J. Adams Oaks: The Subtext Interview


Today, we have a very special guest here on Chicago Subtext and he’s brought us a present (ohhhhhs, ahhhhhhs)! Everyone please give a warm ChicagoNow welcome to local author, Mr. J. Adams Oaks.

J. Adams Oaks is the author of Why I Fight, which won both the
National Society of Arts and Letters regional competition and an
Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Award. His short fiction has appeared
in Knee-Jerk, Hairtrigger, River Oak Review, 2D, Sleepwalk, No Touching, The Madison Review
and was selected out of over 700 submissions for Chicago Public Radio’s
“Stories On Stage.” Having lived all over, including New Orleans,
Madison, Madrid, D.C., and Denver, Oaks finally settled in Chicago,
where he is currently a curator and editor for the Serendipity Theatre
Collective’s 2nd Story storytelling series, and hard at work on his second novel. What I mean to say is: Oaks, ladies and gents, is no slouch.

Amy Guth: Quick! Give us five things most people don’t know about you. Aaaand, go!

J. Adams Oaks: Let’s see… I’m an Aquarius. I’m fluent in Spanish. I’m allergic to kiwi. I once ate dinner with David Sedaris. I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana.

AG: Hi, wait. Dinner with Sedaris?

JAO: At the Black Duck Tavern. I ended up sitting right next to the author, and he and I talked about how
we know how to say one sentence, usually dirty, in a ton of languages.

AG: How fun! So, aside from your many sentences in many different languages– You’ve lived in so many different places! What brought you to Chicago?

JAO: Columbia College
specifically, for graduate school. But I also wanted to come back to
the midwest. I’d always had a little crush on this city ever since my
family took a Christmas vacation here in the 80s and we stayed at the
Intercontinental and visited all the museums
and we wondered down a snowy Michigan Avenue… and now I’ve been here
for nearly
15 years.

AG: And we’re glad you’re here! So, at your book release party here in Chicago, I heard your dear father mention that you worked on Why I Fight for quite a while. How long
is a while?


Big sigh. Well, the first scene came to me when I was at a writing
retreat with some other Columbia College grad students in Madison,
Wisconsin. That was back in 1998. That first part was published as a
short story in Hairtrigger and it won the National Society of
Arts & Letters Regional competition. But there was something about
it that
kept gnawing at me. It wasn’t finished, you know? It left too much
I wanted to know these character better. And I needed to explore Wyatt
as a main character and really understand him. So I kept writing
without a
specific structure in mind, and I finished my first rough draft as my
and graduated in 2000. Then came that troubling time of uncertainty
writers have to fight… the submitting… the waiting… the
rejection… I
tried to get an agent for 4 years, had a few nibbles of interest, but
serious. It wasn’t until a bar regular of mine at Bistro Campagne in
Square, Matthew Smith, mentioned he might know an agent. He’d grown up
Barbara Markowitz and, because of him, she was willing to look at my
Barbara has been amazing. She sold my book almost immediately to
Jackson at Atheneum, a division of Simon and Schuster. Once Richard
Jackson got
ahold of it, I thought it was all done, but OH NO! It was only the
He and I passed full manuscripts through the U.S. Postal Service for a
total of
three complete rewrites over three years. It was a whole new education.
didn’t edit the words until the very end of the process, but instead
wrote in
pencil in the margins, just simple questions that would shake me up,
spin me
around, and really force me to consider the intention behind the work.
Once I’d
turned in the final draft with Richard Jackson’s stamp of approval it
another year for the actual book to come out in print! It hit
bookstores at the
end of April this year. I never thought it’d take so long, but I really
had an
amazing journey.

AG: What first inspired you to write the very beginnings of the book?

JAO: It’s funny, but the initial image was
of Wyatt, this pale, scrawny, twelve-and-a-half-year-old, sitting in
the middle of his parents living room, legs crossed, wearing jeans that reeked
from lack of washing. His parents haven’t been home in days. He’s
painfully lonely and he’s mad. That image kept me asking questions. But I also
started to really hear Wyatt’s unique voice and I just wanted to listen to this
kid who hadn’t meant to do anything bad, but wasn’t being told to do anything
different. No one was raising him, but he wanted to be a good person. I met a
lot of kids like that when I was a counselor at a YMCA camp in Iowa; children
who were lost and confused by their home life, but at camp were allowed the
freedom to struggle to understand what type of human being they really wanted
to be, beyond the world they were forced to exist in. Once Wyatt became fairly
well-formed in my head it was a matter of letting him go and seeing what he’d

AG: Are you particular about your writing process? Do you have any
writing rituals to which you must adhere or do you just wing it from anyplace?

JAO: Right now it’s eighty-five degrees
out so I’m in my backyard with a cup of iced coffee, but many times I’ll end up
laying on the floor with my laptop because my desk is piled in junk mail. I’m
so glad that the laptop was invented. Much of the time I have to leave the house,
go to a coffee shop (like New Wave in Logan Square which is my new favorite) so
that I don’t procrastinate. Once I get to the writing, I try to follow one of
the best pieces of advice I got from studying in the Columbia College Fiction
Department: Go to what’s taking my attention. The worst writing can happen when
I feel obligated to focus on something that isn’t getting me excited to put
words on a page.

There are always going to be those times of obligation, but in
creating new work I have to pass the excitement and energy onto the page, even
if that means starting something new and then jumping into something else to
keep the momentum up. It took me a long time to realize that everybody else’s
writing rituals and process were not my own; I had to find what worked for me.
Sometimes that means finding something new that day to get to the work, like
reading a poem by Hafiz or rereading some of Sula or flipping
through “Entertainment Weekly” so that I’m not trying so hard, until
my brain just lets go and starts to do what it loves to do.

AG: That’s great advice. Aside from New Wave, what is your favorite literary location (or locations) in Chicago?
Places to write? Places to read?

Oh, man. That is a very hard
question. There is so much happening in this city right now. Danielle
Chapman, Director of Publishing Industry Programs for the city and I were
discussing this, how it’s as though we’re in a golden era of literature in Chicago
right now. (Hear that, folks? I’m telling you… -AG) So many reading series to go see, to participate in, so many writers
living in the city and sharing what they do with others. Of course, my all time
favorite reading series is Serendipity Theatre’s 2nd Story because I’ve
been working on it for so long, but also because it really brings a sense of
oral storytelling to the audience in an intimate way, even when the house is
packed at Webster Wine Bar or Red Kiva. I’ve had so much fun at RUI
and, I have to say, getting to read at the Harold Washington Public Library for
Nelson Algren’s birthday celebration was a true honor.

again. A big thank you to J. Adams Oaks for stopping by Chicago Subtext
today. Now, you know what to do, readers dear. Sally forth to your
various social networks and friend him and tweet him and show him some love.

Also: catch him reading (and drinking) at Reading Under the Influence on Wednesday (tomorrow night!), September 2nd, where yours truly will be co-hosting for the evening.

As for this mysterious present: Anytime you like, head to this special section of his website to read some of this web-exclusive short fiction and the first chapter of his novel, Why I Fight.

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