An Interview with Brian CostelloBrian Costello teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago, hosts the comedy talk show “The Brian Costello Show with Brian Costello” and plays drums in the Functional Blackouts. His debut novel, The Enchanters VS. Sprawlburg Springs, is also the debut novel for Featherproof books, a small press out of Chicago, and raises the bar for the press to find similarly unique voices. Brian’s fiction has been published in Bridge, THE2NDHAND, Sleepwalk and many other magazines.
I interviewed Brian at Columbia College Chicago in a classroom where, ironically, we found a single drumstick on a chair. Brian’s a drummer. The book is told from the point view of Shaquille, the drummer for The Enchanters. We don’t know who the drumstick belonged to. Weird.
Do you read Bookslut?
Do I read Bookslut? Oh yeah. Yeah, I try to read as much as I can. It’s a little tough sometimes with teaching, but yeah.
That’s something I wanted to talk about, your teaching. You do a comedy show, you teach, you’re in a band and you write. How do you break up your time?
Well, teaching is really great for that because it’s not a 40 hour a week job. There’s definitely a lot going on outside of the two classes I teach, but it’s still easier to make time to write or do other things as opposed to working an eight hour day that’s more like a ten hour day with commuting and all that crap so, that helps immensely. And the band doesn’t practice like more than twice a week, maybe three times a week, if that even, and the talk show is like every other month --sometimes it’s every month, we’re going to do it every month again next year. Some weeks are easier than others and something always has to give. Sometimes it’s the band, sometimes it’s the talk show, sometimes it’s the writing but it all gets done. I don’t often feel overwhelmed or anything because it’s all fun to me, it’s all things I like to do. If I felt like it was a chore I wouldn’t do it cause it’s not like something I signed up for.
Do all these things influence your writing?
Yeah, teaching especially does. I learn a lot from my students as far as both mistakes they make and discoveries they make because it’s things I realize that apply to what I’m doing -- it definitely carries over. The talk show has a lot of writing involved with that, and again, as far as it carries over to writing, yeah, I mean, with the book, being in a band that’s what emerged with the story. It’s not like literal anecdotes like I went home and rewrote something that actually happened in my life because that’s not what’s going on in the book. The spirit of it, that definitely played into it, you know, I was trying to get the story that was emerging from it.
Is Enchanters autobiographical?
No? That’s cool.
It’s funny cause people expect that. I think a lot of it’s because I play drums in a band and it’s a first novel and first novels are almost always autobiographical. Except for the feelings of playing shows and what that’s like, I can’t say that Shaquille was me. I can’t say that this really happened. Stuff similar to that’s happened -- there’s a couple anecdotes in the book that actually did happen, but not to me. It’s funny cause people want that, like, they… no offense to you, but interviewers, they’ve been like, it’s almost like they want me to admit, like, “Yeah, OK, well just between you and me, I didn’t make up any of this. We really walked around with football helmets and orange paint and,” but no (laughs). I don’t know, I guess because memoirs are popular right now or something. People just think that everything is drawn from real life and this is indirect, thickly veiled autobiography or something.
Did you know anyone who cut squid for a job?
That’s an example. That was one of many jobs I had at a restaurant, working food-prep, but it wasn’t like the only job and I just kinda made that the one job the guy did because it seemed so ridiculous, just like one of those all time worst job kind of things. You can imagine just having to get up in the morning and cut squid after squid after squid all day and how that would affect you.
About your writing process… when you do it, how do you do it? Do you have a schedule? Any vices? Anything you need to have?
It’s kind of hard for me to figure that out now. With this book sometimes I just had to get away from it for like a month, step away and then look at it again. Generally I would work on it almost every day. Some weeks went better than others just because of life. That was a problem. Just having a set schedule. I wish I was more disciplined that way but a lot of times I just wake up in the morning and write, sometimes when I get home from work. I actually finished the book on a plane that was taking off from Orlando cause it was like September of 2004, I was just coming home here, I was just like, “I gotta get this done.” I worked on it steadily down there for a couple weeks. It’s kinda like when I have the time. It’s something I’m working on now is really setting aside time every day, which I’m doing my best. I’m definitely always writing.
How long were you working on The Enchanters?
I first started it in May of 1995 before I really knew what it was and it’s gone through about -- beginning to end -- it’s gone through about five drafts. Other parts of it have just been rewritten way more than that, probably twenty, twenty-five times. And then it was my thesis here [Columbia]. I worked with John Schultz with it, and that was very educational as far as helping understand what the story was. Some other people I met helped out with it too, here at Columbia. I was turning in a lot of this to Irvine Welsh when he was here and John McNally took a look at it. I mean not the whole thing, just an excerpt. All their comments were extremely helpful as far as getting to the story. The early drafts were like look at me be funny, there was no like, there was no story, it was like an Allman Brothers wankery or something, just thirty minutes going nowhere or something, self-indulgent or something. They helped find -- get to the story. That was kind of the problem and what I learned to develop. I had no problem coming up with goofy shit like Cleveland Steamerz Good Time Bar and Grille World or whatever, you know.
Who would you say are your influences?
I grew up reading a lot of Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs and rock critic writers like Richard Meltzer and that spirit came into this book for sure. Other things that I read here [Columbia] that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to any other way like Nabokov obviously came into this, it’s where the Enchanters whole idea came from. I really like that Good Readers, Good Writers essay, and then I thought it was ridiculous just cause, just trying to not take yourself so seriously we’d go around, “Yes, I’m an enchanter. That’s me. I’m a writer, but I’m an enchanter.” It sounded like a bad guy wrestler to me or something. But I still like that essay a lot and this idea of creating your own world and I tried to do that with this book, that’s why it’s not Orlando or Shaumburg or West County St. Louis or millions of other places. I can’t say for sure what else influenced this. That’s probably a lot of it though, kind of this balance of what I grew up with like Gonzo rock critics with literature stuff I got turned onto here and trying to combine the two. Balancing voice with an actual story… imagine that (laughs).
Who are you reading now?
Right now I just finished the William T. Vollmann reader, Expelled from Eden -- I’m reading a lot of him right now. I have so much respect for what he’s doing. He’s just an extremely prolific writer who has put himself in all sorts of danger all over the world. That and Katherine Anne Porter. What else? Same old shit really, I’m always rereading stuff.
Are you working on anything new?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m I’m working on a bunch of short stories now and they’re all set in Chicago and they’re not really about music as much. A lot of it’s just trying to keep moving.
Your book is what I’d call hyperaware -- there’s so much going on and you pick up on just the right details, the ones most might miss or not pay attention to like in the kitchen scene where Shaquille is at work or when he gets punched out and the grasshopper jumps through his field of vision. How do you distinguish the line between too much and not enough detail?
Man, that’s something we talk about in class a lot. It’s such a subjective thing. For me it was… I read it all out loud and if it felt like too much or if it was just getting in the way I took it out. But, you know, the grasshopper thing was something… I was reading a lot of Nabokov or something (laughs). Just something to add in or something. I think it was one of those surprise perceptions in writing, you know, something I was “seeing.” And the kitchen, and this was something I looked at like… Joe [Meno] actually is very good with this and Robert Penn Warren in All the King's Men. We talk a lot about this in class. How do you break down 15 characters and make them stand out? Or even in my classes like in Fiction I a pattern is three friends and they go out on the town and do stuff and they just have names and they may as well be triplets. So how do you separate them? How do you make them three dimensional to the reader? And with the secondary characters, with both the kids that start their own bands at the beginning or with the kitchen employees, some of it’s just kind of like a physical trait or nickname or just their own pretensions and their own asshole traits. I didn’t want to go into shit-tons of detail with everybody when it would be easier to do that.
You’ve got a great sense of character voice. Do you take notes when you’re with friends or what?
I just listen to them a lot, people around me. Like Mickey was kind of like that universal suburban burnout dialect of where, instead of saying “uh” or “like,” you say, “fuckin’ um” and “shit.” Like, “I gotta fuckin’ do this and shit, and go to the fuckin’ store, an...” I know a lot of people that do that. It’s annoying but, you know, that’s just a pattern I’m trying to apply to these characters. Renee was a lot of fun to write because she was almost over the top. Like in the beginning of the Confederacy of Dunces, the attitude came in, you know, that snooty attitude. It was fun to write. It’s kind of like, “Would you kindly leave us alone please, thank you.” Just this affected snob tone that’s just an act.
The voice of the novel is very conversational. How did you capture that authentic tone?
With this it was audience. I was thinking who is this being written for and also who this character is. It had to be written that way. I tried so many different points of view and this is the only one that really took off, the one I felt best about. It had to be that way. It had to be told from somebody looking back on this moment years later.
What would you say to people who would compare you to Joe Meno with this book?
Uhhh… if I was to be compared I’d… obviously I think some of those comparisons might be inevitable maybe just cause of subject matter and that we both teach here, we’re friends and all that. I love his writing obviously, but I don’t think it influenced this book, I don’t think… I mean, we’re both writing about bands or music or whatever, I think our ends were different, you know. The overall ideas are much different. I think just motives are different perhaps. There are similarities, I can’t say that if somebody was to say that I wouldn’t go, “Aw, bullshit, fuck you.” How could there not be just because I think we both grew up listening to the same bands and kind of doing the same crap. I just think what we’re trying to do is a bit different. Just comparing Hairstyles of the Damned to this, people wouldn’t do that, I think there’s some differences there. Hairstyles of the Damned is a lot of focusing on getting through adolescence and just everything you’re dealing with, it’s firmly grounded in a time and a place. This is really more about being in a band and in the face of massive indifference.
There’s these cool drawings interspersed throughout the chapters. Do you think bigger publishers would have accepted that? Was that your idea?
Yeah, it’s Mark McKenzie. He plays guitar in Functional Blackouts. He does all our flyers and is just a really great artist in his own way and I thought it would just be a great addition to what’s going on, just add to the craziness of what’s going on inside, you know. I always liked books that had that, anything like Ralph Steadman and Hunter Thompson, that just added a whole lot. Or the drawings in Good Soldier Svejk you know, it just heightens what’s going on in the story. Something about it really makes it special.
I’ve been joking like the cover, I’d be worried it’d be like… you go to the bookstore now, there’s like ten books out now that look exactly like Collapse by Jerrod Diamond. You ever seen that cover? Any nonfiction that’s probably over 300 pages has the same looking cover. It’s kind of gray, it’s maybe a grainy black and white picture of a historical event with like white letters across and kind of puffy. A lot of covers look the same, like they just kind of shit ‘em out.
Who designed the cover?
Zach did, from Featherproof, and pretty much the moment he showed it to us we were just like, “Holy shit! This is exactly what it should be.” He also did the sticker and website, too.
For The Enchanters?
Yeah, theenchanters.com. Yeah, it’s just little bonus stuff here and there and silly pictures and lyrics -- it’s like a fake band page, basically.
Sounds like a fun project and working with Jonathan and Zach was a good experience.
Yeah, I mean, it was nothing but great. We all copy edited it, it was very hands-on, everything about it. I had input, they had input, we didn’t get into any arguments really about what we wanted to do. There was no, “Let’s slant to the teen market,” thank God. They just really liked the book for what it was which is what any writer would want, you know. It’s been great. You know what else is great, this was their first book, too. We’re all just really naively excited and really just happy and goofy about it. That wouldn’t be happening with other publishers, or even small presses, probably. There’s just something special about this that we’re all making this happen.
What were some comments from other publishers and how long had you been sending it out.
I finished it like September last year, spent October typing it up, putting in final little things, and then since it was my thesis and John [Shultz] was looking at it I was kind of working with him. And then Jonathan had asked to read it, from Featherproof, before I’d even known -- anybody knew -- that they were going to do the small press. So pretty much I had shown it to a few people and… I mean the funniest thing was, like, somebody told me, and they were really nice but this editor, she said that she was thinking it would be good if I slanted this more for the teen market and wrote it as a bunch of adventures of this band. Scooby-Doo or something. Like one of ‘em gets bonked on the head and gets amnesia or something. So that was, I don’t know, it was kind of like I was preparing to do all this, like, “OK, this is the shit I’m going to deal with.” I was kind of getting bummed out already. Then Jonathan asked to do this, if they could put this book out and talking to other people and just the horseshit they went through in publishing, you know, it was kind of like, I weighed the options and it was like, a) I want this out pretty soon, I don’t want to wait two, three years. When I’m gonna be like pushing forty talking about punk rock, it’s the last thing I want to do. I wanted that and just the way I wanted the book to be, just seemed like the spirit of the book worked out great with this where to me that made up for not getting an advance, you know. It hurt whatever other perks there might be which, quite frankly, didn’t seem all that enthralling. I’ll probably change my mind someday but right now the way it is I like what’s happened with this book, like this is pretty much exactly how I wanted it to go.
Did you come to Chicago specifically to write?
No, it was band stuff. I wanted to still do a band and play music here. I kind of got as far as you could go in Florida. I just didn’t want to live there anymore. Too many limitations really.
When did you decide you wanted to write?
God, I don’t know, probably since elementary school. I always did… I finally realized this is what I wanted to do when I was an undergrad. I was writing columns for the school paper, the University of Central Florida. The column became very well know, liked and hated all at once and so that kind of made me realize this is what I need to be doing. I enjoyed it and other people did too.
Did you think about journalism?
I didn’t want to do journalism. I just didn’t. It never interested me. I don’t know, most journalists are shitty writers anyway.