Introducing 2019 Debutante Brad Felver

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six 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 Brad Felver, author of One Story #218, “Queen Elizabeth” and the short story collection The Dogs of Detroit (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Each of the fourteen stories in Brad Felver’s The Dogs of Detroit jumps off the page ready to fight scrappy. In “Throwing Leather,” brothers Charley and Jack spar in boxing gloves to test their masculinity; in “Praemonitus, Praemunitus,” a father signs his son Jared up for Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons to support Jared’s dream of becoming a cage fighter; in “How to Throw a Punch,” the narrator must prepare for a fistfight against his stubborn coworker at the end of their shift. Characters wrestle and draw blood, but the worst pain isn’t something you can grab by the neck and kick in the gut—the violence and brutality in this collection hurt precisely because of what will stay long after cuts and bruises heal: grief, sorrow, and second chances at better lives that slipped by unnoticed.

Monique Laban: Where were you when you found out The Dogs of Detroit was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Brad Felver: I had just picked up our two boys from school and the sitter. My wife had a late meeting, and so it was just the three of us. We were playing in the backyard when I saw that I had a message on my phone from an unknown number in Pittsburgh. I just assumed someone was trying to steal my identity. But I listened to the message, and it was from Ed Ochester telling me my manuscript had won the Drue Heinz, and I just kind of stood there in shock. I was so glad to have my kids there with me at that moment but also glad that I couldn’t explain it to them because I didn’t have the words.

ML: Many of the stories in this collection involve physical violence as a coping mechanism, as a survival tactic, as a rite of passage, as a way to establish superiority, or as some combination of them all. What I find so interesting about violence in The Dogs of Detroit is that you don’t shy away from the gore and cruelty of it, nor do you glorify it, and yet I felt a strange catharsis from reading these depictions of violence. Could you talk about how you approach violence in your stories and what makes it so ripe for exploration?

BF: I’ve been able to talk about violence a lot while out promoting this book, for which I’m grateful. I think it needs to be talked about candidly. I always start by sheepishly telling people that, despite these stories, I don’t have a violent bone in my body. And I’m always afraid that writing about violence will be seen as accidentally condoning it. I’m certainly not.

One task I aimed for in many of these stories was to humanize characters with violent impulses. When people behave violently, it appears to outsiders as some crude, mindless reaction, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s not so clean as that. For them, it’s a release valve, a product of accumulation. And this means that it’s really a physical manifestation of something else—anger, grief, helplessness, and a thousand other things that people endure in an unfair world. It’s easy to be horrified by these violent outbursts, and I hope the reader is, but I hope it’s the violence itself, not the violent characters, that truly horrifies them. So, there’s an entrapment technique at play here, too: if I can convince readers to care about a character who reacts violently, I’ve suddenly forced them into a sort of complicity, and the character becomes much more than his basest instincts.

ML: I’m fascinated by all the mean kids in this collection! In “Unicorn Stew,” Bev insults Walter by calling him a “God-lover” and steals his ten-speed bicycle; in “Out of the Bronx,” Roman describes his mother as a “car with a dead battery” and enacts a master plan to set all the rats in their building’s alley on fire. Many of the adult characters, if not outright stated within the stories, often seem like older versions of these children, and it’s clear that their early experiences with this bad behavior shaped them. Could you discuss writing kids in your stories and what you enjoy about writing characters within these formative, experimental years?

BF: There was a lot of casual violence in the neighborhood when I was a kid, and it’s obviously stuck with me. This was back in the 80s and early 90s, and our society just shrugged it off as boys being boys. In some ways, this book is a response to that mentality, which we’re finally starting to see as criminal. I didn’t realize it so clearly as I was writing these stories, of course, but that’s how it usually goes. From the standpoint of story, there’s a real potency to child characters. It’s bad enough to see an adult behaving badly; it’s far worse to see a child imitating that bad behavior.

ML: I found The Dogs of Detroit refreshing as a short story collection in part because of how wildly the length of each story could vary. “Queen Elizabeth” is twenty-three pages long while “Stones We Throw” takes up two pages. How do you know when a story is done?

BF: Short answer: I don’t. I try to trust my gut on these things, but it’s still hard. No matter how many stories I write, each one is its own world. Usually, though, I suspect I’ve found the right form and focus for a story when I’m drawn to re-reading it over and over, especially the ending. If the story moves me on a purely intellectual level, something is probably lacking; but if it moves me on an emotional level, which I think is the real currency of fiction, then I suspect I’m about there. For “Queen Elizabeth,” it took me 23 pages to get there, but occasionally, I stumble into it quicker. I wrote “Stones We Throw” in a single sitting, under an hour, which never really happens for me.

ML: In your One Story interview for “Queen Elizabeth” (Issue #218), you mention that you’re “utterly terrified about going romantic,” and part of this terror comes from us being “ill-equipped to articulate” being in love. Could you speak more about the challenges, terrors, and limitations you face in your writing, and how you work through them?

BF: One thing I learned by writing that story is that I would prefer being seen as sentimental than cynical. Sincerity is really important to me. And I do still feel ill-equipped to write about love, but that’s exactly why I need to keep at it. It’s a writer’s job to articulate the things that don’t want to be articulated. In fact, the seeds of “Queen Elizabeth” grew out of my inability to do so. I’m very lucky to have married my best friend, and I just needed to write about that tremendous good fortune. So I started writing about how it felt to be so tethered to another person. It was fiction, but it felt true. The story turned into something else, as stories always do, but the truth, which I guess I’ve never admitted until now, is that it really started as a love letter to my wife.

In answer to your bigger question of how to work through the challenges—I guess the answer is that I just love the work of writing. And when you love the work, I think you develop a sort of faith, and that faith nourishes you when things aren’t going so well, which is a lot of the time. The work of writing is very often both the problem and its only viable solution.

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

BF: Talking to other writers for one thing, especially the other debs. I actually just met Lydia last night at her wonderful reading in Ann Arbor, and I got to gush about “Safety,” which I just loved. It never gets old meeting other writers and telling them how much you admire their work. Also hanging out with my agent and my mentor, and with the whole One Story crew—they’ve all just been so good to me, and they’ll all be in one place! Also, NYC in the spring!

Monique Laban is a writer from New York. She attended the 2017 VONA: Voices of Our Nations Arts workshop and will attend the 2019 Tin House Summer Workshop. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from Electric Literature and Catapult

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