Interview: Bryan Charles
I read Bryan Charles’s memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, in that non-stop way that feels like your life depends on it. (A few months ago, Justin ran an excerpt of it.) It was a little funny, a little lonely and a little unsettling, but when one chapter ended I moved on to the next as it I was starved for it. Maybe this is the definition of a compelling voice, one that just makes you listen even when you don’t know why. A friend who had also read There’s a Road, as well as Charles’s novel described him as a particularly earnest writer, and I have to agree, so maybe that’s another reason I read so intently—an earnest voice among shelves and shelves of ironic ones. This interview was conducted over email.
Catherine Lacey: This was a weird book to me. I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. It’s been sitting on my desk for a few weeks and sometimes I consider moving it or hiding it, like we’re having a fight or something. A friend told me he thought of your writing as incredibly earnest, and I’ll add brave and unpretentious to that, but there’s also something really emotionally unavailable about the book, which is odd since it’s a memoir. Do you think of it the same way? How did you feel while writing it?
Bryan Charles: The memoir was begun at a point of frustration. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I had initially tried to use some of the same material—mostly the 9/11 stuff—in a novel. Once I realized I could actually write a novel, which only occurred to me after I finished my first one, I knew I would use my experience working in the World Trade Center, the attack, and the aftermath in a book in some way. At that time some of the so-called 9/11 novels had come out, or were scheduled to come out, and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that these books, written by people with no direct connection to the attack—except for maybe being in in the city that day—were totally without merit. I was incredibly territorial about it, probably to a fault. I tried to keep a slightly open mind. I read one of those books, the Jonathan Safran Foer book, and I thought it was terrible and should never have been published. It’s an awful, inexcusable novel. I still think whoever was responsible—whichever editor or publisher—for keeping that flipbook thing at the end, with the 9/11 jumper falling upward—whoever let that slide should be fired. Maybe they have been already.
Anyway, I was all pumped up with this incredible arrogance, and I thought I’d write, with my firsthand experience, the ultimate 9/11 novel, which would address the attack in both personal and political terms. Political in the sense that it would attempt to explain—or perhaps just accurately zero-in on—the national mood, the effect of this huge event on not only New York but also small communities that experienced it peripherally but felt a strong need, naturally, to connect with it and respond somehow, like the town in Michigan where I’m from. So I wrote maybe two hundred pages of this book, and it all just started to collapse under the weight of itself and my ridiculous expectations. I took a step back, assessed the material, and realized I needed a new approach, which essentially involved making up less stuff. The next draft moved the attack from the beginning of the book to the end and was much closer to the actual truth of my life, so much so that it was just a few steps away from total nonfiction. I did manage to finish that draft, but it ended up being not very good. There were some structural issues, some tonal confusion. Certain elements were too vague, others were over-explained. I started to feel quite lost. I moped around for a few months. Finally I thought, Look, why not just bite the bullet and write a memoir, this is pretty much all true anyway. My first book is thinly disguised memoir, and I guess I didn’t want to do another one of those. And so I sat down and, almost as an exercise, started the story from the moment I arrived in New York, writing in the plainest language I could. And it just felt right. A weight was lifted. I felt confident as I was writing the book, and my confidence grew as I went along. I liked writing one simple sentence after another. The key, for me—based not only on my own bloated first attempt at writing about it long-form, but also the disastrous missteps of countless other writers—was to not aestheticize or poeticize 9/11, not to get flowery or even vaguely arty. The style grew out of that lone imperative.
I don’t agree that the book is unemotional—though maybe that’s not what you’re saying. I’m slightly sensitive to this charge because a couple of critics seem to have rejected the book at least partly on those grounds. I actually see the book as highly emotional. It’s just not effusive. I mean, there are plenty of moments where I say this fucked me up, or I was upset about that. At one point I’m staring in the mirror, sobbing, telling myself what I failure I think I am. But it’s sort of like, what you see is what you get. I don’t go on at length about why I feel a certain way, or examine it from multiple angles, or attempt to explain the motivations of others. I don’t say, Here’s exactly how 9/11 affected me, here’s how it affects me now, brace yourself. The book is withholding, in a way, it doesn’t wear its emotions on its sleeve. But that’s where I wanted to the tension, and ultimately the feeling, to come from.
Catherine Lacey: I definitely feel that “withholding” is a good way to describe what’s happening, or maybe that the memoir is just emotionally distant. You’re right in that it’s certainly not unemotional, and I didn’t want to imply that. However, I did feel like I was being kept at arm’s length, and in many ways this was a successful tactic—I wanted to be let in. I felt tremendous sympathy for the narrator.
Ultimately, I think that tension ended up being really valuable. A really great memoirist that I admire, Nick Flynn, once told me (and I am paraphrasing) that a good book doesn’t tell you what or how to feel about something. The reader necessarily brings their own feelings to any work.
Bryan Charles: That reminds me a little of what Bret Easton Ellis has said about the initial response to American Psycho, how what really freaked people out was that there’s no authorial voice intruding, stating the obvious, like, this is clearly terrible behavior, and as the writer of this book I want you to know that I disapprove of it. But it’s probably true that there’s a different set of expectations for a memoir, that the whole point of it in a way is to let people in, or to clarify or explain—if only to oneself—a deeply felt experience. The hunger for closure is big too. It’s heavy in the culture and a key aspect to a lot of memoirs—my life used to be a certain way, then some disruptive or traumatic thing happened, I more or less worked through it, I’m in a better place now. My book doesn’t offer that, mostly because I see that whole idea as a lot of bullshit. I especially felt that way in the year or so after 9/11, when there seemed to be this urge to place it squarely in the past and move on. You see it happening with the shooting in Tucson. Everyone wants to skip the horror and the confusion and leap ahead to the hard-earned lesson.
Catherine Lacey: Well put. I thought one of the funniest parts of the memoir was when you were at The New Yorker festival quietly loving and hating all the hot young literary stars and wondering if the festival existed simply to make writers feel badly about themselves. Don’t all writers need to feel at least a little badly about themselves? And if they don’t yet, shouldn’t they get on with it since it seems to be part of the deal?
Bryan Charles: Yeah, going to that young writers panel was sort of masochistic. I didn’t think it would be when I bought a ticket. I thought it might be helpful in some way. But that was when I was waking up to how difficult it was going to be to do all these things I’d been dreaming about for so long. Back in Michigan, I was more or less writing out of sheer enthusiasm and passion for it. I did send my writing out—mostly poems at that time—and my friend and I collaborated on a magazine called Rocket Fuel that we put out a few times a year. So I wanted my stuff to be read, but it wasn’t so all-consuming. Also, in Michigan I thought that just doing good work would be enough. I thought that if you wrote some good stuff and kept plugging along, sooner or later someone—at the very least an editor at a small literary magazine—would take notice and publish you and you’d be on your way. Watching those people at the New Yorker Festival was when I started to feel naïve for thinking that. The big-city world of literature and published writers seemed totally impenetrable to me then. Honestly, it still feels impenetrable in a lot of ways. Back then, though, I was 26, and I was hyper all the time, and I had zero perspective. I’d been sending stories out for a year or two at that point, and it seemed like a whole burned-out lifetime. So you’re right, in a way. If I could go back in time and talk to my mildly deranged, super-competitive younger self, I’d say, Look, some of these feelings are natural, all writers deal with them, but a little goes a long way, fucking man up and get on with things. Whether or not you actually need to feel that way in order to be productive, or be a good writer, I don’t know.
Catherine Lacey: The attack on the twin towers (or more importantly, the people inside them) happens during this book and yet I really feel this book had nothing to do at all with 9/11. At the same time, it seems like without 9/11 happening, there would be no book. Do you have any theory on this? Do you think you would have written a memoir if you hadn’t been working in the twin towers during September 2001?
Bryan Charles: I’m certain I wouldn’t have written a memoir if it hadn’t been for 9/11. I think I would have used the office material in some way, because working in a huge corporate office was an endless source of depression, and also, I have to say, fascination for me, and it was already turning up in the short fiction I was writing then. The absurdist-office thing was in the air—a bit later on there was The Office, and Joshua Ferris and Ed Park’s novels. Those are great novels. I probably would have aimed for something along those lines, maybe a novel or a series of linked stories. But even those books—though not explicitly about 9/11—carry this real undercurrent of dread that goes beyond just the funny banter of bored-senseless office workers.
It’s sort of sad to admit—and in my secret heart I hope it isn’t true—but without 9/11, not only would there be no memoir, but I might never have had a career, if that’s what I’ve got going on can be called. The summer of 2001 was a real low point for me, writing-wise. My stuff wasn’t getting published, and I was exhausted all the time from my job, and I felt like I was spinning my wheels. It could have gone either way, you know? I was starting grad school that fall, and that was supposed to be the big salvation. But what does that guarantee? Nothing. A million people go to grad school. After 9/11, I suddenly had this thing I could write about that everyone wanted to know about. I had written an essay about it, a first-person account of the attack, and wasn’t really sure what to do with it. And my friend Greg Purcell—my old Rocket Fuel collaborator and a really great poet—put me in touch with Tom Beller, who happened to be publishing an anthology of New York writing. Tom read the piece, told me he wanted to publish it, and that changed things on the publishing front. But 9/11 changed things on the motivational front. If I hadn’t lived through it, I might never have had the courage to say, Fuck it, I’m gonna quit my job and write a novel. I would have been too scared. I’d already been thinking about quitting for at least six months before 9/11. And I kept telling myself, No, no, you have to wait for just the right moment. Well, sometimes you don’t create the right moment. Sometimes it’s forced upon you.
All that said, I take what you’re saying as a compliment, even if you didn’t mean it that way. I don’t want There’s a Road to be seen merely as a 9/11 book. I don’t think that’s what it is. During the early days of the final rewrite, that first week or so, when it went from a barely fictionalized novel to a memoir, I knew the story would be me moving to New York from the Midwest, trying to figure out how to become a writer, and the huge life event that got me on that path.
Catherine Lacey: I actually do mean it as a compliment of sorts. I can relate to it in some way because I lived in New Orleans before and after a smaller national disaster that generated considerably less American Flag waving. I started writing, or felt like I had the courage to really write and without that I don’t know if I would have. But you’re right. Ultimately this a book about how you became a writer, which really is just a book about you becoming yourself, which nearly everyone can relate to. I really admired that quality of it.
You seem to place rather equal weight and attention on things like relationship troubles, a description of an anonymous woman’s ass, a near death experience and taking a shit. There’s an extraordinary amount of words dedicated to your bowels considering all the length of the book. Was placing even attention to things of higher or lower importance a conscious decision in writing or something you edited into the work?
Bryan Charles: It wasn’t so much a conscious decision an outgrowth of the prose style and the tone, which I did work hard to achieve, mostly for reasons outlined above, the desire to not overwrite any of the 9/11 stuff. I like to read all kinds of writing, but in terms of my own prose—with this book and the Pavement book and to a lesser extent, my first one—I like to keep it pretty clean and close to the bone. This may change. It probably will. I don’t want to keep writing the same way forever. But after four years of work that’s how the book came out. Of course you make conscious decisions when constructing a narrative, but some of the essential motivations remain mysterious.
Catherine Lacey: Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but I am a little perplexed by the way the women are viewed and treated in the memoir. If it was a novel, it wouldn’t bother me, somehow, but since it’s a memoir it really did get under my skin that every single woman was either a weeping, emotional girlfriend, practically begging you to have sex with her or a silent sexual being whose ass or tits you are contemplating. As you wrote or looked back over drafts, were you at all surprised to see that all the women in your memoir were so one-dimensional or do you think that’s an accurate portrayal of how you, in your twenties, saw women? I kind of didn’t want to believe that you, an obviously self-reflective and educated man, thought of women that way, but judging on the book alone, that’s what it seemed like.
Bryan Charles: Your question presupposes that I share your view of the book’s female characters, which I emphatically do not. I also don’t recall any scenes where women are “practically begging” me to have sex with them. Your assessment seems based on a kind of willful misreading, based on I don’t know what. Certain word choices like tits or ass or whatever? Frank expressions of sexual desire? A scene where a woman cries? As already mentioned, I cry a few times in the book. I should point out too that the woman referred to in your previous question—and by implication this one—though initially unknown to me, becomes a close friend in the narrative with whom I share a strong bond.
That the same issues wouldn’t occur to you if you thought it was fiction does imply a tricky—maybe even hypocritical—double standard. Do you like John Updike? I don’t, really, but he’s canonical—his face is practically chiseled on Mount Rushmore—and half his shit is about some guy’s quest to get laid, all of it described in florid detail. Not that I don’t regret some of my behavior from that time—toward friends, girlfriends, a bunch of people—because I really do. Again, it was my mid-twenties—hardly a period of contentment and self-actualization for most people. I spend a lot of time—too much, maybe—brooding about the past, romanticizing it or whatever, but I wouldn’t go through my twenties again if given the chance. I got sort of a kick out of the Library Journal review by Julie Kane where she said the book didn’t make her like the author, but it knocked her on her ass. That’s fair. I’m more likable these days, I hope.
Catherine Lacey : I guess I need to clarify that one– I didn’t think this was necessarily a weakness of the book as a piece of literature, I just found the tone in certain places to be a bit of a bummer, as a female reader. I also don’t mean to say you need to apologize for anything; everyone does stuff that they regret. It’s a subtle thing, a matter of this word over that and the connotations those words carry. And it’s something that I notice in a fair amount of writers that I really like. I brought this up with a male friend who had also read the memoir as well as your novel and he said he knew a few other women who had similar feelings about your writing. “He’s a guys’ kind of writer,” he said. I think of reading (especially anything that’s nonfiction) as spending time with a person’s voice and just like a friend, that voice might say stuff that I disagree with in some way. Really, I’m just curious if you see yourself as a guy’s kind-of-writer and if so (or not) what you think about that. (Admittedly you’re at the beginning of your career and I don’t want to pigeon hole you, I’m just curious.) Also, I don’t like John Updike either, but to be fair, I’ve only read a sliver of what he’s left behind.
Bryan Charles: I never thought of myself as a “guys’ kind of writer” or as anything more specific than just a writer. It’s a bit trickier with my first book, because pretty much the whole time I was writing it I doubted that anyone male or female would ever read it. I didn’t have an agent at any point during the three years it took to complete, no one was waiting on the manuscript, and it seemed like an act of absurd faith even to finish the thing. After it sold though, I remember thinking that its likely readership would be people around my age—I hadn’t considered whether they’d be male or female—with roughly the same background and interests, eager to reflect on their teen years as I do in the book. But what happened was, once it was out in the world, I started to hear from actual teenagers, which sort of blew my mind. It’s not a huge stretch—it is a coming-of-age novel—and it’s not central to your question. I mention it only to say that it’s hard to know who’s going to read your stuff, and that once you start trying to figure that out—or to write for a certain perceived or hoped-for audience, or anticipate how certain readers might react—you’re sort of sunk.
Catherine Lacey: One last question, how do you feel about memoir as a genre? Do you read them often and if so, which are your favorites? Did you ever feel strange about writing a memoir at such a young age?
Bryan Charles: I don’t read many memoirs, though I did just finish one that I liked, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. A few months ago I read The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy, which I thought was weak. His earlier memoir, My Dark Places, is one of my favorite books of all time. I did feel strange writing a memoir initially, but mostly because people claim to be so exasperated by them. There’s sort of a memoir burn-out going on, first of all because of that weird wave where people were making shit up, and second of all because people are rightfully skeptical, like what’s so great about your life? What’s so exceptional? As far as the age thing, I’m not that young. It’s not like I’m 22. And anyway it isn’t an autobiography, I didn’t start telling my story at day one. I kept a tight focus—three years that ended with something pretty fucking crazy, that cast those preceding years in a different light.
Catherine Lacey: I’m definitely not questioning your right to write a memoir because I do think you had plenty of material and skill enough to do so. I only wonder if you have any of the anxiety that other young writers of personal narrative sometimes do. (For the record, being in your thirties still makes you ‘young’ on the writer scale of things.)
Bryan Charles: That’s a fair point, one I sort of cling to, actually—that writers can be considered young into their late thirties, maybe even their early forties. It’s hard now to separate the various anxieties I felt while working on the book. Not to make it sound like it was a joyless grind—that’s Franzen’s bag, talking about what grueling, miserable work it was making up fictional characters—but of course you have doubts. Even though it did feel right doing it as a memoir, I easily could have had another freakout and started rewriting it as fiction again, from a different point of view or in the present tense, etc. But you can only deliberate in an ecstasy of hang-ups for so long. Eventually you have to sit your ass down and actually finish a draft.