A Writer of Many Disguises

Novelist Chris Adrian talks about his new Shakespearean novel, The Great Night, how being a doctor inspires his work, and why he’d rather be writing about “zombie bunnies."

05.25.11 1:25 PM ET

Characters with double identities feature prominently in many Shakespeare comedies. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, several characters spend most of the play disguised as something other than themselves. But even Shakespeare can’t compete with the real-life multiple identities of Chris Adrian, who has just written a modern re-telling of Midsummer Night’s Dream titled The Great Night. In addition to being a Guggenheim-fellowship winning fiction writer (his previous books include Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital) Adrian is also a pediatric fellow in hematology/oncology at UCSF, and recently completed his degree at Harvard Divinity School.

Asking Adrian to rank his different occupations—is he a doctor who writes? A writer who studies spirituality? A scholar who treats sick kids?—is like asking a parent to choose his favorite child. More useful is to think of Adrian as one of his characters from The Great Night, whose various identities are each equally valid representations of his true self, and without any of which he wouldn’t be the person he is.

The idea for the book came, in part, from one of his cases at UCSF. A sick child who wasn’t allowed to eat solid food asked if she couldn’t have just “one tiny feast,” a line that stayed with Adrian, and sparked the portrait of the child’s parents, who, in the book, take the form of the fairies Titania and Oberon. “Her parents were both physically very striking and carried themselves very gracefully—the word regal came to mind,” says Adrian. “The interaction with them, feeling enormously sorry for them but also admiring them, helped me figure out what the characters of Titania and Oberon were going to be.”

In the book, Oberon has stolen a baby boy from mortals as a gift for his wife Titania. When the boy dies of leukemia, Titania’s grief is so great she banishes Oberon and releases Puck, here a malevolent spirit that takes the form of a black dog, from his service to her. He immediately sets about wreaking havoc on the fairy world.

“My natural tendency is to write about zombie bunnies, but one of my first writing teachers got incorporated into my writing superego, and I keep hearing his admonition to make things feel more real the weirder they get,” Adrian says.

In real life, the girl at UCSF recovered. “We all were very worried about her,” Adrian says. “The story (that served as genesis for the book) came out in The New Yorker while she was still in the hospital, and when it was accepted to be published I talked to her parents. I knew they would recognize it if they read it and probably would read it, and they were fine with it.” He says that if the parents had not given their permission for him to use their experience in the book, he would have had to find a different project. It is unusual for him to write so directly from his experience at the hospital: “When things from the hospital intrude on what I write about, it’s usually so warped and changed that there’s not much recognizing what I started from,” he says.

Talking to Adrian, it is clear that he brings as much thought and emotional rigor to his work as a doctor as he does to his writing. His stint in divinity school was inspired by his desire to be able to better comfort families when he has to deliver bad news about a child’s prognosis. “I didn’t learn anything concrete or useful, maybe because I wasn’t paying attention, but I think it’s really hard to do anything to make things better in those situations except stand there in the face of it,” he says. “I was hoping I’d come away with a practical toolkit, but I came away with an understanding that it’s totally OK to just stand there.”

Witnessing these moments of families in extremis galvanizes much of his fiction, if rarely as directly as in the story that became The Great Night. “It’s a constantly humbling experience to see the way people become their best selves,” he says. “That sounds corny, but it seems appropriate to what happens to these parents when they find a resilience and grace in themselves. There’s something about seeing that as a writer and knowing you’ll never capture it or do justice to it, but even a half-assed or partial job can be affecting if you can translate that into a story.”

Fittingly, the writer came to his love of fiction in a hospital. At age 11 he had surgery for a testicular torsion, and during his recovery his father brought him a box of Edward Rice Burroughs books. “Up to that point I only read fiction if I thought it would make people think I was smart,” he says. “I read the first book in the space of a single afternoon and never went back.” His love of fantasy and science fiction is apparent in all his works, which infuse the mundane, everyday world with elements of magic and whimsy. In The Great Night, the story unfolds in San Francisco’s hilly Buena Vista Park, where three mortal characters get lost trying to find a party and find themselves fleeing the vengeful Puck along with the fairies. The park, and city, are rendered mysterious and strange by the circumstances (fairies flying around, a demon black dog devouring everything in sight) yet utterly familiar.

“My natural tendency is to write about zombie bunnies, but one of my first writing teachers got incorporated into my writing superego, and I keep hearing his admonition to make things feel more real the weirder they get,” Adrian says. “With this novel I had a lot more anxiety about that, because there would be a time when the reader would have to be OK with actual fairies coming out of the hill. The moment of anxiety came when there’s an actual threshold for each of the mortal characters to step out of the real world and into the fairy world, and I had to find a way to do that that seemed real both to them and to the reader.”

Jennie Yabroff is a staff writer at Newsweek covering books, movies, food, and art.

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