[Editor’s Note: As a part of DIY MFA’s ongoing mission to promote unique voices, regular columnist, Sara Farmer, has been conducting a limited series of interviews featuring authors with unique and diverse voices like this one with Adam Smyer. You can check out her past interviews of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Marcie Rendon, and Ausma Zehanat Khan.]
About Adam Smyer
Adam Smyer is an attorney, martial artist, and mediocre bass player. His nonfiction has appeared in the Johannesburg Review of Books, and his debut novel, Knucklehead, was the sole title short-listed for the 2018 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Adam Smyer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and cats. You Can Keep That to Yourself is his latest work.
Sara Farmer: You Can Keep That To Yourself has a complex tone, mixing humor and exasperation. But the alphabetical format raises the expectation of a purely comedic book. This format and tone together create an interesting tension reminiscent of the nature of everyday communication between white and black people. There is almost a parallel between the interaction of your tone and format and the disparity between black and white people’s perceptions of their conversations and the effect of their words on each other. Was this your plan in your choice of format and tone?
Adam Smyer: I would not necessarily have put it that way but, yes, definitely. The interactions that feature these aggressive clichés are multilayered. There’s the setting; there’s the statement; there’s the context. There’s the speaker’s ignorance of the context. There’s the context of the speaker’s ignorance. And so on. It’s a loop.
The humor is just how it is. I get that feedback a lot with Knucklehead, too. It’s not a conscious device on my part. I came to Earth on a long-term science expedition that crashed. I don’t specifically remember that, but I can reasonably infer it from my experience here. And, frankly, y’all are funny.
Sara: The first time I read your book, I mostly saw the humor. But when I read it again, it occurred to me that writing this book could have been cathartic. I know from personal experience that being straightforward and blunt and just getting to say what you think can be such a relief. I could see other readers reacting that way, too. Did it feel that way to you? If so, were you surprised?
Adam: I suppose that each entry is a synthesis of what I was thinking each time a well-intentioned person of pallor (WIPOP) said one of these things to me. So, yes, the first draft was extremely cathartic. My goal when I wrote the second draft was to capture what most of us—black people—are thinking when someone says these things to us. I seem to have done that. I’m very pleased, but not exactly surprised.
WIPOP are taking the book a lot better than I expected; that’s been a pleasant surprise. Good on ya. People really want some proactive guidance on racial faux pas and, even though I provided that satirically, apparently I did provide it.
Sara: I imagine there are a lot of words and phrases you could have chosen for this book. How did you narrow it down? Did you have criteria for inclusion of words? Are there any you really wish made the cut?
Adam: I wrote an entry for every clumsy, ignorant, anti-black WIPOP platitude I could think of, fully expecting that some were more relatable than others. When I finally circulated a draft to trusted readers, I erred on the side of overinclusion, with the expectation that some entries would be universal and others would resonate less. I expected there to be consensus on these issues among my diverse (black) readers. The consensus was that all of the entries are universal. Nobody wanted to cut anything. That amazed me.
There are ideas that I expressed a certain way that I could have expressed in other ways. I could have had an entry along the lines of, “Don’t ask me what kind of name Smyer is. Some schmuck named Smyer thought he could own another human being. You know full well what kind of name it is.” I did express that general idea in the book, in a couple of different ways. But not in that way.
Similarly, I opine a few times on WIPOP speaking “Ebonics” to me, seemingly attempting to speak my language. The book is alphabetized, so the first such entry is “Be”—as in, “They be like …” You can keep that. Anyway, subsequent “Jive” entries simply refer back to “Be.” I could never have captured all the ways they like to do that—the bad mimicry is endless—and I didn’t try. But I now wish I had included the phrase “My bad.” Perhaps predictably, since we started promoting Keep That, I’ve had a lot of WIPOP saying “My bad” at me. But back when I was writing the book that wasn’t happening yet.
I kind of wish I had included “Politics.” Struggling to find common ground and minimize differences, WIPOP like to suggest that if I think that killing black people for fun is awful and you really don’t care, then you and I disagree on politics. That’s not politics. But I started writing this book in July 2019 and I don’t think that people were downplaying genocide in that particular way quite as much back then. A second edition would probably include “Politics.” I do address the issue a slightly different way in another entry.
Sara: Now that you’ve told us what not to say, I wonder what advice you have for people who feel paralyzed by the anxiety or fear of saying something wrong, as well as for someone in that stomach-dropping moment right after they have said something wrong.
Sara: Now for the question I ask all my interviewees. How long did it take you to write your first book? Do you have drawer novels?
Adam: Knucklehead, my so-called debut novel, was my third attempt. I worked on my first attempt off and on from June 2004 to November 2009. It was a worthy effort—a draft, but a complete draft. I wrote it and then I just kind of said, “Now what.” I never shopped it. My second attempt was only a partial draft—I worked on it from April 2007 to about June 2008 and then I put it in the proverbial drawer. I no longer consider those efforts to have been a waste of time or words—I write and write and sometimes something happens. For completeness’ sake, I started working on Knucklehead in January 2009, considered myself finished in March 2015, and was actually finished in October 2017.
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.