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Arts & Life

This Kansas Novelist And His New Character Find Solace And Healing In Isolation

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Elizabeth Thompson
Novelist Adam Gnade lives and writes just outside of Leavenworth, Kansas.

On a chunk of unincorporated land outside of Leavenworth, Kansas, Adam Gnade has more or less been self-isolating for 10 years.

He's quick to say that he has a lot of friends, it's just that as someone who spends his days writing, that lifestyle makes sense to him.

Like the protagonist of his third novel, "This is the End of Something but it's Not the End of You," Gnade's migration to Midwest farmland was slow and intentional. Part of a process, even.

"It's always been a dream of mine to live rurally and have a lot of space to roam and kind of call the shots a little bit more in my life," Gnade (pronounced guh-naw-dee) says by phone. "And you can't really do that in places like San Diego or Portland. Out here you can." 

His creative endeavors are widespread enough that the desire for extra physical space makes some sense.

In addition to his novels, he's also recorded what he refers to as "talking songs," mostly spoken stories with musical or ambient accompaniment, available on Spotify and Apple Music.

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He says the recordings and books form a continuous storyline, though they need not be listened to or read in any particular order. The stories aren't serialized but make up a world where certain characters, like James Bozic in this newest novel, always appear.

"I hope to leave behind a substantial body of work one day that tells a personal history of America in both books and recorded form," Gnade says.

Gnade and the character, James, have a good deal in common, so much so that his work might be classified as "auto fiction." 
 
In a 2017 interview with Bandcamp Daily, he commented that the recurring character is "as close to my own self as any of the characters are."

From afar, the clearest similarity is that they were both born and raised in San Diego, blew tornadically between Portland, Oregon, and Norfolk, Virginia, then back to California before putting down roots in Kansas.

The constant relocation reads like self-harm for a character who struggles with depression and anxiety. In fact, various forms of self-harm and subsequent self-healing make up the bulk of the story.

"Every day I wake up and I think, this feels like an ending," James tells a friend. He explains that as a child his head was full of possibilities, the feeling that anything could happen.

In that same conversation, he confides that, as an adult, "I feel like instead of possibilities and an exciting future, I have finality showing up behind every door."

All the same, he knocks on one "door" after another, peering through the peepholes of people's eyes searching for the one who'll provide refuge and comfort. Then, another break-up, another move.

An aspiring writer, James secures employment at various small publications, but none of that sticks either. He writes:

I used to believe the most important thing was to survive, but when you start looking at your life as a war you inherit the bad traits of a soldier. I don't want to settle for survival anymore. What I want is to find the healthiest, safest, most rewarding life I can while taking the rough days as they come. You try to be as ready as you're able for this, and that is as much as you can do.

Then James and a couple of friends stake out a piece of Kansas farmland. His drinking binges decrease as does his self-loathing.

It's as if the geography externalizes his inner landscape in a way that's healing.

Gnade writes: 

"On the border of Kansas and Missouri, it was jungle hills and fireflies, lake swimming, dramatic thunderstorms. In the spring and long into summer, it felt more like a Southern state than Midwestern. It was soft and gentle and giving, but if could also be mean. It could crush you and fray your nerves and wear you down. I saw a new hardness in people I'd never noticed. The strain of disappointment, long winters, vanishing resources, a dying job market." 

Gnade says that the coronavirus has interrupted his plan to move even deeper into the country. Car crashes and sirens make more frequent appearances on his road than they did a decade ago, and he no longer has the level of solitude he craves.

He says that while it helps to be alone all day while he channels all his energy into writing, it's also not great because it can lead him to "darker places." 

In order to avoid the darkness, he says, “I think while you’re doing this you need to find things that you do every single day to give you some kind of order and some kind of stability in the chaos."

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.

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