Kevin Brockmeier: I was thinking about the various forms of pain people are forced to endure, wondering, really, what could all that suffering possibly be good for, and found myself conducting a thought experiment: What if our pain was what made us beautiful to God? What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? I had an image of someone literally glowing with his injuries. This simple equation, of pain with light, gave birth to the book.
It’s interesting that, when the Illumination starts happening, it doesn’t upend the social order or radically change people’s behaviours. Rather than a catalyst, it acts as a kind of highlighter, calling attention back to the world as we know it. Is this how you see fantastical elements working in your stories?
I’m thinking of a line from G. K. Chesterton’s The Poet and the Lunatics, where he says of St Peter that, dying upside down, he ‘saw the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God’. For an agnostic, I write about God an awful lot, both here and in this book, don’t I? Anyway, my instinct is that the great big real world of sensations and objects and other people’s minds is already deeply strange, but sometimes it takes a change of perspective for us to see it clearly. So yes, I often turn to the fantastic to bring that clarity to my perception, but also because it has provided me with a number of metaphors that seemed potent and beautiful to me, and because the imagery of fantasy allows me to write certain kinds of sentences I enjoy writing, and finally, frankly, because I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and there are certain forms of oddity that simply excite my imagination.
Your novels often incorporate many different points of view. The Brief History of the Dead includes the perspective of dead people, and one impressive part of The Truth About Celia briefly inhabits the consciousness of a squirrel. How do you make decisions about point of view in your writing?
I can tell you that my point-of-view decisions always come early, as they must if a story is going to abide by its own strictures, and that I enjoy venturing beyond the usual range of possibilities. Occasionally, in fact, some unusual point-of-view strategy is what permits me to tell a story in the first place. I have a story called ‘Andrea Is Changing Her Name’, which is formally very strange but edges closer to autobiography than anything else I’ve written. I had already made several attempts to write the story before I stumbled upon its peculiar point-of-view approach – a first-person narrative, but one that freely (and almost exclusively) adopts the perspective of a third-person character. It was this method that gave me the licence I needed to tell a story so intimate to me, one in which I tried to reconstruct a certain period of my life and inhabit the mind of someone I loved.
I couldn’t help but notice that squirrels make a few appearances in this novel as well. What is it about them?
Two things I can tell you: (1) My college campus was an oasis of trees, and the many, many squirrels who lived there knew they were safe from harm and so became quite bold about racing across footpaths, pawing through the garbage, and inquiring silently but unmistakably at people for food. And (2) in high school, when I was about eighteen, I stood in my carport once during a bright mid-afternoon rainstorm while a squirrel took refuge in the other corner, the two of us gazing at each other from inside our odd foreign intelligences – a small experience, but one I knew, even back then, I would be unlikely to forget. And funny thing about the squirrel in The Truth About Celia: I remember when I was writing that section of the book thinking, Boy, Jenny (Minton: my editor at the time) is going to hate this manoeuvre, and boy, did she. She tried hard to convince me to excise him from the book.
In an interview about The Truth About Celia, you say that each chapter of that book relies on ‘a different set of ground rules’. This seemed true of The Illumination as well – not to give too much away, there’s one striking ‘rule-bound’ part in the book. Do limitations make it easier or harder to write?
I doubt I’ve ever written a story that didn’t construct and attempt to abide by (and occasionally very deliberately to violate) its own set of rules. Sometimes these rules are meant to be apparent, as in the section you mention, sometimes concealed. You’re right that there’s a pattern-making element to many of my stories, a mathematical element, but I hope that this deepens my resources rather than depletes them and that the limitations I impose on myself force me to invent new kinds of freedom. Sometimes, I won’t deny, I begin to find some self-imposed constraint or another exasperating, but often enough I feel as if I’ve built a wall, walked to the end of it, and discovered that it’s actually a staircase.
The Illumination is held together by writing. Central to the plot is a journal of love notes that passes between characters; one of the characters is a writer while another sells books. Can you discuss your use of writing and writers within your narratives?
I worry that it’s simply an unfortunate reflex sympathy of mine. In the case of this novel, I wanted the journal to lend a layer of love and compassion, of sentiment, to a book that otherwise narrows its gaze so often on pain and disability. Since each of the other characters is enduring an injury, a wound, of one sort or another, and each of them feels that the diary speaks to and soothes their pain, I wanted to find several different ways of allowing them to employ the book in their lives. Thus, the two characters you comment upon: a bookseller who can’t quite bring himself to treat the journal as merchandise and a writer who uses it as raw material for a strange sort of escape story. Sending the writer out into the world also allowed me to visit a handful of (real) bookstores, to seed the story with a little fable I wanted to create, and to write more forthrightly than I have in the past about a particular physical problem I’ve experienced, since of all the many forms of pain the book investigates, it’s hers that I know most intimately.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I can tell you that I’m working on another book – a narrative – but I’m afraid to say anything more about it lest the threads come loose.
And what are you reading?
In my immediate reading future are A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, and a new graphic novel adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Recently I’ve admired Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, and Jules Renard’s Nature Stories. The best book I’ve read in the past year, though, is the very short novel The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, who writes with such tenderness and insight that his books make most other, longer, novels seem like great lumbering immensities that merely crush the ground they cover rather than observing it.
Photograph © Susan Hamaker