Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“[Peace within myself is] an illusion. It’s a mask I wear. I am just as driven now as I was when I was a rotten delinquent. The diference is I have channeled all that negative energy into something more positive – the creation of stories and novels, essays and reviews, etc.

—Duff Brenna, interviewed by Derek Alger

Short Works: Selected Interviews


From “Thanks to Lady Fortune, There’s Always an Upside”

Given some of his characters’ actions, many of Brenna’s readers may be frightened or turned off by his novels, but Brenna trusts his audience to approach his works of fiction as just that — fiction. Discerning readers understand that fiction can and will involve some truths — just as nonfiction works invariably possess some manipulations of fact. “I fictionalize it,” Brenna explained to me, “but most of it happened.” Some people and events, for example, in The Book of Mamie are true: Mamie Beaver really exists (that is her real name). Jasper John [from The Holy Book of the Beard] experienced much of what occurs in the novel. Triple E (Too Cool) really went into the mountains — in the form of Brenna himself — with his girlfriend in a stolen car and nearly froze to death.


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From “Interview of Duff Brenna by Derek Alger”

Everywhere I look there are always shades of gray. No one, not even those damn terrorists, are all black and nasty to the core. Just as our American soldiers aren’t knights in white armor. Every evil character I create has some redeeming feature. I mean even Hitler loved his dog, so there must have been some cells in his brain that weren’t wholly monstrous. Name any monster in history. Every single one has something redeeming. It might be infinitesimally small, but it’s there. That’s what I always keep in mind when I create someone good — I find something dark about him or her and slip it into the narrative. Nothing more boring than perfection. That’s what’s wrong with Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, who is sort of this perfect Christ-like figure. But Myshkin never comes to life. Not fully. He’s boring. The villainous Rogozhin is both good and bad, and much more rounded and much more interesting. It’s all in the shading.


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From “It’s Not a Choice, It’s a Calling”
(Interview of Thomas E. Kennedy by Duff Brenna)

KENNEDY: Yes, writing can be as spiritual as any religion you can name. In certain moments of creation, you are taken out of yourself and become a part of a larger world. Ideas, knowledge, scenes come into you and flow onto the paper. An hour or a day might pass and you at last awake as if from a trance, and in front of you is a pile of paper and words are on those sheets of paper that you had no idea you were going to say. It is as I said, as if you have been in communion with some force much larger than yourself.


Duff Brenna with friend and award-winning novelist, Thomas E. Kennedy, at the AWP conference in Atlanta, Georgia
Photo of Duff Brenna and Thomas E. Kennedy

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Full Text of Interviews

Thanks to Lady Fortune, There’s Always an Upside
by Ben Arnold
Perigee, Issue 3

Art in one form or another, whether it is in poetry or painting or dance or music or sculpture or whatever you can name, is the only antidote for what is happening to us. The world is too much with us. Technology and the mechanics of making a living are shredding whatever dignity and worth we might have. Art reminds you that you have a soul. It reminds you that above all else, human beings are special mostly because they create.

— Duff Brenna, October 2003

Just over two years have passed since Duff Brenna’s fourth novel, The Altar of the Body, was released into a world content (for the most part) to ignore its brilliance. Sure, Altar made it out of its first year as a hardcover and has since picked up some paperback readership, but in a piece he titled “On the Road to Rejection: A Tale of a California Book Tour,” Brenna vents some frustration: “I’ve written four novels, but so far I haven’t made anyone any money except a publisher in Germany, where my books sell better than they do here. I’m told my work is odd, quirky, character-driven and sometimes too literary, all attributes that German readers seem to love and most American readers seem to hate.”

Brenna has also piqued the interest of an Irish publishing house (Wynken de Worde) that wants to reprint all of Brenna’s novels in the UK, Ireland, and Denmark — and is anxious to see his forthcoming novel, The Willow Man, which is slated for publication by Picador USA in early 2004. Between the release of Altar and this, his final year as a professor at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), Duff Brenna has experienced enough to frame some future novels.

Brenna spent his 2002-2003 academic year on a sabbatical in the Yukon Territory, where he worked, in near isolation and bone-thinning cold, on his fifth novel, The Willow Man — the sequel to his third novel, Too Cool. Brenna divulged that The Willow Man will also connect to his first, picaresque novel titled The Book of Mamie, which won the 1988 Associated Writing Programs Novel Award.

Before heading to Canada, Brenna plodded through a disappointing and aggravating book tour. He said that nothing good happened on that tour and that the day after his last stop on the tour he “boarded the ferry for Alaska and indulged in what Thomas E. Kennedy calls “The Sacrament of Vodka.” “I stood on the stern of the ship that night and watched the phosphorescent water boil and saw in those bursting bubbles the narcissism and vanity of what I had been doing, and I was ashamed of myself.” What’s a shame is that so many people missed out on hearing Brenna read from his work.

All of Brenna’s novels include either autobiographical elements or pieces of other people’s lives. In my recent interview with him, Brenna offered some insight about why he incorporates real life into his fiction: “I need someplace to start. I am always attuned to what other people are saying, whether they are talking about their own lives or the lives of others. I love to listen to people, and invariably I find something useful to write down.”

Given some of his characters’ actions, many of Brenna’s readers may be frightened or turned off by his novels, but Brenna trusts his audience to approach his works of fiction as just that — fiction. Discerning readers understand that fiction can and will involve some truths — just as nonfiction works invariably possess some manipulations of fact. “I fictionalize it,” Brenna explained to me, “but most of it happened.” Some people and events, for example, in The Book of Mamie are true: Mamie Beaver really exists (that is her real name). Jasper John [from The Holy Book of the Beard] experienced much of what occurs in the novel. Triple E (Too Cool) really went into the mountains — in the form of Brenna himself — with his girlfriend in a stolen car and nearly froze to death.

From Altar, “Buck Root was actually a man named Chris Carr and a mighty bodybuilder with great ambitions. Joy was his girlfriend. I met them when I was fifteen and loved them madly.” After all, has there ever been a consensus on whether art imitates life or life imitates art?

Fictionalizing people’s realities may be one reason some critics call Brenna’s work too character-driven. But, then again, some of the most studied writers, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Twain, were masters of centering works around characters — true-to-life characters. “Where life and literature meet, there is first and foremost character,” Brenna offered. “We are all heroes and villains, courageous and cowardly, noble and ignoble, loving and hateful. On good days, we are smart and people admire us. On bad days, we are stupid and people roll their eyes at us.”

Aspiring writers pay attention, please: “Show me a hero basking in glory, and I’ll show you a tragedy in the making. Point is that no one is one thing. No one is pure evil. No one is pure goodness. Everyone has his or her reasons for the behavior that we observe. It’s the myriad complications of the human psyche that both baffle and intrigue us, especially if we are writers. I’ve never met a flat character in real life, but you find them often in plot-driven fiction. They are mere tools for the author and easily forgotten.”

Forgotten? Yes, but are they rejected as cancerous vessels that must not be consumed, digested, and consumed again — regardless of how flat, short, and irrelevant their metaphoric lives truly are? Of course not. These types of characters fill some sort of twisted American void wherever we turn, and media domination seems to douse, too damn often, the embers of meaningful art in our society.

“Trained on sitcoms, sound-bites, strobe-lights that have stunted our attention span, most of us want instant engagement of our senses. If you don’t get me with the first paragraph,” Brenna explained as a problem of audiences, “chances are you don’t get me. Down goes the book. On goes the TV or VCR.”

Brenna suggests that in reading Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Winter’s Tale, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment, “you will find brilliant depictions of the human soul divided against itself, coping at times and unable to cope at other times. In other words, you will find yourself. The closer you get to those truths, the more your characters will speak to the motivations of our own lives and the more we will trust your vision.”

As a reader, the innate ability and inability of people to deal with situations in their world must be infused into fiction for me to give a rat’s ass about them, yet many of the novels, movies, and (gulp) television shows that become popular and make a selected few very wealthy are plot-driven fiction dominated by flat characters.

Brenna expressed some of his beliefs about this puzzling place we find ourselves in regarding “entertainment” today: “It is an unfortunate and deeply depressing fact, but short stories and novels are not held in very high regard these days, except among those who might be called an ‘elite’ few. The media rivalries are fierce. Few, if any, novels or short stories can compete with them.” Brenna further expressed his frustration by saying that there’s not much we can do about this unfortunate phenomenon. “That’s just the way it is. All you can do is learn your craft and work like a demon to make what you write as compelling as words in a row can be.”

Fiction writers can only hope that more readers approach novels like Brenna does: “I’m in no hurry. Many of my favorite novels are from the 19th century. I love the leisurely way many of the writers from that era pull you into their stories. I want to lose myself in images. But that’s not the sort of thing ninety-nine percent of American readers want.” Maybe this realization is what led Brenna to write the screenplay for The Book of Mamie, which was optioned by a Canadian filmmaker. Brenna is presently adapting The Holy Book of the Beard, his second novel, into a screenplay. Los Angeles-based writer and musician Michael Covertino wrote the screenplay for Too Cool, which has been optioned by producer Denise Shaw.

Brenna embraces the pan-art potentiality of films and wants to see the film industry uphold the artistic integrity that created some of his favorite films: Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons, The Lion in Winter, Dr. Zhivago, On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather.

Whether in novels or films, Brenna demands [that] those creating possess some sense of artistic responsibility. Not only do writers need to entertain, but they also need to remain loyal to their vision and belief in the truth of what they are saying. “If you don’t entertain your readers, you are letting them down, and they will put you down. If you don’t cultivate a depth of vision about what it means to be a human being, then you’ll never have very much to say that will connect with the deeper processes of your reader’s mind. If you compromise the truth in order to get published or be popular or make your parents proud, then you write fluff, [and] you’ll never say anything worth reading or remembering. To hell with what your relatives and other people think of you, quit bullshitting and write what you know to be truth. Your truth might be someone else’s lie, but write it anyway.”

Art is religion to Duff Brenna, so it follows that he should urge honest and meaningful art from others. “Art speaks to the quiet, spiritual voices inside us that know there has got to be something more fulfilling than the dumbed-down diet found on most television channels and on the screens of most theaters. It is a subliminal role for many of us, until we finally realize how desiccated we’ve become.” Brenna experienced this desiccation as he balanced teaching at universities and writing novels for the past twenty-two years. When asked if universities encourage and foster creativity and original thinking, he replied, “You’re making me laugh.”

Places, like universities, where art and creativity once found solace and space to grow are changing too quickly. Brenna enjoys teaching but acknowledges that it is difficult to do so while developing his craft of writing fiction and defending the practices and environment that allow real learning to take place. “It ain’t easy. You’re always frustrated, always being pulled one way and then another. But I really like teaching and would keep doing it if it weren’t for the increasing demands that the CSU system (not the students) makes on my time.”

As institutions of higher learning are morphing into product-churning business paradigms, professors passionate about their subjects and their students are marginalized. “The huge enrollments in our classes create a sense of anonymity that is hard to overcome. The pressure to ‘make the numbers’ is extremely demoralizing.”

Brenna has taught at CSUSM since its doors opened in 1989. “Compared to every other college where I had taught, it was a paradise. It no longer is. I don’t think it will ever be again.” When asked what has changed since CSUSM’s infancy, Brenna told me that professors “are facilitators now, processing mass wannabes towards dubious accomplishments promising ambiguous results. So there isn’t very much gratification now and little sense of mission, other than that of survival. The inevitable corporate un-university is here. Darwin said it would be this way.”

Prior to heading north for his sabbatical, Brenna’s approach to teaching was celebrated as he won CSUSM’s President’s Award for Innovative Teaching. On returning to southern California, re-energized by his productive journey to the Yukon, Brenna hoped he would be stepping back onto a campus that still acknowledges the positive and progressive pedagogy that earned him his award just one year earlier. That campus, unfortunately, was not only dried up, it was dead. “The conclusion I’ve reached since returning from the Yukon is that the system we’re working for doesn’t give more than lip service to the arts. They really don’t care about the caliber of the artist they hire; they care about a body in a slot cranking out a product.”

Brenna could not help but refer to CSUSM’s loss of internationally acclaimed poet, Judy Jordan, just two years earlier: “I mean, Judy Jordan won the Walt Whitman and The Critics Circle Awards, and other universities understood what that meant and they came after her. But CSUSM didn’t seem to have any idea what Jordan had accomplished and how it reflected a kind of shining glory on them. We let go of the most brilliant poet I’ve ever personally met, a poet that would have enhanced the reputation of our college immeasurably and brought students to it just to work with Judy Jordan. What we’ve said by not offering a genius time to write is that we don’t really value that sort of thing. What we value are the work-horses who will giddy-up and plow a straight line.”

The loss of such talent was a red flag for Brenna, but the final administrative act that has pushed Brenna to resign as professor after this academic year was the elimination of Shakespeare classes for the Spring Semester to make room for another Creative Writing course. “Creative writing over William Shakespeare is just plain wrong-headed, in my humble estimation. Students who are really driven to write fiction or poetry will do so in spite of all obstacles. No one really needs to take a creative writing class. Writers can pick up all they need to know simply by reading stories and novels with dedication and a critical eye and [by] practicing what they learn. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a foreign language to most students. They need to be led through the intricacies of the Elizabethan language and shown again and again in detail after detail the breadth and depth and beauty of Shakespeare’s infinite mind and how his themes are always relevant, timely, and universal.”

Interesting. A university fights to add a Creative Writing course and, in doing so, loses their best creative writer. Ironical, isn’t it.

Brenna punctuates his opinions about CSUSM’s decision: “A university without a Shakespeare course offered every semester is no longer really universal.”

The de-valuing of the arts and diminishing professional integrity of one university will not stop Duff Brenna though. A return to the Yukon might be in his future. “I did enjoy my stay in the Yukon. I traveled a lot and had a few adventures and learned some neat stuff that I was able to use in The Willow Man. I’m sure I’ll go back to the Yukon and Alaska in a year or two and tramp around a bit and see what I can stir up.” Brenna admits that he is solitary by nature and that he gets claustrophobic in crowded cities. “I preferred my life there to the one I have here. The noise makes it difficult to think. The freeways are shark pools. The eyes of far too many people look haunted. The terrorists are coming.”

Although the changing climate at CSUSM has led Brenna to leave a career he truly enjoyed — and a profession that was once worthy of loving — maybe this change will prove serendipitous for him. He will continue to write, and he is looking into Writer in Residence possibilities at many universities, including Princeton. Brenna is also interested in running workshops for other colleges. “It’s all up in the air now. Mostly, I want to isolate myself long enough to finish the two novels I drafted in Canada.”

Duff Brenna is far from leaving his position at Cal State San Marcos in some sort of snobbish, anger-filled fit. He is, however, going off defeated and demoralized. “But the upside is, I’ll have some time to write now, and who knows, maybe I’ll even be able to make a living at it.”

(Copyright Ben Arnold. All rights reserved.)

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Interview of Duff Brenna
by Derek Alger
Pif Magazine

Duff Brenna is the author of five novels, including The Book of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1989), which won the Associated Writing Programs Award. His other novels are The Holy Book of the Beard (Doubleday/Nan Talese 1996); Too Cool (Doubleday/ Nan Talese, 1998), a New York Times Notable Book; The Altar of the Body (Picador USA, 2001); and The Willow Man (Wynkin de Worde, 2005). His books have been translated into German, Dutch, Finnish, Danish, and Hebrew.

Brenna is a recipient of an National Endowment of the Arts grant, Milwaukee Magazine’s Fiction Award for the short story “Cristobell,” and a Pushcart Honorable Mention for the first chapter of The Altar of the Body. His work has appeared in several magazines and literary journals, including Cream City Review, Sou’wester, The Madison Review, The Northern Review, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, and Web del Sol.

An adolescent rebel, and self-described “juvenile delinquent,” Brenna is an Army veteran, whose life took a once unimagined turn for the positive due to his persistence, commitment, and love of reading and writing.

A Minnesota native, Brenna once tried his hand at owning and running a Wisconsin dairy farm. He is currently a free-lance writer living in Sun City, CA.

Derek Alger: It may not have seemed like it at the time but serving in the Army appears as if it was a turning point in your life, one that actually made becoming a writer possible.

Duff Brenna: I don’t know if I would have ever had the self-discipline to be a writer had it not been for the three years I spent in the 82nd Airborne. I was pretty much a scatterbrain and aggressively impulsive before the Army got hold of me and taught me that there are some genuine consequences to being a hardheaded nonconformist. For the first six months of my hitch I was in and out of trouble, but eventually I got the hang of it. Also, I didn’t have a high-school diploma when I enlisted. I had dropped out of school after the ninth grade. In the Army I took the GED examinations and passed them. They gave me an equivalency diploma. They also sent my scores to the last high school I attended in Elk River, MN and amazingly in 1964 that school sent me a genuine Elk River High diploma.

DA: See, you were remembered.

DB: It was because I finally had a diploma that a few years later I was able to enter college and ultimately got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. So I’ve got to give the U.S. Army credit, and yes, the service was a turning point in my life. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it made my becoming a writer possible. Who knows? I mean I might have become a writer anyway. But I can say at least my time in the service was not wasted, and I probably would have never gone to college had I not first been in the Army.

DA: Although you took an extended break between ninth grade and college, you found solace early on in a love of reading.

DB: I was addicted to reading as an escape, I think. When I was a little boy my mother belonged to The Book of the Month Club, and she had a lot of books. I don’t remember doing this, but she used to tell a story about my taking the books off the shelves and surrounding myself with them. Then I would sit in the middle of these walls of books and open one and pretend I could read it. Like I say, I don’t remember doing that.

What I do remember is being around seven or eight years old and taking one of my mother’s books outside to show to my friends. I think it was Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice. I liked it for its bright maroon jacket. I opened to a page and pretended that I could read the words written there. I don’t know if anyone believed whatever I was saying. I knew the story was about Christ’s Last Supper and what happened to the cup he drank from, but I was making it all up as I went along. My friends, a couple of brothers from down the street, listened for a while. Then drifted off. But that was a brain-searing moment for me. After that day I was desperate to learn how to read what grownups read, not this Dick and Jane stuff.

DA: So what came next?

DB: When I was around ten or eleven I somehow came into possession of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. I couldn’t get enough of it or of London. I methodically went through everything available. I read White Fang, The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden, all of Tales of Adventure, and London biographies called Jack London: American Rebel by P.S. Foner and Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone. Like I say, I couldn’t get enough, until one day I came to Iron Heel and bogged down in the polemics. But reading London’s tales led me to an interest in frontiers and Indians; and I combed the libraries for books about them and went through everything from The Leatherstocking Tales to Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and then on to whatever I could find about Mountain Men, Jeremiah Johnson, Hugh Glass, and Jim Bridger.

Another seminal novel was A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, those beautiful descriptions of the mountains and how wonderful and terrible they could be and how only the fittest could survive (both a London and a Guthrie common theme). I remember Dick Summers was the wise old mountain man, the mentor who taught the main characters Jim and Boone how to prevail against fearful odds. And I still remember Boone visiting Dick after he retired, and Dick asked what happened to Jim. And Boone said, “I kilt Jim.” These two guys were best of friends, ready to lay down their lives for each other; but a woman came between them, and though Jim was innocent of any wrongdoing with her, Boone got so jealous he killed him. I must have been about thirteen at the time I read that line. It made a big impression on me obviously.

One more book and then I’ll get off this kick. When I was fifteen or sixteen I read O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, a story about the farmers who settled the Dakotas and the nearly unbearable hardships they went through. I’m from Minnesota and I had heard stories like theirs when I was growing up. Farmers that broke the land and farmers who were broken by the land. I think it was when I read that book that I perversely wanted to become a farmer, which I did in 1982. In 1984 I went bankrupt and everything was auctioned off. But The Book of Mamie came out of that experience.

DA: Did you attempt any writing early on?

DB: When I was sixteen or so I wrote a tale about an Egyptian slave. I called him Brute. He was influenced by Conan the Barbarian, God help me, but I wrote this thing out and read it to my mother and sister. They weren’t impressed. I tried other things now and then, and sometimes I’d have some kindhearted girlfriend tell me that I had a way with words or something like that. But for the most part I had very little idea about how things worked. Actually, I’m still trying to figure that out. You learn a little more every time you sit down and play with words. The apprenticeship never ends.

DA: Your early years before the Army sound like they were filled with a lot of rebellious traveling in search of yourself?

DB: In search of something, I guess. I was very restless and had too much energy and anger. I left home when I was fifteen and went to Alaska, stayed a few months, and then came back to the lower forty-eight; and went back and forth from Minnesota to Colorado to Minnesota again and cross-country through the Dakotas and Montana working the harvests, and on to Washington, Oregon, and northern California peeling cascara bark or picking apples, peaches, cherries, and strawberries; and either living out of my car or catching rides on freight trains or hitchhiking out on the highway. That was back in the late fifties and early sixties when you could get away with that sort of thing. Are there still hobos around, I wonder? Do young men still catch rides on freight trains and work on farms?

DA: You went to college on the GI bill; what did you decide to study?

DB: I started out with a night course in philosophy. I had been reading various philosophers for a few years, and I knew something important was there, but I couldn’t put it together in my mind. I couldn’t figure out who or what I believed. I believed whichever philosopher I was reading at the time — Plato (The Republic), Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Voltaire (The Philosophical Dictionary), Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was inching my way through all of these guys with a dictionary by my side, but I wasn’t getting very far.

DA: Not bad for a start.

DB: Schopenhauer was easier to grasp — the world is my idea. Follow that notion out to its logical conclusion and what you have are six billion people with six billion “ideas” of the world, no two world views “exactly” alike. So how can you tell anyone anywhere what Truth is with a capital T? And yet we do it all the time. Look at the chaotic “truths” of religion. I’m not only talking about the Mideast mess. I’m talking about our own wild-eyed America with its mind-washed fanatics that would shove their truths down your throat, even if they have to kill you in the process. We could easily have that form of “conversion” going on in the USA if religious radicals were ever to have their way. They would sacrifice people like myself for the cause without a second thought. Many would even sacrifice themselves. There’s a lot of self-sacrifice going on these days. We see it daily. It passes for martyrdom and not self-interest. But even in that sacrifice of self there is something in it for moi. Martyrs don’t die for you or the cause, they die for the “beauty” or the “meaning” it gives to their lives.

Schopenhauer saw the world of human will at work, and it made him pessimistic. The pessimistic outlook is justified, he said, because people are really bad. And it has nothing to do with God or Satan and their comic-book battles for [our] hearts and minds. Our suffering comes, according to Schopenhauer, because we are all born with defective egos — I am the center of the universe. Or again, the world is my idea. Schopenhauer was angry and cynical about life, and so was I, so he really spoke to me during that period of my life.

I also remember that I hated Descartes’ idea that animals are mechanical clockworks. I still despise the notion. It has led to a lot of needless suffering. It bolstered man’s superior attitude about a Chain of Being with himself just beneath the angels. Anyone who knows history knows that that idea is a bloody lie. So Descartes has been on my shit list ever since.

So yes, I read a lot of philosophers and did my best to understand what they were really saying. I read Hume, Spencer, Hegel, on down to Bertrand Russell, his entire History of Western Philosophy. I read Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man and found [that] the unity of the biosphere idea goes along with Darwin in saying that life is all one continuous gradation of capacities and functions. I could carry this on and on ad infinitum, but I’ve probably said more than enough for now. The ultimate point is, I was prepared to take a philosophy class, and I did well enough to pass and it encouraged me to try another. A year into my classes I switched to literature, a more natural fit.

DA: What attracted you to 17th Century Literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular?

DB: The professor mostly. A man named Richard R. Rush. He is the president of some university now, [but] back then he was an inspiring teacher and I wanted to take all of his courses. And then when I became a teacher myself and was one of the first adjunct professors at Cal-State San Marcos, they didn’t have anyone yet to teach Shakespeare, so I said I would do it. I did it for fourteen years, and teaching Shakespeare may be the most enlightening training for a would-be writer. I mean if you really want to know what is possible with characters, teach Shakespeare. If you really want to know the intricacies of the human condition, teach Shakespeare.

DA: Pretty good experience, the wild life of the lunatic fringe, coupled with philosophy, that makes for believable characters.

DB: Philosophy gives you a basis to understand that the lunatic fringe is sane in its own way. You can learn a lot from lunatics, and you can learn a lot from living on the edge. It can be scary out there sometimes, but when you come back in, you have a head full of experiences you would never have had otherwise, which you can use in your writing.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to go out there and live what you write about. You don’t have to go to Alaska to write about Alaska. Or to Mexico to write about Mexico. Others have gone there and written about those places, and you can experience any number of places simply by reading a pile of books about them. With that kind of “experience,” or any other kind, a certain authenticity enters your work. People believe that you know what you are talking about, and they trust you.

I read an interview done with Shirley Hazzard not long ago in The Paris Review, and she talked about writing a novel that she set in the Far East and that much of the atmosphere she created in the book came from the writings of Victor Segalen. She writes about the horror of World War I and, of course, she wasn’t there, but others were who wrote about it. Hazzard was never a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in World War II either, but again she can write about it because others either wrote about it or told her their stories. You see what I’m saying about experience? In a way she had experienced everything she wrote about. That’s what can happen to you vicariously through the books of other writers and by being a good listener. And that is a valid means of experiencing something well enough that you can write about it authentically. Look at Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. How could he write something so authentic when he had never been to war? He researched war. Absorbed it.

As far as believable characters go, I think I’ve lived enough and studied the human species well enough to know for the most part what makes people tick. Highly simplified — it is all self-interest one way or another. Add passion to it and a dab of reason now and then, and you’ve got a formula for humankind all over this pitiful, fear-ridden, emotional, self-destructive world. It may seem that I’m pointing out the downside way too much. So let me say that the upside of the “formula” makes life pretty interesting most of the time. I mean at the very least there are always stories to record. You can’t wear life out. But you can let it wear you out. Which happens a lot, of course.

DA: Obviously, you don’t see the world in black and white terms, and the main characters in your novels are noted for their complexity.

DB: Everywhere I look there are always shades of gray. No one, not even those damn terrorists are all black and nasty to the core. Just as our American soldiers aren’t knights in white armor. Every evil character I create has some redeeming feature. I mean even Hitler loved his dog, so there must have been some cells in his brain that weren’t wholly monstrous. Name any monster in history. Every single one has something redeeming. It might be infinitesimally small, but it’s there. That’s what I always keep in mind when I create someone “good” — I find something dark about him or her and slip it into the narrative. Nothing more boring than perfection. That’s what’s wrong with Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, who is sort of this perfect Christ-like figure. But Myshkin never comes to life. Not fully. He’s boring. The villainous Rogozhin is both good and bad, and much more rounded and much more interesting. It’s all in the shading.

DA: Somehow through what one would guess was personal pain and suffering, you have been able to convert that into empathy while maintaining realism in what you write about.

DB: If your life has been troublesome and painful, do something to give that trouble and pain a purpose. I think most people want to know the reason that bad things happen to them. I mean what was the point of having brutal stepfathers who beat me up and molested my sister? If I believed in God, I guess I’d say something to the effect that it was all part of the Great One’s master plan, and we will know the meaning and purpose when we die. But I don’t have that solace. I learned early on that the only thing I could believe in is art, in whatever form it might take. But especially in the form of great literature. Art is the way to go in past the barriers of custom and culture and a way to get control of your afflicted past. Art is very often a way to find meaning for the pain that all human beings suffer. Art is also a way to renew your spirit and connect to others. I try to create art every time I sit down to write. Writing about my screwed-up life or someone else’s screwed-up life sometimes gives me the means to get inside and understand what has happened. Those sentences, those paragraphs, those pages, stories, novels, give me a sense of purpose. Otherwise, life would be a pointless exercise, and I would be wasting my time. Did you ever read what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter not long before he died? l uphill work, and I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back — but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: “I’ve found my line — from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty — without this I am nothing.” It is a sad commentary and also a warning. Ecclesiastes tells us that whatever our hands find to do, do it with all of our might. For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.

DA: Your first published novel, The Book of Mamie, has been called “a masterpiece” and “fully deserving of winning” the AWP Award in 1988. How did it come about?

DB: The story of Mamie came to me through my mother and aunt talking about her one day. Mamie actually existed and, as in the book, she ran the town’s movie projector. She used to kiss and hug the projector and get graphite all over her face and hands. When I heard that story I naturally wondered what made her fall in love with a piece of unresponsive steel. I started a short story exploring that image — Mamie loving up a Powers Projector. It took me over 300 pages to find out that she loved the projector because it was her greatest source of knowledge. It was her teacher. Every time Mamie ran a film, she learned something more about the world that she didn’t know before. This is a girl who never even finished grade school. She was dyslexic and maybe vaguely autistic too. She could neither read or write. But she was also a sort of savant. She had a photographic memory when it came to the spoken word. All she had to do is see a film once, and she had it memorized and could quote dialogue line by line. Well, somebody like that, she needed to be in a book, didn’t she? So that’s where I put her.

DA: Next was The Holy Book of Beard, more of an ensemble cast of characters who form a community of sorts around a diner for those on society’s fringe.

DB: The characters and story were based on people I met when I first moved to San Diego. The diner exists in a place called Kensington, a suburb of San Diego. Two of the characters, the ex-con Henry Hank and his girlfriend Mary Quick, were based on a man and his wife I had met through their son. I used to go to their house and listen to their wild stories about holdups and life in prison. The man was solid muscle and nobody to mess with. Most of the time he was really nice, but of course he had a dark side. It would come out sometimes when he was drunk and driving a car and someone would cut in front of him or something. He would go crazy (talk about road rage!) and run them off the road. This happened twice when I was in the car. Twice was enough. I didn’t want to drive with him anymore, nor did I. So anyway, I put these two together along with a younger character based vaguely on myself who watches and records whatever he sees happening. Then other people started getting into the act, and I found Fat Stanley, a kind of moral center that the book lacked until he stepped in. Helga appeared and became Fat Stanley’s head waitress. I needed more conflict in their story, so I gave her cancer and the dilemma of three kids who would soon be orphans. Helga sees Fat Stanley as their savior. But of course he wants no part of it. As a writer you throw these things out and then write your way to some sort of resolution. And if things go your way, after a year or two you have a novel. And if things really go your way, the novel sells.

DA: The Altar of the Body captures the conflict many struggle with between illusion and reality, with personal growth allowing one to accept truth, no matter how painful, and find peace through that self-awareness.

DB: I had been through my mother’s decline through senility and death. She had once been a beautiful, electrifying woman. A guy told me once that she had touched his arm and the hairs on his arm stood up and his body tingled. She never lacked for a lover or a husband until she got older and lost her looks and gave up on life. She was 74 when she died. She lived like a lot of men and women do these days — it’s all about looks and you’re nobody if nobody wants you. So I took the decline of beauty as the core around which I placed a senile old lady, her gorgeous but aging daughter, and the daughter’s bodybuilding boyfriend, who is not quite the man he used to be when he was winning Mr. Los Angeles and Mr. Las Vegas titles. The main point was — what do you do when the very thing you lived for is no longer capable of sustaining you? You slip into the illusion that it isn’t happening, but the illusion only lasts for a short while and you either find something within you to handle the painful truth, or you retreat inside your head and become mentally ill.

DA: What do you think the adolescent outlaw would have thought if someone said that he would someday be an accomplished writer armed with knowledge of philosophy and literature?

DB: Nonsense. What are you, crazy?

DA: How did you come up with the idea for Too Cool?

DB: Too Cool was based on the time I lived in Colorado and stole a car and ran away with my girlfriend. We got stuck in the snow in the mountains. The police were chasing us, and I turned off the highway and drove along a snowy ranch road and came around a curve and hit a deep drift. We were there for three days before I finally found someone at a rail-tending station who called the cops. They showed up and took us to jail. So I built Too Cool around that experience. I wanted to show a kid who everyone hated (except his buddies and his girlfriend) because he was so much trouble and impossible to handle. But I also wanted to give him some qualities that a totally troublesome teenager might lack. I gave him courage. I gave him loyalty. I gave him some insight into some of the grownups he came in contact with. I gave him also the ability to love one special person and put his life on the line for her. With the way those ingredients mixed in Too Cool I was able to build a story based on lots of true facts but also lots of fiction.

DA: Your characters and writing may be on the edge, but it seems that you have found peace within yourself.

DB: It’s an illusion. It’s a mask I wear. I am just as driven now as I was when I was a rotten delinquent. The difference is, I have channeled all that negative energy into something more positive, the creation of stories and novels, essays and reviews, etc. My only fear is that someday I might sit down to write and find that I haven’t anything to say. And the next day the same thing happens. And the next. So on and so forth. I’m like the senile old lady in The Altar of the Body. I’ve put all my eggs in this one basket. If the basket falls and the eggs break, maybe I’ll do like the old lady does. She mentally falls into the pages of a book and becomes a character in the story. She goes back and forth, but one day she enters the story and never again comes out. But I guess that would be all right.

DA: Sounds like a fitting end for a writer.

DB: Exactly.

(Copyright Derek Alger. All rights reserved.)

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It’s Not a Choice, It’s a Calling
Interview of Thomas E. Kennedy by Duff Brenna
Perigee, Issue 6

It took Thomas E. Kennedy twenty years to publish his first story. In the twenty years following that first publication he has published sixteen books, one hundred short stories, and numerous essays, translations, and anthologies. He won the O. Henry Prize in 1994, the Pushcart Prize in 1990, the European Magazine Prize in 1995, and in 1988 he was given the Charles Angoff Award. His works have been translated into Danish and Serbo-Croatian. From 2000 to 2004 Wynkin de Worde (Galway, Ireland) published three of the four novels of Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet (Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, A Love Story; Bluett’s Blue Hours; Greene’s Summer). The fourth novel of the Quartet, Breathwaite’s Fall, will be published in 2005. Kennedy’s place in American letters has grown exponentially in the past decade, a decade in which it seems he has come out of nowhere to establish himself as one of this country’s most beloved and respected storytellers.

BRENNA: Even after all your success, you’ve said that you still get rejections from editors. Does it bother you?

KENNEDY: Rejection goes with the territory, and its sting diminishes over time.

In an article I did for Poets & Writers, I researched the subject of rejection and found out that many writers had sent their stories out over and over, sometimes as many as seventy times. I learned that one of America’s greatest short-story writers, the late Andre Dubus, had sent one of his stories out thirty-eight times before it found a home. The article on rejection gave me a better perspective on myself as a writer experiencing dozens of rejections: You realize it’s not personal. You learn to be the water that wears away the stone.

BRENNA: Do you ever feel like you’re the stone, like you’re the one being worn away?

KENNEDY: Maybe I felt that way years ago, but not anymore.

BRENNA: All those years of rejection, you never thought about quitting?

KENNEDY: Sure, I thought about it, but the next day I’d be back at my typewriter anyway. A writer produces a story in much the same way that an oyster produces a pearl, through pain and worry and irritation (joy, too, of course), and half the time you have trouble even giving the thing away. But you can’t dwell on it. Your business is to write what you can the best you can. To tell you the truth, after that initial 20 years of frustration, every time I sell a story now I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. Five hundred bucks and I feel terrific! Sometimes I get a nice fee for coming and reading one of my stories, and to me it is like a small miracle that some college will pay me fifteen hundred dollars to read to fifty or a hundred students and faculty. I feel truly privileged even just to get that much attention and recognition for doing something I love to do.

BRENNA: The writing itself is its own reward?

KENNEDY: Writing is the reward, yes; the rest is gravy. Really, the true joy of writing, of experiencing that rush of well-being and creativity while you are in the process, feeling it happen, experiencing yourself as a tool of the craft, a medium of the story, it is spiritual feeling, a communion.

BRENNA: Spiritual?

KENNEDY: Yes, writing can be as spiritual as any religion you can name. In certain moments of creation, you are taken out of yourself and become a part of a larger world. Ideas, knowledge, scenes come into you and flow onto the paper. An hour or a day might pass and you at last awake as if from a trance, and in front of you is a pile of paper and words are on those sheets of paper that you had no idea you were going to say. It is as I said, as if you have been in communion with some force much larger than yourself.

BRENNA: Where does the knowledge come from? Do you believe in Jung’s theory of archetypes? Is it Yeats’s Anima Mundi?

KENNEDY: The world spirit? Maybe it is. I don’t know. I only know that when it happens it is a spiritual experience. If it’s a genetic connection with an archetype, or you’ve submerged yourself in Yeats’ river of creativity encircling the world, no one can say; but I don’t know any writer who hasn’t experienced it.

BRENNA: It’s like the marathoner’s high, the hormones kicking in and away you go.

KENNEDY: Maybe so. I’m not a runner, so I don’t know what that feels like.

BRENNA: You’ve said that American writers are generous to each other, and you named the recently deceased Andre Dubus as one who was especially helpful to you. Could you expand on that a bit?

KENNEDY: I’m thinking of Duff Brenna, Jack Myers, W.D. Wetherell, Gordon Weaver, Susan Dodd, Gladys Swan, Andre Dubus, and many, many other writers, all of them reaching out to one another with advice, encouragement, recommendations. I have not seen the same colleagiality in Europe that I’ve seen in the United States. I think that American writers on the whole are more generous and giving to one another because they know first hand how hard the writing life can be, what a struggle it is to make your voice heard. We have to care about one another and help one another because if we don’t, who will? No one much cares if the writer writes or not. If you quit or I quit, very few people would lose any sleep over it. Andre Dubus had a powerful affect on me as a writer. He literally influenced not merely my writing style but my life. It was Andre who gave me the kind of nourishment that most beginning writers are starving for. He praised my early work, tried to get some of it published, got me my first agent, and gave me over one-hundred and forty pages of notes to work with when I was working on my study of him, Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction. It was published in 1988. It was my first hardcover book.

But this question of quitting. Andre said that writers quit for any number of reasons: They quit because their parents don’t understand what the fuck they’re doing and why they don’t go out and get a real job. They quit because their friends don’t understand what they are doing either. They quit because no one cares enough about what they are doing to give them encouragement. They can’t get published. They work like hell and of course don’t get money for it. And if you finally do publish in some lovely little magazine like Tendril or Ploughshares and you call your mother or father or friends and tell them, they say, “What’s that?”

BRENNA: If it’s not The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, you can’t be for real.

KENNEDY: Exactly.

BRENNA: Dubus had his share of rejection too.

KENNEDY: No doubt about it. Andre Dubus knew and cared how it was for those who had not yet come as far as he, and he was always reaching down to lend a hand up. He was an extraordinary man. I don’t know if you’ve read his last collection, Dancing After Hours, but in it you can see him coming to terms with the fact that he was in a wheelchair and, as he put it, “crippled.” You can see him facing his situation without self-pity and doing with it what only a great writer would do, getting it down on paper, turning the horror and pain and misery of it into literature, into art.

BRENNA: I did read Hours and also the essay collection Broken Vessels. Spiritual and earthy, deeply beautiful works.

KENNEDY: He was a down-to-earth man, and also a spiritual man, and I feel honored to have known him. I’ve read all his works hungrily, and I could do no better service to young writers out there than recommend the stories of Andre Dubus, any of them, all of them.

BRENNA: Switching gears a little. Do you ever write with the movies in mind? It seems that the only way to break out from the pack these days is to get a movie made of your novel.

KENNEDY: I don’t write with movies in mind, though I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing if others do. Some good movies have been made from some good novels, but no film adaptation of a strong novel that I’ve ever seen has had the power of the novel. Occasionally, a film is better than or as good as the novel it is adapted from. I thought the film Midnight Cowboy was better than the book. John Houston’s film of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ was as good a film as I’ve ever seen. Wonderful movies can be made if you’ve got real artists like Houston involved.

BRENNA: Do you know the story behind the film adaptation Stanley Kubrick did of Stephen King’s The Shining?

KENNEDY: Yes. Kubrick took large liberties with King’s book, turned it into a kind of horror burlesque. Real camp. Nicholson is funny as hell, but most of the humanity that was in the book disappears. King’s book was about child abuse and the child abuser as victim of his own past. It was pretty moving, so I can understand that he was upset with what Kubrick did.

BRENNA: I’ve heard that King made his own version and it wasn’t very good.

KENNEDY: Yes, he did and you’re right, it was not very good, could not at all measure up against Kubrick’s even if it did reinstate all the scrapped elements. I think this bolsters the argument that the novel and language are stronger mediums than film. Kubrick made a memorable though slight film out of a good novel; when King tried to reinstate its strengths in a remake, it just doesn’t work out.

BRENNA: What do you think of the notion that film is today’s literature?

KENNEDY: I do notice that some workshop pieces I get in recent years read like film scripts, but trying to write like that is based on a misunderstanding. Some people think they can see a film in their head and just write the dialogue down, but it doesn’t work that way, not for me anyway. As Ezra Pound points out in The ABC of Reading, poetry (i.e., literature) is made of words while drama is made of people speaking words, and that what is lacking in the words they speak can be made up for in the movement of bodies. Some of the most powerful moments on film, reduced to a script, are nothing. Put Jack Nicholson’s body behind the words, or Marlon Brando’s, or some other great actor and the words come to life. In a film script when you write, “He walks across the room,” it works because you’ve got a Brando or a Keitel or a Robert Duvall or a James Earl Jones waiting to put the power of flesh to those words. If you write in a fiction, “He walks across the room,” it is dead wood, pulls no weight, does nothing for the most part.

BRENNA: Yes, some of the hardest scenes to write in fiction are transition scenes from one room to another or from a chair to the kitchen, from a car to a porch.

KENNEDY: That’s right, but in a movie, it’s more the angle of the camera and the actor doing his or her thing.

BRENNA: But as far as literature goes, what will happen to the language if it’s all on the screen?

KENNEDY: You mean if people quit reading and, as you say, make movies their literature?

BRENNA: Yes, that’s what I mean. Wouldn’t that be the true death of the language and of the novel?

KENNEDY: Language is the supreme medium, always was and always will be. In one of his poems Jack Myers writes, “There is a horse kicking in the brain that must be let out...” What film image could ever capture that? A dozen words and you’re transported, and you don’t even need any equipment beyond your eyes and your wits. Dostoevski, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Gogol, Flaubert, what film has ever done them justice? Once people understand the power of the words on the page, they stop turning toward films to tell them what life is about and how to live it. In fact, according to surveys that have come out year after year for the past fifty years, as movie-goers age they go to fewer and fewer films, and eventually many stop going altogether; but readers of fiction never stop reading.

BRENNA: Bolsters my morale to hear you say that. My grandmother was 83 when she died, but I can’t ever remember her going a day without a book in her hand. She would watch the news on TV, cuss at it, then turn it off and pick up her book.

KENNEDY: Older people who have been readers all their lives and whose minds are still active are going to continue reading for as long as they’re able. But whether the younger generations will become readers in the first place is unknowable. A good thing that film does very often is send a young man or woman to the bookstore to buy the book from which the film was made. The two mediums often help each other. The breakout for a book is often the result of the movie that was made from it. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but there is no denying it.

BRENNA: I agree. Which brings me to this business of selling books. I’ve read all the reviews on Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, Bluett’s Blue Hours, and Greene’s Summer. Every review is positive; some of them are raves. The praise you get for your writing is what writers dream of having for their works. And yet a major publishing house has never published your books. Can you explain this?

KENNEDY: Well, they must not think my stuff will sell and so they don’t want to take a chance. They need to justify their investment, I understand that, and so they need to buy books that the general public will read. You see fifty-seven books face out on a shelf all in a row and every one of them is the same book by John Grisham or a clone of John Grisham. We are not talking about deathless literature here; we are talking about entertainment pure and simple. The trick is to write deathless literature that is also wonderfully entertaining, and the hardest trick of all is to get it noticed and published by a major publishing house, where it might have the chance to flourish.

BRENNA: Publishers have been compared to the sow that eats its own farrow.

KENNEDY: Sounds like something James Joyce might have said. There’s a truth in it. More often than not, books are brought out and left to die. Publishers abandon them. As soon as a book loses its support system it is doomed. The most common complaint by writers is that their publishers brought their books out and left them unpromoted, unadvertised, abandoned like unwanted piglets shipped off before they have a chance to grow up.

BRENNA: Remaindered.

KENNEDY: Ugly word. Can you imagine all the great books out there that you will never hear about or read because their publishers got cold feet?

BRENNA: I’m sure it’s a staggering number.

KENNEDY: Yes, we probably don’t want to know how many.

BRENNA: So how does a writer survive?

KENNEDY: Some don’t, of course. The world of major publishing houses and the books they choose is a world of commerce that I don’t know much about. All I know is how to get my stuff out to the small presses and out to the literary magazines, and the response has been gratifying, so I have no complaints. If a big house picks up on me at some point, great. If not, I’ll survive. Writing fiction is the most important professional activity I know, and whether or not Oprah comes to get me, I will go on writing and love it as long as I live. My life is rich because I read and write literature. Look, writing is not a choice, it is a calling; I truly believe that, and you are going to do it no matter what, not because you want to so much as because you NEED to. As Rilke suggests in his Letters To A Young Poet, if you don’t NEED to do it, better don’t. Or as the then-editor of Writers’ Forum, Alex Blackburn, put it in a column to aspiring writers, “If you can quit, perhaps you should.” That might sound harsh, but to survive as a writer, I think you’ve got to have that obsession or beguilement or just utter devotion to writing that will make you keep your eye on the work rather than the reward. I’ll survive as a writer. I won’t be driven to despair and quitting or to suicide. I love writing too much to stop.

BRENNA: Do you know the story of John Kennedy Toole?

KENNEDY: A Confederacy of Dunces. Yes, poor Toole killed himself, and then his mother got his novel published and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Such tragedies happen, it’s life, it’s writing. There is a poem by Kenneth Rexroth about the death of Dylan Thomas, accusing the general American public of having killed Thomas. It is a stirring diatribe in which Rexroth vents some remarkable spleen, raving on for about half an hour and ending with a great shout of:

And all the birds of the deep blue sea
Rise up above the luxury liners and scream:
You killed him. You killed him.
In your goddamned Brooks Brothers Suit, you son of a bitch!

But I really don’t buy it. Some writers kind of choose that route, I think. Baudelaire’s long disordering of the senses to find truth, and they have a tendency to pop off at 27 or 39 years old, and it is tragic. Don’t get me wrong — I thank god that Dylan Thomas’s poetry is there; it is wonderful! Keats, too, think what he did in his short life. But others like Wallace Stevens live to a ripe old age and produce formidable work. Eliot is another. And William Stafford. There are poets and poetry and art all around us, and the man in the Brooks Brothers suit is powerless against it because the poet will write no matter what. The poet will sing in the wilderness or roar and rage in the desert. As I said before it is not a matter of choice, it is a calling. As you say, writing is a religion.

BRENNA: A religion.

KENNEDY: Yes, that’s what it is. That’s what all art is.

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