W.W. Norton Q & A with Brad (2010)
1. Q: You move between short stories and novels. Why one and not the other at any given time?
A: Maybe Ray Carver was absolutely truthful (I don’t mean to say I ever thought he wasn’t, but just in case anyone thought he was just making excuses) when he said that he wrote only short stories early in his career because the circumstances of his life made writing a novel impossible. Sometimes that’s the case. You can write the first draft of a short story pretty quickly, and while some stories take a long time to get just right, you’re not groping your way through the thing for the weeks, months, or years it may take to finish the first draft of a novel. And then of course, revising a novel can be much more complex and complicated than revising a story. A short story is a difficult form, and there are novelists who can’t write them or don’t try, and vice versa. I feel lucky I’ve written both, with some success, and hope I can write a better novel next time, and better stories next time, until I can’t write anymore.
2. Q: In many of your stories in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives there are the world of children and the world of parents—colliding, loving, misunderstanding, coming into context in retrospect. Do you view the two worlds as distinct and separate? Why is this theme more prevalent in Aliens than in your previous books?
A: I have a hard time not living the past constantly. I’m fairly obsessed with the past and its influence on the present. Probably to a neurotic degree, but I’m not convinced that to do this isn’t necessary, if you aspire to be a sentient being. I can’t abide the idea of flushing it. Of being oblivious. Even though I’ve pursued various states of oblivion in order to escape embarrassment or great regret. It never goes away, unless you engage in resolute obliteration. Which is a kind of stupidity. I’d like to achieve something in between the maudlin obsession with past mistakes and losses and the obliteration of their memory. When I write from an autobiographical impulse or memory or recollected anecdote or image, this is what I’m trying to do on some level—not entirely. My childhood was vivid and confusing and beautiful and too brief, as all are. I revisit it often. I had an early preoccupation with my parents’ marriage and our family’s dynamics, for lack of a better term at the moment. I’m only now getting old enough to even think about it without recoiling in fear or being swept away in a wash of sadness and regret. I guess that sounds as maudlin as it is. Which is why it’s been so hard to write about it (my childhood and early adulthood) and why it’s taken so long to do so, why it will continue to be hard to do it well and not badly.
3. Q: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? Do you feel identified or categorized as a certain type of writer? Are you concerned about ghetto-ization—for yourself or other writers?
A: I’m concerned that, starting a few years ago when a new crop of Southern writers started putting out a lot of good books, a kind of resentment began to kindle in other regions of the country—and in New York. I worried that aggressive marketing of books and writers as Southern would soon produce a kind of backlash of scorn, that we’d be seen as thinking of ourselves as “special,” with our grand literary tradition and the geniuses of the Southern literary renaissance (and people in other regions are thinking, “How long do you think you’re going to get away with this?”). Our love of the language can sometimes become more like a gushing teen infatuation. And Southern lit is also, I think, pretty vulnerable to producing and allowing and even celebrating cheap versions, clichéd versions, of its culture. Making the whole thing, of course, an even bigger, easier target. I’m a Southern writer because I come from Mississippi and spent almost half my adult life in Alabama, and the stories I have written come from there, whether they’ve been self-consciously Southern or not. So, yeah, I think there are things to be concerned about, and that we should be aware of. We shouldn’t allow anything like a kind of solipsistic condition to exist either in our own imaginations or in the way others may perceive us as a discrete group or type. We should try even harder to write honestly and not cheaply about place and people in the South.
4. Q: Parts of your second and third books were written while living outside of the South—in the Northeast for The Heaven of Mercury and the West for Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives yet your writing and themes remain distinctly and beautifully Southern-flavored. Are you returning to a geography of memory, a time and place of the past? Do you think changing landscapes and cultures have affected your style?
A: In graduate school at Alabama, as a native Mississippian, I had no interest in writing stories that were distinctly southern in any way. I didn’t write one that was until I started the title story of Dog-Men, and I think it’s southern in a way that’s more existential than overt. That’s debatable, I suppose. But it seems to me that those guys could be living in an old farmhouse out west, as easily as in an old farmhouse outside Montgomery, Alabama. But the last story in the book, “Kindred Spirits,” I wrote thinking about southern things, which is to say southern problems like race, class, history. The Heaven of Mercury became a southern gothic by default: the story I had to tell, the characters, could dictate nothing else—although I think honestly that only certain parts of that novel are really gothic, and most parts of it are not. Living in Boston while I finished The Heaven of Mercury made it easier for me to see the place in a broader way, to imagine it for the story and the characters and their histories. I didn’t feel so hemmed in by the heavy reality of the place all around me. The confusing (for me, anyway) proximity. Maybe because I have a kind of difficult history with the place and some people who are still in it. In Aliens, I was returning to a geography of memory, yes. Especially in “Vacuum” and the title novella, but in some of the other stories, as well. Again, here I am writing about them from memory some 1500 miles away. I don’t know if living in a place that’s so open, so vast and sparsely populated, helped me to take a calmer approach to those memories and writing about that place and time, or not. I suspect it did.
5. Q: It seems you are always pushing at the borders of reality and the human capacity to endure. You challenge your structures and your characters to rise above (and out of) the ordinary. Your work suggests there is real, true magic in mundane life. Do you believe this? If so, why, and where do you think this view of the world comes from?
A: I’m like Huffy Henry in Dream Songs . “I confess that I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored.” (I may not have those words just right, apologies to Berryman.) I have a problem with boredom, with “motivation.” With “anxiety,” “depression,” “distraction.” I detest the terms and means of defining them, the processes, as much as the conditions people are trying to describe. There have been times in my life, lengthy ones, when the ordinary routine of days following days, of the things going on in the days, seemed utterly pointless. If I hadn’t wanted so fiercely to be a writer, to become a good one, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I’d be a worse drunk, doing some other job, I suppose. I liked being a carpenter’s apprentice, a garbage man, a worker on the flight line at a local small airport. I liked digging foundation ditches. I liked simplicity, but I hated repetition of the more fundamental things such as getting up, putting on clothes, brushing teeth, making coffee, talking to people about what seemed to me meaningless things (all the time). On the one hand, realism isn’t nearly enough. On the other, I love things that seem so hyper-realistic as to almost seem surreal. Murakami can do that. Joy Williams. Cheever did. A lot of writers did, and do, I’m sure. To make that work you have to be good enough to subvert (if that’s the right word) the reader’s preconceived ideas—even demands—that a story be predictable in a particular way. They may bitch about writing in which something seems too predictable, but they’re talking about the more obviously predictable things. I’m talking about the fact, for instance, that we demand an ending, which is fine if you allow the ending to come only from the story itself, and not from some craven notion of what the reader needs or expects or hopes for. I feel like I’ve been beating myself up all my writing life with all these rules. It’s like being someone who feels like he has to please other people all the time. It’s a kind of fear. It’s endemic, maybe, to learning how to write. In other words, I’m a realist but I want the real to seem very strange, because I think it is. As for pushing the human capacity to endure, people constantly alter their own sense of reality in order to endure. Some succeed in ways that are strange and maybe beautiful. Of course, sometimes the result is mean and destructive. I’m more interested in the ones who find the strange and seek passage through it to something beautiful. The idea, in The Heaven of Mercury, that there could be an entire, very realistic and real seeming and maybe even real extended experience, almost another life, almost an extension or even alteration of the person’s “real” life and history, in the second or nanosecond between life and death—I enjoyed thinking about and writing that. It was a beautiful end to a difficult life. That’s what I meant by it, anyway. I think.