The Masters Review is so pleased to share this insightful interview with Kevin Brockmeier. His works are literary, genre, memoir, science fiction, and so many wonderful things all at once, we felt he was the perfect choice to discuss genre and literary overlaps. We hope you enjoy this incredibly thorough and thoughtful discussion with an author who so clearly understands the work, method, and life behind his writing. Brockmeier’s new book is recently out from Pantheon, you can purchase a copy, here.
Interview: Kevin Brockmeier
Your latest book, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade is your first nonfiction book. In it, you chose to write about your thirteen-year-old self in the third person. Why did you make this choice? Did it help you to view yourself as a “character”? Did this tool make it easier for you to be direct about your own experience?
It’s a strange choice, I know, but that in itself—the strangeness—was a source of inspiration for me. Frequently I find that adopting some oddity or constraint is a help to me rather than a hindrance. Initially it makes the work harder rather than easier—and that’s valuable, because difficulty focuses the mind; then, paradoxically, the work becomes easier rather than harder, because the mind has been focused. In the case of the new book, the third-person, present-tense voice was exactly that kind of oddity: it alienated me just enough from the world of the story—which is to say, from my own life—that each detail felt fresh to me when I won it back over. I was trying to write an immersive memoir rather than a reflective one, to resurrect a long-gone version of my own consciousness. With every sentence, I had to remind myself that I needed to abide by the contours of a very particular mind: mine, as it existed some 28 years ago, rather than my mind as it exists today. One of the rules I embraced was to restrict myself to the vocabulary I imagined was available to me in seventh grade, though I skirted the outer edge of that vocabulary sometimes and also embedded it in a syntax that’s more exacting than anything I would have produced at twelve or thirteen. I should add that this answer is slightly disingenuous, since it implies a rigor of preplanning on my part rather than a rigor of attention. What I knew before I began was the general shape of the book—a seesaw, weighted at its ends by the first and the last days of the school year, and pivoting atop the odd speculative chapter in the middle—but as for the voice, I discovered it by instinct, running the first few paragraphs through dozens of variations until I found an approach that seemed not only as candid but as tensile and suggestive as I wanted it to be.
You also incorporate science fiction into your new memoir, which includes a scene in which you visit your seventh-grade self. What did this technique allow you to accomplish?
In the beginning it was yet another of the strangenesses that braced me toward the project: the idea of writing a memoir with a science fiction chapter—that kind of rule breaking—was one of the things that made me excited to attempt the book in the first place. The chapter is best understood, of course, as an episode I’ve applied to the story retroactively to make sense of my life rather than as something Kevin actually experiences—an encounter with the otherworldly or the fantastic that provides Kevin with a glimpse of his future and also gives him the opportunity not to end his life, as it’s usually understood, but to erase it as though it had never been. It’s the only such speculative episode in the book, and yet it’s very intimate, very revealing. My hope was that though it disappears from Kevin’s memory, it would cast its light over everything else he experiences. It also allowed me to reveal where the next thirty years of his life would take him without violating the immersive quality of the narrative. There’s the kind of late-night time-travel conversation you might fantasize about having with your younger self—love this person; avoid that one; hold on tight when you meet this one; hold on tight and don’t let go—and then there’s what I actually wanted to do with the book, which was simply to say, This is what happened to me, this is how I remember it. Finally, that’s what the chapter allowed me to do: to look myself in the eye and say, I remember you.
One of the things I love so much about The Truth About Celia and The Illumination is that they are, to my mind, novels full of stories. In The Truth About Celia, each story is an iteration of the (fictional) author’s own narrative. In The Illumination, each chapter centers on a different character; what links them (ostensibly, anyway) is a journal of love notes that travels into each character’s possession. These distinct stories all take place during the Illumination, when people in pain mysteriously begin to emit light. Would you say that these are, in fact, novels full of stories? How did you decide on the structure for these books?
I tend to think in metaphors of shape. I conceived of The Illumination, for instance, as a set of six transparencies, each nearly the same size and containing its own little abstract fragments of line and color, which finally, when layered on top of each other, would reveal a single complete image. The Truth About Celia was more like a set of petals corollating outward from the book’s central incident: the disappearance of the writer’s daughter. Some of the petals are meant to be received as biography or autobiography, some of them as speculation or fantasy, and some of them as a combination of the two. For me, the shape of a book has something to do with its length, but also how many divisions it will have, how its sections will rest alongside each other, and the ways in which it will either unfold or curve inward on itself. In any case, you’re right to see both of these novels as systems of discrete stories—stories that dovetail or overlap without ever losing their own separate flavors. (The Brief History of the Dead and A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip are such creatures, too, though the longer lines of their narratives make the segmentation a little more hidden.) In part, that’s because I find it easier to work in small packages, to satisfy the demands of each individual piece of a book before I move on to the next, but it’s also because I always worry that a novel might fail to come together, and if it does at least I’ll have a few short stories to show for my work.
Your premise for The Illumination is fascinating: a book set in a world in which people light up when they experience pain. Where did the idea for the book come from?
It emerged from a long period of ill health—baffling to me at the time, and still one of the two or three experiences that has shaped my adult life most profoundly. I was reading people like Simone Weil and Sarah Manguso, thinking about the various forms of pain and illness people are forced to endure, wondering, really, what could all that suffering possibly be any good for, when I found myself conducting a thought experiment: What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? What if, moreover, our pain was what made us beautiful to God? I had an image of someone who was suffering so profoundly that he was quite literally glowing. This simple equation, of pain with light, gave birth to the entire book. The novel offers a long series of rearticulations of that founding image: a worldful of illnesses and injuries, all faceted with beauty like a jewel.
In The Illumination, you write of Nina Poggione, a (fictional) author: “In fact, it was reading that was truly at the center of her life—experiencing stories, not making them. She was sure most other writers would say the same.” Is this your experience?
Nina and I are similar in many ways. Like her, I think of myself as a reader first and a writer second, and also like her, it’s hard for me to imagine the writer for whom reading is not one of the—if not the—primary acts. (Not that they don’t exist: E. B. White, for one, read very little, and once said in an interview, “I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.”) To put it simply, it’s not when I’m writing that I feel the most unbroken, unencumbered, and capable of understanding my life, it’s when I’m reading the books I love best, and I believe that the impulse behind writing a work of fiction is, or should be, essentially a generous one: to duplicate that experience for other people.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m always happy to evangelize on behalf of the authors I admire. The problem is narrowing down the list. I’ve been teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop this semester, and last week I was having a conversation with my students about the writers whose available work I’ve read from beginning to end—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, letters, children’s fiction, comics, in-print, out-of-print: all of it. Maybe that would be a good place to start, with my everything-authors. Here, then, are some of the writers whose work I’ve read to what is so far its completion, all of whom, to narrow it down further, have published at least five books in English: César Aira, Kiyohiko Azuma, J. G. Ballard, Peter S. Beagle, Aimee Bender, Scott Bradfield, Gesualdo Bufalino, Octavia Butler, Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino, Peter Carey, Éric Chevillard, Frank Conroy, Louis de Bernières, Jennifer Egan, Donald Harington, Bohumil Hrabal, Richard Kennedy, William Maxwell, Lydia Millet, Haruki Murakami, Lewis Nordan, Charles Portis, Marilynne Robinson, Trenton Lee Stewart, Theodore Sturgeon, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Walter Tevis, and Dennis Vannatta. (It’s interesting to me how many of my favorites I’ve had to leave off this list either because I’m missing a single volume or because they’ve written fewer than five books.)
In reading your stories, I’m always struck by your unique knack for detail. Where do these details come from? How do you imagine such full worlds?
What I try to do is imagine full sentences, one after another, very slowly, trusting that if I get each one right they’ll gradually generate a world. The truth is that, hour by hour, I get very little done, but there are an awful lot of hours wrapped up in every story I write, which means that nearly every detail is the result of long concentration and a whole lot of tinkering. I’ve spoken elsewhere about my working methods, how I broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I’m satisfied that they present the right effect. This is just a metaphor, but if a sentence is failing I seem to hear the dzzzt of a buzzer when I read it, and if it’s successful I seem to hear the ting of a bell. The surface texture of the prose may not be the most important feature of a book, but it’s definitely the most immediate for me, and I’ve set many novels aside at the bookstore when I opened them to the first page and all I heard was buzz, buzz, buzz. In any case, when you’re writing, you approach every sentence this way—attending to the smallest increments of sound, to the insinuations of each phrase—and if you do it honestly enough, and if you allow every moment to follow naturally from the one that came before, you eventually discover that you’ve ended up with a story—and also, somehow, mysteriously, with an expression of your own personality.
This is sort of a long question, so please bear with me.
I saw you on an AWP panel in 2012 on “The Futuristic and Fantastic in Literary Fiction”; you discussed how the line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” is blurring. Your own work certainly blurs this line. You write literary fiction that spans many genres. You explore science fiction in stories like “The Ceiling” and “The Lady with the Pet Tribble” (is that one Star Trek fan fiction?).
Yes—and also Russian literature fan fiction. Both of the Chekhovs: Anton and Pavel.
And your latest collection, The View from The Seventh Layer, includes many fables, and even a choose-your-own-adventure story.
I guess my question is twofold. First: what are your thoughts on the overlap between genre fiction and literary fiction today? Do you think that genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy is, increasingly, coming to be considered literary?
Second, what is your own experience writing genre stories that also employ the tools of literary fiction? Do you consciously decide on the style of a story based on the genre, or do you find each story dictates its needs?
It’s the latter for me—I allow each story to dictate its own needs, and I try to remain open to those needs, whether they’re wholly realistic, wholly fantastic, or some combination of the two. I’ve always believed that art can appear anywhere at all, and at the very least I think there are more readers like me than there used to be. I would love to see a future in which the distinction between literary and science fiction, mainstream novels and graphic novels, realism, surrealism, and magical realism, has become much more permeable, and books are measured by their vitality, their degree of accomplishment, and the fidelity they pay to their own obsessions rather than by the happenstances of genre. Sentences that brim with fire and meaning, stories that make me feel as if I am traveling through the mysteries of another life, literature that reminds me I’m participating in the wealth and sadness and beauty of existence—that’s what I’m hungry for as a reader. I want to feel as if everything I experience on the page—and, by extension, some small portion of what I experience off it—has been set alight through what E. M. Forster called fantasy and prophecy (the former a matter of strange implication, the latter of holy song: that’s my best shorthand approximation of his meaning); which is to say, I want books that depict a world that is not how we believe it to be, and also books that suggest the world as it is is not how we believe it to be.
At the AWP panel I attended, I also remember you passing out a list of your favorite futuristic and fantastic works. Would you care to share an abridged version of it?
Why not the whole thing? You’ll find it attached in its most recent incarnation below.
Fifty Favorite Works of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Several rules: (1) I have listed these books in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, rather than in order of preference. (2) I have chosen no more than one book per author, except when a trilogy or a pair of books seemed to call for a single shared listing. (3) I have favored a broad definition of fantasy and science fiction, which is to say that you’ll find some of these books shelved as fantasy and science fiction in the bookstore, but others as mainstream fiction or children’s fiction.
— Kevin Brockmeier, December 28, 2013
1. Ghosts by César Aira
2. The Other City by Michal Ajvaz
3. Feed by M. T. Anderson
4. The Complete Stories by J. G. Ballard
5. A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
6. The Other Side of the Mountain by Michel Bernanos
7. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
9. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
10. Restless Nights: Selected Stories by Dino Buzzati
11. The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
12. The Fat Man in History by Peter Carey
13. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
14. Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction by John Crowley
15. The Latin American Trilogy by Louis de Bernières
16. Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany
17. The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch
18. Blue Has No South by Alex Epstein
19. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
20. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer
21. In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss
22. The Cockroaches of Stay More by Donald Harington
23. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
24. The Wandering Jew by Stefan Heym
25. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
26. The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
27. Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
28. Collected Stories by Richard Kennedy
29. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
30. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
31. Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels by Giorgio Manganelli
32. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
33. Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin
34. The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales by William Maxwell
35. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
36. Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso
37. Metamorphoses by Ovid
38. And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips
39. Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
40. The Inverted World by Christopher Priest
41. The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
42. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
43. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
44. Blindness by José Saramago
45. The Centaur in the Garden by Moacyr Scliar
46. The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard
47. The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis
48. Microfictions by Ana Maria Shua
49. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain
50. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser