John Brandon is super easy to talk to. He’s also really easy to interview. His voice is edged with laughter and he ends his sentences with question marks. It often feels as if he’s talking and listening at the same time. In response to every question I asked, he rolled out several stories, each one naturally following the one that came before. I wanted to spend more time with him.
Brandon’s three novels, Arkansas, Citrus Country, and A Million Heavens, have brought him a comfortable level of literary success. When he started out, post-MFA, he was working temporary jobs in warehouses and factories. Now he’s a tenure-track creative writing professor at Hamline University. Last week, A Million Heavens was released in paperback. You should read it if you haven’t. It’s a wonderful, magical novel.
My favorite thing about Brandon’s writing are his sentences. They take weird left turns and are compelling for reasons you can’t quite name. Each one leaves you wanting to find out what will happen next. When we spoke, Brandon was in Madison, Wisconsin, visiting his in-laws. He ducked out of the house where he and his family were staying, and walked to a nearby lake ringed with mansions, where he found a park bench on the water. “It’s not a cutesy bench,” Brandon told me. “It’s kind of a municipal bench. That made me think that I could, you know, sit on it without anyone coming to run me off.”
At one point in our conversation, Brandon told me, an otter made a little splash and poked its head above the water, to take a look around. We also talked about his days as a child book thief, his life as a traveling factory worker, and why he wants to take up pipe-smoking.
The Rumpus: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
John Brandon: Well, it’s hard to remember exactly, but it was in college. It wasn’t before that. I grew up in this place called New Port Richey, Florida. Which I guess is like a lot of places nowadays, because a lot of places are the same now, but it was just low-rent strip malls. There wasn’t a cultural scene or anything. My high school didn’t have people starting bands, even, or anything like that. I was playing sports all the time, growing up. And then, somewhere around 10th or 11th grade, I kind of lost interest in that and just started reading a lot. I didn’t know what to read. I didn’t have much direction outside of school.
So I would go to the mall—there was one of these crappy old malls, and they had a Waldenbooks. Do you remember those? Those Waldenbooks?
Rumpus: That was before Barnes and Noble.
And what I mean by “take” is, steal them.
And, you know, half of them I couldn’t understand. Sometimes I would take Nietzsche or something. And I wouldn’t read it, but more just scan the words. Sometimes I would get whatever the popular thing at the time was. I don’t know, something like Bret Easton Ellis. It was just a very random, inefficient education.
Rumpus: Based on whatever Waldenbooks had on the shelf?
Brandon: Yeah. Some stuff they always had. There was the philosophy section, the humor section. Then the part they would change out, you know, the bestsellers. Every now and then I would find a book I could understand. Like a Kerouac book. And I would say, “Okay, I can process this.” And then I would read all the Kerouac books they had. Occasionally that would happen.
So when I went to college I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I read all the time. So I was like, Well, I guess I’m an English major. So, you know, I kind of signed up for that.
Rumpus: You must have taken a fiction writing class.
Brandon: The first time I took a fiction writing class was sophomore year. And I just found myself taking that extremely seriously, in a way that I didn’t take anything else seriously. So I guess that was the start of it.
You know, it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer until college. I saw all these people around me training to be doctors, or historians, or C.E.O.’s or whatnot, and I thought, Maybe I want to be a writer. So then I just followed the normal path of going to an MFA program.
Rumpus: Was there a moment when you thought, Okay, this is what I want to do?
Brandon: I couldn’t say there was a moment. I was terrible at everything else, so that probably made it simpler. I know people who are really talented at writing, and they just don’t ever make it happen because they’re also good at other things, you know? But for me it was kind of easy. I mean, I’m terrible at math and science, and anything of that ilk. So it was just, like, oh well, this is it. There’s nothing else, so let’s go with this.
Rumpus: There was no other option.
Brandon: There was no other option. I wasn’t even very good at being an English major. I’d say I got B’s on papers pretty consistently. Which was okay. I could graduate. But none of my English teachers in college were praising me or telling me I was anything special. But then in creative writing classes they were. And I enjoyed those more anyway.
And then I just, you know, painted myself into a corner. Looking back now, it’s easy to say that was an okay thing to do. But it didn’t seem okay at the time. When you get out of your MFA program and you have no skills of any kind, other than writing, and your writing skills maybe aren’t that good… So I had to do the temping and factory work and all that kind of stuff for a couple of years.
Rumpus: Did you have Arkansas written when you got your MFA?
Brandon: No. By the time I started Arkansas I was fully into the post-MFA “this isn’t working out” worry phase.
Rumpus: How long did that last?
Brandon: Probably about four years? Until I found out McSweeney’s was gonna do Arkansas. I didn’t start worrying until the first novel, the one I wrote during my MFA, didn’t pan out. Before that I thought, This will get published, this is going to be great. Once I found out that wasn’t going to happen—if you start the worry clock there, it was probably about four years.
Rumpus: Where were you at the time?
Brandon: I wrote some of Arkansas in Chattanooga. Then my wife started doing this traveling therapy thing. So I went along with her, working at factories and stuff wherever we went. So I wrote the rest of Arkansas on the road, you could say.
Rumpus: Traveling therapy?
Brandon: She’s an occupational therapist. Kind of like a physical therapist. Same ballpark. You’ve heard of traveling nurses?
Brandon: It’s the same kind of deal. You know, they sign up with a company and then they go to a different area where somebody needs somebody every three months. Or sometimes you can extend it for another three months.
So we were in Chattanooga, which is a great, lovely place. Nothing wrong with Chattanooga. We were, like, mid-twenties. And I didn’t have anything substantial going on, as far as employment. I was just going to the warehouse where they stack up all the little plastic bowls that go to fast-food restaurants.
We were asking ourselves, “Are we going to stay in Chattanooga forever? Is this it?” We just didn’t think that sounded like it could be possible. We had just enough stuff that it would fit in our two cars. That was all the stuff we had. Which seems really comical now that we have two kids. Now it takes an eighteen-wheeler to move us. So we just packed up in one day, then drove to the next place, wherever it was in the country, then unpacked in a day, and then we were there for three months.
Rumpus: Was that fun?
Brandon: It was fun because no matter what kind of crappy job I had, I knew I was going to have it for three months or less. And on the weekend we would be in a new place, so we would just go do whatever fun things they had to do in that area.
I got a lot of writing done. Looking back now, I was able to write a ton doing those kind of jobs because they demand so little of your brain. And when you punch out, you might as well step off the planet, as far as you’re concerned. They’re not going to call you. It’s not like they give you work to take home. So I was able to get a lot more writing done than in a more “adult” life.
Then we came to the end of our traveling. We were like, “How are we going to stop doing this?” Because it’s fun to keep moving, and if you’re going to stop moving you have to pick a place to live. You have to get permanent jobs. Which isn’t fun to think about. So we were still traveling after years and years. We needed to make some kind of exit plan, but it’s hard to do because you’re having fun. It’s like, How am I going to figure out how to stop eating this cake?
And then out of the blue I got contacted about this Grisham Fellowship at Ole Miss. Which was like an act of God. It was just better than anything I had ever imagined. You go there for a school year, and you just teach one class per semester, and they give you fifty thousand dollars, and you don’t have to pay any bills.
That was like the best thing that will probably ever happen to me. It’s incredible. The house they put you in is in a beautiful neighborhood, you can walk to everything—to campus, to the square. There are big magnolia trees everywhere. You’re across the street from Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s old place. You’re not paying rent, not paying bills. It was really something. I can’t imagine anything better.
Rumpus: How long did you stay there?
Brandon: It’s only a year, but I wound up staying another year when Barry Hannah passed away. They needed somebody to hang around until they could find another senior fiction person, so I got to hang around there another year, which was also nice.
Then last year I was in Baltimore doing the Tickner Fellowship, which is at Gilman, which is a fancy boys’ high school. That was also a yearly thing. And now I’m in the Twin Cities, at Hamline University, and this is a permanent kind of gig.
Rumpus: You’ve made it.
Brandon: I guess so. It’s nice not to have to worry about applying for things. It’s really a different existence. A year can go by and you don’t have to put yourself out there and do all these phone interviews, and try to convince them you’re okay, and be in that mess. It’s really nice. I’m really happy about it.
Rumpus: Let me ask you about A Million Heavens. It seems like kind of a departure. It’s in a different part of the country, there are more characters, multiple points of view, it’s more magical. Did it seem like a departure for you?
Brandon: Yeah, it did, but a departure in ways that were comfortable. I like a different setting. It’s like all new ingredients, that I haven’t picked over yet. So it was kind of energizing to use the desert. I just hadn’t done anything with that.
And you know, I guess it was nice, too, to have characters who are more decent than a lot of the ones I’ve written. That was a relief, in a way.
Rumpus: What did you have when you started the story?
Brandon: The very first thing I had was New Mexico. During one of our traveling jaunts we lived in Albuquerque, and I had that same feeling that I had when we were driving around Arkansas years before. It was a strange place I didn’t totally understand. There was something open and unfinished about it. It seemed it would always be unfinished. That’s the sort of thing that makes me feel like I can get in there and do something that I want with the setting.
When we lived there, we would drive out east of town, out in the basin, and there was very little out there. These tiny towns. I had that before I had anything else. It just struck me as a place where things feel more random. Like the wind is just blowing things around, and sometimes it blows them back to the same place. Sometimes not. Sometimes things collide and sometimes they don’t. But it all stays in the basin.
And I just started thinking of having characters that way. And then, you know, you have all these unhelpful little projects when you are thinking about a book. Well, I do.
Rumpus: What do you mean?
Brandon: You know, you should just be thinking, Who’s the main character and what’s their trouble? If you just think about that, everything will be easier for you. But you start thinking of these greater things you want to investigate, that are just for you, really.
So I started thinking, I want to make this in my own impossible way feel like real life. You know, this is a book that has magic and the afterlife in it and stuff. So I’m thinking, Okay, let’s make it feel like real life.
Brandon: I wanted there to be some characters that were strongly connected, and some that were not as connected, and some that were unconnected. And then, for some of the storylines to come to something that felt like fiction, like what happens in a book, and for some of them not to come to something that felt like a book. For some to go nowhere, some to be sort of neutral, and some to imitate real life.
But this is silly, because it’s obviously a book. I’m making all this crazy, baroque, mystical stuff happen. But just in the handling of the characters and events, that was something I was thinking about, and something I had to grapple with a lot during the editing process.
Rumpus: Did you worry you might be taking away some things that would keep a reader interested or entertained?
Brandon: I think I probably should have been, but I wasn’t. I usually don’t consider the reader consciously that way, when I’m writing.
Rumpus: You don’t think about that.
Brandon: What I mean is, when I’m writing, I don’t think about the reader in any conscious way that impacts the writing, as far as, Hey, most readers would like this! But at the same time, if it were presented to me: “John, you’re going to write a novel. It’s going to take you a few years. When you’re done with it, there’s a law that no one’s allowed to read it.” I don’t think I would write it. I want someone to read it!
So it’s a complicated thing. But I more get caught up in what I want to do, and what I think is interesting, as far as the book as a whole and the characters. And you just have to have faith that somebody will be a kindred spirit, and will like what you’re doing. You know that it won’t be lots of people. But some people is good enough.
Rumpus: Can I ask what you’re working on now?
Brandon: I had an idea to write something set back around the Civil War era, but I was just way too ignorant to think I could start it any time soon. So for the past year I’ve just been reading Civil War stuff and taking notes. I was thinking that this summer I might start it, although at no point have I felt ready to start it.
But I found a way to wriggle out of it, which is that McSweeney’s has agreed to indulge me in a story collection. So that’s what I’m doing this summer: I’m fixing up stories for a collection for them. That’s gotten me off the hook from thinking about this Civil War book.
Rumpus: You bought yourself another year.
Brandon: Recently I told my wife, “Some character is going to smoke a pipe all the time, so I better go get a pipe, and have some first-hand knowledge of that.” At which point she said, “Oh, I see what’s going on. You’re regressing to college. You’re going to sit around and read these big books for no reason and smoke. I get it. You’re never going to write this.”
But I feel like I still might. I mean, I guess you never know. But I feel like I will.