James Brubaker is the author of Pilot Season, Liner Notes, and Black Magic Death Sphere: (science) fictions. His work has appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hobart, Booth, and The Collagist, among other venues. He lives in Missouri with his wife and cat, and teaches writing there. His novel, The Taxidermist’s Catalog, was just released by Braddock Avenue Books.
Meghan Reed: In The Taxidermist’s Catalog, science fiction meets folk music, social justice, and the mysteries of the human heart. A central question in the novel is what happened to 1970s folk singer Jim Toop, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances at the height of his career. What sparked the inspiration for all these elements to come together and form a novel?
James Brubaker: It all started when a fiction professor of mine at Oklahoma State told me about Jim Sullivan, a real musician who disappeared in the 70s. Nobody knew what happened to Sullivan, and one of his albums was called U.F.O, and so there was a hint of conspiracy around him—a handful of folks legitimately wondered if he had been abducted by aliens. I wanted to explore a mystery like this, but didn’t want to use Sullivan as a character—I wanted leeway to really steer into the absurdity of conspiracy theories, so I invented Jim Toop. And then from the conspiracy theories, some of the more sci-fi adjacent ideas entered into the story. It only made sense then to have a main character named Fox Mulder, and for him to be the son of an X-Files super fan—a kid like that would absolutely be drawn to Jim Toop, even before other, more personal questions emerge.
MR: A main character in the novel, Fox Mulder, shares with his mother a great love of all things Sci-Fi. Is this a love of yours as well?
JB: Pretty much. I’m a little more limited in scope. I love X-Files, and Star Trek. I’ve never been quite as obsessive as they are, but I definitely enjoy sci-fi for both its escapism and its willingness to explore heavy, difficult issues.
MR: The relationship between the character Fox and his mother is complex. You give us a glimpse of what it’s like to grow up with a parent who suffers from mental illness. Yet, I love their relationship for other reasons. As a mother, her saving grace is respect for her son, and their connection over X-Files, and science fiction novels, like Ray Bradbury’s works. What did you want to show with this relationship?
JB: This was one of those relationships that really emerged naturally through the writing. Often, I write from ideas, and minimize character in service of those ideas, but I let character guide this novel a little more than I usually do, and the relationship between Fox and his mother was one that I didn’t have heavy expectations for when I set out to write. I knew that I wanted it to be a loving relationship, and I knew there would need to be some turmoil. When I started to get a sense of how their relationship worked, it was something I steered into—and one of my favorite moments in the book is when they smash up the hard drive of Fox’s computer together. By the time I had a feel for what their relationship was, I think what I wanted to show was how this little family could be both so alone together, but also how they could heal.
MR: The novel’s structure is complex. It jumps from the point of view of music journalist Daniel Mourus, to that of Fox Mulder, to an unnamed narrator from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. And in between, the story moves forward via the interview with Toop’s father and the album review by Daniel Morus. How did you come up with such a creative avenue for storytelling?
JB: A lot of trial and error. Often, when I set out to tell a story, I have a very specific idea in mind in terms of form. I started this novel rooted firmly in Daniel Morus, but as the ideas grew, and I started to get a better sense of the scope and thematic concerns, I knew I needed to explore some other points of view, and I needed to play with point of view a little. And honestly, once the ideas started to come together, the form ended up being a result of necessity—were there different ways I could have written the interview with Toop’s father and the section told from the first person collective consciousness of Truth or Consequences? Absolutely—and both sections went through many revisions before I landed on the final versions. It was really about finding the best approach to tell the story and serve both the characters and the mysteries they were chasing.
MR: A recurring theme in the novel centers on the conspiracy theories of Jim Toop’s disappearance, which do not exclude alien abduction from the list of possibilities. What role does this plot line embody in the overarching message of the novel?
JB: I like the alien abduction motif as a reminder of the unknown, and this book is all about the unknown, even to the point that, though readers are given a ton of clues, the book never quite comes out and fully explains everything in the end. But there’s a certain romance to the idea of alien abductions, and the lore surrounding them—lost time, beams of light, dark triangles. When I used to live in Ohio, I’d run errands late at night when normal people were sleeping. I used to listen to this amazing/terrible nationally syndicated radio show called Coast to Coast (with George Noory). The show tackled everything from ghosts to myths of lost treasures, but the most common theme was UFO sightings and stories of abductions. So many of the callers’ stories of their own abductions were pretty absurd, but in them I thought I could hear a clear, desperate desire for these people to escape their lives, to somehow be special enough to be chosen for abduction. To be different. And I think that’s part of what drives Fox Mulder—this idea of wanting to step out of his life into something else, and maybe, to a lesser extent, this same idea drives Daniel Morus as well.
MR: The lyrics you write for Jim Toop’s songs are reminiscent of Bob Dylan, John Denver, and Leonard Cohen, with a healthy dose of nostalgia, humor, and longing, like all good folk music. Who is the biggest influence for your lyrics?
JB: For the lyrics themselves, I definitely had an eye on the classics, Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Drake. But also, there are some specific nods to some Dayton favorites—Guided By Voices inspired some of the songs about flight, and there’s one song in the book with a line or two inspired by a band called Ohio Casket, who never played much outside of Dayton. The trick to writing the songs, though, was having rhythms in mind for the lines as I wrote. Every song had, at its conception, a real life analog that I kept in mind rhythmically as I wrote, and I drew on a variety of styles and eras for these so it was varied. As I wrote and revised songs, those rhythms changed, but some of them could still be set down to the songs I had in mind and line up pretty closely.
MR: As I started, I had no idea of the journey you would take me on, the story is dynamic, and hilarious may I add, yet at the beginning, the reader anticipates that they will stay with the sorrowful Daniel Morus in his dreary apartment, and then the unexpected happens. When dreaming up and writing The Taxidermist’s Catalog, what did you have the most fun with?
JB: I had a ton of fun inventing Toop’s career. Part of my preparation for writing the novel was to write his discography, including track titles and many of the lyrics. I wanted the body of his work to feel like it existed so that the book could just dip into it when needed, as if the albums existed in our world (and at one time, I was toying with the idea of asking someone to record a few of the songs and self-release a 7” record of them, but I couldn’t get it to come together). Writing Toop’s career was certainly fun, but so was writing about Fox Mulder, and writing about Truth or Consequences. I guess my philosophy of writing is this: I’m a weird guy, and I am weirdly passionate about my pop culture interests, and I just need to write what excites me, and have faith that there are enough weirdos out there like me who will find and appreciate my work. So, really, I had a blast writing pretty much everything.
MR: How was crafting this novel different for you than your other books?
JB: My previous books came together more loosely, as they were story collections. I had overarching ideas I was exploring in them, but nothing like with the novel. Likewise, in a way, Taxidermist’s Catalog almost hangs together like a story collection, but its sections are much more tightly connected than stories. This one took a lot more planning, and a lot more rewriting.
MR: As a writer of both novels and short stories, what should we expect to see from James Brubaker in the near future?
JB: I’m working on a new novel. I hope to have it done at some point in 2021 and to start sending it out. It’s entirely drafted, and I’m on something like draft 3.5. I think after this current rewrite, I’ll be able to focus in on the smaller details, and polishing. After that, I’m going to impose a six-month moratorium on writing. Sometimes I just get exhausted, especially when teaching, running a small University press, and writing. I want to take time to read some novels and stories that aren’t by my students, for class, or for the Press. I want to recharge, and then my goal is to come out of that recharge with some story ideas. I’ve been itching to write short stories again. But, we’ll see, because I’ve also had a new novel idea starting to haunt me, so who knows what will actually happen when I’m finished writing the current book.
Meghan Reed holds degrees in creative writing and French from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A Cooper Honors Scholar, her work has appeared in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s literary magazine, Equinox, where she won the 2017 Award for Fiction.