Introducing 2016 Debutante: Brian Booker

AYHFWIHF Cover finalOn May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Brian Booker, author of the collection Are You Here For What I’m Here For?, forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in May 2016. Brian published “A Drowning Accident” with One Story in 2005 and we’re pleased to celebrate his debut collection at this year’s Literary Debutante Ball.

Through hypnotic and dream-like prose, the seven stories in Are You Here For What I’m Here For? grant us access to the anxieties, fears, and yearnings of a host of unforgettable minds. Spanning time and space, from the early 20th century to the present day, from a cultish school in Southern California to a convalescents home in the Caribbean, the stories straddle fantasy and reality, with dazzling descriptions of the outer world that reflect the harrowing struggles of the inner. Unrelenting in its exploration of what we can know about ourselves, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? is an enchanting journey that lingers with its reader long after the last page.

Thanks to Brian for answering a few questions for One Story about his collection and writing.

Mark Prins: Where were you when you found out Are You Here For What I’m Here For? was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Brian Booker: I was in the San Francisco airport. I had just gotten off the plane and I saw the email from Bellevue Literary Press. I was on my way to visit family in the Bay Area. So I got on the Airporter bus feeling pretty excited!

MP: One of my favorite qualities of your characters is their willingness to approach—if not physical—then certainly psychological zones of danger. From the first story (“Brace for Impact”), when our narrator is told: “‘You shouldn’t go up there, you know'”, in the basement of an eerie mansion, the protagonists repeatedly ignore explicit or implicit warnings to stay away. How do you figure out what a particular character’s danger zone might be, and then how do you get him or her to go there? 

BB: Luring a character toward the danger zone has often been my instinct in stories. I didn’t think about it as an explicit aspect of craft until I took a seminar with Charles Baxter, who talks about the value of tempting your characters toward interesting trouble, toward that one-way gate. Baxter does this in his own stories, and he made me recognize how it is done—or that it is done—in the work of other story-writers I’ve long admired, such as Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Paul Bowles. You read these stories over and over, hoping to absorb the methods by which they perform their magic so that you might achieve similar effects.

But the idea of directing a character towards a goal is a more “overhead” view than I would take when I’m actually writing a story, when I’m trying to inhabit the character’s experience as it is unfolding. In the case of “Brace for Impact,” the character’s danger zone is his own body, both in itself and in relation to other bodies. But the danger zone is also, paradoxically, a comfort zone—that’s why he speaks of the “vacation in a cocoon.” What you want, I think, is to goad the character into a zone in which the internal fears are externalized into a physical atmosphere and a dramatic situation. Having grown up in Bethesda, I had been in the basements of a few eerie mansions. In those situations, in adolescence, the unsupervised basement and the upstairs can feel like worlds that don’t (or shouldn’t) intersect. The character goes upstairs because the level of discomfort downstairs is so acute that he feels like he has to flee. Where to? Upstairs. But the character can’t be let off the hook so easily. Somebody has to be waiting up there.

MP: The way you write settings is beautiful. Occasionally we are treated to a full paragraph or two of luscious, atmospheric description. Do you have a method for describing places—ski lodges, apothecaries, Los Angeles?

BB: Thank you. I think it depends on the fiction you’re obsessed with. I love the way writers such as Woolf, Nabokov, and Bowles render setting with hypnagogic clarity. And the way Bolaño and Ishiguro do a kind of expressionist thing with setting.

As to method, for an earlier story (not in this collection) I remember scribbling down many details of setting at the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in Delaware. It was useful material to have in my notebook. For stories like “Here to Watch Over Me” and “Love Trip,” which were written in Iowa City, I relied almost exclusively on memory. I remember wishing I could hop on a plane to these places and take lots of notes, but then it turned out it was better to just sit with memory. Music also played a role in both those stories, certain songs I needed to hear over and over that seemed crucial to the atmosphere. Also, let’s admit it, there is Internet ekphrasis. When you need a picture of something to augment specificity, you can have that immediately. But I wouldn’t want to over-rely on images from the Internet.

MP: In several of these stories, we’re told that our narrator may be suffering from some kind of illness that could impair his/her mental faculties—encephalitic-induced fevers, dementia, PTSD—what fascinates you about these narrators? Would you call them unreliable?

BB: I think of the unreliable narrator as someone whose evasiveness is underpinned by a shady agenda. Brilliant manipulators like Humbert Humbert fall into this category. In a softer vein, you have Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators—Stevens in The Remains of the Day or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, who can’t look too directly at certain things in their lives, whose self-delusions are subtle and necessary; or Ryder in The Unconsoled, whose memory is failing him for reasons neither he nor the reader understands. These are narrators whose accounts of themselves, to varying degrees, have serious holes, but they are not trying to deceive. I’m interested in, and sympathetic toward, characters who are forced to compartmentalize because of shame, characters with secrets and contradictions. Illness can be a secret, it can be a source of shame, and it can also be a romance, as in Thomas Mann.

In my collection, the guy in “The Sleeping Sickness” comes closest to the evasive narrator, but he is something of an anomaly. In most of the stories the characters are trying their best to represent their experience with fidelity. The distortions caused by mental illness are perhaps of a greater degree, but not of a different kind, than the way any person’s perceptions are skewed by the exigencies of their particular subjectivity. Our perceptions, our memories, these things are so mysterious and often don’t work as we expect they should. Our minds are always playing tricks on us. I’m a big Oliver Sacks fan. For Sacks, the impairment to consciousness affords a window onto how miraculous and tenuous our mental representations are in the first place. The malfunction throws light on the hidden function.

In fiction, for me, illnesses are an agent of defamiliarization.

It’s a vein of obsession I’ve tapped into. You try to write what quickens your pulse, what leads you toward a kind of spell or enchantment that hopefully gets transacted to the reader.

MP: Back when One Story published “A Drowning Accident,” you listed Daniel Wallace’s suggestion “not to die” as the best advice you’d received so far for writing (and it seems to be working). Have you gotten any good ones since then?

BB: I heard Donald Antrim’s conversation with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm. Antrim says, “We all have our turn in the barrel,” meaning when our mind becomes an intolerable place. Silverblatt adds: “these stories address how to live under the shadow of a disorder most of us refuse to see.” I think that’s a great way to put it. Depression, like the writing life, can be isolating. It comes with terrible fear. So it’s very important to hear other writers talk about it.

And there is what the voice says to Amalfitano in 2666: “Calm is the one thing that will never let us down.”

I keep a post-it note permanently on my laptop. The gist of what it says is: be gentle, have fun, don’t worry about it.

MP: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

BB: I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with the work of the other debutantes. It’s amazing, and humbling, to be in such talented company.