Bustle Book Club
Why Ada Calhoun Scrapped Her Book About An Artist To Write About Her Father
“The second I stopped trying to force the book to be something it just didn't want to be, that was when the world kind of opened up.”
Ada Calhoun is Type A. The author doesn’t procrastinate, can steadily write for 15 hours straight if uninterrupted, and loves a deadline. But when she set out to write a biography of poet Frank O’Hara, her modes of production were tested. For a while, writing what became Also A Poet “was horrifying,” Calhoun tells Bustle.
It was also a case of history repeating itself. A few years ago, Calhoun discovered that her father, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, had once tried to write O’Hara’s biography — and failed, after falling out of favor with O’Hara’s younger sister and executor, Maureen Granville-Smith. Sure that she could succeed where he could not, Calhoun set to work on it. But as she found herself similarly stonewalled by Granville-Smith, she was faced with a Type A person’s worst nightmare: the need for a plan B. “If I [could have], I would’ve very happily been a good girl and done a good and beautiful biography,” she says. “But the second I stopped trying to force the book to be something it just didn’t want to be, that was when the world kind of opened up.”
What the book wanted to be was a portrait of her relationship with her father — an examination of their shared obsession with O’Hara, the havoc Schjeldahl’s artistic ambition wreaked on their family, and Calhoun’s lifelong journey for his approval. Getting so personal intimidated Calhoun, but once she sat down to write it, it was obvious she’d made the right choice. “It felt like the book was almost writing itself. And I was just its humble servant,” she says.
Below, Calhoun talks Spotify’s “Discover Weekly,” bell hooks, and the merits of Christmas lights.
On the perils of a book tour:
I always bring too many books on tour, and then I tend to get books at every bookstore I go to, so I wind up having to ship books home every three cities. Right now I’m reading bell hooks’ All About Love, which has been recommended to me 50,000 times. I’m finally reading it and I’m like, “Wow. It’s really good.” [Reading it] feels like when you watch The Sopranos in 2020 and you’re like, “It's a great TV show.”
On caving to the kombucha craze:
I did this food bank thing [where I] packed groceries and stuff. During the pandemic, everybody there was really obsessed with drinking kombucha, which I always thought was weird. Then I started copying them because I like them a lot as people, so now I drink that. I do different flavors of the SYNERGY ones that have names like “Pure” or “Trilogy.” It’s super cheesy and embarrassing to say that’s what I drink, but that’s what I drink.
On the app she was very late to the party for:
I’ve discovered Spotify in the last few months and their “Discover Weekly.” It’s terrifyingly effective at turning me onto new music. I’m like, “Oh, I like that song. I like that song too.” It’s a lot of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams, and people like that.
On bringing festive cheer to her writing desk:
I have the world’s smallest apartment in Williamsburg and I have one of those Container Store desks built into the wall. It’s next to a heating pipe. I just put Christmas things up, and that made me happy — it’s turned into a little tiny nook.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.