweetheart) because I loved the feel and sound of language, and the way I thought poetry let me write truths that I didn’t have the courage to admit otherwise. But as you know from the book, I got derailed from that path pretty early on. I actually married a poet the year after graduating from law school – and I think part of me had a fantasy of being in this romantic relationship with a poet who would love and encourage my work until I could find a way to make a living writing poetry, so, you can see I’ve always had a pretty rich fantasy life. Once we were married and I started practicing law full-time, I stopped writing anything but legal briefs. For over two decades. In my early 50s I experienced a major depressive episode, and started seeing a Jungian therapist. He was the first person to help me realize that much of the depression stemmed from the way I’d compartmentalized my life, and how I’d hidden so much of myself and my past from everyone in my life. It was literally killing me.

Now I see that long hiatus as necessary to writing An Imperfect Rapture. I wouldn’t have had the courage or insight to write this book in my 30s or 40s. At some point, it meant more to me to leave this message – the best way I knew how – my particular imprint. Not to get all maudlin, but I recently had a health scare. Thankfully it turned out to be nothing, but when I got the call to come back for additional tests, I remember thinking if it turned out to be bad news, I was grateful I’d written this book.

AEK: That makes perfect sense—and though I’m sorry you had the scare, so glad it meant you put the book out into the world. For me, the starting place was learning about haiku and Biblical literature in 6th grade—I thought, MAN! This is amazing, I didn’t even know you could do this yourself! And then high school, too, I tried to impress a number of young gentlemen with my chops, not to much avail, but still. And I don’t think you can come from anywhere and succeed with words without that rich fantasy life (especially if the fantasy is making some money!). I mean, I still have imaginary friends, so.

Click Here for Part Two of this Conversation

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