The Books Interview: Chris Adrian

Your new novel, The Great Night, is a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Why did you go back to Shakespeare?
I had wanted to try to retell a Shakespeare story for a while. It ended up being A Midsummer Night's Dream after a number of failed attempts with other plays.

Why did you set the novel in San Francisco?
I don't think it would ever have turned into anything if I hadn't moved to San Francisco and lived in the shadow of Buena Vista Park, and had to walk through it every day to and from work. There is something about the physical presence of the park, especially at certain times of the day and then in sunny weather conditions, that means it's not hard to imagine that something really odd and wonderful might be happening in there after dark.

You moved to California in order to take up a post as a paediatric oncologist. Did that work influence this novel?
I don't think I would have written this book if I hadn't taken the job. I came to see that Oberon and Titania would be not just jealously possessive of their changeling boy, but actually in love with him, and devastated when he dies. And the death of a child is something you have had to deal with often during your medical career. When you work in paediatrics, you get the opportunity to be with families when they're going through difficult times. It feels very privileged to be part of that, with people who are having the worst times in their life. It seems to me as if you catch them at their best - you see them rise to the occasion and be resilient in a way that I don't think I ever could.

Did you always want to work in medicine?
I wanted to do that a long time before I ever knew I could write, or before I was interested in writing stories. I was told by my mother at the age of five that I was going to be a doctor, and that was the end of the conversation. I was presented with a toy stethoscope and told to learn how to use it.

A few years ago, you took some time out to do a Master's in divinity at Harvard University. Why did you do that?
I thought it would make me a better oncologist to go and learn how to take care of families the way that ministers or pastors do. I thought I would learn things I wouldn't learn in the hospital. But ultimately it turned out that they do teach you those things in medical school, though they would never call it pastoral care. And God and religion would never come into it as explicitly as they do in divinity school. I had this somewhat naive idea that I would figure out how to do this sort of work [oncology] in a way that was sustainable. But, in some way, being in medical school had the opposite effect and made me even more guilt-ridden.

Does the playful, magical aspect of your fiction allow you to write about things you might not otherwise have been able to?
The stories that engaged me as a kid were all science fiction. Later, it turned out that I didn't have the language to talk about what was bothering me in a way that was straightforward. There was something about a story about a terribly depressed magic pony that was much easier to write than a story about a terribly depressed little boy. I think it's easier emotionally to push that a step away by incorporating things that are unreal or fantastic.

You were included in the New Yorker's list for 2010 of 20 writers under 40 setting the pace in new American fiction. How did that feel?
It was certainly neat. I and almost every other fiction writer under 40 in the US were in a terrible state of anxiety for six months waiting for the outcome. The best thing about it is that it introduces your fiction to people who ordinarily would never run into it. And there were some other writers on that list whose work I admired for a long time, so it was really gratifying to be alongside them.

What are you working on now?
A novel for young adults. It's about a young woman whose mother disappears into some kind of alternate America. The idea for it came from a book that the folks at McSweeney's put together in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. l

Chris Adrian's "The Great Night" is published by Granta Books (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.