Friday, March 6, 2009

Kevin Brockmeier Interview : The Online Version

Hello, readers. Several months ago, I had the shiny fortune to interview writer Kevin Brockmeier for the latest issue of The Yalobusha Review. Due to the finiteness of our print journal, over 2,000 words had to be cut. Please find below those excised words, including: "suicide," "the," and "listkeeping," among others.

CK: I guess I’m sort of just curious where you are? Are you in your house?

KB: I'm in my office, at my desk.

CK: Is that where you usually write?

KB: Yes, yes.

CK: Are there, is there a window you can look out?

KB: Well, there is, yes. There’s a sliding glass door that looks out onto my back patio, but, you know, there’s not much [laughing] excitement to be seen out there. I have a garden of six foot tall weeds.

CK: Is that on purpose?

KB: I suppose it is. The space was there when I moved in and I just wanted to see what would happen to it if I left it alone, so it’s wild and kind of lovely.

CK: Do you walk out into it?

KB: Well, I could if I wanted to. It’s not that big really. I’ve never troubled to measure it, but it’s probably about eight feet by eight feet or something like that---that’s a guess. I’m looking out on it right now. It's a raised bed of weeds and vines and small trees, at this point. It's deep enough that I have trouble seeing into the interior. Yesterday, I frightened a cat out of it.

CK: Are there things you do in your office or in your house when you want to decompress from writing?

KB: Well, I do spend an awful lot of time pacing, so there is that. I spend a lot of time reading. I would spend a lot of time reading whether or not I was writing, but that’s usually part of my working day, interrupting myself to read a passage here and there when I happen to get stuck. I might take a break to listen to a song or a CD. I might step out to get lunch or dinner with a friend. It’s quiet sorts of things like that.

CK: Are there specific books you go to, some old friend you pull down to read a passage from?

KB: Well it depends on what sort of dilemma I’ve gotten myself into. I feel like my writing day is filled with dilemmas, one sentence after another, and if I’m reading a new book, which I usually am, then that’s where I’ll turn. But it’s never been unusual for me to pull down an older book from the shelves---any number of older books---just to return to a passage that I think might somehow give me the solution to whatever muddle I’ve gotten myself into. If you’re asking for specific authors I love I could give you a long, long list.

CK: [laughing] Yeah I’ve seen the list of fifty books.


CK: You talked earlier about what you liked about writing for children, is that a downside? That you can’t be as complex?

KB: There are definitely things you can’t allow yourself to do with the voice, big words or complex structures that you can't allow yourself to use. And I’ve noticed with the children’s books I’ve published so far that my editors seem to be much more concerned than the editors of my adult books are with any element of the story that steps beyond the pale in some way. You know, the audience for children’s books might be the children themselves, but that’s not the market for children’s books. The market, the people who buy most of the books, are the parents, and the teachers, and the librarians, and you have to find a way of approaching the children through the window---and it's a pretty narrow window sometimes---of the adults. My editors have worried about various little things that adults might find inappropriate for an audience of children.

To give you a tiny example, in my first children’s book, City of Names, there’s a moment in which the the kids are in a restaurant, and they decide to drink a “suicide,” mixing all the different sodas together in a single cup. Maybe my editor hadn't heard the term before, but she was worried about using the word “suicide” in the context of a children’s book. Which seemed very, very strange to me, because we mixed those drinks all the time when I was a kid, and that's just what they were called.

CK: Yeah, I remember drinking them after little league games.

KB: Yeah.

CK: I don’t think we really thought about the name all that much.

KB: Yeah, no, neither did we [laughing].

CK: Is that something you have to navigate when you’re writing, children’s or adult fiction, that pull between what as a writer you feel like you ought to do and what as a writer you feel like your responsibility is to the readers?

KB: I like to imagine that the readers for my books are basically people who have the same sort of taste I do, so that if I’m writing the story in a way that I find pleasing, then whoever my readers might be will find it pleasing, too. With the children’s books, I’m trying to please ten, or eleven, or twelve year olds like the one who is still lingering somewhere in the back of my own mind. If I write the kind of book I would’ve enjoyed at that age, I figure I’m doing justice to the story I’m telling.

CK: Do you think about providing entertainment for the reader?

KB: Well, entertainment isn’t necessarily the first word I would use, but I do think of myself as providing interest to the readers, and interest is a form of entertainment.

CK: What are you trying to interest? What do you hope to engage with the readers?

KB: Number one, their aesthetic sense and their pleasure in the way a piece of writing is put together, and number two, their sense of what it is to be human, the truth of the experience on the page.

CK: Why are you a writer? What joy do you get out of it?

KB: Maybe the richest joy in my life is reading. I feel the impulse to participate in conversation with the writers I love and to, I hope, offer the same sort of pleasure to other people that the books I love have brought to me.

CK: In one of your stories, I think the Rube Goldberg story, you have a character talking about how every virtue has its corresponding vice…

KB: And that character is trying to remember where he or she read that idea, and it’s actually from a C.S. Lewis book called Mere Christianity. That was the most interesting notion in that book to me.

CK: That something I wanted to ask about your writing, what you felt your virtues as a writer were and what you’re corresponding vices might be?

KB: That’s one of that I might have to puzzle over, but just to kind of gesture vaguely in the direction of the question, I would say that, among my virtues as a writer—god, it’s almost embarrassing to talk this way—let me say that the virtues I’m striving for as a writer, at least, are clarity of vision, depth of feeling, and maybe an excitement or a tension inside the story that’s produced by the effort to see and understand things properly. As for my vices as a writer, I don’t know. I’m sure there are things I don't do very well. I’ve probably figured out ways of working around most of my weaknesses, but off the top of my head it’s not easy for me to tell you what they are.

CK: Is there a reason why you chose Coke as the instrument for distributing the virus? (ed. In The Brief History of the Dead, a virus gets into a coca-cola bottling plant and from there spreads death to all corners of our world)

KB: I wanted to find a vector of distribution that seemed plausible to me, or at least possible to me, and that also seemed fairly unique, something I hadn’t seen done before. It struck me that a consumer product might be the solution. Initially, I tried to work around the brand name: either not mention at all---but I couldn’t find a way to do that---or just invent a brand name. Every time I did, though, it just sounded ridiculous to me. This phony name in the middle of all these sentences---it would tear them apart from the inside. So eventually I just resorted to Coke, which was what I’d been thinking about to begin with. I don’t where you grew up, but here in Little Rock you can walk into a restaurant, and they’ll ask you what you want to drink, and you say, "I’d like a Coke," and they’ll say, "Okay, would you like a Coke, a Dr. Pepper, a Sprite, a root beer?" Coke is the term of choice for all these different beverages. The word is so widely used that it almost has a generic quality about it, so it seemed to nestle in more neatly with the sentences than a less widely used brand name might.
I certainly got a lot of questions about it. It never occurred to me when I was working on the book that the folks at Coca-Cola might be unhappy [laughing] with the use I had made of their product, but then the book was published and everybody started asking me about whether I had heard from Coca-Cola. I haven’t. The Brief History of the Dead has been published in a number of other languages, though. Some of the countries have libel laws that are very different from our own, so in certain editions of the book you might find elaborate disclaimers on the copyright page about how (obviously) Coca-Cola did not engage in any of the activities they are alleged to have engaged in, in this book, it’s entirely a work of fiction and not meant to disparage the Coca-Cola product, etc.

CK: What are you working on now?

KB: I’m working on a novel now. I’m approaching the middle of the book, but I never talk much about it during the process.

CK: Is that a matter of saving the energy, or keeping sort of the writing in the writing world?

KB: It’s both of those. Partly it's a desire to keep the story’s energy centered on itself, but also I feel that if I talk too much about it, I’ll make it concrete in a way that I feel obligated to live up to, rather than simply letting the story slowly reveal itself to me. And then there's simple superstition.

CK: I wanted to ask, you know Bradbury had that collection, Medicine for Melancholy…

KB: Yes, I haven’t read that book, but I’ve probably read a lot of the stories in it. He tends to repurpose his stories. A couple years ago he had a big thick compendium of what he considered his best work, and I bet portions of Medicine for Melancholy are in that.

CK: I just wondered, just taking that phrase, if there were medicines you turn to when you’re frustrated with writing, or with life, places you go when you feel melancholy?

KB: I turn to the books I love all the time, but, you know, some of the books I love are as likely to cultivate melancholy [laughing] as they are to rid me of it. I’ve got friendships that are very important to me. I’m a moviegoer, so at least once a week I’ll go to the movies. And I’m a music lover, so I listen to my CD collection.

CK: Is there a movie or a particular CD that you’ve discovered recently that you loved?

KB: Sure, I’ll give you one of each. Like my fifty favorite books list, which came up earlier, I’ve got a fifty favorite movies list and a fifty favorite albums list. I’m always reconsidering and updating these things. It’s a silly way to spend my time, but that itself ---listkeeping---might be something I return to as a way of addressing any anxiety or melancholy I might feel. It gives me a lot of pleasure to work on these things. In any case, the last movie to work it’s way onto my list was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which I thought was profound and beautiful and experimental in a way that felt completely natural to the story being told and not at all pretentious. And then, maybe not the last album to make it onto this fifty favorite albums list, but the last album I fell head over heels for is an album called Melody Mountain by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.

CK: What a name…

KB: It's a Norwegian band, only two members actually. Susanna Karolina Wallumrod, who does all the singing, and a guy named Morten Qvenild, who does all the instrumentation. This particular album is an album of slow, delicate, gorgeous, sorrowful cover songs. Some of them are by the usual candidates, like Leonard Cohen or Prince or Bob Dylan, but some of them are very unexpected, by bands like Depeche Mode or AC/DC. It’s a stunner. That’s my most exciting musical discovery of the past few years.

CK: There was a Norwegian singer named Sondra Lerche that I got into for a while. I don’t know what it is about Norway, maybe it’s just the weather, but Norwegian music always sounds cold or…

KB: I don’t know what it is either, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Norwegian music, viewing a lot of Norwegian movies, and reading a lot of Norwegian books the past few years.

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