An Interview with Kevin Brockmeier
Kevin Brockmeier won me over with his short story collection Things That Fall from the Sky. I’ve been a fan ever since. He writes some of the most gorgeous sentences I’ve ever come across, and he weaves together literary fiction with elements of science fiction and magical realism. His latest novel, The Illumination, is his best novel yet. It’s set in a world where any pain a human is suffering from suddenly is visible to everyone around them. A light starts shining from pain -- varying in brightness, depending on the degree to which the person is hurt.
A winner of the O. Henry Award and the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, Brockmeier is also the author of The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, among other books. He lives in his native Little Rock, Arkansas. Bookslut interviewed Brockmeier via e-mail in March 2011.
Your second novel, The Brief History of the Dead, was originally a short story. Was that also the case for The Illumination?
Yes and no. In both cases, I knew that I was actually beginning a novel, but I wanted to satisfy the terms of some smaller introductory structure as a way of easing myself into the larger continuing structure of the book. I tend to think of the opening pages of a novel as a testing ground, a place where I can figure out how its sentences will work, its rhythms; answer the questions I have about the balance and motion of its voice; discover the emotional tones it will allow me to use; determine how intimate its intimacies will be; and in general prepare the way for the narrative that will follow.
With The Illumination, it's not that I wrote a short story and then recognized the broader possibilities of the idea; I recognized the broader possibilities of the idea and found a way to broach them in a short (though really rather long: 13,000-word) story. Beyond that, I tried to design nearly every section of the book so that it could stand alone, completely apart from the others. In fact, three of its pieces were originally published elsewhere as self-contained narratives: "Ryan Shifrin" in Tin House, "Jason Williford" in The Toad Suck Review, and the fairy tale embedded in Nina Poggione's section, "A Fable for the Living," in Electric Literature.
One of the things that attracts me to your writing is the blending of literary fiction with genre elements. There’s often a sci-fi/magical realism bend to your work. Why is that? What inspires you to do that?
I think of myself as working within -- or at least aspiring to work within -- the very particular tradition of writers whose books I happen to love. Many of those writers are realists, but many others are fantasists, though it's a toss-up as to whether you'll find their books shelved with the literary fiction or with the science fiction and fantasy. All of them, though, regardless of their genre affiliations, are authors of tremendous vision, great craft, and a complex and absorbing sense of what it means to be alive. All of them write the kind of books that inspire me to emulation.
Aside from that, I suppose I turn to the fantastic or the magical or the strange or the uncanny so often because I'm the kind of person who sees more clearly when he views the world at a tilt, but also because such methods have provided me with a number of metaphors that seemed potent and beautiful to me, because the imagery of fantasy allows me to write certain kinds of sentences I enjoy writing, and finally, frankly, because I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and there are certain kinds of oddity that simply excite my imagination.
In The Illumination, there’s a beauty to suffering. Since everyone can see what is ailing even the strangers around them, pain is no longer a private and hidden option. It’s exposed and shimmers. Some teenagers even go so far as to deliberately cut themselves so they can see the light. Do you think pain is something that can be beautiful?
I don't know. What I can tell you is that the book -- whose working title was Wounds, until my editor and my agent convinced me that no one would buy a book called Wounds -- investigates exactly that question: what if the world suddenly revealed that pain, disease, illness, and injury -- all the uglinesses of the human body -- were faceted with beauty, like jewels? What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? How would that change the way we perceived life and death and one another? How would it change the greater functions of society, or would it change them at all?
At one point in the book, you write: “Everyone had his own portion of pain to carry. At first, when you were young, you imposed it on yourself. Then, when you were older, the world stepped in to impose it for you. You might be given a few years of rest between the pain you caused yourself and the pain the world made you suffer, but only a few, and only if you were lucky.” Are we living in a society where pain is more prevalent than ever?
Honestly, I don't know that our times are all that different from those that came before. I suspect that the world has always been composed of pain and pleasure, bliss and agony, contentment and discomfort, and in roughly the same proportions as it is today. More to the point, perhaps, before I wrote The Illumination, and while I was working on it, I myself was experiencing more pain -- physical pain -- and in a less remitting way than I had before. I used the fifth section of the book, Nina's, to investigate my own encounters with illness: years and years of mouth ulcers that made it painful for me to talk, eat, drink, laugh, and smile. I tried to bring as much lucidity, accuracy, and honesty to Nina's observations of her malady as I could, and although her story is not really my own, that one aspect of it is. You can consider all the self-pity, querulousness, and desperation she expresses a peculiarly intimate form of journalism.
One of the most important objects in the book is a notebook -- and no, I’m NOT referring to the book by Nicholas Sparks! The notebook is originally owned by a woman who fills it with romantic notes her husband wrote to her. He leaves a Post-It every morning for her, explaining why he’s crazy about her. These lines are shared throughout the book, and really paint a picture of a solid relationship: “I love those three perfect moles on your shoulder -- like a line of buttons.” or “I love how quietly you speak when you're catching a cold.” Can you talk about why you chose to use this notebook as something that connected various characters?
Over and over again, the novel says: This is why life is hard. The notebook, though, says something different: This is why life is sweet, and amusing, and beautiful. I wanted it to lend a layer of love and compassion, of sentiment, to a book that otherwise narrows its gaze so often on pain and disability. And more than that, I thought it would shine its own kind of light on the characters: how would they react, and how would their reactions differ, when something at the border of their lives began whispering a love story into their ears?
One of the people you write about is a boy named Chuck Carter. Chuck has many rules, including using ten words in every sentence. I noticed you wrote the entire chapter that way. Was that difficult?
Those paragraphs definitely posed their challenges, but don't they all? I broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time. That's always how it is for me -- slow and considered. I'll work and work at one little cluster of words. Then, when its rhythms are in place, I'll move on. I'm aiming for a certain freshness and precision of observation. This isn't easy to achieve, and it demands careful attention. I produce a thousand dissatisfactions before ever getting it right. But I've learned to anticipate that, to maneuver within it.
The ten-word-sentence rule definitely provided an additional layer of complication. It wasn't the only layer, though -- not even the hardest. Essentially, it forced me to produce sentences that surprised me. It's always a good thing when you can surprise yourself. Honestly, I imagine the effect it has is mostly subcutaneous. Many readers won't trouble themselves to count every sentence word-by-word. They'll realize something is different but won't quite know what. That's fine with me, provided Chuck's consciousness still seems authentic.
I’m wondering if you could talk about your religious beliefs in relation to The Illumination. One of the characters, Ryan, is involved in mission work. Yet something that bugs him really made me think: “What frightened Ryan -- horrified him -- was not the possibility that God did not love us, but that He did love us and His love was merely decorative. Aesthetic rather than unconditional. That He loved us because we suffered, and our suffering was pleasing to His eyes.”
Then shortly after you go on to say: “And Ryan felt that he had spent his life in a darkened room, groping for meaning or at least consolation. And so, it seemed to him, had everyone else. And their bodies were aging and one day they would fail altogether. And every heart would be soaked in brightness. And every brain would burn out like an ember.”
How much of your own beliefs are in these quotes?
My religious beliefs, as weird and fluctuating and contradictory and soured by other people's claims of certainty as they are, are seeded all over Ryan's section of the book. He's never quite able to call himself a believer, and yet it's the narratives and metaphysical propositions of religion, and particularly Christianity, that provide the filter through which he keeps trying to understand his experience. At one point, he says that "he had -- or seemed to have -- the religious instinct but not the religious mindset: his intuition told him that everything mattered, everything was significant, and yet nothing was so clear to him as that life presented a riddle to which no one knew the answer." This is pretty much my own situation in a nutshell. In fact, my relationship to Ryan's story might be the obverse of my relationship to Nina's, in that none of his experiences are my own, but nearly all of his thoughts are. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the long plaint he offers toward the end of his life and the question you point to there -- what if our pain was what made us beautiful to God? -- gave birth to the entire novel.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers, and why?
[Interviewer’s note: Kevin sent us a photo of the bookcase in his living room, where he keeps all of his favorites. He also sent a copy of his “Fifty Favorite Books” list, which is often updated.]
The five living American writers whose books I anticipate with the most excitement: Peter S. Beagle, Kate Bernheimer, Thomas Glave, Lydia Millet, and Lewis Nordan.
The five living non-American writers whose books I anticipate with the most excitement: Cesar Aira, Nicki Greenberg, Nick Harkaway, Goncalo M. Tavares, and Alejandro Zambra.
And the five books I love best -- at least today -- and why: (1) The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, my single favorite novel by anybody, for its ability to pack so much of life's meaning into so compact a space and so fanciful a story; (2) All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell, for its impeccable prose, its tenderness, and its clear-sighted humanity; (3) The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard, for its sentences that seem to transform you from the inside out with their rhythms and for the way it wrings so much beauty out of the apocalypses it presents; (4) I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, for its grace and its vigor and its subtle comic energy that gradually melts off into sorrow; and (5) A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle (the finest living fantasy writer, in my opinion), for creating so rich, poetic, and loving a ghost story.
What classics have influenced your work?
I'm not entirely sure which of the books I admire should be considered classics and which shouldn't. For the sake of conversation, though, let's call a classic any book by a writer who's no longer alive and working. Okay then: the novels I love the best, the ones that most fully live up to my vision of what a novel ought to be, are all relatively short books, between 200 and 300 pages, that bring such compassion and sharpness of vision to the world and to the creatures that inhabit it that every single aspect of experience seems to blossom open between their pages and I feel this almost holy awareness of the wealth and sadness and beauty of existence coming at me in a single powerfully contained burst -- novels such as Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees and Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England, which I already mentioned, but also James Agee's A Death in the Family, Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth, Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe, Chris Fuhrman's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, John Williams's Stoner, Albert Cossery's The Jokers, Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole, Thomas M. Disch's The Genocides, and Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, to name a few.
At what point did you absolutely know you wanted to be a writer?
My senior year of high school. I always loved reading, and I always wrote for pleasure, but recently, when I unpacked my old yearbooks, I discovered that at the end of my sophomore year everyone told me that I would make a fine lawyer one day; at the end of my junior year, a fine actor; and at the end of my senior year, a fine writer. There you have it: fossil evidence.
Can you talk about your writing process? When you write and revise, are you more focused on telling a good story or writing a good sentence? What’s more important to you?
You have me thinking of something John Berger wrote: "All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known. Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out."
This strikes me as a wise distinction, and the border it describes is a real one, but Berger lays it in the wrong place. What he's really describing is the difference between writing whose first concern is narrative and writing whose first concern is testimonial -- and a poem or a story can be either. Many of my favorite novels, and the kind of novel I hoped The Illumination would be, is the latter. I wanted the book's narrative to be engaging, of course, but it exists first and foremost as a field upon which to present the testimony of its characters.
More broadly, I can say that before I begin writing a book, and whenever I'm not actually sitting at my computer, I'll puzzle through the various features of the story I want to tell, but when I'm actually writing, I end up concentrating extremely hard on the sentences I'm piecing together. Every one of them presents its own dilemma, and I often find it difficult to bend them to their purpose. In fact, the effort to satisfy whatever demands each sentence seems to be making of me, and to follow the hints it offers about what's coming next, frequently dictates the direction of the story I'm imagining.
What are you currently working on?
I can tell you that I'm working on another book, but I don't want to say too much about it for fear that the threads will come loose.
In The Illumination, you write: “She had known days of happiness and beauty, rare moments of motionless wonder, but trying to relive them after they had vanished was like looking out the window at night from a partially lit room: no matter how interesting the view, there was always her own reflection, hovering over the landscape like a ghost. That face, it was the problem. Those eyes and that skin. She wished that she could throw the glass open for once and see things as they really were.” Is it the writer’s job to do that for the reader?
I can't say I had that in mind when I wrote the passage -- really, I was just thinking about the dilemma we all face when we try to remember the people we used to be without the mediation of the people we've become -- but yes, I think that's a good way of looking at writing. I like what Borges had to say about the mission of art, and by extension literature: "The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don't fulfill it, we feel unhappy." Certainly that must be one of the writer's jobs: to transform all those experiences which are constantly disappearing out from under us into language and thereby grant them some small permanence.