After thoroughly impressing many an Earthgoat reader at Prairie Lights, Kevin Brockmeier headed south to Charlottesville for the Virginia Festival of the Book, which can be awkwardly viewed this week on C-SPAN. Following a "Strange Worlds" panel, he graciously agreed to be interviewed, the results of which appear here in an EARTHGOAT EXCLUSIVE! Kevin Brockmeier already is the author of two novels, two children's books, and a story collection. (At this rate, he'll bury Joyce Carol Oates.)
EG: Your new novel, The Brief History of the Dead, creates a city in the afterlife that doesn't have a worldly counterpart, though its particulars are largely recognizable. How do you navigate the tension between realism and the fantastic?
KB: I suppose I navigate the tension between the realistic and the fantastic largely by failing to recognize it, though I don't know whether I would call this a working method or a blind spot. Typically, when I sit down to write, any fantasy I turn my mind to very quickly begins to seem stitched through with realism. And, conversely, the reality of the world I can see outside my window---I'm talking about the world of human behavior, as well as the world of physical objects---begins to seem touched with fantasy. The disadvantage of this way of perceiving the world is that no matter what kind of story I've set out to tell, somebody somewhere has always been convinced that my narrator was simply making the whole thing up. It does seem to me, though, that the simple act of using language necessarily imposes a layer of fantasy between the real world and the narrative world, since even the most realistic detail has to be re-imagined before you can set it down on the page.
EG: Are there aspects of realism from which you rarely, if ever, wander?
KB: There's a writer named Lucius Shepard whose work I enjoy. He complains about what he calls the "elf-dragon-unicorn axis" in fantasy. I don't believe I've ever written anything that would fall neatly along that particular axis (though I sometimes appreciate books that do: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle comes to mind). More broadly, I always attempt to create characters whose emotions and instincts and sense of what it means to be alive correspond to those of real human beings as I see them.
EG: I have a lot of admiration for your figurative language. I remember distinctly from The New Yorker excerpt the man who describes his death by "making a gesture like falling confetti with his fingertips." How important do you consider metaphors, relative to other writers' tools, to your fiction?
KB: They're extremely important to me, but this is mainly a function of how my mind works when it turns to sentence-making rather than the result of any particular aesthetic program. I strive for a certain level of imaginative precision when I write (as opposed, say, to scientific precision), and the metaphors that present themselves to me frequently seem the most interesting way to achieve that. You should picture me allowing my fingers to flutter through the air while I try to figure out how on earth to describe such a gesture.
Sometimes metaphors are important to my fiction in an architectural sense, as well. I don't know that this sort of thing is necessarily plain to most readers, but often it is a controlling metaphor that most sharply informs how I decide to put a story together. In the first chapter of The Brief History of the Dead, for example, I had in mind the image (or the metaphor) of one thing spreading open inside another---doors within doors within doors, most of which never close. It was that image, more than anything else, that helped me give shape to the story.
EG: Your second children's book, Grooves, was just released. Did your desire to write children's fiction grow out of your desire to write adult fiction? How do children's and adult projects differ for you in terms of process?
KB: I began writing children's fiction for two reasons: First of all, I began to read children's fiction again---including many of the books I myself loved as a child, but also many that I had failed to notice back then and many that weren't yet written---and I found that the best of them offered me as much aesthetic pleasure as the adult fiction I was reading. Second, when I was in college, I used to teach at a nursery school, where I would make up stories for the children in my class, and I wanted to find a way of continuing to tell stories to those particular children, all of whom were in the later years of elementary school by that time and capable of reading for themselves.
I've found that my children's books are more conversational in tone than my adult books, and a lot more jokey. I want them to read as though you're listening to a child who's simply telling you his story as it occurs to him, along with anything else that happens to cross his mind. Also, it's my notion that most narratives move forward in one of two ways: either sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. In my adult fiction, the unit of meaning I tend to rely on is the sentence, whereas in my children's fiction it's the paragraph. I'm not sure why this should be, but it feels natural to me.
EG: Are there writers of adult fiction whose children's fiction you admire? Alternatively, are there writers of adult fiction who don't take their children's work seriously enough?
KB: I know that many writers have recently begun working in both disciplines---Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Isabelle Allende, and Edwidge Danticat come to mind---but as much as I appreciate the adult work of some of these writers, I'm afraid I just haven't read most of their children's fiction. Neil Gaiman is a writer who does both, and while, honestly, I think of his Sandman comics as his best work, I would say that the prose fiction he writes for children is every bit as good as the prose fiction he writes for adults. My friend Jeremy Jackson writes novels under his own name and young adult fiction under a pseudonym, both of which seem to me to be books of considerable enterprise and sensitivity.
What I can tell you is that most of the children's writers I admire---I'll name Daniel Pinkwater, Philip Pullman, Franny Billingsley, Jonathon Scott Fuqua, and Madeleine L'Engle, for starters---are writers I admire as an adult reader and not just as some sort of jerry-built child reader I've imaginatively reconstructed inside my own head. These are all writers whose prose is every bit as careful and whose characters are every bit as rich as those of the adult authors I enjoy.
EG: How important is children's fiction to developing readers of adult literary fiction?
KB: I'm tempted to say, "Very," simply because I myself write in both forms, but when I look back over the reading I actually did as a child, I realize that it was mostly made up of comic books, along with works of fantasy and science fiction and mysteries and film novelizations and various paraliterary genres like joke books and catalogs of do-it-yourself science experiments, all of which were at least ostensibly intended for an adult audience. I would suggest, then, that what's important is encouraging in children the habit of reading and taking pleasure in language and stories, no matter what their provenance.
EG: It seems fewer writers today believe literary fiction and genre fiction to be mutually exclusive. How meaningful do you consider the distinction? What genre fiction, if any, do you draw from and what genre fiction do you not read?
KB: I tend to think that genre distinctions fall apart pretty quickly as soon as you begin looking at fiction of real accomplishment. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino is published as literary fiction and The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis (a Workshop graduate, by the way, and probably the one whose work means the most to me personally) is published as science fiction, but you could easily reverse their positions on the bookshelf, and, at any rate, both are written with so much potency and exactitude and complex human feeling that the difference hardly matters. I read widely in fantasy and science fiction and more narrowly in mystery and suspense. I rarely read horror---not out of any disdain for the possibilities of the genre, but for the same reason I never set foot on a carnival ride: because I don't enjoy terrifying myself. And I have the (perhaps ill-informed) impression that all the truly artful westerns and romance novels are published as mainstream fiction, so I've mostly ignored those genres, aside from one Harlequin Temptation Romance called When Tomorrow Comes that I read after a friend at the Workshop gave it to me because the book's villain was named Brockmeier, which afforded the protagonist the opportunity to say things like, "I've lost patience with you, Brockmeier. Your interfering has gone too damned far!"
EG: A recent novel that jumps across different genres that earned a lot of discussion here is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Any thoughts on that book? Have you read anything recent that blew you away?
KB: I enjoyed and admired both Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, the only David Mitchell novels I've read so far, but somehow I was never able to feel the heart beating through the pages of his books, and I suspect that he's one of those writers I'm doomed to appreciate without ever truly loving. Still, I'm sure I'll keep reading his work.
The two best books I've read in the past month have been a collection of interviews with Gabriel Garcia Marquez called, unsurprisingly, Conversations with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a first novel by a Workshop graduate named Justin Tussing called The Best People in the World, the prose in which is quite extraordinarily beautiful, every sentence sharpened to the finest of points.
I'm in the habit of keeping and periodically revisiting a list of my fifty favorite books, which I'll append to the bottom of this interview in case you want to include it. (Editor's Note: I did.)
EG: Many readers of this site attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop after you graduated. Was anyone there particularly influential to your development?
KB: I studied with Marilynne Robinson, Frank Conroy, Jim McPherson, and Judith Grossman while I was at Iowa. I appreciated all of them, but Marilynne and Frank were the ones whose counsel meant the most to me. Beyond that, the other students who were at the Workshop from 1995 to 1997 were extraordinarily important to me. I knew that every story I wrote would face a sensitive and demanding audience, and in many ways those same people remain the audience I keep in mind when I write today. For instance, I still imagine the effect a title might have as it stares up from those stacks of manuscripts on the shelf by the front office. Every so often I'll even think through the whole catalog of stories I've written and try to determine which eight would have made the ideal workshop submissions while I was there. This is absurd, I know, but at least I can say that when I'm finally able to travel back in time with all the writing I've done since I graduated, I'll be well prepared.
(I also have a great deal of affection for Connie Brothers.)
EG: What was it like coming back to teach? Did the city or program seem very different?
KB: The city has a few more parking garages than it did when I was a student, and the winters a little less snow, and the Workshop itself has moved from the English-Philosophy Building to the Dey House---but other than that it's much the same. Prairie Lights is still there, and so is Paul Ingram, and so is Julie Englander. The Hamburg Inn is still there, along with the Cottage and the Java House. To be honest, I found the prospect of coming back to teach at Iowa a bit intimidating. I had never taught at the graduate level before---or, for that matter, in any setting where I couldn't presume myself to be the sole authority on whatever topic we happened to be discussing---and at first I wasn't quite sure what my role in the class ought to be. I believe I found my footing after a couple of weeks, though, and I think I was able to offer something to my students beyond the occasional wind-up toy or bottle of wine. I'll add that one thing my semester there reminded me of was that I'm capable of using language extemporaneously, something that it's easy to forget when you spend every day alone in front of a computer, slowly attempting to polish a handful of sentences.
EG: We appreciate your time. What are you working on now? Because we might buy it.
KB: I've finished a third children's novel, called I Met a Lovely Monster, and right now I'm trying to put together a new collection of short stories. I have ten so far (eleven if I can convince a publisher to let me include The New Yorker-version of "The Brief History of the Dead," but this seems unlikely), and I'll need thirteen to achieve the balance I want.
And please do.
Appendix: 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 children's books, semi-obscure fantasists, and slim, sad coming of age stories.
1. A Death in the Family by James Agee (*)
2. The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard (*)
3. A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
4. Once in Europa by John Berger
5. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (*)
7. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
8. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (*)
9. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
10. Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (*)
11. Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction by John Crowley
12. Matilda by Roald Dahl
13. The Latin American Trilogy by Louis de Bernieres
14. Tales of Neveryon by Samuel R. Delany
15. The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley
16. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
17. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman
18. Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
19. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
20. The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
21. Collected Stories by Richard Kennedy
22. Otherwise: New and Selected Poems by Jane Kenyon
23. Elegy by Larry Levis
24. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
25. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
26. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (*)
27. All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell (*)
28. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer by Steven Millhauser
29. Essays by Michel de Montaigne
30. Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso
31. A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami
32. The Sharpshooter Blues by Lewis Nordan
33. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
34. Esther Stories by Peter Orner
35. A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
36. Metamorphoses by Ovid
37. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
38. Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater (*)
39. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
40. The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman (*)
41. Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle
42. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (*)
43. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago
44. Indistinguishable from the Darkness by Charlie Smith
45. The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis
46. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
47. Waiting for God by Simone Weil
48. Essays by E. B. White
49. Stoner by John Williams
50. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham