Thursday, February 03, 2011

Q+A with Editor: Barbara Browning

Barbara Browning named my son.

Five years ago, when my daughter was born, we didn't tell anyone the name we had picked out basically because we didn't want anyone else's opinion (a route I'd definitely recommend). We named our daughter Rio. When Eliza was pregnant with our son, again we weren't telling anyone the name we had picked out. Barbara, who spent several years living in Brazil, decided to try and guess, and thinking that we'd stick with Brazilian cities guessed Maceo (after MaceiĆ³). That wasn't the name we had picked out, but we liked it so much we decided to name him Maceo.

It's been pretty great this past year getting to know Barbara. I'm incredibly excited to unleash her debut novel upon the world, The Correspondence Artist, later this month. It's witty, intelligent, and has a very smooth bite to it. I liken her work to Nicholson Baker, Miranda July, and even Charlie Kaufman.

Furthering my excitement is the news that we'll be publishing Barbara's second novel, I'm Trying to Reach You next spring (March, probably). In the Q+A below, we reveal a good amount of what it's about, so I'll dive right in . . .

I remember bartending one night and a couple guys were chatting about where they were when Elvis died. One was talking about driving a truck across Arkansas and I can't remember what the other guy was doing. I've overheard my parents have a similar discussion with friends about the death of John Kennedy. I'm Trying to Reach You starts with this line: “I was in Zagreb the day Michael Jackson died.” Have you had a similar moment with the death of a celebrity or cultural figure, that really floored you, where you’ll always remember exactly where you were when you heard?

In fact, I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died. I was at the same weird performance art conference as my narrator. It was very disorienting. My narrator says, “I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died. When I heard the news, the first thing I thought was, ‘That’s it. That’s the first line of my novel. “I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died.”’” Which is exactly what I thought. I got the news in a text from my son, but my narrator heard in a text from his boyfriend.

I read the New York Times every morning with my coffee, so I usually learn of the deaths of public figures on my couch, over coffee, unless a friend alerts me sooner. Recently that’s happened several times on Facebook. And now I’ve actually lost two Facebook friends. Or more accurately: they’re still my Facebook friends, but in the “real” world, they’re dead.

Are we becoming a culture that witnesses and processes death through our twitter of facebook feed?

Yes, but I think that’s giving a public form to something that was always a human tendency. I know many people find it morbid or disconcerting in particular that dead people continue to have social lives through digital media, but in my experience, we do continue to have relationships with people after they die, and always have. I don’t mean this in a mystical way. I lost my father years ago, but I’ve continued to work out issues with him, come to understand things I couldn’t before… I didn’t see him often when he was alive, but I’d write him and think about him. The relationship didn’t change so much after he was gone. I also lost a lover when I was relatively young. Same thing.

In the novel, I quote Merce Cunningham about John Cage’s death. He loved Cage, but acknowledged that he could sometimes be a little controlling. When he died, Merce said, “On the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, and John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home and John’s not there.” My narrator says, “When I read that quote, it seemed to me it was as though Cage had gone on vacation and Merce was getting a little break.” Still, death is hard. My narrator’s very afraid of it.

The Correspondence Artist sprinkled images throughout the text. Your second novel takes it to another level, incorporating even more images as well as video clips. But you do this in an entirely clever way, which almost forces the reader to become an active participant in the story. (I should also mention that the reader could entirely choose to ignore the videos and plow through the story without missing anything.) It's like a puzzle that engages the reader, allowing them to string together the mystery themselves. How did you imagine this idea, and why is it important to you not to use new technology like smartcodes or smartphones to embed the video, but to make it more of an activity?

I never made a strategic decision to incorporate images, but since I was documenting the way that we communicate with each other now, I felt I had to include images. The Correspondence Artist was largely constituted by e-mails, and they often had images attached to them. In I’m Trying to Reach You, the narrator also does much of his communication through text messages on his phone, and he often sends pictures, as we all do now. It’s not so much about the artistic merit of the photos – it’s just our way of saying, “Wish you were here. Look what I saw!”

Regarding the videos: I’m a dancer, and some time ago I began making little chamber choreographies and posting them on YouTube. I didn’t care if nobody ever saw them, or just a few people. I liked the fact that they were there, and someone might stumble across them. I love many domestic dances you can find on YouTube. They can be so strangely intimate. Other people have also observed this.

When MJ died, I watched a lot of people’s home videos of themselves trying to dance like him. I found some of them disturbing, and some of them heartbreakingly beautiful. Sometimes both. When my son was about 13, well before MJ died, he had made a video of himself moonwalking to “Smooth Criminal.” He’s since taken it down (embarrassing) – but I thought it was very poignant – poetic, somber, understated. He never looked at the camera. That was the video that inspired my own dances. I wanted to find that kind of internal, minimalist and yet strangely intimate quality. And I also wanted them to be a little funny. Then I wondered what a stranger might make of them, so I looked at them as a stranger might, trying to make sense of them. And I began to write a mystery with the dances furnishing the apparent clues seen by somebody else.

I wanted for the narrative to be sufficient as a narrative. But I know that because we now have such easy access to information, texts, images, films, I wanted for a reader to be able to do what Gray does, what I do, and what many of us do now: pause in the course of our reading to Google something, or look it up on YouTube.

Gray references not only my dances, but also other performances (Natalia Makarova dancing the dying swan, Lutz Forster in a dance by Pina Bausch) and films (“Notorious,” “D.O.A.”) that you can easily access on YouTube or Netflix “watch it now.” Part of the pleasure of writing is turning people on to the things (books, films, music, dances) that you love, not just the ones you make. Some of my videos also incorporated friends that I think are beautiful movers or virtuosic musicians. Again, it’s a way of saying to the reader, “Wish you were here – look how beautiful!”

I’m assuming a curious reader with a certain amount of energy, but for the unconnected or the technophobe or adamant reader of the page, the story is still coherent and, hopefully, compelling on its own.

There's actually a whole string of deaths, which is the mystery that threads the story: which is whether someone is killing famous dancers. The protagonist, a former ballet dancer named Gray Adams, starts piecing this improbable puzzle together via YouTube videos and the comments they elicit. In I’m Trying to Reach You, you seem to have written a murder mystery in which everyone is dying of old age (with the exception of MJ).

It really did seem shocking and uncanny when, in 2009, MJ, Pina and Merce died in such rapid succession. Then it was electric guitarists. Of course there was a medical explanation in each case, but no matter how “natural” a death is, it never feels natural if you love that person. I wrote a murder mystery in which nobody was actually murdered. I’m not the first person to do this, by any means. When I was in college, my best friend gave me a copy of Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which is precisely this.

The real mystery – the big one – is: why do the people we love have to die? I won’t give away the answer, because my book is, after all, a mystery. I can tell you this: the answer is simple, dumb, and unsatisfactory. Still, the book has a happy ending.

The other major theme of the book is the threat that one might feel in relation to their identity as an American, which is an ambitious undertaking.

I went through a period of profound alienation from my sense of myself as an American. This had a lot to do with many of the political policies of the Bush administration and the aftermath of 9/11. Naturally, there are still things that worry me, but at the time of Obama’s election, I had a brief period of euphoria, which settled into something more like a measured and sustained effort to understand both what I love and what I fear in our national culture. I wanted to recuperate in a realistic but engaged way my sense of my own Americanness.

Of course one’s sense of identification with the nation is inflected by all kinds of particulars, including one’s class, race, gender, and sexual identification. Gray struggles with this. He’s not a person who’s intending to “pass,” but he notes early on that people don’t necessarily “read” his ethnicity or sexuality. And in fact I hesitated to write that here, because I think a reader of the novel will probably also not necessarily “read” these things in his narrative voice, at least until he tells you. There are a lot of assumptions about an unmarked narrative voice.

Anyway, the cultural icons that signal what it means to be an American man are, for a variety of reasons, somewhat terrifying to my narrator, and to me. The extreme one is “the Duke.” The more benign one is Jimmy Stewart. Gray and I both narrated this novel in an effort to come to terms with our feelings about this, and about death. I guess, yes, that sounds ambitious, but we did it pretty quietly.

Which brings me to one other thing about national character in the novel, which is oblique references to a national aesthetic – literary, musical, and choreographic. There are two poles I reference: minimalist, and maximalist. I love them both (the cryptic poems of Emily Dickinson folded up in tiny packets and hidden away in a box, the spare, understated choreographies of Merce – but also the “trashy, profane and obscene” poems of Whitman and Ginsberg, Martha Graham’s expressionism). I am, myself, a minimalist. I’m very quiet. But I love distortion guitar and the wild exhibitionism of so many American artists. Also, these divisions are false. Emily Dickinson, in fact, can be as trashy and obscene as the best of them! Anyway, Dickinson and Whitman are at the heart of this narrative. They are the Dancing Queen and the Guitar Hero. I find it very moving that our two great national poets were sexual oddballs (I mean that in the most positive way) who sometimes identified across genders. That makes me very proud to be an American.

You can purchase a Year 5 Book Subscription for just $45 through Sunday, February 6. The subscription includes all our titles published between May 2011 and March 2012: You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy; Damascus by Joshua Mohr; Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton; I'm Trying to Reach You by Barbara Browning.

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