Interview With Kevin Brockmeier

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of two novels, The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, a short story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children’s novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Georgia Review, the Carolina Quarterly, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of The O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. He has received the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), and an NEA grant.

Kevin was born in Hialeah, Florida and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas with his family at the age of four. He attended Parkview Arts Magnet High School, earned a BA in Creative Writing, Philosophy and Theater from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) with a year at University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and an MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa. Kevin is 33 years old.

I met Kevin shortly after I began working at an independent bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas. As I was ringing up books on the cash register, my co-worker Georgette said, “This is Kevin Brockmeier; he gets an author’s discount.” We chatted for a bit, then he and Geo talked about the movie club they belong to. What a friendly fellow—I figured he must work for one of the local newspapers or magazines. Wrong! We had two of his books in the fiction section. Now we sport three and his current young adult title (City of Names is out of print). When his two recent books came out this year, we were lucky to host his first Arkansas book signing, and all it took was a phone call to Kevin: “I’d be delighted. I’ll let my publicist know the date.”

When it became apparent that my turn for an Absolute Blank article was due, I knew what it would be. When Kevin stopped by the store, I told him about Toasted Cheese and that I’d like to interview him. Even though we both live in Little Rock, and essentially in the same neighborhood, we decided on doing the interview via email.

Toasted Cheese: How did you get your start as a writer?

Kevin Brockmeier: As a writer or as an author? These are two separate questions. I suppose I got my start as a writer when I was seven years old, putting together mystery stories during my spare time at school. In these stories I was always the detective, and one of my classmates would disappear under suspicious circumstances, and I would solve the crime to the applause of my teacher and all my friends. They had titles like “The Case of the Missing Eric Carter” and “The Case of the Missing Miss Vinson.”

I got my start as an author, on the other hand—by which I mean to say a published writer, a writer with an audience larger than his own circle of personal acquaintances—when I was twenty-four and a story of mine, “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” won something called the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Contest and was printed in a small magazine called Writing on the Edge.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

KB: The writers I know have adopted such diverse tactics when it comes to their routines—or if not routines, then impulses—of composition that it would be hard for me to say there’s any such thing as a peculiar writing schedule. I myself try to treat writing as though it were something like a regular nine-to-five job, with the difference that I write every day of the week until I am finished with a project (or with some discrete portion of a project, if it’s a novel) before I give myself a break, rather than taking a two-day break every weekend. I find that it’s difficult to get the engines running again after even a short vacation, and also that my own sensibility changes by small increments when I take time away from my writing, so I’m hesitant to pause in the middle of a piece of work for fear that I’ll ruin it by subconsciously shifting my approach to the material.

I think it’s best to write when your mind is at its sharpest. For a long time, that has been the middle of the day for me, but lately I’ve felt myself perceiving things more acutely in the evening, so it might be that I’ll have to change my working hours soon.

TC: Tell us about your path to being published.

KB: After my first story was printed in Writing on the Edge, I continued publishing stories in literary magazines and a variety of other venues. I was working as an adjunct English composition instructor at a pair of local colleges, as well as running errands for a property management company, but I spent much of my spare time writing. I got a couple of grants that allowed me to work on my fiction a bit more diligently, and in time I managed to complete a story collection, a novel, and a children’s novel.

Then what happened was this: A friend of mine from graduate school had become a literary agent. He wasn’t my agent at the time, but we were still in touch. One day, he was having lunch with an editor from Random House and asked her if she had read any new authors she enjoyed recently. She said that, yes, she had read a story called “These Hands” in the Georgia Review by a writer named Kevin Brockmeier, and though she had never heard of him before, she really responded to what he was doing. My friend said, “I represent Kevin Brockmeier.” And that’s how I fell blindly backward into acquiring both my first agent and my first editor in the course of a single lunch meeting.

This will be of no help, I realize, to anyone seeking practical advice on finding a path to publication, but it is what really happened to me.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

KB: I enjoy many things about writing, not least of them the pleasure of communicating some part of my vision of the world to other people and the simple experience of tinkering with words. What I most enjoy, though, I suppose, is the day following the moment when I finally reach the last sentence of a story. There’s a brief window of time when I know that I’ve satisfied the pattern I set out to create and I’ve not yet started to sift through a story for its flaws that is tremendously gratifying.

What I least enjoy about my job—hands down—is the traveling involved with the publicity phase. I like visiting bookstores, giving readings, and meeting people who have read or are interested in reading my books. But I travel very poorly. I quickly become exhausted when I have to spend time away from home, from my bed and my familiar routine. I start to degrade, both physically and psychologically, and I cease to feel as though I’m experiencing my life as much more than a passive spectator. If there were a way for me to step out of my door and simply appear in whatever city I was visiting, then step back home at the end of the night, I would be much happier. What I need is a Star Trek-style matter transporter.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how did you break through?

KB: I’ve certainly experienced times when I wasn’t writing, but I think that’s natural—and that it can, in fact, be productive for a writer to let his mind lie fallow for a while. I believe the best thing to do during those periods is read, tinker with the stories you’ve already written, and work on other types of writing, more personal and less rigorous forms like letters and journal entries.

That said, I write very, very slowly when I’m engaged in a project, and I’m not sure how easy it would be for me to distinguish writer’s block, whose most salient feature, as I understand it, is the long gap between one story and another, from my actual process of writing, whose most salient feature is the long gap between one word or one sentence and another.

TC: Why do you write?

KB: For me, the most honest answer to this question would be that I write out of gratitude for all the books that have spoken to me over the years.

TC: You said you sift through a story for its flaws. What is your sifting, or editing, process?

KB: Most of my editing takes place as I’m working through my first draft, though to call it a “first draft” is something of a misnomer, since I tend to revise each sentence many times before I move on to the next, each paragraph many times before I move on to the next, and each page many times before I move on to the next. I progress very slowly to the end of the story, in a series of tiny overlapping waves.

Because I work that way (a method I don’t recommend, by the way, since it’s very slow and painstaking, but one that I haven’t been able to avoid), my stories have usually reached a state that’s fairly close to their final form by the time I complete the last sentence. My final editing process, then, involves reading back through them to look for any infelicities, imprecisions, or contradictions I might have missed along the way.

When I first pick up a finished story for that last edit, after a day or two of rest, I usually see nothing but such problems and wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my time. My way out of this is to search through the story for some one sentence that seems fixed in a kind of beauty. Once I find it, the rest of the story seems to crystallize out from that still point, and I’m able to look at it with a more generous, less jaundiced eye.

TC: This year you had two novels published in the same month, a novel called The Brief History of the Dead and a young adult novel called Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. How did you juggle writing the two? Or was it just your agent’s work, in order to maximize publicity and save you from two tours?

KB: I always follow up each book for adults with a book for children, but I’m never actually working on the two simultaneously. I’m the type of person who finds it hard to set one project aside (or even one sentence aside) until I feel that I’ve made it what it can be. That said, both of my thus-far-published children’s novels (there’s a third that still hasn’t made its way into print) have been released immediately following a novel or a story collection. In part, this is because it’s taken me longer to sell my children’s fiction. But at least in the case of Grooves, I suspect it’s also because my editor sensed that The Brief History of the Dead was going to garner a certain amount of attention and felt that that attention would help the sales of Grooves. My children’s publishers have never had the money to send me on an extensive tour, in fact, but I’ve made it a point to publicize those books independently whenever I’m on the road.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin? Does it vary with each project?

KB: Someone else asked me this question recently, so I’ve given it some thought. I believe I begin each story first and foremost with an idea. Sometimes that idea is an element of the plot, sometimes it’s the psychology of a certain character, sometimes it’s a metaphor or symbolic device, sometimes it’s a particular narrative strategy—anything at all. It might sound as if I’m ducking your question, but I mean it when I say that when a story truly begins to take shape, and more than that to excite me, it always presents itself to me above all else as an idea I feel compelled to explore, even when that idea is something as amorphous or continually shifting as a character or a sequence of events.

That said, I’ll never actually begin writing a story until I’ve devised a title to place at the top of the first page. I once heard somebody describe the title as “the target toward which you shoot the arrow of the story,” and that’s a notion that makes a lot of sense to me. Without a good title, I feel I don’t know what a story is supposed to be. Sometimes I’ll even formulate the target before I’ve got the arrow, which is to say that an intriguing title can occur to me months or even years before I understand what sort of story it’s meant to accompany (as was the case, for instance, with “Love Is a Chain, Hope Is a Weed,” the last section of my novel The Truth About Celia).

TC: You’ve taught writing in many venues, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What advice do you offer to beginning writers?

KB: The advice I offer usually arises naturally—or at least I hope it does—from the stories we’re discussing in any given class. A couple of ideas I’ve been mulling over recently, though, are (1) that any narrative (or any piece of writing at all, really) will either adopt the sentence or the paragraph as its smallest unit of complete meaning, stacking one on top of the other to make the steps by which it moves forward, and it can be useful to determine which sort of narratives you’re most comfortable with or skilled at producing, and (2) that every writer of worth places his concern in at least one of these three things: in fidelity to the language, fidelity to his own obsessions, or fidelity to the human experience. Many of the best writers locate their faith in all three to varying degrees, but as long as a writer is sufficiently devoted to at least one of them, he’s doing the kind of work that I can respect.

TC: When you have a signing you often share your favorite books and I think movies. Would you share your top ten of each with us?

KB: Gladly. My top ten of each (in no particular order) are as follows:

Ten Favorite Books

  • The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  • All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories by William Maxwell
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
  • A Death in the Family by James Agee
  • The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
  • The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Ten Favorite Movies

  • Ponette
  • City of Hope
  • In America
  • On the Waterfront
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Elling
  • Running on Empty
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Muppet Movie

Some other time, you can ask me for my lists of favorite albums, songs, stories, foods, beverages, restaurants, words, human beings, states of being, years of my life, topics for lists, etc.

TC: Thanks, Kevin. I owe you a large ginger ale… Canada Dry, Vernor’s, the organic one Georgette loves, or other? Vernor’s is my fav.

KB: Let’s go with the Vernor’s.

TC: There will be a six pack of Vernor’s at the bookstore with your name on it Tuesday.

Yes, he came in on Tuesday: “I’m here for my ginger ale 😉 and to order some books.”

Final Poll Results

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