Writer Arthur Bradford was born in Maine in 1969 and after his parents divorced, eventually moved to New York City in the early ’80s. After being mugged a few times in NYC, he went to boarding school in Massachusetts. Arthur continued his education at Yale, where he majored in American Studies. In the summer after completing his undergraduate studies, he began to work at Camp Jabberwocky, a camp for adults with disabilities. He continued to return to Jabberwocky for nine summers. Bradford then moved to Austin, Texas, (claiming this move was motivated by his fondness for Austin native Richard Linklater’s film Slacker). From there he attended Stanford University’s creative writing fellowship and returned to Austin after the fellowship ended. He received a MFA in creative writing and film from the University of Texas in 1998. In 1999 Bradford moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and started getting published by magazines like Esquire and McSweeney’s. He has recently moved to Vermont and lives there in small house with a dog. Arthur has recently published a collection of short stories, Dogwalker and his movie How’s Your News? (howsyournews.com) airs on HBO/Cinemax in April 2002.
Robert Birnbaum: Is writing another way of telling stories or the way of telling stories, for you?
Arthur Bradford: I’d say another way of telling stories. I’m a big fan of movies. I like it when people just sit around and tell stories. I like underground comics a lot. I think they’re a really interesting medium of short stories. I think there is a certain purity of the short story. It’s a cool way to do it. I’ve always admired a good short story.
RB: I want to ask you about your career aspirations as a writer, but that phrase doesn’t seem to quite fit you. How serious are you about writing?
AB: That’s a good question. I always kind of hedged my bets towards being a writer. I always wanted to be a writer but always thought of that as such an unlikely occupation that I have pursued other things.
AB: Because it’s so hard to be a writer. Especially when I was younger I thought any young person who called himself a writer was being pretentious. Really, only a few people are really writers. It seemed to me that until I had a book out I would never have said that I was a writer. Until the last few months I haven’t identified myself as a writer.
RB: That seems to be a high standard…
AB: For a while I thought even if you are a writer, you have to have another job that’s important. Maybe I wasn’t fully secure about whether I was good enough to be a writer. The other thing I have pursued seriously is film. Both of them, writing and documentary film, are the two things that I really wanted to do. I pursued them both because I felt if one wasn’t doing well, then I could sort of fall back on the other. Or if I got frustrated with one — and that’s definitely the case with writing. Sometimes I’ll feel like I have less to say and I’ll work in movies and take a break from writing. You know, this book — I’m thirty-one and this is not a particularly thick book. I’ve written a lot more than what’s in that book. I think it represents the output of someone who is serious about writing, but maybe I’m not as disciplined as some people.
RB: How did you decide what to include in this collection?
AB: I wanted the stories that fit in this certain voice. Also, the ones I thought were good. These stories probably represent a fifth of the stories I’ve written. Probably one out of five made it into the book. I’ve written a lot of other stuff, but these stories — I’ve worked on and completed. I really wanted it to be a book of stories that were all good stories. A lot of times you get a book of stories and it seems like it’s just a vehicle for one or two really good stories. I wanted these to be unified in certain way, and I wanted them all, by my thinking, to be really good stories. I have a lot of stories that I like parts of them but they don’t really work. For the most part I like all these stories. I think they work…Some are better than others. I think all of them are imperfect in different ways.
RB: Meaning that in a way they are not finished? When you say something is imperfect, it suggests that it can be made perfect.
AB: Right. I guess shouldn’t suggest that. A story can only be so good. I could probably make some of these stories better, but for the most part they’re as good as I could make them.
RB: Can you give me an example of a story that you think is a perfect story?
AB: Most of the stories in Jesus’ Son [Denis Johnson] are pretty much perfect, in my view. The story “Emergency” — I love that story — where he’s working in the hospital and the guy walks in with a knife in his eye. It’s perfect in a way because it isn’t perfect. It’s not all neatly wrapped up in a bow. There are weird events and it’s surprising. I also really like Jack London’s short stories. He had this story, “To Build a Fire,” which I thought was a cool story. He is almost like a pulp-fiction guy. His short stories would be sold at newsstands. They’re really good on plot. To me a good story has a plot that drives it right through. And is as entertaining to read as anything.
RB: It strikes me that first thing that one is impressed with in your stories are the characters.
AB: I wouldn’t mind that. To me the plot is really, really important. I don’t accept the premise that if it’s written in a really great way, then anything is interesting. That, to me, is so untrue. There has to be something going on in the story that hooks me in. In a movie, if it’s beautifully filmed, that’s fine, but there has to be something happening in the movie that gives it a reason to be. To me, the writing style is like a camera style, it’s only useful if there’s a good plot behind it.
RB: I think you are probably right about fiction, but when I read non-fiction I don’t care what the subject is, but more the writing style…
AB: With non-fiction, then, the job is to find the interesting things about what you might not think is originally interesting…
RB: It’s not just the microscope or looking glass you use but creating the linguistic bridge to get to the interesting. When I looked at your biography, I started to see you as a Thomas Pynchon character, out of V. You were born in Maine, grew up in Manhattan. Went to school in Massachusetts. Then went to school in New Haven. Ended up in Austin, Texas. Went to school in Palo Alto. Returned to Austin and then went to Virginia. And ended up in Vermont…
AB: That’s good that you remembered all that. I have lived in a lot of places and sometimes I’m sort of embarrassed about it. I do like to change scenery a lot. I grew up around New England and New York and I always thought that I would want to live in the West. Something told me that I wanted to be a West Coast person or something. But then when I graduated from college, I had this really strong desire to go to Austin, Texas because of the movie Slacker. I thought I would meet people there unlike the people…they were different versions of the people I knew. It would be a different scene. Plus I didn’t have any connections there. I felt like it would strengthen me. I really loved Austin. I would have stayed longer except I got into Stanford.
RB: Wait a minute. You had to apply to Stanford.
AB: It’s funny, I didn’t know UT had a program. I just heard Stanford had a really good program where they gave you money to go there. So I went.
RB: How about Iowa?
AB: I didn’t get into Iowa.
RB: You’re the first person I’ve met who has admitted to applying and being rejected.
AB: Iowa just wouldn’t take me. A lot of those places wouldn’t take me. I applied to Montana, too. And they wouldn’t take me. It was ironic because Stanford admits graduates of those programs. It was like I did everything backwards. After I was done at Stanford I went back to Austin where I spent my post-college years of wandering. But I would come back to New England every summer to work at this summer camp.
RB: Was its name real?
AB: Camp Jabberwocky, yeah. I think I have always been rooted in New England. I think I just like to wander about. I don’t know how much longer I’ll stay in Vermont. I really like northern New England, so I’ll stay in that area. At this point I think I’ll stay within a day’s drive of New York City. I always find myself having to go there for work and I like New York, too. But I don’t like living in the city.
RB: That’s a big contrast…
AB: It’s because of my childhood — growing up in Maine and moving to New York — I sort of have this desire to be in both places. I really love New York City. It’s super exciting.
AB: New York has — to me — the most interesting people in the world. You get this selection of people. I can walk in Manhattan or Brooklyn and totally have people to look at and interesting things to see. There is this super high culture in New York. I don’t go to opera and stuff like that. I mean the films and the events…the readings. If you do a reading in New York, hundreds of people show up. It’s amazing. There’s no place I’ve been to that’s like that. There’s a real concentration, especially for writing. That’s where most of the publishing happens and I’ve grown to appreciate that now. When I was younger I couldn’t wait to get out.
RB: How many people showed up at your readings in Maine and Vermont?
AB: I’d say 40 or 50 at each one. It was good for that bookstore. People were standing in the aisles. I can go to New York where I don’t live and that would be a really small crowd at a reading…
RB: You have read in New York for McSweeney’s.
AB: I’ve read at most of the McSweeney’s readings…hundreds and hundreds of people show up to those. It’s because we really work on trying to make them entertaining. If I read, I am one of four or five readers and I read between ten and fifteen minutes. Every one is told, “Whatever you do, don’t just get up and read your thing.” Which is what you usually expect when you go to readings. Someone is just going to get up and read and maybe look at the audience once in awhile. You have to engage and really try to perform what you are doing and take it beyond what it is as a written story.
RB: What is very hopeful about the Eggers/McSweeney’s phenomenon is that by identifying a younger group of serious readers it is good counterpoint against the insidious dumbing down of our culture. There is also a backlash against Dave Eggers.
AB: I feel like I’m in the McSweeney’s club, but I can see how it seems like it’s this cliquish thing where everyone thinks they are really cool. But I feel like that’s too bad, it’s not actually the reality.
RB: He’s a shrewd guy.
AB: He’s brilliant. The success of his book is really the success of him knowing exactly his audience. What upsets him is when people say he is being calculating and it’s all just an attempt to sell more books. I believe that’s not the case with him. He really wants to create something good and he wants people to believe in what he’s doing. To that end he doesn’t want to come across as egotistical or calculating and shrewd. I would say he is shrewd but I wouldn’t say he was calculating with any monetary goal in mind. His total desire is to have people be really enthusiastic about what he does. A lot of people would like to try to market what McSweeney’s has…what they have is marketing a non-marketing strategy. They don’t market.
RB: The web site has no banners or ads and just one simple line drawing of a bottle top…
AB: At one time at a McSweeney’s reading, I said something about how I great I felt about McSweeney’s books because they were not part of a corporate structure and Dave said to me afterwards, “You don’t need to say that stuff.” I thought it was funny because I really believe that, but it isn’t a conscious thing for him. He just wants to make a good book. I really believe that his motives are more pure than most people’s.
RB: What happening with your movie?
AB: It’s being shown on HBO/Cinemax in April. It’s called How’s Your News? The way it began is that I had been working at Camp Jabberwocky, a camp for adults with disabilities, for nine years teaching video. We were trying to figure out what would be an interesting thing to do with people who had various disabilities: some can’t talk, can’t hold a microphone and had various levels of communication. We decided to create a news show where they would interview each other and do reviews of movies and things like that. Those were the Camp Jabberwocky videos. One of the things we did — we would show these videos to the camp and the parents and friends of the camp — one of the most popular segments was when we had some of the campers go downtown and interview people in the street. They would just go up to people and ask them questions, whatever questions they wanted to ask them. The interviews were kind of awkward and funny and confusing but with a really nice tone to them. Never making anyone look stupid or bad, either the interviewer or the interviewee. Those tapes, those original interview, we really liked them. So we kept making them. I made a documentary about the camp and that got passed around a lot and ended up in the hands of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the guys who do South Park. They got in touch with me and said we really like these Camp Jabberwocky videos, do you want to do anything else. That’s when we came up with this idea of this news team: specially selected campers from the camp going outside of the camp. And we called it How’s Your News? We did a pilot where we drove from Maine to NYC and interviewed people and stopped at different events like a state fair or a baseball game. With that pilot episode we took it around to festivals and got funding to do this cross country trip, which is what this movie is. A cross-country road trip with these five reporters with disabilities. We drove from Boston to Los Angeles.
RB: How many hours of video did you get?
AB: We shot 45 hours, I guess. We shot video and 16 mm film and edited it down to an hour and a half.
RB: What were you looking for?
AB: Interesting interactions. I wanted it to be entertaining. I think documentaries get a bad name, especially ones on disabilities. People think, “Oh that’s just going to be sappy, boring and preachy.” This movie is entertaining. What I want in the interviews is an actual communication, something gets transferred between the two people. The editing is really important. The shooting is also really important but the editing…you don’t want a scene that makes people look bad. A lot of times if people are condescending to the interviewers — that’s a common response — but that isn’t what the movie is about. The movie was about the ways in which they interacted and were positive.
RB: A common response? Wouldn’t that be the norm?
AB: It wasn’t the overwhelming response. Because you give a disabled person a microphone they suddenly are in a position of power. When someone has a microphone and they are interviewing you, you are playing by their rules. People were thrown off-balance by that. The best interviews were the ones where the interviewee wasn’t sure what was going to happen and what kind of question was going to come their way. You get some really odd questions from these people but really funny interesting questions. One guy was really obsessed with celebrities and everywhere he went he wanted to know which celebrities this person had met. Then he would do impersonations and he also had a balance problem and when he would talk to people — he was a large guy — he would lean over and put his hand on their shoulder.
RB: It’s a delicate, thin line, what’s funny and what’s exploitative…
AB: It’s a little bit instinctual what I consider to be — you couldn’t give me a group of situations and I would say, “That’s funny and that’s not funny.” Because I have worked with these people and especially the five people that went on this trip with us — they are all very close friends — I’ve known them all for nine years and I know their parents — I just understand them. I know what makes them comfortable, what makes them uncomfortable. I would never want to do anything that would be poking fun at them. At the same time it would be so patronizing as to say that they are not able to laugh at themselves in terms of the mistakes they make and the funny things they do. I wanted to walk close to that line because I think it’s an interesting thing. The whole exploitation discussion about this movie is what makes it kind of an interesting movie. People ask that all the time, “Is this movie exploitation? Have you have encountered anyone who finds this material offensive?” I always want to talk about it. I have lots to say about that. First and foremost, the people with disabilities are very proud of this movie. This is a huge accomplishment, and I think their families feel the same way. To say their contribution or their being on film is offensive is to do them a disservice. It’s to say that there is something about their appearance or they way they talk is offensive in and of itself. I think that is wrong. It suggests they are not aware of what they are doing. They are, they know exactly what they are doing and what this movie is about. They do.
RB: The fact that you have worked with disabled people for nine years ought to qualify you and your intentions…
AB: The view of disabled people is that they are separated from society — they get on their own bus and do their own things and a lot of people don’t want to see them. This movie is about, let’s integrate a little more…it’s not out of a feeling of wanting to sacrifice and give, as much as thinking that maybe it makes everything a little more interesting. Hanging out with these people is a trip and it’s really fun. To me, I want to live in the most interesting world I can live in. So I feel like I some effort to take out this fringe element and keep them away from us is making the world a more boring place.
RB: The word ‘interesting’ keeps coming up. Besides in a short story, can you give me a sense of what’s interesting?
AB: That’s a good question.
RB: Setting aside if you can the issue of subjectivity…
AB: What I personally find interesting and I don’t know if everybody finds it interesting. What is unusual, things that are not commonplace, are interesting.
RB: Like the story about the man who impregnates a dog who later gives birth to a small human…
AB: Sometimes I wonder about that story. Is it trying too hard to be weird? People often describe the stories in this book as being weird and strange. I welcome that, but if you are going to be weird and strange you have to be able to back it up. There has to be a reason.
RB: ‘Weird’ and ‘strange’ are in the same league as ‘interesting’. They are not much more descriptive.
AB: Interesting implies an extra level. If something is truly weird, then it’s interesting to me. Trying to be weird and strange isn’t as interesting as coming up with a reason for it. When I was in college I did this public access TV show — we would just interview people on the street. It was called Street TV. For the first episode we just wanted to do things that were weird and strange. We told everybody we interviewed to wear the same sunglasses and hat. In a way we were making fun of the people we were interviewing. It was enjoyable but it was very frustrating. It just makes it better if you start thinking about why. If something’s weird…you give it that extra level of thought. This book will probably be accused of being weird for weird’ s sake. But I just want them to know that I think about those stories. The stories that don’t make it into this book don’t have enough thought behind them.
RB: How do you rebut the criticism that it’s gratuitously weird?
AB: I would say, I’m sorry that you feel this way, but I have really put a lot of thought into these stories. I didn’t just sit down and write these stories in an hour. I selected these stories because there was a certain meaning to me. They were stories that kept me thinking and I worked really hard on them. I went over the sentences and tried to make them clean and without extra filling. I just worked hard on it. I put effort into this book. That’s about as much as you can ask. There are certain stories in the book where I feel, maybe, I gave up a little too early. Or fell back on something that I used before. But I pushed it and I tried. I really wanted them to be good and different.
RB: Is it your description that this is an autobiographical alternative reality?
AB: I think I said that. I feel that way. Each of the stories was me imagining this separate reality from myself at different times.
RB: Is it useful for you write with you as the central character?
AB: The narrator in each of the stories is a little different. But basically, a different version of myself. Now when I write I just think as myself. But also as myself dressed up as someone else. An alter ego…
RB: You are not interested in creating fiction outside the realm of your own experience peopled by characters who are entirely imagined? You are not interested in that now?
AB: Right. That’s definitely true.
RB: What else are you working on?
AB: My main focus is getting the word out on these two things but I am still writing. I want to have a novel done. I think I would really like to write a really good novel. So I’ve been working on that. This book is short stories trying to unify themselves. If I can concentrate on everything that’s being unified then I can come up with a good novel.
RB: You’ve started?
AB: It’s a little hard now because I’m doing the book tour and the movie and everything. I’m really into performing these stories. This book tour is something I’ve always wanted to do. The delivery of these stories to an audience is something I really like to do. I play guitar when I read some of these stories. I’m gonna put a lot of effort into the tour.
RB: Any idea who is reading your book?
AB: I thought that I did. I really thought this would be a book that people who don’t read a lot of books would like. I have this one friend of mine — we were in a bookstore — I was telling him which books were good — and I showed him this one book and he was like, “This looks like this has a lot of characters and I’m not going to know what’s going on.” I totally knew what he meant. It was a little lazy of him to say that. But so many times most of the books I see in the fiction section, I wouldn’t be able to get past the first 25 or 30 pages, I would not be able to figure out what’s happening… They are too complicated.
RB: Are you still a slow reader?
AB: Oh yeah. I read very slowly. Dogwalker would take me days to read, and a lot of people say they read it in an afternoon.
RB: What were the books you pointed out in the bookstore to your friend?
AB: Yeah. I tell people to read Jesus’ Son [Denis Johnson]. I think that’s a really great book. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby was the book I was showing my friend. I really like JT Leroy’s work right now. He has Sara and a new short story collection. They are both brilliant. I consider myself fairly well-read. I’m usually reading a book. But I also am probably not as well-read as a lot of writers. I also like really young adult, children’s type books. Like EB White and Roald Dahl and Mark Twain. That’s a really interesting type of fiction that adults and children can read. Probably the novel I’m working on now I would like it to function like that. I would love to write a Charlotte’s Web or a Stuart Little type book.
RB: Harry Potter or The Hobbit?
AB: Those get a little complex, for me even. I would keep it simpler. There is a crime in literature that makes people feel it’s their fault if they don’t understand something. They read a book and think, “Oh, I’m just stupid because I didn’t understand it.” The reality is most people don’t. The reality is there are so many books and people are like, “Oh loved that book. It’s so brilliant.” And they don’t understand most of it.
RB: Sometimes you have to work a little to grasp a book’s meaning. But it is wrong to stigmatize readers for not getting into War and Peace or…
AB: I couldn’t get that far into a book without understanding what was going on. I would just put it down. Sometimes I think I’m a lazy reader. But when I’m excited about a book I finish it. And read it over again.
RB: Have you read Jesus’ Son a lot?
AB: Yeah, I’m a big fan of him. I think he is an inspiring person, His other books didn’t touch me like Jesus’ Son. I’m just into first-person narrative. Most of his other work is in third person.
RB: Would you make a film out of any of your stories?
AB: I might. If I was going to make a fictional movie, I would start over and not use any of these plot lines. I did make a short movie of the slug story, Mollusk. It wasn’t as good as the story. It was fun to make. A friend made this big foam rubber slug…it wasn’t that good.
RB: Do you think about your future?
AB: Yeah. Do you mean my career?
RB: No. Do you wonder where you are going to be in ten years? What kind of family you want?
AB: I definitely would like to have kids. And I would like to live and raise them in northern New England. That’s a little ways down the road. When I think about the future, I think I want to finish the novel and make another movie. When those two things are done then I would start a family.
RB: Do you see writing more books and making more movies as the totality of your life? Or could you see opening a restaurant?
AB: No, no restaurant. I would be happy to have one more book and one more movie. If they were good. I don’t think I’ll have a prolific 20-book output. If I only wrote one more book I would be okay with that and okay with one more movie, although, I think that I’ll do more than that. I’d like to teach. I think teaching is really cool. I think it’s a honorable thing to do. I’d like start a camp like Camp Jabberwocky with an artistic bent to it.
RB: Where do you get the notion of something being honorable?
AB: When I was trying to write and be a writer — I have a lot friends who work with juvenile delinquents — I think one should do things that you are proud of. I have friends who have made a lot of money in investment banking and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I think you could spend your time doing things that are good, that are really good. I don’t think it’s like a sacrifice, you feel better about yourself when you do stuff like that.
RB: Good works being their own reward?
AB: I really believe that.
RB: Ideas of honor don’t seem to be in the public discourse…
AB: I definitely see that’s the impression you get, but I feel a lot people in my generation are not basing their lives on material comforts. Part of the reason is some people in my generation have this cynical “we just want our piece of the pie”…if I could point a finger of blame, the generation we took cues from was the hippie generation. I have a lot of admiration for it, but I find it really disappointing to see people of that era becoming materialistic. To see someone who was, at one time, about changing the status quo and living without gross disproportionate material goods, to see them basically just eating those words…
RB: You know the quote attributed to French prime minister Clemenceau after WWI when he was told his son was a communist? “If at the age of twenty one isn’t a communist, one has no heart. If at the age of thirty one is still a communist, one has no brains.” Or the modern iteration of that sentiment, “A conservative is a liberal with a family and a mortgage.”
AB: I know enough people who are older…I like old hippies. I know that there were parts of that that were youthful idealism. And parts that are just giving in and not buying into a system. I guess, basically, I think it’s hypocritical and it makes the younger generation twice as cynical.
RB: Don’t you think it’s the most difficult thing to be a non-conformist? Life is difficult enough. Add bucking the system and you have exponentially added to your burden. I didn’t mean to lecture you…
AB: No, no I’m interested in that.