Visiting author Kevin Brockmeier spoke with the S&B shortly before a reading of his works for Grinnellians last Friday. Brockmeir is the author of The Brief History of the Dead and, most recently, The Illumination. He is also the winner of three O. Henry Prizes and the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction.
You were here in Fall 2005. How was Grinnell last time, and how does this time compare?
The big difference was that it was warmer. It was nice and sunny and warm. The students are every bit as bright and capable as they were a few years ago. The campus has grown in certain ways. There might be an entire structure that wasn’t here a few years ago, even. But the student body is still the same.
Are you working on any projects while you are here?
I am in the middle of a book, but I’m not actually getting much work done right now. I’m teaching here, and I’m teaching a couple of classes at Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop this semester and trying to squeeze my own work in whenever I have the time.
How is [the class at Grinnell] going so far?
It’s a workshop class, so we’re orienting all of our conversations around student material. You know, we’ve got a room full of good writers, who also happen to be good conversationalists and good critics, which is exactly what you need for a class like this.
What’s the most important thing that you’re trying to teach?
I don’t know that I can zero in on only one thing, but I seem to find the conversations returning again and again to sentences, and how they can serve as the building block for a piece of fiction and the nuances that they can lend to it.
What are you looking for when you write a sentence?
That is a question that would need to be answered in a book—it’s a big question for me—but I ran across something in an interview with the author Barry Lopez, who is kind of a naturalist, and he says, “Your work is to take care of the spiritual interior of the language. … The word is like a vessel that cares something ineffable, and you must be the caretaker for that.” I feel that all of the writers that I like best have approached the language in that caretaker’s role, as if there is something of great and hidden importance inside of every word. It is very difficult to instruct people that way, … but if you do enough reading and struggle enough with your writing, you begin to see words as these little glowing boats of meaning. Your job as a writer is to figure out what that light is and where it comes from. That is a strange, metaphysical and metaphorical way of talking about language, but if you speak to writers, a lot of them will concur with me—that there is something of that process that is taking place.
How did you get your start in writing?
I was a reader first and foremost. I am still a reader first and foremost. I think that every writer whose work you actually respect would confess to you that they are a reader first and foremost. I grew up loving books, but I didn’t know it was what I wanted to do professionally until I was eighteen. When I went to college, I studied creative writing, philosophy and theatre. By the time I graduated, I was more and more interested in creative writing.
Is that interest in philosophy reflected in your work?
Probably so. I don’t know that it’s reflected in too many obvious ways, but I find myself specifically writing about religion a lot, and my view of religion was probably influenced by kind of my background in studying philosophy.
You have been described online as a “fantasy writer.” Do you see yourself in that way?
I see myself as a writer, whose work is often inflected by fantasy. I don’t resist that title, but none of my fiction has actually been shelved with the fantasy and science fiction—it’s all been with the mainstream, literary fiction. So I am, slightly more than half the time, finding myself incorporating some element of fantasy into my writing, but not always.
You have had a lot of success in your time as an author. How has that success shaped your writing?
First of all, I remain deaf to a lot of it, because I don’t read reviews or research myself online. I’ve never Google-searched my own name, and I’ve never looked my books up on Amazon. I try to sequester myself from a certain amount of the conversation that goes on surrounding my books. That said, I have had enough success that often I can stay at home and write. I’m not teaching all the time. There are long stretches in my life when I have been able to live as a working writer. It has given me the time I need to work.