Interviewed by Daniel O’Malley
DO: According to the jacket on your novel Arkansas, while you worked on the book you also “worked at a lumber mill, a windshield warehouse, a Coca-Cola distributor, and several small factories that produce goods made of rubber and plastic.” That’s not a small number of jobs—what kind of time span are we talking about here? Were you moving around a lot? How’d that experience affect your writing?
JB: My wife and I have been moving around for almost four years now. She has a good job that requires her to travel, and I tag along and get whatever job I can muster at each site, whatever the local temp agency has available. It suits me, or at least has up to now, because I can do manual labor all day while resting my brain, then come home and write. There’s something to be said for jobs that you don’t have to bring home with you. I wrote the second half of Arkansas while we were traveling, and have gotten several story settings out of the deal. It can’t be a bad thing for a writer to see lots of places and meet lots of people—that much more in the barrel, to keep you from scraping the bottom. I say this life has suited me up to now because you’re catching me at the moment when I’ve about had enough of it. It’s wearing, forcing yourself into a new existence every three or four months. I’m going to start looking for a teaching job soon, so we can settle somewhere.
DO: The state of Arkansas is more than just the setting of your book; it feels like a driving force. Have you ever lived there?
JB: I like to write about places I’ve been to only briefly. Arkansas was perfect because I’d driven through it several times, stayed a weekend here or there, but I didn’t know it like the back of my hand. The important thing to me is to get the feeling of a place, even if it’s only the feeling I imagine for it. If I know exactly where every gas station is, I feel hemmed in, like I can’t make the place what I need it to be. I put hills in parts of Arkansas that are flat, put swamps where I needed them, came up with my own names for buildings, etc. Arkansas always seemed mysterious to me, like anything could be going on. That’s the appeal, I think; nothing I could invent seemed outlandish.
DO: Kyle and Swin, two of the central characters in Arkansas, have fascinating relationships with the academic world. They’re outsiders for sure, and, as criminals, they operate beyond the realm I think most students would consider “normal,” but they’ve got such articulate opinions of that world. Swin in particular. When he revisits Vanderbilt, he recognizes “this jumble of ambition, this mess of intent.” What’s your own take?
JB: Well, I love college towns. I guess that means I must love colleges. It won’t be long before I’m working at a college, I hope, and the thought of that pleases me. Whatever you want to say about universities, they’re still about the best places for smart, poor people. If you’re interested in books and music and art, and can’t afford to live in Brooklyn or San Francisco, I’d say a good little college town is the place for you.
DO: People sometimes talk about “sentence” writers, writers who pay extreme attention to individual sentences. Your writing has a degree of precision to it, a tightness, that suggests some serious attention at the sentence level. That precision, combined with the action of the story, makes for a sort of double whammy that propels the narrative swiftly along. Is this a conscious thing, the cause of some serious agonizing over this or that word, or do the sentences just stream out that way?
JB: I think a lot about the sentences. If you read folks like Barry Hannah and Joy Williams and your guy Padgett Powell, you know how powerful good sentences can be. I took a lot of poetry classes as an undergrad, and I think that helps a prose-writer. It gets you in the practice of being economical and precise. If you value sentences enough to revise and revise, to labor over rhythm, after awhile you don’t have to revise as much. It starts coming out right the first go.
DO: I’ve seen your work likened to that of Raymond Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Elmore Leonard, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain—the list goes on, but I’m wondering who you see as your own influences, whom you look up to, literary or otherwise.
JB: The three folks I just mentioned are a good place to start. I’ve always admired a book called The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. Of course, Lady Flannery. I love me some Charles Portis. Alice Munro. There are too many to go on naming names.
DO: Flannery O’Connor said that “all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.” Arkansas certainly passes that test. Do you have any thoughts on the interplay of the hilarious and the serious?
JB: I guess it’s a matter of making sure there’s enough weight. Pure comedy, with no anchor, with nothing at stake, is hard to justify in fiction—especially if you’re writing something long. Some people can pull it off, though. Comedy is a tough thing to try to understand or make rules about. If anyone knew how to have the reader laughing during horrible happenings, it was O’Connor. If you have a strong plot, or at least some good tension, the comedy can be a break from that. It can be a breather. Anyone can do the drama part; it’s the comedy part that’s hard.
DO: Kyle and Swin spend a good bit of time running drugs around the South. If you had to transport a load of something across the country—doesn’t have to be drugs—what would it be? I’m thinking parrots, lots of parrots.
JB: The last dozen or so road trips I’ve taken have been for the purpose of moving—my pick-up and my wife’s Altima stuffed to the gills. So my fantasy is to go on the road transporting nothing, just some clothes and some cash, no need to be anywhere by any certain day.
DO: And let’s say you’ve got a partner on this run. Anyone you want. Who would it be? Here I’m thinking maybe Charles Barkley.
JB: You’re forgetting one thing about Charles Barkley. He likes to talk. A lot. Good road buddies need to have the same taste in music and fast food, require little sleep, and be slow to complain.
DO: What are you working on now? Another novel? Stories? Croquet?
JB: I’m finishing up the next novel. It’s about a kidnapping, but that’s not really a fair description of it. Next week I’ll be looking for a temporary Maine job. Once I secure that, I’ll be looking for a real job. Hope to do some hiking while I’m here, and see a moose.
John Brandon’s story “The Coming Summer” appears in Subtropics 5. His story “Naples. Not Italy.” appears in Subtropics 6.