John Brandon’s new novel, Ivory Shoals, is his fifth book — joining the novels Arkansas, Citrus County, A Million Heavens , and the story collection Further Joy — and McSweeney’s is proud to have published them all. Daniel Handler has called Ivory Shoals an “adventure full of pluck and wonder, far-flung and yet uniquely, specifically American.” In its review, Publishers Weekly praised the book as “an invigorating jaunt through the Florida swamplands … Brandon’s fans will eat this up, and it should earn him some converts.” Booklist lauded the novel as an “exuberantly narrated coming-of-age adventure.” Brandon spoke with John McMurtrie, who edited the book.
JOHN McMURTRIE: There’s so much to love about this novel. It has the feel of an adventure story for the ages — it’s about a boy who goes on a quest to find his father. But it’s also rooted in a particular place and time — the swamps of Florida after the Civil War — that you bring alive so well, and that one doesn’t see often in fiction. Why did you choose the setting and the era? And what themes were you looking to explore?
JOHN BRANDON: I’m the type of writer who always wants to do something I haven’t before. When you write a novel, you’re wrapped up with it for a couple years, so for me there has to be a new challenge interesting enough to warrant that kind of relationship. It sounds dismissive, but it’s truly a big reason why I landed in this time and place: I hadn’t done it before. I’d written books set in various states, books that inhabited differing atmospheric realms — nihilistic, magical, angsty — but (1) I’d never used a bygone era as a setting, and (2) I wanted to find a new narrative voice. I always use third-person for novels, and the voice I’d settled on and used over and over — kind of wry, deadpan, comic, matter-of-fact — had grown stale in my own ears. Maybe it had started to sound too much like me the person and I’d finally gotten tired of the way I sound. The experience of taking on a completely new voice, one that I still don’t think I can describe (it’s formal and has an unrushed Southern feel, with the musical rhythms of the South, but in its way is precise and still efficient — see, hard to describe) was exactly the kind of mess I like to get myself in. For instance, the voice in Ivory Shoals sounded at first like an Englishman. So recalibrations were necessary.
As far as the draw of the Civil War: what I really wanted wasn’t the war itself. What I wanted was the time right after it ended, the what-now? time, when people are licking their wounds, trying to fathom how their lives are going to work now. I wanted my character to be able to journey across the peninsula and encounter all manner of post-war situations and attitudes — the opportunistic, the bitter, the disillusioned, the defiant, and even those who’d had other, bigger problems all along. I didn’t want to write about the war. I wanted that space, and maybe I’m always looking for this without knowing it (adolescents, con men, rural Arkansas) — I wanted that space where/when normal rules are off for some reason, when folks’ true natures reveal themselves, when folks are under the right conditions to find out what they really think of the world, rather than having the luxury to pick whatever pleasant philosophy they like.
Theme is the last thing I think about. That doesn’t mean I think it’s unimportant — just, sequentially, it comes after everything else. First for me is normally setting, because it determines so much about what the characters will go through and what they might do about it. Next is character — what is each person like and what’s their problem? Once you have specific people with specific problems, with any luck you have plot. For me, theme grows organically out of all that. Theme is something I notice more than foster. Once I notice the themes, I’ll lean into them in whatever way I can. At this point, based on track record, I can expect that class will be a central player in anything I write. Class will define the characters to some degree and have an influence on what sorts of troubles they suffer. It manifests differently in each book, of course, but my main characters almost always have their options limited, their possible paths narrowed, by persistent lack of resources. In Ivory Shoals, the protagonist is poor and the central antagonist is rich and trying to stay that way. Abraham, who’s neither the protagonist nor the antagonist, is the character with the most pressing internal conflict, and that conflict is wrapped up in class tension.
JM: Your young protagonist, Gussie, spends much of the novel on the run. The sense of drama is heightened by his surroundings, this lush region of ferns and sweetleaf shrubs and indigo plants and pines that he must find his way through. And Gussie is forever connected to this natural world, which you render in vivid details. It’s not exactly Walden with a body count, but there’s great pleasure in reading tense scenes in which this landscape plays such a vital role. How did you strike the right balance between the drama and your descriptions of the setting?
JB: Most of the editing (cutting) I did on my own, before anyone else saw the book, was of passages that described the natural surroundings. I’d gotten carried away in the first draft, trying, apparently, to include 100 percent of the flora and fauna that existed in Florida in 1865. Maybe I could have done that if the book were set in Arizona, but not in the humid tropics. So yes, balancing the descriptions and the action was a task I was very aware of. On the one hand, I didn’t mind and didn’t want to resist the idea that the book was a bit of a love letter to lush, wild Florida… on the other hand, I didn’t want it to seem like the writer had gotten lost in his Audubon books and forgotten about the characters.
The truth is that plot is my least favorite aspect of fiction writing. I’m accustomed to having to meet it across the table, both our lawyers present, and banging out an acceptable agreement. In the case of Ivory Shoals, I was lucky to have a pretty sound plot skeleton going in, but still, it’s against my nature to preference plot, so it was something I had to focus on in revision. The spots where I felt best about the balance were when the necessary concerns of the characters intertwined naturally with physical detail. Gussie feels he has an advantage if he delves into the swamp because his pursuer will have to give up his horse, a levelling of the playing field. August uses the easily broken ferns to track Gussie when he leaves the trail. Gussie follows moving rivers whenever he can because he always needs water, and looking for water is how he meets Acey, a benevolent character who lives off the land.
JM: You’re a native Floridian. Even so, how did you come to know so much about the state’s natural environment?
JB: Well, I’d seen the environment plenty. I knew from my entire childhood what it felt like to be in the environment (which is fortunate, because it’s just not the same to experience a landscape as an adult). But the truth is, I didn’t know what half the flowers and trees were called. I guess I knew the animals, but naming all the vegetation was a research project. A fun one. Sometimes I thought I knew what a certain shrub or weed was called, but I was wrong. With a lot of the plants, there are a dozen variations, close cousins, so I’d just pick the coolest name — Devils’ Walking Stick; Jerusalem tree; Paw-paw… some of the names are too good to resist. Every plant I put it the book, I had to make sure I had it in the right section of Florida and the right soil type and make sure it was around in Florida back then, not introduced more recently. At some point in the editing process, somebody pointed out that the Picasso Canna probably wasn’t called that in 1865 because Picasso hadn’t been born.
JM: Your descriptions of the place made me want to buy some waders and venture into this natural realm to see some of what Gussie saw. How much of this world still exists in Florida?
JB: That’s a tricky question. Of course, a lot less of it exists now than in Civil War times, and less of it exists now than when I was a kid growing up on the Gulf Coast thirty-five years ago. That’s just the way of things in Florida — constant ongoing efforts to turn the land into money (since, I guess, the first day the Spanish landed) are so much a part of the place as we know it that it hardly seems worth complaining about. The optimistic way to look at it, for me, is that I had enough of it when I needed it. When you’re nine, you don’t need much. We had a little clear-cut semi-rural property, and across the line on one side was some untouched dry-type Florida woods, probably two acres — palmetto and skinny, swaying pines and gnarled oaks; gopher turtles we would keep as pets in big cardboard boxes until commanded to free them and rattlesnakes my dad would shoot in half and blind-looking armadillos. On the other side of our little settlement was swamp. Cypress knees. Spider webs ten feet across. The thing is, you rarely went into the swamp farther than the distance someone could hit an errant baseball. You got in trouble for going in the swamp. Still, sometimes you went, but mostly it was something you peered into, something you skirted. It was another world, fascinating but dangerous. I guess that’s the way with all wilderness; it’s hypnotic and mysterious but it can kill you. Just more so in the jungly tropics, where the perils are countless and unavoidable and your senses are overwhelmed — perils hidden below you and hanging above you, perils unseeable until it’s too late, perils literally invisible to the naked eye.
It’s easy enough to find a built-up trail that cuts through real Florida swamp, but in my childhood experiences of tromping straight into the morass and almost losing my shoes in the muck and being attacked mercilessly by insects and seeing snakes I didn’t care to identify hanging from branches, I can conclude that there’s a large difference between flirting with wet Florida wilderness on human terms (like at a park or from an airboat or even on a guided, controlled hike in waders) and just walking right into the vines and webs and mossed-over pools that might be two inches deep or four feet deep. Imagine not knowing how far the swamp went on until you came out the other side, not knowing how you’d get water. You better hope it’s wintertime… you won’t make it far in hot weather.
JM: I also enjoyed the novel for its mix of humor and pathos. Did that come naturally to you, or were there challenges along the way?
JB: That mixture was one of the only things about the writing of this book that didn’t feel unfamiliar. Dark humor (humor that’s sometimes no laughing matter, if you’ll allow me that) has always been in the grain of what I do, partly, I think, as a way to avoid melodrama and to avoid characters who whine. Also, as a reader, I think I’ve always trusted tragedy more when it didn’t deny the existence of humor in the world, the ability of the characters to see the absurdity of the world, to use humor to cope. I’m searching a little here. Something I can say with confidence: characters capable of humor are instantly more compelling to me. A mean character who’s mean in a funny way. A snob who’s funny about it — clever enough, witty enough, with a striking way of putting things. Tone can be tricky when you’re trying to get your third-person narrator to balance humor and gravitas, but for the characters themselves to have sharp, original-feeling ways of speaking and of going about things — that’s always welcome and something to be strived for.
JM: Another very enjoyable aspect of the book is its dialogue. A lot of it is deliciously archaic without feeling false. What sources inspired you in writing it?
JB: I’ve always admired the way writers like Joy Williams and Percival Everett get their characters to say unexpected things that feel relevant. You have no idea what they’re going to say, but when they say it, it’s still somehow on-topic. In Ivory Shoals, I was trying to hang onto that as much as I could despite the fact that dialogue of that sort doesn’t always play nice with genuine plot. My main character, Gussie, mostly plays a straight man to the folks he runs into, the folks hunting or helping him or selling him something — it was with everyone except Gussie that I felt I always had a chance to go for it with the dialogue, to take a particular personality and use it to power particular-sounding turns of phrase, to have characters express their frustration or resignation (or whatever) in ear-catching fashion. Because of the bygone Southern setting, I knew I was borrowing some of the brisk callousness of Cormac McCarthy, but at other times I was channeling the generously rhythmic back-and-forth of Zora Neale Hurston. It’s hard to say exactly how your influences translate into your own work. Tom Drury is an ever-present dialogue guru for me — he of the bone-dry unhurried Midwestern deadpan… he teaches one not to go for punchlines, but just to allow each character’s plight, each character’s slightly warped but functional perspective, to show through in what they choose to joke about and what they consider (and these moments are the funniest) deadly serious matters.
It’s hard to imagine a book with episodic DNA in which dialogue isn’t important — or at least that type of book as attempted by me. There are so many characters who are only around for one scene or short sequence of scenes… what more efficient and vivid way for them to leave their marks than by what they say?
Preorder Ivory Shoals at our store.