Nate Brown is Deputy Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. An excerpt from his novel-in-progress, The American Book of the Dead was recently published at Wag’s Revue, and he has stories forthcoming in Mississippi Review and The Iowa Review. Nate is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin and has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Vermont Studio Center, the Kimmel, Harding, Nelson Center for the Arts, and multiple work-study scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
We here at CQ were thrilled to talk with recent contributor, Nate Brown. We discussed novel writing, second-person stories, literary censorship, and what to do in Visalia, California, among other things.
– Phil Sandick, Fiction Editor
The Carolina Quarterly: How would you describe your novel-in-progress, The American Book of the Dead?
Nate Brown: Well, first, I would describe it as unfinished! It’s getting there though.
The book is written in the third-person, and is composed of three long sections. Each section follows a member of the King family. There’s Gloria, a single mom who works in a retirement community in central California and who is struggling with her newly empty nest, a job she’s grown tired of, and with the anxiety of having a son deployed to Iraq. The second section of the novel follows her son Kevin as he moves through college. And then there’s Alex, Kevin’s older brother, who is enlisted in the Marine Corps and who ends up fighting in the first battle of Fallujah. Much of the novel is set between late 2003 and the spring of 2004, and I suppose most of the action revolves around the ways in which this little family attempts – to varying degrees of success – to put itself back together following Alex’s injury in Iraq.
CQ: What were some of the seeds of this project?
NB: A lot of what’s in the book comes from my experience attending college while my two older brothers were in the Marine Corps. We shared a bedroom growing up, and we’ve always been pretty close. I’m the youngest in my family, and I was fortunate enough to get to go to college. Sometime around 2002, though, when I was a sophomore, I remember feeling really surprised at the turns our lives had taken. In the space of just three or four years, I’d gone from sleeping on the top of a bunk bed in a shared bedroom in central California to attending school in Ithaca, New York while my brothers were off doing whatever it was that one does when deployed with the Marines.
At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it. Some weird part of me wanted to quit school and enlist, though I’m sure I didn’t have the guts or, at heart, the inclination to do so. Another part of me felt angry that they weren’t in school themselves. I think I felt like I’d missed an opportunity to serve my country, to prove myself somehow, to take part in a tradition that I found both terrifying and exotic. At the same time, I felt like my brothers hadn’t been served well by the schools we’d attended as kids and teenagers, that they’d deserved the chance to go off to college, and that maybe they joined the Marines for lack of something better to do.
Today, my view of that is more nuanced, but back then I felt pretty sure someone – either them or me – had been cheated out of something somewhere along the line. At the end of the day, though, we were just kids working our way into adulthood the best way we knew how. For my brothers, that meant military service, a shot at some money for college, an opportunity to see the world. None of us, of course, could’ve foreseen where that’d take them (they both joined a peacetime military), and I think that’s why I’ve been working on this project for so long. As I’m trying to depict deeply conflicted characters and some of the truly horrifying domestic ramifications of war, I guess I’m also still trying to figure out how I feel about the whole mess.
There’s no doubt that the Iraq war changed my family – which is to say nothing of the innumerable Iraqi and Afghani families that have been decimated by the conflicts of the past decade. In a lot of ways, writing this book is an attempt to come to terms with some of these realities.
CQ: Your excerpt portrays Alan Yu, a college upperclassman, through the eyes of Kevin King, a college freshman. Alan is feeding Kevin advice about how to be the archetypal college dude. Would you say you are more the Alan-type or the Kevin-type?
NB: I’d love to say that I’m like neither of them, but the truth is I’m probably a bit like them both. I felt really sheepish when I showed up to college. I hadn’t been on a plane before packing my bags and leaving for school. So when I showed up never having been drunk before, never having been to the east coast before, and never having met such a wild variety of people, I felt intimidated and cowed by just about everyone and everything.
My peers seemed so confident and self-assured, like Alan in that excerpt. But in the excerpt, I think it becomes clear pretty quickly that Alan’s a blowhard and that he’s largely full of shit. Kevin, on the other hand, is a real weenie in that chapter. He’s scared of everything at first and he’s diffident to a fault. He’s listening to Alan’s advice because, well, confidence – even such false bravado – can be really attractive and reassuring, particularly to someone who lacks confidence.
CQ: We here at CQ were lucky to feature “The Have Nots” in our Spring 2011 issue (61.1). Give us some of your thoughts on writing in the second person. Any favorite second person stories?
NB: Any successful story has that wonderful ability to make you forget for a while that you’re reading it. With the second person, I think it’s particularly hard to evoke that in a reader because seeing “you” on the page implicates the reader in the story linguistically. Even though that “you” is standing in for a character, I just don’t think there’s a way around the effect that the referent “you” has on a reader.
And so I think we’re more aware, as readers, of stories in the second person. They seem more overtly artificial to us. But in the hands of (wait for it!) someone like Lorrie Moore, part of the pleasure of a second person is in how the language can really put a reader on the spot. The “you” can be didactic and judgmental. It’s the language of instruction and indictment.
Of course, so many times, the second person functions as a kind of veiled first-person, and I while I think a lot of stories might just as well be in the first-person, I couldn’t escape writing “The Have Nots” in the second. In the story, the protagonist is deeply ashamed of an instance of really ugly, youthful cruelty. The second person lets him put a bit of distance between himself and the mean kid he was once was, effectively saying that was “you” not “me.”
CQ: What is the best thing that you have read recently that’s not fiction?
NB: There’s so much good writing out there, across genres. I’ve just cracked Margaret Talbot’s The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, which is fascinating so far. And this fall I re-read Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage. Both of these books make me long for periods I wasn’t around to experience. Caryl Pagel’s collection of poems Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death is absolutely beautiful, as is Debora Kuan’s Xing. Marc Rahe’s The Smaller Half has occupied a place on my nightstand for a long time now. I’m such a wannabe poet, it’s ridiculous.
CQ: You are married to the supremely talented poet and teacher Thea Brown. As a fiction guy, what’s it like to have a poet’s perspective in your work (and life)?
NB: Thea’s my first and best reader, that’s for sure. In part because she’s a poet and in part because she makes living as a copyeditor, she’s got a really sharp eye for syntax. I’m admittedly undisciplined – even sloppy – sometimes in drafting work, and she’s really saved me with line edits on more than one occasion! But even more than her being a great reader, I think having someone whose work is so different than my own gives me an opportunity to read a lot of work I might not otherwise have sought out on my own. In the last couple of years, I’ve tended to read a lot more poetry and to attend more poetry events than I might have otherwise because of Thea’s community of colleagues and friends. And that’s been a really good thing for me as a writer and as a person. It’s also true that I love her work – it’s bizarre and often shot through with humor and I’m constantly surprised by what she’s writing. How someone gets away with the line “Stay here Scully” (yep, that’s an X-Files reference) in a poem is beyond me, but she does it!
CQ: You wrote about banned books back in September 2012: (http://www.pen.org/blog/?p=16816). Why are censorship battles still an important issue today?
NB: This summer, I accompanied two American fiction writers, an American playwright, and an American poet to China as part of an exchange program through the International Writing Program, where I was working at the time. While I’d be a fool to pretend that I fully understand the implications of government censorship, I can say that being in China made me deeply aware of how loose-lipped I am and how freely I express any and all of my opinions. Obviously, I never felt in danger of overstepping some boundary – even in China, it’d take a lot of smack talk to get arrested. But the experience got me thinking about the nature of censorship and how, at heart, it’s actually quite strange that one (be it a government, a school system, a legislator, etc.) could think that the suppression of an idea’s expression might somehow quash the existence of the idea itself. Obviously, that’s a futile effort, and even in China, there are a million workarounds for the state’s censorship.
In terms of written work, there’s long been a push and pull with regards to what society finds acceptable for publication. “Howl” was tried for overt references to homosexual intercourse, and even the strongest reference in the poem pales in comparison to what you’d find in about 1 minute of Googling words and phrases with sexual connotations. That’s not an argument in favor of an utterly degraded and explicit society, mind you, but it’s true that societal notions of decency change over time. It’s my hope that writers continue to push at the edges of those notions. In doing so, I think we reaffirm the value of the freedom of expression and, frankly, I think we produce more interesting work when we push at those edges. Not everyone’s comfortable with doing that, and that’s okay too. And not everybody is going to find that work valuable or worthy of examination or of publication. That’s also okay. What’s not okay, in my view, is patently quashing a point of view because one finds it distasteful, disgusting, rude, or dangerous. Obviously, there are limits and exceptions here (I’m thinking of truly extreme forms of pornography and tips for constructing your own nuclear weapons) but that’s why we have courts and newspapers. As long as the discussions of what’s deemed “decent” are held in the open and as long as we have strong justices who are willing to defend the first amendment, I think we’ll be just fine.
CQ: You’ve recently moved from Iowa City to Washington, D.C. How do you like the new digs? How’s life at the PEN/Faulkner foundation?
NB: We moved from Iowa City to D.C. over Labor Day weekend, and I hit the ground running with the new job, so I haven’t actually spent too much time thinking about how things have changed for us recently. I will say that one of the single biggest differences between living in a small town and in a city is that in a small place, you tend to see your friends more regularly and, in fact, incidentally. I miss our porch swing in Iowa. I miss the garden where we grew dozens of Green Zebra tomatoes this summer. On the other hand, being in a larger place has allowed us to travel more easily and regularly. It’s allowed us to see family who it was difficult to see while living in the Midwest. It’s allowed Thea and I to have one job each for the first time in many years. For a while there, I was teaching at a community college, tending bar, and mowing lawns to make the rent. Thea was a hostess at a restaurant, an adjunct instructor, and was freelance copyediting for an ad agency. So, in spite of being in a bigger and busier city, I think we might actually be working fewer cumulative hours these days!
And D.C., despite what some might say, is an absolutely charming place. As for PEN/Faulkner, it’s been a dream job for me. I work with a terrific group of people, and PEN/Faulkner seems to have been associated in one way or another with just about every major American fiction writer of the past 30 years. It’s been incredibly fun so far. In a lot of ways, I’m waiting for the giant anvil to fall from the sky and smash me! I feel lucky and excited to be here doing what I’m doing. Life’s good.
CQ: Okay, last one. 48 hours in Visalia, California, your hometown. What do you recommend?
NB: Oh, well, I’m going back there for the first time in a couple of years very soon, so this will be a helpful draft of an itinerary:
Day I: Eating Day -
1) Eat two chili dogs from Taylors! They’re not good for you, but live a little. Wash the dogs down with one of their cherry sodas.
2) Drive up to Three Rivers and swing by Reimers for something deeply unhealthy.
3) Come back to town and hit up Colima for some fish tacos.
4) Stop by Brewbakers and have a beer or two or three.
5) Alternatively, skip steps 1-4 and just hit up a different Mexican restaurant for every meal. Really, it’s all about the Mexican food in the San Joaquin Valley.
Day II: Activity day -
1) Go take a long walk through the trails at Kaweah Oaks Preserve in order to burn off everything you ate on Day I.
2) Go see the trees! Visalia’s only about 35 miles from the entrance to Sequoia National Park, so if you want to see some of the biggest trees on the planet, they’re only about 85 miles away. Granted, most of those miles are spent climbing into the Sierras, so prepare to have your ears pop from the change in elevation, and pray that conditions are good and that traffic is light! It’s a twisty road, so take a Dramamine. But walking among those big trees is indescribable. That windy road is well worth it.