Brady Udall was born and raised in northeastern Arizona. He attended Brigham Young University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has published a highly praised story collection, Letting Loose the Hounds, and a novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. Udall’s stories have been published in GQ, The Paris Review and Story, among other publications. He currently lives with his family in Carbondale, Illinois, and teaches at the University of Southern Illinois.
Robert Birnbaum: I couldn’t help noticing the difference between the covers of the paperback and the hardcover editions of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. The hardcover is muted and understated and the paperback seems more literal—
Brady Udall: Yeah. It’s a little cartoonish. I didn’t like the new look, but they [Vintage] wanted to go that way. Originally, the kid had his arms raised in the air like he had just won a gold medal or something. I said, “You can’t do that.” They asked what they should do. I said, “Have him put his hands in his pockets.”
RB: Did you do a publicity tour for the hardcover edition of this book?
BU: Yeah, I did. The book did pretty well in hardcover, but Vintage really wanted to break it out in soft cover and they are doing a pretty good job. It seems to be doing pretty well.
RB: Are you tired of talking about the book?
BU: Yeah, in some ways it gets old. I sometimes feel not very gracious because you have people saying, “Oh I loved your book.” And I go, “Oh thanks, that’s nice.” You kind of get numb to it, a little bit. But at the same time it’s great and I enjoy it. It doesn’t make me tired. It’s better than writing. (both laugh)
RB: You live in the wilds of Southern Illinois in Carbondale.
BU: That’s right. Ever been down there?
RB: I’ve been as far as Peoria. I grew up in Chicago.
BU: It’s five hours from Chicago, near St Louis.
RB: And you are from Arizona. You seem to have a well-traveled life. I don’t know where you went as an undergraduate, but I know you went to the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa.
BU: I went to Brigham Young in Utah as an undergraduate and then Iowa and I have lived in Brazil and Korea.
RB: As a missionary.
BU: As a missionary in Brazil and in Korea. I went to teach English before I went to Iowa. So I’ve been around a little bit.
RB: When did it strike you that you wanted to write?
BU: There wasn’t any single time. It came to me gradually. I grew up working on a farm and a ranch and realized that I didn’t want to do anything like that. In school I got encouragement from several teachers. They told me I had a talent. It never occurred to me that I could make money, though. When I finally figured that out—that I could actually make some money doing it—I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll give this a shot.” I actually didn’t think it would work out. But it has. So I have been very lucky.
RB: What took you to the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa?
BU: One of the things about writing is that you have to have time to do it. And that’s what grad school offered me. I didn’t go to learn how to write. I thought I already knew how. I pretty much did. They offered me money and a fellowship. Two years, not having to work, just going to school. That’s where I wrote my first collection of stories.
RB: Who was there when you were there?
BU: Nathan Englander is a good friend of mine. The teachers were great, Denis Johnson and Thom Jones, who I think are both incredible writers and great people. They came to visit and just the exposure to people like that is a really good thing. There were lots of good writers. It’s an interesting place. It’s not such a great place because it’s a great place but because everybody who goes there is good. It’s like Harvard, the people that go there are the best people. So there you go. That’s what’s great about it, the people you are with.
RB: Frank Conroy [the Iowa Writers’ Workshop director] says it’s self fulfilling.
RB: It’s an interesting nexus, especially in the light of the burgeoning of writing programs. Some people think that’s a scourge and some see it as a necessity.
BU: I’m not sure what it is. All I know is that there are a lot more people who have the time and the means to write. The problem is that there are a lot more qualified people vying for a few spots and it’s becoming harder for the gate-keepers to recognize who is the real thing and who is not. There is a difference between talent and a polished prose style.
RB: When I talked to David Shields, he hadn’t thought to put that he was an Iowa graduate on his book dust jacket bio.
BU: I asked them not to put it on my book and they didn’t here. And the publisher got very angry with me, “Oh, why wouldn’t you want that?” That’s not what I went to Iowa for, so I could walk around saying that I went to Iowa. Just about everybody can say that these days (laughs).
RB: David Shields, if I understood him correctly, was disappointed that there was a greater concern with getting published than on writing and experimenting. And when I talked to Conroy he was interested in knocking down the claim that here was an Iowa aesthetic.
BU: Frank’s right. There isn’t enough time. People are there for two years and they come from varied walks of life, cultures and so they can’t be. It’s true also that the people that go there take a look around and say, “Well, this person did it. This is what they are writing and how they are writing.” I’m sure there is some sort of evening out. When I was there—Chris Adrian, Nathan Englander—there were all kinds of different writers, writing in different ways, writing from different styles, vastly different.
RB: The story goes that you never forgot your experience playing a football game at an Indian reservation school and that incident was the basis for The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. How long did you carry this idea around with you before you put it down on paper?
BU: I’m not an extremely smart person, but I know good material when I see it. I knew it even then, I think. I knew that it was an exceptional place and that most people didn’t know anything about it. I thought, well, if nobody knows about it, I’ll be the one to write about it. I don’t think I thought of it in those kind of explicit terms. But it was in my mind and I figured if I ever write a novel, this will be part of it. So I guess in a way I always did know it from that time.
RB: You said, “…if I ever write a novel.”
BU: Yeah, I take nothing for granted. I never really conceived of leading a life as a writer. I thought maybe I could publish a few things here and there and then do something else. I had teachers who didn’t publish very much and who expressed to us often and early how difficult it was. So, I had no expectations.
RB: How did you get it published?
BU: It happened the way a lot of it happens these days. I was in my first year in grad school and an editor [Carol Houck Smith] noticed a few stories and she called and asked me to send a couple more and then she made a two book offer. I had written all of five stories. They said, “We want to do a two-book offer, do you have a novel or an idea for a novel?” I just said, “Uh, yeah.” (laughs) So I just jotted something down and faxed it to them and they accepted it. It’s sort of ridiculous, really, and that’s the way it’s done these days.
RB: Do you buy into the conventional wisdom that the editor/writer relationship has been diminished by the turmoil and turnover resulting from the conglomeritization of book publishing?
BU: In a large way it has changed. The reason is—how do I put this?—editors have has to align themselves more with the publisher than with the writer, and now it has become the agent’s job to align themselves with the writer, and become the advocate of the writer. And that’s a bad thing, I think.
BU: Maybe, maybe not. Even with my editor, I’ve noticed—I don’t think I’m revealing anything that I shouldn’t—when push comes to shove, she works for Norton. She doesn’t work for me. The agent works for me. It used to be the editors had the power to say, “I’m staying with this guy. I don’t care if his book didn’t sell well.” Now, that power, Gary Fisketjon might have that power. A few others might have that power, but it’s largely a group enterprise when it comes to a [publishing] house deciding on a book.
RB: Is there a movie to be made from this story?
BU: Yeah, it’s been optioned. That whole business, I don’t pay much attention to it, but it was optioned by Michael Stipe of REM, and he hired a great director to deal with it, Michael Questa, who directed LIE, which won all kinds of awards. It’s a wonderful, dark movie. It got a lot of attention. It looks good from here, but I can’t expect anything will come of it.
RB: Any involvement in the screen play?
BU: No, no I don’t want to do anything. I have no interest.
RB: Having gone to a high-powered program, what are you seeing in your students?
BU: What I like is that they have more life experience. They are from lower-class families, generally. It’s [Southern Illinois] a state university and sometimes they are the first in their family to go to college. What they lack in polish, they make up for in raw experience. I think that’s what a lot of people object to in writing programs—a lot of private school kids being shuffled into a graduate program who have never seen anything or done anything.
RB: Who end up writing about themselves.
BU: I have to admit there is some of that going on. There are a lot of books getting published about relationships in the suburbs. Things that most people don’t have any real interest in.
RB: Along you come writing this Dickensonian epic. I was surprised at the hopefulness of your novel.
RB: After Edgar’s Candide-like life, going through some dark periods, he ends up relaxing into a kind of normalcy.
BU: That’s a good way of describing it—mundanity. I knew there would be a lot of dark things happening, horrible things, but I wasn’t prepared for the level of it. There were times I felt terribly guilty putting this character through this life experience. I believe a book can’t just be all darkness, all dark notes. That’s too easy—to be that nihilistic. I owe my characters some opportunity at hope or redemption. It’s not going to be the redemption that the reader expects. They are not going to be happily married and live happily ever after and become the President of the United States, or something. There has to be at least the opportunity for that. I respect my characters. That might sound corny, but I can’t just hurt them and kill them just for my purposes. It would be too much for me to do that.
RB: You have a character who manifests some bizarre behavior: Dr. Barry. What are your feelings about him?
BU: Some people could say that I did that with him. I’ll put it this way, he had to go. In the story, the narrative called for it. And if he had to go, Edgar had to be the one in the end. I could have had a piano fall on him. I could have had him disappear in some way. There have been a lot of readers who have objected to that. [They] didn’t think Edgar had it in him to do such a thing. Or that Dr. Barry Pinkley didn’t deserve what he got.
RB: I believe one reviewer questioned whether the Dr. Barry character was sufficiently menacing to deserve his fate in the novel.
BU: I always conceived of him as a character—even though on the surface wanting to do good—obviously twisted. Edgar sees that right away.
RB: The Doctor’s pursuit is relentless.
BU: Absolutely. There is something quite creepy about him. Even though he is not intentionally trying to hurt Edgar. I think readers and critics want to give characters the benefit of the doubt, somehow. “He’s not molesting him. He’s a doctor. He wants to help him.” He tried to kidnap him at the every beginning. Not a stable, good influence at all. I think if he would have stayed with Doctor Barry, there would have been more darkness, more sadness and despair waiting to come for him.
RB: Any reason you gave Edgar the middle name “Presley” and then didn’t make anything of it?
BU: You come up with these ideas and then you realize there is no point in making a point of them. That’s something I think I was going to use and that’s one of two thousand of those kinds of things I was going to use and didn’t use, to give the story the texture of real life. These are minute details that really go anywhere.
RB: That is an example of the choices that a writer makes. If you wrote this book today you might do something with that.
BU: Sure. Who knows why—the way I like to think of it is that novel is just a conglomeration of details and objects that through some chemical reaction come alive at some point and take on a life of their own. Like stuffing things into a bag until a rabbit jumps out. It’s not like a machine. It’s something more organic than that.
RB: Are you done with this story?
BU: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Even though it doesn’t want to be. I sit down all the time and this same voice keeps coming out, Edgar’s voice or whoever’s voice it is. And that’s bothersome because I am trying to do other things.
RB: How far along are you on what you are working on now?
BU: Not that far. All the research is done. I have the story lined up. And some of it written but not very far into the actual writing, at all.
RB: What does it take to do that?
BU: It’s a really painful thing to actually say, “Okay, this is page one and I’m going to start.” You always think, “Oh, I need more research. I need more time to figure this out. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
RB: Lots of trips to the water cooler?
BU: Yeah, basically. It’s something like that. I just have to jump in and do it. So I’ve actually started page one. So I’m in there, part way.
RB: Do you write your stories in the actual sequence of events that they are published in?
BU: I write pretty much in sequence. If I have something that comes to me, I write it in the computer at the end of what I’m doing. For instance, for this novel on my computer there are actually five hundred pages and 1100 pages of junk that I inserted at the end to borrow from.
RB: Do you save that material?
BU: It’s still there, somewhere. It can be useful somewhere else. I try to cannibalize anything. I like that idea of every thing is an object to be used.
RB: When I finished The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint I was surprised at its intimation of hopefulness and although the books are not at all alike, I had the same reaction to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Have you read that book?
BU: I’ve read parts of it. I don’t want to like that book for various reasons (both laugh). My wife swears to me that there is a hopefulness and she read the last part to me, the last few pages and it was beautiful. Even though I want to hate the book and the guy who wrote it. I believe that’s what a writer should be doing. They should be offering hope in the face of their own cynicism and in the face of irony. If it’s just cynicism and irony, you are not offering anybody anything. In fact, you are offering them something that ultimately is going to be of no help whatsoever. Maybe destructive, in its own way.
RB: Some good cocktail party banter.
BU: Yeah, something like that. A laugh, at least, give me a laugh.
RB: I thought The Corrections was funny, but sometimes much too clever.
BU: Yeah, I picked up the book several times and one line still sticks with me, a guy goes into a hotel and he “saw the maid and porter lasciviously osculating.” I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” (laughs) I like the Cormac McCarthy mode where he finds new words, new Anglo-Saxon words for objects and things rather than making it Latinate. Everybody has a thesaurus. We don’t need more Latin words. We have enough lawyerspeak.
RB: I also thought the piece he wrote in The New Yorker, after the Oprah fandango, made him more sympathetic.
BU: I was upset by it. It bothered me. Maybe I’m being overly critical. There was one point where here he was in his home [in St. Louis] and then his publicist from New York shows up, and he says, “I hugged him because I was so homesick for him, for New York and espresso.” That bothered me. One of the problems with the publishing industry is that they can’t see beyond the skyscrapers.
RB: It would seem that are certain kinds of books coming out of the east coast that block out the rest of the country’s literature.
BU: If you look at the critical apparatus, the New York Times Book Review, even the national magazines, Time, Newsweek, there is just a big group of people who blurb each other, who publish each other.
RB: Years ago Spy Magazine called it logrolling.
BU: It’s absolutely amazing. Without any apology at all. Editors publishing each other. It’s pretty bad.
RB: Did the NY Times review your book?
BU: I got a short thing and it was a middling short review and in the issue there was a big review about a sushi chef in New York (laughs). You can tell I’m a little bitter about the whole thing. To hell with the New York Times (laughs). If you don’t go to the parties, apparently, aren’t actually physically around, you just don’t get the same sort of attention. There are some like my editor, Carol Houck Smith, she’s been wonderful. she’s published Rick Bass, Pam Houston and lots of western writers. But there aren’t very many like that out there who are willing to take a risk on something that’s not from the eastern seaboard.
RB: Is there such a thing as western writing?
BU: Yes and no. I would say no because there is no western literary tradition. The greatest western writer is Mark Twain and he wrote a 150 years ago. The only one who comes close is Wallace Stegner. That’s about it.
RB: What are you doing next?
BU: I’m writing a book about a polygamist, a modern polygamist. I wrote this book about a kid who has nobody now I’m going to write a book about a guy who has everybody. It’ll be a big, sprawling novel with all kinds of characters.
RB: Thank you.