Loss and Found

You Never Get It Back BY Cara Blue Adams. Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press. 186 pages. $16.
Cara Blue Adams. Photo: Roque Nonini

Cara Blue Adams’s debut short-story collection, You Never Get It Back, follows twentysomething Kate Bishop as she tries to navigate the tenuous postgrad years: we see her fall in and out of love, experiment with different careers, and negotiate a changing relationship with her family as she gains the financial stability that has eluded her immediate relatives. This collection of linked stories highlights Adams’s keen sense of how gender, class, and ambition intertwine—it’s also a tribute to the lives we fight to make for ourselves when saddled with expectations and responsibilities beyond our control.

Adams and I met over Zoom after a recent reading she gave at the Center for Fiction in New York to discuss familial obligation, the shifting allegiances of young adulthood, and how she learned to turn a critical eye on her own fiction.

EVA DUNSKY: You Never Get It Back is a collection of realist stories, but it begins with a fabulist tale in which Loss is personified as he’s getting his suit tailored. What is your relationship to those two modes?

CARA BLUE ADAMS: Right, in that opening story, “I Met Loss the Other Day,” I think you can tell how much I love Kafka and Calvino. I tend to think of this collection as having three movements, with each movement corresponding to one of the three notecards that appears in that story, which I grew attached to as an opening. In my mind, it functions almost like a prologue.

I wrote these stories across many years of writing and publishing. I got an MFA in fiction, and then I spent about five years at the Southern Review editing short fiction. So, I had been thinking deeply about the story form before the shape of the collection became clear to me. I was focused on individual works as opposed to an entire book, and I was experimenting with all the different things that a story can do. Some of the stories here are very short, in the tradition of Lydia Davis and Ann Beattie and Amy Hempel—almost like prose poetry. And then others are like thirty pages. There, I was thinking about writers like Alice Munro, who can miraculously condense a whole novel into thirty pages.

Fabulist stories also entrance me. I suppose they allow for a different—and often a more immediately playful and unfamiliar—relationship between the story itself and the emotional reality being conjured for the reader; the situation does some of the work of surprise and newness. But that’s an intellectual answer, or perhaps just a descriptive one. The truth is, these stories just land on my shoulder, and I write them down; I never know where they come from exactly. It’s like finding a string and following it through a labyrinth. Often, with a fabulist story, you set up a pattern and escalate it and break it. You can shift into a different register, something Donald Barthelme does to great effect, or disclose something new about the rules of the world, as Kafka sometimes does.

With a realist story, the challenge is a little different. You have to continually convince the reader it’s all real while also making it surprising. A fabulist story has a little more leeway, it often asks the reader for a greater suspension of disbelief from the outset.

I’m curious what the seed of this book was. Did you begin with Kate’s character and go from there?

When I finally sat down to put a book together, I started to think about what would hold these stories together. Some of my first readers—who are also writers themselves—thought the stories didn’t need to be explicitly linked and that my voice and sensibility would be enough to unite them. While I love that kind of collection, I did want a stronger center. There’s so much variety in the way the stories are written and in where they take place: Vermont, Boston, Maine, Virginia, Arizona, and elsewhere in the Southwest and South. That’s when Kate Bishop started to present herself. And of course—I should have known this—the stories really changed once I decided they were about the same character and put them together.

Right, I mean Kate’s character really is a binding force throughout.

Yeah, and from there, I hope the stories open into exploring larger questions, like the distance between longing and having, and what it means to want something. What it means to pursue that thing, what it means to get that thing. How do we come to understand and sort through our own desires—which ones are produced externally or socially and which are really our own? I think that last one is such a crucial and difficult question. Social class is also certainly explored in the book. Gender, ambition, and desire. What it means to be a girl or a woman in America.

It’s such a great portrait of those trial-and-error years when you’re trying to figure out what kind of guiding forces are going to influence your life. How did you approach the themes of daughterhood and obligation as you were writing?

You know how family forms us and then pushes us out into the world? Kate is trying to make a life that’s unlike the life that her parents lived. And that task, guided by your own desires and what feels most necessary, is just a hugely challenging one, I think. Over the course of the book, we see Kate work to separate herself from her family. She goes to college young, when she’s sixteen—her family members have not gone to college. And then she undertakes a career first as a scientist and then ultimately as a writer, which again, isn’t like anything her family has done. She moves away, to the Southwest and the South. So in some ways, she’s taking big risks and making big decisions, and there are major disjunctures. But at the same time, we see that she’s learned that by being silent, by being quiet, is how she’ll be allowed to move in these new spaces. For Kate, pursuing what she wants will also sometimes mean silencing herself. And trying to figure out how to move beyond that leads her first to a passionate but disastrous relationship that she desperately wants. But it isn’t one that she can be in and be happy and healthy. Because she has to leave that relationship, she starts asking, Well, if my own desire isn’t always a helpful guide or a reliable compass to use to arrive at happiness, what is? What will be?

As the collection progresses, Kate goes from an elite liberal-arts college to graduate school and then back home to visit her family in New England and then out to the Southwest. What do you think her story says about social class?

I think class in America is just an endlessly fascinating and underexplored question. And it’s complex because social class, as an identity, isn’t always visible. Class has to do with money, certainly, but also with things like knowledge and culture and taste. So social class itself is an amalgam of things. It’s funny—it was only over time, looking back over the stories I’d written, that I started to understand that class was one of the themes I was exploring. I think for a while I was too close to see it; it was like not being able to see the building that you’re inside. But once I started to think about it, it became more important to me to explore it directly.

One way I attempted to do that was to pair Kate with her college roommate, Esme, who comes from a much more privileged economic background. She was such a fun character to write, because she seems to really feel that she should have everything she wants, whereas Kate is struggling to figure out what is it that she even wants in the first place. Is it safe to want those things? And then how might she pursue them? Wanting and pursuing are risky enterprises for Kate but natural for Esme. I felt so much productive tension between her and Kate.

There’s a similar charge, I think, between Kate, her sister Agnes, and their mom. The book shows how Kate “made it out” of her hometown, and how this isn’t an unqualified good.

I think that's exactly right. Kate “makes it out,” but we see that it’s that not simple and not actually possible. You’re shaped by your origins—Kate is shaped by the quasi-bohemian poverty and chaos that she grows up around. And so even though she’s moving in these more privileged spaces, she’s experiencing them in a very different way from the people around her. And then when she’s home, there’s a rift between Kate and her mother and sister. Once you change your social class, not only are you still living, in a sense, with whatever your upbringing has meant for you, but you’re also unable to backtrack to reinhabit that more transparent relationship with your parents and siblings.

Agnes doesn’t get to go out and experience the world as Kate does, and she doesn’t have the same level of agency that Kate does. She stays in Vermont, and she has a baby when she’s young and devotes her life to being a mother. But she enjoys a relationship with her and Kate’s mother, and with their childhood in the place they were raised, that Kate herself can no longer access. I think this dynamic comes to a head at one point in the collection when Kate goes on vacation with her mother and Agnes, who’s nineteen and has gotten pregnant and decided to have the baby. And Kate is scared about what that’s going to mean for Agnes’s life.

Kate is both scared for Agnes and of scaring her off, right? While still wanting to be the supportive older sister that we see her as in their childhood.

It’s almost like she wants to be a surrogate mother figure—she wants to offer Agnes a different vision of what it might mean to be a young woman in the world.

I’d love to talk about the final story in the collection. How did you figure out what note you wanted to end on?

An earlier draft of the book ended with “The Most Common State of Matter,” when Kate gets engaged. That story ends on a bittersweet note with her and a friend repeating the line, “Love kills slowly.” And then her friend says, “Always.” Kate has found a partner, though she’s unsure about whether she wants to marry him. Things are fairly stable and good; she’s writing. She has this great friendship. To my mind, that was a very happy ending. But then some early readers told me, “We’re not sure that you know what a happy ending is.”

I struggled because some of the books I love the most end on a very disconcerting note; I think that can be such an interesting place to leave the reader. I was especially thinking of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as I wrote, and sort of imagining that Kate was the narrator’s daughter. Many of his stories leave us in an unsettled place. But then I realized that some of the collections I most admire—like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, for example, and even Jesus’ Son, surprisingly—put the reader through a lot, they explore violence and deprivation, but they end with a note of hope. As a reader, that can also be really satisfying.

The ending I found here has to do with looking at the world, which I think is crucial throughout the book—an alternative title for the book was Vision. Kate starts out as an optical scientist and then becomes a writer, and she observes the world very precisely—that’s very important to her. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that that’s in part where the element of hope at the collection’s end comes from.

You mentioned earlier that you worked at the Southern Review. How did your background in editing for a literary journal help (or hinder) your fiction writing?

I think that being a literary editor was perhaps as formative and influential as the MFA was for me, in terms of learning to write stories. Every day at the Southern Review, an intern would bring me a whole tub of submissions with all the mail, and I would spend a few hours going through every single submission we received. If something was really exciting, I would set it aside to read as quickly as possible. If something clearly was not right, I could reject that right away, and everything else went into a pile to be considered over time. I’ll never forget finding a story by Jaquira Díaz—an amazing, amazing writer—before she published a book. One of the first short stories she published came in as a submission, and I just knew I had to read it that day, and then I knew we had to accept it immediately.

It was transformative to see so many stories. When you’re just seeing your own story and then you’re seeing published stories, you’re missing all the ones that almost work, or that have a lot of virtue but aren’t quite firing on all cylinders yet. That don’t have everything they need. I got to see examples of what it can look like when a story doesn’t really get going for a few pages. Or when it’s great for the first seven pages and then it stops surprising you. I brought this all back to my own work, so when I would pick it up, I would have that sense of, you know, both excitement and dread that you have going through the slush pile. Like, is this going to be really good or kind of disappointing? I learned to be self-critical in a helpful way.

Eva Dunsky is a writer, teacher, and translator living in Brooklyn.