November 2008

Geoffrey H. Goodwin

features

An Interview with Brian Francis Slattery

Hypothetically, if you asked Brian Francis Slattery a question in an e-mail interview where you abbreviated the name of one of his favorite authors because you were being lazy and you used to hang out on listservs that always abbreviated the author's name, Slattery might respond with something along the lines of, "I bet this is about to out me as a Unabomber-like recluse, but I don't know what 'TRP' means. Nonetheless, I'm happy to defend my choice."

Brian Francis Slattery is a shiny polymath and he probably has every right to answer almost any question and defend his choice in both an intellectually rigorous and witty fashion. His SF, if one even resorts to deciding to label it as such, is more Chabon or Lethem than, oh, John Ringo. No contemporary voice matches his. To talk about his influences is an easy trick for an interview because certain things stand out as being "not from the world of skiffy," but Slattery has a distinctive voice that's all his own.

Finally, and this is a little spooky -- so please move your chair back a few inches from the monitor -- Brian Francis Slattery managed to trap lightning in a bottle with Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America. It's there in the title. His book is about to come out and it's about the economic collapse of the United States. It's shivery, really. Few books get an opportunity to be read while they're happening. Harlan Ellison® read Slattery's first novel Spaceman Blues and exclaimed, "What a breathless, mad, tornado of words! When it shakes itself awake the earth trembles and the helpless reader is dragged gladly into its light. I haven't had this much fun with a book in years."

You're influenced by the Beats and your work has a multicultural worldview that explores contemporary human slavery. One could argue that your writing comes from a place that's more bohemian than some. What leads your work in those directions?

In all honesty, I ask myself the same thing, as both of my books have turned out to be more bohemian than I am, at least in my day-to-day life. I think the books go in that direction partially because I like to write about people whose lives are unusual in some way -- or at least unusual from the perspective of mainstream American culture (not that I really know what that is, though I’ve heard it’s out there somewhere). Also, I really like people generally; I think they’re amazing, and in my experience, I’ve seen people at their best -- by which I mean really being themselves -- either when things get really hard or when they’re seriously partying.

A third part of it is also the old thing about being a product of the place you grew up -- in my case, a hippie town in upstate New York. So bohemian is kind of sort of my natural state of mind. When I was in high school, I was under the impression that I was a pretty apolitical guy until I left and discovered that I was a flaming radical. My personal political views have gotten weird since then -- I’m always arguing with someone about something, it seems -- but down deep, my sympathies are still progressive, even more so now that I’m a father, because I’m impatient to see the changes that I used to think that I could wait a few decades for.

More than a few called Spaceman Blues apocalyptic, but Rain Taxi called it "a love song for New York City and for life." Hats off you for writing something that got such varied reviews. Does this mean that your first novel was a love song to the apocalypse?

I have no idea what it means, other than that I seem to be doing my job. Many of my own favorite books and movies are those that sharply divide critical opinion -- I have actually bought books and seen movies based on excoriating, negative reviews -- and I’m delighted that the same thing has happened to my books, though that doesn’t mean that I think my books are anywhere near as good as the books that I love.

Which came first, writing or music?

Music. For a while I cherished the idea of being a composer or a songwriter, but thankfully, I eventually heard -- and met -- enough actual composers and songwriters to learn that I just didn’t have the spark that they had. As a musician, I’m good at reacting, at making someone else’s thing sound better. In other words, I’m a sideman, and I’m glad that I figured that out when I did; I’ve had a wonderful time playing music because of it.

When I write, though, I do try to make it musical somehow, because I’m one of those people for whom language and music are really similar to each other, if not part of the same thing altogether. I’m always alliterating, sometimes rhyming. I certainly pay more attention to rhythm than I should, in that I don’t simply want meter; I want to write something you’d tap your feet to when you’re reading it. I know how precious that sounds, but I can’t help myself. It’s too much fun.

Please list three novelists that no one would suspect you love to read.

I’m not sure that my taste in novels would surprise anyone, aside from the fact that I still love Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, which my sixth-grade science teacher gave me in a big brown shopping bag one day (Mr. Harlan, wherever you are -- thanks!). I eventually donated those books to the public library because I’d read them so many times I pretty much bled them dry, but every time I see some old Fritz Leiber books in a used bookstore, I leaf through them just to check in, and sure enough, I get the same thrill. Good, swashbuckling pulp writing is really hard to do, and I don’t think the people who do it well get the credit they deserve as prose stylists. Sure, there isn’t a lot of psychological depth, but can you imagine Henry James trying to describe a knife fight?

I think what would probably surprise people is how little fiction I’ve actually read in the last ten years. I read nothing but fiction, across a few different genres, until I was about twenty-three. Then, for some reason, I pretty much stopped, and switched almost exclusively to nonfiction -- popular history, popular science, and journalism, but also books that I imagine few people outside of academia read. I still love novels, of course, but I also like to read about crazy things, and real life is way crazier than anything a novel could make up. A novel, after all, is riddled with formal limitations. It has to follow some sort of internal logic, no matter how loosely defined, to be satisfying. Real life has no such constraints.

You’re in several bands, you write and edit a great deal and your novels have a restless, fast-moving energy. Do you ever get tired?

I must be exhausted, but because I drink an awful lot of coffee, I don’t really notice.

In a letter you wrote to reviewers about Liberation, you said, "the characters I had made did not like the plot I had in mind for them." Do your characters talk to you often? Are they talking to you right now?

I realize that quote makes me sound like I’m a schizophrenic. But it’s really just a silly way of rephrasing those hoary old clichés about letting the characters tell the story and letting yourself be surprised by what you write. Having talked to a couple other people who write fiction, I seem to be on the extreme end of people who really do just make it up as they go along, sentence by sentence (though that means lots of editing and rewriting later). And as soon as I know what the ending is going to be, it’s a race against time, because when I know how things are going to end, I start getting bored, and then the writing gets bad.

In the case of Liberation, I had a pretty clear initial idea of where I wanted the plot to go. But when I started writing about the characters and got to know them better, I realized that some of them, at least, would never go along with what I had in mind for them, and I liked them too much at that point to lobotomize them and make them do my bidding. At first it seemed like that meant that the book was just going to fly apart at the seams and I might as well quit while I was ahead and move on the next book idea. But I decided instead to try to do something with that tension -- in some ways, make the tension between the plot’s designs and the character’s desires the new plot -- and that seemed to work out all right. At least in the sense that I finished the book, though it’s probably telling that when people ask me to describe it, I’ve settled on the standard line that it’s a heist movie written in the style of a hippie novel that happens to be about the collapse of the U.S. economy and the resurgence of slavery, except that it’s also hopefully kind of funny.

What's your favorite TRP scene? Please defend your choice.

There are so many to choose from, aren’t there? My running favorite is the one in Gravity’s Rainbow where Slothrop, in his Rocketman disguise, is sneaking under the porch at the Potsdam Conference to get a bag of hashish, and just as he’s leaving, he manages to bump into -- as Pynchon puts it “well, this may seem odd, but it’s Mickey Rooney.” (This may seem odd? Of all the things in that book, this may seem odd?) Then there’s this exquisite paragraph where the two of them just stare at each other in mutual what the heck are you doing here? surprise -- Slothrop that he’s seeing Mickey Rooney in the middle of war-torn Europe, Mickey Rooney that he’s seeing a guy in a superhero costume holding a bag of hashish in the rain. I love the way Pynchon suspends that moment, zooming in and out of both men’s heads. It’s ridiculous and hilarious and then, somehow, suddenly, inexplicably beautiful and touching; it’s Pynchon doing that thing he does that no one else can quite do. Is that defense enough?

Did you feel guilty naming a character Maggot Boy Johnson?

It’s funny that you’d pick that name out of all the names in the book: it’s actually a mash-up of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” -- the album version of which is one of my most favorite pieces of music ever -- and Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. It’s also a bit of a nod to Mos Def, because he had the idea first: He named the band on his second album Black Jack Johnson (which had a member of Funkadelic in it). I wish I liked The New Danger as an album as much as I like the concept behind it, but Black on Both Sides is still as much of an inspiration to me as ever.

Seriously, how does it feel, this instant, to have a book being published about the economic collapse of the U.S.?

Seriously? Kind of icky. I first got the idea from my day job as a public-policy editor, for which I seemed to keep reading things about how the U.S. economy could suffer a serious economic decline in the next few decades -- decades, mind you -- due to a variety of causes. Part of the reason I wrote about economic collapse in the first place was to plant the idea in people’s heads that it really could happen here, because at the time it seemed like the impression was out there that the United States was somehow exempt from the rules -- that it couldn’t collapse because it was so important to the world economy, and so big to begin with, and so on and so forth.

Clearly that impression is now dying a hard death, and while I think it’s healthy for people to understand that it could happen here -- that a lot is at stake -- I would hate to have anything happen like the series of catastrophes that the book alludes to and that shape the world in which the main action occurs. I really wrote Liberation to be deeply, deeply fictional. Let’s hope it stays that way.