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June 14, 2013 | Interview

An Interview with Bryan Furuness

Jensen Beach

An Interview with Bryan Furuness photo

Bryan Furuness is a writer whose presence has long loomed large here at Hobart. He’s published work in the journal and on the website. We’re big admirers of his writing, so when we saw that his debut novel was due out this year, we dug in with anticipation (and bourbon—we’re Hobart after all) and waited eagerly for the book to drop. And drop it did. The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson came out earlier this year from Black Lawrence Press. It’s a novel that does so much, covers so much ground, succeeds so well at all of it, that it’s hard to come up with a short, pithy introduction for the book. So I’ll just say this: this is a novel that was an intense pleasure to read, one that so successfully rendered and created a world that I wanted to keep living in that putting the book down was miserable. I was lucky to get to interview Bryan and get the chance to revisit the book often over the last few weeks. I suggest you all do the same. This novel does what good books are supposed to do: smelts down a raw and freshly mined rock of emotions, breaks it apart, complicates it, and cleaves it all back together again in a beautiful and genuine shape.

Below we talk about the book, humor, other writers, editing, teaching, and Episcopalians.  

 

One thing that always impresses me in your work is the way you write adolescents. I'm thinking not just of Revie but also your story in Hobart, "Ballgrabber." You have this incredible ability to inhabit late childhood, narrate out of that place, in a way that is not only fully believable and compelling, but also just plain smart. Obviously, Revie is narrated from some distance, he's older, recalling the episodes from adulthood, but that distance doesn't really, to my reading, provide any interference. So much fiction with child protagonists and characters doesn't strike as true as your work does. What I'm getting at, sloppily, is: what are your thoughts on how to write children well? What're your tricks? 

I always tell my students that if you steal someone's words, it's called plagiarism and everyone gets mad at you. But if you steal their techniques, it's called learning, and everyone's happy. 

If I have any secrets, I pillaged them from better writers. Tobias Wolff, Walter Kirn, and Dan Chaon taught me everything I know about retrospective narrators. I must have read Chaon's story "Among the Missing" at least twenty times. I typed it out and annotated the hell out of it to figure out how Chaon modulates between the voice of the younger actor and the older narrator. 

Of course, it helps that my mental age is about fourteen. A part of me still can't believe I get to drive a car. I get sweaty palms when I buy liquor, as though I'm trying to pull a fast one on the cashier. So in some ways, keying into the mind and voice of an adolescent (especially if that adolescent is coming of age in the '80s) is easier for me than sounding like a grown-up.  

 

The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson is a hilarious novel. Its humor derives from so much: the set up/conceit is irreverent, surprising; the novel's events are funny, at times absurd; the feel of the narrative is humorous in tone. Two-part question: specific to your work, what role do you see humor playing? Does it allow you access to material, to ideas? Is it where you're most comfortable? What do you see as the condition of humor in the contemporary literary novel?

I love comedy in all its Shiva-like forms. At Butler, I teach a course called "Seriously Funny." We read Vonnegut and Lorrie Moore; we watch Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and Jon Stewart. At the beginning of the year, many students don't find the material even slightly funny, mainly because they're used to the kind of comedy you see in Bud Light commercials. But over the course of the year, most of them come to see that comedy doesn't have to be about making light of things. It can be a way to bear the heaviness. And the greatest comedy can bear more heaviness than a straight-up tragedy. Comedy can bypass the maudlin and the ponderous, taking us further into the darkness, and maybe, in the end, make its own light. 

I think we're in a golden age of comic writing. I love George Saunders, Jonathan Goldstein, Stacy Richter. A few years ago, Jess Walter published a book that should have been impossible to write—a comic novel about the aftermath of 9/11—and it was flat-out brilliant. As an editor for Booth, I've had the pleasure of editing some of the most triumphantly funny stories I have ever read, including "Lord of the Ralphs" by John McNally and "Cameron Diaz and I are in Love" by Edward Porter.   

p.s. Isn't it weird how it's impossible to be funny when talking about comedy? 

 

From the novel's content and plot, I'm guessing you have at least a nominally Christian background I think this novel deals with big ideas of faith and belief, all of it. In some ways, I feel like Revie offers up some pretty interesting and powerful critique of religion, of the ways in which our culture absorbs, amends, corrupts (maybe) religious belief. Are these issues that are important to you as a novelist? What were your thoughts about publishing a novel that so explicitly and critically deals with these themes? Did you worry about it at all? 

Did I worry? At one point I was sure that I was writing the one book that everyone could hate. Churchy types would be turned off by the made-up Bible stories, and everyone else would be weirded out by the first mention of Jesus. If you made a Venn diagram of people who liked jokes, and people who liked Jesus, the overlap would be about the width of a razor's edge. 

I'm happy and relieved to find out that I was wrong about that assumption (or at least not entirely right).

I grew up Lutheran, and now I'm an Episcopalian. I love the Church, though sometimes it's the kind of love you have for your old mangy dog who pisses himself every time the doorbell rings. In the book, I try to hold these two things in tension with one another—love and a clear, critical eye—but mostly I think of the Lost Episodes as an exploration of the questions and ideas you mentioned. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say that these issues are important to me as a novelist, though, if only because that might make it sound like I made a conscious choice at the beginning of the process. It might be more accurate to call it my clutch of obsessions. Or maybe my lens on the world. "Your beliefs," said Flannery O'Connor, "will be the light by which you see." 

Earlier I named a bunch of funny writers that I love, but Flannery is my patron saint. No one was ever more fierce and funny and deadly serious all at once. Her fiction and letters not only gave me permission to write on that razor's edge of religion and comedy; they convinced me I was a coward if I didn't. 

 

I’m glad you brought up O’Connor. Like in her work (and I think is probably true of a lot of great fiction) the characters in this novel manage to evoke a mix of repulsion and empathy. Certainly, the three central characters achieve this. It’s one of the things I loved most about the book. How did you navigate writing a character like the mother?  

She's got her flaws, and she makes more than a few misguided decisions—but, you know, she's got good intentions and her own weird logic, so the reader can see why she's doing these things. But it all comes down to being interesting. The more interesting the character, the bigger the flaws the reader is willing to live with (see: Humbert Humbert, or, for a more recent example, the narrator of Sara Levine's hilarious Treasure Island!!!). 

To illustrate: last year I read a book with a main character who I just hated. Really hated. And I couldn't figure out why. I mean, I'm not one of those readers who needs a character to be sympathetic or relatable. It wasn't until the end of the book—which I finished only to see if the character would die in a terrific way—that I realized why I hated this guy so much: he was a garden-variety asshole. His assholery bored me. And that might be the only unforgivable sin, for a character or a writer: to be boring. 

 

You’ve written and published a lot of stories, but this is your first novel. What was the transition like, if there was one, to novel writing? 

Long. Hard. Interesting. Ongoing. 

You know the hardest part of moving from writing short stories to a novel? It has nothing to do with craft, and everything to do with will. The willingness to commit yourself fully to a single project for years and years, knowing that the project may end up D.O.A. 

The first few years I worked on this book, I hedged my bets. I'd work on the novel a little bit, then switch gears and work on some stories. I was scared to death of focusing solely on the novel. What if it failed? What if I had nothing to show for a decade of work? Whenever I had this thought, I got the sensation of hair falling out of my head. 

The book grew, but it was flabby and confused. It was just a bunch of pages. It wasn't until I abandoned the stories and let Revie fill up my entire headspace that it came together as a novel. 

Some people can write a novel and spin out essays and stories and concertos at the same time, but I'm not one of them. 

 

Let’s talk about your editorial and teaching work. You teach at Butler and edit Pressgang, Booth, and On Earth As It Is, a journal of prayer narratives. How does your editorial work influence your writing? 

I edit for the same reason that I write: I'm a story junkie. I like telling stories, reading stories, playing with stories. 

But I'm hesitant to answer this question directly, just as I'm always hesitant to say how my teaching affects my writing. There's a widespread presumption in Lit World that writing is the most important professional thing we do, and everything else is there to serve the writing (I'm not saying that you're making this assumption; I'm just using your question as an excuse for some brief grandstanding). The writers who view teaching or editing as conditional tasks—I do this so that I can write—usually end up doing a shitty job on those tasks. 

If you've got a desk job, go ahead and cheat it. Who gives a shit if your CONAD report isn't so excellent this month? Your cheating probably aims up the power spectrum, which you could call subversive. 

But if you half-ass it in the classroom, you're cheating students. And if you half-ass it in editing, you're screwing other writers who have submitted (in both senses of the word) to you. Your cheating aims down the power spectrum. That's not subversion; that's abuse. 

I edit because I like working with writers, and it gives me a jolt of pleasure when I see a story become fully realized. It's also my attempt to be a decent literary citizen. I teach because I like working with students, and I think I can offer them some approaches they haven't tried before, and when a students makes some kind of breakthrough, it sends electricity through my soul. It's also my attempt to be a decent citizen of the universe. 

Ars gratia artis is the old saying, right? Art for the sake of art. Many of us already think of writing as autotelic—self-contained goodness, having an end unto itself. We should hold teaching and editing in the same esteem. Edit for the sake of editing; teach for the sake of teaching.  

 

What’s next for you?

I've got a few things in the hopper. I wrote a script for a graphic novel with a buddy of mine, Andrew Scott. Wastelands is the working title, and it's like Apocalypse Now meets Dracula. It's set at the end of a ten-year war between America and Transylvania, with Dracula as a kind of bin Laden figure. It might be the best thing I've ever been involved with.  

Michael Martone and I have been working for years on building an anthology called Winesburg, Indiana. It's a collection of monologues from citizens of this fictional town, with contributions from writers like George Singleton, Kate Bernheimer, Roxane Gay, and Claire Vaye Watkins. That sucker's finally ready to go, and we're sending it around to publishers this summer. 

Can you tell that I like collaboration? Maybe that's the real reason I like to edit, because it feels like a form of collaboration. The last thing I'll mention here is a project that I'm developing with Matthew Pitt. It's called the Co-Lab, and the focus is collaborative creation. This one's still pretty early in the developmental phase, so I can't provide a lot of details, but it may involve a journal, a conference, and a website that gathers writers and artists and other creative types to make things together. If any of you are interested in playing along, drop me a line at furuness(at)gmail.com

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