The Wife (a Writer) Interviews the Husband (Also a Writer)
Carrie Brown talks with John Gregory Brown About His New Novel
Carrie M. Brown: Will you tell me again the story that made me fall in love with you?
John Gregory Brown: What story?
CMB: You know. The one about how you figured out you wanted to become a writer? The one about being a teenage thief.
JGB: Ok. But I really don’t think that’s why you fell in love with me. I was 13 and got sent to summer school. There was a Penguin paperback display, and I resented having to be in summer school, so my pathetic adolescent revenge was to steal one of the books. It happened to be John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I read—the first grown-up book I’d ever made it through, and I was just stunned by the language, the story, the grand ambition. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I wanted to make people feel.
CMB: And then, when your first novel, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, was published, it won the John Steinbeck Prize.
JGB: Well, one day out of the blue I got a call from Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s widow, to congratulate me on winning the award. Not only was I thrilled, I also knew that this was one of those rare opportunities for meaningful confession. So I told Mrs. Steinbeck that I had stolen her husband’s book and thus deprived him of his rightful royalties. Of course, I also told her that it was stealing this book and reading it, getting so much from it, that made me decide I was going to be a writer.
CMB: And she said?
JGB: And she said that my theft was forgiven because John—her John—always said that he realized he wanted to become a writer after stealing a copy of King Arthur from the library. It was such a nice thing to hear, to feel as if I’d taken a place in this little chain of events.
CMB: That story did make me fall in love with you. Now will you tell me the other story?
JGB: I thought that was my only story.
CMB: I mean the one where you always tell me I get the details wrong, about the note from your father. About you being a law school dropout. That story made me fall in love with you, too.
JGB I don’t think that’s an interesting story.
CMB: I love that story.
JGB: Ok. When I dropped out of law school I was afraid to tell my father, because when I first agreed to go to law school he felt as if I’d finally set aside my childhood dreams and would do something responsible. My father believed in responsibility as if it were the north star. It was his great guiding light. So I knew, when I dropped out, how disappointed he would be, how much my character would be defined, in his eyes, by this failure. But he just listened when I told him what I’d done and why I did it, why I couldn’t give up on this dream I had. A few days later, a check arrived in the mail, with a note that simply said, I know you will succeed as a writer. Love, Daddy.
CMB You kept that note—written on a prescription pad, because your father was a doctor, an orthopedic surgeon—in your wallet until it basically disintegrated.
JGB I’ve still got it somewhere.
CMB: Your father was a wonderful man.
JGB: He was.
CMB: Since we’ve talked about your father, can we talk now about New Orleans, where all of your novels are set? I remember watching the terrible news footage of Hurricane Katrina, how awful it was for you, for everyone, to watch helplessly from a distance. And I thought about our work, about how everything you’d made was located there. That chaos and helplessness ended up in your new novel, A Thousand Miles from Nowhere. The main character Henry, who flees New Orleans in the face of the storm, his life already a wreck, grapples with both. Is this book an elegy for New Orleans and what was lost there?
JGB: I think it’s a kind of an elegy for my childhood, for the place where I’d grown up. It’s also a kind of recognition, as I guess all my novels are, of the complicated relationships of family, of their powers of destruction and, if you’re lucky, regeneration. It’s also true the hurricane made me face that I needed to find some other notion of home.
CMB: It was a long time before you and your brothers and sisters could get back to the house where you grew up on Chatham Drive. I remember the eerie photographs you guys took when you went back to the house and had to break in to get inside. The lakefront area was one of the last neighborhoods opened up after the storm, because the damage along Lake Ponchartrain had been so extensive. You bought Hazmat suits and gas masks at Walmart; the photographs of you making you way through house after you’d broken in were so—well, they were surreal. I stayed at home with our children, and I remember feeling afraid for you.
JGB: Going back was one of the most disconcerting and dislocating experiences in my life. It was both utterly familiar—I’d not been back to the house in years—but also shocking. There was so much that I recognized, but it was all jumbled; it was all in ruins.
CMB: I remember about the glasses in the pantry.
JGB: The water had risen gradually and receded gradually—nine feet of water. And when the water receded, anything that could hold water continued to hold it, so that the wine glasses and juice glasses and pitchers and vases on the shelves were filled with brown water and silt. Everything else was black with mold. Books were scattered across the floors, their pages completely obliterated. The appliances were overturned. The photographs in heavy brass frames still stood on the bookshelves, but the images were erased from having been submerged, the ink bleeding away. Silhouettes remained in some of them, the outlines of people’s heads, but no faces.
CMB The ghostly sadness of New Orleans post-Katrina is also a big part of your writing in this new book.
JGB: Yes. And all other manner of sadness.
CMB: That sounds exactly like how you would describe yourself: all other manner of sadness. Maybe it explains why you like sad music so much.
JGB: There’s this Robert Hass poem, “Faint Music,” that ends like this: I had the idea that the world so full of pain / it must sometimes make a kind of singing. I love that idea of pain making the world sing.
CMB: I don’t know. Sad music just makes me sad, as you know. But your characters feel a connection to it.
JGB: I think most people like sad music. Most people feel that connection. They don’t weep uncontrollably at “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which—as the world has a right to know—you do.
CMB: Fine. The world knows. Who are your favorite bands or musicians?
JGB: You don’t even have to ask that question. I love The Mountain Goats. I love the Mountain Goats.
CMB: It’s true. I don’t need to ask. But why? Why do you love the Mountain Goats?
JGB: Well, I can answer that one through a character. In this novel, Henry’s musical tastes are pretty autobiographical. He says that he’s drawn to singers whose voices aren’t beautiful. And he’s drawn to flamenco and fado and the blues. He’s drawn, I guess, to the way the world’s pain makes a kind of singing. I love Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday when her voice was gone. Skip James. Blind Willie Johnson.
CMB: You’ve said—for years—that “our song” ought to be Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.”
JGB: You’re the one who said we should have a song. You asked, so I said that would be a good one. “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.” Our kids were little. They were a hell of a lot of work. It’s hard having three little kids while also trying to be a grown up, which for me is hard enough already.
CMB: I’m sorry. I like that song. I do. But that just isn’t a song that should ever be any couple’s song. It is not a song that a couple should dance to at, like, their 25th wedding anniversary.
JGB: Not falling part seems to me one of the essential ingredients of a successful relationship. Don’t you agree? Isn’t that what has gotten us through 25 years of marriage—not falling apart?
CMB: Yes. It is. Still, I’d like another song.
JGB: Ok. I’ll keep thinking. But it’s really a great one. Aaron Neville did a beautiful version of it as well, by the way. And he actually can sing.
CMB: Like an angel. Yes. Why is The Moviegoer your favorite novel?
JGB. The Moviegoer is about a man who’s lost. It’s about the complicated emotional terrain between uncertainty and faith, hope, and despair, longing and regret. Binx Bolling is a man who recognizes he’s lost, and that recognition provides him a means of finding himself again. In the end, of course, that’s what my new novel—maybe all of my work—is about.
CMB: You dream a lot about being lost.
JGB: Yes, though I rarely remember my dreams. But that’s true. I do always seem to be lost in them.
CMB: You lost a place you loved when you left New Orleans to go to graduate school. And you lost it again in Katrina. You had to learn to love another place. How did you learn to love where we lived in Virginia? It took a while. It wasn’t love at first sight.
JGB: No, it wasn’t. For one thing, I didn’t know anything about the natural world. I needed to learn the pleasure of that. I still don’t know the names for anything like plants or trees or butterflies or flowers, but I did learn to love the Virginia landscape where we lived, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I know that having grown up in a place that was flat, to be a place that had hills at first felt precarious to me.
CMB: You got over that sense of precariousness by walking the landscape, especially when you were having trouble with the vision in one of your eyes, a problem that persisted for almost three years. Can you talk about how you began walking and taking pictures, and what that did for your sense of attachment to the place, and to your notion of home?
JGB: I think it was kind of an obsessive way of trying to see the world in an aesthetic way—as an artist would—and to express myself at a time when I was not able to do so in other ways.
CMB: Meaning, in words, because for those years you couldn’t see well enough to read or write.
JGB: Yes, in words.
CMB: Taking those pictures—even now, that your eye is better—gives you pleasure. Did the experience of looking at the world so carefully change how you saw things and therefore change how you wrote?
JGB: Well, it made me aware of how fully we’re bombarded with images, how much there is to see. I was writing about a character who felt bombarded by images and information, and it was overwhelming for him.
CMB: You started off with a goal of taking 10,000 photographs.
JGB: It evolved into that.
CMB: You walked miles and miles over the fields at Sweet Briar. The dog lost a lot of weight, keeping you company on those solitary journeys. Was there a secret to that number?
JGB: It’s just the Henri Cartier-Bresson idea that the first 10,000 pictures are your worst. But really it’s more what another artist described as daily practice. You just do it every day, no matter how you feel, no matter whether you think you have anything to say or create. You trust that cumulatively it will become something of consequence. It’s the same thing that a novelist has to do.
CMB: I love many of the photographs you’ve taken, but you accuse me of being drawn only to the images that are conventionally beautiful. You’re interested in something else, when you’re out there walking, using your phone as a camera, looking at the world.
JGB: Maybe it’s just that love of sadness rearing its head again. I think I’m interested in trying to find, in ordinary experience, ambiguity and resonance and pathos.
CMB: You like to say that the difference between us as writers or as artists is that in my novels, things come together at the end. In your novels, things fall apart.
JGB: Yes. But this new novel is my effort to finally imagine—when everything has fallen apart—how things might come together. I think in the end it’s a novel about redemption and healing and grace and the ways in which art is a vehicle to uncover those qualities.
CMB: Grace is conventionally a religious term, but you’re a lapsed Catholic. You mean it more in a secular sense.
JGB: Well, I think grace is a concept that can be stripped away from its religious meaning to suggest that there are components of the human experience that possess a kind of surprising beauty and consolation that is unearned and outside of the realm of causality.
CMB: Meaning that you are visited by grace not because of anything you’ve done to earn it?
JGB: Right. That’s one of the ideas of grace, right? You don’t earn it. It’s bestowed upon you.
CMB: Do you feel like grace has been bestowed on you?
CMB: In what form?
JGB: Well, I was raised in a family that was plagued with unhappiness, disorder, and a confusing emotional cacophony. But I’ve been granted a family of my own as an adult that has been the opposite of that. That’s not something that I earned or expected. And so for me that feels like grace.
CMB: Are there other ways in which you feel visited by grace?
JGB: I feel fortunate that this one thing that I love to do—which is to write novels—I’ve been able to do.
CMB: Can we get back to the Mountain Goats? Our daughter Molly, who is a poet, also loves The Mountain Goats. You keep a blog in which the two of you write in response to a line or two of lyrics from Mountain Goats songs. John Darnielle is a novelist as well as a musician. Can you say what it is about his music, his lyrics, that inspired your blog with Molly, The Admonishing Song, and how you see that kind of writing as opposed to the steady work of novel writing?
JGB: Great literature, it seems to me, can be defined in part by its ability to occupy more than a single realm or facet of the human experience. The power of the Mountain Goats and John Darnielle’s music is, for both Molly and me, how it navigates through multiple realms: the familiar and the strange, the earthy and the transcendent, the base and the sacred. That’s it’s richness, I think. One of the central notions in A Thousand Miles from Nowhere is the idea that great art can spring from anywhere or anyone, like from Mohit, an import/export dealer in rural Virginia, or from a Basque man in hiding for decades from the Franco regime, or perhaps even from a Katrina refugee running from his life.
CMB: All those figures that appear in your novel, all of them capable of making art. That’s an egalitarian notion.
JGB: Well, it’s a hopeful one.
CMB: You made a playlist for the novel, because music figures so heavily in the main character Henry’s experience, in his father’s experience, in your experience. Do you have a favorite tune from the playlist?
JGB: Snooks Eaglin’s “St. James Infirmary.” He was a blind New Orleans musician. In the novel I made up a song for him. They’re the first lyrics I ever wrote. Maybe that’s what I ought to do about our song. I could try to write our song.
CMB: I love that idea.
CMB: I do. I really do. But it wouldn’t be a sad one, would it?
JGB: Well, I could try…
Born and raised in New Orleans, John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery; The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur; and Audubon’s Watch. His new novel, A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, is out now from Lee Boudreaux Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. His honors include a Lyndhurst Prize, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, the Lillian Smith Award, the John Steinbeck Award, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award. He directs the creative writing program at Sweet Briar College, where he is the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English.