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Monday, March 24, 2008

View From the Seventh Layer (Pantheon)

Interview With Kevin Brockmeier

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There’s an indelible quality to Kevin Brockmeier’s writing that has earned him such accolades as the O. Henry Award and the Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award. In his new collection of stories, View From the Seventh Layer, he further cements his reputation for creating slender and solemn prose that blends the fantastical with the everyday. He talks to us about this, his second collection of short stories for adults:

In an interview following the publication of your novel, A Brief History of the Dead, you describe your work as straddling fantasy and literary fiction. Can you explain?

I think it’s fair to say most of my books do the same, including this one...My perspective is that the best of science fantasy and fiction has every bit as much complexity and character depth as the best literary fiction does. So it’s never seemed obvious to me that there needs to be a hard and fast divide between the two forms of writing. It just comes naturally to me to blend the two of them together.

Why do you think people often stress that divide?

I think fewer people are making that divide than used to. I guess I would say that there’s a long tradition of very fine fantastic literature but over the course of the 20thcentury the American fantastic literature that first captured people’s attentions…most of the people who really made a name for themselves, however interesting they might be as storytellers, really didn’t offer as much as the best literary writers of the era did when it came to character depth and precision of language and things like that. It took a while for those sorts of talents to blossom inside the genre.

You say that of America. In your experience is it different elsewhere?

When I say America I should probably include the entire English-language tradition. When it comes to foreign literature I suspect the divide isn’t as hard and fast. A lot of the fine works of fantasy and science fiction that would be marketed as such in the United States would be marketed as mainstream fiction elsewhere, as far as I can tell. And that applies to all of the magical realists of the Latin American traditions; it applies to some of the great Eastern European writers like Bohumil Hrabal, and even some African literature that contains elements of the fantastic. It just seems to be woven in more naturally into the mainstream literary culture.

You’ve written novels for children and novels and short stories for adults. Which do you find more rewarding?

I find it easier to write children’s novel and that might just be because in my case the children’s novels are very conversational in tone and admit to be humorous too. There are things I allow myself to do in those books that I wouldn’t normally do. There are ways in which I approach them more casually than I do adult fiction. In terms of novels versus short stories; its far more intimidating to embark on a novel because it can be such a long process and it can be psychologically brutalizing to realize you’re going to be immersed in this world for such a long time…With the novels I’ve written so far I’ve tried to write the first section of the novel as though it were a short story, just as a way of easing myself into the process. I suspect I’m a better short story writer than a novelist…

How do your stories come about?

I am the sort of writer who begins with an idea. And that idea might just be to follow the line of a certain character or follow the arc of a certain plot. Or it might be one of those “what if” questions. The final story in this collection is called “A Fable with White Slips of Paper Spilling from the Pockets” and it’s about a man who acquires God’s overcoat, and he realizes it’s God’s overcoat because he keeps discovering prayers in the pockets on tiny slips of paper. That one was generated by this idea “what if I had a coat that produced prayers?” I can tell you that I never sit down to write even the first sentence without a title. I feel like I just don’t know what a story is all about until I have a title on the top center of the first page to kind of speak to me. Occasionally I’ll even have titles that generate an entire story. I once heard a writer describe the title as the target to which you shoot the arrow of the story, and that’s a concept that makes a lot of sense to me.

There’s something very solemn about your tone, would you agree?

That’s often the case, but if you look at my children’s fiction is very much the reverse. The children’s books can be very jokey and filled with puns…occasionally I’ve tried to find a way to blend the precision and solemnity in my adult fiction with the more casual quality of my kids’ fiction. I haven’t quite found a way to pull that off yet.