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A Million Heavens, please visit our store.
Eli Horowitz: During the writing of your first book and most of the second, you were bouncing around from city to city, working a variety of warehouse-type jobs. For A Million Heavens, you’ve had a more settled, writerly life. How has that affected things?
John Brandon: Well, less writing takes place in the writerly life because the writerly life includes teaching classes and giving readings and organizing author visits and reading theses and devising syllabi and serving on committees and advising journals and applying for jobs/fellowships and drafting letters of recommendation and asking for letters of recommendation and blurbing books etc, etc, etc. When we were off the literary grid, nothing was expected of me but to show up on time and be ready to lift things, so when I got off work I was fresh-minded and exercised and my will was undefeated.
But yeah, somehow this book got written. I’d like to think my life circumstances have little to do with the fiction I produce. When you sit down with the blank paper, it doesn’t really matter what you were doing twenty minutes before or who likes you or doesn’t like you or whether you’re poor or rich or whether you have a cushy office or write in a coffee shop. Nothing can save you from the blank paper and nothing can stop you from writing.
EH: While this book still feels very Brandony, Brandonish, Brandonian, it seems to have a sunnier attitude towards humanity—at least, no one gets a fork in the eyeball in this one. Was this an intentional change? Do you have a newfound optimism, or is New Mexico just less eye-gougey than Arkansas?
JB: I wouldn’t have the attention span to write a book that wasn’t fighting back against me. I feel exactly as unsure now as when I was writing Arkansas. With Arkansas I was doing a bunch of small violences that came together to define a world. I was dealing with people in their early twenties who were getting genuinely meaner and more doomed by the day. In Citrus County I was dealing with one major violence that defined the world of a few characters, characters who, for their own reasons, aspired to be mean. The one big event happened in Citrus and then I was writing in the shadow of that event the rest of the book. My characters were adolescents, which both frees and handcuffs you.
In A Million Heavens, the challenge was juggling lots of characters, and being able to treat them all differently but fairly. I was trying to create the illusion of randomness, but certain aspects of the book are highly planned. I wanted happy endings and sad endings and middling endings. I wanted some of the characters to be strongly connected, some weakly, some not at all. I was trying to create a randomness that to me equates with realism, but of course none of it is truly random and lots of it could only happen in a book. These troubles kept me interested. And yeah, I guess a sunny outlook was something new for me too. Sunny is probably overstating it, but you’re right, there are no forks in the eye.
And you’re also right that Arkansas is the most eye-gougey state in the country, while New Mexico is near the least eye-gougey, just behind Minnesota and North Carolina.
EH: What else made New Mexico the right setting for this book?
JB: New Mexico is a place I didn’t spend enough time in to know too well—like where every car wash and Bank of America are—but well enough to get a feeling from. It’s magical. It’s remote. It’s people living where no humans should be living. It’s a place that doesn’t offer any help, like shade.
EH: You don’t really describe how any of your characters look, but I got the sense that I would find Cecelia pretty. Is that your subtle genius or just my fertile imagination?
JB: If you were going to hit on Cecilia, what would be your opening line?
EH: John, I don’t “hit on” girls—I engage them in mutually enriching courtship rituals. Opening lines are for amateurs. Which is not to say I’m not an amateur. But opening lines? Come on.
In any case, Cecelia does strum charmingly. The whole book is full of very convincing songs and songwriting—a rare thing in literature, I think. Do you have any musical background?
JB: My parents took me to piano lessons when I was little and it was a whole failure. Then, around ninth grade, I made them buy me a guitar and I took lessons. Failure. I have no musical talent. To say I wish I could write songs would be the same as saying I wish I could give birth to a red panda. I’ve always thought there should be a documentary where you see how every song on an album gets written. You see the moment of each song’s genesis—a germ discovered during a jam session or the lead singer is driving along in his pickup and something just comes to him, or whatever—and then you see how the song is collaborated on, or not, how the bridge is decided upon, how the song changes before it’s time to go to the studio, how the producer influences the sound. I know there are movies of bands recording, but I want to see everything before that. Probably not possible.
EH: Outside your novels, you write almost exclusively about college football. But college football never appears within your novels. Why is that?
JB: Those are worlds I keep separate. I have that girls’ basketball stuff in Citrus County, but it’s treated comically, and college football isn’t comical to me. It’s like politics are to some people, or music to some other people—if you make any passing mention of college football, I’m ready to talk about it for six or seven hours. I have no ironic distance, no opening through which I could make fiction of it. And I have an arrogant, cranky voice (my natural voice) I use for writing about college football that wouldn’t work for fiction.
EH: Did you get into Friday Night Lights?
JB: I’ve seen a few episodes. I remember ridiculously good-looking young people and then that great coach. I love the coach. No matter how many times anybody says it, “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose” is the greatest philosophy for life anyone has yet come up with. It’s all you need to think about. I aspire to it. It’s true, you can’t lose. I’m tearing up. See, I have no ironic distance with football.
EH: Were any other books a particular inspiration for this one?
JB: It’s kind of embarrassing how directly influenced I was on this book. There’s this guy named Tom Drury who wrote a book called The End of Vandalism. There’s a boatload of characters, some of them running in the same circles, some not, lots of storylines, and when they talk to each other it’s in the funniest deadpan you’ve ever heard. There’s a book Padgett Powell wrote called Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, which employs unrealistic/dreamy elements inventively and to great purpose. There are the stories of Joy Williams, in which the settings are recognizable, named places, but seem excitingly off-kilter and over-unified. Her settings seem to have concerns of their own that mix up with the concerns of the characters. Read “The Yard Boy” again. I’m stealing from more writers than that, but these are the three that readily spring to mind.
EH: How did you approach the semi-magical elements of this book? I mean, it sort of has an angel. And a maybe-immortal wolf. Are you some kind of hippie?
JB: I knew from the start there would be magic. I’ve never been big into the idea that everything in a book needs to be correct, like if armadillos don’t roam north of a certain latitude line and your story takes place just north of that you can’t have an armadillo in it, or like there has to be lots of authenticating jargon or that the War of 1812 has to take place in 1812. Like if someone says to me, “There aren’t any hills in Pine Bluff,” my response is, “Well, except in my novel. In my novel, I needed hills in Pine Bluff so there are hills in Pine Bluff. Anyway, isn’t there a bluff?” I’ve always found it more rewarding to take stuff I only sort-of know about and fill in the rest how I wish it to be. I think including the supernatural is an extension of that ethic, for me. I knew with that first Reggie section I had to be matter-of-fact, and that if the reader was okay with it then they’d be okay with whatever other magic came later.
EH: Have you ever seen a wolf in the wild?
JB: I saw a wolf in Wyoming. The wolf was across a river from us, wide and fast-moving enough that the neither we nor the wolf felt threatened. Of course, somewhere in your soul you feel fear when a wolf stares at you, but then it kept picking its way down the river’s edge and out of sight.
EH: What about a bear?
JB: My bear sightings have never been quite as lovely. I’ve seen them in national parks, seeming tame, with hundreds of people taking pictures of them. I almost hit one with my truck. Why are you asking me about bears?
EH: I don’t know—they just seem like another thing people may or may not have seen in the wild.
JB: Are there coyotes in the Bay Area? They’re supposed to be everywhere now. New York City. Elementary schools.
EH: I believe Peter Coyote lives in Marin, yes—not sure about the rest of his family. But let’s stay on topic. Did the book evolve much along the way? For example, did it ever have a plotline about a dude with a bunch of brains in his apartment?
JB: As you know, Eli, the original draft had a guy who had pest problems in the form of living brains inhabiting his spare room. It’s a testament to my agreeable nature and non-artistic temperament that I agreed to let him be cut out. Luckily, I’ve sold the idea to a major network which is going to make a TV series out it. They’re deciding whether it should be a sitcom or an hour drama. Their confusion in this matter is a testament to my complex tragicomic sensibilities. There are a lot of testaments to me, if you look hard enough.
What was your problem with the brain-pests anyway? Did you have aspirations to be an editor when you were in college, or was the first time you considered it when someone said to you, “Hey, want to edit a novel?”
EH: I can’t remember any aspirations at all, or at least none so comprehensible or finite as to have actual words or occupations attached to them. It happened pretty close to the way you say—82% fluke, like most worthwhile things in life.
JB: When it comes to editing novels, are there principles or philosophies that you carry into each new book, or do you wing it? Are there statements you could make about editing that would start with “I always” or “I never”? This is for all the kids out there who want to be editors.
EH: The only universal principles I’d admit to are vague to the point of meaninglessness and/or drippiness. Like, “Listen.” Or, “Read.” Or, “Try.” Standard human-being stuff, mostly. There’s no one way books should be, obviously, so there’s no one way they should be edited.
JB: Editors have to know everything. They have to be as smart, in a way, as all their writers put together. How do you get smart? Do you read a lot of thick nonfiction books and dry magazine articles? Can you get smart watching TV? In this busy modern world, how can a person who’s not so smart become smart, a person with children and a job? Is it possible?
EH: Did I sound smart during our editing of this book? You know full well that I certainly did not. I’d just mumble a hundred vague half-sentences until I accidentally said something useful, which we’d both immediately clutch hold of. The key to that process was our mutual acceptance of our mutual cluelessness.
As for becoming smart, it’s probably too late—but at least you have a child. He still has a chance! Get some old encyclopedias—they’re still mostly correct, and very inexpensive—and fill the basement with beanbag chairs.
JB: Your mother puts horseradish in her cranberry sauce. Where’d she get that brilliant idea?
EH: It took me a long time to give in to that. In my early years, there were some dark episodes of her sneaking broccoli into mashed potatoes, yams into burgers, things like that. So I guess I became suspicious that this horseradish gambit was another of those scams. But you’re right, it’s delicious. For that matter, maybe I should go back and give the yam-burgers another try.