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Welcome back, Adrian Van Young!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired over the past twelve months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Adrian Van Young, whose short story collection Midnight Self will be published next fall. This will be Adrian’s second book with Black Lawrence Press.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our June Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies), anthology proposals, and translations from German. 

 

 

The Author

Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything, a collection of stories, which won Black Lawrence Press’s St. Lawrence Book Award, and the novel, Shadows in Summerland (Open Road Media.) He is also the author of Vampire Pool Party, a book for children (Madeleine Editions.) His fiction and non-fiction have been published in Black Warrior Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Slate, VICE, The Baffler, Conjunctions, The Believer, BOMB, Granta, and The New Yorker, among other venues. He lives in New Orleans with his family where he teaches American Literature & Creative Writing. 

 

On Writing Midnight Self

I got my first inkling for what this story would eventually be in a way that felt completely spontaneous, which is rare for me. I say that because usually I have a very concrete sense of what a story will look like before I begin writing it–detailed sketches of the characters, a loose plot trajectory–but with “Hammer,” the first story in my forthcoming BLP collection, Midnight Self, a sort of catalogue of the monstrous, both human and not, all that I had was the hammer itself. Like literally, just the hammer, which I was holding in my hand. I was doing some chores around the house, kneeling on the kitchen floor while repairing the hinge on our spice-rack, I think, when I thought about how, when you pick up a hammer, you’re casually holding this deadly weapon that disguises itself as a household object. It has this sort of hidden life that most people, I hope, don’t enact–but it’s there. Because in addition to hanging pictures, anchoring chests of drawers, and repairing spice-racks, this hammer could be used for murder. As human beings, we’re obsessed with our own negation (some of us more than others–ha ha!), worst intentions, baser instincts. And I started to think about what would happen if someone, a character in a story, say, was unable to control the intrusion of those forbidden and insistent, but ultimately very human thought patterns. What kind of person would this be? And where would that impulse to injure, to kill, even–or anyway the awareness of that impulse–lead them? Which isn’t to say I’m some demented burgeoning hammer murderer (don’t worry!) who my family should be faintly concerned about living in the same house with, but that that’s where I came up with the socially maladapted ex-con handyman who narrates the story–whose character is the story, really. In many ways, his fascination with the hammer he wears on his tool-belt and with inanimate objects generally morphs into more by the end. With the hammer, he comes to feel a kinship–its head, its eye, its cheeks, its face.

 

Excerpt from “Hammer”

In the commune, whenever I pick up a hammer to get through my chores on the board for the week, I feel like a killer, though not in a bad way, just capable, calm, like a killer should be.

But I’d never kill anyone in the commune. The people here are way too nice.

So I’m okay with seeing my name on the board with more chores beneath it than anyone else’s. That is, after all, what I do in the commune: certain day-to-day maintenance, repairs and so forth that a hammer, though not always only a hammer, is usually needed to do to my liking. I don’t resent the fact, for instance, that in dry-erase pen alongside Jax’s name it only says, “DISHES—CLEAN, REPLACE.” Or that next to Richie’s name, right below Jax’s, it says, “LAUNDRY—BEDCLOTHES,” and next to that, “LIGHT BULBS.”  Or that in the space next to Anabelle’s name, which Anabelle herself wrote out in big looping, vermillion cursive, it says, “DESSERT + SERENADE.” After all, that’s what Anabelle does in the commune; every night, she brings dessert. Then we eat it while Anabelle sings and plays to us on her old and rich-sounding acoustic guitar.

I don’t resent Jax, who’s the house-president, who made the chore-board in the first place.

Especially given that next to my name, spelled “ABE” instead of “Abraham” the way I like to hear it said, there are so many chores written after the colon, they drop down to the line below.

ABE: TOILETS—SCRUB    MIRRORS—WINDEX   DRAINS—UNCLOG  FIREPLACE—SWEEP   COMPOST—COLLECT AND DISTRIBUTE FOR MULCH     FRIDGE—REPLACE FILTER(S)    FRONT DOOR—INSULATE GUTTERS—CLEAR     BOOKSHELVES—ANCHOR (PROTECT LITTLE RUBY!)    LAZY SUSAN—REHINGE    BACK GATE—LEVEL, RECALIBRATE LOCK    FENCE—WEATHERPROOF   SOLAR PANELS—HOSE OFF   GARDEN—FENCE   ROACHES—BAIT  ATTIC STAIRS—REPLACE, REHANG….

My days are busy, busy, busy. I never put the hammer down. I carry it with me, attached to my belt. Its weight is constant, reassuring. And strange as it seems on the surface of things, that comfort is what makes me feel like a killer. Like everyone, probably, feels like a killer the moment they pick up a hammer, weight-test it: the satisfying calibration of the hammer in the hand; the stick of the grip; the cold heft of the metal.

Like they could kill at any moment, whether or not they felt the urge.

Today in the commune, I start with the quick stuff: cleaning the toilet, replacing the filters.

Zeke wanders in while I’m doing the toilets, takes a little half step and backs out toward the hall. I tell him I’ll be just a second. So he shrugs and stands there with his arms crossed before him, leaning on the doorframe, facing into the bathroom, and when we’ve covered how he his, and how he slept the night before, and what he has in store today, which apart from the chores he has up on the board—“RABBITS—FEED” and “BIKE FLEET—PUMP”—apparently is not that much, I see him shift his posture sharply. I see he’s got to go real bad. When I see that, I’m anxious for him and tell him just another second, yet not before asking him what’s he been eating, not that it’s any of my business. Because I just happened to notice, I say, that his bowel movements seem to come on him like thunder, which could mean he’s getting a surplus of fiber or maybe too much fat, depending, and does he still smoke, in the morning, I mean, because that, too, could serve as a catalyst, maybe. Not that it’s any of my business, not that I’m an expert. But.

All the while I’m scrubbing, scrubbing. Scrubbing slowly? Zeke stares at me. He doesn’t seem, quite, to know what he should say. I splash off the scrubber and let it drip dry; again, Zeke is venturing into the bathroom, faintly thrusting his hips with his hands in his pockets. I sense that he means to communicate with me. But it just looks like this little dance and sort of a rude one, if I’m being honest, like Zeke has a ferret loose inside his pants but like Zeke doesn’t want me to know there’s a ferret.

“All right.” I nod slowly at Zeke.

“Yep,” he says.

“Well,” I say, “I’ll leave you to it.”

“That’d be great.” Zeke laughs a little.

 “At the non-profit—” I start to tell Zeke, but it’s useless.

The bathroom door clicks softly shut.

I pause outside the bathroom door, the hammer hanging from my waist.

I shift my weight right, where the hammer hangs down. Then left, then right, then left again. I like this careful measuring between the hammer and non-hammer sides of my person because it confirms that the hammer’s still there. When I left the non-profit, called Hands on Tomorrow, the place I worked before the commune, I took nothing with me except for this hammer. It has a word along the handle, the name of the tool’s manufacturer: PLUMB. I’ve never heard of PLUMB before but whoever they are, they make excellent hammers. This one, I’ve found, has served me well, first at the non-profit and now in the commune. The name could hardly be more apt. On the one hand I find that it puts me in mind of precisely the image it means to evoke: a plumb angle between two beams, the gentle dropdown on good flight of steps. On the other, however, it gives rises to something that was probably not intended by the company’s owners: the fact that the hammer could be used for murder. In fact, could serve no other purpose. So that when someone picks it up to put it to some broader use, it actually sways the mind over to murder—inexorably, like a clock tower’s hand.

The hammer can’t help that it does this to people. That’s only how the hammer’s made.

PLUMB, as in strike, on the top of the skull; PLUMB, as in distance, between thought and action; PLUMB, as in escape well made, are three unwanted connotations.

The commune that I live in is a renovated farmhouse surrounded by miles of open country. That’s not to say it’s isolated. Miles to the south is a sort of large town or a kind of small city, some people will tell you, which we commune-members can access by car or bike or sometimes hitchhiking; I guess it would make as much sense just to walk, though often as not people try to avoid it. You never know what you’ll run into out there. Plus, the winters here are freezing. I arrived at the farmhouse in just such a manner, which is to say I came on foot, the miles of blank asphalt unfolding before me until, around this little bend, the farmhouse appeared, half-shrouded in fog. It was morning and early spring then in the country, with the birds waking up in the tops of the trees and a few early lights turning on in the house, which thinking back now could’ve been anyone getting ready to show their best face to the world: Jax, Richie or Anabelle; Coral, Zeke, Pierre, Big John; Sarah G or Sarah M. Strange to reflect on how well I now know them when back on that morning they weren’t even people, just lighted squares showing themselves through the fog.

 The first one I saw was Anabelle. 

She was kneeling in one of the wood flowerbeds that line the front walk coming up from the road, wearing tan overalls with her hair in a scarf. Even hunched over like that in the dirt, she still had horn-rimmed glasses on and when she looked up at me, smiling of course, they were fogged with the dew hanging over the walk. She looked like she wanted to say something to me, she looked like she was going to greet me. Then Jax hurried out of the doorway above her and down the front steps with his head tilted up. “Hey, brother,” he called to me. “How can we help you?”