Amanda Uhle spoke with John Brandon about his writing for McSweeney’s and his new film, Arkansas, which was released this week.
AMANDA UHLE: McSweeney’s published Arkansas in 2008. Now, the book has been made into a film by Lionsgate, releasing today. How involved have you been in the screenplay and the production of the film?
JOHN BRANDON: I’ve been, by choice, hands-off about the movie. The first thing you’re asked when a book of yours is getting optioned is whether you want to work on the screenplay. My easy answer, for several reasons, was no.
Most importantly, I wanted someone with their own vision for the story — someone who thought in visual terms and knew how to translate from page to screen. I wanted that person to be able to go where they pleased creatively without being hindered by my relationship to the material. I can only see the characters and the place one way, and I think it’s a good thing to let filmmakers bring their own sensibility and style to a project. The idea of the filmmaker ‘not being true to the book’ isn’t something that ever scared me. To the contrary, I feel better about handing the novel over to someone who sees the narrative their own way.
Less importantly, I’m a little too possessive of my time to spend it trying to get a movie made. With a novel, I go into the endeavor knowing how it works: I spend about three years writing a book, and then McSweeney’s publishes it. It’s virtually free to write a book, and you do it by yourself. The movie industry, conversely, is much more complex. You need a bunch of money to make a movie, you need a hundred other people — how you get this money is mysterious even to seasoned Hollywood professionals. Pitching. Trying to get people ‘attached.’ Not my bag. The quality of a screenplay is one of dozens of factors (and almost never, it seems, the central factor) that go into whether that screenplay is made. In short, unless film was my primary medium, unless I’d gone to school for film and knew people in film and went to sleep and woke up thinking of film — if all that were true, then I’d be willing to spend time and effort on it.
Also, in the case of Arkansas in particular, I was very comfortable giving the book to Clark Duke. Right from our first talks, I could tell he knew what he was doing and that he had a genuine connection to the book. He’s an Arkansas native, and the way he became aware of the novel was he saw it by chance in a bookstore and just started reading it. It all felt right.
AU: Can you say more about what the process of writing a book looks like for you? What happens during those three years of writing? How fully formed are your novels before you begin to write?
JB: They’re usually pretty unformed. I usually have a place and I have the main few characters, and then I go a couple scenes at a time. I don’t use chapters, but usually I know the scene I’m working on and maybe the next two after it — kind of like headlights on a dark road, I can see just far enough. I say “usually” because Ivory Shoals, the one due out next year from McSweeney’s, I actually had a rough plot for before I started. It happened by accident. I did maybe a year of research for the book before I wrote a word, not so much in service to historical Civil War accuracy (though hopefully I didn’t make any blunders in that regard), but more to get a feel for the times — how cooking and chores were done, how smoking worked, horses, guns, etc. As the writer Tom Franklin once told me, “If you don’t know what was involved in going to the bathroom, you’re not ready to write scenes in that time period.” I put quotes around that, but I’m paraphrasing.
Anyway, I was doing all this more-or-less random research, and it was impossible to ask myself if I might be able to use this detail or that detail without asking what, exactly, I’d use it for. Automatically, my brain wanted to attach all the found details to characters, which made it necessary to think about what each character would be doing in the book, which led to thinking about when and why they might do these things. A year is a long time. By the end of the research, I had a semblance of a plot. It felt different to me, writing from a blueprint. It was maybe a little less fun, but I have to admit it was nice to have an idea where I was going to end up.
AU: You’ve lived in different places around the U.S. and you’ve spent some time traveling — particularly in the American South — and vivid local details are a hallmark of your writing. How do you figure out how to distill the whole feeling of a place onto a page? Is it something you’re consciously doing whenever you travel?
JB: Once I get that feeling from a place — and that feeling, for me, is a mixture of believing that I know the essence of a locale and also believing I might have my own take on it — once I get that feeling, then yes, I start pretty obsessively collecting details, obsessively thinking about how to put certain features of a place into words. Most times, for me, the setting comes first; the tone and atmosphere of the book and what’s possible for the characters grow out of the setting. New Mexico. Arkansas. North Florida. I never get that feeling I’m looking for in big cities, especially big Eastern cities but also Chicago, St. Louis. I love reading stuff set in big cities and love hanging out in them, but when I’m in one it always feels, as a writer, like there’s no way in. No room for me. It feels like the place has nothing to do with me and doesn’t need or want me. Of course, it’s the opposite for other writers — people find ways to make the same neighborhoods of New York fresh and enchanting over and over. It’s just a personal thing for me — it’s always a deserted stretch of highway or an out-of-the-way bar that gets me taking notes. I could be standing on the edge of a field, looking at a dilapidated barn, and I feel like no one has ever stood right there and looked exactly in this direction at this time of day and really listened. I could be at the end of the bar in some crappy dive, and a certain metal song comes on and a certain old lady walks in — I feel like it’s up to me to do something about it, like I’m being called off the bench to go make something happen.
AU: Do readers ever tell you what they take away from those deeply localized feelings of place?
JB: I get compliments here and there for capturing the feeling of a place (and sometimes people are just pleased to see their neck of the woods in a novel), but capturing a feeling and ‘realism’ aren’t always the same thing — what’s interesting to me is when a native of one of my settings informs me of a particular concrete detail that doesn’t match with reality. They’ll tell me there isn’t a hill where I put one, or ask me what lake I was talking about — what I explain to them is that I’m fascinated in the essence of their town or county or whatever, but I’m not out to faithfully map its roads and attractions and precise topographical constitution. For better or worse, I’m going to make the place my own in whatever way benefits me. I might make the place more fun than it really is, I might make it more dangerous — often both. I usually have a guiding image associated with a place and I’m more faithful to that than the real particulars. I thought of Albuquerque as a pan with marbles in it; the marbles had no reason to be in the pan, and when you tilted the pan this way and that they would all roll around without really touching each other. They would sometimes glance off each other and change trajectory. They couldn’t get out of the pan — they never got rolling that fast. As a result, A Million Heavens is a book with too many characters, who wander around and sometimes bump into each other and sometimes don’t. I thought of Citrus County as a petri dish — whatever was trapped in there just got smellier and more unhealthful by the day… it just got worse over time.
I’m not comfortable using settings I know too well. (I already ruled out cities, and now places I’ve lived in for too long… I’m picky — that much is clear.) If I know where every single bank and McDonald’s is, and I already have associations with this vacant lot and this orange grove, and I know so-and-so lives on this street — that level of familiarity leaves me paralyzed. Like, what’s left to interpret? Where’s the space for imagination? Of course, just like with New York and Chicago, there are people who write thousands of great pages about their hometowns, but for me it’s the opposite. I can’t assert myself if there’s nothing there for me to discover, to abuse, to naïvely celebrate.
AU: Arkansas the film is being released digitally during this time when so many of our public places are closed for business. What are your personal plans for watching the film on its release day? What do you hope viewers will do — in their own homes?
JB: I’m planning on watching it with as little fanfare as possible. Movie-watching is one of the few things that hasn’t changed, at least for me, since I don’t go to theaters often anyway. The rest of the day is weird — for instance, I’m getting ready to leave my office, where I’m the only person in the whole building, and drive across town to get hand-sanitizer from a distillery that switched over its production lines (probably an hour-long line to wait in), then I’ll be putting gloves on to pump gas and then I’ll be taking my sons to an abandoned soccer field where we’ll hope no one else is playing.
I guess I hope watching the movie is a little normalcy for people (while also being an escape), and I’ll especially dedicate it to the parents spending half their day remotely schooling their kids and the other half hearing about nothing but Lego sets, Pokémon cards, Star Wars, and endless various superheroes. Here’s a couple hours break from all that.
Check out John Brandon’s book picks over at our store.