Steven Adkins’ The Ice Mine was selected as the first release in NIPS, Whiskey Tit’s novella club, celebrating the craft of the non-standard form. We were introduced to Adkins, who lives in France, by WT flagship author Jon Frankel, who unsurprisingly has a nose for this sort of thing. Here, Jon and Steven talk about sci-fi, drugs, writing, and the clip of the world’s descent into hell.
Jon Frankel: Steven Adkins and I have been talking about books and writing for over twenty years. Steven was always writing long sequences of surreal poems, Dada inspired work with a heavy dose of Burroughs and electronic psychedelia. When he moved away from Ithaca and started his Daurade website, investigating Masonic and other mystical symbols in found French architecture, as well as associated conspiracies, I followed his writing from afar, delighting in the byways of marble and ivy it had taken. He pointed my way towards one of the most eccentric and obscure writers in America, Alfred Starr Hamilton. So I wasn’t surprised when he wrote a novella set on Mars that follows the journey of a broken soul, a drug addict, a loser in extremis. Having known Steven for so long I was delighted to interview him on its publication, and try to take the conversation into the realms of his obsessions, a fertile subconscious he has cultivated with deranged senses, politics, war, drugs, literature, art and music. Steven Adkins is a survivor who is too full of love and feeling to give into the jaded, suspicious homunculus crouched behind his eye, staring out at the world in a state of appalled stupefaction. He knows what the impulse is to pick up a gun. He is too kind and intelligent to do so. But he does take copious notes in his underground.
How did you get the idea to write The Ice Mine?
Steven Adkins: My wife and I separated couple of years ago. Then we got back together. Then we separated again, probably for good. I know this is common, even banal, but for me it has been a very traumatic experience. More painful than the death of my father. It sent me into a very dark place. I wept daily. I was preoccupied with suicide. Horrible. Then one night I was with a friend and his friend in a sushi bar and we’d had a few drinks and we were discussing our experiences, we were all divorced or going down that road, and I went off on some babbling tirade about how I was going to find “the Golden Temple”, that demons might try to eat me alive or rape me and tear me apart, but that I’d smell the exotic incense, touch the rare woods and feel the silks of some kind of Shambala, that I’d arrive at some kind of wisdom from this experience. The Golden Temple. The next day, sober, I thought to myself, yes, that’s it, I’ll write that story. The original title of the book was The Golden Temple, but after I started writing it became clear to me that it would science fiction, so it became, almost arbitrarily, The Ice Mine. Now I see the resonance of that title, because it was as if, to quote Eldridge Cleaver, I had a “soul on ice”. Frozen, down in a dark hole. That context was the gasoline. The spark was Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix. I finished that book and immediately said, “I must write my book or die trying.” The protagonist of Schismatrix, Abelard Lindsay, was the inspiration for Ric Bream, in that both are kind of aristocratic characters who fall from grace and must set out on a journey to rebuild their lives. I don’t think anyone reading Ice Mine would see it, but he’s there. I “footnoted” Abelard Lindsay, so to speak, in Ice Mine, where Bream mentions a ship called the Abelard and Heloise. And as I wrote I began to notice a lot of similarities to the Relación of Cabeza de Vaca. So I took one event from that book and reworked itinto mine, which is acknowledged. None of my conscious inspirations weren’t footnoted in some way or other. There’s even a reference to The Beastmaster, which is one of my all-time favorite B movies.
Is The Ice Mine your first work of fiction?
I’ve written a few short stories and started three or four novels that fizzled out after 50 pages or so.
I’ve completed two or three experimental novellas. They had a lot of good passages but they demanded too much from the reader for very little payoff. The Ice Mine is the first piece of long “straight fiction” I’ve managed to finish to my satisfaction.
I have written hundreds of poems and even staged a play I adapted from Hawthorne’s The Birthmark, but this is the first long work of prose I’ve successfully completed.
Can you talk a little about how addiction and sci-fi relate? It’s a strange question but there is a rich history of sci fi and hallucination, altered mental and physical states and drugs as a trope both for revolution and philosophical uncertainty. And then, of course, drugs are always interesting.
Drugs and alcohol can certainly loosen the imagination, and being a little drunk can be useful for writing. I emphasize “a little”. Opiates at one point allowed me to write all night with intense focus and concentration, but ultimately that became counterproductive. A lot of writers wrote under the influence, Bukowski with alcohol, Burroughs with opiates, alcohol and weed. P.K. Dick and amphetamines. I can’t write at all under the influence of speed or coke.
I think drugs are a natural subject for science fiction because the brain is still so poorly understood and the potential for refining drugs for specific purposes has enormous possibilities for the future and thus, for science fiction and fiction in general. I think that today, where technology is having such an important effect on our daily lives, from the PC to the smartphone, the internet…. everything from the way we see films to the way we fight wars, that science fiction is no longer a “genre”. Literature that doesn’t in some way grapple with technology and the future is not worth much at all. The way we work, travel, communicate, the way we meet our partners. Everything is mitigated by technology. To ignore it is detrimental to the writer’s job.
Regarding legal drugs, Big Pharma is such a nightmare it’s a very logical avenue by which to enter into very deep criticism of capitalism, politics, corporate power, lobbying. The opioid crisis in America may be a defining aspect of this era, and it can all be traced back to Big Pharma’s concern for profit over the country’s well-being. It should be addressed, because the crisis is affecting all of us.
Dick wrote some great novels where drugs play a central role. Through a Scanner Darkly comes to mind, where he can really get into the nature of “reality” and how perception functions as an organizing process, how we construct our reality from experience and perception. Of course, if that perception is altered, well, maybe the underlying reality doesn’t change, but our engagement with it certainly does.
I think one of the answers to “What is science fiction?” is that is often answers the question: “What if?”
What if we could teleport?
What if we contacted alien intelligence?
What if we could travel in time?
What if we discovered a drug that could dot dot dot?
It’s a natural trope for science fiction.
What was your writing process?
I didn’t set a schedule and commit to writing say, a fixed number of pages or hours per day. When I felt like writing, I wrote. I think Ice Minetook about 18 months and there were periods when I didn’t write anything for weeks at a time. It was a fairly rapid process.
How many drafts?
Two, including the final version.
Not much. I’d seen some documentaries that informed the work, and there were a few things I had to look into to make sure I wasn’t writing something scientifically impossible, so to speak, although I do take some liberties. Ice Mine is not “hard” science fiction. A few things about the climate and geography of Mars and its moons. A bit about terraforming. A big source of information for me was Steve Petranek’s TED Talk about colonizing Mars. I highly recommend it. He may be overly optimistic, but he effectively demonstrates that a lot of the technology to make colonizing Mars possible is already feasible. It’s very exciting. I wish NASA were taking charge of getting us to Mars, but it looks like the private sector may be the ones to really get us there: Musk, Bezos, Branson. They’re doing some remarkable work, especially Musk. By the way, Trump has said if he were elected to a second term he’d make getting to Mars a priority. Alas. I hope he’s not reelected, but if he is, which he won’t be, I think, I hope he’s telling the truth. I always try to look for silver linings. Still, I’d be willing to put going to Mars on hold for a while if it meant that this turd gets flushed away back to the sewer he crawled out of.
Write in the morning, afternoon?
Both. Whenever the urge strikes. I’ve never been able to set a schedule and life often gets in the way: work, kids, paying bills etc. But I’ve never believed in excuses. If someone tells me “I’d write if I only had time” I have no sympathy. If it’s important to you, you make the time. For me, it builds up and I simply must write, get it out, or I can’t rest. When the urge hits I simply write and put everything else off, even if it’s important. I’ll write between classes, if I have 15 minutes or five hours, at the expense of everything else. I spend a lot of time driving for my job so I’m often imagining things or composing sentences to write down when I can. Or I pull out my phone and dictate ideas or passages into it. If I’m in the writing mode and I absolutely have to do something else that takes me away from it I get antsy and unsettled and distracted. It’s not Romantic, more like a neurotic compulsion, really.
What do you like to read?
At the moment I like books about history, cultural history, biographies of artists and writers, and novels, both contemporary and “the classics”. I read a lot of late 20thcentury “counterculture” novels. Science Fiction of course: Asimov, Clarke, Bester, Herbert, Ballard etc. I’ve read a lot of Burroughs. Living in France, I often stumble across books in thrift shops I’ll buy and read simply because they’re in English, stuff I might never have read were I living Stateside. When I first got here my budget was very limited so I’d buy the Penguin Classics that only cost a euro or two, so to make my money go farther I’d select books based on length. I read Moby Dick, War and Peace and Les Miserables because they were cheap and long! I read quickly so I wanted something that would keep me occupied for a while!
I also like books about music and bands I like. Oh yeah, and esoteric stuff. Books about early Christianity, Islam, New Religious Movements, Freemasonry, Satanism. I have pretty eclectic tastes.
Do you find you are able to write the kinds of books you like to read, or is there a disconnect?
No, I can’t write like the books I read because most of those writers are much smarter and more interesting than I am. And much more talented. I don’t try to emulate anyone, although for The Ice Mine I did consciously try to write in a much more direct and restrained manner. Very descriptive and “straight”. What would Hemingway do? I’m not comparing myself to Hemingway, but any time I felt tempted to go off on a super-dense flight of fancy, or use automatism, I curbed the impulse by thinking of Hemingway!
You live in France, but grew up in the US. Why did you move?
I lived in Italy for three years in the late 70’s and my mum is English, so I’ve always had a connection to Europe. When I came back to the States at the age of ten or eleven it was the first time I’d lived outside of a military base or in a community not dominated by military families. I was terribly maladjusted and wanted to go back to Europe. So, later in life I lived with a woman for 8 years and when we split I said, it’s now or never. Bush had just been elected and I thought if my fellow citizens were stupid enough to elect this twat I’d rather de-camp! I’d always loved French literature and wanted to learn the language. I have a good friend in Toulouse so I visited him, loved the city and decided to move here. He helped me get set up and really made it all possible. My goal was to stay 5 years, 1 year at the very minimum. Then I met my wife, had kids and here I am. I’m not sure if I could live in the U.S. again. Certainly not at the moment. I told Jello Biafra that story and he said he understood the sentiment but that he preferred to stay and fight. But I’m not a fighter, I’m an ostrich.
Do you feel like an exile?
Sometimes, but it’s a self-imposed exile, so it’s not like I suffer too much from saudade. Now that I’m separated from my wife, I’ve sometimes wanted to escape the bad memories by going back to the States, but I have my kids here, and I’d never live so far away from them. There are times I’ve felt “trapped” here after my separation, but I have a pretty good life so it’s not so bad. If I left France I could go to Italy again, or Portugal. Maybe Morocco.
How has your father influenced your writing?
I don’t know. My father used to quote passages from Poe’s The Raven to me, which perhaps aroused my interest in poetry, but other than that, I’m not sure. I have a distant aunt, Alice Adkins, who published a book of poems in 1934 called Fog Phantoms and Other Poems. She was an extraordinary woman. She was blind since childhood but travelled all over the world: Asia, Australia, the Arctic Circle. Her husband was a geographer or geologist of some note at Harvard. Digging through some genealogy material my grandmother put together, I found a poem my great-grandfather Alvin Adkins wrote. That family history stuff is intriguing, because a lot of those ancestors were teachers and preachers. My upbringing wasn’t particularly religious or “intellectual” but here I am, a teacher with a strong interest in religion. It didn’t come from my parents. Makes me wonder how much of it is in the genes.
But my father? He was an Air Force officer who read mostly books about military history and as far as I can recall, had zero literary interest, The Raven excluded. He must have memorized it for an English class.
I’m not sure he would approve of the life decisions I’ve made. There’s a lot of him in me, though I lack his discipline. He was an odd duck. A straight-laced military man all my life. When he retired he grew long hair and a beard!
Is your writing ever autobiographical?
Yes, The Ice Mine has a lot of autobiographical elements and my poetry, when it’s not incomprehensible, often speaks about the events of my life, from the mundane to the unusual. The Ice Mine has a lot of details that are re-worked from trivial experiences and details of my life. The military coins, for example. My father had one, but his didn’t quote a sign that hung over a Nazi concentration camp. That was poetic license.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Well, The Ice Mine was inspired by Schismatrix, Cabeza de Baca, travelogues from the 19thcentury, stuff with titles like Four Years in Darkest Africa. The Beats were an early influence, especially Burroughs. I’ve read almost everything published, including a lot of very obscure stuff. The Barry Miles biography is hugely entertaining. I think I’ve read it three times. Surrealism is something I’ve read thoroughly. I’ve read tons of Surrealism, from novels, theoretical writings, manifestos, poetry. Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessionswas a big influence in terms of style. I tried to mimic some of his 19thcentury style, the tone of bemused detachment from his own suffering. I think I read that just before or even after I started writing Ice Mine. I can’t recall. A passage from the end of Confessionsserves as an epigram.
Other than that, my inspiration comes from current events, my life, and historical events.
Your book seems to be in the French tradition, as opposed to the English. How has your engagement with French writing influenced your own writing?
Good question…. and I’m not sure. I am pretty well-read in French modernism, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Lautréamont, the Symbolists to Dada, Surrealism, Oulipo, the Situationsists. There’s probably a little Marxism in my worldview. I used to think Surrealism existed because of French culture, but sometimes I think it came to fruition despiteit. I’m 48and have been here 16 years, more than a third of my life. I’ve certainly integrated something of a “French mentality”, if such a thing exists, into my way of thinking. I certainly feel at odds with America and American ways of thinking. But I’m also resolutely American. I’ve got a strong libertarian streak. I like firearms. I’m proud in a way of American cultural dynamism, inventiveness, the “can-do” attitude. I’m a third-culture kid. My mum is English, I spend a lot of time with my English family. I lived in Italy and Hawaii growing up. My wife is from Argentina. One of my best friends from Portugal. My dad spent a lot of time in the Arab world as a special ops guy. He was part of SOCCENT, which is the special ops wing on the command directing the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the horn of Africa. He always spoke positively about Islam and the Arab world, so this Islamophobia we see on display in the States is alien to me. My dad spent a good part of his life preparing for war in these areas, but he died before 9-11. Yet he always spoke with respect for those cultures. So, that’s a bit off-topic, but I suppose I have a pretty solid American identity mixed with a more cosmopolitan worldview that has influenced me in ways I don’t perceive.
I suppose with regards to the French influence, I’d have to accentuate the French avant-garde from say, 1850 to the 1960’s as work I admire and have always found intriguing. My poetry has clear links to Pierre Reverdy, Dada, Surrealism. When I encountered the Situationists I had independently begun experiments inspired by Surrealism which they had also begun, logical extensions of Surrealism. As for my prose, I’m not sure. Maybe the laconic detachment, the bemused observance of one’s own suffering, the misfit individual versus a conformist society.
I should also mention, although not a direct influence on this book, my writing in general was greatly influenced by an artist and poet I know by the name of Tim Wilson. We had a falling out and haven’t spoken in years, but I’d be remiss not to mention that he turned me on to a lot of the French avant-garde and his unique way of looking at the world had a big impact on me. He’s probably the only true artistic genius I’ve ever met, consistently unique, inventive and blessed with a seemingly bottomless well of creative inspiration. We collaborated for years on a lot of projects and even created a Surrealist-inspired “movement”, Accidental Associationalism (AA), which continues to impact the way I work today, especially in my visual art endeavors.
There are some very American things I should mention: Robert Anton Wilson’s and Robert Shea’s Illuminates trilogy and Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger trilogy; the Church of the Sub-Genius; Discordianism. I could get into some specific detail regarding that stuff but suffice it to say I found a lot of affinities with those guys, especially with the AA collaborations. So there’s a lot of American countercultural stuff in the mix, in addition to the French influences.
How do you experience writing prose versus poetry?
I’m much less disciplined writing poetry. I tend towards stream of consciousness or automatic writing. My poetry was really inspired by Surrealism, especially Soupault, Eluard and Péret. But my poetry is also less inspired by other poetry than by rock songs, advertising jingles, clichés, aphorisms and little texts like you might find in the episode summaries on a TV schedule, like “Kira tries to dislodge a stubborn Bajoran”. I can be very hermetic. I’m less interested in communicating than in expressing. My prose is more restrained and thoughtful. More prone to revision and careful attention to clarity. I’m not James Joyce, I can’t write Finnegan’s Wake. I’m much more attentive to the reader. With the poetry, I could give a shit. I haven’t published much of it as a result. Of course, I think it’s genius!
What do you think of publishing a book with a small press like Whiskey Tit?
It’s great. I love independent publishers and record labels. I’m very proud to be published by Whiskey Tit and am quite humbled to be in such good company. Miette has published some great stuff. I suppose the drawback is that there’s less of a budget for promotion and the like, because I do want the book to get read. But that’s fine, it puts some of the responsibility on my shoulders. Miette has been very professional and very kind to me. It’s humbling that someone would put so much time and energy and money into an unknown such as myself. She gave me every opportunity to have input on the cover and the sales copy and the like, but I felt comfortable leaving it in her hands. I have a certain vision of the work that she may not have, so it’s interesting to let her move things along according to how she sees them. I’d much rather publish with an independent. Of course I think of things like The New York Times Book Review or getting nominated for a Hugo, haha, but then I realize that these things are the province of the majors, who have a lock on the door, so to speak. It’s not important, ultimately, but it would be nice. Which leads me to be a little angry that the corporate culture industry is so dominant in the States. It has an effect on me personally, but more importantly, on far better writers who go relatively unheard because the money men won’t allow us to compete. Does that sound bitchy or petty? Maybe. I don’t pretend to be a great writer, but there are Whiskey Tit writers who are better than a lot of best-selling authors. It pisses me off that a hack like Dan Brown can become a millionaire when there are so many more original and talented artists out there struggling to pay the monthly bills.
The challenge is to create alternative networks and reach out to independent bookstores and publishers in order to work with each other against the corporate money machine. Americans seem to want local, artisanal and alternative products, including cultural products. If anything, this is a great time to work with a small, independent publisher. It’s been a great experience. Miette’s really come through whenever it’s mattered.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a science-fiction novel with more characters and storylines. I’m calling it Small Galaxy and it’s already longer than The Ice Mineand maybe halfway or three-quarters finished. I’m not sure where it’s going. I think I have the ending worked out, but I’m trying to figure out how to bring the storylines together and get there! [Since writing this the project has stalled and I’m contemplating a sequel to The Ice Mine, either a 3rdperson or epistolary novel exploring the consequences of Bream publishing his “Relation”. On verra!]
You can buy the works of both Jon Frankel and Steven Adkins here, or just about anywhere. Jon can also be found writing occasionally about literature, Vietnam, and food, at Last Bender. Steven blogs at Laws of Silence. They both do bold, challenging writing, in a world that prefers blips, so help the world out and support them.