Authors in Conversation
“The truth is that if my fiction is rooted in a sense of place, then I’m pretty sure that place is other books,” says Kevin Brockmeier, author most recently of The Illumination. Brockmeier and Brent Hendricks, whose book A Long Day at the End of the World was published by FSG in March, took to email to discuss the effect growing up in the South has had on their writing; the use of light and dark in literature; their ten favorite things; and—naturally—the apocalypse.
Brent Hendricks: I’m so fascinated by The Illumination that I feel inclined to rush into questions about light, chiaroscuro, and the idea of the end of the world. But I think that’s to be discouraged right off the mark. With this bit of background lighting, however, maybe we could talk some about growing up in the South— your part of the South—and how that played into your early desire to be a writer, and how the place continues to affect your writing or approach to writing. You still live in Arkansas, for example, while a lot of writers from the South finally move away.
Kevin Brockmeier: It’s curious. My family moved to Little Rock shortly before my fourth birthday, and aside from college, graduate school, and a few stray teaching semesters in Iowa City, I’ve lived here ever since. In subjective terms, Little Rock felt like home to me until age 22, and didn’t from age 22 to 30, and from age 30 to now it’s felt like home again. But—and here’s the salient point—I don’t know that my books offer much, if any, strong evidence that I’m a Southerner. (The exception is the one I just finished, called Seventh Grade, which is derived far more explicitly from my own life than any of my other books and is set in a recognizable version of Little Rock as it existed back in 1985.)
Not long ago, one of the columnists for our state newspaper, Paul Greenberg, wrote something about Reynolds Price that I’ve been mulling over: “To call him a Southern novelist is not to limit his scope or his appeal or his power, not in the least, but only to describe their source. Which was and is a sense of place.” This seems to me as good a working definition of what it means to be a Southern writer as any. Is Little Rock the source of whatever scope or appeal or power my work might have? That’s my question, and my answer is I doubt it. The truth is that if my fiction is rooted in a sense of place, then I’m pretty sure that place is other books. There are Southern writers I love, and whose work has certainly shaped my own: James Agee, Lewis Nordan, Donald Harington—not to mention science-fiction and fantasy writers like Walter Tevis and Kelly Link, who are Southerners by either birth or adoption but whose aesthetic falls outside the usual parameters of Southern fiction. But in my reading life, the Southerners have been so mixed together with the Northerners and the Mid-Westerners and the South Americans and the Italians and the Russians and the Japanese and the Ancient Greeks, as well as the graphic novelists and the fantasists and the metafictionists and the folklorists and the poets, that their influence is only one trace among many.
Recently, though, I’ve realized that in my own odd way, I’m a patriot; it’s just that my patriotism is bounded to this one particular city. Last Christmas, for instance, ten inches of snow fell in Little Rock. This is unusual for us, to say the least—it’s been more than a decade since we’ve had a snowstorm that severe. The trees were already weakened by a summer drought and a recent windstorm, and all over town they began dropping their limbs and tilting bodily from the ground, taking out power lines and transformers. By midnight, seventy percent of the city was without electricity. Great patches of it were dark for more than a week. I spent the nights with a pile of blankets on top of me and a great fake-fur muff on my head, reading by flashlight, and the days the same, except reading by sunlight instead. I found it immensely sad to travel around the city and see the landscape crippled by winter: all the yards with these enormous root craters interrupting them, all the roads with these snow-covered limbs stretching across them. There are a thousand things I don’t know about my life, but I do know where my home is, and I hated to see it in such ill health.
What about you, Brent? How has the South made itself felt in your work?
Brent Hendricks: Well, I think it’s safe to say I had a grudge against the South that I had to spend some time working through in A Long Day at the End of the World. Grudge is a good word for it, too—as in a largely unfair bad attitude. My father worked for IBM, or “I’ve Been Moved” as it was called in the old days, and our family had to take off for a new place every two years or so.
When I arrived in the north Atlanta suburbs in seventh grade, then, it was my fifth house and fifth would-be home. And the place we moved to was extraordinarily desolate—all these displaced corporate kids from all over the country shoved into a homogenous suburb that had no sense of itself whatsoever. Here I was—dying for a sense of place—and instead I got a teenage hell of nothingness.
And then I read all those great Southern writers, from Faulkner to Harper Lee to Walker Percy, who reveal a very real sense of place that was out there in the South, and I think that only made matters worse. My friends in the older towns of Georgia, such as Macon, Columbus, and Savannah, all had homes and histories and culture, but I didn’t have that. I didn’t have any of those things. So I think what I’ve put into my writing is the nothingness I learned from the South, my individual experience in that cultureless part of it. Rather than a sense of place that so many Southern writers describe and explore, I have a paradoxically entrenched sense of dislocation. A history without place. And of course that’s unfair to the South as a whole, as I try to account for in my book, but it’s still what I learned from growing up there.
But the South did give me the idea of being a writer. I remember reading Faulkner’s passage about the “lambent suspension of August” in Light in August in eleventh grade. I had to look up “lambent” in the dictionary and, somehow, miraculously, a whole new plane of thinking and seeing opened up for me. I knew exactly what he meant! A magical word . . . In The Illumination, also a book very much about light and darkness and shadow, your writer character, Nina Poggione, actually mentions “lambent” as word on the not-to-use list that she still uses anyway. What about your own use of light and darkness? Can you talk a little about the significance of these?
Kevin Brockmeier: The magical book for me was Peter Carey’s The Fat Man in History; the magical sentences, “Above their heads the branches of the trees were crowded with the birds, each one as blue and jewel-like as the dead body that lay in the front seat of the car. Through mists of gasoline Lilly saw, or imagined she saw, a curious arrogance in their movements, for all the world like troops who have just accomplished a complicated and elegant victory.”
So right now I’m examining the variations of light and darkness on the covers of my books: The Illumination, The Truth About Celia, and Things That Fall from the Sky all display a wealth of light, while The Brief History of the Dead and The View From the Seventh Layer are both cloaked in darkness. Is it only observer bias that makes me feel this is precisely as it should be; that each book has been wrapped in exactly the measure of light or darkness that’s most faithful to its contents?
And now here I am looking at your books: A Long Day at the End of the World is encased almost entirely in darkness, with a small pool of light thickening on the earth where the flowers have been strewn, like a fire of green and white flames, while Thaumatrope, well—it’s just very, very pink.
I’ve often thought that you could approximate my books’ Library of Congress classifications simply by listing the Roget’s International Thesaurus entries I paged to most often while I was writing them. In the case of The Illumination, you would have 26: Pain, 85: Disease, 104: Love, 1016: Beauty, and 1025: Light. It’s true that I’ve always been fascinated by light—or more specifically by the language of light: words like “gloss,” “nimbus,” “guttering.” In The Illumination, that fascination took charge of the whole narrative. I was thinking about the various forms of suffering people are forced to endure, and I had an image of someone in so much pain that he was literally glowing with injury. It was that simple equation, of pain with light, that dictated the terms of the novel. Someone at a reading group once suggested to me that light might represent healing rather than suffering in the book, and though that’s a far more soothing vision than I meant to offer, I imagine it could support such an interpretation. I myself, though, see it as a novel about people grappling with injuries and crises of faith and awful mad tangles of pain and love and beauty and disease and light—thank you, Roget—mostly because those were the issues that preoccupied me while I was writing it.
The Illumination isn’t an apocalyptic novel so much as a novel of translation—I mean “translation” in the old, metaphysical sense of the word: as a leap from one form of being to another, with no intermediary steps—but I think it’s true that both of us have an attraction to apocalyptic literature. What is it about such stories that you find transfixing?
And what, I wonder, would the thesaurus-diagram of A Long Day at the End of the World look like?
(As a footnote, I’ll add that I was poking fun at myself when I had Nina forbid herself from using “lambent.” It’s been one of my go-to words ever since I wrote my first book.)
Brent Hendricks: Wow, I can’t believe you have Thaumatrope, which to the uninitiated and undealt is my poetry book based on a deck of cards—a game of trials and tricks filled with a zillion pieces of shadow and light and subterfuge. But you’re right—that’s the pinkest of pinks on the cover: no shade and definitely no place to hide in all that glare. But if you open it up, there’s really no place to be found. Another kind of sleight of hand.
And speaking of blood sport, I so like your idea of the Roget’s game. Pain. Disease. Love. Beauty. Light. I can easily imagine these as perfect landing spots for The Illumination. In fact . . . wait a minute . . . I have Roget’s International Thesaurus, 4th Edition (1977) and Light is 335, not 1025. My God, is this legal? A canonized sacred text altered for alteration’s sake? Let me get back to this in a minute.
A Long Day at the End of the World is a book about, among other things: the Tri-State Crematory Incident (a mass desecration in which hundreds of bodies were abandoned at a rural crematory in Georgia); the life and death of my father (whose body was one of those abandoned at that crematory); the Old South and New South (selective sketches regarding the Civil War and civil rights and suburban teenage nothingness); Hernando de Soto (the conquistador who rampaged through the South in 1540 with a disease-vector herd of pigs); extinction (something we did); and apocalypse (something we should probably spend a little more time thinking about under the circumstances). In dealing with this range, the thesaurus entries I passed through most often were 335: Light, 62: Disorder, 63: Disarrangement, 119: The Past, 121: The Future, and 70: End.
Which leads neatly into your question about apocalyptic literature.
On the one hand we have the real apocalypse, also known as the anthropocene—the human-caused geological forcing of climate change, ocean acidification, the sixth mass elimination of species, etc., etc. We can always spend time with that. But, historically speaking, I’m particularly fascinated with the old apocalyptic literature, the literary genre that flourished for about 200 years on both sides of Jesus’ life. To get back to the canonized Roget’s, or lack of such a thing, most ancient apocalypses never made it into the sacred canons of the Jews and the Christians. The Astronomical Book. The Apocalypse of Weeks. The Animal Apocalypse. And my favorite, The Book of the Watchers (also discussed briefly in A Long Day at the End of the World). Only the Book of Daniel and Revelation were included, but the others, very popular in their own day, offer a glimpse of desperate people dealing with, not surprisingly, the very topics of Pain, Disease, Love, Beauty, and Light. For me, the old apocalypses provide a new context in which to consider our present predicament.
Maybe one last question each? It’s hard not to note your knowledge of the Bible in your writing (Things That Fall from the Sky and The Illumination come immediately to mind); what’s your favorite and/or nonfavorite book of the Bible and why? It seems like a mean and loaded question so please veer off if you like!
(I’d begun this email with a casual comment that my wife, Kate Bernheimer, and I were having Joy Williams over for Mother’s Day brunch—a necessary piece of information for the following.)
Kevin Brockmeier: Several years ago I made it my New Year’s resolution to read the Bible from beginning to end. This was in 2005, maybe, and I ended up making a January out of it—three or four weeks when I did nothing except work my way page by page from Genesis to Revelation. I had read most, if not all, of the Bible in bits and pieces when I was growing up—a result of nine years of Christian schooling—but this was the first time I ever sat down and ingested it word for word. As you might guess, it was the narrative books that most appealed to me—particularly Genesis (for its fantasy), Job (for its anger), Jonah (for its comedy), and the Gospels, most of all John (for its ability to take a story whose contours have become so familiar and make it seem strange again). The book that most surprised me, though, was Ecclesiastes, which contains the least comforting, the most honest, and the most agnostic verses of the Bible, and therefore—or at least so it seemed to me—the wisest.
The portions I found least rewarding were all the minor books of prophecy that close off the Old Testament. I would say that unless you believe they have real prophetic import—I don’t—it’s hard to derive much value from them.
It’s interesting that you would ask me about my “favorite” book of the Bible, since even though I worry that it’s childish, I continue to perceive the world through exactly that lens: my favorite this and my favorite that. I keep several ongoing lists, of my fifty favorite books, stories, movies, albums, etc., all of which I’m constantly updating, reconsidering, and distributing at lectures and readings. (Two of your Mother’s Day guests, Brent, are mainstays on these lists—Kate’s Gold Sisters trilogy is among my fifty favorite books and Joy’s “Escapes” is among my fifty favorite short stories.) Let me finish, then, by throwing you a softball question and asking you to name your ten favorite somethings—your ten favorite anythings; you decide.
(My own Roget’s International, by the way, is the 6th Edition, copyright 2001.)
Brent Hendricks: Thanks, Kevin, and thanks for having this exchange. I’m thinking that since we began with questions of light and dark, maybe you’d allow me a modification of your ten favorite somethings list. How about five dark and five light?
1) La Cruda, Portland, Oregon: I’ve got to begin here as there’s a section in A Long Day at the End of the World where I reveal my tendency, while over-drinking, to wax both sentimental and apocalyptic (not a particularly good combination): “Something was coming, I’d say, my voice tightening with dread.” A very cool bar back in the day in the rainy city. Dive Bar Factor: Five Stars. (Status: Extinct).
2) The Buffet, Tucson, Arizona. Graffiti in all-over brilliance up to the ceiling—offering good wishes and the reverse—a place where someone seeking a message could find pretty much any kind of answer. No doubt some important apocalyptic signs embedded here over the years. Dive Bar Factor: Five Stars. (Status: Extant).
3) Downtown Pub, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Only spot in town when I lived there a few years ago. Booths and black vinyl bar. Dark. Very dark. But don’t talk to the big guy who looks like he wrestles hogs for fun. I made that mistake once. Dive Bar Factor: Four Stars. (Status: Extant).
4) Space Room, Portland, Oregon. 1970s style lounge with circular booths and walls painted with stars and a pretty Mount Saint Helens mural (pictured before it blew its top). An excellent place to catch a quick drink before “the loading” begins (you know, “the loading,” from that ’70s Neil Young apocalypse song, “After the Gold Rush.”) Dive Bar Factor: Four Stars. (Status: Extant).
5) Tap Room, Historic Congress Hotel, Tucson, Arizona. Still the real deal during the day and more clubby now at night. Old Cowboy pictures on the walls by famous mid-century western artist, Pete Martinez, and a long, long bar mirror perfectly suited to the expansive western eye. Dive Bar Status: Five Stars (day), Three Stars (evening). (Status: Extant).
(1) Hellbender. Enough said, right? If you don’t give protection to the Eastern Hellbender, an endangered giant salamander with undulating reddish-black skin, then to my mind you’re provoking an immediate apocalyptic response. As in hell to pay, definitely wrath of some sort. Status: Under Review.*
(2) Black Warrior Waterdog. Another big salamander found only in scattered populations above the ancient geological fall line of the Black Warrior River and tributaries. As chronicled in A Long Day, ill-advised dam-building projects of the 20th century precipitated a terrible and continuing die-off of freshwater species in Alabama. Coincidentally, de Soto crossed just below the fall line of that river in 1540, after pillaging yet another native town, and today modern Tuscaloosa lies at that same fall line. In fact, you can drink too much beer at the Downtown Pub, mentioned above, and walk down to the river bank and marvel at that long ago non-anthropocenic geological event. There’s even a helpful plaque. Status: Under Review.
3) Warrior Pigtoe. A freshwater mussel that was believed extinct, which was rediscovered a few years ago still hanging on in several backwaters of the Black Warrior. Out of the darkness and into the light. Status: Under Review.
(4) Alabama Map Turtle. It’s said that de Soto died because he didn’t have a map, finally wandering around in Arkansas and northern Louisiana until he perished along the Mississippi River. It’s said he liked to unleash giant war dogs (probably mastiffs and wolfhounds) on natives just for fun. It’s said he died because he deserved it (maybe just I said that.) Status: Under Review.
(5) Waccamaw Fatmucket. Also a mussel. One whose name alone deserves federal protection. Status: Under Review.
* All are now being considered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity’s successful multi-species settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011.
Brent Hendricks is the author of a book of poems, Thaumatrope, and his work has been published in such places as Poetry, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, The Southern Review, and BOMB magazine. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View From the Seventh Layer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages, and he has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has received the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. Recently he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.