|photo: Michelle Mishina
Adam J. Kurtz (aka Adam JK) is a designer, artist and speaker whose illustrative work is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness. His books Things Are What You Make of Them: Life Advice for Creatives, 1 Page at a Time and The OK Tarot have sold one million copies in 19 languages. His new book, You Are Here (For Now) (TarcherPerigee, October 19, 2021), is a collection of essays to inspire and encourage anyone feeling lost or overwhelmed.
On your nightstand now:
My husband (the writer Mitchell Kuga) and I just came back from a trip to L.A. so we have a fresh stack of impulse buys from Skylight Books to read.
A signed copy of Steph Cha's Your House Will Pay because I've followed her on Twitter for ages and not read it yet. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper with the new Samantha Irby intro; When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan; and Patricia Lockwood's No One Is Talking About This.
I buy more books than I read, but Mitchell is always reading several books at once. He likes to recommend a book just a few days before it's due back at the library so I have no choice but to get off the computer and read.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I was so into the Hardy Boys!!!! I read through the series, the Nancy Drew crossovers and then Nancy Drew. Years ago on a road trip to New Orleans, I found an old copy of The Tower Treasure while killing time before a tattoo appointment and ended up bringing Frank and Joe Hardy in--they're still falling through an attic door on my upper thigh.
Your top five authors:
I am always excited for a new book by Gary Shteyngart or Meg Wolitzer, but I want to also talk about all the illustrative artist/author hybrids because I think it is very special to make a book that feels very distinctly human and unique and yes, giftable!!!
Hallie Bateman is a genius "illustwriter," What to Do When I'm Gone was co-written with her mother, Suzy Hopkins, and it's bittersweet but beautiful. Liana Finck is so wonderfully bizarre sometimes; Passing for Human was very tender and funny. And hello to all the weirdos making guided journals before me and since, it is so cool to exist in the nerdy space between books and art, making tools for my younger (and current) self. To me the entire gift books category is about accessible art--low price points, wide distribution and the opportunity to connect with all kinds of readers.
Book you've faked reading:
Every cookbook I've ever purchased (but they're so beautiful!).
Book you're an evangelist for:
Jeremy Sorese's graphic novel Curveball is a beautifully illustrated story of love and heartbreak in a sci-fi future, and there is something incredibly special about this art that is so rich with energy and emotion. I wish I had this book when I was a little younger, the way the characters exist outside of a gender binary makes it possible to fully slip into a character and feel deeply. Jeremy is an important cartoonist and I have gifted this book over a dozen times.
Book you've bought for the cover:
If I'm being totally honest, I will also buy a book just because Na Kim designed it. She's at FSG so it's a lot of their books, but sometimes I'm in a bookstore and I can just clock her work from a mile away. She's a genius. I hate her. Bryan Washington's Memorial? Beautiful. Raven Leilani's Luster? Gorgeous. Her new Sheila Heti cover is so good. If I didn't design my own covers, I would desperately want her to do mine.
Book you hid from your parents:
Most of my hiding was magazine related. Issues of a defunct gay magazine called YGA (Young Gay America) that first helped me feel like I was part of something bigger and okay during that formative time. But I wasn't out yet, so I also had to hide the Michelle Branch issue of Maxim.
Book that changed your life:
When we first started dating, Mitchell suggested we start a book club and bought two copies of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I think the combination of timing, recommendation of someone I was completely enamored with, and the general moodiness of winter made for an impactful experience that feels further away now but no less important.
Favorite line from a book:
I love the line in the Old Testament about shellfish: "Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is detestable to you." First of all, dramatic much? But second, people get really hung up on denying others' human rights and completely forget that God hates popcorn shrimp.
Five books you'll never part with:
Last year we moved to Honolulu and ended up donating most of our bookshelf to Sweet Pickle Books, a new used bookstore and pickle shop in the Lower East Side.
What I kept and why:
I was using the bathroom at Barnes & Noble and stumbled into Miranda July's The First Bad Man event, so I stayed and joined the signing line. At the last minute I bought a copy of my own book to give her and she was very polite about it despite my anxiety! I didn't connect with her book as much as my experience of purchasing it but for that reason it has to stay.
Butt Book, an anthology of the very pink queer zine of the same name. I got it for $7 thanks to a glitch on the American Apparel website, which is by far the most 2010 way to have procured this book.
A galley of Chani Nicholas's You Were Born for This that's been meticulously bookmarked (by some poor publicity assistant) to map out the specifics of my astrological chart. Shout out to the tireless assistants at every publishing house sending hundreds of books per week!
A copy of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. Mainly I think about how Gary got the future exactly right as The Platforms try to flatten us out by topic to sandwich the right ads between our content.
And ummm very humblebrag #AuthorProblem but I have no idea what to do with translated editions of my own books? Mostly it's just mortifying to have a bunch of your own books on the shelf, or to hang your art on the wall, or to display an award, or to promote yourself, or to exist...
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Imagine reading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay again for the first time? That book really ticked all the boxes for my interests and identity. It had been recommended to me in an offhand way that my 20-year-old self internalized as "hey you're a gay Jew" and rejected, but I later bought a copy at a train station and it quickly f*cked me up. I am excited that a screen adaptation might finally happen maybe?
Tools you use to create your artwork:
Pencil and paper, baby!!! My work has always been rooted in the ethos of Things Are What You Make of Them: essentially, doing what I can with what I have. It started with office supplies and it's still largely there. Any old pencil, index cards or notepads, and my $50 scanner.
Art is feeling something, then creating work that evokes that emotion. If your work is honest enough, the specifics of how perfect it is or isn't become less relevant than the message. I'm just trying to do my best and say my piece and connect with anyone who feels it too.