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.