“You Can’t Have Flabby Curiosity”: Three Questions for Kim Adrian

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Sariah Dorbin’s short stories have appeared in the Antioch Review and the Bellevue Literary Review, and anthologized in The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. If you just glance at dust, it’s nothing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and works as a creative director for a Los Angeles advertising agency. But in this matter, as in most matters, I really ought to follow her lead. But not if you don’t look at it carefully. You can’t give up just because something seems boring or insignificant. So ostensibly boring. I’ve always felt that the essay is kind of a Buddhist genre for this reason. So at 3:00 a.m., a bit insomnia-addled, I parsed my options: sweater, hat, scarf … sock. There’s an “Object Lesson” called Dust. ¤
SARIAH DORBIN: Of all the objects available for your examination and consideration, I have to ask: Why the sock? Your only real tools, beyond language, are your observational abilities and your curiosity, and you have to hone these qualities, because the goal is to see what your subject will yield to them. I wanted to look at the sock like that. Maybe that’s stretching things, but what I mean is, a good essay examines its subject very deeply, without preconceived notions, without judgment. It wasn’t until several hours later (in the middle of the night) that I realized — adoy — knitting isn’t an object. Our conversations — her side of them, anyway, are a lot like this treasure of a book: illuminating, erudite, deeply intelligent, and always delightful. Adrian is one of those people who just does life better — considers things, and what those things might mean — with greater depth and purpose than most of us. They’re vaguely human somehow. I knew going in that tone would have to do a lot of work in this book if it wasn’t going to be a complete snore. Maybe because they’re smelly, and they often seem to have a mind of their own — wandering off. How did the tone of the book assert itself — and how does that tone relate to your other work? Like, let’s be Martians together. So I’d landed on their site with a lot of enthusiasm, and without really thinking things through too much, I pitched a book about knitting because I’m a long-time knitter, and I’d written about knitting before. It didn’t take much to sell me on the series as a concept — I love exploring big ideas through small windows. It’s a pretty different tone from my normal one, I think. But not this one. Dust is fascinating. I’d never knit a sock in my life, but the idea appealed to me because there’s something just a bit silly about socks, something inherently absurd. They put these little bags on their feet all the time — I wonder why? I wrote to the editors in the morning, amending my pitch, and they loved the idea. Absolutely I believe that any object can yield enormous insights if you examine it closely enough. It’s an activity. (I liked that challenge.) But if you were a Martian, and you knew nothing about human beings, socks would probably be very interesting to you. Her new book, Sock, one of the latest titles in Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, is an utterly engaging investigation — not so much of that object, per se, as of human evolution, anatomy, physics, sexuality, fashion, painting, consumerism, manufacturing, and motherhood. Nothing is truly boring except, maybe, our own thought patterns. The “Object Lessons” series has a very inviting website — they solicit pitches right on their landing page. Of myriad topics to which Adrian’s curious and nimble mind turns as she examines, explains, and otherwise elucidates the humble sock. Did you know, going in, that the sock would prove to be such a rich subject? Weirdly, formality frees me up in some contexts. Or do you believe that any object can hold such depth of history and meaning? For the record, I have never been to a dinner party at Kim Adrian’s house, but once a year, if we’re lucky, we meet for a couple of hours, on one coast or the other, to pick up the time-worn thread of our grad-school friendship. You can’t have flabby curiosity. The effect of her approach to all of this is to make one feel a little like a guest at an epic dinner party — the kind to which I’m always hankering for an invitation. But I knew I’d have to pull my readers on board with me. Hmm. The object of the sock interests me precisely because it’s so ordinary. KIM ADRIAN: Well, my original pitch had to do with knitting. Sock is not just informative and intelligent but surprisingly charming, witty, and, at times, quite personal. Ankle-high, cashmere, periwinkle socks.) As are, I imagine, our fellow diners in this cafe, in Boston, in December. I — a Californian — am not. (Socks over tights, as it happens. The kind where great conversation zings around the table, along with the homemade chutney or slow-roasted heirloom beets: discursive, sparkling talk that leaves you feeling nourished and sated from the neck up. And a good essay might be said to disrupt those patterns. DECEMBER 27, 2017

KIM ADRIAN IS wearing socks. Over the course of the book you present the sock as an ingenious tool of the most basic functionality for Neolithic man, and then, transitioning into our current moment, as an object of fetishistic desire, a totem of bittersweet maternal longing, a barrier between our skin and what some consider the earth’s “healing energy,” emblematic of all that’s wrong with our disposable culture, and, somehow, also, as a symbol of the ways in which we can fight against that very culture. Closer to my real-life conversational mode than most of my creative work, which is often a little more formal. What’s to say about a sock? Of trending, sock-ish Twitter hashtags. An incredibly rich subject. Basically, I had to create a playful atmosphere. I think of the “Object Lesson” books as extended essays more than anything else, because that’s what essays do — look closely at things.