Occasionally on All the Russias, we speak with Slavic scholars about a new or recently completed project. Today’s entry in this series is a bit different: Geoff Cebula is a Slavist and freelance translator with a Phd from Princeton, but the book he has just published (Adjunct) is not a Slavic monograph. It’s fiction, a cross between the campus novel and a genre that shall remain nameless in the interests of avoiding spoilers. But many of our readers either have worked or are currently working as adjuncts (or perhaps simply working with them); the professional plight of the novel’s protagonists is likely to be all too familiar.
Here’s the blurb for Adjunct:
Welcome to Bellwether College! Behind the austere buildings and carefully manicured lawns, a budgetary crisis strikes fear into the hearts of all contingent faculty. As the administration plots further cuts, adjunct professor Elena Malatesta fears that her position will be next under the knife. Perhaps the budget shouldn’t be her main concern, however, as the faculty in her department have started disappearing under suspicious circumstances. Could someone be murdering contingent faculty? But who would do this? And to what end? Or has Elena simply watched one too many murder mysteries?
And now, without further ado, my interview with Geoff Cebula.
Eliot Borenstein: Geoff, thank you for agreeing to talk with me about your book. Let’s start off with the obvious question: are you adjuncting at the moment?
Geoff Cebula: No, I’m not. I had a very condensed crash course in part-time teaching a year ago (working more simultaneous jobs than was healthy). But I’m not teaching at the moment.
EB: Got it. I think it’s no secret that a lot of academics, especially in the humanities, at one time or another may have dreamed of writing fiction. Some of them even manage to do so, and a few of those even manage to do it well. As someone who always greets the arrival of “creative” work by a friend or colleague with a bit of trepidation (i.e., “what if it’s awful? What am I supposed to say?”), I can’t even tell you how happy I was after reading the first couple chapters of your book, and how much I enjoyed the whole thing. So is this your first stab at fiction? Is it something you’d been thinking about trying for a while? How did you end up writing a novel?
GC: Firstly, thank you for the supportive comments. I’ve thought about writing fiction for a while, but never previously got beyond circulating a few stories to friends (who usually didn’t like them). So, I shared this book with a serious feeling of trepidation, and it’s been exciting to hear that some people have found it relatable and entertaining.
Really, though, I didn’t think much about why I was writing it when I started. It just hit me one morning that this was a thing I should do. It was only after getting most of the way through the first draft that I realized the process was fairly therapeutic: After years of feeling at the mercy of the academic labor market, I found that writing about it gave me more of a feeling of agency. Weirdly, on a certain level I always saw pursuing an academic career as a somber duty I had imposed on myself by signing up for graduate school. But this kind of reminded me that it was something I was choosing to do (and could choose to stop doing).
EB: So it’s kind of a literary exorcism of the job market and grad school?
GC: Ha, yes! I like that way of putting it
EB: Well, first novels are usually considered to be autobiographical. Which then begs the question: if this is, at least indirectly, a reflection of your experiences and observations, what made you choose a female protagonist? And, given your Slavic education, how did you end up putting her in the Italian Department?
GC: Making the protagonist female was another decision I didn’t really think about until later. It was mostly influenced by the genre. The book plays off tropes from American slasher and Italian giallo films, and these genres tend to feature female protagonists. (I think the “final girl” notion from slasher movies has thoroughly saturated popular culture at this point.) So it felt like an easy choice to make Elena female.
As for the academic department, I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want her to be a Slavist. Part of what’s hard about an academic career is that there’s so much personal investment in one’s area of study. For me, the field of ‘Russian literature’ contains an idiosyncratic tangle of vague aspirations, intellectual hang-ups, and missed connections. I didn’t want to start unpacking all this in the novel because I wanted the protagonist’s experience to be generalizable. I wanted it to be a somewhat depersonalized experience of ‘contingent labor’ rather than a deep-dive into my own biography.
The specific choice of Italian was again genre-influenced: I knew early on I wanted to play on ‘giallo‘ movies, so it made sense to have her study them.
EB: And obviously this means you have a real familiarity with giallo films, or it would have required a lot of research. Somehow, I missed making the connection between giallo and Elena’s plight–now that I think of it, this makes me feel rather obtuse. I was thinking that Italian worked well as a swerve away from Slavic in that, if anything, it’s even more precarious.
Were there academic novels out there that served as inspiration (positive or negative)?
GC:I’ll need to make this answer vague. Some of my readings in the genre reinforced my conviction that this novel should be as fun, short, and to the point as possible. Come to think of it, this was also part of the reason I shied away from my own research: I wanted to minimize the number of non-plot-related rabbit holes I could go down.
EB: So for our readers who may not know your book just yet, how would you describe it? I ask in part because I also want to know how much of the plot you’re willing to discuss today, and how much would count as spoilers. I guess I’m also using this as a preface for my real question: There’s a point in the book when one of your characters comes up with a theory about what’s going on, and then rejects the idea as far-fetched and not cost-efficient. As a reader, I had also entertained this theory by then, and also found it impractical. Was this a reflection of your own process in trying to come up with an explanation of these events? Were you always going to be crossing the academic novel with this other genre? I have to admit that I was a bit surprised, in that I didn’t think I was reading a book in which these sorts of things might happen until, well, they did.
GC: Maybe we can put up a spoiler alert over this section? I think readers should go into the book thinking of it as a humorous thriller based on academic life. The plot twists are supposed to be unexpected.
EB: Sure. And I’ll move this section to the end of the interview.
On to another note: Owls are a big part of this book (definitely not a spoiler, given the cover). As I was reading, maybe because of the timing of the book’s release, all I could think of was “The owls are not what they seem.” Were you in any way going for a Lynchian vibe?
GC: That’s great!! I wish I’d thought of that.
But no, the owl really was mainly inspired by the Michele Soavi film Stage Fright, where the killer actually wears a barn owl mask he picks up from the set of a musical about a serial killer called the Night Owl. It’s an amazing film in that it successfully makes the killer both hilarious and fairly terrifying. (Think Freddy Kruger, but less reliant on one-liners.) And that was something I really wanted to do in this book – take something that can truly paralyze someone with fear (academic jobs) and counter that paralysis with humor.
EB: Right, plus there’s the whole Minerva thing.
GC: Yes, there’s that. Plus I think I inadvertently ran up against a conspiracy theory. Apparently, there’s a bizarre “owl of Moloch” thing running around the internet, somehow connected to Bohemian Grove… It definitely didn’t figure into my original conception, but I threw in a joke about it toward the end.
EB: Oh, right, Bohemian Grove! I’ve run across that stuff in my own conspiracy research (though I first heard about it in one of the Tales of the City novels).
GC: Yeah, I was too timid to dive deep into it
EB: So I learned about your book from Facebook, and you ended up publishing it with Amazon. Was this after trying a more traditional route (which I realizes sounds like a parallel between the tenure-track and adjuncting)? How has Amazon worked out for you so far?
GC: I didn’t seek out publishers, mainly because I figured it was a fairly niche subject. Facebook was the initial launch – actually, the original plan was just to post it there. But then, some people seemed to like it, and I already had the file, so I decided to try to sell it on Amazon. No complaints abut the experience so far.
EB: That’s great. And now that you’ve published Adjunct, are you working on any other fiction? Any plans?
GC: I wrote Adjunct on break from a translation project: Along with the incredible Ainsley Morse, I’ve been working on some new translations of Konstantin Vaginov’s novels. So, the immediate plan is to get back to that. I do also want to return to fiction writing soon, but it’s too early in the going to announce any specific plans.
EB Got it. And I’m thrilled to hear you’re translating Vaginov–he’s wonderful, and far too neglected. The first book of his I ever read was actually in a series of books called “Zabytaia kniga,” where the covers were made to look like old wallpaper.
GC: I know that edition!
EB: Maybe Vaginov is the adjunct of Russian 1920s fiction?
GC: I think he may be.
EB: Well, given that decade, he’s in good company
I also want to make a Bambocciata.cookbook, but I’m worried that the audience isn’t there…
EB: You could advertise it on fantiki.
GC: First, I need to convince people to read Bambocciata.. Baby steps
EB: Is there anything more obscure than in-jokes about Vaginov? Or anything that sounds quite as dirty?
GC: Here’s a favorite, though I can’t remember who proposed (maybe it was Ainsley): This spring I was on an email chain about organizing a roundtable, and the subject line was “Vaginov Monologues”
I’ve taken up a lot of your time, and I’m really grateful. But I want to ask one last big question. I think for a lot of us on the tenure-track (or maybe I should just speak for myself), reading Adjunct is bit like being a middle-class parent reading The Nanny Diaries (ie., me about a decade ago): enjoying a story about a world very close to ours, but also uncomfortably learning about how the other half lives. With nanny lit, of course, part of the appeal is being able to say, “Well, at least I’m not that bad,” and I suspect something similar could operate with reading Adjunct. We all know that the system is horrible, and that a lot of the system is something that precedes us but then encloses us (like language for Lacan). So basically as an overprivileged, deeply entrenched professor, I’m asking the former adjunct/ author of Adjunct: within the structural limitations that define our world, what are we (tenure track-professors, graduate advisers) doing wrong that we could actually fix?
GC: That’s a huge question. Honestly, my (limited) experience for the most part has been that senior faculty are decently supportive of their part-time faculty. Probably the most effective route to better adjunct contracts is through collective bargaining. But I don’t have any insight on what can be done from the position of a tenured faculty member.
In terms of graduate advising, I think improvements really could be made here. Most advisers support non-academic careers in theory, but have very little actual knowledge about what options actually exist for grad students who leave academia. (Plus, they sometimes come across as a little resistant to talking about non-tenure-track career options.) So, I think it would help for people who deal with graduate students to become more aware of non-academic careers and to celebrate undervalued types of intellectual work (translating, popular journalism, etc.) as a type of meaningful achievement.
(Sorry for taking so long – hadn’t thought about that one in a while)
EB: That all makes sense. And I’m sorry for putting you on the spot. When I re-read my question, I sounded like the sterotypical white guy asking a person of color how to fix racism.
EB: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers before we sign off?
GC: No, I think we’ve covered a good amount. (Part of me wants to go on a rant about my new respect for horror fiction post Nov. 8, but I think it might be better to save that for another time.)
Thank you so much!
EB: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and thank you especially for the enjoyable hours of reading your book! (which I would be unlikely to say to the author of an academic monograph)
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS
GC: Okay, I’ll try to explain where the supernatural elements came from…
In the last act of the novel, there’s a bizarre turn into supernatural conspiracy. It’s meant to be jarring – sort of like you started watching a crime thriller only to have it turn into an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Again, this is partly a homage to giallo plots: very often, the solution to mystery is so ridiculous as to be unpredictable, and when there’s a big twist you have sell it by going all in on the sensationalism (hence, the over-the-top nature of the supernatural scenes).
But why did I decide to have the plot hinge on something bizarre and mystical in the first place? Honestly, it was largely because I wanted to give Elena a win in the end, and I couldn’t think of a satisfying way for her to ‘defeat’ coercive labor practices within this narrative. So, I decided on a more psychological victory, defeating a kind of self-imposed ethic of self-abnegation that I think a lot of academics suffer from (literalized by the mystic cult). Part of the impulse behind making the last section as crazy and oversized as possible was a desire to narrate this kind of ‘small’ personal victory in a suitably dramatic way.
EB: Makes sense. Though Connie does stay in academia, at least for awhile. Which reminds me : by the end, Connie takes on an active, almost-protagonist-like role at a key moment in the fight. I have to admit, this surprised me. Was there any particular reason she ended up playing such a big role?
GC: This relates to what we touched on earlier about humor being an antidote for paralysis when facing something big and panic-inducing. Connie has a great, dark sense of humor that helps her continue to function in situations where Elena freezes up. In a horror comedy, you want to stick as close to the comedy as possible..