I first met Brian Bradford underneath a sign that read “The Meeting Place.” We were in London’s Heathrow airport, waiting for a bus to pick us up and deliver us to a ten day writing residency in the secluded English countryside. The bus was late and there was nowhere to sit, so we leaned uncomfortably against our luggage. After two hours of doing this in silence, Brian looked me over and asked, “Writer?” It turned out to be the first conversation of many that would take place in the following years.
What struck me about Brian that day was his cautious modesty in the face of what was, for both of us, an ambitious step towards our shared goal of improving and eventually publishing our work. Brian admitted that he wasn’t sure he had truly earned his place in the program—that, frankly, he wondered if this whole trip would end in embarrassment. I could certainly relate. But when he showed me an excerpt from the project he was working on—a fascinating chapter of what has now become a fascinating novel—it was clear to me that his worries were misplaced.
Four years later, almost to the day, Brian Bradford’s first novel was published by Jaded Ibis Press. Titled Greetings From Gravipause, the book tells two interrelated narratives, one of which follows a middle-aged professor of astronomy as he grapples with the lulling routine of married life and his own starry-eyed ambitions; the other relates a conflicted father’s private struggle as he prepares to walk out on his wife and sons. Brian’s work explores the secrets people keep—from their loved ones and from themselves—and traces the lingering psychological shadows passed down through generations. The novel is structurally experimental, but through all the turns there is an authentic and wildly original voice keeping everything in orbit.
Recently, I was able to sit down once more with Brian to dig a bit deeper into his process, his influences, and his fascination with the musicality of language.
The Literary Review: Greetings From Gravipause launched in early December, 2015. How long was the book in development for, and how does it feel to reach the finish line?
Brian Bradford: It’s gratifying in a number of ways, but there’s also that sort of post-partum because it’s over. It went through a few different iterations, but altogether it took maybe six or seven years. I’ve got another project I’ve been working on, but I know what a long shlock Gravipause was, and now I just hope that I can produce a little more expediently.
TLR: Did your work on Gravipause prepare you a little bit better for the next one?
BB: Yeah absolutely. I’ve had some very good people supporting me through this—[novelists] René Steinke and Ellen Akins, in particular—who really showed me, if nothing else, how to self-edit. Because that’s something that is really hard to learn. You put your work out there and you’re seeing things, but you’re not seeing things that you need to see. And they helped me a great deal with that. Others did, too. When I was out in Colorado, there was a writing program with Robert Steiner. He’s got a couple novels out and is quite acclaimed. His novel, Dread—that made some noise. He was relentless. He used to really beat us up. And I remember he said, “You’re gonna miss this.” And I remember going, “Yeah, like I’m gonna miss a case of anthrax.” [laughs] But it’s funny because you do need that core group to whom you can say, “Hey can you look at this? I trust you. Not just as a person, but as a writer. I don’t have to worry about you hurting my feelings.” You know? Because that’s not what it’s about—it’s about the work.
TLR: When on your own, is your schedule highly structured, or do you just write whenever you get a chance?
BB: I’m pretty disciplined with that. I don’t remember who said it, but my buddy BJ Ward, the poet, is fond of saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that writing is a fickle date. You’ve got to prove yourself to her if she’s gonna show. And I’m up every morning at 5, even during the school year, just to sit and try to get something down. It’s about that discipline—and that’s something I didn’t have when I was younger. Other things would take priority.
TLR: How would you classify yourself, in terms of genre or style? Gravipause seems to straddle a few different genre lines.
BB: Yeah it does. Well, it’s literary fiction, obviously. There are moments of the absurd in there, juxtaposed with more normal stuff. It’s a tandem narrative, which is what made it interesting to me to write—because if this were a musical piece, there would be the counter line. That allowed me to get a bit outside of the lines. And it was fun to play that sort of musical counter line, which really riffs out but then let’s me bring it back down.
TLR: That jumped out at me: how the connections between the two separate narratives emerge gradually, almost like a mystery. Was that a conscious effort to be disorienting?
BB: That is something I was very much concerned about. It was done by design, not by default. I didn’t want to reveal too much, and I didn’t want it to seem like it was too obvious—like, “I see what he’s doing here”—but I was hoping that, at moments, the reader would extrapolate and see things coalesce, and then go away again, and then come back.
TLR: I actually engulfed Gravipause in one day, which I thought was a really interesting way to read it. At first there is a sense of, “Wait, what’s going on?” Then it starts to make a little more sense, then towards the end everything comes together.
BB: I mentioned Ellen Akins—back when I first sketched out Gravipause, she just kept asking me, “What are you doing here? I mean, you’ve got two different voices, you’re writing in the third person, you’re writing in the first person, you’re all over the board.” And I just wanted to say, “Trust me! I swear, just trust me! It’s really going somewhere! I hope.” [laughs]
TLR: So along that similar line, I can’t help but notice that this is a book of fiction, and yet the main character’s name is Brian Bradford, and there are some aspects of his life that seem to reflect your own. Why the decision to blend fiction and nonfiction?
BB: I’ve never been a big fan of confessional literature, and I’m not a fan of writing for catharsis. You can do that in your journals. But one of the things I tried with this was to get as close to the narrative as I could without falling into being sentimental and just producing shlock. But you know—I’m not sure I’m real comfortable with the decision that I made, because it’s become somewhat of a cliché. Here you are trying to create something that’s a bit organic and new, and you’re just pulling the tropes from ideas that have already happened. So I’m not sure if that was a wise decision.
TLR: Did it affect the way that you perceive this fictional character? Did things ever blur together too much?
BB: Some of it, yeah. But so much of it is just way outside the lines. I never assassinated my Acme Juicerator out in Boulder. I was never kidnapped by the paramilitary arm of the Mormon Church. But I did actually teach over in Japan for a few years, and the company I worked for was run by Mormons. So I just took that out a full revolution. I was never held at a self-storage dump at gunpoint.
TLR: That’s good to know. But there is a letter included in the book, prior to the prologue, that seems to be written by a father who is about to abandon his family. It’s dated from the 1960s. Am I right to think that the letter is real? It becomes a big part of the double-narrative.
BB: That actually happened. I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of confessional writing. But my father did actually leave when I was six and we never knew what happened to him. That’s the letter he left. And to this day, I’ve been trying to come to terms with it. How can you do that? How can you turn your back? He had 3 sons. How do you just close that part of your life out? And whenever I wrote—this is why, I think, it’s taken me so long to do Gravipause—it was about catharsis; it was about anger. It wasn’t working. So I tried to see it from his perspective. I softened my take on him a little bit, and it ended up being partly catharsis, but mainly it was what I was doing structurally, with trying to affect the tension between the two characters. Do the sins of the father visit themselves upon the son? And I worked on the ending section of the book—the chapter titled “Launch”—for the longest time, trying to strike that perfect sweet spot.
TLR: The book does end with notes of uncertainty and indecision. Does that mean that at a different stage in the draft, you had a completely different ending that was more decisive in its resolution?
BB: Yeah. There was the Ron Howard Hollywood Ending, where everyone is great and they get together and they have a child. That got written out. There was one where he just keeps on driving down the highway, not looking back. And I said no. I didn’t want to do that either. It’s better to be somewhere in between. And you asked before about this character and myself, what is fiction, what is faction? This is the one piece where Gravipause is completely off. I’ve got an 8 year old daughter, Erin—the book is dedicated to her.
TLR: The bup.
BB: The bup! And that was never in question, when she was born. I’m there for her. But no matter what, there’s this point in any complicated relationship where you just say, Look! Am I willing to invest any more emotion and any more time in this? Or is it time to pick up and take this elsewhere? It’s a struggle, of course. Marriage is work.
TLR: That takes us to gravipause itself. The opening page of the book defines gravipause as “the region in space where the gravitational field of one celestial body ends or is neutralized by that of another.” When did you first encounter that term, and did you know right away that it would be a major theme?
BB: I did my undergraduate at James Madison University. Degree in philosophy. For part of that I had to take two sciences, so I took oceanography—I love the ocean, that’s my church—and I took astronomy. And I liked astronomy so much I took it twice. [laughs] That’s where I was introduced to this term, gravipause. It’s one of the only things I remember from that course. And yeah, I knew I could use it. It was a big hook for me: if you apply that to love and relationships, phew! That’s extraordinary. What is that point where we neutralize each other, or where we can either break apart or collapse into each other? So I wanted to explore that geography, that terrain, and try to keep a sense of humor about it.
TLR: How well initiated are you in the realm of astronomy and physics? For your fictional alter ego, that’s his job, his life. Do you keep up with that subject matter?
BB: That’s something I learned in my [MFA] program—this whole idea of researching your topic. Depth of understanding. So I had this concept of gravipause, and I did a lot of reading, a lot of research. And you’ll see that the chapters are all prefaced with terms and concepts from astronomy. I haven’t achieved any kind of expertise in the subject, but I have enough, I think, to make this character seem authentic.
TLR: The astronomy aspect of the book does seem to be geared towards character building.
BB: Yeah, and I’ll give you an example. In one of the chapters, he’s at a planetarium and he’s walking out, and he looks up to the sky and wonders if Ptolemy ever taught a section of Astronomy 155, or if he could. So it is more for characterization and authenticity than any preoccupation of mine.
TLR: Something that stands out to me about the novel is how you open your chapters. Places, dates, sensory details—all are given in an interesting staccato-fragmentary way. What drew you to this style?
BB: I’m big into jazz. In Gravipause, there are the two narratives—the father leaving that morning, and also the narrative that runs with the protagonist. In jazz they have what’s called a bare flat phrase. You’ll hear it. And then what’ll happen is they’ll repeat it, and then they’ll start to riff off on it. If you ever listen to Miles Davis play a standard like Funny Valentine, he’ll start simple. [sings melody of My Funny Valentine] That short, spare phrase. And then the question is, where can you take it? And then, can you bring it back? And Miles Davis, for me, always came down to not necessarily the note played, but the note not played. To try and create those pauses within the fiction was a challenge, but really an inspiring challenge. So I try to vary syntax a little bit and play the music.
Gregory Orr wrote an essay called “The Four Temperaments of Poetry.” He wrote for poets, but I think it’s one of the most important things for my fiction that I’ve read. In it, he identifies structure, story, music, and imagination. And it fascinated me, especially for Gravipause. I mean, look: this story has been told a million times. Fathers leave all the time. Husbands and wives struggle all the time. So what can you do to make it fresh, to make it new? You’re not gonna do it with story. You can take a look to your imagination and see where you can push out some walls. But also look at the music of the language. Focus your energies there and hopefully you’ll be somewhere new, somewhere organic. You know how they say that there have only been five or six storylines since the beginning of time, and they keep on repeating themselves over and over?
I’ll give you another example. This still knocks me out. Rick Moody wrote a short story called “Boys.” You talked about these short phrases, short sentences. He has this chorus: “Boys entered the house.” I love that. That was an influence on me. I mean, look what he’s doing. The story itself—the story—is not unique. It’s about two boys who lose their sister. They grow up, they grow apart, they grow together. But what he does with the music and the language makes it new and exciting.
I maintain that story is just the gym I go to to work my words out. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about the words. Robert Steiner asked me once, “Do you love language?” And I looked at him and thought, huh. I love a good dry cabernet. At the time I was dating this girl, Emily. I loved Emily. So no, I didn’t love language. And that’s what dawned on me with Gravipause. Look at the words you’re using. Make every word count, like a poet.
TLR: A couple references to poetry there. Do you read a lot of poetry for pleasure?
BB: Yeah I do. Stephen Dunn is brilliant. I love him. I read my buddy boy, BJ Ward. Sharon Olds is great. Love Langston Hughes. The jazz. Stephen Dobbins.
TLR: Is there anyone you read when you want to grapple with big ideas, as opposed to language?
BB: I’ll give you just a couple. The postmodernists and the deconstructionists of the late 60s and 70s and 80s. Always read Raymond Carver. What Carver does—I mean, what can I say? He’s Ray Carver. Don Barthelme. That whole thing about “trust fragments only.” Don’t worry about synoptic insight here; let the fragments tell the story. There’s a great novel by Ken Gangemi called Olt. I find myself going back to these things. Richard Brautigan—Trout Fishing In America. When I first went up to Colorado years ago, I was 21 and I wanted to write the next Hemingway novel. All I found out was that I can drink like Hemingway but I certainly can’t write like Hemingway. [laughs] But I discovered Brautigan. That book is all these little excerpts that are energized by themselves. But they do move the story forward. And I remember thinking to myself, “Wait, wait, wait. You can do this?! This is a novel?!” And all of a sudden I was so liberated. I never knew I could do that. And then came the Barthelme and the others. And this is gonna sound stupid, but I wouldn’t say they’re my favorite authors to read, but to get me focused back on what I want to do with my fiction. Go back to Barthelme. Go to Carver.
TLR: Carver just seems unable to write a protagonist who readers can all rally behind. It reminds me a little bit of Gravipause because I felt very strongly for fictional-Brian, but at the same time, he’s not portrayed as a do-gooder, perfect protagonist. He’s very flawed.
BB: Absolutely. This guy is a philanderer. He’s embittered in many, many respects. A lot of the humor, I think, comes out of the way he tries to rationalize himself, and his defense mechanisms. Infidelity. He’s very up front about all that. And you know, we all have our favorite lines, but the one that I kept going back to—and this is gonna sound self-aggrandizing, but it just makes you smile—it’s at the end of “The Boulder-Osaka Express” [a chapter in the novel] when they’re at the beach, and he says, “A lot of promises were made that night. Some of them I would keep.” I think it reveals a lot about this character. He’s completely flawed, and he is aware of it.
TLR: Fictional Brian teaches astronomy in a New Jersey community college. But you were the chair of the English Department at Warren County Community College for 20 years. You gave up that position and became a regular full time professor in order to pursue your MFA and get serious about writing. Why the decision to change tracks after that much time teaching?
BB: All through those years, I’d been writing and I’d been working. But it came to a point where I just needed to really get down to Gravipause. And you know, teaching—it’s rewarding to work with student writers and give them what they need so they can improve, but then I’d look at my own stuff and I just couldn’t get back to it. I needed that feedback, that structure that I talked about. It was one of the smartest decisions I’ve made. It was nice to step away from the department chair and all the administrative stuff, which just pulls you away and saps you. It’s a happy marriage, though, writing and teaching. The thing I’ve had to guard against is getting so far pulled away from my writing because of the teaching commitment. From May until September, I have what I’ve been calling Boot Camp. I get a lot of writing done. It’s very intensive.
TLR: As a professor, you’re known for having some interesting quirks. Most famously, teaching classes barefoot. What’s that about?
BB: [laughs] How’d you find that out?
TLR: It is known.
BB: Well, I taught in Japan for two years. A learning environment in traditional Japanese culture is a sanctified area. So both sensai and student take their shoes off. There’s another more practical reason, though. My wife is Japanese, and it’s part of what we do at home. And I’m terribly superstitious, and I swear—I’ve been teaching barefoot since I started here, and I just think that if one day I go in there and teach with my shoes on, the teaching gods will expose me as the charlatan I really am. [laughs] So I don’t play with that.
TLR: Our readers might not be aware, but you actually have some experience with TLR as well, serving as an Editorial Reader for a few years. Did your time in the literary magazine sphere influence Gravipause at all?
BB: Yes it did. I was very fortunate that I was brought on in that capacity. As Editorial Reader, you’re exposed to so much fiction coming in, and to take a look at it and say, “Okay, what works for me in this piece? Why should it be in this publication?” But then to go back to it and say, “Well what doesn’t work? What would I do differently?” There were so many times where I just said, Wow! I never would have even thought of doing it like this. What’s the old saying? Good writers steal a little, great writers steal a lot? [laughs] Not that I actually lifted, obviously, but you do get ideas—“Look what this is doing structurally! God, this is good!”
TLR: Speaking of ideas, you mentioned earlier that you’ve got another project already kicking around. Anything looming? What’s the plan going forward?
BB: I have this fascination with abandoned drive-in movie theaters. It’s a slice of Americana that has gone away. And really, these are the sacred spawning grounds of our times. I don’t know how many people got started in the back of a Buick 6. [laughs] But I actually spent about a year knocking around the country in an old ‘64 Rambler looking for abandoned drive-ins. So the working title of the new project is The Book of Lesser Monuments. And I want to break it into three sections. One is about the ethos of the 1950s and that whole masquerade of “This is wholesome, this is wonderful!” But when you look just below the surface…. And then there’s a middle section called “Maggie Jigs,” which is loosely based on my own mother, who was a product of that era. She straddled the fence of the 50s and 60s. And the last section is just lesser monuments. Pawn shops. A diner. Drive-ins. Nothing grandiose. But they speak of an Americana that is rapidly changing. We’re in a situation here in the information age when things happen so fast, and the face of America changes so quickly that we have to rediscover it almost every other week because it’s something new. And these little monuments, these touchstones, always bring me back.
TLR: So American institutions, but ones that aren’t on a big enough scale to to get much attention?
BB: Right. Places like P.J. Clarke’s. That to me is a lesser monument. There’s a pawn shop in Atlantic City—I haven’t been down there in a while, for good reason [laughs]—but I was down there with BJ Ward, my buddy, and we were looking at some pawn shop. And—man, this is actually too saccharine, I can’t use it in Monuments—but there was actually a charm bracelet in the display case and it had a charm that said “World’s Greatest Grandmother.” And I mean, to fall that low that you’re gonna hawk that… and I can’t even use it! [laughs] Because it’s too obvious. It’s too easy. I mean, come on. Sentimental. But it’s that kind of thing. That, to me, is a lesser monument. I think they’re important.
Brian Bradford’s latest novel is Greetings From Gravipause, available now from Jaded Ibis Press (2015).
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.