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“We Know How the World Tears People Open”:
Interview with Brad Land

by Nick Young

NY: North Carolina went blue last night. How’d you feel about the election?

Brad: I was really proud of this state. I could hear fireworks and cars revving engines and people shouting in the neighborhood. It was amazing. I’m still giddy from all of it.

NY: Is this going to be one of those “historically defining” moments for our generation?

Brad: Possibly. I’m still trying to sort it out in my head. It all feels a bit like a dream. I’m going to need some time to process it. We have come a long way. I guess it’s just odd to come out from beneath a gloom after it’s been there so long.

NY: If nothing else, “History” marches ever forward, so I’ll ask you this: What’s your personal history of writing? Where do you think your writing comes from? What influences have weighed upon your work? Who do you draw from?

Brad: I guess it starts with writers who made me feel a certain way—hopeful, beautiful, sad, elated—and music and films. [It stems from] seeing and reading and hearing all those things—the desire to make something that feels like those things.

Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx and Denis Johnson were some of the first fiction writers who made me feel intensely about writing fiction. John McPhee, Joseph Mitchell, and Joan Didion were some of the first nonfiction writers who did the same thing. A lot of poets, too: Franz Wright, William Carlos Williams, Gerald Stern, and Denise Levertov.

NY: It’s interesting you say that. You wrote about Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “Certain work is so powerful, so overwhelming, that we will mold our lives, when we can, to include as much of that work as possible; we will live that work, we will breathe it. We will force it upon others. We will insist that they be with it.” Is this a writing mantra for you? To create work that is lived and breathed—that is insistent?

Brad: That’s the highest goal with art: to create work that makes the reader feel something intensely; something that stays with them; something they want to return to again and again. The books and films I love and [continually] go back to reveal themselves over and over. It’s about being human and wanting to understand or gain some insight into what it means to be here, into all that we’re surrounded by.

NY: Do you take that sentiment with you into your own writing? The protagonists in both Goat and Pilgrims Upon the Earth are “alienated” or “disaffected,” but it seems both youths are attempting to map their own place in the world—that they’re searching for who they are and what they’re all about. Are these main characters—you and then Terry Webber—searching for self, both macro and microcosmically?

Brad: I think both characters are searching. It’s a quality I’ve always had, trying to understand my place in the world and what I needed or wanted to be doing. Terry’s character has some of those same traits—although his stem from a predisposition, they also come from being young and being forced into very adult situations.

I was really interested in that: what happens to someone who is unprepared for a world into which they are forced? What happens when a fifteen-year-old has to sort out situations in which most adults would get crushed? I guess both my character and Terry’s are, in some ways, trying to fix the world they’ve been handed.

NY: Is this “fixing” in an optimistic, glass-half-full sense, or fixing as a very real recognition of brokenness? That perhaps it’s not enough to say the world is difficult or traumatic or heart-rending, but that our goal as humans is to somehow navigate the brokenness...to use it to come out a “better,” perhaps stronger person?

Brad: I think it is an attempt to do something with that brokenness, even though I don’t think either main character is aware of that brokenness. They’re both confused by it and that confusion colors their worlds very specifically. And I do think that’s one of our goals as humans: to navigate brokenness in whatever way reveals itself to us.

NY: The last lines of Pilgrims seemed key: “He found the green house. He found the road. There was the ache of snow coming on. The wind came in through the trees. The prayer flags shuddered. He grew taller.” The impression I’m left with, at the end of both stories, is one of strength through sadness. Is this an accurate reflection?

Brad: Yes. There is a clarification, a long moment of growth after much gloom. Only a few steps, but hopeful steps. And strength through sadness, in both works, is prominent.

I always saw Pilgrims as a hard story with a few funny, odd, hallucinatory moments. But it’s a difficult story with only a bit of light here and there; until the end, which I saw as the moment toward which the whole narrative works, the moment when it turns sharply toward enlightenment and, yes, light.

NY: That light toward which Terry moves—it seems a search for something that he may not even be able to articulate. And I wonder if that’s not perhaps the larger role of “Narrative”: to assume a role for investing the reading experience with a reference point for “lived” experience. Should “Narrative,” no matter the subject matter, offer some point of light—however brief—at the end of the tunnel? Is that, perhaps, art in its best and most compelling persona?

Brad: I think so. There are so many ways to express that light at the end of the tunnel, that fire in the dark cave—so many ways to expand or recreate that convention. Even something that seems totally dark and deeply depressing is, if you look at it hard enough, illuminating and full of light. In [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road, there are fleeting and beautiful moments scattered throughout a nightmare; and the ending might seem so bleak and unrelenting it couldn’t be stomached—and it is bleak, and it is unrelenting—but McCarthy somehow made it one of the most light-filled, beautiful moments and human moments I’ve ever read, maybe the best I’ve ever read.

NY: Given this, I want to return to Goat, if I can, because it contains so much anguish—it’s almost viscerally hurtful. The scene at Will Fitch’s funeral contains the line, “We know how the world tears people open. But we hold the thought between us for a moment, let it live and breathe because it makes us like we were before, kids who knew the world could not exist without them.”

Is it fair to argue that this resonance is at the very core of what happens in both Goat and Pilgrims: that Terry struggles with both his existence and what that then means in terms of the existence of the world? How it is shaped and marked with or without him? And almost, as you reference, in moments “totally dark and deeply depressing,” that there are these solitary moments that seem to illuminate everything we need to see? Was this concept something you were cognizant of, at the time of the funeral, or did you need some distance in order to appreciate the fullness of the moment?

Brad: In different ways the narrator of Goat and Terry are struggling with their existence in the world and what that means. That’s where a lot of the anguish comes from: an inability to articulate that anguish, much less find some answer or path or way. And it’s in those small moments I think they do find their way; I think it’s in those small moments that we all find our ways—that we see, as you said “everything we need to see.” I was cognizant of it on some level at the funeral—I knew it was something important to me—but I did need distance to understand the full significance of the moment.

NY: Let’s switch gears, if we can. Both of these stories are internal narratives—they involve life unfolding before one certain person. This seems to suggest, at least to some degree, that life as it unfolds is incumbent upon personal perspective. Would you agree with this observation? If so, to what degree does each individual create his or her own world? Can any of us claim a true measure of objectivity?

Brad: I think life is always colored by personal perspective, by how one sorts the objects and events of their lives; what has come before makes the person who sees it who they are. I think objectivity is something we can only work toward—to know where we are when we make something, to be self-analytical on things we’ve lived. So maybe not in lived life—that is, life as we move through it (although if we write of lived life we must convey our personal predilections at those moments we lived through)—but in recalled and reconstructed memory we can possibly achieve a bit more objectivity through hard work. It’s a matter of being in the past and the present at the same time, and sorting and balancing the two to give our best objective portrayal of something.

NY: So what challenges arise for the writer in creating a completely subjective world, yet making that world both “easily” accessible and understandable to a reader that may have little tacit connection with portrayed events? In terms of the memoir form—and also in the personalized fictional narrative form—how does the writer balance being in the past and the present at the same time and then make this experience tangible for the reader?

Brad: It’s strange to juggle that line between balancing the knowledge of the present and the experience of the past, both in narrative fiction and nonfiction. It’s about knowing characters—knowing all about them—and trying to sort out what is illuminating in their lives, or what events are charged with importance and need to be part of a narrative. It’s figuring how one scene informs and builds upon another. (Honestly, I think that’s what makes a story tangible for the reader, at least emotionally.) It’s important for constructing a concrete and visceral world that is engaging. [It’s about] building a world for a reader to live inside, and building in the most artful and necessary way. [It’s about] being able to part with things you might be narratively attached to—this is what’s hard, yet so important, about determining the best means to make something artful.

Another way to say it is this: it’s having all the cloth but figuring out which tiny pieces need to be cut to make a garment. How does each piece inform the other? Hopefully in the end those pieces add up to something emotionally significant.

NY: So then how do you, personally, “plot” a story? How do you not only determine the color and type of fabric, so to speak, but arrive, in the end, on what pieces should be included and excluded?

Brad: With the memoir it’s a matter of having it there already and working to sort the pieces of it and see the narrative—chipping away at it little by little until this thing comes out. Fiction is similar, at least in the figuring and sorting part, but unless it’s completely autobiographical, you have to make up all the big parts and know them all well, and then begin sorting and cutting and editing. The actual crafting of language and scene, though, I think, is the same. It’s getting at two similar messes in different ways and then doing a bit of the same to both to figure them out.

Plot, at least in fiction, has been pretty organic for me. My novel began with a scene, and that’s it. Didn’t know what it was, who it was, what it was doing, any of that, just that it stuck with me aesthetically. The rest of the novel grew around that one scene. The novel I’m working on now started with a single image as well, but the plot came immediately after this image. Now, I’m working with something where I know what happens and I know what scenes I need—I just have to sit down and get them.

I think what is excluded are things that tend to be repetitive, gratuitous, and are there simply for their own sake and nothing else. Ornamental images are necessary, but if that’s all there is then it’s just “pretty writing.” The images that stay are what seem to me deep images, and the ornaments present are necessary to color and create a world.

NY: So the language has to accentuate the plot and the characters, not necessarily the other way around...

Brad: Yes. I’m most definitely a language junkie. Many times I’ll work on a paragraph for much longer than is probably needed. I’m trying to figure how to balance that editing or experimenting with language with actually getting things done. And though many times I’ve placed language over plot and character, I think if the piece is substantially realized as a work of art, all of those parts work together—they all inform each other and all speak to the beauty of the whole. At least, that’s what I’m aiming for.

NY: I want to ask you about the style and format of Pilgrims. 81 chapters, 223 pages. It’s abbreviated, choppy, truncated—in the best connotation of the terms—and it feels like a series of “short shorts.” How did you arrive at that stylistic choice?

Brad: I was hoping to try and push some conventions, like containing a whole chapter in a sentence. I thought the book was going to be really great or really pretentious, and it depends on readers as to which one they feel is the most accurate descriptor. But I felt like the book was interesting enough and full enough to pull off.

I really wanted the book to have a cinematic feel to it, with white spaces being the slow pause between scenes in a film. I was trying to get at something concrete in language, image-wise, similar to some of my favorite films. The only way I could do that was through isolation, through language. And, like the plot, it was pretty organic in it’s development. I cut it a few different ways throughout the process, but that postcard-type feel, that isolated painting-type feel, that singular image lingered over in film-type feel—that was something I felt strongly about having the book contain.

NY: How’d you come across the Jean Valentine poem at the beginning of your novel, and how did you arrive at the title?

Brad: The Jean Valentine poem was really serendipitous. I was in a bookstore and saw Jean Valentine’s Door in the Mountain, the National Book Award winner. I started flipping through it and saw, in the contents, poems from her book Pilgrims, which contained the poem “Pilgrims.”

I already had the name “Pilgrim,” but singular and not plural. I thought, “Well, that’s that, the title is gone.” I decided that the Valentine poem should introduce the book—it’s beautiful and says, serendipitously, a lot about what’s going in my novel. But I couldn’t get at anything that did for me what “Pilgrim” did.

Then, a good friend mentioned a verse from an apocryphal book of the Bible, the 2nd Book of Esdras, as a good reworking of that word for a title: something along the lines of “Go and be as pilgrims upon the earth.” So I owe my friend the title. It seemed like it had a sort of epic feel, similar to the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales.

NY: What’s the act or process of writing like for you? Do you set time aside every morning? Do you shut yourself off from the world in? How do you write?

Brad: I have to have major discipline with my writing process or I feel a bit lost. I get really anxious when I don’t have a place to hole up and be away from things. Currently, I’ve been using an attic, one in the house where I live, and it’s working pretty well. And the morning, most definitely, is when my brain is going best. I usually try to get up really early and just write, a great deal lately just on legal pads, and then in the late afternoon I go back and transcribe. The transcription leads to other things; those places that call for more just appear sometimes. My body and mind seem to require daily writing.

NY: What are you working on right now?

Brad: I’m working on another novel, tentatively titled The Settlement. It’s kind of a Western set in the swamps of the Deep South, if that makes sense; somewhere between No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Lots of films, as well, have been peers for the book—The Proposition, Chopper. It’s violent, melancholic, and quite scary, I think—sometimes so much so I have a hard time working on it.

I’m trying to play with our ideas of violence and redemption and the ambiguous and non-chiseled nature of violent characters. We have so many black and white, “this or that” notions of good versus bad (which are completely false). [It’s important to consider] how these people can do what they do and still be sympathetic, or interesting. Or, how we can understand where a person comes from and how that person got that way, and how close we all are to them: how with just a few different moves in our lives we could be them.

At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. But I feel really good about it all—it feels like the most complex set of characters and worlds I’ve gotten at so far. And I hope very much I’m not deluding myself about it. That would stink.

Brad Land studied writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and at Western Michigan University. His first book, the memoir Goat, was a national bestseller and earned praise from USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and authors Augusten Burroughs and Lorenzo Carcaterra. John McNally called his second book, Pilgrims Upon the Earth, “A fever dream of a novel: heart-pounding, haunting, and hypnotic.” He has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and currently lives in North Carolina.

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