Dylan Brown is a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State. His work has appeared in Brevity, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Barrelhouse. He currently works as a bookseller on the Oregon Coast.
His essay, "Here in the Mariana Trench," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, Dylan Brown talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about research, scaffolding, and Nick Flynn.
What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “Here in the Mariana Trench”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?
This piece in its current form started as a response to a prompt from one of my instructors at Oregon State, Jennifer Richter, in a hybrid forms class. It was strange for me because I typically don’t enjoy prompts but Jennifer pointed out a type of scaffolding I thought I could work with. She’s a great poet who I think understands structure really well. The material itself came from things I’d been tinkering with before in a more linear way but weren’t working in that form.
This essay contains some factual information about a shipwreck, Werner Herzog, and, of course, the Mariana Trench. How does research fit into your writing process? Are you learning about these things before or during your work on the essay? How much do you depend on research for your nonfiction writing, and do you enjoy doing research?
Research cracks open the world a little bit for me, and maybe more importantly, it expands my vocabulary, helps me find the right word. It’s a process I enjoy immensely, which seems natural to me because my love of writing is rooted in my love of reading. At times, usually when I’m writing, I feel like I don’t know anything about anything, which can be kind of debilitating. Research can help alleviate that. I usually try to write as much as I can without doing any research, but in this case parts of the piece really came about from connections I was making as I was reading: the ships and the narcosis, for instance.
You write about your mother and father in this essay, at times revealing some personal information and making some vulnerable statements, such as, “Does he know that I miss him? He might suspect as much. I can’t say if he’ll ever read this. I just don’t know how to call, or what I’d say if I did.” Do you ever have any reservations about not only writing about these relationships but also publishing the work? Can you speak about the risks and rewards of writing and publishing creative nonfiction about your loved ones?
I had some reservations at first, particularly with regards to my father. This isn’t the most flattering portrait of him, but it is an honest one. He’s always been honest with me, many times to a fault, so it might run in the family. In terms of the risks and rewards, I’m reminded of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. When I read it I kept saying to myself, “He’s describing my dad! That’s him!” Of course, it wasn’t him, but it meant so much to me to see shades of my own experience in someone else’s story. Now, I think we owe it to one another to share these things. It kills me to think of all the important stories people have taken with them to the grave. I don’t know if that’s coming from a place of selfishness or generosity.
There are a few moments in this essay when the focus turns to writing itself (e.g., “I’ll admit it: I chafe at the thought of poetry, when it becomes a show or veneer, a cloak the writer hides behind,” or, “I don’t tell the truth anymore.”). How did these “meta” moments make their way into this essay? What’s the intended effect on the reader of calling attention to the artifice of the work you’re doing?
The meta moments are apologia, in a sense. I’m a sucker for narrative and linear structure but with this material I felt those devices were letting me down. The intended effect has something to do with reminding the reader that making sense of our lives often means making sense of the linguistic tools we are using. Here I may have felt as though I was doing some hiding myself by structuring the material this way.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a longer piece of fiction. I don’t really know enough about it yet to say more than that. I’m also working on a book review and some translation work. It helps me to have several things going at once, in case I stall out somewhere.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker is a quiet novel that blew me away. Baker’s writing belies an intense curiosity about the world that I envy and I tend to enjoy novels where not much happens. For example, there’s a whole bit about the proper way to wash a dirty plate. Each section starts with what time it is in the early morning as the narrator drinks coffee by a fire he’s just built. Then it follows his thoughts and worries about the coming day, sometimes a memory, and moves out from there. It’s a great study in how relatively uneventful scenes can add up to an affecting novel.