An Interview with John Brandon
John Brandon has published five books with McSweeney’s, including Arkansas (2008), adapted into a movie of the same name directed by Clark Duke and starring Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, and John Malkovich, and Citrus County (2010), which was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award and received the cover review in the New York Times Book Review. He has been awarded the Grisham Fellowship at Ole Miss and his work has appeared in Oxford American, Mississippi Review, Subtropics, Chattahoochee Review, Hotel Amerika, and GQ. Born in Bradenton, Florida, John now resides in Hugo, Minnesota, where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Hamline University in nearby St. Paul.
Ivory Shoals is John’s fourth novel, a smart and emotionally engaging blast of brilliantly rendered historical fiction set in 1865, spanning the Florida peninsula and beyond. Like Charles Portis’s True Grit, Brandon’s latest, Ivory Shoals, features a child protagonist and is better categorized as literary fiction than YAF (young adult fiction). It has company in contemporary classics such as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. Set in post–Civil War Florida, it also inhabits the same period as Colson Whitehead’s massively successful historical novel The Underground Railroad. John and I corresponded about his new novel in the spring of 2021.
In reading Ivory Shoals, I was captivated by the details of a youthful odyssey, that of young Gussie Dwyer heading west across Florida in the aftermath of losing his mother, a brothel prostitute, in search of a father who doesn’t know he exists, while tracked by various predacious forces, including a harsh and hardened landscape, dire poverty, and an insecure half-brother wary of losing out on half of his inheritance. The book is immersive and immediate despite being set in a much earlier America, a vanquished and lawless incarnation of The South, one with various Western-genre trappings as well.
- Sean Hooks
Sean Hooks: I’ve found myself critical of how much of public discourse (especially online) in 2021 comes across as trafficking in an ahistorical immaturity. You write of a 12/13-year-old dealing with very adult things, completely on his own, a situation that makes most of the complaints people issue today seem minuscule in contrast to the hardships of daily life in the mid-nineteenth century. Is our “present privilege” — this lack of maturity and historical awareness — at all a spur that led to this novel?
John Brandon: There were practical matters working to determine Gussie’s age that outweighs my feelings about ‘present privilege’, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings about it. The practical matters: I wanted the timing to be such that if the war had gone on another year or two, with the Confederacy accepting/impressing younger and younger soldiers and Gussie aging, that Gussie would’ve been caught up in it. I wanted him young enough to be pointedly vulnerable, but old enough to credibly survive/complete his journey (with a lot of help). Some of his main hardships — losing his mother and not knowing his father, for instance — are integral to the plot.
But beyond the practical, yes, I am sympathetic to the spirit of the question. The book wasn’t consciously spurred by thoughts of current ahistorical immaturity, but the bent of a writer’s leanings/beliefs are almost always (and perhaps should be) perceptible in their work. I’ve been, in many ways, a grumpy old man since around age 27 — it’s relaxing in a way since I don’t have to worry about becoming grumpy. As pertains to my own children (and we’re lower-middle-class if it matters), I’ve never for a moment worried about anything they might not have; I only worry that they have too much. This in spite of the fact that they have fewer toys and gadgets and lessons than their peers. I’ve never worried about the ways they might be made uncomfortable, only, instead, that they’ll start to think it’s their right to be comfortable at every moment. When I was a young person, I was made to understand there were folks in the world who truly had it tough, who truly had something to complain about — they were hungry, they were orphaned, they were persecuted, beaten, jailed unjustly, forced by circumstances to do terrible things for money — and since I wasn’t one of those people, nobody needed to hear me griping. Gussie’s mother tells Gussie (who actually does have it rough, unlike me as a kid) that resistance to self-pity is a measure of a person’s worth. She’s saying it to him and, of course, for him, knowing he’ll need the advice once she’s gone.
SH: I first became aware of your work when I had your first two books put into my hands by McSweeney’s Publishing editor Jordan Bass from a tent at the Miami Book Fair in 2010. You’ve now published five books with the Bay Area outfit known for their hipsterism, lit mag, web presence, social activism, and Dave Eggers–led youth outreach efforts. Could you speak about your continuing relationship with your independent publisher?
JB: Given a chance to say nice things about McSweeney’s, I’m going to take it. Setting aside the fact that I have no idea where I would be as a writer without their decision to publish my first novel (sent agentless and publication-less in a big envelope to their offices), McSweeney’s has never tried to get me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I’ve never in my life set foot in the terrifying swamp of social media, and never have they so much as nudged me to do so. Never have they tried to remodel or warp one of my books (or my, you know, self) in order to make it more marketable. Never have they cared that none of my books have anything to do with the others. Never have they cared that I’m not hip. Artistically, I feel I can shimmy out onto any precariously thin limb I want to and they’ll be supportive. Not that I know for sure they’ll always publish my next book, but I know that if they don’t, it won’t be because I’ve written something too strange, something without a category, something off-brand.
I understand that it’s basically impossible to live in this country — to use technology and eat food and wear clothing and shoes, to drive a car, etc. — without being caught to some degree in the filthy, assholish web of greedy, mega-corporate, squeeze-out-every-dollar, screw-the-little-guy capitalism run amok. I do understand that. But with that admitted, it’s very nice to put your head on the pillow at night knowing your publisher is a company that exists for no other reason than to be an outlet for interesting art and a tool to help people. I’m not going to lie — it’s very nice.
SH: Gussie Dwyer is its protagonist, but Ivory Shoals proffers a diverse mélange of female Floridians. Their complexity continues to evolve as the skein of storytelling thickens, and the influence of Gussie’s mother (whose death incepts the novel) is offset by her son’s three interactions with iconoclastic women, all in defiance of stereotype: a pair of homesteaders (Joya and the “tall woman”) who present to a contemporary reader as a lesbian couple, an older woman who announces her membership in the “sistren of the south,” wears a spider set in a walnut shell as a necklace, and engages in a central act of violence, and lastly the childless Miss Elam, “who ain’t heartrent about it” and who manages to open up Gussie’s inner self. The landmines of gender are plentiful in 2021, but you manage to eschew appropriation and cliché while never pandering or shortcutting. Were present-day contentions about the subject something you cogitated about when devising a world set a century and a half in the past?
JB: Well, not consciously. If my absorption — both intentionally and as a natural product of working at a university — of progressive attitudes/theories about gender representation has informed my sensibilities for the better, I’m grateful for it, but the best creative space for me is a space that’s unfettered by anyone else’s mores or best practices. In no small part, this is a question about cliché and stereotype, and my philosophy has always been that you don’t try to avoid cliché, which, firstly, might be impossible, and, secondly, often reads as just that — a stilted imposition of the author’s wish to flout something, rather than a live-feeling character. Instead of avoidance, I tell my students to beat cliché with detail, specifics, particulars. If you strive to make a character as specific as possible for the amount of pages dedicated to them, you’ll likely wind up in a good place. From 10,000 feet a character is, yes, a cliché, and clichés are often both offensive/harmful and bad for the story, but from three feet away, endowed with a personal agenda, a history, a particular attitude about current events, interesting things to say about the weather, a particular look, idiosyncratic mannerisms all their own…well, pretty soon you’ve got a living person with every right to exist.
This way of doing things puts a lot of reliance on the writer’s own sensibilities and style and savvy, and so isn’t foolproof, but most of the writing I really love has this in common: it feels like you’re getting access to the personal, unique, most hidden corners of the writer’s brain. The writing that excites me as a reader never feels as though it’s been calculated to cater to current cultural regulations. Percival Everett, Joy Williams, Toni Cade Bambara, Padgett Powell; it takes skill, of course, for these people to deliver their goods, but the goods they deliver feel like heart’s blood, almost like they’re delivered in spite of skill. The goods they deliver feel as far from a marketing strategy as could be, far from any desire to fall within sanctioned norms. Zeitgeist feels irrelevant.
Thus, I feel my best chance of writing something worthwhile is to lean on my instincts. For the purposes of this answer, I would define instincts as the impulses instilled by the thousands of books I’ve read and been delighted or frustrated or bored with, the thousands of people I’ve met and been delighted, frustrated, or bored with, the thousands of movies, all the formative moments of my life, positive or negative, that are distinctly my own, the slights, the moments of relief. I strive to use those ingredients with abandon, and without denial of my native personality, toward the creation of characters that have lives beyond the page.
You mentioned The Goldfinch. Every father in that book is a negative character. Theo’s father — liar, cheat, narcissist, deadbeat, abandons Theo; Boris’s father — abusive blackout drunk, abandons Boris; Andy & Platt’s father — extremely undependable, disrupts the family, always forcing Andy to go sailing and then he and Andy wind up dead in a sailing accident; Hobie’s father — a complete asshole. Even Boris, once he has children — wholly absent as a father. What does Tartt do, though? She makes all these guys feel as real and three-dimensional as possible for the amount of page space they take up.
SH: Alright, let’s close with one for the craft-and-process folks. I’m sure reviews of Ivory Shoals will focus on its adventure-style plot, terse and authentic-sounding dialogue, and extremely well-drawn main character, but what drew me in was the imagery. Early on, Gussie’s mother has just died, and you render their relationship thusly: “He could see in the candlelight a dent in the floorboards from a kettle of lamb stew she’d dropped trying to cook for Gussie when she was much too weak.” That’s a hell of a sentence. A depiction of love (and not the book’s last) that is neither sentimental nor cheesy and accomplished with zero-waste. I often read hundreds of pages and whole books without encountering such an astute deployment of imagery — how do you craft images and make decisions about how to evoke thoughts and feelings from the reader?
JB: Wow, that’s a good one to unpack. Evoking thoughts and feelings from the reader get understandably internalized, both because it’s so much the goal, and because of matters of process, after twenty-five years of writing, well, they don’t feel at all intentional anymore. I guess I’d have to start my answer by claiming common ground with all fellow non-geniuses. If you’re a line-to-line wizard, able to channel the lightning strike of revealing and vivid imagery whenever you want to, then you can tune out. For me, though, nothing good is going to happen, or at least not often, without putting attention toward two things. The first is the physical setting and all the concrete details that comprise it — without the raw material, the literal substance of imagery, what can you accomplish? I do whatever I have to do to get all the concrete details in my mental arm’s reach. If that’s something as unmagical as just sitting around for forty minutes imagining a space and listing its parts, that’s what I do. If, on the day of the actual composition of a scene, things come relatively easily, it’s because I’ve been walking around thinking about this place for weeks/months/years.
In the case of Ivory Shoals, I did a solid year of research. Sure, the purpose of that was, to a lesser extent, knowing what happened and where during the late Civil War period, understanding political forces, etc., but in larger part that research was done so I could picture the setting(s), so I’d know how people dressed and cooked and took care of horses and whatnot. The second part of the equation is having a clear grip on your own characters — their regrets and aspirations and insecurities — and a grip on the dynamics between characters. I find, in most manuscripts I read, that when characters and relationships between characters are hard to grasp, it’s not usually a failing of prose acumen, but just that the writer doesn’t fully grasp that stuff yet themselves. It’s not fair when you’re a student and have to adhere to short deadlines shaped around workshop — you’re expected to do your best with material you’ve been gestating for three weeks instead of three months or three years. There’s so much talk of showing rather than telling. Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. The question I ask is: At this point, could you tell it? Could you just tell me in basic terms what’s going on with this character and how they feel about this other character?
SEAN HOOKS is originally from New Jersey and now lives in Los Angeles. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, and MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University.