Brock Adams grew up in grew up in Panama City, Fla., and received his Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida. After graduation, he relocated to the Upstate, and he is currently a senior instructor of English and creative writing at USC Upstate.

His work has appeared in publications like Acapella Zoo, The Best American Mystery Stories, and the Sewanee Review. His debut novel, “Ember” is the 2016 winner of the South Carolina First Novel Prize, which was judged by Bridgett M. Davis, and it was published by Hub City Press in the fall of 2017.

“Ember” chronicles the journey of Lisa and Guy, a married couple attempting to cope with the changes to their way of life when the Earth’s sun begins to die, and the American South is constantly cloaked in winter. The tale is a beautifully rendered portrait of a couple coping with what it means to survive, and caught in a predicament with no easy answers. 

We spent some time with the Upstate author talking about his favorite spots in Spartanburg, the research he did for his novel, and what he likes to read in his spare time. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Spartanburg Magazine: What brought you to the Upstate, and what did you think of the area once you arrived?

Brock Adams: I came to the Upstate back in 2008, right before the big recession started. After earning my MFA, I applied to teaching jobs all over the Southeast, and Spartanburg offered me a job.

I knew nothing about Spartanburg. I don't think I ever actually visited South Carolina. I came up for my interview and liked this little town. I told my girlfriend, now my wife that I could see us living here. We immediately loved our proximity to the mountains and being somewhere where there are seasons. Coming from Florida it's just hot all of the time, but here we actually have snow in the winter, and the leaves turn in the fall. It’s great to be able to travel to the nearby outdoorsy things that there are to do. I’ve learned that Spartanburg is just a really cool town and has gotten progressively cooler in the years that we've been here, so I feel like we really lucked out that this was the one place where I got a job.

SM: The great outdoors and a lot of local scenery plays a major part in "Ember." How did the book come about—when you moved closer to the mountains and sort of saw the scenery, or has the story percolated for longer than that?

BA: I started thinking about the book within the first year or two of living here. At that time the sun wasn’t a major story point. I envisioned that all the power was out, and there were bad guys who had some plan. And I started writing it, but I knew that I didn't have a clear enough motivation for the bad guys. I didn't have a clear reason that the power was out. The story was a bit aimless, so I put it away. About five years ago I woke up at four o'clock in the morning. Because I was half asleep, I was just convinced that it was 10 o'clock in the morning and the sun had not risen. I was a little freaked out. Eventually, I woke up and realized what was going on. But it got me thinking, what would happen if the sun actually didn't rise? We think of ... the sun will come up tomorrow is the ultimate cliché. We rely so much on the sun. We know it's always going to be there, but what if the thing we relied on the very most began to fail us?

SM: Every author has his or her own way of crafting the world their characters inhabit. What went into crafting Guy and Lisa’s world?

BA: I wanted the place that Guy and Lisa inhabited to feel like my home, as it would be if the world was in the very, very early stages of the apocalypse. I tried to think about how would people behave when the weather began to change. I also looked at human behavior, and how people would cope? With bad guys out trying to kill you, what lengths would everyday people, like Guy and Lisa, go through to survive? Very quickly they became their own people. I was just trying to picture this young couple who can't have a kid. They’re trying to fill that hole, I think to a certain extent, with the dog, Jemi. But then, you'll see later in the book, Jemi comes into play. She and Lisa are in some ways kindred spirits, you know, trying to survive against the odds.

SM: What went into creating the terrain they trek through?

BA: My wife and I have traveled to Iceland a couple times. As I wrote the novel I would think about the landscape up there. I tried to imagine the level of snow and ice that we see in a place like Iceland, sitting on top of North Carolina scenery. The idea was to blend in what's familiar in one world, and bringing it to a strange place. That makes it completely unfamiliar, which I think is both beautiful and scary. I think that the more familiar you are with something, the more credibility you have when you're talking about it. And so, living in the Upstate and having spent my whole life in the South, I feel like I know this area of the country. I know the people. I can best imagine what would happen if a disaster like this actually took place.

SM: Regional places like the Biltmore Estate make an appearance. How much local research did you do? Did you spend a lot of time at Biltmore taking notes? Did you sit down at the Spartanburg library and start digging through the files to make sure you got the history of the Upstate correct?

BA: When I realized that Asheville and the Biltmore were gonna play a big role, I knew I had to spend more time there. I've been to Asheville several times before that. We took a couple of trips up that way to the nontouristy parts and I would spend the day driving around on some of the random roads in Asheville to give me a feel for what the town is like.

SM: What was it like to get the phone call about the First Novel Prize?

BA: I was super happy. I was proud and honored. Still, the biggest emotion was relief.

The phone call was the end of years of trying to get a novel published. I'd written a whole novel, not “Ember”, but an entirely different novel. I found an agent, and he spent years trying to sell it, and I spent lots of time revising that work. We finally had to give up on that one. Then I wrote "Ember" and went through the same process again of rejection and revising. It was just years and years of work with nothing to show for it. I was so excited that finally, all the work had paid off.

SM: Your book came out with Hub City Press based in Spartanburg. How does it feel to be so close to the publishing process instead of with an agent in New York and a publisher in New York?

BA: The second best part of winning the prize was knowing that I'd be able to work closely with the editors and with the publisher. Throughout the process, they could call a meeting or I could call a meeting, and the drive is just minutes from my house. I could sit down and talk with everyone involved. It made it feel like communication was so much easier. They always asked what my thoughts were on whatever decisions we were making.

SM: What is it like to have your book out in the world? You worked so hard on it.

BA: It's been really cool sharing the book with my friends and my colleagues. I might see an acquaintance at the gym or at the grocery store or something, they'll come up to me and, "Oh. I read your book and I loved it and I couldn't believe this happened." For so long these characters who only existed for me but now they are out there in the world, and people that I know are getting to share this experience that I wrote. Originally it was only inside of my head.

SM: In 2007, you published your first story in Eureka Literary Magazine. Can you tell me a little bit about what you've learned in this decade of writing?

BA: The number one thing is persistence. Second would be having a thick skin, and being willing to take criticism. You have to be willing to sort through the criticism and figure out when it's just somebody who doesn't get it, versus when you're doing something wrong and you do actually need to make changes. You have to be able to deal with tons of rejection on just the faintest hope of getting some sort of acceptance. And then, understand that with very few exceptions, nobody makes it quickly. You've gotta put in the time.

SM: For someone who wants to get started writing, what would you tell them?

BA: First of all, read, and read a lot. Second, write what you like. I think there's a lot of people who feel like they need to write great, thought-provoking, culturally relevant works of literature. That's great if you can do that, but for a lot of people, that's not fun. That's not what they wanna read. So that's not what they wanna write. If you're not enjoying yourself at least some while you're writing, you're not gonna want to keep doing it.

SM: What books did you read when you were growing up?

BA: My favorite author when I was younger was Terry Pratchett. I read all of his “This World” novels, and I really liked the magic. I also really liked the humor. “Ember” has a few funny moments. It's certainly not humorous, but the novel I'm trying to work on now is a lot more of the kind of satirical, dark humor that you see in some of Pratchett's stuff.

SM: What are you reading now? What is making you excited to sort of get up and open a book?

BA: I'm currently reading some non-fiction. I'm really into a book called “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen. It's about simultaneous animal extinction and evolution. The book looks at how some species survive and why other species go extinct, and what is going on in their environment. It explains what has been added or removed that's changed the environment in such a way that some animals are going to succeed and some animals are not. It makes me think about a lot of the issues that are going on today, like climate change and the industrialization of previously untouched land. How is that going to affect ecosystems, and how is it gonna affect the whole world?

SM: It sounds like fodder for a new novel. What are you working on right now?

BA: I’m working on a piece about what happens after the zombie apocalypse. The idea is the zombie apocalypse has already happened and the humans have won. They have eradicated the zombies, and things are getting back to normal stage. But the heroes that saved humanity from the zombies they were losers before the threat came along, but since they were the best at killing zombies, they were respected. Now that the zombies are gone, they're back to being losers again, and these guys are past the prime of their life. And in their mind, the only way that they're ever gonna get back to their former glory is if they can find some way to steal a zombie and restart the zombie apocalypse.

SM: What does your perfect day in Spartanburg look like? Where do you go? What would you eat?

BA: First we would sleep late, and then get breakfast at The Skillet--that's a place that we like a lot. After that we would go outdoors as a family, spending time at Milliken or Hatcher Gardens. Spartanburg has several nice parks. Dinner would be Chinese food -- Uncle Poon's -- and then we would spend the rest of the evening watching a movie.