Actually, author and Brooklyn Rail editor Donald Breckenridge has never been gone. But his new novel, YOU ARE HERE (Stacherone Press, 2009), is out in a big way and is getting plenty attention from Word Riot and Bookforum, among others. I caught up with Donald after a reading he gave in Baltimore, and we talked about the book, New York, and the competitiveness of air hockey.
Jen Michalski: I guess the reader will know what she is getting into when she opens the book and there’s a quote from Eugene Ionesco on the first page. But YOU ARE HERE feels much more than the theater of the absurd. There are four central characters—Janet and James, Stephanie and Alan—who hook up, break up, in addition to their peripheral friends, over two separate times points–2001 and 2004—and even a character named Donald Breckenridge. They all write plays, short stories, novels, based on these two relationships, attempting to infuse them with meaning or maybe deconstruct them. There’s more than a sense of absurdist irrelevancy in them, though. For one, there’s a constant naming of “concrete” things in the spliced, intersecting stories—the Deer Park delivery truck parked out on the sidewalk, the subway trains, planes flying out of JFK, even as people’s realities are constantly shifting, morphing as characters in stories, actors in plays. It’s almost as if you give the reader an anchor point, ie, “you are here,” which I like. And it’s also an anchor point for the characters, too, if they actually decide to get out of their self-absorbed heads and look around them. YOU ARE HERE seems very much a metatextual, postmodern novel for the “instant-messaging, fluid-Facebook identity generation” (for lack of a better word). Am I on the right track?
Donald Breckenridge: YOU ARE HERE was my attempt at capturing in a novel the disastrous years between ’01 and ’04 in NYC—with a peripheral eye on the rest of the world—and the direct and indirect results of 9/11. It was a very bleak and paranoid time. I’ve attempted to etch a kaleidoscopic and fragmentary element onto the various narratives unfolding and deconstructing throughout YOU ARE HERE and that is a direct and multifaceted response to the unending present and the immediacy of recent history here in New York.
I have always been very invested in creating dynamic visual elements and allowing their implications to inform my fiction. In my late teens and early twenties I was seriously considering pursing a career in photography, also, devouring authors such as Emmanuel Bove, Juan Carlos Onetti, Claude Simon, and Yasunari Kawabata, whose skills at effortlessly capturing and greatly nuancing their narratives with stunning visual elements, played a crucial role in my developing abilities as a writer long before I even considered writing fiction. Also, writing about the recent past in New York City, where I have lived for 20 years, is a relatively easy, inexpensive and very satisfying way to capture the frames that hold the characters delivering this highly fragmented narrative.
JM: At a reading you did in Baltimore recently, Michael Kimball introduced your work as being very distinctly New York. Of course, both of your novels have been set in New York, but do you feel that you are a distinctly New York writer? Could YOU ARE HERE been set in Boise, Idaho?
DB: My novella ROCKAWAY WHEREIN takes place in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens; the same can be said for the novels 6/2/95 and YOU ARE HERE. The novel I am working on right now takes place in New York as well. So yes, I am very much a New York writer, and I have a great love for this city, I’d like to think that comes out in the work. However, my novel that is forthcoming from Autonomedia, THIS YOUNG GIRL PASSING, takes place in Upstate New York, just south of Utica in Oneida County. THIS YOUNG GIRL PASSING is based on the true story of a high school French teacher who has an affair with one of his students in the mid to late 1970s. The teacher ends their relationship after she graduates and then twenty-years later they renew their affair. Although the chapters alternate between the 1970s and the 1990s, the novel isn’t as fragmented and kaleidoscopic as YOU ARE HERE because the story itself is much more straightforward. It will be interesting to see how people respond to this book.
JM: You’ve written a ton of plays in addition to three novels. Do you find you have more freedom to pursue ideas, nonlinear or otherwise, in one medium or another? Does one medium inform the other?
DB: In the fall of ‘89 I founded The Open Window Theater Company with a small but dedicated group of actors with whom I had attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I wrote plays for a group of truly talented actors who were committed to performing a wide variety of plays and were willing to do so for no money. We occupied a former paint factory beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. I wrote and produced many of my one-act plays there, in addition to running a gallery space upstairs, tending bar, and hosting readings. I would write a play and the day after it was completed we would begin rehearsals, and a few weeks later the play would be performed in a small black box theater before a group of visual artists, musicians, performance artists, writers, and like-minded pioneering hedonists living in and around South Williamsburg long before the neighborhood was gentrified. I did that for three years and that was how I learned to write, it was always in front of an audience.
I came to New York to study acting and was kicked out of a school that I had no business being in, so I began writing plays and slowly became a novelist. Working with that company was a very productive and romantic episode from my early twenties, although I was completely broke, half-starved, stoned, drunk, and or hung-over nearly all of the time. I came to fiction a few years later, after the theater company disbanded, when it became prohibitily expensive for me to mount plays here. I began writing fiction because it was impossible to get my plays preformed. All of my writing begins with a conversation between two people, it’s really quite simple, and all of my fiction could be easily broken down for the stage. My fragmented writing style is a failed attempt at simultaneity, I am simply trying to recreate the experience of watching actors performing on stage. YOU ARE HERE was going to be a play and then I was going to turn it into a novel that exploded the two separate acts while interweaving the actual rehearsal and production process—so that the actors who were playing the characters in the play would also have major roles in the novel—into the two story lines. I couldn’t write the play because it became a novel when I was writing out the dialog for the first act, when Janet and James are in the French restaurant, my play was somehow corrupted and that derailed my plans, I think that had a lot to do with the desperation I was feeling in the spring of ’04, and it was a very strange experience.
JM: There’s a scene in the book where a Fassbinder poster is on the wall is noted, which heightened my awareness of your visual framing of places, scenes. Where people are in space. Another anchor for the reader, for sure, but it’s almost a deliberate decision by you to keep them for becoming fluid themselves, to keep the reader out of the book, in a way. Which is ironic, considering there’s a character named Donald Breckenridge. What’s up with the fourth wall? It makes me think of another New York writer, Jay McInerney, who on the other hand flaunts it often. Am I interpreting correctly?
DB: Seeing Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” was incredibly motivating for me, after watching the film for the first time, I knew just how I wanted YOU ARE HERE to look and what I wanted the book to feel like. I wanted to leave the reader alienated and at the same time I wanted them to be aware of their empathy. Fassbinder came out of the anti-theater, which was a theater of alienation, it was shocking and grotesque, somewhat contrived and yet it was also highly lucid and deeply humane. I think his films really resonated with me after 9/11 because he was raised in the aftermath, literally in the rubble of Germany after the Second World War, so, no matter how superficial or seemingly gratuitous his plots may seem there is always an emotionally honesty shadowing his work. YOU ARE HERE is in many ways a homage to Fassbinder and also for Esther Tusquets and her extraordinary second novel LOVE IS A SOLITARY GAME, which explores a highly contrived romance between a young and ambitious poet, a shy teenage girl and an older woman. This is a novel that I read nearly twenty years ago and it has stayed with me since…and in part of YOU ARE HERE we have the relationship with Janet the recent divorcee in her mid-forties, the twenty-four year old aspiring writer James, and Cindy the director of the play who is also one of Janet’s many lovers. Also, I named Janet’s cat Esther after Esther Tusquets.
JM: How does a novel like this get written? Do you map the intersecting arcs of these characters before, write all of a certain character’s scenes first, then link them together? I admire so much what you’ve done but couldn’t even begin to think how I would approach it as a writer.
DB: After struggling with YOU ARE HERE first being a play and then giving up on that and letting it become a novel, I wrote out a solid draft of the Janet and James section of the book, this began around April of ’04 and ended in the winter of ’06. I began the Stephanie and Alan section of the book in the spring of ’06 and finished it in the late spring of ’07. It was always my intention of weaving those chapters together, so the plots would contrast, also it was a good way to highlight the dramatic changes the city had undergone between the summer of ’01 and the spring, summer and fall of ’04.
JM: How did you decide on the section titles? They are so specific, ie, “Third Friday in June,” and yet, in the greater scheme of four years in these character’s lives—2001 to 2004—they’re not very meaningful at all.
DB: No, they aren’t very meaningful at all, neither are the character’s lives and that was the point.
JM: Another physical marker in the book is 9/11, the beginning of the second Gulf War, and George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, told throughout various newspaper headlines. Did you choose this frame specifically, knowing it might open the book up to criticism of it being a “9/11 book”?
DB: Bush wasn’t re-elected in 04, the ’00 election was stolen, Bush’s election in ’04 was as much a tragedy to me as were the attacks on 9/11. I was shocked and appalled by the election results, and my response was writing YOU ARE HERE, a novel that is book-ended by these two catastrophic events. This was a very painful and difficult book to write and I think if anyone were to criticize me for simply writing a “9/11 book” I’ll know that they probably haven’t even bothered to read it and I try not to suffer fools.
JM: What are you reading these days? Are you working on anything now?
DB: I am reading and really enjoying Arthur Machen’s complete twelve-volume translation of Casanova’s autobiography, also Gilbert Sorrentino’s last novel THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION is quite extraordinary and that is due out from Coffee House in the winter of ’10. Also, I am slowly working on a new novel, while launching two other novels, which has been strange and quite distracting. I’ve never been in this position before, but I am looking forward to digging in with the new novel once THIS YOUNG GIRL PASSING is finally out.
JM: Stacherone seems like a great press—Thaddeus Rutkowski, Leslie Scalapino—what’s your experience been like?
DB: It has been a real pleasure working with Ted Pelton, he is honest and works hard and I think Rebecca Maslen did a great job laying out YOU ARE HERE. After Leslie Scalapino blurbed YOU ARE EHRE she submitted her novel FLOATS HORSE-FLOATS OR HORSE FLOWS to Starcherone on my recommendation and after it was accepted Ted asked me to usher it through the production process, and that has been a real pleasure as I love Leslie’s writing, I’ve published her quite a few times in The Brooklyn Rail, and this novel is really amazing. I am not very familiar with Thaddeus Rutkowski’s work and that is something I’ll explore in the coming months.
JM: What’s your relationship like with your partner (fellow writer Johannah Rodgers)? Do you critique each other’s work? Is it hard living with someone vying for the same air in the literary world? Or is there more air in the room because you’re together?
DB: Johannah and I are very competitive when it comes to air hockey, poker, paddle ball, and putt-putt golf, and she really hates to lose. Fortunately, we don’t compete as writers, and we have been each other’s first readers for the last ten years. Johannah is wonderful writer and a very attentive reader.
***Win a signed and “illustrated” copy of Donald Breckenridge’s YOU ARE HERE by commenting on this interview! Your comment will be your entry. The winner will be announced early next week.***