Scott McClanahan: What do you like about living in Texas? What do you dislike?
Brian Allen Carr: Texas gets a bad rap because it's filled with assholes, but really if you take any area the size of Texas anywhere it will be filled with assholes, because that's what people are. I lived in Vermont for a year and people would act funny toward me when they heard I was from Texas, because Bush was the president and they were prejudice toward Texans. But Texas is a good place if you're in the right spots.
I live between the dogs.
South a mile a dog sniffs your car. North 50 miles a dog sniffs your car.
I’m between the checkpoint and the border in an area called the Rio Grande Valley--which is not in any way a valley. It was a marketing ploy. The Magic Valley is how they used to sell this place. Florida and California wrapped up in one, but it's really a subtropical place. The mountainous city of Monterrey is two and a half hours south of us. The beaches of South Padre Island are an hour and a half east.
You've perhaps seen this region featured in Border Wars. When I talk to my up north family they worry over my family's safety, but, so long as you're not mixed up in the drug trade, this place is safe and friendly. Judging this region by watching Border Wars is like viewing Cops as a representation of how the rest of America functions.
So my part of Texas (and when thinking about Texas you have to think about it in parts to accurately get a sense of it, because, honestly it's the size of a country) is one of the most interesting places in the nation.
Most of the big money here comes in from Mexico. Skinny legged hipsters are all about. Down here they're called fresas—strawberries.
There are multiple readings a week. McAllen, where I live, bought an old Wal Mart and spent nine million dollars turning it into one of the most kick ass libraries I've ever seen. Something like sixty percent of the people of this region are bi-lingual. It's 85% hispanic. I live in one of the youngest counties in the nation. In a place where even the gas stations sell banging hand made food. I can sneak across the border and buy any drug that has a name. That's why William S. Burroughs used to live down here. He had a grapefruit farm just a few miles away from where I now live.
This area is super rich with literary history. Tomas Rivera was born just a few hours away. He wrote ...y no se lo trago la tierra. Rolando Hinojosa Smith is from here. He wrote The Valley. Those two books came out in the early 70's and are delightfully odd little novels that no one reads and that everyone should.
The worst thing, I'm far away from America. Of course, sometimes I feel like that's the best thing.
What about you? What about West Virginia?
SM: I don't even think I like that question anymore. I don't even think I have an answer to it. I'm not even from West Virginia. I'm actually from Belgium. Middle class suburban people like to hang out with poor people though--so the West Virginia thing is working.
Do you really think that geography plays a major role in life? Do you think it helps form us. Sometimes I think it does but then at other times I think that spirit is spirit and light is light.
BAC: I mean geography has some bearing, sure. It's starts with small stuff. Dictates what food you eat, what you drink. This affects the ceremonies of our lives. Colors our attitudes toward time and tradition.
Privilege vs. poverty seems to have a similar effect.
I think everyone in America who doesn't live in New York, to some extent, is a regionalized person. But maybe not.
Living on the border gives you a much different take on this, because just a few miles away live folks whose understanding of the world is bitterly different than mine, and its manifested in many ways.
Take the river that acts as the natural border here. Americans call it the Rio Grande—big river. The Mexicans call it Rio Bravo—which many would take to mean brave river, but my understanding (from my Mexico lawyer friend Juan Ochoa) is that the connotation is more like wild river. It earned that name because many people died in it. We think of it as a mighty thing, they think of it as murderous thing, but honestly, when you stand beside it, it's really kind of a paltry thing. Some spots you can walk across.
There's lots of little differences like that down here. Juan told me once that he was down in Mexico at Maria Felix’s. She was like Mexico's Marilyn Monroe, and he was at her house and she told him that she called the lodging the “house of little sticks.” He asked why she called it that. She said it was because she had to give a lot of head to get that house. The specific phrase was she "sucked kilometers of cock." She had to suck "kilometers of cock" to get that house, and she said, "not kilometers if you measured them lengthwise. Kilometers of cock if you laid them side by side."
So not this: ——————————————————————
but this: lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
That's crazy to me. In order for a women of her age to have secured the necessary funds to purchase a house like hers in America she would have had to have sucked miles of dick.
So, maybe spirit is soul. Maybe light is illumination.
Has anyone ever told you that you kind of look like Seth McFarlane?
SM: Do you mean skinny Seth McFarlane or fat Seth McFarlane? Hah. I think you look like Matt Groening. How do you feel about that?
What was your dad like growing up? What was your mom like?
BAC: I think I’d rather look like Trey Parker.
My dad was a preacher and is now a chaplain. He's interesting. Can play tons of instruments by ear. Has read tons. Into talking politics.
My mom's a nurse. Well, no, she's in like upper hospital management now, but was a neonatal nurse when I was growing up.
They’re fun people. They were here just this weekend. We drank margaritas and watched college football.
They used to be a bit more uptight and my childhood was bit bruised, but after my brother died they kinda mellowed out. We pulled tighter as a family after that. There was a time when I thought that when I grew up I would distance myself from them. Now, I want them to move in with me.
My mom's super into what I do. She buys my books and gives them to the people she works with. I'm like, Mom, this new joint says fucky-fucky sucky-suck on the first page. And she's like, "but if you wrote it, I bet you made it sound beautiful." And I'm like, "mom you're fucking cheesy," and then she's like, "wanna watch Lifetime movies?"
You? How was youth? Or should I just wait to read Crapalachia to find out?
SM: My mom is a cucumber. My dad is a sponge. They're not really in Crapalachia all that much. I changed their names for some reason in that book. I'm not sure why. It's going to be the first memoir ever published where there is a character who is a cucumber. I'm pretty much a revolutionary.
Does it bother you at all though to be expected to talk about region? I guess what I'm asking is this: Do you ever get tired of the whole "regional" novel where there is a hunting trip as its plot point, or a gunfight, or a wise grandmother, or a sadistic preacher?
BAC: I don't mind the notion of regionalism. I think all great writers are regional writers or Samuel Beckett. I don't really like the regional hierarchies though. Like the word Texas appears a handful of times in my biography. My first book was on Texas Review Press. My only award came from the Texas Observer. I was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters award for first fiction. You replace Texas with New York or California, and I have, I think, a severely different career.
Texas is odd though in that there's this extreme notion of pride. I believe we’re the only state in the nation that makes a course on our state government mandatory at the post-secondary level, and you learn Texas History from an early age. I knew our state flower—the blubonnet, which is illegal to pick—before I knew my mother's maiden name.
We're sort of taught here that the Alamo is the place where Davy Crocket died for our sins.
But I think when people think of Texas writers, or people whose work is about Texas, or people who have worked from here, they too often think of Larry McMurty and Cormac McCarthy, and they too often forget to include Donald Barthelme, Gloria Anzaldua and Tomas Rivera. Or, hey, what about Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater. Or the younger writers from here or who live here now: Ryan Call, Mary Miller, Ken Baumann, Jess Stoner, Miroslav Penkov. Amelia Gray who just moved away. Steve Almond who worked as a journalist in El Paso early on in his writing career. Musicians Daniel Johnston, Willie Nelson, Elliott Smith, the Butler boys of Arcade Fire. Denis Johnson who teaches at Texas State. Nick Flynn and Mathew Johnston who teach at University of Houston. Lil’ Flip, man. Lil’ Flip.
So, yeah, maybe I don't like some aspects of regionalism. But man, I love camping stories. Like Old Joy. You seen that movie? Nothing happens. The whole time I'm thinking the dog's gonna die and that the title is sort of an allusion to Old Yeller, but at the end of the thing the dog's still alive.
I want to write a book someday that makes people cry like Old Yeller made me cry when I was a kid. But maybe that would be too hard. Maybe I should just edit the dog dying into Old Joy. Like a shortcut and shit.
Do you like sad stuff and shit?
SM: Wait, Old Yeller wasn't a comedy? Damn.
I guess I think jokes are actually more sad than people trying to do sad. Here is one of my favorites. Say this sentence suddenly to a group of people: "Laugh uncomfortably if you think genocide is funny." People will laugh. I guarantee it.
But yeah, I like sad stuff. This interview might be a great example. I've never really been able to get into Kelly Reichart's films. I know I'm supposed to like them, but I don't. I'm not going to pretend. I can watch Michelle Williams do nothing for 90 minutes, but Will Oldham's hairy ass not so much.
Let's talk about something that matters: Why do you like beer? What type of beer do you drink? Do you drink things other than beer? Do you think you have a problem with alcohol? Have you ever crapped your pants or peed yourself while drinking? What type of food do you like?
BAC: Alcohol is weird because it makes you believe you've accomplished the unnecessary tasks you've only thought of, and it complicates your ability to accomplish that which is necessary.
My biggest problem with alcohol is that I spend too much money on it. In order to combat this truth my tastes are driven primarily by affordability. I've been drinking a lot of Keystone Light. My favorite vodka is the cheapest thing in a glass bottle.
In terms of food, I'm more of a snob. Not a product snob, but a snob about aesthetic.
I went to culinary school at the New England Culinary School in Essex, VT. My training was this hands on approach to quality, affordable preparations.
We were just across Lake Champlain (well not just) from the Culinary Institute of America. Their approach is more toward the high art concept of food. (I was going to teach a writing class at CIA in San Antonio, TX, but the commute was too far.)
Though that being said, one of my favorite food philosophers is Anthony Bourdain, and he's a CIA grad, and the best known NECI graduate, Alton Brown, is for a molecular kind of approach to food. He's not like a Wylie Dufresne or a Grant Achatz—who approach food with a decontructionist's lens, and turn food into food things (foams, pastes, powders)—but he's into understanding the chemistry of cooking.
I tend to enjoy the more visceral in all art forms. Technique is always important, but technique for technique's sake often seems contrived to me.
I prefer Jimi Hendrix to Yngwie Malmsteen. I prefer Kurt Vonnegut to John Barth.
I prefer this:
That second food had to be touched a lot. Fingered. Manipulated. And it's even simple compared to this:
How many times should your food be touched? By how many hands?
And, yeah, I think I've pissed myself a few times, but it's been years, and the only time I ever shit myself was when I was a kid and it was summer and I was far from home, and it had to happen. But a couple of summers ago I had to shit in public to avoid accident, and both times were right by Greyhound stations. I mean, I wasn't so public that people could see me. Just public enough to feel shame about my shitting?
You? That kinda sounds like a question someone would ask if they'd recently shit or pissed themselves, but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt.
SM: I think I just tricked you into talking about shitting your pants. You have been revealed Mr. Carr.
But I will share this: New Jersey Turnpike. It's 5 am. I'm with a very beautiful young woman from Long Island. My PTSD kicks in and I am in trouble. Uh Oh. Traffic will not move. Traffic finally moves. I pull off at the next exit. The very beautiful young woman is pretty pissed. She's tired of my panic attacks and bad bowels. I run inside the gas station. There are no bathrooms inside. The cashier points to a port a potty. I run to the outdoor toilet, but I don't make it. I clean myself up. I walk back to the car about twenty minutes later. This exchange occurs:
The beautiful young woman: Did you just shit your pants?
The beautiful young woman: Yes, you did. You just shit your pants. I saw you.
Me: No, I didn't. You didn't see jack shit.
The beautiful young woman: Then how come I just saw you throw your underwear away when you came out.
Me: (trying to think up a lie on the spot) I was hot. I felt constricted.
I guess I can't talk about food now.
Would you talk about your brother? What was your relationship like? How does losing a sibling change you? Did it?
BAC: Sure. It changed the hell out of me, but I can't tell you exactly how. Worst thing is, like when good or bad things happen--the really good, the really bad--I don't have the right person to call anymore. I hold my phone and scroll through the numbers.
SM: What is your last memory of your brother? What is your first memory of him? And again if you don't want to talk about this we don't have to.
BAC: I don't know if I can say for certain what the first memory was. I know the last. It's too depressing to tell. I think if you tell your depressing stories people think you're trying to trick them into feeling sorry for you. Or, I don't know. I dedicated Short Bus to my brother, and I was at the Houston Indie Book Fest and this lady picked up a copy of it, and turned to the front matter and saw the dedication and I said, "My brother," and I can't remember if she knew I'd written the book, and she said, "I bet he'd be proud," and I said, "hard to say," and, I don't know, I shouldn't have said shit. She bought the book and the whole time I was like curious if she bought the book for the book or the dedication/weird conversation thing. Either way I'm never dedicating a book to anyone ever again.
SM: How is Vampire Conditions different than Short Bus?
BAC: Vampire Conditions is better than Short Bus. In almost every way. Short Bus is maybe a bit funnier. But VC is my book.
For you, If I have Stories I, Stories II and Stories V, why should I buy The Collected Works?
SM: Because you're a sucker. It's all just a ploy to rip some more hipster dollars out of pockets. All of these writers going on about how hard they are working at their craft on Facebook need to understand the art of repackaging. You don't have to write a new book. You really don't. Just take your old book, slap a new cover on it, and people will buy it. Most writers are just writing the same book again and again anyways.
Besides that, it appears to me there are only about fifty people buying books—so why not take advantage of the few who didn't buy it the first time around.
However, I will say this. We actually edited the book this time. Also, it is only comprised of Stories and Stories II. I took a few stories out.
What do you think about the whole independent bookstore argument and how we should only buy books at independent bookstores. I'll buy books anywhere I damn well please, right? Beyond that, who is taking up for the blacksmiths. Your local mom and pop hardware store put the blacksmiths out of business. Nobody mentions the blacksmiths though. Everybody just keeps taking up for the mom and pops of the world and the 19th century blacksmith gets the shaft. Typical. Am I wrong?
BAC: Yeah, I think if you have a local indie book store you like going to, go to it. If you’re wasted at two in the morning and need to order a book because you just got the bug, hit up Amazon. I think that indie bookstores should do more to get folks to them. Free beer. Stripper poles.
But most book stores I go to are sort of shitty places to be. Assholes who think they’ve read more than me look oddly at my John Deere cap, say smarmy shit about my selection at the register, have whistle-thin faces with pale, entitled eyes. I’d much rather hang out with blacksmiths than those folks. Then again, I don’t frequent indie bookstores much. In fact, I don’t go to them at all. I feel lonely in them. Judged. It’s like being at church. A bunch of folks who speak judgmental whispers and who masturbate to things they should be ashamed of.
This, of course, could be a totally inaccurate assumption.
Is there anything else we should cover. Anything eating your soul?
SM: Nah I think this is good. But I don't feel intimidated by indie bookstore kids. I've read more than most of them put together and I've read it because I've wanted to read it, not just because it was on some syllabus. Books are what matter, not the bullshit politics of books.