Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview with Kevin Brockmeier

By Chloe Clark

Kevin Brockmeier is one of those authors who I often wish was forced to put out a book every month or so. His writing has been enchanting and surprising me since I first read one of his short stories (from his collection Things that Fall from the Sky) almost a decade ago. Mr Brockmeier attended the Wilderness Symposium at Iowa State and was kind enough to answer some questions with Flyway. I, of course, leaped (literally leaping out of my seat, screaming “I Volunteer!”) at the chance to interview him.

1.) Your writing often falls into what is sometimes broadly referred to as “New Wave Fabulism” (among other names). Magic and ghosts and strangeness seem to occur naturally in your work. Is that something you strive for intentionally? Or is it something that just comes out of the writing itself? What do you think are some of the things that stories gain through the fabulist? Are there drawbacks that come out of this as well?

When people ask me about the attraction of the fantastic, I always like to quote a line from G. K. Chesterton’s The Poet and the Lunatics, in which a character says of St. Peter that, dying upside down, he “saw the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God.” The intuition of this passage — and my own intuition, as well — is to believe that the world itself is deeply strange but that sometimes it takes a change of perspective for us to see it clearly. I turn to the fantastic, then — or the magical, or the fabulist: whatever you want to call it — in part because it presents the world at a tilt and brings me that curious shock of sharpened vision, but also because the metaphors it provides seem potent and beautiful to me, and because the imagery of fantasy allows me to write particular kinds of sentences that I enjoy writing, and finally, frankly, because I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and superhero comics and there are certain forms of oddity that simply excite my imagination. The deficit to writing this way is that some readers will simply refuse to participate in such stories, but that’s true of mimetic realism, as well.

2.) You’ve written many short stories, novels (adult and young adult), and your latest book, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, is a memoir. Is it easy for you to write in all of these forms? What was the process like to take a leap into memoir-writing versus fiction?

It’s not easy for me to write in any form, but I found piecing the memoir together particularly difficult. The reason is that I had to cleave not only to the arc of the narrative and the necessities of the sentences, both of which I always try to do anyway, but also to the facts of my life as they actually happened — and moreover I had to accommodate the arc of the narrative and the necessities of the sentencesto those facts. This was totally foreign ground for me. I was trying to write an immersive memoir rather than a reflective one, to resurrect a long-gone version of my own consciousness and experience the book from inside it, to divorce myself from the current day. I kept expecting that this effort would come to seem like second nature to me at some point, but it never did. With every sentence, I had to remind myself that I needed to abide by the contours of a very particular mind — mine, as it existed some 28 years ago — rather than by the contours of my mind as it exists today.

3.) Could you tell us a bit about your new book and how it came to be?

It’s a memoir of my seventh grade year of junior high school, beginning on the first day of class and ending on the last. The book has been gestating for quite a while. In fact, I tried to start it several years ago, but couldn’t figure out how to approach the material, so I set it aside to work on a novel called The Illumination instead. There’s this idea that only big lives, momentous lives, are worthy of memoir, and I remember thinking, Well, maybe, but isn’t every life momentous—or at least wouldn’t it be if you approached it with enough care, enough perceptiveness? Take any one year of any one life, recount it with clarity and sympathy, and shouldn’t it matter? Seventh grade was far and away the most difficult year of my childhood, but it’s also the year I’ve spent the most time trying to understand, as well as the source of a lot of the stories I’ve continued to tell, and I thought it would make for fruitful narrative soil.

4.) You came to Iowa State University’s Wildness Symposium in a year that was focused on Dystopia and Apocalypse. Your novel, The Brief History of the Dead, is a novel of apocalypse (though, I struggle to place it into the dystopic — maybe the afterlife you portray in the novel is a gentle dystopia?). What do you think of the current fixation in pop culture on the apocalyptic? What drew you to taking on an apocalypse in the novel?

I think there’s a widely shared feeling that the next century is likely to unfold as a sort of contest between human carelessness and human ingenuity, and who knows which will prevail? That must explain, at least in part, the recent appeal of apocalyptic literature — but the fact is that such literature has always spoken to people, stretching all the way back to Noah and the Flood. Maybe there’s simply a sense that the world is very tenuous, very mysterious, and that something so tenuous and mysterious can’t possibly last. In any case, you’re right that there’s not much of the dystopia about The Brief History of the Dead, but there’s definitely something of the apocalypse about it, albeit an apocalypse-by-narrative-necessity. I was interested in writing about a city of the remembered dead — a city populated by those who continue to exist solely because they linger in the memory of those who are still alive. How many people is any one person capable of remembering? That’s what I wondered, and in order to address the question lucidly I felt that I needed to reduce the numbers of the living; thus, the apocalypse. That said, I’ve read an awful lot of apocalyptic literature, and I’m sure my interest in the form affected my exploration of it. The single greatest example of the genre, to my mind, is the short fiction of J. G. Ballard, in which the various apocalypses the world suffers are made to seem at once very unsettling and very beautiful. A few years ago, I wrote about some of my other favorites in this article for The Oxford American.

5.) Can you take us through your writing process? Do you have any words of wisdom for other writers?

The two pieces of advice that every working writer would offer every aspiring writer are to read as much as you can and to write as diligently as you are able. Aside from that, I like what Antoine de Saint-Exupery had to say: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The books you love best — those are the immensity of the sea. As for me, I tend to think in metaphors of shape. I conceived of The Illumination, for instance, as a set of six transparencies, each nearly the same size and containing its own little abstract fragments of line and color, which finally, when layered on top of each other, would reveal a single complete image. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip I thought of as a seesaw, weighted at its ends by the first and the last days of the school year, and pivoting atop the middle chapter, which is an odd little speculative digression at the heart of the narrative. So I usually know the architecture of a project before I begin writing, and I also know the title, which I think of as the target toward which I shoot the arrow of the story. What I always say is that with those features firmly in place, and with the presiding notion of the story in mind, I start at the beginning of the narrative and proceed very slowly, broaching my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I’m satisfied that they present the right effect and doing my best to complete each one before I move on to the next.

6.) Because I feel a need to ask this of all writers: what is on your current bookshelf? Are there any writers you think everyone needs to read right now?

Like most writers I know, I think of myself as a reader first and a writer second, so I’m always happy to make recommendations. Right now I’m reading a poetry collection by Donna Stonecipher called The Cosmopolitan, as well as a novel by James Morrow called Galapagos Regained. The best author I’ve discovered from out of nowhere recently is Chloe Aridjis, who’s published two novels, Book of Cloudsand Asunder. The best book I’ve read in the past few months is probably Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, and in the past year probably Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, which is a novel in two voices, about a lonely middle-aged man and a lonely middle-aged woman, each growing less and less recognizable to themselves with the decades, who decide to free the sea turtles from the London Zoo. That’s it, really, as far as the plot goes, but the pages unfold so beautifully and with so little trickery, so much humanity, and so little sap or gracelessness or narrative prying and wedging that my eyes kept tearing up as I read it. I keep a list of my fifty favorite books, which I’m constantly reconsidering, and I’ll append the most recent version of it below.

Fifty Favorite Books

Several rules: (1) I have listed these books in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, rather than in order of preference—though I’ve marked each of my ten very favorites with an asterisk. (2) I have chosen no more than one book per author, except in those cases where a pair of books or a trilogy seemed to call for a single shared listing. (3) I have tried to be honest, which is why there are so few classics on this list and so many semi-obscure fantasists and slim, sad coming of age stories.
Kevin Brockmeier, June 29, 2013

1. A Death in the Family by James Agee (*)
2. Ghosts by César Aira
3. The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard (*)
4. A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle (*)
5. The Gold Sisters Trilogy by Kate Bernheimer
6. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
7. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (*)
8. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
9. The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
10. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (*)
11. Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
12. Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
13. The Latin American Trilogy by Louis de Bernières
14. Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany
15. The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley
16. Blue Has No South by Alex Epstein
17. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
18. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman
19. Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
20. The Torturer’s Wife by Thomas Glave
21. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
22. The Cockroaches of Stay More by Donald Harington
23. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
24. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
25. I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (*)
26. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
27. Elegy by Larry Levis
28. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
29. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
30. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (*)
31. All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell (*)
32. My Happy Life by Lydia Millet
33. Essays by Michel de Montaigne
34. Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso
35. The Sharpshooter Blues by Lewis Nordan
36. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
37. Esther Stories by Peter Orner
38. Metamorphoses by Ovid
39. Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
40. Selected Poems by Francis Ponge
41. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
42. The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
43. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (*)
44. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
45. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago
46. The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard
47. The Neighborhood by Gonçalo M. Tavares
48. The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis (*)
49. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
50. Stoner by John Williams