We spoke to David Adjmi, author of Lot Six: A Memoir, on June 24th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table series — you can watch the thirty minute chat here. Check out below some questions we didn’t have time for and keep the conversation going. See the whole lineup for JBC Authors at the Table.
Throughout the book, there’s an interplay between external appearance and internal reality — you try to reinvent yourself on a deeper level by changing your accent or clothes. Could you talk about the idea of “Culture” or fashion as its own religion or code of morality?
People are always either seeking or inventing a hierarchy, or a means to get beyond themselves. Everyone wants transcendence, I think, but most people don’t know how to conceptualize transcendence, so they use social hierarchies to mimic its features. Religious cultures are like this too — and I think at the Yeshivah I really felt I was on the bottom of a hierarchy. So when I became interested in fashion, it wasn’t a form of self expression, it was a deployment. I was weaponizing clothes for an effect. I wanted to build a persona, and I wanted that persona to help me transcend my life. I wanted to be the most handsome, the most striking. And I think my attraction to culture was initially about the same thing: culture was giving me an outside-in way of creating a self. When I was younger I thought a persona was a self — I didn’t understand the difference. So the code, my compact with the world that I was building in my teens and early twenties was actually very shallow. I only tapped into the deeper spiritual aspects of myself as a side effect of all this intense social jockeying. I began to understand that my own depth as a person wasn’t something I should reject, that this was the key to my life, to my future, and that hierarchies didn’t matter. And that was when I actually experienced real transcendence.
I found myself literally laughing out loud at the dialogue and voices you recreate. I’d love to know about your process and the decisions you made in translating these voices to the page. And also, for all the humor they add to the story, how might they reflect the theme of finding your own voice as a playwright?
I think there is something incredibly fetishistic about most playwrights — in terms of how they observe and hear people. So these voices and my ability to parrot other voices, this is just a gift I was born with. I initially wasn’t going to add much dialogue to the book. I thought it should be more documentary initially, in terms of the accuracy of what people said. But of course that really limited me, and the book became very general and insubstantial as a result. My editor and agent really encouraged me to take more liberty and invent dialogue that was in the spirit of what was said, so people could experience the truth of my lived experience. In terms of the second question, I really believe we are each the ever evolving product of everyone we meet and know, and there is no question my sensibility as a writer was informed by the people with whom I grew up. My voice is woven in with those other voices, but at the same time my optic is very specific, and the way I filtered my environment into my plays is probably just an innate part of me. I was born with the point of view, I think.
Over the course of the book, you take the reader on a journey with you, describing the various forms of Culture you consumed. Out of the many films and writers you capture on the page as you’ve navigated life, which are the ones that have stuck out as most formative to who you are today?l
From literature: Elizabeth Hardwick, James Baldwin, Nabokov, Proust, Edmund White, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. I think Black Boy is one of the best memoirs ever written, I am completely obsessed with that book. From film: Fassbinder, Charlie Kauffman, Preston Sturges (I write a little bit about him in my book), David Lynch, Kubrick, Brian DePalma (I know he is problematic, but I love him), Hitchcock, Altman, and Hal Ashby.
What are you working on next?
Well my play Stereophonic was supposed to open on Broadway next spring, so we’ll see if theatre opens up by then. And I am in talks to develop a musical about Brian Wilson creating the Smile album — I think we are going to get to make that. I hope so. I am working on my first novel, which I am describing as The 40 Year Old Virgin meets The Magic Mountain. I am doing rewrites on The Stumble, which is my play about Oscar Levant and his obsession with George Gershwin — and I am working on another play called The Blind King that I developed at Sundance last year.
I so admire your non-conformist behavior, that challenges the status quo and struggles with issues of morality, highlighting social injustice, the way you delve in to explore your concept of G‑d. How do you cope during this pandemic and reconcile yourself with feeling marginalized, your hunger for art, theatre and drama or dramatic performances and spirituality? How do you create or develop your spiritual epiphanies?
Well Kafka I think said that everyone should have eight epiphanies a day. I don’t know if I have eight epiphanies a decade. Or even one. Epiphanies are hard to cultivate. But I am disciplined in my practice as a writer — so even when the world is crumbling around me, I write. I wrote every day of the pandemic. I wrote during the protests — I force myself to do it. Because if you don’t cultivate the conditions regularly to make great work, you can’t do it. And I think this is what has helped me with feeling marginalized, too — the discipline, and my connection to my work. I feel so lucky to have talent and ability, and to have a charge or a purpose. So even though I do feel lonely or marginalized at times, I feel very at home in my own head and inside my own imaginative landscape. I can very freely inhabit my own imagination — which wasn’t always the case. And again, this was the result of discipline and commitment, and learning to sit with your own failings. You just have to keep going.
David Adjmi was called “virtuosic” by the New York Times and was named one of the Top Ten in Culture by The New Yorker in 2011. His plays have been produced and developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Soho Rep, Lincoln Center, Steppenwolf and many others. He was awarded a Mellon Foundation grant, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Kesselring Prize for Drama, the Steinberg Playwright Award (the “Mimi”), McKnight and Jerome fellowships, and the Bush Artists Fellowship, among others. He is the recipient of residencies from the Dora Maar House, American Academy of Rome, the Bogliasco Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, Corporation of Yaddo, Djerassi, UCross and others. He lives in Los Angeles.