“I’m interested in the downside of boldness.” A conversation with John Brandon
There’s a spot on the edge of town where you can pull off the roadside and view alligators from the safety of your car. My wife and I haven’t made our way over there, and now Lara has started campaigning that we go, that we pack some sandwiches and find a radio station and stare at the huge, languorous reptiles for an hour or two. She thinks it’ll cheer us up. I tell her maybe we’ll go tomorrow, if the rain stops. Then, because I can tell my wife has no interest in this field trip, I try to talk Lara out of it altogether.
What the alligators do nowadays, I say, is wait for old ladies to walk their pooches too close to a drainage ditch. They collect indigestible collars in their guts. That shouldn’t cheer anyone up. I tell her there’s wildlife right outside the window, and it’s true–a tall white bird is out there in the drizzle, stabbing the soft ground with more urgency than seems necessary. The bird is in the rough and beyond the bird is the fairway. Beyond that, peering out from screened lanais, are pairs of dismayed old folks. They promised themselves they’d die in lovely weather, and now that they’re here it’s just raining and raining.
–Excerpt from ‘Naples, Not Italy’ (Further Joy, stories by John Brandon, McSweeney’s, 2014)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: There’s a powerful sense of the inevitability of place in so many of these stories, set in small Florida and Gulf Coast towns, where options feel limited and circumscribed at best. Your narrators describe this world with a strange mix of tenderness and resignation. The tension between the majority who stay and the few who leave is palpable, but the greatest contempt is reserved for outsiders–tourists or retirees who have chosen to move to these towns from somewhere else. The overall effect is not mocking or dismissive, but matter of fact: everyone is from somewhere; everyone has to live somewhere. Can you talk about the role of place, and the southern region in particular, in your work?
JOHN BRANDON: What attracts me to certain settings is simply getting a feeling from them—some quality that seems fertile to me, hospitable to the things I like to do in fiction. I like an area that’s either not working or not sustainable, or hostile or stalled. Definitely off the beaten path. It’s reductionist, really—you wind up boiling a place down to a single feeling it radiates, and then that feeling elbows all the other feelings out. I chose Arkansas as the setting of a novel because I lived in Memphis and I would cross over the river on weekend days and drive around aimlessly, and it felt different over there. It felt like anything could be happening on the other side of this or that hill, or down this or that dirt road, and nobody was ever going to know about it. Memphis can be dangerous, but everybody knows exactly how and why. In Arkansas, I felt in danger and I couldn’t quite imagine what from. It was fun to write the book and get to invent the dangers.
I guess I like a place that has some sort of pungent uneasiness, but also there’s plenty of room for my imagination. That’s the ideal. That’s why I haven’t been able to write about my hometown—not enough room to maneuver. I know where every restaurant and bank is, and important things happened to me on every other street. I wrote one story that was closely based on my hometown, and it got cut from the collection for being ‘unfocused.’ Which makes perfect sense, because instead of following the story down its narrow, twisting path I was always flooded with distracting true information.
The small Florida towns where a lot of the stories in the book are set—they’ve been passed by, which is both a curse and a blessing. They’re left in economic no-man’s land, yet the upside is they retain their character. It’s interesting to me to think of young people in these spots. Especially the ones who have a hard time fitting in.
I usually wind up in the South, and usually not in a big city. In a big city, everything is known already (that’s not true, but that’s the way it feels to me) and most things work pretty well and the things that don’t work everybody knows don’t work and knows why. Urban settings—it doesn’t feel like my services are needed. You could fill up dump trucks with all the great books written about New York City, but my imagination thuds against a metropolis. There’s certainly a feeling to New York, but it’s an energetic feeling; it’s commerce roiling its way into every soft spot. Pretty much every culture you care to name is represented. Every philosophy. Every failure and success. There’s too much opportunity, good and bad. And it’s all being documented constantly. But for some other writer, all that blatant, teeming intrigue is a world of possibilities. There’s one story in the book to which setting didn’t feel integral, and it happens to be the one that wound up set outside a big Northern city. With that story, I got to choose. I wanted a place richly associated with suburbia, so I thought of Atlanta, but I also wanted a place where the seasons are meaningful. I wound up using Chicago.
AR: I love the way you play with points of view in some of these stories. In ‘Further Joy,’ you toggle between the more traditional 3rd person and a 3rd person plural, which lends “the girls” and “the fathers” a sort of iconic “everyman” quality. And as the narrator of ‘Naples, Not Italy’ switches from “we” to “I” the reader can sense his loss of confidence. Do you begin writing with a strong sense of what POV will be best for a given story or does this develop as you go?
JB: Point of view is something I don’t have an abundance of intelligent thoughts about. When I’m teaching and the discussion turns to point of view, I learn right along with the students. I’m instinctual about it. I guess the hope is that the point of view that feels comfortable is comfortable for a reason. It’s an organic part of starting the story that I’ve never spent much time thinking about. Of course, you can go back afterward and attribute advantages to the point of view you chose.
Like Marky. He’s done in third, and when I think about it now, he’s probably too capable and moral to be in first. It would be obnoxious. I can say Mitchell is in third person because that way I can avoid being in first person with a character that might be going crazy. But I’m sure that could work in first too. I’m sure it has.
With all that said, the first and third plural are full of advantages for certain stories. In first plural, you get authority, because your claims are made by a group rather than an individual. You get creepiness, because group-think is creepy. With the third plural, you get to be mysterious about exactly which member in the group is being referred to, and then you can single someone out when it suits you.
AR: I’m struck by the stylistic range of this collection. You seem as comfortable with a straightforward, realist narrative as with a more experimental approach, and a few stories like ‘The Differing Views’ are openly surreal, absurdist even. Yet they clearly belong to the same collection– the emotional and thematic through line remains strong. Are there any particular topics or narrative techniques that you consciously try to steer clear of in your writing? Why or why not?
I don’t think about technique much. You train yourself to be able to perform the craft, fill your bag at least halfway with tricks, but when and how to use them—I think ideally everything you learn gets internalized and the correct tool comes to hand when needed. I think most good writers know what they’re good at, and they gravitate their stories toward those sweet spots.
All I’m conscious of while writing is allowing the piece to be itself. Sometimes technique helps with that, but I think sometimes it can work against you. When I’m serving sea urchin, I want it to taste like really good, fresh sea urchin. I don’t want to be crafty enough to figure out how to make my sea urchin taste like a doughnut. It’s tricky, especially during revision, because I’m a reader myself and I like doughnuts too. You have to figure out what each story or novel is trying to be and help it be that, rather than dump chocolate sprinkles on all of them. Don’t judge me on my strained metaphor. You get what I’m saying.
AR: Yes! But now I can’t resist running with the culinary metaphor a bit further. Assuming the chef is capable of making both—fresh, unadulterated sea urchin AND excellent doughnuts—with equal aplomb, it still strikes me as a brave (and unexpected) choice to put them both on the same menu. And yet you’ve pulled it off here. Can you talk a little bit about the process of deciding on the final sequence of these stories with an eye to maintaining balance?
JB: I guess stories always need tension, but each story wants its own tension handled its own way. ‘The Favorite’ was written for ESPN the Magazine, so I knew I wanted a digestible problem, and for it to show it pretty quickly. The story had to have a link to sports, so I immediately thought of gambling, which gave me access to plot and character stuff in short order. It’s pretty apparent how the story is going to work—the character is going to get in deeper and deeper. It wanted to be a straightforward story with rising tension and I wasn’t going to resist that.
In ‘The Midnight Gales,’ there’s a static tension. It increases a bit, but not too much. Ramming in a big event that raised the plot stakes would’ve kept me from getting at the story, and I never want that. If some big twist happens, it’s going to be something that helps me get to the heart of things, not just something that can happen for the sake of something happening. In that story, I’m trying to hold the situation up to a light and turn it this way and that, so as to produce a lot of clear glimpses and then take them away.
‘The Inland News’ has a plot structure built in. From the beginning, the reader knows there will be three suspects to interview, and once they’re interviewed the end of the story will be soon in coming. The interviews determine the structure—they are the major plotline.
In ‘The Differing Views,’ I want the brains to be inscrutable. I don’t want them to give clues or offer a way out. Mitchell’s addicted to them, in his way—he knows they’re bad for him, but he can’t quit them. In that story, the challenge wasn’t to figure out what happens with the brains, it was to figure out what happens to Mitchell when nothing happens with the brains.
AR: Many of your protagonists seem to have spent their lives trying to separate themselves from the mediocrity of their surroundings. As they enter their thirties, the need to preserve this fading sense of individuality becomes so acute that they take increasingly reckless, ill-advised measures to set themselves apart. The narrative often cuts away from these characters at a critical decision point or moment of truth. Are you leaving us room to hope for their unlikely success or shielding our eyes from an inevitable, spectacular failure?
JB: It depends on the character. I think of Garner as cunning enough that he’ll succeed. He’ll succeed until he gets caught, and then he’ll find some other way to succeed. The guy in ‘Estuary’ is more the classic slacker; there’s a way in which he’s comfortable with failure. And then there’s Mitchell. I see him as one of those people who would’ve done best as a lifelong grad student, existing at a college, but he had the guts/lack of sense to break from his lowly spot in academia.
I’m interested in the downside of boldness. The price of stubborn individualism. There’s the old cliché of the office worker, the bureaucrat or corporate stiff or whatever, and he’s miserable because his soul is being neglected. I’m sure that happens, but there’s also bunches of people with these stable, tie-wearing, chitchat-around-the-coffee-pot jobs who are the most content people I know. They don’t have their own fates in their hands. The don’t deal with the pressure an artist is under—to create something out of nothing over and over again and hope somebody wants to pay money for it. The office has its tradition of complaining, but usually it’s not genuine complaining. It’s mostly a comfortable social device, a way to have something to say. I’m interested in the instances where the guy who took the supposed path to fulfillment—spiritual or artistic of whatever—winds up miserable, and consumed in a bad way with what he’s trying to do for a living.
And of course I had my own white-knuckle times. I was getting ready to turn thirty, and I’d written myself into a corner as far as career prospects go. I’d intentionally done nothing but the most mindless, lowest-rung temp jobs for years, in order to conserve my best energies for writing. I badly needed to get my novel published. I was panicking. I sat through one of those courses that prepare you to take the real estate licensing test. My girlfriend (now my wife) was trying to be supportive, but there’s a limit to that. I was wondering what I was going to do once she left me. Teach English in China or something. I didn’t have an agent. There were plenty of sleepless nights before McSweeney’s decided to take pity on me.
AR: This is your fourth book with McSweeney’s so it sounds like things have worked out! How did that relationship originally come about?
I didn’t have an agent for my first book. And I was out of the loop. I used to go to the library once a week and check my email—that kind of out of the loop. I had this old computer I did word processing on, but I didn’t ever bother trying to get the Internet on it. Anyway, a friend of mine suggested I send my novel to McSweeney’s. I didn’t know at the time that they published books. I knew about the Quarterly, but that was it. So I sent them Arkansas in a big envelope, expecting the usual slow-arriving negative response. But in a month they called and said they were interested. Lightning fast. I was at my job at the auto glass warehouse, and I got a call from San Francisco. I stepped out onto one of the loading docks to talk, and my boss was calling me back in. I was like, “Hang on, I think I’m getting my book published.” I didn’t believe any of it was happening. I didn’t tell my wife for weeks. Maybe it was how quickly it was all going, after years of everything taking so long. I couldn’t accept that it could be that easy, that a publishing house could just read it and say, “Sure, we’ll publish that. Why not?”
So from there I learned about McSweeney’s and I liked everything I learned. They turned out to be an excellent fit for me. They don’t pressure me to do any promotion I don’t feel like doing. They know I’m not going to have a website or be on Facebook or Twitter, and they’re fine with that. A couple books ago, I told them I didn’t want them to get blurbs for me anymore, and they agreed with no guff. I have little kids now, so I don’t want to be on reading tour very long. This little tour I’m about to go on is Atlanta where I have buddies, Tampa and Memphis where I have family, and Oxford where I have buddies. Another thing I like about McSweeney’s is not having to worry that I’m going to submit my next book and they’re going to hold a joint committee meeting with the VP of Domestic Marketing or whatever and decide the book doesn’t fit into their plans right now. McSweeney’s is a smaller operation and they publish what they like.
AR: What qualities in fiction are you particularly drawn to as a reader, and which writers (contemporary or not) exemplify these qualities for you?
JB: It depends on my mood. I’m sure it’s that way with most people. Sometimes you’re up for a dizzying ride—your Barry Hannah or Joy Williams. Sometimes you want a firm hand on the plow—your Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff. With some writers you kind of know what to expect, and that’s a good thing if you like what they do. Then there’s somebody like Padgett Powell; I’m excited when he has a new book because I have no idea what it will be like. It’s hard to single out qualities that make me a happy reader, but I always like well-done deadpan, like Tom Drury or Charles Portis. Or something like Mary Robison does, that relentless cleverness that also feels profound. I won’t go on and on.
AR: And finally…Short Story vs. Novel…who wins the cage fight? Does short or long form appeal more to you as a writer? As a reader?
To me, stories are much harder to write. I hope I never write another one. You have to get somewhere in so few pages. Writing a story is like writing a poem, like trying to do magic, whereas a good novel can be written with early mornings and strong coffee. And stories are held to such a high standard by readers. I feel it myself when I read. With a novel, I just expect to be taken on an interesting ride. The characters are sort of engaging, the prose is well done, some things happen—a friend asks you, “How was that book?” and you say, “Oh, it was pretty good. One guy went to jail. And this other guy made a lot of money. Some of it takes place in Santa Barbara. Yeah, it was good.” When you read a story, on the other hand, your senses are piqued. You’re expecting a beautiful, terrible act of literary witchcraft that’s never been pulled off before.
There’s no question stories are harder to write. Annie Proulx says writing students should cut their teeth on novels rather than stories, which seems correct to me. It’s correct in theory, anyway. Maybe not in practice, because students are more comfortable wasting a couple weeks on something they believe won’t be published than they are wasting a couple years on something they believe won’t be published. My first novel, Arkansas, started as a short story. I was excited about the setting and I was going to write this short story. I had these two guys meeting up to mule some drugs. They didn’t know each other, so they made each other nervous. I think it was sixteen pages. It didn’t feel like it got anywhere, so I wrote more, hoping to reach a flashpoint, hoping to reach a knot in the plot or a moment that felt meaningful. It didn’t happen in thirty pages, and then it didn’t happen in forty pages. Around fifty pages or so I understood I was writing a novel. Once I admitted that, I was free to come up with villains and histories and love interests and whatnot.
John Brandon’s three novels are Arkansas, Citrus County, and A Million Heavens. He has spent time as the Grisham Fellow in Creative Writing at University of Mississippi, and the Tickner Writing Fellow at Gilman School, in Baltimore. His work has appeared in Oxford American, GQ, Grantland, ESPN the Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, and numerous literary journals. He now lives in St. Paul, and teaches at Hamline University. Further Joy is his first story collection.