Interview by Kelsey Norris
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of three novels, two story collections, two children’s novels, and most recently, the memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip. His work has been translated into seventeen languages and he’s received numerous prizes including three O. Henry Awards, the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. His stories have been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Tin House, The Best American Short Stories, and more. He teaches frequently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.
I was introduced to the short story form and Brockmeier’s writing almost simultaneously, and have followed his work enthusiastically since then. His stories hold a kind of wonder—a balance of depth and levity—and the worlds described within are cleverly constructed without drawing too much attention to themselves. At the center of each of his works are people—their flaws and triumphs and the connections they work to make with one another. We conducted this interview in-person and via email, after he visited Vanderbilt University in Fall 2017. We talked about story construction, the value of reading as a writer, and art amidst politics.
Interviewer: One of the things I love best about your writing is the way that it starts small—here is a person and the situation they find themself in—and then sweeps into grandness—here is the place we are all in, dear readers—and back again. Sometimes this happens within paragraphs, and sometimes within sections. Do these sort of camera zooms come at the same time as the rest of the story, or are they the result of stepping away from the story and figuring out what it needs?
Kevin Brockmeier: Is it fair to answer both simultaneously? In the main when I’m writing, I feel as if all of my efforts are focused on whichever sentence is most immediately at hand. I start at the beginning of a story and proceed very, very slowly. All of my work, including the work of revision, tends to happen incrementally, while I’m termiting away at this sentence or that, one tiny piece at a time. Simultaneously, though, there’s another part of my mind that’s making different decisions, based largely on intuition, about the tone and purpose and direction of a story. Some of these greater decisions (in fact a lot of them) arise out of the small necessities of the moment, but in other cases I’m simply pursuing my own impulse to see the story flex itself in one direction or another for reasons that are slightly obscure to me. Which is to say that, while I’m writing, I’m also posing as a reader, and if I feel the need for grandness or intimacy at a particular moment, even if I don’t quite understand why, I’ll allow the story to express that need.
In the stories of yours that employ a fairytale mode of telling, how do you think about showing compassion to your characters within a form that has a fair amount of distance built into it?
Fairytales can be a cruel form. In the Brothers Grimm, for instance, things don’t proceed easily for many of the characters. They don’t necessarily end happily, either, despite the cliché. The same is true in Hans Christian Andersen, and certainly in classical mythology.
But there’s a fairytale I love called “The Dark Princess.” It’s by a writer named Richard Kennedy, who wrote for children. He imagines a princess who has many suitors because she’s so beautiful. She offers them a task to win her hand, but the task comes at such a high cost—blindness, in fact—that it goes unfulfilled. The story reveals that the reason the princess proposes such an onerous task is because she doesn’t believe anybody will love her enough to fulfill it, but even more importantly because she believes she herself is incapable of loving anyone else. If nobody is willing to fulfill the task, then she never has to put her heart to the test.
There’s a very simple line in the middle of the story that reads, “It is a bad sadness to believe there is no love in the world, and people have hanged themselves for less gloomy discoveries.” This is, in its way, a cruel thought. And the story ends no more happily than those of the Brothers Grimm—or at least whatever happiness it manages to find at the end is not uncomplicated by tragedy. But it’s also humane and revealing and fundamentally respectful of human frailty, confusion, and longing.
The idea of writing fairytales that allow themselves that kind of compassion, and even softness or sentiment, is compelling to me. Most of the stories I’ve written—fantastic or realistic—have taken it upon themselves to consider how it feels to occupy someone else’s experience. I can name writers I admire who take a harder approach to their characters, but most of the writers I love best demonstrate a generosity toward other human beings, and place that feeling right at the heart of their work. That’s what I find myself trying to emulate when I write.
I’m maybe just asking about bravery here, but how do you carry a conceit through a short story, or through a novel, without balking or talking yourself out of it?
I tend to think in terms of a story’s “presiding notion”—that’s the phrase I’ve adopted—but “conceit” will do just as well. What I would say is that, for better or worse, the conceit of a story is what really activates my imagination, and often that conceit is why I decide to write a story in the first place. Even if my eye isn’t turned directly toward it at every single moment, the conceit is always there somehow, at the center of the story, giving shape to everything else: a ceiling that flattens an entire community, a coat that reproduces people’s prayers on slips of paper, a city of the dead but not yet forgotten, a world in which pain manifests itself as light—anything, so long as it arrives with enough potency to make me take notice and carries a certain freight of feeling. That’s not to say that I don’t doubt myself. I do. I’ve never written a book that didn’t force me to think, at some point or many, This is a mistake. Why am I doing this, or doing it this particular way? Why have I imposed these constraints on myself? In the end, though, all I can do is dedicate myself as wholeheartedly as possible to the story as I’ve conceived it and try to express its material from inside its limitations.
Do you find that this affects the way you talk about projects that you’re in the middle of?
I’m one of those superstitious writers who doesn’t like to discuss something until it’s finished, in part out of the fear that the project never will be finished, and in part out of the fear that discussing it will make me feel as if I have to abide by whatever description I’ve offered.
Having stories that are oriented around conceits does make for a fairly easy elevator pitch, though. I don’t like that language—“elevator pitches”—but never mind that. It’s convenient to be able to tell people that The Brief History of the Dead, for instance, is about a city of the dead but not yet forgotten, even if it’s about all sorts of other things, too.
It also seems that if you talk about the conceit after the story’s done, you don’t have to explain or justify it in a way that takes away from it. The magic of a story is that it just works.
That’s right. There’s a quotation from Lydia Millet that reads,
“An obvious but clear distinction between the literary and middlebrow, between books that are art and those that simply are not is not politics per se—which can play a part in either—but the quality of being beyond easy description. If a novel loses little through being synopsized in a page, it is not art but narrative. Narrative can be a skeleton for literature, but clearly is not literature itself. That distinction belongs only to fiction that is comparable to other art forms—to poetry, to painting, to music—and cannot be represented by anything other than itself.”
I think that’s true of most good stories. During the publicity blitz for NW, when Zadie Smith was asked what the novel was about, she expressed a reluctance to say more than, “There are people. They have lives.” Sometimes that’s the most honest description you can offer of a story. You can outline the plot, or explain the premise, or announce the politics, but the plot or the premise or the politics of a novel doesn’t necessarily have much to do with why anyone should want to read it, or what they’ll experience if they do. A novel is valuable because it’s full of human beings and because their lives are demonstrated on the page. Or some novels, I should say. A novel—any novel—is valuable because it offers an experience of what Nabokov called “aesthetic bliss.” That said, if nothing else, a good premise might induce readers to give a book a try.
You’ve published story collections and novels and memoirs and children’s books, and the genres you’ve covered within those projects have been varied. How has it benefitted your writing to be able to spread out like that?
I’m certainly aware of how different it feels to be writing for children instead of for adults, and how different it feels to be writing a novel or a memoir—a book-length narrative—instead of a short story. It’s nice to be able to turn your mind from one to the other as a way of allowing the ground to lie fallow, to recuperate and prepare itself for new growth. If I’m writing for children, then the part of my mind that writes for adults is greening up behind the scenes. When I write for adults, the part of my mind that writes for children is doing exactly the same thing.
Literary stewardship is something I’ve heard poets talk about, but less so with fiction writers. You teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on occasion, and you’re a contributing editor for the Oxford American and help to coordinate the Arkansas Literary Festival. How does teaching and tending to the work of others in community factor into your work as a writer?
I feel as if, at bottom, most of the stewardship I do is as a reader. It’s hard to claim much credit for that, because reading is what I would be doing anyway, whether or not I was writing. But even as a teacher, I’m a close and dedicated reader before I’m anything else. That’s my job when I’m confronting my students’ stories in the privacy of my own home; that and trying to articulate whatever it is that I’ve perceived.
Even before I began teaching or publishing, though, when writing professionally was only a dream I was nursing, I always felt—and all the writers I love best seem to feel the same way—that I was a reader first and a writer second. It’s my reading life that nourishes my writing life. I don’t think I’d want to write at all if there weren’t books that spoke to me, books that make me feel I am occupying the very center of my own experience in ways that almost nothing else does. The writing I do is often very directly in conversation with the books I’ve read. I don’t read in order to write; I read in order to feel alive; but I wouldn’t be capable of writing if I didn’t have a library of books helping me to construct my life.
Do you ever, or particularly lately, find politics and current events seeping into your work? Is it a welcome intrusion or something you push against?
I resist it. I think politics and everything else inevitably seeps into a story from around the edges, but if I’m trying to address the current political moment, I feel fraudulent, somehow. There are fiction writers who are capable of doing that, and doing it wonderfully. Gabriel García Márquez. Graham Greene. Octavia Butler. Albert Cossery’s The Jokers—to me that’s a flawless political novel. But politics isn’t what ordinarily awakens me to art. In fact, our current political moment does exactly the opposite.
I’m not the only writer I know who found it difficult to return to the page in the wake of the last election. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I found myself so wrong-footed by it, because it plays into the most degrading right-wing stereotypes about artists —“liberal tears” and all that—but I did. I was shocked, even despairing, and it took me a while to feel as if I could turn my mind back to fiction writing. If anyone had asked me, I would’ve said, Fiction writing is important. We have to keep going. It matters. But the part of me that’s capable of feeling that way was shaken for a time by what I took to be the unexpectedly dire political circumstances in which we found ourselves. I would even champion the idea that making art is more important than making politics. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but at the very least I would be willing to make the case. But it was hard not to feel, at the tail end of 2016, as if the political life of the country was somehow at odds with, and even savage to, the artistic life.
So, without ruining the magic of a new story by talking about it, what’s next? What project are you working on now?
I don’t want to say too much, but I’m in the middle of a book of very short stories—one-pagers—linked not by their plots, settings, or characters but by a very particular obsession.