Aaron Burch’s incredible debut novel, Year of the Buffalo (available from American Buffalo Books), is an American epic centered around a roadtrip, professional wrestling, video games, buffalo, and the enduring and unique bond of family. Aaron was kind enough to discuss the novel and his writing in more detail with Austin Ross.
When did you first start writing? What drew you to writing initially?
I think I started somewhere in 2001, give or take. At some point during college, I started reading more for pleasure, and I got a job at Barnes & Noble, in part because I thought working around books would be fun, but also mostly because I needed to pay for rent and tuition and it paid okay and seemed better than most jobs someone might get in college. Sometimes I worked in the magazine section, and I still remember unpacking boxes one day and finding it full of McSweeney’s #4. It feels hard to describe just how confusing but also exciting it seemed—the “issues” were a cardboard box that you opened up and inside were a bunch of individual stapled little booklets. I’d never seen anything like it. It didn’t seem anything like a magazine! I bought one of those and just marveled over it, and from there found the website, and this whole world of weird contemporary short writing. As I started reading more and more of that, I kinda thought, “I wanna try and write weird and funny little pieces like this!”
Can you describe your drafting process, perhaps especially for this book? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or just one? Do you quickly write a rough draft and revise, or revise before moving on?
It’s a little bit of everything. And often a little different project to project, and also moment in life to moment in life. I often—in general, and with large portions of this book, if not in totality—write first drafts longhand. I wouldn’t say I write quickly, but writing longhand often gives me a momentum and keeps me pushing forward rather than tinkering and revising. And then I type up my longhand pages in stages and so that’s where a first wave of revision starts happening. Then, after a few phases of that, I probably print out a large chunk of pages and mark it up and move stuff around and revise from there. For a novel, it is probably so many cycles of that, although a novel takes so long (at least for me) that the only way I can keep going is to kinda forget how long and tedious the process is and so some of that is conjecture. I don’t really know what my actual process was!
So… what’s the deal with you and buffalo? And what other themes or subjects do you find yourself returning to in your work over and over?
Man… I don’t know. I love them, for lots of reasons, but mostly they just fascinate me, and I think they’re amazing. And, at least in my experience, novels feel kind of like a narrativized collection of all of your obsessions—both large-scale in general and smaller scale on whatever your mind is obsessing over the day you’re working on that page. I knew this, at least to some degree, even before there was any buffalo presence in this book. I knew that about novels and I knew I was obsessed with buffalo, but I didn’t really have much interest in writing about buffalo in a more research-y way and I wasn’t too sure how buffalo could be a presence in a story or novel… and then when one of the brothers at the center of this novel ended up having this wrestler—and wrestler persona—background, making that a buffalo felt natural and helped inform the book.
A list of themes and subjects I return to over and over is kind of a collection of themes and subjects in this book—buffalo, brothers, male friendship, growing up, strained romantic relationships, Washington, Michigan/Midwest, the idea and question of where “home” is, road trips, telling stories, ideas of self, how you see yourself, how you want others to see you…
There’s a scene early on in the book where the character Holly is teaching her students about Stephen King’s “The Body” and watching Stand By Me. This is obviously something that is close to you, since you’ve written a book on the subject. Could you share more about why those particular pieces—the original story and the adaptation—seem to have spoken to you so much? And as a teacher yourself, how has teaching affected your writing, or vice versa?
I think my book about “The Body” largely became an investigation of why the novella and movie mean so much to me. Part of it is just that I love the movie. And then part of that is the movie itself and part is when in my life I saw it. And then another part is that most, if not literally all, of the themes the novella/movie is about are themes at the core of myself, as a person and a writer—growing up, friendship, boyhood, nostalgia…
I’ve been working on Year of the Buffalo for so long, on and off, that that Holly chapter about teaching “The Body” existed before my book about the novella. (See: above answer about returning to themes and subjects over and over and over.) I’ve taught the novella a couple times, and love it, and so love the movie, that I kind of just gave that love to Holly. And then, at some point, this opportunity to write a “book about a book” came up and so “The Body” felt the obvious answer. I actually thought about cutting it from Buffalo because it ended up feeling repetitive and like I’d wrestled with that obsession in another piece of writing, but then ultimately I kind of like seeing repeated ideas across authors’ various projects and I like that the two books, at least for that little chapter, are in something of a dialogue with each other.
I’d love to hear you talk some more about the premise and development of this novel. I know this book has changed quite a bit over the years, but what remains in this final version from when you first started it? And how did it evolve from that first draft to the book we now have?
It evolved so much that the larger story of it is probably the story of multiple books/projects. I wrote a novel for my thesis in grad school that was about two guys who had a mutual friend, and the two end up going on a road trip together. There was a lot about it I liked, although now, in retrospect, what I most liked might have just been the fact that I wrote a novel at all. I tried for a few years to get it published and nothing ever came of it, so ultimately I ended up shelving it and moving on. There were lots of scenes and moments that I thought were fun and interesting, but it ultimately didn’t have much of a plot (and wasn’t actually smart or interesting enough to get away with that), so I tried to set out with something at least a little more plotty. A windfall of money felt like an impetus for a novel, but I didn’t want to make it just an inheritance, so I tried to think of where else money might suddenly come from. I’m not totally sure how or when, but at some point I landed on this idea of likeness rights and that became an opportunity to think about and play with all these things I’d found so fascinating when younger—professional wrestling and video games, mostly, and then those ideas grew into basic themes of “what you want to do when you grow up” and how you feel about the distance between those dreams and reality. At some point, all of this stuff kinda got thrown together, as they often do in novels—sudden windfall of money, how that might change your life, these brothers reconnecting, ideas of what it means to be a man—and then, maybe a hundred pages in, the novel started feeling a little stuck and I thought it would be fun to throw these two brothers into a car together and set them out on a road trip, so I ended up going back to that road trip novel and scavenging it for material. The POV and relationships and voice and almost everything are all different, but there was a kind of outline there—narratively, but also literally, in the form of a roadtrip map—that became the second half of Buffalo.
What are you working on now? What are you reading, and who are the writers you turn to most frequently for inspiration?
I’m juggling a few things. I have a novel in progress, but I haven’t actually worked on it in a year, so I guess it’s not what I’m “working on now.” Big writer influences for that are Chris Bachelder and Nicholson Baker and Stewart O’Nan. I had the most productive short story writing phase I’d had in years over this last summer. I hadn’t really devoted much time to short stories in years and that ended up being really fun and I wrote a bunch of stuff I was really proud of. I went back and read a bunch of those 80s dirty realism guys, in part out of curiosity what I’d think now, in part ’cause they were probably who I first read when I first started writing and so maybe I was trying to recapture some of that inspiration, and probably in part cause it seemed so not contemporary? Brian Evenson is easily one of my biggest north stars. For inspiration, I often turn to Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, Kevin Wilson, Ted Chiang, Hanif Abdurraqib, Donald Barthelme, Aimee Bender, Jess Walter, Danielle Evans. I taught Evans’s “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” earlier this semester and think I have mentioned something about it in every class since. I often go back and reread stuff by writers I’ve worked with and edited and published.
Interviewed by Austin Ross
Aaron Burch is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body; the short story collection, Backswing; and the novella, How to Predict the Weather. He is the Founding Editor of Hobart and currently the Co-Managing Editor of HAD and WAS (Words & Sports). He is (too) on Twitter @aaron__burch and on the world wide web at aaronburch.net. He grew up in Tacoma, WA, currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI.