Brian Booker and I met in the fall of 2014 in Madison, where we were both fiction fellows at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He was private and a little dour about his work—or was this only the awful, endless winter? So it came as a sort of surprise in the spring when the snows finally melted and he sold his debut collection Are You Here for What I’m Here For? to Bellevue Press. I love the title—and the collection, which came out in early May—for its sneaky humor, its dreamlike sense of recognition and dislocation, its suggestion that worry and uncertainty are often accompanied by a particular certitude: the confidence that something is surely wrong, only we can never truly know what.
Indeed, Unsolved Mysteries—which a father in one story watches on TV before venturing out to search for his missing adult son at a ski lodge populated by strangers enacting their own berserk dramas—would be, if not a suitable alternate title, then an apt description of these stories. A disease researcher fleeing the seatmate from hell gets lost aboard a phantasmagorical train; a hypochondriac vacations at an absurd resort; a teenager considers his sexuality in a suburban mansion full of reminders of the body’s fragility. And none of them are ever quite sure how to escape what ails them, how to solve the problem at hand. In some cases they cannot even identify the problem. As the teenager notes, “horror could end in madness, because the bad thing might turn out to be inside you–where it had been all along.”
Brian and I exchanged emails about hypochondria, happy endings, and waiting a long time for his debut.
The Rumpus: You’ve done your training in a somewhat unusual order: first a PhD at NYU, then Provincetown, then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Some of the stories in this collection were published in journals like OneStory and Conjunctions before your MFA (in some cases, a half-decade before). How did getting an MFA, being in workshops, change your writing?
Brian Booker: In going from PhD-world to MFA-world, you sort of learn to read all over again, in a good way. You go from interpretation to “craft.” You’re paying attention to all these subtle features of the story’s construction that may not matter much to its themes, but have huge significance for how the story gets its hooks into the reader’s nerves and guides her along this particular emotional journey. It’s a kind of formalism, but it’s different from the way you close read in literary criticism. You’re taking a different kind of X-ray of the text. I re-read Lolita—a book I’ve read many times—and I was like, holy shit, here is all this stuff going on that I was totally unaware of before. I storyboarded it. I storyboarded other novels, stories, movies. An MFA gives you time to do stuff like that.
I think Iowa helped me pay more attention to character, to scene, to a more patient elaboration of the fictional world. And then I think it necessarily changes your writing when you’re writing “for” specific people sitting around a table in a specific room, people whose esteem and judgment you care about very much. And when the process of writing a story—which, I don’t know about you, but for me it can take years—gets telescoped. It has to be done in a month, two months if you start over winter break. The breakthroughs come more quickly because they have to.
Rumpus: Right. You actually had a collection, titled The Sleeping Sickness, that was a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award—back in 2005, a half-decade before you went to Iowa. What’s it like, a decade later, to have a debut collection finally out in the world?
Booker: Having a debut collection come out is pretty amazing, because at times I felt pretty convinced that no publishing house was ever going to publish a book written by me. Don’t think 2004 was the only year I sent in a manuscript to that Iowa contest. As the years went by, I was dropping weaker stories from the collection and adding stronger ones, yet I was doing worse in the same contest. And doing no better in plenty of other contests.
Rumpus: So is this collection different than that earlier one?
Booker: Yes. In the early 2000s, inspired by Ben Marcus and maybe some of the people writing in McSweeney’s, I wrote a number of texts you might call absurdist collage pieces. I did a series of obviously fake hotel “reviews” by a traveling narrator who seems to be losing his mind, called “Pennsylvania: A Guide to Lodging.” The collection that was a finalist in the Iowa contest was a hybrid collection of these short, ludic pieces and the longer, character-driven stories.
By the time I was doing my MFA, I was working only on long, character-driven stories, and finding other ways to weave in the weirdness and the comedy (and I use the term “comedy” loosely here). At some point it became clear, at least to the agents and editors who looked at it, that the collection was too heterogeneous, that it didn’t hang together. Leslie Hodgkins, my editor at Bellevue, had read the heterogeneous, pre-Iowa collection and loved it, but even he agreed that maybe the collection made more sense with just the long, character-driven stories. That’s what we settled on and that’s what the press accepted. It makes sense. Still, I hope the ludic stuff ends up in a future book.
Rumpus: I’m struck by the fact that many of the stories in your collection end on a note that reads like optimism. Is this a conscious artistic choice? How do you arrive at endings—are you one of those writers who works toward an ending, or does the ending surprise you when you find it?
Booker: Both. Is it a cliché to say that you have an idea of the moment the story is headed towards, but you don’t know how the story will get there, nor do you know what that moment will look like until it arrives? It may be a cliché because it’s true? Have you ever done a sort of forensic analysis on one of your finished stories, gone back and figured out exactly how the whole crime got committed? It sounds not very fun, right? I do wonder, like, at what point did I know that “Here to Watch Over Me” was going to end with Pat Guest, the father who’s been looking for his son, marching down that mountain road, blubbering confusedly into his phone? Where did those headlights (the story’s final image) come from? When did I learn that “Love Trip” would end intra-postcard? No idea. I talk to my students about the moment when a story can sense its ending. This moment doesn’t come to me until I’ve maddeningly rewritten the beginning of the draft a hundred times until somehow that perfectionist energy loosens and the story opens up into its generative middle, where the magic happens.
I think we could agree, though, that many good endings give us that sense of done-but-not-finished. Something is still at stake. The story doesn’t expend all its energy, it withholds something, and that withholding is part of the power it sustains. Salvatore Scibona said something very smart about the jarring, frightening ending of Denis Johnson’s “Two Men”: that he hands you this “horrid emotion,” and then by stopping the story at that point, forces you to walk away with it. Scibona adds that the story becomes a kind of earworm you can’t get out of your head, because of the way the author has resisted walking the story through what might have been its conclusion. As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that I very often forget the endings of stories and novels that have been important to me. It’s as if my subconscious is doing the work of turning the story into an earworm by effacing its ending.
Rumpus: That’s all so interesting. But again, your endings lean less toward jarring and frightening and more toward optimism, no?
Booker: In terms of the optimism: part of me wonders if it’s true. Some readers find my endings pretty dark. Characters often find themselves in the grip of a wrong idea. We have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of our wrong ideas, because even though they make us suffer, we’ve grown comfortable with them. I like the idea of a letting-go that is both terrifying and transfiguring. Stories of reconciliation can be like this. Suddenly there is a frame of reference that wasn’t there before, everything that seemed so important no longer seems so important, or the significance has changed entirely. I guess I do like the idea of stories having a trajectory toward grace, toward mercy, toward surrender.
Often an ending is about correction, clarification. What happens when the veil of delusion is finally torn away? Pity and terror, as in tragedy. Flannery O’Connor’s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” ends this way. Or laughter, as in comedy. Ethan Canin says the camera should “pan up” in the story’s ending. Which could mean that the story somehow swerves out of (or transcends) the frame of reference in which it’s been operating. The eye of the story attains a height from which all the sound and fury of human problems appear small. This is the comic spirit. Laughing at oneself can be a kind of beautiful surrender, and is Buddhist in sensibility.
Kazuo Ishiguro says that writers are performing an act of re-making their world in the aftermath of some trauma. That creation is the hope of undoing loss. In this light, the story-making project appears both compulsive and ameliorative, and perhaps quixotic. But are these kinds of questions on my mind, or yours, when we’re writing our stories? I doubt it.
Rumpus: Let’s talk names. In your story “Gumbo Limbo,” (which is also the name of the town where the story takes place), characters include Liam Murgen “born Van den Huevel,” Oona LeMur, “a man called Crippen,” Grover Stiles, Horace Sympus, Clive Dungeon, and Elpifany St. Clair. Other stories include Darlene Allgood and girls called by their last names, Snoozy and Sparrow. Can you comment on this?
Booker: Well, “Gumbo Limbo” is a Southern story, and in the South they have much more interesting (and to us Yankees, odd and unusual) names. I think one area in which the South has us absolutely beat is nomenclature.
Apart from that, I have this compulsive thing where I go around all day—while preparing dinner, or in the shower—rattling off strings of “amusing” names in my head. It’s just how my brain works. It’s part of the static I walk through.
I keep a Names file on my computer, and when I catch a good one in the course of my day—out the car window, in some article—I nab it and add it to the file. Do you remember that period, maybe in the early 2000s, when you’d get all this spam email with the most incredible sender names? At least I did.
Rumpus: One of your blurbs mentions that “anxiety, neurosis, disease, and hallucination” haunt your stories; Kirkus says that “altered perceptions” are the collection’s cornerstone. Can you talk about how you came to write about these illnesses and largely interior uncertainties?
Booker: I’m really not sure what an “altered perception” is. Altered by what? Drugs? Fear? Maybe what Kirkus calls “altered perceptions” I would just call “perceptions.”
In terms of the illness obsession, a lot of it gets passed down in the genes, through family experience. That’s a whole can of worms. It’s just the demon I happen to live with. It’s always been there. When I was in tenth grade I did my Anatomy and Physiology research project on kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The first “literary” book I bought in high school was a Thomas Disch novel called The M.D.: A Horror Story. I also started reading Oliver Sacks around that time, including his book Awakenings. I thought I was going to be pre-med as well as a writer, but when I got to college it turned out I was terrible (and/or lazy) at science.
“Largely interior uncertainties” is a good way of putting it. What kinds of experiences bring into focus, and dramatize, the saga of subjectivity, i.e. the fraught relationship between “in here” and “out there”? For many writers this would be love. For me, it has often been illness and hypochondria. Hypochondriacs can hold in their minds two entirely contradictory thoughts at the same time: a) I’m dying, b) I’m crazy if I think I’m dying because it’s just so, so unlikely. (Until it’s not. That’s the problem with worrying as an occupation: not only can it become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but if you worry long enough about something that is in this life inevitable…) It’s a crystallization of the Big Contradiction we have to carry around (and compartmentalize) all the time, which is that we die. Is knowledge of death the token of our final solitude, or a potential ground for realizing our interrelatedness? It’s certainly true that varieties of shame have attached to illness and fear of illness.
I wish I could see the body for what it is: a miraculous envelope that carries our soul through this life journey. But more often I see the body as this zone of estrangement and threat, rife with malicious hints, subterfuges, and booby-traps. On the other hand, illness (or the idea of illness) becomes a romance, as in Thomas Mann. In Mann, illness confers special knowledge, it draws the sufferer into a zone of rarefied thought and feeling, it’s entwined with desire and is inextricable from the ideas of fate and doom.
I do hope my interest in this stuff doesn’t seem grotesque or gratuitous. I guess that’s always a risk when you allow your obsessions to feed your writing, right? I should probably drop it and focus on something else. Like love, or murder.
Rumpus: Perhaps relatedly, can you talk about your interest in “the sleeping sickness,” which permeates or is central to several stories?
Booker: I mentioned Sacks and Awakenings. They made it into a movie with Robin Williams in the Sacks role. It’s about a group of patients who caught a viral infection called encephalitis lethargica (the sleeping sickness) during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. The pandemic had this smaller epidemic hidden inside of it. Some of these patients ended up in catatonic states for decades, until Sacks, working in the Bronx, discovered that what appeared like a vegetative non-existence was actually an acute form of Parkinsonism, like they were all clenched up into apparent frozenness, and that if he gave them L-dopa they unfroze and “awakened” and came back to life, as it were.
This became a powerfully suggestive metaphor for me at a crucial stage in my writing life. First, the Rip Van Winkle part of it struck me as evocative. We really do sleep through large portions of our lives, both literally and, in varying ways, metaphorically. Second, the idea of a secret history, this calamity (the flu pandemic) that was so catastrophic—Wikipedia says it infected half a billion people and killed fifty to a hundred million, which was three to five percent of the world population—and yet you didn’t really hear about it in school, it seemed to have largely fallen down the collective memory hole. Third, the idea of historical repetition of forgotten catastrophe, which became mixed up, in my thinking, with the idea of a nightmare coming true. And according to scientists, it will come true, i.e., we will have another pandemic. Did you read that New Yorker article about the big earthquake that’s in store for the Pacific Northwest coast any year now? In the scale of human time, the Pacific Northwest has seemed like a great place to build towns and cities and have human habitation. But all of that has occurred during what, in geologic time, is basically a brief lull between massive destabilizations of the landscape and inundation by huge Pacific tsunamis. They happen in more or less regular intervals, and the next one is now apparently overdue.
I had a moment, during college, when I was reading Awakenings, on a train going up to Providence to visit a friend. It was evening, and I was gazing at the reflection of the book in the dark window and had one of those amazing college moments where you’re like, holy shit, history isn’t “history,” that present is just as real as my present. Do you know what I mean? You have a sudden insight into the presentness of the past, and the reciprocal insight is that you can imagine how your own “real” present will just become so much “history” to people in the future. I must have gotten the idea that my character in “The Sleeping Sickness” was going to be a researcher. Likewise, my “presentness of the past” feeling suggested the thing that would both enchant and doom this guy. That your research materials might literally make you sick. And that it would all be set on a train.
Rumpus: Again, perhaps relatedly, how much research did you do for the stories in these collection? What form does your research take?
Booker: Well, to stick with the perhaps relatedly part. I started visiting Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 2000 or 2001. I would wander around, take pictures. The place felt out of time. I visited the Flood Museum. I already had this file of sleeping sickness-related research that had been kicking around for a few years. I don’t know how or when I decided to bring together the sleeping sickness theme with the Johnstown Flood theme (a forensic analysis of files written in some obsolete version of Word might reveal this) but once I did make that connection, I got the idea to go to the public library and read newspapers on microfilm from 1918-1919. Suddenly I was reading these little articles (and death notices) about people in this place I’d become so enchanted with, who had suffered these experiences I’d been reading about for years. Again, the scene of research (the library) became somehow part of the story (“A Drowning Accident”) that was taking shape. Not literally—the library isn’t in the story—but the frisson that came from being there. Doesn’t that make for a better research story than “I hopped from one website to the next looking stuff up”? Which is how I normally do research.
Rumpus: Do you want to share any highlights about being a One Story Debutante? Were you very nervous? What did you wear? Did you dance?
Booker: I was nervous the first night, when I arrived at Greenlight Bookstore for the reading with the other debs. But by the night of the ball, I was just basking in the amazingness. They had specialty cocktails with cucumber and rosemary. The floor was covered with luminous stars. They had made us boutonnières with flowers made out of book pages, literally flowers made out of stories. Each of our six books had its own special display table. Jim Shepard gave a moving talk. Old friends showed up. At one point I was on the stage, getting “freaked” (is that still a term?) from both front and back while someone snapped my picture while my book cover was projected on a giant screen. If that ain’t a literary debutante ball I don’t know what is.