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"The Last Mathematically Possible Melody": An Interview with James Brubaker

James Brubaker is the author of Pilot Season (Sunnyoutside Press) and Liner Notes (Forthcoming from Subito Press). His stories have appeared in venues including Zoetrope: All Story, The Normal School, Michigan Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and Hobart, among others.

His short story, "Spielberg's Unified Theory of Everything," appeared in Issue Fifty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, James Brubaker talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about music, metafiction, and popular culture.

What was the initial idea that sparked the first draft of this story?

That’s a tough one. The original idea for this story goes back a couple of years, but at that point, it was just about this Spielberg character who was obsessed with narrative. I ended up abandoning that early version because I couldn’t make it work. Then I read something—and it was something weird, like a Facebook post, or an article linked to on Twitter, I don’t even remember—that basically suggested that the search for a unified theory was sort of science’s version of trying to “know God,” or something along those lines. I wish I could track the article down, but the idea was that humans want to find and test this universal theory of all things because it speaks to the same impulses that religion speaks to, that is, it would sort of give order to the universe like religions do for their adherents. This idea reminded me of the Spielberg story I’d started, and seemed like something that could activate that character a bit more, so I went back into the story and reshaped Spielberg and expanded the scope of the story and that was basically a second first draft, or maybe it was my rebooted first draft.

One thing I admire about this story is how unafraid it is to rise to the meta level. In only the second paragraph, you write, “When the boy named Spielberg is six, I have made it so that he will become the boy whose mother died in a car crash when he was six years old,” and then you go on to express guilt for making this decision. When and how did you decide to assert your presence as author and include these metafictional moments in your story?

This was part of the original idea back when the story was just about a guy named Spielberg who tried to find narrative in everything around him, but then the idea was cut for a while and didn’t come back into the story until close to the end of drafting. Since the story was written in this sort of unusual, omniscient, future tense, some echoes of that original meta layer were still hanging around because the constructed author of the piece had to be fairly present to navigate the tense. Then, eventually, after a couple of drafts, I felt like something was still missing from the story, and I noticed a few of those meta-echoes throughout and decided to play around with them a bit, and ended up really liking the new layers of conflict and meaning that it brought to the story.

The main character in this story is named Spielberg, and its first sentence contains a list of some of the famous Spielberg’s movies. Also, your first book, Pilot Season, is described on your website as a “short volume of pilot episodes for fictional television shows.” What can you say about how film, television, and pop culture have influenced your fiction? How have these other media become a significant part of your writing?

I feel like I need to preface this answer by saying that I love books, and I read a ton, and I have always had and always will have a deep respect for literature. That’s why I write. That said, I also watch a ton of movies and television shows, and I’m fascinated by the different ways of telling stories across different media. In studying film a bit here and there in my past, I became fascinated with the idea of montage, and the way Eisenstein and the Soviets sort of invented this new grammar for storytelling in film around montage, and I think that montage is an interesting way to think about writing. Maybe that idea shows up, just a little bit, in this Spielberg story through the arrangement of scenes, but that is working with far bigger pieces of information than montage in film, which generally revolves around connecting and shaping narrative out of briefer, not necessarily connected images. And then, of course, in perhaps a more general way, I think our popular culture is probably the most honest reflection of our cultural values, and so it seems like relevant territory to explore in terms of trying to get at what makes us tick. Pilot Season was written, in part, as a critique of television culture, but also, in a weird, backhanded way, as a celebration of the same—that is to say, television is so mind-bogglingly cynical and is constantly revealing some of our ugliest impulses, but maybe there’s value in that; maybe there’s something accepting and almost impossibly humane that goes beyond simply exploiting our flaws for entertainment; maybe television also sort of re-assures us that cruelty and ugliness are part of our world, and we’re all capable of those things, but that most people want to be and are, basically decent, and that we’re all in that struggle together.

Your bio says that you served as music section editor for a journal called The Fiddleback. Is there a relationship between music and your writing process? Do you listen to music while you brainstorm, write, and/or revise? Do you ever pair works of music with your finished works, like a soundtrack?

Absolutely. I’ve played music since 4th grade when I had mono and couldn’t play baseball. I started playing the saxophone then and played seriously all the way through my first year as an undergraduate. At that point, I realized I wasn’t ready to commit to the insane practice hours of my peers. People literally slept in practice rooms for an hour or two in between practicing. But my love of music has deeply shaped my writing. The collection I’ve got coming out from Subito later this year is called Liner Notes and explores this love head on, tackling music and the culture surrounding it from all these different angles. There’s a story in there about a fictional private press record being reissued, and another about Flavor Flav traveling through time, and one about the discovery of the last mathematically possible melody. Each story in that book had its own soundtrack as I was writing, just to help construct the world I envisioned for each story. While I was writing Pilot Season, I listened to as many TV theme songs as I could find on Spotify. And as I was writing the collection I just finished, (Science) Fictions, I put together a few playlists of sci-fi-ish, retro-futurist and/or new agey stuff like Tangerine Dream, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Boards of Canada, and would let myself get absorbed in these sort of early 80’s Epcot Center synth drones because I wanted that feeling to permeate the stories. And yes, while I’ve never shared my finished works’ soundtracks, I have a pretty good sense of what they are. I can tell you off the top of my head that the soundtrack for the Spielberg story is Air’s “Kelly Watch the Stars,” Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Explain,” and The Flaming Lips’ “Look…the Sun is Rising.” Also, as a general rule, if no other music is working for writing, my defaults are In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.   

Your second story collection, (Science) Fictions, was recently put on the shortlist for the 2014 Pressgang Prize, where a reader said of it, “Carver and Borges had a baby and it is this third story.” Do you consider those authors to be influences of yours? What writers do you credit most with shaping your style and sensibility?

Hands down Borges was probably the biggest influence on me. I was already thinking of myself as I failed writer in 2002 when I stumbled across a copy of Ficciones. I read that book and said, this is how I want to tell stories. It made me understand things about the ways I was trying to tell stories that I didn’t know how to work with, before. I’ve never thought of Carver as an influence, but I guess, at this point, Carver has been everywhere for a while (I mean, I was first unwittingly exposed to Carver, sort of, when a heavily edited version of Altman’s Short Cuts was screened on a flight to Hawaii when I was maybe 12 years old) and the Ph.D. program I went through had a bit of a thing for Carver while I was there, so it makes sense that some facets of what he did crept into my work. Some other biggies for me are Millhauser, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, and Lorrie Moore. Those are the folks I was reading a lot of when I was in the early stages of figuring out how to tell stories, and I think they’ve probably shaped my writing more than anyone else.

What recent books would you like to recommend to our readers?

At the risk of looking like a suck up, I loved Gabe Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft. I also love Erin Flanagan’s collection of stories called It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories. I’m about halfway through Leesa Cross-Smith’s Every Kiss a War, and am enjoying that. The new Pynchon was pretty great. Dan Shapiro has a great book of poems I picked up at AWP called How the Potato Chip Was Invented. Peter Tieryas Liu’s Bald New World is a wonderfully fun and original take on traditional sci-fi/dystopian stories. Catherine Gammon’s Sorrow was one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking books I’ve read in recent memory, but it’s so worth it, and Brandon Hobson’s Deep Ellum is a beautifully written exploration of hopeful sadness. Also, the 33 1/3 volume on They Might Be Giants’s Flood is probably the best music writing I’ve encountered in a while. And if folks are into comics, Dan Slott’s current Silver Surfer book is a lot of fun, as is Charles Soule’s She-Hulk, and pretty much anything that Matt Fraction is writing. Oh, and also, the Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel series is fantastic.

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