His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories and Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, among other publications. He has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he earned and MFA, and he has been the recipient of numerous literary awards. He continues to live in his hometown, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Brockmeier recently discussed his latest novel, The Illumination (Pantheon, Feb. 2011) with SLR Contributor, Sean Ennis.
SLR: The Illumination is made up of six very distinct stories. In terms of the novel’s conception, I’m curious if one story was imagined first, or, in your mind, works as the “seed” for the rest of the novel.
KB: I suppose the story’s seed is planted deep in the book’s fourth section, which fellows the missionary, Ryan Shifrin, across the entire span of his life. Near the section’s conclusion, he offers a meditation—a plaint, really—in which he deliberates on the various forms of pain people are forced to endure, and asks what all that suffering could possibly be good for, and wonders if our pain isn’t simply what makes us beautiful to God, and if so, what does that mean?
These were the ideas with which I began the book. I had an image of someone literally glowing with his injuries. It was that equation, of pain with light, that dictated the terms of the novel. That said, I wrote its sections in order, and I knew the basic shape that five of the six characters’ stories would take before I ever began working. (The last, Morse’s, I discovered midway through the book.)
SLR: You live and work in Arkansas, and I was curious if you see yourself in the continuum of Southern Writers. You’re typically discussed among the younger crowd of writers making use of fantastical elements in their stories (Link, Bender, etc), but do you feel any connection to the more traditional heritage of Southern writers?
KB: I like to think that I lie somewhere within the general and motley expanse of writers whose books I happen to love. There are certainly some canonical Southern writers among them—James Agee, Donald Harington, Lewis Nordan—and some who would have been canonical if they had lived longer—Chris Fuhrman—and some who are canonical in the science fiction and fantasy fields but are in fact Southern by birth or adoption—Walter Tevis, Lucius Shepard—but there are many others who aren’t any of these things.
Paul Greenberg, who writes for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said in a recent column about Reynolds Price, “To call him a Southern novelist is not to limit his scope or his appeal or his power, not in the least, but only to describe their source. Which was and is a sense of place.” This seems to me as good a working definition of what it means to be a Southern writer as any.
I love Little Rock, and intend to remain here, but is it the source of whatever scope or appeal or power my work might have? I doubt it. If my fiction is rooted in a sense of place, then I’m guessing that place is other books.
SLR: I’ve seen a number of reviewers talk about The Illumination as a parable. Is that a comparison that makes sense to you? Is the novel’s intention to teach a lesson?
KB: I imagine that the book has the tone of a parable without the shape of a parable. It attends carefully, if strangely, to a number of phenomena—pain, love, beauty, disease, light—but I’m not sure that it offers a lesson about them, or at least one that is easily separable from the vessel of the narrative. That said, though I can’t find the source, I remember reading an essay by someone who surmised that the one feature all the books he admired had in common was that they seemed to have been “pressed into being by some sharp apprehension of the truth,” and I hoped, when I was writing The Illumination, that it would offer that same burned sense of clarity.
SLR: One of the real pleasures of the novel is its collection of sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre images and descriptions. How do you manage these? Is it just a matter of being extra observant in real life, or do you collect them in some other way?
KB: That was one of the things I enjoyed most about writing the book: producing all those hundreds of sentences stitching pain together with light. I don’t know that I’m more observant than anyone else—although maybe I am; how would I know?—but I’m definitely slow to let go of my own experiences. I hold tight to them, turning them this way and that and watching them take on new shapes until I feel that I’ve understood them. In other words, I apply a lot of my observational energy retrospectively.
For me, writing is quite similar to this sort of reflection, although when I write I’m drawing on the resources of my imagination rather than my life, on dreamed experience rather than lived experience. With each sentence, I try to observe something very closely—a sensation, a memory, a behavior, a feature of someone’s character—and then I turn it over and over on the page until I’ve figured out how to preserve it in words.
You approach every line this way, and if you do it honestly enough, and if you allow each moment to follow naturally from the one that came before, you eventually discover that you’ve ended up with a story—and also, somehow, mysteriously, with an expression of your own personality.
SLR: At the heart of the novel is an examination of physical pain, and often that pain is extreme and drawn out over long periods of time. Have you had such an experience in your life, a bout of extended physical pain that helped inspire the book?
KB: Yes. It’s the fifth section of the book, which belongs to the writer Nina Poggione, that I used to investigate my own experience with illness: years and years of mouth ulcers that made it painful for me to talk, eat, drink, laugh, and smile. I tried to bring as much lucidity, accuracy, and honesty to Nina’s observations of her malady as I could, and although her story is not really my own, that one aspect of it is. You can consider all the self-pity, querulousness, and desperation she expresses an oddly intimate form of journalism.
SLR: Last year, you published an article in Oxford American discussing your favorite apocalyptic novels, and your The Brief History of the Dead also has apocalyptic elements. Would you consider The Illumination as part of that genre? In general, what is your attraction to stories like this?
KB: The Illumination doesn’t end the world, it just changesit, so I suppose I wouldn’t consider the novel a story of apocalypse so much as a story of translation—I mean “translation” in the old, metaphysical sense of the word: as a leap from one form of being to another, with no intermediary steps. In graduate school, I took a class with Marilynne Robinson, and I remember her saying about a particular story of mine, or at least about one of its passages, that it offered a good way of understanding the world: by taking what we have away and then restoring it.
It would demand a lot of digging to unearth the source of my attraction to apocalyptic narratives—and to fantastic narratives in general—but perhaps it has something to do with that: the feeling that I perceive the world with more clarity when I take it away from myself and then place it back in my hands.
SLR: By the end of the novel, there is no explanation for why the characters’ pains are now shining as well as hurting. Knowing that many readers will be waiting for some sort of explanation, could you walk us through your decision not to provide one? Would an explanation ruin the whole effect? Do you see the real world as similarly inexplicable?
KB: I do. Logic and experimentation allow us to understand something about the basic ground rules of existence, but it’s my intuition that those rules could change suddenly, right under our feet, and the universe would be no more or less strange than it already is. The truth is that it never occurred to me that I ought to explain the phenomenon—or, if it did, I rejected the idea pretty quickly, since it seemed a distraction from the essential work of the novel.
Many of my favorite books operate under a similar principle: there is a world, and it exists, and what matters is not the why of that world but the how. Can you imagine how much less satisfying The Metamorphosis would be if Kafka had described the mechanism by which Gregor Samsa woke as a giant insect, or Blindness if Jose Saramago had explained why everyone lost their sight?
SLR: What are you working on these days?
I can tell you that I’m working on another book, but I don’t want to say too much about it for fear that the threads will come loose.