The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with John Brandon

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

Two years ago, we fell head first into the land of John Brandon’s Citrus County, a funny, terrifying novel about teenage love and kidnapping set in the swampy gloom of central Florida, and since then we’ve been waiting anxiously for his next book. Luckily for us, A Million Heavens, hits shelves today, and if you haven’t already gathered, we recommend that you find yourself a copy as soon as humanly possible. Brandon’s newest novel is a strange, vaguely surreal but desperately true portrait of a dying town in New Mexico, footsteps from the desert, where a piano prodigy lies in a coma, a girl receives songs from an ex-bandmate and would-be-lover stuck in purgatory, and a wolf stalks the proceedings, waxing poetic. We talked to Brandon about his newest work, his attitude towards the industry, and how he finds inspiration in the bleakest of locales. Read on.

I loved the interlocking perspectives of A Million Heavens, and I found the wolf’s descent into madness absurdly wonderful. Which thread or character did you start with when you were writing or configuring the story, and how did the rest grow from there? Or did different sections emerge in your head hand in hand? 

I had Cecelia, Nate, and Reggie first. The band Shirt of Apes. I’d tried to write about them before and could never figure out how. Then I realized I should kill one of them — the best one. The band’s resistance to being written properly, it turns out, was due to the members being too uniformly alive. Killing Reggie led me to dealing with a character stuck in a waiting room of the afterlife, which I found interesting enough to pursue. When exactly I decided Cecelia would be the main character, I can’t recall. She’s the type who takes action, so maybe she naturally demanded a lot of pages. A nineteen-year-old guitar-playing chick who does whatever pops in her mind is always a strong candidate for main character. Since I was writing about purgatory, I figured why not write in a wolf’s point of view? Once I decided I was okay with having lots of characters and I was okay with magic, I ended up with too many characters and too much magic. In revision, my editor convinced me to cut out an entire storyline (probably sixty pages) about a guy who wakes up one morning and finds living brains on the floor of his study. Other stuff was cut out. Now, I’m happy to report, the novel contains the optimum amount of impossible goings-down and the ideal cast of characters. And the precise number of words all novels should contain. I’m not going to tell you how many that is.

The settings of your novels are often so strange and specific that they feel almost surreal — swampy central Florida, a dying town in New Mexico, rural Arkansas. What draws you to these gloomy locales? Do they serve the story, or does the story serve them?

Setting is what I start with. Setting gives me the mood, and the mood acts as a guiding principle, which helps in the early stages. At the beginning you’ve got too much open space, nothing but choices, so having a place and whatever feeling you associate with that place really helps. I never intend to make places seem terrible or glorious. Or even to render them perfectly accurately. Each setting I’ve used for a novel was a locale that gave me the feeling I didn’t have it figured out. I like places that feel unfinished or in decline or in transition or frontier-like. The desert is a place humans ought not be living, a place where if you venture out past the last streetlight, you enter a vast, ancient wilderness. I’m from Florida, and I remember standing in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and feeling utterly exposed, feeling the correct sense of myself as an animal: pitiful. We’re just pitiful as creatures. And it’s really windy around Albuquerque. And it does indeed feel mystical. I started to consider writing about a bunch of people living in this place where no people should be, and the wind could keep blowing the story this way and that, sort of wantonly. The people would be subject to troubles of their own device, of course, but also whatever troubles luck or nature or supernature imposed on them. At some point, probably before I’d written a word of the book, I got enamored with the idea of conjuring the feel of real life by making the plot seem uncrafted. I thought I should have a truckload of characters and sometimes they’d be strongly connected and sometimes weakly and sometimes not at all. And some of the storylines could fizzle without warning while others came to melodramatic heads. I could sometimes explain the magic and sometimes leave it mysterious. In short, I wanted to write a novel that didn’t feel like it had been micro-managed within an inch of its life by a novelist. I wanted it to feel found, I suppose. Not a new idea, I know, but it was the right idea for the desert. In practice, of course, there are aspects of this literary aspiration that are ridiculous. Such as one has to craft the narrative into feeling uncrafted. Such as the fact that connection and resolution are satisfying, and satisfaction is good. Such as the book contains impossible occurrences, so how much like real life could it feel? Nonetheless, it was a helpful philosophy to keep at hand while I was writing the first draft.

Where do you see American fiction going — or, perhaps, where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

The direction of American fiction. Hmm. An agent or editor could probably give a more informed answer. It seems that everything in the country has gotten worse over the past several decades (except salads, I always remind people), so probably American fiction has gotten worse too, but who knows? What the industry should strive for is to have no really good book go unpublished, and there’s no way to know how close we are to that. To some degree, as usual, we have to depend on the powerful people to also be good people. We have to keep depending on agents to champion worthy books even if they don’t foresee a windfall. We have to keep depending on publishing companies to use some of that YA dough on new literary writers.

But to be honest, this is none of my concern. I don’t think it’s right for serious artists to worry about how/when/if their wares will be peddled. I don’t think it’s healthful for writers to worry about where they fit into the literary tradition or what their place will be in literature’s future. I couldn’t get an agent for my first two books, and probably if not for McSweeney’s picking Arkansas out of the slush pile, I would still be unpublished. I’m very lucky, there’s no doubt about that. But during those years when I was sending out to dozens and dozens of agents and dozens of contest and a hundred journals and getting a blizzard of rejections in return, there wasn’t a single day when I let my misgivings about the publishing powers-that-be stop me from writing. I was going to die with ten unpublished novels. I think that’s the correct way for a writer to approach things. Neither the grand economic forces of the book business nor the foibles of those who operate within that business can stop a writer from pursuing his/her vision. They can refuse to publish you, refuse to agent you, refuse to prize you, refuse you jobs and fellowships and grants, but as long as you’ve got the wherewithal to possess a pen and a sheaf of paper, they can’t stop you from writing. You’ve got an industry of one.

What’s the last good book you read?

I’ll give you two:

Little Century by Anna Keesey. This is set in the high desert of Oregon in the early 1900s. You’ll feel like you’re reading a classic (and possibly this book is destined to become a classic), except this novel is more brisk than most of the classics. These days, when someone writes in a traditional manner and does it really well, it’s exhilarating. There are no tricks. No false notes. The most elegant descriptions. The main character’s inner life is vivid and convincing. The plot is consequential and integral, yet not overbearing. I have a better-than-average imagination and I can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this. Well, that’s not true. Some people don’t like reading.

Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles by Kira Henehan. This is for the adventurous set, a helping of literary kangaroo tartare. Not that it has anything to do with Australia. This book won the Milkweed contest a couple years ago, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one of these deals where if a thousand writers tried this (and they have), nine hundred and ninety-nine would fail. Henehan is the one who pulled it off. This thing is a fucking torrent of wise, clever observation. It’s relentlessly inventive. You’ll find yourself in that rare zone as a reader where you feel like the book doesn’t need you, like you’re eavesdropping on a brilliant conversation that might not have been meant for you, and you hope no one realizes you’re there and you can keep on listening and listening.