On this Lit Show, Kevin Brockmeier reads from and discusses The Illumination, his latest novel.
The book has a deliciously simple premise: on one average Friday evening, human wounds, from summer insect bites to great life-threatening gashes, begin to shine with iridescent light. The press calls the phenomenon The Illumination, and, slowly, humanity begins to adjust for a stranger, brighter, future.
Brockmeier’s novel works through six suffering protagonists: a data analyst who’s become an amputee, a photojournalist who’s lost his wife, a young, abused boy who’s taken a vow of silence, a missionary who’s plagued by doubt, a writer who suffers from chronic and painful oral ulcers, and a downtrodden street vendor. All are strangers to one another, but each one briefly safeguards a book of love notes: a handwritten diary of tender observations from one lover to another.
I love watching you sit and crochet while I’m doing the bills, it reads. I love those old yearbook pictures of you. I love it when you watch me shave and laugh at the faces I make, and on, and on.
The book’s lines are playful, innocent, sometimes cryptic, sometimes saccharine, and each line is at odds with the keen emotional and physical anguish of Brockmeier’s characters. In each case, the book’s strange presence catalyzes a meditation on suffering, loss, and—sometimes—joy.
In a rave review, NPR book critic Alan Cheuse said:
“By the end [of The Illumination], I imagined that if I tore a page from the novel itself, the binding would give off a sharp and penetrating light.”
Cheuse’s sentiment testifies to Brockmeier’s peculiar ability to elevate books beyond their bookishness. Like bibliographic treasures from Bolano or Borges, his stories and novels lose their pen-and-ink inanimacy and shiver with with strange, eerie life.
Brockmeier, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is also author of the novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages, and he has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories.
Complete Interview Transcript
Joe Fassler: So, I thought we would start by talking about the illumination itself, this sort of magical, irrevocable event that happens in the world of your novel. Can you describe a little bit about it, and how did you settle on this idea?
Kevin Brockmeier: Well, it came to me a few years ago, and when I was thinking about the various forms of pain that people are forced to endure, wondering what all of it could possibly be good for, and I found myself conducting a thought experiment, which was to ask, what if our pain was the single most beautiful thing about us? And more specifically, what if our pain was what made us beautiful to God? And if all that were the case, what would that say about us, and what would it say about the world, and what would it say about how we are obligated to behave toward one another?
And I had this image when I was thinking about these things of someone who was literally glowing with his injuries, and it was that image and equation of pain with light, which is a very simple idea, but that’s what gave birth to the book.
Fassler: And in the world, of course, it changes everything about the way these characters experience their lives.
Brockmeier: It certainly changes the lives of these particular characters, I’m not sure how dramatically, and it changes the way society works in small ways, but I’m not sure how dramatically it changes it in the larger ways.
Fassler: I think it’s interesting that there’s a few things in the book that you mention. You thoroughly imagine, it seems to me, the way it would change our world. For instance, photographers have to relearn their craft of taking images, because everyone looks so different. So, you must have spent quite a deal of time thinking about how would this affect day to day.
Brockmeier: Yeah, that’s right. The book was about two years in the writing, give or take a semester that I spent teaching when I didn’t get a lot done, but that was two years of slow meditation on these ideas and these images and how they would play out inside the context of the narrative.
Fassler: One aspect of it that I think is really interesting is that the light exposes wounds, often wounds that the characters themselves would rather keep hidden. And so, the illumination does away with a kind of hiddenness of suffering which makes many of the characters uncomfortable.
Brockmeier: That’s right, it does, and there are various professionals in the book who are obligated to look at the human body in one way or another, and all of them find that their careers are altered in slight ways by the illumination. And even people who don’t have a professional interest in these things find that their personal lives are altered in small or great ways by the phenomenon.
Fassler: Now, it seems that in some cases, emotional or spiritual anguish also can emanate from the bodies in a sort of glow. Is that something that you thought was important to include in the way the illumination’s actually figured in the book?
Brockmeier: Well, you know, I wanted it to be clear that when psychological or emotional pain leads to physical consequences, then those can certainly be seen. But, there are other characters in the book who do feel that they can observe simply the emotional or psychological pain of the people around them, and there’s even one character who feels he can observe this phenomenon taking place in inanimate objects.
Fassler: As I mentioned earlier, this book is — there’s six protagonists, and there’s a kind of guiding narrative voice that we have throughout which we’ll talk about. They’re all third-person, but each one is introduced by an epigraph by various writers, and I was wondering what lay behind your decision to introduce each section with the words of a different writer?
Brockmeier: Well, why I was meditating on these ideas, I kept coming across passages of one kind or another that seemed to shed light, as it were, on the kinds of things I was talking about. When I actually began writing the book, I gave it a different title than the one under which it was published. It was called Wounds, but everybody else involved in my professional life, like my agent and my editor, told me that nobody on earth was going to buy a book called Wounds. So, we searched for a different title for the piece.
But, those were the two ideas that were at play inside the book, pain and injury as well as beauty and light, and the way the two came together. And so, I kept finding passages that seemed to me to be apropos to these themes. And a few of them seemed quite lovely in their own right, and I was happy to give them whatever additional life I could on the page, and also happy to rely on them to introduce people to the concepts I was trying to offer.
Fassler: I just wanted to note briefly that it’s interesting you mention you had a different title originally, because one of the book’s characters, Nina, who’s a writer, actually meditates for a while on books that would’ve not been what they would’ve been, such as Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, if the author had settled on an earlier, less perfect title.
Brockmeier: Yeah, and I’m not sure that Wounds would be an imperfect title — in fact, I think it’s entirely appropriate for the book and its content — but it seemed like a less practical title in terms of convincing people that it was a book they might want to read.
Fassler: I see. But it does show, in my reading the novel, to me it seems like this is a book about wounds and woundedness and physical pain and emotional suffering, and so that title would suggest that it is almost a meditation on that.
Brockmeier: Yeah, I think it is, but I hope that it’s not as grim a book as a title like that might suggest it would be.
Fassler: And one of the light parts of the book, or often lighter or more — well, there’s the book that is written between the two lovers that we see throughout, that weaves our characters together. How did you think of that book of love notes?
Brockmeier: Well, it’s a book that meditates on pain and injury and suffering in all sorts of ways, and I wanted to find a way of introducing another layer to the book, a layer of love, compassion, and even of sentiment, because those are an important part of these characters’ experiences, and I think of the human experience as well.
Fassler: I’d like to talk about a few of your six characters, but before we do that, let’s go back to the fact that your book is written in a third-person voice — all the sections are — and it’s a gentle, knowing voice that works through the entire novel. And I guess I was wondering if you see the voice as — certainly, it has different inflections when you’re writing about Chuck Carter, the child, it has a closer identification with the state of childhood — do you feel that it’s the same guiding voice throughout the book, or do you see it as a different narrator, or at least a different vehicle in each section?
Brockmeier: You know, I wanted it to be a cohesive voice that was nonetheless very sympathetic to each of this six narrators and adopted their patterns of thinking without ever quite losing its own identity. I don’t know that the voice itself proposes a particular character of its own, but I do hope that the kind of observations it’s prone to making are firm enough to tie the various sections of the book into one whole.
Fassler: So, the book opens with Carol Ann Paige, who ends up in the hospital, having cut her thumb very badly in an interesting way I won’t spoil for your readers. But in the hospital, she’s given the book that we talked about for the first time by a dying woman, and it’s interesting because her own life in so full at this time in her life of physical suffering, and also she feels lonely, she feels left, and so the sweet nothings in the book are exquisitely painful to her. And I think it’s interesting, I wonder if you have a comment on the way that the sweet, loving sentences and sentiments in that book actually dovetail with the individuals’ current states who’s reading it.
Brockmeier: Well, there are six different characters, and the device that ties them most intimately together, other than the phenomenon of the illumination that has swept through the world is this diary of love notes that gets passed accidentally from one to the next of them. And each of these characters is enduring an injury or wound of one kind or another. And some of them are physical wounds, and some of them are psychological or spiritual wounds. I was hoping the diary would speak to each of them in a particularly intimate way. Many of them find that it soothes their pain in some way. But others might not.
Fassler: You’re listening to The Lit Show on KRUI radio, and my guest is Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination, which is being released today. Brockmeier will be speaking at Prairie Lights in Iowa City on Wednesday, which is tomorrow, at 7:00 PM, and we’re talking about a few of the characters in the book The Illumination. I thought I’d ask you a little bit about Jason Williford, and he’s the writer of this diary that passes from hand to hand. And this section almost seemed like the most complete short story, to me, structurally. I don’t know if you agree with that, but something about the ending and the characters, it seemed very complete and on its own, and I was wondering if he might’ve been the original character?
Brockmeier: No. I wrote the book in the order in which it’s presented. So, I began with Carol Ann Paige, and then progressed through the book to each of the other characters. But the ideas that gave birth to the book ended up finding a home in one of the later sections, which is the fourth section, about Ryan Schifrin, who’s sort of a reluctant evangelist character. But, sticking to the idea of the second section as kind of a cohesive short story, I did write the book with the idea that each of the sections might be able to work on its own outside the context of the others, except perhaps for the very last section of the book, which I think maybe depends on the earlier ones in a way that the first five don’t. But the Ryan Schifrin section — not the Ryan Schifrin, I’m sorry, the Jason Williford section of the book has been published as an independent — I don’t even know if you can call it a short story, because it’s about 13,000 words, but an independent long story in a literary magazine.
Fassler: In that section, Jason Williford’s a photographer, and that’s where you get some of the interesting insight into how an illumination of this kind would really change our culture of image, our visual culture, and there’s even a news article, I think, that appears about that, which I thought was really interesting. But he finds an unusual partner, and what draws the two of them together is a bond about self-mutilation, and they use pain to take away pain. It’s very powerfully written, and I’m wondering if you have any observations about that idea, and its use in the book?
Brockmeier: Here’s what I can tell you just on a personal level about where that came from. I’ve never conducted any of those sort of experiments myself, but when I was a student at the Writer’s Workshop, the first creative writing class I ever taught there I had an undergraduate who’s a very talented writer who wrote a short story about a character who was cutting herself. And I thought it was a really strong piece of work, and I remember talking about it in class, about how skillfully that aspect of her narrative was handled, because it was treated as though it were totally mundane, and it really didn’t affect the character in any important way. And I thought that indicated exactly how messed up this character was. And while I was talking about this, the person who wrote the story looked more and more uncomfortable, and it wasn’t until after the class that I noticed the marks on her arms and realized this was a wholly autobiographical story, and that I had been treating this phenomenon with much less delicacy and sympathy than I should’ve brought to it.
And I’ve basically felt bad about that ever since, and one of the reasons that I wanted to incorporate that phenomenon into this particular section of the book, aside from the fact that I think it just fit very neatly with the themes and was a good way of exploring the illumination itself and the physical effect it would have on the world, but one of the reasons I wanted to write about that was a way of maybe redressing that wrong I felt I had committed, and trying to understand this from a more sympathetic point of view.
Fassler: That’s really interesting, and it’s one of a couple times in the book that pain is inflicted on one or on another to see the light play through. There’s a mugging at one point that’s written about where it’s almost a curiosity about seeing the light that enables the crime against another body to continue.
So, let’s talk about Chuck Carter, one of my favorite characters in the book. He’s a young boy, and he’s one of two characters, actually, in your book who is having trouble speaking. Or in his case, he refuses to speak. And I was wondering if the idea of muteness was of interest to you at any point in this book?
Brockmeier: Well, it must have been while I was writing that section of the book, and there’s another character a little bit later in the book who was extreme physical difficulties speaking rather than psychological difficulties. And those physical difficulties are something that I understand very intimately, and I suppose they played into the psychological difficulties that Chuck Carter was having while I wrote his section.
Fassler: Yeah, there’s interesting parallels between those two sections. I wanted to ask you about Chuck, because he can see illumination in objects, not just people. He’s constantly seeing things wounded and glowing just the way people do in the book. I guess I’m asking, do you mean him to be especially attuned, or is he just especially imaginative? Are we supposed to believe that what he shows us gives real insights into the world of objects, or is it about his character?
Brockmeier: I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I think you can read it either the one way or the other.
Fassler: And one thing I thought I’d ask you about, there’s a Billy Collins poem called “On Turning 10″ that the section reminded me of, and I thought I would read a few quick lines from it. “It seems only yesterday I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light, if you cut me, I could shine. But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees, and I bleed.” I was wondering if you knew the poem, and if that had any influence?
Brockmeier: No, who was the writer again?
Fassler: That’s Billy Collins. And when I started reading the book, when I knew there was a child coming, I was thinking it might be the epigraph, because it seems so perfect for Chuck Carter.
Brockmeier: It seems ideal. I did discover a few other passages that would’ve served very nicely as epigraphs for different chapters if it had gone on. Let’s see, I should have a notecard around here somewhere that lists those. Here it is. The one that I have written down that I didn’t actually get around to using is in fact from a poet, and it’s the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, if that’s how it’s pronounced. He has a line, which is, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds,” which I like very much, and would’ve fit in naturally to a book like this. But, I don’t know the Billy Collins poem, but you’re right, that very much speaks to the kinds of themes I’m writing about.
Fassler: So, let’s move onto Nina Poggione, who’s your writer character, and this was another really interesting section for the reason of a writer writing about the writing life. And she, as you mentioned, she has an ulcer in her mouth that makes it incredibly difficult to speak. And so, I thought maybe you could talk about that, the anxiety. Writing is private, and all of a sudden it becomes performative when you have to or are forced on a book tour. And yet, she finds a young man who loves her work, and she’s resistant to speaking with him at first, because he’s coming on so strong and she’s so sick. But, it ends up being a kind of wonderful communion between them. And so, I thought you could talk about that tenuous writer/reader relationship the way it’s portrayed in that section.
Brockmeier: Well, what I can tell you about her experiences is that she visits I think five different bookstores over the course of that chapter, and they’re all real bookstores that I’ve been to. And I enjoyed being able to write about those specific environments, and to try to capture them on the page. Some of her experiences mirror my own, and some of them don’t. But, because I was writing a book that investigated the various kinds of injuries people are forced to cope with, it seemed to me that I needed to find a way of incorporating some of my own experiences into the book at some point. And in fact, I had a number of years in the fairly recent past where I was trying to cope with exactly the forms of pain that she finds herself coping with. The other characters in the book were imaginative investigations on my part of various kinds of injury, but hers is a much more autobiographical investigation. And I wanted to find a way of writing about that experience and at least getting it down on paper and praying it could be of some use to somebody rather than just this awful sequence of purposeless pain.
Fassler: There’s a device you use in her section which I found fascinating, and it seems to me that you begin interweaving one of her stories, one of Nina’s stories that she’s written — it’s actually a fable — with the ongoing narrative of the book. And at first, the pronoun use is ambiguous, so we don’t even know if — at least when I was reading it, I wasn’t aware if I was reading about her or a different character at first, and I just thought it was such an interesting effect, and I wonder if you could talk a bit about the idea of how you came up with that and the effect that you feel it has on the page.
Brockmeier: Myself, I’ve written various stories of the type that she is presenting, short I call them fables. By which, I don’t mean animal stories necessarily, but short stories with an air of the classical about them that adopt the methods of fantasy. I wanted to allow her to write a story like that, and you say that you weren’t sure initially whether you were reading about a separate character or whether you were reading about her and her own experiences. And I think she herself is not sure whether she’s writing about a separate character or whether she’s conducting some sort of imaginative investigation into her own experiences.
The story that she’s tell is about somebody who has suffered a loss and finds herself drawn in some peculiar, loving way to leave the world beyond for some other form of existence. And it was my notion when I was writing her section of the book that she would very much like to be able to take that same sort of step, because of the suffering she’s been forced to endure. I thinks he’d like to find another way of existing, another fantastic realm where she didn’t have to live with the problems she’s been facing. So, that was one reason I incorporated that story into her section of the book, but another very practical reason — first of all, I just enjoy writing stories like that, and thought it would echo off of her chapter and the themes of the book in various interesting ways.
But, I was also aware that once the novel was published, I would be discussing it and reading from it in public, and it can be difficult to find an appropriate excerpt from a novel, something that’s self-contained and you can present in these public settings, and I was hoping that maybe this short fable — which is only 2,500 to 3,000 words — might itself be self-contained enough to excerpt from the book and present to people when I myself was visiting bookstores and reading form the novel.
Fassler: That’s really interesting. So do you mean that you’d read it in full, or would you read it interspersed with narration from the novel itself as you read?
Brockmeier: Well, so far this is all speculative, because the book just came out today, and so the very first reading I’ll be giving from it is tomorrow evening at Prairie Lights, presuming that the terrible weather allows me to make it to town. But, my idea was that I could read various small passages from elsewhere in the book, and then take the story as a whole from Nina’s section and just present it as a single, self-contained piece of work.
I think it’s nice when you’re reading a novel, or reading from a novel, to have something that is an individual, well-rounded piece you can present to an audience, and allow them to feel they’re getting some whole experience from the reading rather than just tatters of the rest of the work.
Fassler: You’re listening to The Lit Show on KRUI radio, and I’m speaking with Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination, which has been released by Pantheon today. We’re going to take a short break, and after the break, the author will read some of his book. If you’d like to hear more from the author and from the novel, you can come to Prairie Lights tomorrow at 7:00 PM, where weather permitting he’ll be reading. So, stay tuned to The Lit Show, and we’ll be back with more from Kevin Brockmeier.
Fassler: You’re listening to The Lit Show on KRUI radio, and I’m speaking with Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination, which was released today by Pantheon. He’ll be speaking at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, weather permitting, tomorrow at 7:00 PM.
So Kevin, we spoke about maybe you would read an excerpt from the book. What would you like to read today for us?
Brockmeier: I’m going to read something from the midpoint of the book. This is in the fourth section. The chapter is called Ryan Schifrin. Each of the sections is named after its point of view character. And Ryan, he’s an evangelist, but an evangelist with a very complicated attitude toward faith and religion. Let’s see, and the section I’d like to read doesn’t have much to do with that in particular, but it’s about the phenomenon of the illumination, and his observations of it when it’s introduced to the world, okay?
“It was a year later that the light began. Ryan was scorekeeping for a youth basketball game at the church the night it started, operating the board from a table at midcourt. In the last seconds of the fourth quarter, one of Fellowship’s boys attempted to dunk the ball, and dashed his hand against the rim, a blow so violent that the backboard clanged on its springs. The noised continued to reverberate even after the final buzzer sounded.
Beneath the basket, the boy was hunched over inquisitively, as if the pain had simply made him curious. He bent his wrist, and from inside, where the tendons fanned apart, it began to shine, a hard surge of light that turned his glasses into vacant white disks. He winced and said, “Ah, Christ.”
At first, Ryan assumed the glare from one of the lamps in the parking lot must be sliding through the stained glass window, casting a peculiar incandescence over the boy, one that just happened to be concentrated on his injury. But the brightness followed him as he staggered across the floor to the sidelines, crumpling like an animal onto the bench. A few of the other players, Ryan noticed, had glowing white bruises on their arms and legs. The visiting team’s coach wore a circle of light around his left knee, the bad one, the knee with the wraparound brace.
Ryan thought something must be wrong with his vision. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, opening them to see dozens of other people in the bleachers and on the court blinking and rubbing their own. What was going on?
Driving home, he passed a traffic accident on the highway. A car had flipped over onto its roof, and in the front, two bodies were hanging from their safety belt, glowing like pillars of fire. The light was no illusion. Ryan stopped his mp3 player and dialed through the broadcast band.
The first few channels were following their programming guideline, airing music or commercials, sermons or station ID stingers, but eventually he found a community radio show that occupied the thin sliver of air space between an oldies station and the local public radio affiliate. “And I’m sorry,” the host was saying, “but you know this is some weird business we’ve got going on here at The Reggae Hour. For those of you who’ve just tuned in, Tony my engineer has this toothache on, it looks like, what, his right incisor. Right incisor, Tony? His right incisor, and it’s shining like a light bulb, a bite-sized f-ing light bulb, a Christmas light. I do not lie to you, ladies and gentlemen, I do not lie.”
So Ryan was not crazy. At home, he immediately turned on the television and sat watching the news until he fell asleep, and then again when he woke up. He could hardly do anything else. The illumination. Who had coined the term, which pundit or editorial writer? No one knew, but soon enough, within hours, it seemed, that was what people were calling it.
The same thing was happening all over the world, in hospitals and prison yards, nursing homes and battered women’s shelters. Wherever the sick and the injured were found, a light could be seen flowing from their bodies. Their wounds were filled with it, brimming. The cable news channel showed clip after clip to illustrate the phenomenon. There was the footage, endlessly rebroadcast, of the New York City mugging victim, saying, “It hurts right here, and right here, and right here,” touching the three radiant marks on her neck, shoulder, and breastbone. There was the free-for-all at the hockey match, one lightning flash after another bursting from the cluster of sticks and uniforms. There was the fraternity party, at which the pledges had taken turns punching through sheets of glass, leaving their hands sliced open with glittering, perfectly-shaped gashes.
And those were just the images Ryan could not shake, the ones that haunted him when he closed his eyes in the shower to wash the shampoo from his hair. Over and over again, he watched soldiers burning out of their injuries, footballers flickering through their pads and jerseys. He watched children with sack-like bellies basking in a glow of hunger. Occasionally, the light seemed to arrive from a distinct direction, like the sun slanting through a gap in a curtain, but often it simply infused whatever aches or traumas afflicted people. At such times, it had the appearance of a strange, luminescent paint layered directly over their skin. They might have been angels in an El Greco painting.”
Fassler: That was Kevin Brockmeier reading from his novel The Illumination, which came out today. And Kevin, that’s a really interesting passage to read, because it shows the disorientation of the characters about this phenomenon, and it describes vividly how it affects the world. Do you think that — for the characters, it’s never addressed full-on what causes this. Do you think that there is something unknowable about that for them, why this happens, the before and after? Because in that section, it flashes forward to several decades later, and the illumination hasn’t gone away.
Brockmeier: No, it’s hasn’t, and I think there is something unknowable about it for these characters in the same way that there’s something unknowable about our own experiences and the suffering we encounter in the world and the beauty we encounter in the world for us.
Fassler: And it’s captured when people wonder when awful, traumatic things happen to them, why me is the classic question, and this almost physically encaptures that question of why this is happening, but it is not knowable.
Brockmeier: Yeah, I was hoping the book would orient itself around that question in certain ways without ever answering it, because I don’t think it is an answerable question.
Fassler: So, some critics might call the premise of this book magical realist. How do you feel about that term, or is there a term you feel would describe better what kind of novel this is, if you had to classify it?
Brockmeier: I don’t know. I’ve heard that term applied to my books, and I have no complaint with it. What I always tell people is that the readers I hope will enjoy my books are the readers who love the same books that I love, and that’s a whole great mish-mash of things. I love a lot of contemporary literary fiction, but I also love a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and a lot of classics, and a lot of children’s literature, and a lot of American fiction, and a lot of international fiction, and a lot of poetry and philosophy and theology and all sorts of things.
Fassler: Would you mind saying a few of those authors that you especially love and return to again and again for inspiration and guidance?
Brockmeier: No, I’m happy to. And anybody who’s been to a reading I’ve given before will know that I keep these ongoing lists of my 50 favorite books as well as movies and albums and short stories and things like that. But, I’ve always got a bunch of copies of the books list with me at these events so that I can hand them out to people and show them, this is what I love right now. But my top 10, at least right now — and I’m standing in front of one of my bookcases which contains all my favorites, and the top 10 have a shelf dedicated to themselves between a pair of bookends that were carved for my grandfather during World War II by a German POW that was under his charge. He was an American soldier.
But the 10 books between those two bookends right now are The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, Alan Mendelson, The Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater — it’s a children’s novel — A Death in the Family by James Agee, Housekeeping by Iowa City’s own Marilynne Robinson, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle, The Complete Short Stories of JG Ballard, and All the Days and Nights: The Complete Stories of William Maxwell.
And again, some of those writers are identified as genre science fiction and fantasy writers, specifically Peter S. Beagle and JG Ballard. And a lot of the others are published as mainstream literary fiction, but a few of them like Marquez and Bulgakov and Calvino I think write the sort of fiction that appeals to people who also have a taste for science fiction and fantasy and the fantastic.
Fassler: That’s interesting. And Master and Margarita almost in some ways is an opposite phenomenon as the one described in the book. Instead of being beset by something beautiful and magical and wonderful, they’re beset by something satanic and horrifying. That’s fascinating, it’s not just a list but a physical space you keep all 50?
Brockmeier: Well, I keep all 50 plus about another 200 that I’m able to cram onto this particular case.
Fassler: Wow, so it’s a pretty big bookcase.
Brockmeier: It is, yeah.
Fassler: So, could you comment a little bit about the role of the unnatural or mystical or mythical, and the heighten in your fiction or the work of a writer you particularly love? I mean, what do you find is gained from being able to break the mode or mold of what’s specifically agreed upon as realist?
Brockmeier: Well, another writer I love whose work I didn’t mention is GK Chesterton, particularly his nonfiction books about religious thinking I find very engaging, but a lot of his fiction I enjoy as well. And he has a book called The Poet and the Lunatics, which is one of his more obscure novels, and there’s a quote from that that has stuck with me for a long time. And he’s writing about St. Peter, who he says when he was dying, crucified upside down, was a [unintelligible] division of the world, and he says that Peter “saw the landscape as it really is, with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, an omen hanging on the mercy of God.” And that’s I think a really powerful line and a really powerful notion, and my instinct I suppose is something like that, that the world itself is already very deeply strange, but sometimes we have to change our perspective in order to see it clearly for what it is. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons I find myself turning to the odd or the fantastic when I’m writing, because it brings that kind of clarity to my own vision.
But aside from that, it’s offered me a number of metaphors that I thought were simply potent and beautiful, and it’s allowed me to write certain kinds of sentences I enjoy writing, and aside from that altogether, I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy and comic books and things like, and so there are just some forms of oddity that simply excite my imagination.
Fassler: It’s funny that you mention comic books, because in the novel, one of the little love notes actually makes fun of any adult person who raves about comic books. That was maybe a little distancing yourself from the character.
Brockmeier: Yeah, the love notes in the book, while I was writing the book, I began every day writing another one of these love notes. And they’re all single sentences, most of them, written from a husband to his wife. He leaves one of them on the refrigerator for her every morning, and she collects them and writes them down in a journal. And I wasn’t writing myself about one particular person when I was devising these love notes. They came from all over the place. Some of them I just invented out of thin air, and some of them were probably about me, but a lot of them were about various people, a great many various people I know and who are dear to me.
Fassler: That’s interesting, because inside the fiction of the novel, you put forth that the book was written sentence by sentence, one sentence a day, from one lover to another. And so, you actually composed them that way yourself.
Brockmeier: I did, and oddly enough maybe, I’m continuing to compose them that way. It was suggested to me by my people — my editor and my publicist at Pantheon — that I might find a way to use these social networking platforms as a way of bringing the book to the attention of some people who might not otherwise realize it was out there. And I’m going about this all wrong, because I’m not publicizing the book through these platforms very carefully, and I’m very uncomfortable with the social networking phenomenon and exposing myself to these things and distracting myself from things I’d rather be paying attention to, but I have actually developed a Twitter feed for the book. And all I’m doing with that, I’m not writing about — I’m not reading the reviews, much less writing about them or linking to them or anything like that — I’m adding one of these love notes to the Twitter feed every morning, as if from this husband to his wife as a continuing form of activity.
Fassler: Wow, so it’s almost a little form of Twitter poetry.
Brockmeier: Well, I hope so. I’m going to try to keep it going. It’s been going for about three months now. I’m going to try to keep it going for a full year, I think.
Fassler: And so, is that just @KevinBrockmeier, or @TheIllumination?
Brockmeier: No, I suppose you’d have to — I didn’t want to place it under my own name. I wanted it to basically be the book’s Twitter feed rather than my own Twitter feed. But, I guess the smart thing to do would be to conduct a Google search for The Illumination and Twitter, and I’m sure it would pop up. But I had to choose something like TheIllumination_BK for book, or something like that, just because everything I would ordinarily have taken was already chosen.
Fassler: So, are you including any that don’t actually appear in the book as you now continue writing beyond?
Brockmeier: All of them do not appear in the book. So, each of them is a new love note. The idea is that each of them is a new love note from this husband to his wife.
Fassler: I wanted to ask you about something you just mentioned, that oftentimes the growing, burgeoning world of social networking can be a distraction for the writer. I know that a lot of the students here at the Writer’s Workshop current have very ambivalent relationships to the growing influence of the internet. It can do so much for a young writer in terms of publicity and reaching an audience, and yet it’s a constant distraction, a constant mosquito noise in the ear, and writing obviously requires deep concentration. So, I was wondering specifically in terms of the encroaching world of the internet, what are your thoughts on it? How does it affect you in your writing life?
Brockmeier: Well, it’s been a convenience for purposes of research , there’s no question about that, but I think it’s a bigger distraction than it is a convenience. There’s a problem with having the device upon which you work also be the device upon which you play. And the internet, as everybody knows, you’ll begin investigating some point and find yourself 45 minutes later having threaded your way through dozens and dozens of different pages, just satisfying your own imaginative curiosity about one thing and another.
I’ve heard about writers — I think Jonathan Franzen wrote about disabling his computer so that he could not access the internet at all. I know the writer Miley Malloy [phonetic] has two separate computers, the computer upon which she does her writing and then a different computer that is in internet enabled. So, at least when she’s sitting down with a manuscript in front of her, she’s not constantly turning to the internet to check her email or to investigate one website or another. I think that’s probably a very smart way of going about things. I haven’t taken it that far, but it seems to me that it would be a wise move to make.
Fassler: It’s interesting how many writers I’ve heard speak about that. Wells Tower told me that he has two different desks, one for journalism and one for fiction, and the journalism desk has an internet connection, and the writing desk doesn’t.
Okay, I wanted to ask you too about, you’ve also written several books for children, and I was wondering how you see that fit into your writing life and into the growing canon of works that you’ve written?
Brockmeier: Well, I’ve published two novels for children so far, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and I’ve gone on to write a couple more that have not yet been published. One is called I Met a Lovely Monster, and the other is called 1984: A Children’s Novel. I have no connection to the George Orwell book, other than liking its title, which just amused me for some reason. And I enjoy working on these books, because I feel as if they exercise a different portion of my imagination than the adult fiction does. Certainly, the kind of sentences I find myself writing in the children’s books are very different. The children’s books are always meant to be very conversational in tone, as if you’re just listening to what so far has always been a boy between the ages of, say, 10 and 13 who’s trying to tell you his story. And he loses the thread sometimes and ends up talking about other things, and he’s filled with the kind of consciousness that I think I was filled with when I was that age. So, if I can re-access that portion of my mind, then these character’s voices tend to come a little more easily to me than the voices in my adult fiction sometimes do.
They also allow me to joke around in a way that I don’t necessarily permit myself to do in my adult fiction. I don’t think that my books for adults are without humor, but they’re not filled with puns and gags and elbow-ribbing and things like that, and my children’s books very much are. One of the things I’m trying to do with those books is just make myself and the people who read them laugh.
Fassler: I’m speaking with Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination, which was released today by Pantheon, and he’ll be speaking at Prairie Lights tomorrow at 7:00 PM to read and sign copies. We have a couple more minutes for a few more questions, and since you are coming to Iowa City and since you’ve taught here at the workshop and since you’re a graduate of the workshop, I thought I’d ask you a little bit about the place that Iowa and the Writer’s Workshop has in your heart, and the role that it’s had in your artistic development.
Brockmeier: Well, it’s very dear to me. Maybe a lot of people share this experience — I found my first semester, I came to the workshop straight out of my undergraduate work, without taking any time off, and I was used to being a student, frankly, and to the academic life. And the workshop can be very rigorous in its own ways, but it’s not exactly an academic program. It’s more like a program for working writers. So that first semester, I found it difficult to navigate the distance between what had been my life as a student — basically my entire life as a student — and the new life I was being given, which was the life of a writer. It was hard for me for about a semester, but eventually I figured out how to organize my days around writing, and ultimately it was a very good place for me to be. I think I grew a lot as a writer while I was there, and I certainly read a lot of books that I might not otherwise have discovered while I was there.
I’ve enjoyed coming back to teach, I’ve been back a couple times, and I’m slated to return next spring, spring 2012, to teach for another semester. I don’t get much of my own writing done while I’m there, but I do enjoy being in the classroom. I find it an intimidating prospect actually, at first, at the beginning of every semester, because the writers in the program are so talented, and it seems strange to be sitting in front of a room full of such talent as the experts. And in a program with other writers like Marilynne Robinson and Jim McPherson and Ethan Canin, whose work I admire so much.
But usually, after a week or two, I’ll begin to feel comfortable in that role again. And the two times I’ve been there to teach in the past have been very rewarding for me, and I hope rewarding for my students as well.
Fassler: You mentioned that while you were here as a student at Iowa, one of the things it taught you was a writerly self-discipline. Do you think that’s one of the main benefits of an MFA, and what do students learn from an MFA and Iowa, do you have any thoughts on that?
Brockmeier: Well, I think probably every MFA, it gives you two years to concentrate very seriously on your writing, two years that force you to concentrate very seriously on your writing in an environment filled with other people who are doing the same thing, and that in and of itself is very valuable. I think you also find ways of writing toward an audience, while you’re in the MFA program, and usually that’s an audience of your classmates, or at least the classmates who are most sympathetic to the kind of work you’re doing. I’m the kind of writer who works in great solitude, and I really don’t show my work to anybody until I’m completely happy with it. But not every writer is that way, and I know a lot of writers who went through Iowa’s program and basically found the people who would be their ongoing readers while they were there, and with whom they could trade work after they graduated.