[posted 12.07.2004]


Yes, Crossing California spans the 444 days of the Iran hostage crisis, but most of the Chicago teenagers and their parents who populate Adam Langer’s winning and darkly funny first novel have bigger problems to grapple with than what they hear on the news.

Take Muley Wills: He’s in love with his best friend, melancholy, introspective Jill Wasserstrom, but she’s not sure she wants him to tell her so. And though Michelle Wasserstrom likes to call Larry Rovner “yeshiva boy,” his true commitments are to his music and the pursuit of calm, unhurried masturbation. As for their parents… well, it gets bleaker, not better.

Langer’s title references California Avenue, the unspoken marker dividing the middle and upper middle classes in the West Rogers Park neighborhood where he grew up and where the novel is set. We caught up with Langer recently to sort out where his personal history ends and the fiction begins (“Don’t call it a memoir!” he says), discuss his tenure as an editor at Book magazine and much more.


Subject: Adam Langer, 37, Leo
Occupation: Amateur psychologist and anthropologist; professional eavesdropper and voyeur.
Interviewed by: Samantha Bornemann

1.) Your past isn’t checkered (so far as we know); but it does seem to be checkmarked. Theatre, standup, film, radio, journalism, now a novel… You’ve done it all. Do you feel you’ve found your niche as a novelist, or was this just the right forum for this particular story?

When I was still in college, I went to a friend’s family gathering in honor of her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. While I was there, I met a guy with a big droopy mustache who boasted of having played Led Zeppelin music while he was getting married. We got to talking and he told me, “You know, Adam, I’ve had every job in the world that you can imagine; I’ve worked as a night watchman, I’ve sold vacuum cleaners, and I’ve taught gym.” I remember thinking that that didn’t seem like every job in the world. And I’d say the same for myself. I’ve had a lot of different careers and have enjoyed a number of them. I hope to keep writing novels and plays and working as an editor, but I hope there are some surprises along the way too. Beekeeping or animal training, for example. I tend to think that the more one focuses on only one career, the less there is to write about. I’m frightened of becoming one of those novelists in New England who writes about being a novelist in New England.

2.) Was there a time when you didn’t want to be a writer/storyteller? Any discarded ambitions?

This sounds somewhat cheesy, but it’s true that my first toy at my parents’ house was an antique Underwood typewriter on which I banged out stories on sheets of notebook paper and plagiarized such great works of literature as Great Running Backs of the NFL and Amphibians Do The Strangest Things. I always had writerly ambitions, but there were and still are other discarded and not-yet-discarded ambitions. When I was in grade school, I wanted to be a wildlife photographer. When I was in college, I thought I’d go into politics. My favorite interview I did for Book magazine was with the trainer for Koko the Gorilla, and I’d trade in the writing career in a moment if I could become an animal behaviorist and teach sign language to apes.

3.) It’s no surprise that you have experience in standup, because Crossing California is full of laugh-out-loud moments. Tell us more about your standup act. Did you specialize in any topics — i.e., my wife nags me, my mother thinks I’m a loser, aren’t women trouble, etc.?

I’m not being self-effacing when I say that I was a disaster as a standup comedian. Keep in mind that this was in the late ?80s and early ?90s when people thought that comedy clubs would be the next big investment opportunity. There were probably 30 or 40 clubs in Chicago and its suburbs. Now, I think there are three. The clubs I played were fairly tough places, populated largely by U.S. military personnel on leave and low-level mob guys. It was a world of dick jokes and worse. I had a scattershot routine, which split the difference between manic Robin Williams-esque riffing and George Carlin-esque observational whimsy. I remember that I did impressions of Robin Leach and Frank Sinatra; it was pretty lame. Somewhat interestingly, some of the guys playing at the same time as I was wound up becoming pretty successful. The most interesting and amusing guy I saw performing was Bob Odenkirk, who, lucky for him, seems to have left his standup days behind too. The standup comedy experience led to some good stories and my first published feature articles, but isn’t anything I hope to repeat.

4.) You were with Book from its founding in Chicago in 1998 through its move to New York with new funding from Barnes & Noble. Did your experience at the magazine shed new light on the world of publishing? And did you feel better prepared for the new author gauntlet having been on the reporting and reviewing side for so long?

When I started at Book, there were only four of us — the publisher Mark Gleason, editor-in-chief Jerome Kramer, marketing director Anne Gleason, and myself. And we all came with a love of books and literature, but as for myself, just about zero knowledge of the publishing industry. In 1998, I probably knew less about publishing than an intern in his or her first week at Publishers Weekly. My knowledge of New York publishing was limited to two comical but less-than-stellar experiences with literary agents who were unable to find homes for some of my previous, thankfully unpublished novels. We learned on the fly.

As far as being an author, working at Book for five years did somewhat demystify the world a bit. And it was a bit sobering. I had always naively assumed that once you’d had a novel published, you were pretty much done and your career was made. But viewing the world from the other side, I came to see how utterly disposable books can be — to publishers, critics, and the public. Every week, we’d get dozens of books, and we’d be making decisions about them in seconds — a glance at a press packet, a book jacket, some blurbs, the first couple of paragraphs, and we’d be deciding whether to feature the book or to toss it into what was unceremoniously referred to as “The Ass Box.” For someone who was considering persevering in the novel-writing racket, it was humbling and daunting. It was also frightening to realize how small a window there was for a book to make an impression. I think every writer, when they have their first novel published, enters this first-book-centric universe where they think everything revolves around their book — they get pissed that their publicists aren’t doing enough for them, that they weren’t chosen for this or that book club, that they haven’t gotten their starred Kirkus (which I always thought sounded like some sort of affliction), when, in fact, they’re one of hundreds. I used to write roundups of 20 New Writers to Watch, or something like that, and as Crossing California was being published, I realized that in a best-case scenario I might be one of those 20. Of course once the book came out, there was no chance for that, seeing as Book magazine no longer existed.

5.) This summer the NEA reported that, according to their survey, the number of Americans reading for pleasure had dropped. Does such an announcement give an author touring behind his first novel pause, or does it spur you on?

Those sorts of stories and statistics are always cause for some alarm, but — forgive me for sounding like a humorless athlete — I don’t know what to do about it other than to try to write the best books I can and hope that they find an audience. The NEA findings really only confirm what has seemed obvious for a while. The one thing I’d say about it, though, is that whenever we see hand-wringing about the decline of reading, particularly in publications such as the New York Times, there seems to be an implicit, elitist assumption that this is a problem in Middle America, or it’s an underclass problem, or a literacy problem when, in fact, I think the real decline is among this country’s so-called elite. We live in a country that’s led by a man who has probably never read for pleasure in his adult life, My Pet Goat notwithstanding. His Secretary of State is on record saying that he never reads fiction. Even among a lot of my peers, there often seems to be a sense that since books don’t possess an immediate and tangible functionality, they can be thrown by the wayside.

But I think the blame should not only be placed on readers for being too lazy or too impatient or goal-oriented for pleasure reading. I think there has been a great deal of cynicism in the way publishers have been target-marketing books, often seemingly more concerned about making a quick buck off a celebrity brand extension or a movie or trend tie-in than publishing quality literature. There are also a lot of contradictory messages being delivered by the book media (small though it is), which make it difficult to navigate one’s way through the thousands of books coming out every month. The Times seems to have lost its role as an opinion-leader, but nothing seems to have risen to supplant it and so there’s kind of a free-for-all going on. There are great books being published, but sometimes it’s difficult to find them through the marketing thicket. Now I’m just another writer trying to slice my way through.

6.) Granted, reading about books and writers is not the same as reading books, but do you think this apparent decline in pleasure reading contributed to Book magazine’s demise?

Well, let me put it like this: When we moved to New York, we felt poised on the brink of having a very successful magazine. We had a new design team, a healthy editorial staff, and a very photogenic cover boy: Sebastian Junger. When our first redesigned issue came out and was sent to something like one million people, we received more letters than we ever had before. We got hundreds of letters on the first day of publication — September 9, 2001.

Two days later, we were all sitting around our 37th Street office watching the Twin Towers on a portable black-and-white TV. The economy still hasn’t recovered, and we never did. When we started out, during the dotcom boom and the Oprah Era, Book seemed like a good way to spend one’s $4.95. When all that collapsed, I think the magazine became more superfluous. I think it still could have succeeded — all we really needed were a couple hundred thousand pleasure readers, not millions. But I never felt that we had clear directives from either the reading public or our corporate benefactors, and sometimes those two groups seemed to be at cross-purposes. We tried to please everybody and wound up frustrating a lot of people — it’s hard to do a magazine that appeals to readers of Anita Shreve but also to readers of James Patterson but also to readers of Umberto Eco, Jonathan Franzen, and Toni Morrison. It might not be possible.

7.) Book often asked authors to show and explain their workspace — the room, the desk, the writing implements of choice. So now we’re turning the tables: What environment do you write best in? Any rituals or superstitions, or do you just rely on the work to take you away from wherever you are?

I used to be a lot more superstitious about my writing rituals than I am now. I used to write only on a typewriter and would never do second drafts. Then, for a while, only with colored pens in notebooks purchased in Germany. I wrote Crossing California on a really crappy first-generation iBook. So crappy, in fact, that it didn’t have punctuation marks and, if I wanted a comma or a quotation mark, I’d have to copy and paste it from another document. The only thing I really require now in order to write is a fairly clean work surface and loud music; the faster the beat, the faster I tend to write. While writing CC, I forbade myself from listening to any music that had been written post-1981 and spent lots of time at used record stores buying 10 albums for 10 bucks, which means that the book was written to lots of Boston, Heart, Al Stewart and Who albums. It used to be fun to write while downloading music from various websites, but I learned that there were legal problems with that.

8.) By coincidence, Reagan died just after I’d finished Crossing California — and I couldn’t help thinking of Jill Wasserstrom, the eighth-grader against the world, from your novel. She’s opposed to Reagan’s election, while defensively judgmental Lana Rovner is in his corner. Do you imagine these girls, now grown women, would still have similar ideas about Ronnie 24 years later? [Basically, where are these girls now?]

Yeah, the timing of the book’s release with the Reagan funeral was peculiar. I was doing my first book tour event in Chicago at the Book Expo, and after I had finished my reading, I looked up on CNN and there was the news crawling across the bottom of the screen. As for what Jill and Lana are up to now, I’d kind of like to sidestep that question for a couple of reasons. One — I’m not entirely sure I’m done with those characters and haven’t really thought through what they might be like in their thirties. And, I never really know the answers to these sorts of questions until I start writing about them. Also, for now, I’d kind of like readers to their own guesses. As for me at this present moment, I just don’t know.

9.) You’ve said that you had many of the jobs and experiences that you put your characters through… but is there one that you particularly identify or sympathize with?

Not really. I remember watching this PBS special in the late ?70s or early ?80s about holograms being the next major artistic form. I distinctly recall this really portentous narration, which promised that, in the future, we would even see “a holographic rock star.” And then, there was a cheesy hologram of Roger Daltrey singing See Me, Feel Me. The one thing I remember distinctly from that show and impressing me was this image of someone shattering a hologram into dozens of pieces and saying that even with the smallest shard, you could still glimpse the entire image from a different angle. In some way, I kind of feel that’s what I’ve done with my life experiences — dropped them on the ground and split them into the lives of a dozen or so characters, so that each is a different and distorted image of the whole. There is no one character in this novel that is based more on me than any other, I don’t think, no one experience that I relate to more than others. I relate more to the experience of the whole than anything in particular.

10.) The one-season cult hit Freaks and Geeks took place in Michigan in 1980. Are you a fan of the show, and did it resemble your own adolescence — or those of the characters in the book?

I have to confess that, despite my novel’s obsession with pop culture detail, I’m really pretty ignorant when it comes to knowledge of contemporary pop culture, particularly with regard to TV. Throughout my life, I’ve only had cable for approximately a year and a half or two total — a semester in college, which was spent watching too much of Dance Party USA, and when I first arrived in New York in 2000 and became addicted to election coverage and reruns of The White Shadow on ESPN Classic. I’ve only seen two episodes of The Sorpranos, one of The ?L’ Word, and zero episodes of Freaks and Geeks. I was even unaware of the show’s existence while I was writing CC, but even if I had known about it, I probably would have stayed away from it for fear of comparisons. I’m kind of curious about it now, though, and might check it out.

11.) With songs like Six Days, Ain’t God a Trip and Take Me To Your Promised Land, the character of Larry Rovner is a Jewish hit-making machine. Any chance there’s a soundtrack to the book, brimming with Rovner! tunes, in the works?

I was considering that. With the help of my acoustic guitar and my crappy electronic keyboard, I even put melodies to some of Larry Rovner’s songs. I thought a bit about recording some songs and including them as promotional copies with the book, but later thought better of it. I’d prefer for readers to imagine their own melodies and styles. Though, my one fantasy is that someone will read the book and either a) form a band called Rovner! or b) try putting some of the song titles to music.

12.) What surprised you most about touring to promote your novel, and readers’ responses?

A few things have surprised me. One is the idea that I am either condoning or condemning the actions of my characters. I’ve heard both sides of it — either that I’m some conservative moralist castigating his characters for their bad behavior or that I’m some depraved libertine writing his thinly veiled autobiography. While writing this book, I tried my best not to be judgmental and when people arrive at other assumptions about my motivations, I find it rather amusing.

13.) Do you have another book in progress? Care to tease us with any info?

I’d rather not go into too much detail about it, but at present, it’s a fairly hefty tome. One thing I’ll say is I got to listen to different music when I was writing it.

14.) What was the first book you really loved?

Actually, five come to mind: Is This You by Crockett Johnson; Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary; Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, Secret Agents Four by Donald Sobol, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. If you’re asking about more grown-up books, I think probably Jane Eyre.

15.) Do you still?

I do and re-read them whenever I can, although with the first few choices, there isn’t all that much reading involved.

16.) When you were 10 years old, you wanted to be:

A photographer for National Geographic and International Wildlife magazines, second baseman for the Chicago White Sox, or a dancer with the American Ballet Theater.

17.) Three things you’re most proud of accomplishing:

Pride’s kind of a strange word and one with which I’m not entirely comfortable. I’m happy with how the current book turned out and with the characters I created; I like some of the journalism I’ve done and some of the plays I’ve written and directed, but in terms of satisfaction with what I’ve done or whatever is meant by the word “pride,” I tend to associate it more with touchy-feely sorts of things like maintaining successful relationships than professional accomplishments. My most recent proud moments would therefore be: 1) celebrating my second wedding anniversary 2) watching my dog learn how to return upon command, and 3) completing a strenuous six-mile hike in Maine without bitching too much about it.

18.) Three things you’ve yet to accomplish but strive to:

1) I have a film project that I’d really like to direct; it’s just a question of the right funding and timing. 2) Speak fluent French and German. 3) Learn to play more than the 12 guitar chords I know.

19.) Three (or more) things you’d rather just forget ever happened:

1) The autumn and winter of 2000
2) Writing guidebooks
3) Working as a theater critic

20.) What do you dream about?

Lately, I’ve been having the same dream that I had all through high school, college, grad school, and beyond. I arrive at the classroom and there’s a History paper due and there’s no way that I’ll have time to finish it by the deadline. No matter how many times I have this dream, it always seems so incredibly real.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.