To Defeat the Devil: A Conversation with Adrienne Celt
Adrienne Celt is the author of the novel The Daughters (Norton/Liveright) which won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award, and also the comic chapbook Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press). Her writing & comics have appeared in the 2016 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Esquire, The Kenyon Review, Epoch, Ecotone, Zyzzva, The Toast, The Rumpus, Bat City Review, Cartridge Lit (of course), and many other places. She publishes a webcomic (most) every Wednesday at loveamongthelampreys.com.
Her story, “The Weight,” appeared in our Unforeseen Consequences Temple Issue. Below, she talks with editor William Hoffacker about Sesame Street, drawing animals, battling the devil, and more.
What can you tell us about the origins of your story “The Weight”? Describe what ideas you had when you started writing the first draft.
I think my first interest in that story was the idea of a grief that exists in your body or your soul but can’t quite be quantified—I wanted to see if I could explore human emotions obliquely, through landscape and memory, without specifically identifying which settings or experiences related to which emotions. I was probably also thinking of the Sesame Street special that the story references (“Don’t Eat the Pictures,” for those of you who have moved on from being weirdly attached to old Sesame Street episodes?), where the Sesame Street gang is in the Met and Big Bird helps an Egyptian prince get to heaven. I don’t know why that episode has stuck with me all these years, but I think it has to do with the way I feel in museums: like there is magic about to happen. The events of the episode are so weird and transporting, it feels exactly right.
What elements of this story invoke video games for you? How does the story change in your mind (if at all) when it’s read through a gaming lens, compared to a reading without that context?
I didn’t originally write the story thinking about video games, but when I first shared it with Cartridge that connection felt immediately appropriate, because the story is so visual and so focused on setting. The different stops that Daniel makes on his journey back to Osiris do feel like scenes in a desolate, Myst-like game, and it makes sense to me to view Daniel’s journey as a kind of heroic quest—even though I think the ending is a little ambiguous; you can’t be sure that he’s succeeded.
You are also the author of The Daughters, a novel about generations of women with singing talents and legends of a curse in their bloodline. If you had to create the videogame adaptation of your novel, what would that game look like, sound like, play like, etc.?
Oh my god, I love this question, because it would be such a weird game.
Okay: you’d need to know that, in the book, the curse is basically a deal with the devil, which makes each generation of women more beautiful & musically talented, at a cost. The arc of the game would be to defeat the devil by figuring out each generation’s price, and finding a way to circumvent it. Then there would of course be boss fights with the devil. And there would be interlude games that involved gaining skill as a musician (being able to hit or identify notes; smooth singing transitions; breaking glass with high notes; etc.) that gave you power for the boss fights.
You’re also a cartoonist with a weekly webcomic (“Love among the Lampreys”) and a chapbook that collects some of your comics (Apocalypse How?: An Existential Bestiary). How did you get into drawing animals? Are there any particular artists or comics that most influenced your style?
My webcomic has its roots in a slightly worse strip I used to draw for my college newspaper, when I just thought it would be hilarious to make animals express weird, pseudo-philosophical ideas (and to be paid $20/week for it. Those were the days!). Years later, when I wanted to start making comics again, I realized I was a bit better at drawing animals than people, and just stuck with it. And, I do still think that the dissonance of having animals voice very abstract ideas is interesting and funny: animals are so physical and immediate that they give a frisson on unexpectedness back to the concepts I make them express. Or maybe I just like drawing lions in top hats; it could be both.
As to your other question, I don’t know that there’s a specific comic I was trying to emulate when I started drawing (I do think Lampreys has a strong connection with David Troupes’s marvelous Buttercup Festival, but I wasn’t actually familiar with that comic until after I started drawing mine). There is, though, plenty of work that influences me, from all the Calvin & Hobbes I read as a child, to more contemporary artists like Alison Bechdel, Yumi Sakugawa, Kate Beaton, Celine Loup, Anne Emond, Mari Naomi, Meredith Gran, and a million more. It’s a beautiful time for comics. Saga! Paper Girls! The Vision! Ms. Marvel! I love them all.
What project(s) are you working on now?
A new novel, several stories, weekly comics, and a couple of graphic novel ideas that I’m kicking around & need to commit some real time to. I want to teach myself to watercolor so I don’t have to buy so many goddamn expensive pens when I want to color things.
What have you read recently, and/or what have you played recently, that you want to recommend?
Read: I recently loved Samantha Schweblin’s bonkers novel Fever Dream, which you can read in a single sitting, and will obsess over for days. I also adored Black Wave by Michelle Tea, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, and Universal Harvester by John Darnielle.
In terms of games, I am still giggling about The Stanley Parable (which is the perfect video game for writers), and kind of mad that they talked about it on House of Cards, because it used to feel like more of a secret.