G-rock, Arkansas: An Interview with Novelist John Brandon

john brandon

Although John Brandon is an MFA graduate of the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis, while drafting the novel Arkansas, he “worked at a lumber mill, a windshield warehouse, a Coca-Cola distributor, and several small factories producing goods made of rubber and plastic.” In his spare time, he obsesses over Florida Gators football.

Why set your debut novel in Arkansas? Towards the end of the book, your protagonist’s girlfriend Johnna suggests that she loves the state of Arkansas for its “cozy, tucked-away quality…[its] underdoggish quality” (152-53). Is your attraction to the Natural State the same as Johnna’s? I mean, sure, every state in the union has its own cadre of drug dealers, but there are certainly other locales, like NYC, San Fran, L.A., Miami, that might provide a “sexier” or more alluring backdrop for a novel of criminality.

I like to write about places I’ve been to only briefly. If I know a place too well, and there’s no mystery, I lose interest. If the place is too set in my mind, if I know every 7-Eleven and car wash and know the people who work there, it’s harder for me to mold that place into what I need it to be. Arkansas is a hard place to pin down, so anything seems possible. It’s Southern, to be sure, but much of its history is Western. Oklahoma is right there, and that’s prairie country. If you go north, into Missouri, you’re in the Midwest. Most states, you know what you’re getting into about five minutes after you arrive. To me, Arkansas isn’t that way. Anything could be happening there. I guess I felt a lot of wiggle room, using Arkansas as a setting. Other writers would get that wiggle-room feeling from other places, I’m sure, like big, sexy cities.

In terms of voice, a sizable chunk of your novel is told in second person. Explain your decision to alternate between third-person and second-person narration in the novel. Why not relay Froggy’s tale in the same third-person style that is used to tell both Swin and Kyle’s stories?

When I started, I didn’t know why Frog was second person. It felt right, was all. There was an energy to it. As I got further along, though, I began to like the idea of forcing the reader to align with the character that would become the antagonist. I like telling the reader that he wants to kill the main characters [Swin and Kyle]. Also, Frog is present years before Kyle and Swin come on the scene, and he’s there after they’ve left. The book sees them come and go, as does the reader.

Why make your protagonists, Swin Ruiz and Kyle Ribb, drug runners? What are you attempting to say about the South? Is there something innate in the American spirit that pushes the disenfranchised among us into crime?

Kyle and Swin were always drug runners. I decided to try writing a story about two guys who run drugs in Arkansas, and then the story got longer and longer and became a novel. I can’t imagine Kyle or Swin being anything other than what they are. As far as saying anything about the South or the American spirit, if I did, it wasn’t on purpose. I guess in a couple hundred pages you’re bound to uncover a truth or two concerning the human soul, but probably not new truths. I was only worried about painting these specific characters as fully as I could. That’s enough of a job for me.

Late in the novel, Swin’s younger sister, Rosa, suggests that Swin shouldn’t start “hating everything.” Of course, this scene recalls a conversation that Holden Caulfield has with his younger sister, Phoebe, in the novel The Catcher in the Rye. Now, it’s something of a rite of passage in the West for young male writers to have a serious man-crush on J.D. Salinger and his work. What special fascination do The Catcher In The Rye, Nine Stories, etc. hold for you?

What I remember loving about Salinger, when I first read him early in high school, was that the small moments were more important than the big picture. The big picture was dependent on the small moments, not the other way around. I hadn’t read much then, hadn’t read anything so comfortable with its own pace. Most of the writers I like, even today, I like for what they can pull off within a page, not because they construct great plots or take on grand questions.

Both Swin and Kyle seem to have a genuine dislike of college life and the sort of intellectual snobbery and conformity it breeds. For example, Swin despises his Vanderbilt classmates, while Kyle decks a University of Georgia professor and, later, murders a frat boy. How does this mistrust of academia play into the larger themes of the novel?

Kyle, I suppose, has always considered himself below education, socio-economically or otherwise, and therefore doesn’t trust it, or pretends it doesn’t exist. He finds an occupation where education is neither here nor there. Swin considers himself above education, and therefore despises it. He also finds an occupation where education is neither here nor there. Of course, Swin knows college is probably where he belongs, so his relationship with it is more complex than Kyle’s.

Arkansas’s dust jacket says that while writing the novel, you “worked at a lumber mill, a windshield warehouse, a Coca-Cola distributor and several small factories producing goods of rubber and plastic.” Is there any college in your background? Also, have you ever participated in a writing workshop or been part of an MFA program in creative writing? And, if so, what are your feelings about college, workshops, MFA?

I did my undergrad at University of Florida then got an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. Not long after that, I started working labor. I’ve found that, though hard on the body, it suits me. I like having a job that requires no brain energy and isn’t stressful, so when I get home I can shower and eat and feel pretty fresh for writing. Of course, labor doesn’t pay well, and I’m close to broke. I guess I’ll get a teaching job at a college at some point. At least, I hope I will.

What benefits, if any, can a young writer draw from an MFA program and/or workshop? Also, what are the drawbacks of MFA programs and/or workshops?

I learned a ton in my MFA program. I was right out of college, so I wasn’t a good writer when I entered the program. When I left, I wasn’t a pro, but I wasn’t an amateur, either. It’s two years where you do nothing but read and write, if that’s what you want to do. MFA programs—you get as much out of them as you want to. And I guess the people you’re there with make a difference. What I did was get rid of a lot of bad habits and learn a lot about my own process. Once I was out of the program, I missed having easy access to feedback about my work. If you’re a person who craves feedback, an MFA program is a good place for you. If you want to be left alone to find your own way, maybe skip it.

What does the term Southern Lit mean to you? What writers most embody that term to you? And how have the works of these writers influenced your work?

I’ve been asked about Southern Lit before, and I’m never sure how to answer. I don’t believe there’s a certain way to write in the South and I don’t consider myself part of any tradition. The South is a big place full of lots of writers, and I take them one by one. I’ve never written with the feeling that anyone was looking over my shoulder or comparing me to anyone.

You’ve grown up in the South, mostly along the Gulf Coast of Florida, so my guess is: you have some insight into the racial politics of the region. If Senator Barack Obama were to win the nomination of the Democratic party, how would he fair among white Southerners during a general election against Republican John McCain? And what, if anything, does this say about the South?

I’m not qualified to answer. I don’t follow politics much.

Now I’m not trying to belabor the point, and I fully respect your right to be apolitical, but I am intrigued by writer Don DeLillo’s belief that “the writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government. […] American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous.” In your opinion, is it necessarily the job of the writer to be “dangerous” and to challenge the status quo?

I suppose most of my characters are folks on the margins, dangerous folks, but I don’t think challenging any status quo is much on their minds, or mine. Writing about the people I write about doesn’t seem like a choice at all, political or otherwise, but I guess when you’re always writing about the strange poor, the protest is kind of built-in, kind of obvious and unwieldy to mention.

Your McSweeney’s bio mentions that you’re a huge college football fan. And in the novel, of course, Johnna is a die-hard Arkansas Razorbacks homer. Who is your favorite team? Also, why does the Southeastern Conference play the most jarring and competitive brand of college football in the country?

I am a Florida Gator.

The South—I don’t think anyone would argue—has the most total talent coming out of its high schools. Southern California is a recruiting hotbed, along with Texas, but so is the entire Southeast. Any school in the SEC can field a very good team simply by retaining their in-state guys. This creates a situation where any team can beat any other team. Most games are close and hard-fought, and every team ends up losing here and there. There are very good teams all over the country, but what sets the SEC apart is that when you don’t play well, you lose. You need to have one of your best games of the season every week.

The other thing about the SEC is the expectation level at each school. There’s only one school, Vanderbilt (they’ve got other things to worry about, like learning), that doesn’t believe it should win the conference. No one, save Vandy, is satisfied with being a pretty good team, with being a spoiler, with putting up a good fight, with showing some improvement since last year. Every school believes it’s their ordained right to win the conference.

And, lastly, if I’m not mistaken, you gave readings recently in both Atlanta and Asheville, NC as part of a McSweeney’s contingent that included—according to the McSweeney’s website—a sword-swallower. How did your readings go, and what was it like to perform with a true esophageal talent?

Yeah, we did a five-city tour. The teenage sword-swallower/light-bulb-eater/nail-into-nose-hammerer was our opening act. He’s performed thousands of times, so he was great with the crowd, and drew his own demographic. It was hard following him on stage, for a number of reasons. My editor at McSweeney’s came along to oversee the whole thing, and we had a fellow named Davy Rothbart with us, who, amongst seemingly hundreds of other things, has a magazine and website called Found and does stuff for This American Life on NPR. Met a lot of great people. It was a fun week. There’s talk of setting up some more readings, and I’m really hoping it works out.

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