John Brandon is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories, all published by McSweeney’s. He is also a former writer for Grantland and ESPN.com. The weather was clear and warm in White Bear Lake as we discussed his life as a writer and a professor at St. Paul, MN’s Hamline University. We also delved into the work he put into his newest publication, Further Joy, a collection of stories, as well as the approach he is taking to his upcoming novel. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
It is July 16th, 2014, I am in White Bear Lake, MN, with author John Brandon. We’re at the Washington Square Grille and Bar. He is drinking a Mirror Pond Ale from Deschutes Brewery and I am having a Kayak Kolsch from Lake Superior Brewing.
Sleet: John, first question. Tell me about where you grew up and how it influenced your writing.
John Brandon: I guess the simplest answer is I grew up in Florida and I use Florida as a setting a lot. But, to go beyond that, I wrote a novel set in Arkansas and a novel set in Florida. I think being on the edge of the south is something that has interested me and determined my settings. If you’re in Mississippi, you’re really in the south in every way. It’s not that complicated; you are in the south.
Sleet: It’s a pretty straight shot into southern cliché?
JB: Yeah, and all the things that are great about the south and are not watered down there. It doesn’t take long to figure it out. If you’re in Florida, that’s not the case. It’s so mixed. It’s so brackish and there are so many influences. I feel like that was part of the appeal of Arkansas as well, because it’s always been sort of Western, but it’s also connected to the plains. If you keep going west, you’ll end up in Oklahoma. It feels much different to me than Mississippi. I think Florida interests me in that way. There’s a lot of opportunity to get at whatever you want because there are so many different things there and nothing can really get a footing. There’s not really tradition in the same way that there is in other places. The periphery of the south has always been something that’s interested me.
Sleet: So you feel like when you’re writing about Florida as a state, you can get a sense of the multi-regionalism that’s included in the American South— just in that state alone. There are the deltas, near the gulf, and Miami—however you feel about that place—and southern Florida with the Keys.
JB: I suppose Miami does have an identity—whereas Jacksonville doesn’t. Tampa sort of doesn’t. They have some Cuban history going on, but it’s mostly just a lot of people moving down there from up north. I’ve been doing research about Florida back in the Civil War era and something that’s strikingly the same is that on the coast are people from all over the place and a little more progressive with business-like attitudes. As you move towards the center, it’s much more Southern. And that’s still the way it is. Growing up on the Gulf Coast in a place where there’s no beaches, you don’t have the identity of being the resort. What is it? It’s not a suburb of Tampa. It’s not rural. Nobody’s growing crops. It wasn’t quaint in the way of a small town. It wasn’t on the beach. Thinking about that as I grew older became something that played into my writing a lot and what I think of setting. I have to work through what that means: to be from somewhere that’s not a somewhere.
Sleet: The author bio in each one of your books is vastly different. How has your career morphed since the publication of your first book, Arkansas?
JB: Arkansas was really my first publication. I had one little story published in a journal put out by the University of Southern Maine before that. That was it. So, I guess it changed things quite a bit and also not much. I think somehow, without knowing exactly what it was supposed to be, I had the idea that more would change—that something would happen. And nothing really happens, except that then I had a port in the literary sea—McSweeney’s. That was something.
My wife and I were just moving around a lot. She had a traveling gig as an occupational therapist and I was working at warehouses and factories while I was writing Arkansas. The main thing [Arkansas] did was—it was the main reason I got the fellowship at the University of Mississippi. That got me back into the academic side of things, which I don’t know what else really would have. Those years in my twenties, instead of paying my dues as an adjunct, I was working in factories, which put me out in no man’s land. If what I got out of Arkansas was getting back into the good graces of the academic community, then that’s no small something.
We had been moving for years, and were in San Diego at the time—you’re not going to be in too bad of a mood if you’re in San Diego. We were starting to wonder how we were going to stop traveling, because you have so much momentum doing it. That’s your way of life then and it’s like: what would cause us to just pick a place and go there. And live there. You’re going these new places every few months and you get to go every weekend and see things you’ve never seen. How do you stop doing that? Then I got the call from Mississippi that they wanted me to go there for that fellowship. Okay, that’s the answer. That’s how you stop. I guess that was the transition from somebody who’s trying to be a writer to somebody who’s teaching writing. It came with that phone call.
Sleet: Phone calls are very important things in life. Phone calls, emails—sometimes they’re a whole lot more important than all of the other missed calls you get on your answering machine. So, you were at Mississippi and then, I believe you told me before, you were in Baltimore for a stint. And then you came to Minnesota’s beautiful tundra. How does Baltimore figure into the equation and what led you from there, here, to Minneapolis.
JB: Baltimore was for another fellowship at a fancy boys’ high school. They have a visiting writer each year. That’s what I was there for. While I was there, I applied for the Hamline University job. It’s a tenure track, kind of permanent thing.
Sleet: Boy, are we all happy about that.
JB: Yeah, yeah, I am too. I was happy to get it, now we’re here [in Minnesota] for the foreseeable future.
Sleet: Excellent. You haven’t gotten any frostbite yet.
JB: No, but his past winter was really something. Really notable.
Sleet: Take it from a life-long Minnesotan. This was a torrid winter. Question three. How does planning and outlining figure into your writing process? Do you create a work in a more organic or structured way? How do you decide between the two?
JB: I’d say, until recently, I was on the organic side. The first three novels and the story collection were all written in a pretty similar way. I would know maybe the next scene and maybe the scene after that. So when I came to sit down to write, it wasn’t cold. I’d had since yesterday or the last time I wrote to think about: the next scene’s going to be these two guys over here doing this; but no greater plan beyond that. I could see as far as the flashlight went into the fog. That was good enough. Then find my way to an ending the best I could and revise it. And that became the routine for me; it was comfortable. Then I started doing research on this novel that I’m getting ready to start that’s set back around Civil War era. In the course of the research, without really wanting to, I began planning the novel. It’s sort of impossible to be looking over all this material thinking “what can I use, what can I use?” And not think what you can use it for. So then you start doing that. Once I was doing that some, then it seems like, why not just plan the whole thing? What I’m about to write has been outlined. In a way, that’s been really different for me. I’m just hoping that knowing the ending and knowing the course of the thing doesn’t deaden the daily writing process for me. I guess there’s still a lot of work to do within each scene and discoveries to be made. But, yeah, it was an accident. You start doing research and you’re thinking, “this person will be like this, this person will be like this”—once you find out the plot, then you want to find out the problems. Then you’re just figuring the whole thing out.
Sleet: Accidental planning sounds like something I could get into.
JB: Yes. I promise I wasn’t intending to be this prepared.
Sleet: John, you have no author website and hardly any online presence besides previous interviews that have been published. What reason is there that you have decided not to develop a profile or presence for yourself on the internet?
JB: It’s a combination of factors. I’m not good with the internet; I don’t know a lot about computers. So that is a factor, though probably a minor one. I also don’t really think that it does much good. I don’t know what the goal would be for me to be burning up the internet with my presence. I guess maybe I would sell a couple more books. Maybe not. If they could come to me and give me a guarantee and say, “look, if you spend five hours a week getting yourself on the internet, it will equate to this,” and it was iron-clad, it was an agreement between me and the universe, then maybe I would do it. But I don’t think it really makes much difference.
Sleet: We do rarely get interventions from the universe.
JB: And I think you also rarely get any benefit from the internet.
Sleet: Bold statement.
JB: [Say] I have a website or something. Okay, now I have a website or something. I don’t know, doesn’t seem like a good use of time. And time, these days—I have two small kids—it’s really valuable. It’s just something that I’ve steered away from. I don’t even text or anything. I feel like I’m clinging to my last little bit of personal space that I have in the world. I guess it’s a combination of those things. I don’t have Facebook or anything like that. My wife does, so I see what it is. And it doesn’t seem like a positive influence to me. No, I’m not real interested in that.
Sleet: What writers and artists do you turn to when you hit a barrier in your own writing?jb: I think that that’s really hard to answer because I don’t know that I could go back to something that I’ve already read to have it re-inspire me. I think it’s more the new which you read. You never know if it’s going to be something that inspires you or not. Right now, I’m reading this novel by Lucy Corin, it’s called something like Psycho Killers: A History for Girls. I had never heard of her and then she did a book with McSweeney. So I got a galley and it was really good. Then I got this novel of hers. There’s no way to say how it helps you, reading someone else you like. But you know when it’s happening—you feel jealous.
Sleet: Yes, quite true. That’s the feeling I got the entirety of my BFA career.
JB: That’s when the most good is being done, when you feel jealous. But you don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself exactly. You have these different influences and you say, “I like how this person did that, I like how this person did that.” You were stuck and then you get unstuck. It’s a type of stealing that is mysterious enough—cloaked enough—that you can’t get in trouble for it.
I had a long drive in the spring where I listened to [Kurt Vonnegut’s] Breakfast of Champions on tape in the car. I was just feeling like, man, he got this. He hit a vein and it was so good. I was jealous and then you just soak it in and it stays in your bones. Then you read this or that, and this Lucy Corin. Even if you don’t know what it’s leading to, but you know it’s leading to something.
Sleet: When do you begin to feel comfortable showing your writing to others, including your editor?
JB: Definitely not after the first draft. That’s easy to say. I guess it’s hard to say, because it would be different with all of them. Then life circumstances determine that sometimes. But, I would say if it’s a novel, it’s going to have three-four-five drafts.
Sleet: Really? That far?
JB: Yeah, I feel like before you give it to anyone, you should have exhausted what you know how to do with it. Rather than giving it to someone and saying, “here’s this mess, tell me what to do with it.” Giving someone a whole novel—at this point it’s not like it’s someone who’s a teacher reading it, it’s a friend. I want to wait until I can say, “this is as good as I can get it, I don’t know how to do anything else to it—what do you think?” Definitely a few drafts in. I always have a couple people read it before it goes to anyone official. It goes to the agent first before any editors get a look at it. Someone else is going to look at it for me before the agent. I do a few drafts, get to where I’m sick of it, or I know I can’t do anymore. To you it would be like the novel is done now, but thank god you have help, because it’s definitely not done. You can find out why.
Sleet: Your writing is very economical and makes a point of never having a lazy sentence. How do you approach the editing process to ensure all of your paragraphs and sentences are sharp?
JB: I don’t know how to answer that, except to say that I love cutting. I just get on a high from cutting. It’s an extension of my greater personality. I like to get rid of things. A goodwill run, to me, is like a coke binge. I love that. Just culling things and thinning my possessions. When I’m going to revise, I never think of it as “let me add more.” You do wind up doing that. You cut this if it can be cut, and then you add a little bit. Cut and then add a little bit. The adding is okay; it’s the cutting that I love. I think if the sentences wind up sharp, it’s a reflection of that. I just can’t stand to have an extra word that I don’t need. And you don’t get ‘em all. You go back and look at the thing after it’s published and you see a few more cuts you could have made. That’s bothersome.
Sleet: Raymond Carver saw a lot of cuts.
JB: Most of Carver’s stories don’t have what you’d call “flab” on them. If you have an editor that’s of a like mind who wants to pare everything down, that can only help. I have one friend who’s really good at line edits. I’ve sent him manuscripts before and told him: just cut. I don’t want you to get a headache thinking about the big picture. Just put lines through things. That’s invaluable.
Sleet: This is high praise, coming from the line editing king. So far as my undergraduate career was concerned.
JB: Well, I hope you guys realize when you see that it’s not just figuring out what you can write about that will work. It’s also sentence to sentence, getting all that right. That’s not something you can talk about in the classroom. You talk about stories and techniques. Although I try to do it when I can, to go sentence to sentence. Cutting has always been great to me. I have a thing that I say that applies to the dialogue, but also the exposition, which is: the least you have to say to get the point across, the smarter you seem. As a reader, I like that. I like to have to work a little to keep up. That’s what I want to do for my readers. Different things hurt different writers’ feelings. What hurts my feelings is feeling like I belabored a point. Those are the moments where the reader is caught up with you. That’s what I don’t want to happen.
Sleet: Your writing can stray into magical realism, while at other times it’s very rooted in reality. What purpose do the magical aspects serve and when do you know a story will be better told with them?
JB: Now that’s tricky. I don’t know that the couple of stories in the collection [Further Joy] that have magic ever existed without that as a part of them. I don’t want to give that as an answer to that’s when you know. I’m sure those things can be introduced later, especially if you’re stuck. The reader will never know that it was introduced later, it won’t seem artificial either way, it’ll seem just right. As far as when I envisioned Sophia, that was the thing with her.
Sleet: We’re talking about “The Inland News” now?
JB: Mhm. And “The Midnight Gales”, that’s what I built that town around, were those events. It’s hard to think of it in terms of it helping the story; it just was the story from the beginning. I don’t think about it as any momentous choice. I mean, you’re writing something that can really happen or you’re not. It doesn’t seem to matter that much to me. It seems to me sometimes in schools, like, you’re that kind of writer or you believe in this and this. I don’t think of it that way. If that’s what you want to do, just do that for that story. Somebody’s going to like that just because it’s magic. Someone’s not going to like that just because it’s magic. What are you going to do? Nothing.
Sleet: Characters come first in your writing. Setting is used in much of your work to convey an emotional or mental state of characters. How do you play one off another to create a whole?
JB: That’s a really good question. To relate those two is smart. Because, to me, setting determines the parameters for what the problems can be and what the characters can do about it and where their imagination would go or not go. Then there’s that sort of intangible thing that’s the mood and texture of the whole thing. Which, to me, is all setting. It all comes from the setting. That all determines what you call tone, to me, more than the events that are happening. Something doesn’t happen to make the book dark. It’s just dark. Something may happen in that darkness now. It’s either dark or it’s not, which is determined beforehand by the setting. Most of the time, I start with setting. The story in the collection called “Palatka” is a really good example of that. I had the place and then it was: what happens here? Who’s my character for this place that would be good against what happens here and what it feels like here? Everything that happens in it to me feels like, this is Plataka. This is Palatka.
There’s only one, discounting the short-short stories—I don’t know about those—which I didn’t start with setting. That was “The Picknickers” with the woman who goes off with her friend’s son. That was kind of a unique experience for me. I sort of had an idea of it in my head without setting. Then I had to think of where I wanted it. Okay, the suburbs are important here. Put it somewhere where suburbs are important. I thought of Chicago and Atlanta. Atlanta is more in my home region, and setting-wise it would piece together with it. But I needed somewhere where seasons matter. So I wound up setting it in Chicago. Writing it felt different from the other ones. It felt a little phony. I don’t know—it didn’t feel the same. It didn’t grow out of the setting, I was imposing the setting afterwards. Like I say, the reader usually doesn’t notice.
Sleet: What story do you feel is most representative of your writing as a whole, in your new collection, Further Joy?
JB: I’d say either “The Midnight Gales” or “Palatka”. One of those. “Palatka” is the longest one and I can just idle in it. You kind of wait for the shoe to drop during the first several pages and then it drops and goes from there. It’s somebody in a place that doesn’t exactly suit them and a place they can’t quite figure out; and the place is acting on them. I think that’s somewhere I would like to exist as a writer. “The Midnight Gales” is where—this is something else I find a comfortable spot in writing—just having this static condition that’s messing everything up, a static, negative condition. And then it’s just to see how the characters deal with it. I’ve put myself a lot in that spot as a writer, too.
John Brandon’s novels and his story collection, Further Joy, can be purchased from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, IndieBound, and directly from McSweeney’s. For further information on John Brandon, find his website nowhere on the internet.
Shane Blegen is a fiction writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, whose MFA program his is currently attending. His work has appeared in Under Construction and is [currently] in Sleet Magazine. His fiction deals with the lives of degenerate characters and the desperation they face. In his spare time, Shane writes solo compositions for the bass guitar.