McMyne: I'd like to begin by exposing readers who are unfamiliar with your work to an excerpt from "The Brief History of the Dead," your short story that appeared in the September 8, 2003 edition of The New Yorker. In my opinion, the story is extremely memorable. It is based on an interesting premise: that in between death and whatever comes next, the souls of the dead, or the dead themselves, find themselves in a large city. Everyone has a different story, a different experience, about crossing over:
Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all…Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow--four words--and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details.
No two reports were ever the same. And yet there was always the drumlike thumping noise…
Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use it to produce a newspaper. He stood outside the River Road Coffee Shop every morning, handing out the circulars he had printed. One particular issue of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet--the Sims Sheet, people called it--addressed the matter of this sound. Fewer than twenty per cent of the people Luka interviewed claimed they could still hear it after the crossing, but almost everyone agreed that it resembled nothing so much as--could be nothing other than--the pounding of a heart. The question, then, was where did it come from? It could not be their own hearts, for their hearts no longer beat. The old man Mahmoud Qassim believed that it was not the actual sound of his heart but the remembered sound, which, because he had both heard and failed to notice it for so long, still resounded in his ears. The woman who sold bracelets by the river thought that it was the heartbeat at the center of the world, that bright, boiling place she had fallen through on her way to the city. "As for this reporter," the article concluded, "I hold with the majority. I have always suspected that the thumping sound we hear is the pulse of those who are still alive. The living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only so long as they remember us."
The rest of the story supports this hypothesis, as the people living in the city follow the story of a terrible viral epidemic on Earth through information passed on by the recent dead and articles in the Sims Sheet. As the epidemic on Earth spreads, people's stays in the city grow shorter and shorter. Previously, the dead lived a second life there, but after the virus people come and go quickly. People begin to disappear in the middle of going to the kitchen for a glass of water. In alleyways. While locked in the bathroom…
When we first spoke, you told me that this story was the first chapter in a novel-in-progress. I'd love to hear more about this project. I'm interested to hear how this story could be the first chapter of a book. What would the other chapters explore? Is it told in chronological order? Through multiple points of view?
Brockmeier: The novel takes the same title as the short story: "The Brief History of the Dead." It unspools in two separate threads, which alternate from one chapter to the next. The first thread is within the community of the dead, and the second is within our own world--or at least a world that closely approximates our own, sometime in the middle of this century. At the end of the first chapter, the section that was published in The New Yorker, a bare-bones population remains in the city. During the rest of the novel, it slowly becomes apparent to those few remaining inhabitants (including a couple of the characters we have already been introduced to, the blind man and Luka Sims) that they share a common connection--a single person, still living, who has managed to escape the calamity. The following chapters are devoted to watching the consequences of this realization play out, as well as to examining the relationships that burgeon between the last of the dead before the history of their city comes to an end. Each chapter of this thread (with the exception of the first) focuses its attention on a different character--seven chapters, seven characters.
The second strand of The Brief History of the Dead relates a different story, seemingly though not actually unconnected to the first. It's the story of the last few months in the life of a woman who is the one person to have survived the virus that extinguished the world's population. It is only by virtue of this one woman's memory that the dead continue to exist, though she has no way of knowing this, and while some of them will be remembered as central figures in her life, others will be remembered only casually or in passing.
What the book amounts to, I suppose, is a sort of post-apocalyptic novel, but one that's told largely from the point of view of the already dead. I'm hesitant to talk about it in too much more detail, because I'm still in the middle of writing it.
McMyne: That's understandable. What an interesting premise for a novel--it, like much of your work, uses a very innovative point of view.
Your first novel, The Truth About Celia, is told from the point of view of Christopher Brooks, a fictional science fiction writer who writes the book to explore his heartbreak and grief after his daughter unexplainably disappears one day, as she is playing in the backyard. He imagines and writes the story of his daughter's disappearance from several points of view, including--in one section--her own. In that section, Brooks imagines his daughter Celia trying to remember him from a strange land of gray mist, the land to which she has disappeared:
And there was, of course, my dad--who liked to cook and read and stare out the window. Whenever I complained about my chores, he would make up stories about the hardships of his childhood: When I was your age I had to take fourteen naps a day, one every hour until it was time for me to go to bed, or: When I was your age I ate nothing but creamed corn, bowl after bowl of it, and if I didn't finish every single bite, I would have to take a bath in whatever was left. He had broken his arm once, before I was born. He sometimes got headaches. He did not know how to whistle. In the evening he stood talking on the lawn with the real people who were our neighbors, and in the morning he wrote books filled with the imaginary ones who lived only in his head, and at times I think that if I wish or pray or concentrate hard enough, I will be able to tell my story through his hands.
It seems to me that it is your choice in point of view that makes this paragraph moving, because this is not simply Celia, remembering her father--it is her father trying to imagine her remembering him, in his grief. Would you discuss why you chose to tell the point of view that you did for The Truth About Celia, as well as why you are fond of toying with point of view, in general?
Brockmeier: I suppose my most obvious point of view experiment prior to The Truth About Celia, was in "These Hands," which heads off my first collection, Things That Fall from the Sky. In the case of that story, what you have is a narrator who tells you his own story--the story of how he fell in love with a little girl--in the third person, regularly interrupting himself to comment on the action in the first person. I think there's a certain barrier that goes up in many people when they read something that announces itself as a work of fiction. This barrier permits certain things and disallows others--permits, for instance, an easing into the minds of other people, but disallows the kind of deeply involved but morally unsure response most of us have to real life--just as the walls of a house offer a nice, warm environment in which we can survive, but prevent an unobstructed view of the world outside. This is an oversimplification, of course, but you get the idea. In "These Hands," because I was dealing with such a tricky subject, the love of a grown man for a little girl, I wanted to confuse the nature of the story as fiction. I wanted to allow some of the things that fiction tends to disallow--namely, the morally complicated suspension of judgment you usually get when you believe that someone is telling you his actual story.
In the case of The Truth About Celia, the point of view experiments in the book do exactly the opposite: they highlight the nature of the stories as fiction. But they also serve notice that you are meant to look underneath the stories to see what else is going on, to peer behind the curtain and ask why they were written and how they affect the ostensible author, Christopher Brooks, who has been both devastated and in some way introduced to himself by the loss of his daughter. My initial conceit was that I would present the book as a simple story collection and allow the readers to gradually discover on their own that the entire enterprise was an expression of love and grief on the part of the author, an attempt to explore what might have happened to his daughter and to map his own mind, but my editor convinced me that I should orient the readers with an author's note. She also convinced me to change the title from The Celia Stories by Christopher Brooks to The Truth About Celia. Some of the stories are meant to be understood as biography or autobiography, some of them as efforts at speculation or even fantasy, and some of them as a combination of the two.
McMyne: I found one particular section in The Truth About Celia a bit perplexing. The section entitled "Appearance, Disappearance, Levitation, Transformation, and the Divided Woman," tells the story of a single mother, a divorcee, named Stephanie and her son, Micah, as Micah studies with The Great Lentini as a magician's apprentice. Although the section stands up excellently as an individual piece, I could not connect it in any way to the Brooks family, to the story the rest of the novel explores. Would you talk for a minute about how it relates to the rest of the book?
Brockmeier: Stephanie is Celia, of course.
I tend to think of "Appearance…" as a sort of companion piece to "The Green Children": in "The Green Children," Christopher writes about Celia as though she had been transported into the distant past; in "Appearance…," he sends her the other way, into her own future. The story is set about twenty-five or thirty years from now. The mood of the story is closer to that of mainstream literary fiction than it is to science fiction, so it doesn't take great notice of the ways in which this future time differs from our own, but there are a few indications that the two times are not one and the same: virtual reality machines are in common use, people watch television broadcasts on their computer monitors, the movie stars of Stephanie/Celia's adolescence are all actors who are at the heyday of their fame now, in 2004, etc. The premise is that Celia has been raised from the time of her vanishing by another family, one that has given her a different name and whom she considers to be her real parents. She has grown into a woman, married, had a child, and divorced. She remembers almost nothing about her life before the age of seven, but the few flashes that do come to her are taken directly from the history of Celia as it's been told to us.
The story is a third-person narrative that adheres closely to Stephanie/Celia's consciousness, with the exception of a single sentence in which Christopher interrupts the narrative to announce that he wants her to be happy. Because of the story's point of view, and Stephanie/Celia's own ignorance about her past, I had to slip the details that would join it to the rest of the book in from along the margins. Christopher himself makes a brief appearance in the story as a man in a hotel who thinks he recognizes Stephanie as someone else, i.e., as Celia. Another connection between "The Green Children" and "Appearance…" is that in both stories Christopher envisions a male guardian figure for Celia as a kind of stand-in for himself--only capable of protecting her where he has failed.
A few other people have expressed some confusion to me about how "Appearance…" fits into the scheme of the novel as a whole, which has surprised me, and, I'll admit, distressed me a little. When I was writing it, I felt as though the story was one of the most straightforward experiments in the book. By contrast, "The Ghost of Travis Worley" has always seemed to me to be fairly riddled with unspoken devices and potentially perplexing incidents, but nobody seems to have been at all confused by that one.
McMyne: I can't say that I found "The Ghost…" confusing at all, but now that you mention all those details from "Appearance…" I'm almost embarrassed that I asked for an explication.
Brockmeier: Don't be. Almost all the stories that make up The Truth About Celia rely on a different set of ground rules. I usually don't get the chance to talk about those rules, and I always presume that they're more fascinating to me than they would be to anybody else, but the truth is that they are fascinating to me, and I'm happy to get the chance to discuss them with you.
McMyne: Let's talk about your story collection, Things That Fall from the Sky.
Thisbe Nissen, author of The Good People of New York, described the stories as "crystalline wonders…fairy tales: wise, magical and heartwrenching; fantastic." The Onion called the book "perfect for reading at bedtime, when the mind is most likely to accept Brockmeier's invitations to strange, whimsical dreams, either waking or sleeping." The Minneapolis Star Tribune dubbed them "unique and spellbinding…" and said you were up to something "different." I would have to agree. These stories are magical; reading them is like dreaming.
They are full of meaningful coincidences, acausal details, unexplainable connections between the inner and outer worlds of their characters. I could not read these stories without thinking, over and over again, of Carl Jung's principle of "synchronicity"--the idea that even if no causal connection can explain the coincidence of two events, a meaningful relationship can still exist between them. One story ("The Ceiling") tells of a man whose wife drifts away from him into infidelity as an object grows larger in the sky, gradually descending, like a lowering ceiling over the city. It is as if he is projecting his emotions outward: for him, the sky is falling. Another story ("A Day in the Life of Rumpelstiltskin") is based on the idea that Rumpelstiltskin stamped his foot so hard after the Queen guessed his name, that he split in two. His anger made him less than what he was; it had a physical, improbable effect on his life. In "Small Degrees," a type founder, sick over the fact that his wife left him over his obsession with work, throws his wish that she would return into the river like a stone--and she does. Like magic.
Your writing is philosophical, but it is also playful in turns, and the events often feel as if they've been lifted from fairy tales. To me, it seems reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, Donald Barthelme, and Milan Kundera (an odd amalgamation!). Your characters must constantly make meaning of absurd events. Why do you put them in fantastic, absurd situations? What is your philosophical impetus to write such stories? What do you believe--what is it your intent to express--about the nature of the world?
Brockmeier: First of all, I should say that I have never read any of the reviews of my books, have never searched for my name on the internet or looked up my sales statistics on amazon.com, and so I'm reading the quotations you mention for the first time. My feeling is that if you pay too much attention to things like that, you'll slowly replace your own mind with what other people have to say about you. I've always been wary of mistaking the writing I do for whatever publicity happens to surround it. Confusing the two, I fear, would be likely to erode the sort of quiet, pondering environment I need in order to write at all.
So why do I place my characters in fantastic, absurd situations? My first and most honest answer would be that it's a way of activating my imagination. I think that every writer has certain modes of thinking, topics of particular interest, even certain obsessions, that constitute his or her most natural creative terrain. An impartial reader, for instance, one who didn't know me at all, might conclude from examining the books I've written that my natural creative terrain was made up of loss, the intricacies of work and craftsmanship, children and childhood, fairy tales, the Bible, the night sky, movies, the daytime sky, unusual words, list-making, playful little metaphysical puzzles, what things ought to be called, specific qualities of light and color, acts of memory, animals, and misbegotten love a very partial list. I'm constantly trying to add to this catalog of interests, but there are certain subjects that lie so far outside my creative terrain that I find them almost unreachable. When I try to write, say, strictly realistic domestic fiction--much of which I enjoy reading--a shade seems to descend inside my head, and I find it very difficult to see through to the other side. But when I return to those subjects and approaches that naturally engage me, the shade lifts free, and my thoughts begin to leap forward of their own accord. What I'm saying, I suppose, is that there are certain things my imagination feels comfortable doing and certain things it doesn't. I've come to believe that if I'm going to write with any fluidity, I have not only to pay attention to what those things are, I have to indulge them.
So the element of fantasy that runs through my stories is mainly practical. That said, I do think the universe we live in is itself a fantastic place, filled with wonders, and that our minds are constructed so as to see within the world around us reflections of our own consciousness. I can't look at the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, for instance, without experiencing a knees-falling-out-from-under-me sensation that's linked very closely to my impression of how unusual and inexplicable it is that anything exists at all--and also, in a smaller way, to how unusual and inexplicable it is that I'm around to witness it. It's that sort of impression that drives a lot of the fantasy I most enjoy reading, and it probably drives the fantasy I write, as well.
Your question issues an invitation to talk about the Brothers Grimm, Donald Barthelme, and Milan Kundera. Briefly, then, I'll say that I've read almost all of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. My favorite is called "King Thrushbeard." Its last sentence reads, "Then the real rejoicing began, and I wish that you and I had been there, too." The fairy tale is a pretty conventional one until that last line, with a narrator who is all but characterless, and when I first read the story, I was struck by the way the sudden insinuation of the narrator's perspective and his barely concealed yearning for whoever it is he's talking to reshapes the story he's telling from the back end and makes you reconsider everything that comes before. It's a very unusual move for a tale of this sort to make, I think, and I actually used a variation of the line to end my story "Space." I've read a lot of Donald Barthelme--Sixty Stories, Forty Stories, Snow White, and The Dead Father. I find that Barthelme's stories are all-or-nothing affairs for me: either I respond to them as wonderful, richly human flights of fancy or as sterile, wasted little language-experiments, though I'll admit that I might place a given story in one category and then the other during different readings. And the only Milan Kundera book I've read is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (If you want to recommend another, I'll definitely pick it up.) I was impressed with the dignity of Kundera's characters, even when they behave poorly, which I guess is to say that I was impressed with the dignity of his attitude toward his characters.
McMyne: Yes--one of the reasons I enjoy Kundera's work is that he manages to present people who behave very poorly in a sympathetic light. This relates to one of your stories, as well--"These Hands," which, as you said, deals with such a tricky subject, a grown man who seems to love a little girl more than he should. But by the end of that story we understand his love in the oddest way, and I think to attempt to love and understand the seemingly unlovable is part of the writer's job, as a student of human nature and scribe of the human condition…
I think you have already read Kundera's best work. I also enjoyed Immortality and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but The Unbearable Lightness of Being is such a rare book, at once a beautiful love story--a tale of both betrayal and redemption--and a metaphysical rambling on the nature of life and existence. I also found that in your work--more philosophy and understanding than you find in typical literary fiction, interwoven with story.
In that same vein, I feel compelled to ask you about a story from Things That Fall from the Sky that seemed loaded with significance for me, because it is about the nature of love and art and the conflict between the two drives within the life of the artist. "Small Degrees" is the story of a type founder who nearly loses his wife because he is so obsessed with creating the perfect typeface, but in the end chooses to give up his work in the name of love. Would you mind discussing the significance of that story for you and/or the circumstances that drove you to write it?
Brockmeier: Just as I think of "Appearance, Disappearance, Levitation, Transformation, and the Divided Woman" as a companion piece to "The Green Children," I tend to think of "Small Degrees" as a companion piece to another story in Things That Fall from the Sky, "The Light through the Window." Both stories are about the desire for intimacy and how it can either frustrate or be frustrated by the desire for artistic creation.
In the case of "The Light through the Window," the hero of the story, a window cleaner who works on a high-rise building, makes one single, hopeful, pained grasp at human intimacy and then retreats into the craft of window cleaning as a kind of solace for his failure. In "Small Degrees," the hero is a type founder, trying to design a new typeface, who ultimately makes the opposite choice: love over art, intimacy over solitary labor (by which decision he accidentally creates the world's first alphabet blocks, though I myself did not realize that was what he had done until someone pointed it out to me). It seems to me that both desires--the desire for intimacy and the desire for artistic creation--attempt to satisfy that urge we all have to feel more deeply alive and also to feel that we are living in companionship with other people, but artistic creation does it by making us turn inward and love does it by making us turn outward. The two urges don't have to be competitive, but in my own life I've often felt that they were, and I wanted, well, not so much to think about why that was the case as to demonstrate it in action.
The title "Small Degrees" comes from a line in the story about how the type founder "was trying to render his heart into letters and signs, and he was a man who discovered his heart only by small degrees." It would be fair to say that I'm that sort of person, too. Love reveals itself very slowly to me. I tend to hold onto my experiences for a long time, turning them over this way and that, watching them take on new shapes in my memory, and I often don't discover what the people I've known have meant to me until years after our relationship has taken hold, and sometimes not until after they've fallen out of my life completely. This can be a tragedy, but it's a tragedy that the narrator of "Small Degrees" manages to avoid.
Someone once told me that the story offers the only happy ending in all of Things That Fall from the Sky, and while I'm not sure that's true, I definitely see it as one of the more hopeful endings in the book. (By contrast, the saddest ending I've ever written--or at least the ending I myself perceive as the saddest, is probably the last few lines of "The Telephone" from The Truth About Celia: "I made a mistake. I made a mistake. I made a mistake. I made a mistake," and then the paragraph break: "Which is the explanation for everything.")
McMyne: You told me the other half of your writing life is devoted to writing children's books. City of Names was published in 2002 and you have another book out--did you say, by the end of the year?
Brockmeier: It will probably be early 2005. The book is called Grooves; or, The True-Life Outbreak of Weirdness, and it's about a boy named Dwayne Ruggles who discovers an audio message recorded in the grooves of his blue jeans--"Please. You must help us. He's stealing the light from our eyes." With the help of his best friend Kevin Applebab (the best friends in my children's novels are always strange little boys named Kevin with slightly ridiculous last names), Dwayne traces the message to a blue jeans factory owned by the richest man in town. He breaks into the factory and is attacked by a group of pigs and eventually finds a terrible contraption called the Spark Transplantation Machine. But all of this is really just a Rube Goldberg device--i.e., an extremely complicated machine designed to carry out an extremely simple task--to help him come up with an idea for his school science fair project.
McMyne: As is often the case with your adult fiction, City of Names is based on a fantastic premise: Howie Quackenbush orders 101 Pickle Jokes from his school book club, but receives The Secret Guide to North Mellwood, a strange map of the town in which he lives, instead. The map depicts each place in the town labeled with its true name (for instance, the true name of Lucky's Burger Hut at the Mellwood Mall is "Leberwurst"). Speaking these true names at various magical portals scattered about town allows Howie and his friends to teleport from place to place. At first, Howie uses the guide to flit about town, to distract himself from the feverish atmosphere at home (he is about to be a big brother and his parents are constantly arguing over what they are going to name the new baby) by playing video games in the arcade ("Hurdy-Gurdy") late at night. Later, however, after he meets the creator of The Secret Guide, who tells him that he received the book because there is a room he is supposed to visit, Howie begins to visit stranger places--the White Room, the Monkey Room--which cannot be accessed except via teleportation. Finally, he stumbles upon the Hall of Babies:
I opened the door and was greeted by the strangest sight I have ever seen. There were twenty or thirty babies in the room, all of them naked. They were sitting in small leather armchairs or padded love seats, and they looked perfectly comfortable. Some of the babies were really tiny, about the size of my thumb, and looked a little bit like fish. But most of the babies were just regular babies, about the size of footballs, and looked exactly like you would expect them to look--like miniature people. Their heads lolled to the side, and every so often one of them would give a kick into the air. A few of the babies were drooling or sucking on their thumbs. Each of them had a long, thick umbilical cord stretching away from their belly button, and these cords disappeared into various small holes in the wall. I got the impression that the babies had been talking comfortably to one another before I came in and interrupted their conversation. They were all staring at me.
One of the babies tilted its head and spoke. She was a girl. "You must be Howie Quackenbush," she said.
"I am," I answered. "Who are you?"
"I'm your sister," she told me.
Howie's sister proceeds to explain to him that every baby in that room, every human being, has a true name, and tells him hers. At this point, it is obvious that this is the room Howie was supposed to visit; this is why Howie received The Secret Guide--so that his sister would be properly named.
I must say that the magical absurdity that permeates the rest of your work translates well into children's literature--City of Names reminded me, in turns, of D. Manus Pinkwater (Lizard Music) and Roald Dahl (The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). How did you get into writing children's books? Was this something you've wanted to do all along?
Brockmeier: I worked at a nursery school for a few years while I was in college. Every day I would make up stories to tell the children, little participatory tales in which they got into all sorts of unusual scrapes and adventures. In one of the stories I remember best, for instance, the children were swallowed one by one by a giant caterpillar which someone had brought for show-and-tell, and they had to help me devise a way for them to escape from inside the caterpillar's stomach. In any case, I wrote my first children's novel as a gift to those same children, who were all about ten or eleven by that time and had disappeared from my life entirely. I missed them, and still do, and I wanted to find a way to continue communicating with them. What I discovered when I was writing City of Names was that there were certain things--modes of storytelling, incidents from my own life, understandings and misunderstandings of language--that I could make better use of when I was writing for children than I could when I was writing for adults. (Obviously, the inverse is true as well--there are many, many things you can do with adult fiction that you can't do with children's fiction. There are even things you can say about the experience of childhood in adult fiction that you cannot say in children's fiction. For instance, it would be very hard to find a publisher for a children's book that explored religious doubt in any meaningful way.) I also discovered that I enjoyed taking on the jokey, precise, naively honest voice I tend to use when I'm writing for children in the character of a child, a voice that is essentially my own at the age of ten or eleven and thus somewhere in the back of my head all the time, anyway.
It's satisfying for me to be able to turn my attention from one form of literature to the other, and, as best I can, I intend to follow that pattern in the future: to succeed every book for adults by a book for children and vice-versa.
As for Roald Dahl and Daniel Pinkwater, both of them are writers I admire tremendously. I would imagine that readers of any age can enjoy their children's books, and I hope that the same can be said of mine. Daniel Pinkwater, in particular, has been a favorite of mine ever since I read Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars in elementary school. It's a book that seems to have found a fairly secure perch on my frequently revised "Fifteen Favorite Books" list--which as of today, and in no particular order, runs as follows:
1. All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell
2. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
3. Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
4. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
5. The Complete Stories by J. G. Ballard
6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
7. Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres
8. Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater
9. The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
11. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
12. A Death in the Family by James Agee
13. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
14. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
15. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
McMyne: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your writing schedule to do this interview! I enjoyed our discussion and look forward to reading The Brief History of the Dead when it comes out.
Brockmeier: You're welcome. I enjoyed it, too.
About the Interviewer
Mary McMyne is a graduate of the Louisiana State University MFA program. The 2001 recipient of the Robert Olen Butler Short Story award and 2002 recipient of the Tony Bill Screenwriting award, she is currently working on a novel, Dust and Sin, and a screenplay, The Black Toenail Diaries. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Exquisite Corpse.