If You Can Hear Me Thinking
by Kiara Brinkman
Issue #91 • April 20, 2007•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Ronan’s mother made him and his brother practice acting bad so it would look real when the nanny from the TV show came. The boys practiced punching at each other and biting, fighting over broken plastic toys that neither of them played with anymore. His mother said that this was her chance to be discovered. National fucking TV.
Ronan, she said, let me see you do a temper tantrum. I’m tired, he told her—because he was ten, too old for tantrums. It wouldn’t be realistic. Besides, the TV nanny wasn’t coming for sure. Her people had just responded to the letter and pictures his mother had sent. They were interested, maybe, but maybe not. With his whole body, his entire being, Ronan hoped not. Party pooper, his mother called him. Isn’t this exciting? she said to Henry and to her boyfriend, Bernard, who always wore his camera around his neck. Take my picture, she said; and she stood up and spun around in her new, long hippie skirt. She was barefoot and her toes were painted a bright red. Bernard pointed and clicked. Bernard was like a robot, a walking camera. He pointed and clicked. Take me, Henry shouted. Henry was six and he liked everyone, even Bernard.
Kiara Brinkman’s debut novel, Up High in the Trees, has just been released by Grove/Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s and Pindeldyboz, among other magazines. She lives in San Francisco, and can be found online at www.kiarabrinkman.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KB: I saw the beginning of a Supernanny episode a couple years ago, and I kept thinking about how horrible it would be for the kids on the show if their schoolmates happened to be watching. I imagine it would haunt them for years.
Ideally, the home is a safe and private place for a kid, and Supernanny violates that completely. I remember back when I was young, I had a very different personality at school than I did at home. At school, I was really shy, and I sort of came to life at the end of the day. My house was my space, and even when I had friends over, there were certain things—little things, just basic familial interactions—that I didn’t want to be seen by outsiders. So, I assume that opening all of that up to the general public would be somewhat traumatic for a young person.
HT: So, you are not a fan of Supernanny or Nanny 911?
KB: No, I can only watch for a few minutes before it makes me uncomfortable and I have to change the channel.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
KB: The final eight pages were difficult to write, because once Ronan makes the decision to keep his eyes closed, I had to narrate from his perspective without him seeing anything. The dramatic finale with the crew from the show had to be described through what he felt, heard, and imagined, and very quickly, I found my language getting repetitive, so I had to keep revising my descriptions.
HT: Ronan’s mother has such a strong voice in this story. While the father figures—Ronan’s father, Henry’s father and Bernard—are all passing shadows. Was this dynamic something you planned for? Do you think Ronan has now ended his relationship with his mom, since he ruined this chance for her?
KB: Yes, I knew I wanted her to be strong. She’s basically the antagonist in the story, and of course, she always has the upper-hand simply because she is an adult.
I think I did purposely deny Ronan a male role model in order to show him struggling with how to be strong and have his own sense of power. He doesn’t really know how to assert himself without being a jerk, which becomes a problem and almost costs him his most important friendships.
I’m not sure that Ronan has the ability to end his relationship with his mom. No matter how much he distances himself, he’s the kind of kid who will continually be disappointed by her.
HT: There is a lot of talk throughout the story of Ronan’s brain. Does he suffer from migraines? Or were you going for something else, with all the ideas trapped in his head?
KB: Yes, he does suffer from migraines. But, I also wanted to convey Ronan’s frustration with his constant thinking, planning, worrying. He has a hard time being in the world, because his thoughts are so distracting, and often, self-defeating. At night especially, when he can’t fall asleep, he’s sort of at war with himself, trying to quiet his head.
HT: What role does Henry play in the story? Did you mean for him to be Ronan’s rescuer, from the start?
KB: At first, I just meant for him to be a witness, but then, since he continued to be around during key moments, he naturally started to play a more active role. I began to really like him as a character, and so he became more important as the story progressed.
HT: Can you talk a bit about the Muni buses? Why did you choose to end on that image?
KB: I’ve always liked them. I was five when my family moved to the Bay Area, and I became fascinated by the Muni trolley buses, because they seemed alive and creature-like to me. I remember seeing one of them disconnect from the wire. Both “antennae” were bouncing around and sparks were flying—the whole thing was very dramatic, and I worried that the bus was dying. The driver had to come out and re-connect the bus using a long pole, which even when I see it happen these days, seems bizarre and, also, I think, refreshingly old-fashioned or low-tech.
I ended on the image of a Muni bus because Ronan seems to have a comparable mix of energy and vulnerability. Of course, ending on the idea of forward motion creates a sense of hope and progress, but lurking underneath all of it is Ronan’s previous nightmare about the Muni wire strangling the city. In my mind at least, any kind of technology carries a science fiction element of the sinister.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
KB: I started writing it about a year ago, and it has gone through a number of revisions since then. For months, I didn’t know how to end the story. I was reluctant to try to write a scene with the reality TV crew, because I’d seen that on TV so many times—the slick crew coming in and taking over a neighborhood. I didn’t know how to make it different from a bad episode of television. Ultimately though, the scene had to be written, so I made it as compact and simple as possible. Actually, the fact that Ronan had his eyes closed probably helped.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KB: To not over-think a story as you are working on a first draft. Get it on the page, and then try to make sense of it. Otherwise, you can get tripped-up in the process.
HT: What are you working on now?
KB: I’m finishing a collection of interconnected stories, and I’ve started a second novel.