Imagining My Way into the Truth: An Interview with Kevin Brockmeier

John Brown Spiers: Dead Last is a Kind of Second Place,” your piece in the Winter 2013 issue of The Georgia Review, is excerpted from your forthcoming memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip. After having read “Dead Last,” which follows the seventh-grade Kevin exclusively, I’m gathering that this book differs from your others in at least two significant ways: for one thing, it’s a memoir; for another, it (presumably) hews to a single point of view. Please feel free to correct me if I assume too much, or to misguide me if you want to keep secrets before the publication date, but I have to ask how in the world you managed to limit yourself to a single point of view for an entire manuscript, given your propensity for juggling perspectives.

Kevin Brockmeier: It wasn’t easy for me. I considered a dozen alternate approaches, contemplated adopting a more traditional first-person retrospective viewpoint or a much less traditional fragmented multi-character one, but ultimately I decided that the only way to make the book not only as candid but also as tensile and suggestive as I wanted it to be was to assume a single perspective—third-person, present-tense, and shot through with the intimacies of a very particular consciousness: mine, as it existed some 28 years ago. I hewed as closely as I could to the facts of my life, and also to my mind as I recall it working back then. One of the rules I embraced was to restrict myself to the vocabulary I imagined was available to me in seventh grade, though I skirted the outer edge of that vocabulary sometimes, and also embedded it in a syntax that’s more ornate and exacting than anything I would have produced at twelve or thirteen. The book isn’t quite as simple as it seems, though: there’s an odd convex-lens-like middle chapter that complicates the perspective, widens it, though not, I hope, without violating it.

JBS: A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip‘s subtitle is A Memoir of Seventh Grade. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why your seventh grade experience resonates with you, and what you felt memoir offered, as a genre, that fiction did not.

KB: While I was working on the book, I found myself describing it interchangeably as either a memoir that employed the tactics of a novel or a novel that employed the tactics of a memoir—and, in fact, the version of the manuscript I submitted to my editor came with a long string of subtitles: a memoir, a novel, a recollective, a nonfiction novel, an autobiographical novel, a novel from life, a kind of memoir, a memoir-novel-thing, and, finally, what is this? True, I organized the book around one particular year of my life, and I tried hard to remain faithful to the way I actually experienced that year, but my stance toward the material was certainly peculiar, and behaving as though your past is unspooling before your senses in all its color and specificity is as much an act of creation as it is of recollection, don’t you think? In any case, the impulse behind the project was to take all the circumstances of my life—the person I used to be, the friends I used to know, the girls I used to like, the dreams I used to have, the movies I used to watch, the secrets I used to keep, the doubts I used to hide, the adulthood I used to anticipate—everything, whether good, bad, or embarrassing—and gather it back together. 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. I tried to avoid treating the incidents I recall as anecdotes, packaged together with whatever meanings or punch lines I’ve derived from them over the years, since I don’t think our lives actually unfold with morals attached to them, or meanings that are easily extracted, or jokes designed to generate sympathy. I wanted to do the opposite—to offer up a life whose meanings can only be perceived through a tangle of desires, confusions, and textural details. But the wealth of stories I remember from seventh grade certainly gave me a way of organizing the book: Oh yes, this happened, and then this happened, and then this.

JBS: What were some of your anchors for A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: pieces of writing or music or film you kept coming back to? (I swear I’m not asking whether the book is steeped in ’80s pop culture nostalgia, though I suspect, given the first paragraph of “Dead Last,” that a certain amount of nostalgia will always be present.)

KB: A short list: Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, I Will Not Leave You Comfortless by Jeremy Jackson, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman, the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Once and Again, Keith Gordon’s 1988 film adaptation of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, along with some of the music and books I claimed as my own when I was in seventh grade—Marvel Comics, Robert Asprin’s Myth series, Billy Joel, a-ha, New Edition—plus, and most essentially, my junior high yearbooks. I didn’t want the memoir to feel saturated with nostalgia, but there’s no question that the book is inflected with the trivia of the time, if for no other reason than that it was so abundant a part of my life. That said, nostalgia is certainly one of my weaknesses. I think there’s a difference between people who live with their faces turned to the past and people who live with their faces turned to the future. For better or worse, I’ve always had my face turned to the past. There’s a family story that on my fourth birthday an uncle of mine asked me how I had enjoyed being three, and I answered that it was all right, but not as good as two had been.

JBS: What do you think is the difference between “memoir” and “nonfiction”? And, more broadly, at what point do you think genre labels stop being helpful and instead become a burden or a constraint? Your name comes up in discussions of “literary” fantasy / fantastical fiction, but your work doesn’t feel like it was written by someone who thinks that the fantastic is separate from daily life.

KB: I suppose I would say that both memoir and nonfiction attempt to convey the truth, stripped of fabrication, but that memoir is in part about imagining the truth and that most other forms of nonfiction are simply about telling the truth. I’m sure there are other distinctions to be drawn, even contradictory ones, but that’s what writing A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip felt like for me: a sustained act of imagining my way into the truth. It seems to me that genre only becomes a burden (not a constraint; for me, that’s a word with a positive connotation) when you begin defining your work too strictly by what it can’t do rather than what it can; which is to say, by the limitations of a particular tradition rather than by its freedoms. I’m as guilty as anyone else of leaping to presumptions about certain books based on the earmarks of genre, and I have to struggle to remind myself that art can appear anywhere at all, and even the most rigid genres can grow blurry at the edges. Many of my favorite authors traffic in fantasy, for instance. I’m thinking of writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Dino Buzzati, Alex Epstein and Octavia Butler, Lucius Shepard and Theodora Goss, some of them shelved alongside Isaac Asimov and George R. R. Martin in the bookstore, some of them alongside Graham Greene and E. M. Forster, but all of whom bring as much strangeness and magic to the page as they do potency and exactitude and complex human feeling. Others of my favorites—like James Agee and Alejandro Zambra, William Maxwell and Bohumil Hrabal—cleave much more closely to the realistic but write with such clarity of perception that the world itself, in their hands, seems to verge on the fantastic. All of which is merely to say that the distinction between fantasy and realism falls apart pretty quickly, I think, as soon as you begin looking at fiction of real accomplishment.

JBS: Your fiction is laced with stories and asides that read like fables or fairy tales, or, in the case of the handful of them in The View From the Seventh Layer, claim explicitly to be fables. Do you approach them differently than you do your “typical” or “literary” stories? What’s present in “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets” that isn’t in “Andrea Is Changing Her Name” (to choose two arbitrary examples)? How differently do those types of tales work, for you?

KB: The difference is a matter of voice. Sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, my fables and fairy tales all begin with a once-upon-a-time, and they proceed out of that ancient tale-teller’s voice you feel you’re listening to from some snug spot beneath a blanket. Regardless of whether I’m writing more traditionally or more experimentally, more realistically or more fantastically, I still broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I’m satisfied that they present the right effect, but in the case of my fables I’m aiming for a voice that hums at you, murmurs at you, a voice into which you can instantly relax, and in the case of my other stories I’m aiming for a voice that braces your attention with its oddness, daring, or intensity, its strong feeling or its air of prophecy. (If you asked me to name the five best short stories I’ve written, by the way, the two you mention would both be on the list.)

JBS: You are assiduous about avoiding any and all reviews of your work, any mention of yourself in print. How important is it for a writer to do this? How is it possible to do this while maintaining either an online presence, a position in some broader writerly community, or both?

KB: There are principles, and then there are idiosyncracies, and I wouldn’t want anyone to confuse the two. I was simply convinced when I began publishing my fiction—and remain convinced, if less passionately—that I would have a better and more interesting life and write better and more interesting books if I ignored as much of the press surrounding my work as I could. It’s impossible to avoid every word of it, since some of it inevitably filters through to you via interviews, conversations, and public introductions, along with this or that website browsing accident, and there are other pitfalls, too, since if you don’t take note of reviews and the like, it’s easy to feel that you’re speaking into an empty room and what you do matters to absolutely no one, but on balance I hope that I’m a healthier person for ignoring all that stuff than I would be for paying attention to it. That said, I don’t think it’s important for a writer to behave this way at all—or, at least, not for anyone else. And I myself stay carefully attuned to the broader book discussion, just not the parts that involve me. I was listening to the Other People podcast recently when a friend of mine mentioned that he knew someone who had never read a review of his own work or searched for his own books on Google or Amazon, and Brad Listi, the host, tried to get him to name names: “What does it matter? You might as well. Someone like that will never hear this anyway.” And there I was, eavesdropping on the two of them. Ultimately, what I would say is that there’s a difference between disentanglement and disengagement: I try to avoid becoming entangled in the discussion, but that doesn’t mean I’m not engaged by it.

JBS: As of this precise moment, you’ve published seven full-length works: three novels, two children’s novels, and two story collections. How important is it to you to keep a schedule of some kind while working on a project? And, as a corollary to that question, how important is it to keep yourself saturated with the writing of others?

KB: Again, I would never suggest that it’s necessary for someone else to follow my own methods, but there’s no question that my work proceeds more easily when I keep to a schedule, writing every day unless I’m ill or I’m traveling. Right now I’m reading Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir The Boy Detective, and I just came across the following passage: “There is a moment on a walk when you look away from something or someone you have been looking at, and then look back. The object appears farther away than when you first saw it. The act of looking away, of deliberately ignoring the object—or perhaps you were distracted, it makes no difference—the act of looking away seems to have distanced the object from you. The object has receded from your point of view. That bench over there in Union Square, for instance. I was walking straight toward it, when I averted my gaze for no more than a few seconds, and then returned it. Though the bench was actually closer to me, it appeared to have moved back a few yards. Nothing had happened to the bench, but something had happened to me.” That’s what writing is like for me: a continual effort to keep from changing too far past my own boundaries, or at least to ensure that whatever narrative world I’m investigating changes along with me. As to your second question, I’ll simply say that in my view reading is more important than writing. I think that if literature is valuable to you, the machinery of your writing, and also the machinery of your life, will work best if you stoke it with books: books that matter to you; books you find beautiful, enriching, fascinating, meaningful, fathomless, enchanting, or inextinguishable. It’s an ordered process: You let your reading fill your life and you let your life fill your writing.

JBS: Finally, what’s the most recent book you came to appreciate or even love after first misunderstanding or even disliking it? And, as a corollary to that question: how important is rereading to you, as both a reader and a writer?

KB: Five or six years ago, I received a letter from someone who said that my fiction reminded her of César Aira’s—to which my thought was: Who? I wrote back promising that I would give him a try. I started with How I Became a Nun. It’s not that I disliked the book, exactly, but Aira certainly didn’t register with me as a writer in whom I would go on to take much enjoyment. A year or two later, though, I read Ghosts, and something clicked. Since then, I’ve snapped up each new translation of his work like candy—roughly two volumes a year, all of them published by New Directions. I’ll admit that I reassess authors much more frequently than I do individual books. Whenever writers come highly recommended to me and I’m either indifferent toward or confused by their work—and occasionally even when I truly detest it—my habit is to give them four books to win me over. After that, I feel free to assign them to the not-for-me pile and move on. Plenty of important writers have landed on that pile, but then the same is probably true for everyone, and I don’t think there’s any shame in tailoring your reading to your pleasures. I’m much more likely, of course, to reread a book I love than one I don’t. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle—those might be the novels I’ve revisited the most often, at least as an adult. All of them are relatively short books, between 200 and 300 pages, that bring such compassion and sharpness of vision to the world that every single aspect of experience seems to blossom open between their pages and when I read them I feel this almost holy awareness of the wealth and sadness and beauty of existence coming at me in a single powerfully contained burst. (Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban will probably be another of those novels, but I just discovered it last summer, and I’m still waiting to see how it will settle.)