New York has a particular grind that is, at times, exhausting and terrible. I’ve seen people in the subway, swaying with the push and pull of the train, with permanent frown lines embedded into their face as if they were born with the weight of dissatisfaction and depression pressing down on their shoulders. However, I have also witnessed small kindnesses that shed light onto the lives of the inhabitants of this city and inspire people to flourish yet another day. Smiles given to passing strangers, pausing a moment to hold a door open, dollars stuffed into tip jars, and helping hands offered in heartfelt nods to the importance of community. When I stumbled across Adam Gnade’s book The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad in the legendary Lower East Side Bluestockings Bookstore it was on a day when storm clouds were choking the sunlight. The bright orange book cover reached out to me, as did the encouraging words within.
Adam Gnade is a musician, writer, and all around incredible human. He has had multiple titles published, and his newest work, Locust House, was released only a few days ago to an eagerly awaiting audience. His work is beautiful not only because of its mellifluous quality, but also due to it’s brutally raw honesty. Few things are more exhilarating than authentic vulnerability. Take a chance, turn a page, and prepare to be revived.
Justine: I would love it if you could give our readers a little background or introduction to the awesome things you’ve done in the past, and the present. Your work spans many diverse activities, and is incredibly inspiring! Would you have guessed long ago that your life would take so many different paths?
Well, thanks, that’s really sweet of you to say. So, yeah, what I do is I put out a series of connected books and records. The music I call “talking songs.” It’s talked vocals over music, the characters in the songs are the characters in the books, and the plots in the books are the plots in the songs. It’s one big universe and it’s my life project; a place I can go and lose my troubles for a while. The whole series of books and records is called “We Live Nowhere and Know No One”—which is a line that can be interpreted a few different ways and I’ll leave that up to whoever wants to unpack it. (The only divergence from that is the Big Sad book series, which is kind of a fluke.)
As far as would I have guessed I’d be doing this and living this way? Not at all. I had no idea I would ever make it this far. I get to see the world and do all the things I dreamed I would do as a kid. Somehow, it worked out. It’s weird and exciting. I won’t try to be cool and edgy and play it off as anything other than that. I’m stoked to be doing this. It’s fucking fun.
When I first read your guidebooks I thought of the Krishnamurti quote where he said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” As with your book, that quote has made me feel better in some rough moments. Are there quotes, people, places, or books that you turn to when you’re needing an extra push towards positivism or things in general that you find yourself drawn to over and over?
I tend toward liking dark, sad, heavy, brutal books and music, nothing with a lot of redemption at the end. Mostly I get courage from people. When I find someone who’s living well, being brave, doing the things I’d like to do but am too afraid of, that’s what pushes me in the right direction. Without those people, a lot of us would be bones in the ground in some shitty box somewhere. We need them as we need air, food, and water. Even if they’re fictional, dead, or 3,000 miles away we need them. They give us courage and they’re our weapons and shields in the war against our total annihilation.
In the beginning of the ‘Big Motherfuckin’ Sad’ guide you talk about a time when things were rough for you. Digging one’s self out of depression or even just random ruts can be extremely difficult. Was there a particular moment that shook you out of it, or was it a compilation of many moments?
There was, yeah. I lived in Virginia a while back and I spent all of my time down at the Chesapeake Bay lying in the sun trying to understand Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March or floating in the water on my back. I was very sad and terrified of everything, drinking too much, and coming off a hard, stressful time in San Diego. I was also writing my first book, Hymn California, though I didn’t know it at the time.
It was early summer—a hot, dry, windy day—and I was lying on my back floating in the Chesapeake staring up at the sky thinking something along the lines of “Life is a giant pile of dog shit, the future is hopeless, kill me please,” and I just decided I was done. I was done being depressed and fatalistic and stupid and morbid. I imagined my problems as a bullet and I decided to step aside and let it pass by me. And it did. I wasn’t “cured” or anything of the sort but that was when I began to actively try to get better. I still get depressed like anyone else but I handle it smarter these days. I pull out of it faster.
You have a few books that you give advice and inspiration to rising above the difficulty of life. When did you realize you wanted to start writing books to support others in their search for happiness?
The Big Sad series was an accident. I was going through a rough spot and needed to write some pep talks for myself and for some people close to me. I put them online, they got a lot of attention, suddenly it was a book and a couple companion guides, then there was printing after printing, and now it pays my rent. That was three years ago. Seems like a lot longer. Some days I feel like I’m 12 and some days I feel like a 500 year old vampire.
Your new book “Locust House” was just put out by Pioneers Press and Three One G. I love that your writing is often musically infused, and even more so with “Locust House” because Three One G, along with Pioneers Press, released your book collaboratively. It’s a really beautifully inclusive decision to put work out like that; how did the collaboration come about?
We’ve worked together on small things over the years and joining forces seemed like the most natural thing to do. I’m very honored to be on the Three One G roster and I have to still keep reminding myself it’s happening. Being up there with Retox and Get Hustle and The Locust and Black Dice and Antioch Arrow and everyone else is pretty life affirming.
How did you hook up with Pioneers Press and Punch Drunk Press and what made you want to work with them specifically out of the many publishing companies out there? What advice do you have for aspiring young writers trying to make the difficult decision of choosing between publishers?
I was one of the founding members of Pioneers Press when it began a few years ago. I don’t work for the press much anymore (though I pitch in every now and again). These days I’m just kind of an in-house author for them which is the best job you could ask for. I’m not sure what advice I’d have for writers in regards to choosing between publishers because I’m still figuring this out. I’ve gotten lucky in a lot of ways and it’s kept me away from having to battle to get published and find an audience and all that. I’ve worked very hard on the writing side of it but the other parts sort of fell into my lap. I’m pretty fortunate in that regard.
Why did you decide to move from San Diego, a very active culturally infused city, to, as you said, out in the sticks, bad reception and all?
I left San Diego years before I decided to come out here, but as far as why, I’ve always wanted to live on a nice piece of land. Wide open spaces. Read too many cowboy novels growing up.
Personally, punk has introduced me to philosophies, and ways of being, that infiltrate many aspects of my life today.
Besides being a setting for your new book, how, if at all, has your background in music shaped the way you see things or live life?
Punk gave me a core set of beliefs. Don’t work with horrible people. Don’t do anything that compromises your ethics. Don’t lie to get what you want. Don’t threaten or oppress anyone. Don’t let people tell you what to do. Do the work. Do things on your own terms. Work your art like a full-time day job and hustle every day until it is. Work along your own timeline…that sort of thing. Basically, try to be one of the good guys. Watching Three One G develop when I was younger was a big part of that.
You have a book tour coming up, which I hope to catch myself! How do you like interacting with your fans and meeting them face to face? Ever received any fan mail that just really blew you away?
I put my email in the Big Sad book and I told people I was there if they wanted to talk. I didn’t imagine the extent of the response. I get emails all throughout the day about the book. Some are harder to write back to. Some take precedence. It can be taxing. It’ll wear you down but I think it’s one of the most important things I can do with my time. The connected books and records are my real work, the thing I love doing, but maybe the other stuff is why I’m here.
Many artists put on airs with their fans and try to create some sort of mystique but I find that insulting and untrue. Be human, be kind, be real, be a straight shooter, be one of the good guys. The world is mean—it’s sad and dismissive and brutal and ugly—and people deserve some gentleness. Everybody does—even the worst people you’ll meet. I mean, people start off so sweet and good-hearted but a lot of them get messed-up beyond belief at an early age. It’s hard to cast blame on anyone for being awful when we live in a world that can choke the goodness out of us as soon as we’re born. You should try to be good and kind to everyone you meet because of that. Doesn’t mean you have to be their friend but don’t condemn them without considering how they got to where they are. Life is monstrous. People get damaged and they become monsters. It’s true and sad, and knowing that is an important early step toward understanding life and navigating through it without growing bitter and hard.