The Rumpus Interview with Kevin Brockmeier
Kevin Brockmeier plays in a big sandbox. His novels and short stories run the gamut of genres, combining elements of literary, fantasy, and science fiction but always with a meticulous eye toward emotional truth. Most of all he’s an adept explorer of the longing human beings can feel for people, places, and moments long vanished. His most recent work testifies to that in a gut-punch kinda way.
You might not wonder why after winning a few O. Henry Awards, a Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and widespread critical acclaim for his novels The Brief History of the Dead, The Illumination, and The Truth About Celia, he would set his sights on memoir.
Yet you might indeed wonder why he’d choose to set that entire memoir in the seventh grade and only the seventh grade. That, however, is the premise of A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, a meticulous recollection of the year young Kevin Brockmeier lost his best friends, staged a play, courted the effervescent Sarah Bell, dressed as Dolly Parton for Halloween, and generally experienced several dozen of the pains of growing up simultaneously—all with a sci-fi twist.
The Rumpus: Let’s back into this: I mentioned to a friend that I’d just read a writer’s memoir of his year in the seventh grade, and her immediate, visceral reaction was, “Oh dear god, seventh grade is the worst year ever.” She then launched into a five-minute rant about her seared-into-memory experiences of terrible sleep-away camps, braces, and losing her friends. I bring this up only because my visceral reaction to the book was quite similar. What the hell is it about the seventh grade?
Kevin Brockmeier: I used to think that the what-the-hell of it was mine and mine alone—the consequence of graduating into a school with three times as many kids and a life with half as many friends. But you’re right: again and again, ever since the book came out, people have said to me, “I hated seventh grade. Seventh grade was awful,” so apparently it wasn’t just me. I suppose that when you’re growing up, you’re bound to reach an age when you feel buffeted by all the changes in your life, when either your mind begins outpacing your body or your body begins outpacing your mind and you’re not quite in conversation with yourself anymore. As for me, I had always been the kind of boy who was quick to laugh and quick to cry—in the first few pages of the memoir I write about living in “an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes,” and that’s what the world was like for me. But in seventh grade I gradually became aware that that quickness of feeling was something I was supposed to have outgrown. I was rather guileless, I think, or at least I was when it came to the people I cared about. I was wholly invested in my friendships. I might have tested them sometimes, but only to reassure myself that they were permanent. A mistake, of course.
As a footnote, I should add that some of the people I’ve met have named a different grade as their own personal disaster year—which is to say that everyone seems to have a seventh grade but that your own seventh grade might be fifth grade, or sixth, or eighth.
Rumpus: So the neuroscientists now tell us that memory is an illusion, that each memory of an event is really just us remembering the last time we remembered that event. So much of the scene work in Filmstrip* is presented with the vibrant detail of fiction. How did you decide how to treat memory or where to draw the line in fictionalizing certain aspects? When was it important to hew as closely to the truth as you remember it?
Brockmeier: Nearly every paragraph of the book—certainly every page—offered me the opportunity to bend the narrative in one of two directions: toward what actually happened or toward some convenient falsehood. What I would say is that whenever I was aware that a choice like this was offering itself to me, I bent as hard as I could toward what actually happened: always when it came to the incidents themselves, and always when it came to the way I remember reacting to them, and at least as often as memory permitted when it came to the dialogue. Many of the textures of the book, though—how the birds sounded in the trees, how a particular joke was phrased, how someone’s hair happened to fall across her face—are approximations rather than true recollections. I might not remember how the sky looked on any given day. I do remember, though, what it was like to be a boy beneath a sky. That’s the sensation I tried to recreate. The one exception is the book’s middle chapter, which is as intimate as all the others but which plainly didn’t happen—couldn’t have happened—as I describe it: a strange case of autobiographical science fiction. There’s plenty of truth-telling in that chapter, too, but the ratio of texture to recollection is balanced heavily in favor of texture.
(*It’s interesting to me that this is your shorthand for the book, since reflexively I’ve been calling it Seventh Grade.)
Rumpus: One of the reasons you’ve created such a successful tapestry of anxiety is that it recreates the specific agonies of that age with eidetic detail (Karen Russell’s word, not mine). The agony of a failed joke, the grotesque arrival of first pubic hair, of retiring entire vocabularies if a friend ridicules the word choices even once. I’m wondering how difficult it was to recreate that texture on the page. Did you have any specific techniques for journeying back to that mentality?
Brockmeier: More and more I think there’s an element of fiction writing that’s performative. If you want your stories to carry a particular charge of feeling, you have to experience that feeling while you’re working. I don’t know that you can fake it, or at least I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to fake it, because the choices you make when you’re writing—the rhythms you adopt, the phrases you construct, the effect one word has when it’s nestled alongside another—are so highly nuanced, and have so much to do with the ultimate emotional effect of a story, so that if you aren’t feeling along with your sentences, your instincts will gradually lead you astray. Maybe this is just my roundabout way of ducking your question, but the truth is that when I was working on Filmstrip, I simply followed my usual technique of trying to be two people simultaneously: myself, writing sentences, and someone else, experiencing life. It’s just that the someone else, in this case, was me at age thirteen.
Rumpus: It struck me that one of the hardest parts about adolescence is one’s absolute inability for any kind of introspection. You can agonize over people, events, passions, anxieties extremely well, but you’re allergic to perspective. No seventh grader can summon the notion, “Well, you know, life’s just a Buddhist flash of lightning anyway. Let’s not sweat the small stuff.” You did such a terrific job of capturing that quality of the adolescent mind I’m wondering if it was difficult to not slip into a reflective voice or view these experiences with an adult’s accumulated wisdom?
Brockmeier: That was the great challenge of the book for me. What I wanted was to write a memoir that was immersive rather than reflective, to resurrect a long-gone version of my own consciousness. I kept expecting that sooner or later the effort would come to seem like second nature to me, but it never did. With every sentence, I had to remind myself that I needed to abide by the contours of a very particular mind—mine, as it existed some twenty-eight years ago—rather than by the contours of my mind as it exists today. That was the trick, really: making the decision again and again to inhabit an earlier version of myself, manifesting that boy’s desires, that boy’s worries, that boy’s preoccupations. One of the rules I embraced was to restrict myself to the vocabulary I imagined was actually available to me in seventh grade, though I skirted the outer edge of that vocabulary sometimes and also embedded it in a syntax that’s more exacting than anything I would have produced at twelve or thirteen. I also wrote the memoir in the third person and the present tense, which I hoped would allow me to make the book not only as candid but as tensile and suggestive as I wanted it to be.
Rumpus: As Kevin’s teacher points out after he dresses in blackface, he keeps creating these “predicaments.” In other words he’s not entirely a blameless wallflower but is a kid very much looking to create attention, be noticed, distinguish himself in the ways he knows how. Was writing this in any way a method of discovering one’s own culpability in incidents previously viewed entirely through the lens of Why Me?
Brockmeier: Absolutely. I’m not sure if any of those discoveries are visible in the narrative itself, since I didn’t have access to them when I was thirteen. Back then the moral I derived from the year was that everything is tenuous, everything fragile; to quote from my favorite paragraph in the book, that: “Nothing you love is going to last. It’s impossible to rewind the grades on their spool, impossible to pause them, impossible to replay the good parts. Billy Joel isn’t cool anymore—Mötley Crüe is. Mötley Crüe isn’t cool anymore—Yngwie Malmsteen is. You’re an idiot if you haven’t heard of Yngwie Malmsteen.”
But yes, if you had been able to eavesdrop on my thoughts while I was writing the memoir, you would have seen a thousand little interior shivers of discomfort: me at my desk, processing the events of the year and constructing a hundred different stories, in some of which I was the hero but in many of which I wasn’t.
Rumpus: Tonally, this is not a despondent book. There’s a buoyancy to the prose that evokes a sense of adventure and discovery. Maybe I’m nuts, but I felt like it had a Reagan-era Tom Sawyer episodic quality. How important to you was it to keep this from flailing into a “woe is me” recounting of adolescent horror? Similarly, how important was it to keep any lessons from being learned? (I’m thinking, “And this is why you don’t go to school as Dolly Parton for Halloween.”)
Brockmeier: You don’t? Why didn’t someone tell me? I’m pleased, regardless, that you detected the joy in the book. The year I’m recounting was hard for me, tumultuous, and parts of it were absolutely brutal, but I was cheerful at least as often as I was unhappy or discouraged, even exultant sometimes. I had an inner dynamism when I was twelve and thirteen that made it easy to take delight in the world. I was also ready to believe, though, that whatever good things I had managed to set upright could topple at any second. I tried to get the balance right. And I agree with you: lessons are death. It would have been easy to treat the incidents I recall as anecdotes, packaged together with whatever meanings or punchlines I’ve derived from them over the years, but I don’t think our lives actually unfold with morals attached to them, or meanings that are easily extracted, or jokes designed to generate sympathy. I wanted to do the opposite—to offer up a life whose meanings can only be perceived through a tangle of desires, confusions, and textural details.
Rumpus: Midway through there is a sci-fi twist, in which, not to give anything away to the reader but young Kevin is essentially confronted with a To Be or Not to Be decision. He is given the rough contours of what the rest of his existence will look like—the victories and the many difficulties—and this struck me as the book’s most agonizingly honest moment. Was that wormhole of a moment necessary to get to that honesty? You almost had to find a way to flash forward to allow that perspective that while adulthood has a few benefits it also brings its own worries and sorrows?
Brockmeier: Well, the whole book was as intimate as I could make it. Whenever I had a choice between sharpening the truth of a moment or softening it, I tried to sharpen it. I suppose the difference between the rest of the narrative and the pages you mention—“the hinge chapter” is what I’ve been calling them—is that for most of the book, I attempted to speak honestly from a bygone point of view, while in the hinge chapter, I attempted to speak honestly not only from thirteen-year-old Kevin’s point of view but also from forty-year-old Kevin’s, complicating or broadening or augmenting the perspective without, I hope, violating it. I knew all along that I was going to interrupt the narrative with a scene that was divorced from the ordinary mimetic currents of the story: the idea of writing a memoir with a science fiction chapter—that kind of rule-breaking—was one of the things that made me excited to attempt the book in the first place. But it wasn’t until I reached the hinge chapter that I discovered exactly what sort of truths it would inspire me to tell.
Rumpus: A part of you must have written this book with a little bit of, Hey Kenneth and Thad, looky here: how you like them apples, motherfuckers? How difficult was it to resist that urge and treat your bullies with the same kind of sympathy you treat the character of Kevin?
Brockmeier: The instincts you’re talking about are very common, I know, but they were so alien to the project that I never really had to battle against them. My impulse when I began writing the book was to take all the circumstances of my life—good, bad, or embarrassing—and gather them back together, letting them unspool before my senses exactly the same way they did in 1985. I continually tried to remind myself what it was like to be the particular boy of thirteen I once was, and did my best to suit the stance of the narrative to that boy’s mind, his understanding, and his vocabulary. And because he never felt vengeful toward Thad and Kenneth—just hurt by them—neither did I. In fact, if the two of them had convinced him that all the torment to which they had subjected him was just a big misunderstanding, he would have resumed his friendship with them in a heartbeat.
There’s a bare moment of the kind of feeling you’re talking about at the end of the seventh chapter, when Kevin plays the party game with Ethan’s church youth group and gets paired up with the girl he likes, Sarah Bell—“Then she is inches away, her face diving in to kiss him, and Thad and Kenneth can go to hell, because he is better, he is better, he is better”—but that’s his sentiment you’re hearing, his reflex, not mine.
Rumpus: One thing I found so familiar (and any writer would find familiar) were all these moments where you see the hints of the burgeoning writer struggling to find a template to lay down some genius. Kevin writes mystery stories, a play, a song for a talent show he desperately wants to win. It seems to me this is universal: these early experiences, these little hints and small encouragements that presage the path they’re going to find irresistible. There must have been some joy in looking at those moments of your younger self?
Brockmeier: Actually, for whatever reason, I found recalling those moments more embarrassing than recalling most of my actual embarrassments—all those costumes and lip-synching incidents and busted one-liners and such. Maybe that’s because celebrating your own early skill with words—your skill or at least your pleasure—can look an awful lot like a grown writer seeking congratulations rather than an adolescent boy seeking entertainment or distraction. I’m not sure.
Regardless, all the plays and songs and whodunits I wrote were certainly part of the story of the year, and a part that I recollected very clearly, so I couldn’t exclude them from the book. For me, though, the real joys of the memoir were in passages like the one where I imagine traveling into some other realm through the window-shapes the headlights of passing cars send across my ceiling, or the one where I try to keep my cat from leaping off my chest, or the one where I ride through town on the back of my friend’s moped, or the one where I sink into sleep convinced that everything in the world can be stacked into a single neat pile—quiet moments that were part of the fabric of my life, maybe even the thickest portion of it, but have never been part of the fabric of my anecdotes.
Rumpus: Speaking of Karen Russell, you guys are friends, and having read both of your work back-to-back, it’s interesting to see how you both explore tough emotional terrain through fantastical concepts. She was also an early reader for this book; how much did her friendship inform your work or your process? Do you think it’s important to cultivate relationships with other writers whose work has the same DNA? How about with writers who are working with entirely different aesthetics and registers?
Brockmeier: Karen was the book’s first reader, but I’m sure she would tell you that I didn’t come to her seeking recommendations and, in fact, was pretty recalcitrant about accepting any. The truth is that I’m uncommonly slow to show my work to other people, and by the time I do I’ve usually exhausted myself so completely that all I really want is for someone to tell me that my efforts have added up to something—not one of my better qualities, I admit.
In any case, I love Karen, and the seventh-grade part of me would tell you that she’s one of the five people I would save in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, but honestly? I think it’s important to cultivate a healthy reading life. I like what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had to say: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The books you love best—those are the immensity of the sea. Karen’s books are part of that immensity for me. And I think it’s important to cultivate healthy friendships, too. But if your reading life and your friendships overlap, that’s just a nice coincidence—a case where the conversation you’re having with books and the conversation you’re having with actual human beings happen to dovetail.
Rumpus: Last question: because it’s always interesting, what are you working on next?
Brockmeier: Hmm. Do you remember how Batman described criminals as “a superstitious cowardly lot”? Well, writers—some writers at least—are the same way. I always try to stay as quiet as possible about a book until it’s finished.
Photographs provided courtesy of Kevin Brockmeier.