Duff Brenna is the author of five novels, including The Book of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1989), which won the Associated Writing Programs Award. His other novels are The Holy Book of the Beard (Doubleday/Nan Talese 1996); Too Cool (Doubleday/ Nan Talese, 1998), a New York Times Notable Book; The Altar of the Body (Picador USA, 2001); and The Willow Man (Wykin de Worde, 2005). His books have been translated into German, Dutch, Finnish, Danish, and Hebrew.
Brenna is a recipient of an National Endowment of the Arts grant, Milwaukee Magazine’s Fiction Award for the short story “Cristobell”, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention for the first chapter of The Altar of the Body. His work has appeared in several magazines and literary journals, including Cream City Review, Sou’wester, the Madison Review, the Northern Review, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, and Web del Sol.
An adolescent rebel, and self-described “juvenile delinquent,” Brenna is an Army veteran, whose life took a once unimagined turn for the positive due to his persistence, commitment, and love of reading and writing.
Duff Brenna: I don’t know if I would have ever had the self-discipline to be a writer had it not been for the three years I spent in the 82nd Airborne. I was pretty much a scatterbrain and aggressively impulsive before the Army got hold of me and taught me that there are some genuine consequences to being a hardheaded nonconformist. For the first six months of my hitch I was in and out of trouble, but eventually I got the hang of it. Also, I didn’t have a high school diploma when I enlisted. I had dropped out of school after the ninth grade. In the Army I took the GED examinations and passed them. They gave me an equivalency diploma. They also sent my scores to the last high school I attended in
DA: See, you were remembered.
DB: It was because I finally had a diploma that a few years later I was able to enter college, and ultimately got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. So I’ve got to give the U.S. Army credit and yes, the service was a turning point in my life. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it made my becoming a writer possible. Who knows? I mean I might have become a writer anyway. But I can say at least my time in the service was not wasted, and I probably would have never gone to college had I not first been in the Army.
DA: Although you took an extended break between ninth grade and college, you found solace early on in a love of reading.
DB: I was addicted to reading as an escape, I think. When I was a little boy my mother belonged to The Book of the Month Club and she had a lot of books. I don’t remember doing this, but she used to tell a story about my taking the books off the shelves and surrounding myself with them. Then I would sit in the middle of these walls of books and open one and pretend I could read it. Like I say, I don’t remember doing that.
What I do remember is being around seven or eight years old and taking one of my mother’s books outside to show to my friends. I think it was Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice. I liked it for its bright maroon jacket. I opened to a page and pretended that I could read the words written there. I don’t know if anyone believed whatever I was saying. I knew the story was about Christ’s Last Supper and what happened to the cup he drank from, but I was making it all up as I went along. My friends, a couple of brothers from down the street, listened for a while. Then drifted off. But that was a brain-searing moment for me. After that day I was desperate to learn how to read what grownups read, not this Dick and Jane stuff.
DA: So what came next?
DB: When I was around ten or eleven I somehow came into possession of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. I couldn’t get enough of it or of
Another seminal novel was A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, those beautiful descriptions of the mountains and how wonderful and terrible they could be and how only the fittest could survive (both a
One more book and then I’ll get off this kick. When I was fifteen or sixteen I read O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, a story about the farmers who settled the
DA: Did you attempt any writing early on?
DB: When I was sixteen or so I wrote a tale about an Egyptian slave. I called him Brute. He was influenced by Conan the Barbarian, God help me, but I wrote this thing out and read it to my mother and sister. They weren’t impressed. I tried other things now and then and sometimes I’d have some kindhearted girlfriend tell me that I had a way with words or something like that. But for the most part I had very little idea about how things worked. Actually, I’m still trying to figure that out. You learn a little more every time you sit down and play with words. The apprenticeship never ends.
DA: Your early years before the Army sound like they were filled with a lot of rebellious traveling in search of yourself?
DB: In search of something, I guess. I was very restless and had too much energy and anger. I left home when I was fifteen and went tp Alaska, stayed a few months, and then came back to the lower forty-eight and went back and forth from Minnesota to Colorado to Minnesota again and cross-country through the Dakotas and Montana working the harvests, and on to Washington, Oregon and northern California peeling cascara bark or picking apples, peaches, cherries, strawberries and either living out of my car or catching rides on freight trains or hitchhiking out on the highway. That was back in the late fifties and early sixties when you could get away with that sort of thing. Are there still hobos around, I wonder? Do young men still catch rides on freight trains and work on farms?
DA: You went to college on the GI bill, what did you decide to study?
DB: I started out with a night course in philosophy. I had been reading various philosophers for a few years and I knew something important was there, but I couldn’t put it together in my mind. I couldn’t figure out who or what I believed. I believed whichever philosopher I was reading at the time — Plato (The Republic), Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Voltaire (The Philosophical Dictionary), Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was inching my way through all of these guys with a dictionary by my side, but I wasn’t getting very far.
DA: Not bad for a start.
DB: Schopenhauer was easier to grasp — the world is my idea. Follow that notion out to its logical conclusion and what you have are 6 billion people with 6 billion “ideas” of the world, no two world views “exactly” alike. So how can you tell anyone anywhere what Truth is with a capital T? And yet we do it all the time. Look at the chaotic “truths” of religion. I’m not only talking about the
Schopenhauer saw the world of human will at work and it made him pessimistic. The pessimistic outlook is justified, he said, because people are really bad. And it has nothing to do with God or Satan and their comic book battles for the hearts and minds. Our suffering comes, according to Schopenhauer, because we are all born with defective egos — I am the center of the universe. Or again, the world is my idea. Schopenhauer was angry and cynical about life, and so was I, so he really spoke to me during that period of my life.
I also remember that I hated Descartes’ idea that animals are mechanical clockworks. I still despise the notion. It has led to a lot of needless suffering. It bolstered man’s superior attitude about a Chain of Being with himself just beneath the angels. Anyone who knows history knows that that idea is a bloody lie. So Descartes has been on my shit list ever since.
So yes, I read a lot of philosophers and did my best to understand what they were really saying. I read Hume, Spencer, Hegel, on down to Bertrand Russell, his entire History of Western Philosophy. I read Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man and found the unity of the biosphere idea goes along with
DA: What attracted you to 17th Century Literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular?
DB: The professor mostly. A man named Richard R. Rush. He is the president of some university now, back then he was an inspiring teacher and I wanted to take all of his courses. And then when I became a teacher myself and was one of the first adjunct professors at Cal-State San Marcos they didn’t have anyone yet to teach Shakespeare, so I said I would do it. I did it for fourteen years and teaching Shakespeare may be the most enlightening training for a would-be writer. I mean if you really want to know what is possible with characters, teach Shakespeare. If you really want to know the intricacies of the human condition, teach Shakespeare.
DA: Pretty good experience, the wild life of the lunatic fringe, coupled with philosophy, that makes for believable characters.
DB: Philosophy gives you a basis to understand that the lunatic fringe is sane in its own way. You can learn a lot from lunatics and you can learn a lot from living on the edge. It can be scary out there sometimes, but when you come back in, you have a head full of experiences you would never have had otherwise, which you can use in your writing.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to go out there and live what you write about. You don’t have to go to
I read an interview done with Shirley Hazzard not long ago in The Paris Review and she talked about writing a novel that was set in the
As far as believable characters go, I think I’ve lived enough and studied the human species well enough to know for the most part what makes people tick. Highly simplified: it is all self-interest one way or another. Add passion to it and a dab of reason now and then and you’ve got a formula for humankind all over this pitiful, fear-ridden, emotional, self-destructive world. It may seem that I’m pointing out the downside way too much. So let me say that the upside of the “formula” makes life pretty interesting most of the time. I mean at the very least there are always stories to record. You can’t wear life out. But you can let it wear you out. Which happens a lot, of course.
DA: Obviously you don’t see the world in black and white terms, and the main characters in your novels are noted for their complexity,
DB: Everywhere I look there are always shades of gray. No one, not even those damn terrorists are all black and nasty to the core. Just as our American soldiers aren’t knights in white armor. Every evil character I create has some redeeming feature. I mean even Hitler loved his dog, so there must have been some cells in his brain that weren’t wholly monstrous. Name any monster in history. Every single one has something redeeming. It might be infinitesimally small, but it’s there. That’s what I always keep in mind when I create someone good, I find something dark about him or her and slip it into the narrative. Nothing more boring than perfection. That’s what’s wrong with Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin who is sort of this perfect Christ-like figure. But Myshkin never comes to life. Not fully. He’s boring. The villainous Rogozhin is both good and bad and much more rounded and much more interesting. It’s all in the shading.
DA: Somehow through what one would guess was personal pain and suffering, you have been able to convert that into empathy while maintaining realism in what you write about.
DB: If your life has been troublesome and painful, do something to give that trouble and pain a purpose. I think most people want to know the reason that bad things happen to them. I mean what was the point of having brutal stepfathers who beat me up and molested my sister? If I believed in God I guess I’d say something to the effect that it was all part of the Great One’s master plan, and we will know the meaning and purpose when we die. But I don’t have that solace. I learned early on that the only thing I could believe in is art, in whatever form it might take. But especially in the form of great literature. Art is the way to go in past the barriers of custom and culture and a way to get control of your afflicted past. Art is very often a way to find meaning for the pain that all human beings suffer. Art is also a way to renew your spirit and connect with others. I try to create art every time I sit down to write. Writing about my screwed up life or someone else’s screwed up life sometimes gives me means to get inside and understand what has happened. Those sentences, those paragraphs, those pages, stories, novels, give me a sense of purpose. Otherwise life would be a pointless exercise and I would be wasting my time. Did you ever read what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter not long before he died? Fitzgerald said: What little I’ve accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back — but said at the end of THE GREAT GATSBY: “I’ve found my line — from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty — without this I am nothing.” It is a sad commentary and also a warning. Ecclesiastes tells us that whatever our hands find to do, do it with all of our might. For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.
DA: Your first published novel, The Book of Mamie, has been called “a masterpiece” and “fully deserving of winning” the AWP Award in 1988. How did it come about?
DB: The story of Mamie came to me through my mother and aunt talking about her one day. Mamie actually existed and, as in the book, she ran the town’s movie projector. She used to kiss and hug the projector and get graphite all over her face and hands. When I heard that story I naturally wondered what made her fall in love with a piece of unresponsive steel. I started a short story exploring that image — Mamie loving up a Powers Projector. It took me over 300 pages to find out that she loved the projector because it was her greatest source of knowledge. It was her teacher. Every time Mamie ran a film, she learned something more about the world that she didn’t know before. This is a girl who never even finished grade school. She was dyslexic and maybe vaguely autistic too. She could neither read or write. But she was also a sort of savant. She had a photographic memory when it came to the spoken word. All she had to do is see a film once and she had it memorized and could quote dialogue line by line. Well, somebody like that, she needed to be in a book, didn’t she? So that’s where I put her.
DA: Next was The Holy Book of Beard, more of an ensemble cast of characters who form a community of sorts around a diner for those on society’s fringe.
DB: The characters and story were based on people I met when I first moved to
DA: The Attar of the Body captures the conflict many struggle with between illusion and reality, with personal growth allowing one to accept truth, no matter how painful, and find peace through that self-awareness.
DB: I had been through my mother’s decline through senility and death. She had once been a beautiful, electrifying woman. A guy told me once that she had touched his arm and the hairs on his arm stood up and his body tingled. She never lacked for a lover or a husband until she got older and lost her looks and gave up on life. She was 74 when she died. She lived like a lot of men and women do these days — it’s all about looks and you’re nobody if nobody wants you. So I took the decline of beauty as the core around which I placed a senile old lady, her gorgeous but aging daughter and the daughter’s bodybuilding boyfriend, who is not quite the man he used to be when he was winning Mr. Los Angeles and Mr. Las Vegas titles. The main point was — what do you do when the very thing you lived for is no longer capable of sustaining you? You slip into the illusion that it isn’t happening but the illusion only lasts for a short while and you either find something within you to handle the painful truth, or you retreat inside your head and become mentally ill.
DA: What do you think the adolescent outlaw would have thought if someone said that he would someday be an accomplished writer armed with knowledge of philosophy and literature?
DB: Nonsense. What are you crazy?
DA: How did you come up with the idea for Too Cool ?
DB: Too Cool was based on the time I lived in
DA: Your characters and writing may be on the edge but it seems that you have found peace within yourself.
DB: It’s an illusion. It’s a mask I wear. I am just as driven now as I was when I was a rotten delinquent. The difference is I have channeled all that negative energy into something more positive, the creation of stories and novels, essays and reviews, etc. My only fear is that someday I might sit down to write and find that I haven’t anything to say. And the next day the same thing happens. And the next. So on and so forth. I’m like the senile old lady in The Altar of the Body. I’ve put all my eggs in this one basket. If the basket falls and the eggs break, maybe I’ll do like the old lady does. She mentally falls into the pages of a book and becomes a character in the story. She goes back and forth, but one day she enters the story and never again comes out. But I guess that would be all right.
DA: Sounds like a fitting end for a writer.