Meet John Brandon, Author of Citrus County

John Brandon’s name has been whispered among literary circles as a writer to watch since he was selected as the 2009-10 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. His first novel, Arkansas, took readers on a wild ride through the “trailer trash” world of drugs and violence. And, he left them wanting more.

His second novel, Citrus County (McSweeney’s 2010), satisfies this hunger with a dive into the devious undercurrents of Florida’s backwaters through the eyes of a middle school kid criminal.

This is one you won’t put down until the end, and when you close the book, you’ll feel as if you’ve been on a strange and marvelous journey with characters who will stick with you for many years to come.

Recently, John Brandon spent time discussing Citrus County with SLR Contributor, Sean Ennis.

One of the real joys of the novel is how well-populated Citrus County is.  Just about everyone we meet is fascinating in their own right, even if we only meet them briefly.  Since you grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I’m curious with regard to how familiar these characters are to your own upbringing.  How different is what is described in the novel from your own adolescence in Florida? 

The similarities are the physical setting, all the sinkholes and strip malls, and maybe that it was hard to know what to do as an adolescent.  You could play sports or else go to church or else roam about vandalizing things.  There were old people everywhere.  And the place had no identity.  It wasn’t a suburb because it was way too far from Tampa for that.  It wasn’t rural because that implies some kind of farming or ranching.  It certainly wasn’t urban.  No beach or amusement park or university.  Nobody had much money but nobody was going to starve.  Maybe that’s the similarity, the feeling of being in a lost pocket of the country at a time when you’re personally lost.

As far as the people go, there is a certain hard-luck cracker that you see in that area.  It’s just south of where you’re likely to find a lot of skilled rednecks–you know, that can hunt and build things and organize militias and such–and north of where there’s an economy worth mentioning.  They end up doing who-knows-what to get by.

 Along the same lines, it seems possible to put Citrus Countyalong that continuum of Southern stories that tracks the lives of oddballs and downright outcasts (William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah, Padgett Powell, etc.).  Does the South have a monopoly on these types of stories, or are most good stories really about people living on the fringes?

Maybe the fact that those Northern suburbs are so longstanding and venerable has something to do with that.  A Franzen or a Cheever can do great things with these soulful folks getting suffocated by sameness.  Another way is to start with folks who understand they never had a shot at living in that suburb in the first place.  One is a specific wish to escape (specific but doomed), and the other is a vague wish to be part of a community (also doomed).  Kind of makes sense.  The South was disenfranchised about a century and a half ago.

Your bio mentions a number of other jobs you held while writing this particular novel, primarily warehouse work.  How was the novel informed by the jobs you held?  How does it compare to your teaching position at the University of Mississippi?

The teaching job requires much less lifting, and I don’t have to hide the fact that I have college degrees.  I got a lot of material working those labor jobs, but you usually can’t tell how it’s going to manifest.  Sometimes when I need a very minor character, somebody who’s around for a paragraph or two, I pick out one of my coworkers from a factory.  In those cases, it pays direct dividends.  It’s good to work with your hands, but it had to end sooner or later.  Eventually you have to work in your field and make decent money.  I used to fantasize about being at a university when I was building a pallet of frozen chicken cases or something, and now I’m here.  I was right, the grass is greener over here.

The novel tracks the lives of at least three primary characters: Toby, Shelby, and Mr. Hibma.  In the creation of the novel, I’m curious who came first when you conceived of the story.  Is there a character you have the most sympathy for, or interest in?

I started with Toby and Uncle Neal.  I’d written a version of Toby before, in a short story, a version who uses his ingenuity for good.  And that character had an uncle who was a little messed up but not at all mean.  And then I started writing this dark Toby and this terrible uncle.  I don’t know what got into me.  And then Shelby arrived, and I suppose she’s the one I feel the most for.  Not because of her sister, just because.  Mr. Hibma came last.  I had to write out some issues from a few years ago when I attempted to teach high school and failed.  I just quietly quit, whereas Mr. Hibma fights and fights.

Citrus County is your second novel.  How did writing it compare to the writing of your first novel, Arkansas? Was the process easier this time around, or has each novel been its own unique experience?Arkansas was easier.  In Citrus County there’s this central event that everything else revolves around.  Difficulties come along with that. In Arkansas I could always just move on to the next thing. Arkansas had a lighter tone and also required much less editing.  I cut about a hundred pages out of Citrus County.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel set in New Mexico.  It has way too many characters and lots of magic in it.

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. This book Citrus County–made me write for the very first time, to a book author. You really must be terribly disturbed. Not even a book like Winter’s Bone or books about Holocaust etc.–bleak environments–takes such a blase attitude about a little child tortured for 2 months that way–through deprivation—all at the same time trying to make the reader like the boy or feel sorry for him–yet he is evil…12 is the biblical age of reason and he is over that and was so sadistic –his uncle not even close to an excuse to harm that little girl…just gross. And to portray that teacher as equally disturbed –now that they are together no telling what will go on–they were too sick to heal each other. The callous-ness was so disturbing!

  2. Hi Connie,

    Most people, or at least me, don’t need to be told that a four year old being held captive for two months is a horrifying thing. The events are described plainly, and that made them all the more horrifying. I felt horror. I didn’t understand Toby’s actions. I wished for him to release Kaley and not to take her in the first place. But I don’t think the writer needs to tell me to feel those things. He’s telling a story. My reaction to it is my own.

    As far as the characters go, I think they may not make sense to some readers. If you’ve never thought about killing a coworker then maybe this book isn’t for you. Personally, I loved all three main characters. I didn’t understand Toby’s motivations, but I’m willing to accept that there are people whose motivations I can’t understand. I loved Shelby and Mr. Hibma and thought that their sections contained some of the funniest writing I have ever read.

    I’m also unsure why you see the story as bleak. Yes, the characters struggle, are unhappy, and feel displaced and dispossessed. But I felt like the ending was about as happy as it could have been. the story chronicles Toby’s gradual discovery of a conscience through his relationship with Shelby. He releases Kaley because he has gained something that he did not have at the starting of the novel, at least that was how I read it. Now, I’m not saying Toby should be forgiven, but I am questioning the assertion that the story is a bleak one all the way through.

    I loved Citrus County. The writer makes hard choices and the book is all the better for it. I can’t wait for his next and I’m going to go read Arkansas as soon as I can.

    Tom

  3. Dave Clayton says:

    I just finished reading “A Million Heavens”. I am an avid reader and am aware of John’s other works, but had never read him until today. What a book! It is truly one of the best novels i’ve read in quite some time and i read more than a healthy person probably should. I lived in Dunedin for a couple years in the mid-90’s and the fact that he is from New Port Richey makes my experience with his work somehow more meaningful. Dont’s ask me why. Maybe it’s something about that mid-Florida area of the gulf coast.

    Keep writing, John and i’ll keep reading. Thanks for helping me lose today in the best way.

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