Sonoma County writer dives into the bohemian life of Alice Adams
She was a Southern girl with enough beauty to qualify as a belle. But Alice Adams was a 20th-century rebel, breaking with the social constraints of her North Carolina roots and proper Radcliffe education to build a bohemian writer’s life in the San Francisco Bay Area during the age of free love.
By the time of her death in 1999 at age 72, she had produced 15 books, both short story collections and novels, including the bestseller “Superior Women,” following the lives or four Radcliffe grads from the war years to the 1980s, a story loosely inspired by her own experience.
Another novel, “After the War” and another collection of short stories, were published posthumously.
A writer very much of her time, Adams gave voice to the experiences of a generation of women whose lives straddled two worlds — the strict formality of a pre-World War II girlhood in a segregated south to the social unraveling and women’s liberation of the 1960s and 1970s.
“I was bright in school and ran into trouble because of that Southern thing that women are supposed to be stupid,” she once said.
Adams pushed the boundaries of social convention and finally found her writing voice after moving with her husband, Mark Linenthal, to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1940s.
Carol Sklenicka was intrigued by the story to be told in Adams’ life. The Jenner writer’s last biography, “Raymond Carver: A Life,” was named one of the Top 10 books of 2009 by the New York Times. In the wake of that triumph, she looked for another Northern California writer to examine. Adams, she said, seemed ideal.
This month, the New York Times singled out Sklenicka’s book, “Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer” (Scribner), as one of “Nine Books to Watch for in December.” The Christian Science Monitor also named it one of their top 10 books for December.
“I was interested in writing about another short story writer. I’ve always loved short stories and with the Raymond Carver book, I was just really fascinated to find how the life and the stories lined up,” she said. “Not what is true in the stories, but how does a creative person make art out of the mess of their life, because everyone’s life is kind of a mess as they experience it from day to day.”
Carver, known for his “dirty realism,” offered a lot more mess to work with. The son of an alcoholic millworker and fisherman, he also struggled with the drink at the bare margins of the middle class, constantly on the move and financially struggling with two kids and a long-suffering wife.
Adams, by contrast, was raised an only child by two intellectuals. Father Nicholson Adams taught Spanish literature at the University of North Carolina. Her mother, with a graduate degree, toiled in the shadows as a frustrated faculty wife and later went back to school to become a librarian.
Through eight years of research, interviewing dozens of people, combing through Adams’ papers at the University of Texas at Austin, reading and re-reading everything Adams had written that she could find, and spending time in Chapel Hill where Adams spent her early years, Sklenicka explored the darker corners of the writer’s life. Her father dealt with depression and cheated on her mother, who became embittered and critical. Adams ran through a string of relationships, including with the writer Max Steele and the handsome, hard-drinking San Francisco interior designer Bob McNie.