Little Rock's Kevin Brockmeier is the award-winning author of two story collections, two children's books and three novels, including "The Brief History of the Dead" and "The Illumination." His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney's, the Oxford American and the Georgia Review.
His new book (published on Tuesday), "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade," is his first work of nonfiction, a beautifully written and often unsettling account of his experiences as a seventh-grader in Little Rock in 1985-86 (a period, he says at one point, bookended roughly by the releases of "Gotcha!" and "Top Gun"). Far from an exercise in nostalgia, the book is a glimpse into the peculiar and particular terrible-ness of that stage in a young person's life, full of nebulous friendships, minor humiliations and melancholy boredom. The books rings awfully true, in other words, and Brockmeier's potent, honest prose makes for a vivid, funny and achingly familiar read.
You're known as a fiction writer. Why a memoir and why now?
The book had been gestating for quite a while, actually. In fact, I tried to start it several years ago, but couldn't figure out how to approach the material, so I set it aside to work on "The Illumination." I remember reading something that Charles Baxter wrote about William Maxwell's short novel "So Long, See You Tomorrow": "You feel that you have been given considerably more of what is precious to its author than is often the case in novels of many hundreds of pages." I was thinking of that as a sort of challenge: to give away what was most intimate to me.
Even the strangest and most unlikely of my books have had hard undercurrents of personal feeling, but very rarely have they depicted what literally happened to me. There are writers I love — Italo Calvino, for instance, and Octavia Butler — who wrote almost nothing about their own lives, and I love them no less for that, but I can't help wondering what such books would have been like and wishing they existed.
Did you find that autobiographical writing presented a different set of challenges from your previous work?
I always work roughly the same way. My shorthand description is that I broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I'm satisfied that they present the right effect, doing my best to complete each one before I move on to the next. My approach was the same here, except that the character whose world I was exploring was a younger version of myself. One of the challenges for me was figuring out whether I would reflect on that time in my life or immerse myself in it. How much distance, I wondered, should I permit myself? None, was my decision, or at least as little as possible.
I selected the third-person, present-tense voice — Kevin does this, Kevin thinks that — mostly as a matter of instinct, but on reflection I think that it gave me a very particular way of approaching the story, one that allowed me to investigate my life the same way I investigate the lives of my fictional characters, with both honesty and compassion. My fiction-writing muscles are trained toward sympathy, whereas if you're reflecting on your own life, you train yourself away from sympathy, or at least I do. I hope I found a way to be simultaneously transparent and generous with myself.
Why seventh grade?
There's this idea that only big lives, momentous lives, are worthy of memoir, and I remember thinking, well, maybe, but isn't every life momentous — or at least wouldn't it be if you approached it with enough care, enough perceptiveness? Take any one year of any one life, recount it with clarity and sympathy, and shouldn't it matter? Seventh grade was far and away the most difficult year of my childhood, but it's also the year I've spent the most time trying to understand, as well as the source of a lot of the stories I've continued to tell, and I thought it would make for fruitful narrative soil.
I tried to avoid treating the incidents I recall as anecdotes, packaged together with whatever meanings or punchlines I've derived from them over the years, since I don't think our lives actually unfold with morals attached to them, or meanings that are easily extracted, or jokes designed to generate sympathy. I wanted to do the opposite — to offer up a life whose meanings can only be perceived through a tangle of desires, confusions and textural details. But the wealth of stories I remember from seventh grade certainly gave me a way of organizing the book: Oh yes, this happened, and then this happened, and then this.
The book can be painful to read. Was it painful to write?
It might seem odd, but the most painful experiences to undergo ended up being the easiest to write about, simply because I recollected them so clearly. Those voices — I don't think they've ever fully left my mind. What was hard for me was cleaving to the facts of my life as they actually transpired, and also to my sensibility as I recall it working back then — to that vocabulary, that perspective, that specific 13-year-old boy's set of worries and preoccupations — resisting the urge to let my own sensibility, the retrospection of a middle-aged man, take up the instrument and change the key. Not painful work, then, but painstaking.
Did you have any reservations about the book's kind of stark honesty, or was this necessary to the whole project?
I didn't have those hesitations while I was writing the book, or at least I wouldn't allow myself to indulge them, because the question at its heart was so intriguing to me: How did it actually feel to be this particular human being immersed in this particular life during this particular year? That's what I wanted to know, and it seemed to me that my answer would only have any value if I was as honest as I knew how to be.
My impulse was to take all the circumstances of my life — the person I used to be, the friends I used to know, the girls I used to like, the dreams I used to have, the movies I used to watch, the secrets I used to keep, the doubts I used to hide, the adulthood I used to anticipate — everything, whether good, bad or embarrassing — and gather it back together. The problems of trying to resurrect that long-gone consciousness and that long-gone time were difficult for me, and being anything other than truthful would only have compounded the difficulty.
I'll admit, though, that as the publication date has approached I've been considerably more nervous than I usually am, because the material of the book is so intimate and I did so little to soften it.
Was there a book or set of books that served as guideposts for your approach here, or that at least allowed you to think that this book was something you could pull off?
I'm never sure I can pull my books off. If I were, I doubt I would feel compelled to attempt them. That said, writing this one, I think I was under the imaginative magnetic sway of "Stop-Time" by Frank Conroy, "I Will Not Leave You Comfortless" by Jeremy Jackson, "So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell and "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" by Chris Fuhrman, though the last two are autobiographical novels rather than memoirs, and none of them are written in either the third person or the present tense, nor do any of them make a brief foray into science fiction, as "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip" does.
I hope it's not graceless to say that while I was writing the book I also read a pair of memoirs that I found dissatisfyingly sterile or lazy in very specific (and fundamentally opposite) ways: negative examples. One of them was carefully and deliberately composed and seemed wholly faithful to the facts of the writer's life, but failed to offer anything like the lived experience of those facts, and the other was brimming with the lived experience of its writer's life, and was probably faithful to the facts, but was very poorly crafted — passionate, but at the expense of some vibrancy or precision in the phrasing. I did my best to avoid those shortcomings.
The city of Little Rock is a sort of enigmatic minor character in the book. How has your own relationship to the city changed over the years?
Well, for starters, there's a big difference between knowing a city by car and knowing it by foot. It's tempting to think that the portion of a city that's available for you to discover shrinks as you grow older, but the truth, I suspect, is that the shadows and the light simply switch places: you know more of the terrain, but you know it less intimately. I'm certainly more familiar with the highways of this place than I used to be, and the restaurants, and the arrangement of the neighborhoods, but I doubt I'll ever again know a patch of woods as completely as I did the one behind Sturbridge Apartments when I was 10 years old.
A city is something like a net, I think, and for me the net of Little Rock is a lot bigger now, but the knots are much farther apart. I'm sure there are things that slip through the gaps. I've written about Little Rock before, specifically in a couple of stories that I think of as precursors to this book, "Apples" and "Andrea Is Changing Her Name." But "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip" marks my hardest effort to capture Little Rock as it actually exists, or at least as it did back in 1985. It was a smaller place for me then, but no less mine.
In the book, you take the opportunity to visit your seventh-grade self (a very strange and powerful scene). What practical advice would you give a younger you if this were possible, assuming this entire book isn't already an answer to this question?
There's the kind of late-night time-travel conversation you might fantasize about having with your younger self — love this person; avoid that one; hold on tight when you meet this one; hold on tight and don't let go — and then there's what I actually wanted to do with the book, which was simply to say, This is what happened to me, this is how I remember it. Maybe that would be enough — just that — to look myself in the eye and say, "I remember you."