Adam Fleming Petty’s novella, Followers, explores faith and organized religion, and the blind intersection where the two collide. Hannah Gustafson, an enthralling, childlike narrator, longs for companionship. But her boss, Karen Wallin Kerry, keeps her busy and isolated. Karen is an evangelical celebrity who writes Christian best-sellers and paints despite an accident that left her almost entirely paralyzed. However, Karen claims to have suffered an affliction lately — possibly a demon possession, possibly a psychological disorder, possibly a publicity stunt — that has prevented her from attending speaking engagements.
Enter Carolina Colvin Diaz, a skeptic and cub reporter for a Buzzfeed-like media site, who’s tasked with writing about Karen’s situation. Her assignments have been listicles so far. (Her “biggest hit is ‘17 Virgenes de Guadalupe Who Can’t Even.’”) But Karen’s closest confidants believe she can help. None of them know what’s about to unfold, least of all Hannah who must decide what lengths she’s willing to go to in order to be a true follower.
Adam’s prose is graceful and observant. I remembered these things about his writing from when we attended the same monthly workshop in Indianapolis. (There, Adam once described the self-deluding process of buying pants with such brutal wit it sticks with me to this day.) Followers won the 2016 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest, and his writing has also appeared in Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Paris Review Daily. Despite his busy life with his wife and daughters, he was kind enough to find time to chat.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Adam Fleming Petty: When I was sixteen, I fell under the delusion that I was a poet. This lasted for about ten years, during which time I wrote mounds and mounds of awful, excruciating poetry. Much of it was highly formalized, almost like math equations, to the point where it couldn’t be read in any real sense. Perhaps the most egregious offender was a poem about Mars where every line began and ended with the letter ‘o.’ Because ‘o’ is round . . . like a planet! It was obscure, pretentious, and obvious all at once.
So what after a decade of admirable efforts at writing poetry made you switch over to prose?
AFP: I was reading fiction all throughout that decade, so I never lost my love for the form. I think what gave me the idea of getting back into fiction was reading the work of Roberto Bolaño. He was a poet in his youth and then turned to fiction when he was older. His novels and stories frequently concern poets, especially The Savage Detectives, a fictionalized account of his days as a poet in Mexico. Reading that gave me a model, as it were, for writing my own fiction about poets. The first piece of fiction I wrote after a decade away from the form was a novel about a poet who bore a certain resemblance to myself. It was lousy, but it got me back in the habit. I’ve been writing fiction steadily since then.
Have you ever faced similar problems in fiction — becoming too invested in the form versus the story? How do you combat this?
AFP: I learned my lesson about getting overly invested in form from my poetry days. Structure and form are still very important to my writing, but I keep them in the background. On a sentence-by-sentence level, my writing is pretty direct, though not quite straightforward, I don’t think. I think of structure as a skeleton: if you can see it from the outside, there’s probably something wrong. Rather, the story is built around until, in a sense, it hides the structure itself. Mystery and strangeness are important to me. I’ve found the best way to evoke those feelings in the reader is by writing clearly and directly about mysterious goings-on.
Speaking of mystery and strangeness, Followers explores faith in a way that bounces from blunt to humorous to oracular. Yet, like Flannery O’Connor, it never feels trivial. Can you talk about what inspired you to write the book and how long it took you to write?
AFP: Anyone who’s spent time in evangelical culture will note certain similarities between Karen and a real-life figure named Joni Earreckson Tada. Tada also became paralyzed as a teenager. She then went on to produce books and paintings, becoming a celebrity in evangelical circles. Beyond those minimal circumstances, though, Karen is entirely fictional. Though, I think I stole the bit about body dysmorphia from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
I wrote the book in about six weeks. I was trying to meet the deadline for a novella contest. I met it, but Followers didn’t win that particular contest. However, when I saw that Etchings Press was starting their own novella contest, I happened to have one on my hard drive. I sent it to them, and it won.
The characters all have Road to Damascus-type backstories. Which seem both unique and like evangelical archetypes one would hear at church or on TBN. Did you struggle with creating realistic characters that didn’t seem like caricatures?
AFP: ‘Archetype’ is the right word. These are people who tell the stories of their own lives using familiar stock elements, even if those elements aren’t wholly descriptive of their personal circumstances. This is hardly unique to evangelicals — people are always contorting themselves to fit into familiar narratives — but the means evangelicals use to do this are especially stark, which offers opportunity to a storyteller. The trick was to show that, if these characters did become caricatures, that was their own doing, rather than mine.
What type of project are you working on now? Has it presented any new challenges, and how are you dealing with them?
AFP: Right now I’m shopping around a manuscript about soldiers in Iraq playing Dungeons and Dragons. I’m also working on a couple other projects mixing genre elements with more realist stories. Honestly, the biggest challenge is time. I’m a stay-at-home father to two young children, and they keep me busy. It means that I have to write in the evenings, after they go to bed. Maybe not the ideal set up, but I’ve learned that making the best of what you have is a necessary skill for an artist.