portrait Duff Brenna

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 100 ~ September, 2005

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.

A Minnesota native, Brenna once tried his hand at owning and running a Wisconsin dairy farm. He is currently a free-lance writer living in Sun City, CA.

Derek Alger: It may not have seemed like it at the time but serving in the Army appears as if it was a turning point in your life, one that actually made becoming a writer possible.

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 Elk River, MN and amazingly in 1964 that school sent me a genuine Elk River High diploma.

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 London. I methodically went through everything available. I read White Fang, The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden, all of Tales of Adventure and London biographies called IJack London: American Rebel by P.S. Foner and Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone. Like I say, I couldn’t get enough, until one day I came to Iron Heel and bogged down in the polemics. But reading London‘s tales led me to an interest in frontiers and Indians and I combed the libraries for books about them and went through everything from The Leatherstocking Tales to Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Chief Joseph and then on to whatever I could find about Mountain Men, Jeremiah Johnson, Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger.

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 London and a Guthrie common theme). I remember Dick Summers was the wise old mountain man, the mentor who taught the main characters Jim and Boone how to prevail against fearful odds. And I still remember Boone visiting Dick after he retired and Dick asked what happened to Jim. And Boone said, “I kilt Jim.” These two guys were best of friends, ready to lay down their lives for each other, but a woman came between them and though Jim was innocent of any wrong doing with her, Boone got so jealous he killed him. I must have been about thirteen at the time I read that line. It made a big impression on me obviously.

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 Dakotas and the nearly unbearable hardships they went through. I’m from Minnesota and I had heard stories like theirs when I was growing up. Farmers that broke the land and farmers who were broken by the land. I think it was when I read that book that I perversely wanted to become a farmer, which I did in 1982. In 1984 I went bankrupt and everything was auctioned off. But The Book of Mamie came out of that experience.

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 Mideast mess. I’m talking about our own wild-eyed America with its mind-washed fanatics that would shove their truths down your throat, even if they have to kill you in the process. We could easily have that form of “conversion” going on in the USA if religious radicals were ever to have their way. They would sacrifice people like myself for the cause without a second thought. Many would even sacrifice themselves. There’s a lot of self-sacrifice going on these days. We see it daily. It passes for martyrdom and not self-interest. But even in that sacrifice of self there is something in it for moi. Martyrs don’t die for you or the cause, they die for the “beauty” or the “meaning” it gives to their lives.

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 Darwin in saying that life is all one continuous gradation of capacities and functions. I could carry this on and on ad infinitum, but I’ve probably said more than enough for now. The ultimate point is, I was prepared to take a philosophy class and I did well enough to pass and it encouraged me to try another. A year into my classes I switched to literature, a more natural fit.

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 Alaska to write about Alaska. Or Mexico to write about Mexico. Others have gone there and written about those places and you can experience any number of places simply by reading a pile of books about them. With that kind of “experience,” or any other kind, a certain authenticity enters your work. People believe that you know what you are talking about and they trust you.

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 Far East. She talks about her hero walking through China and then in part of the atmosphere she created in the book came from the writings of Victor Segalen. She writes about the horror of World War I and, of course, she wasn’t there, but others were who wrote about it. Hazzard was never a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in World War II either, but again she can write about it because others either wrote about it or told her their stories. You see what I’m saying about experience? In a way she had experienced everything she wrote about. That’s what can happen to you vicariously through the books of other writers and by being a good listener. And that is a valid means of experiencing something well enough that you can write about it authentically. Look at Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. How could he write something so authentic when he had never been to war? He researched war. Absorbed it.

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 San Diego. The diner exists in a place called Kensington, a suburb of San Diego. Two of the characters, the ex-con Henry Hank and his girlfriend Mary Quick were based on a man and his wife I had met through their son. I used to go to their house and listen to their wild stories about holdups and life in prison. The man was solid muscle and nobody to mess with. Most of the time he was really nice, but of course he had a dark side. It would come out sometimes when he was drunk and driving a car and someone would cut in front of him or something. He would go crazy (talk about road rage!) and run them off the road. This happened twice when I was in the car. Twice was enough. I didn’t want to drive with him anymore, nor did I. So anyway, I put these two together along with a younger character based vaguely on myself who watches and records whatever he sees happening. Then other people started getting into the act and I found Fat Stanley, a kind of moral center that the book lacked until he stepped in. Helga appeared and became Fat Stanley’s head waitress. I needed more conflict in their story, so I gave her cancer and the dilemma of three kids who would soon be orphans. Helga sees Fat Stanley as their savior. But of course he wants no part of it. As a writer you throw these things out and then write your way to some sort of resolution. And if things go your way, after a year or two you have a novel. And if things really go your way, the novel sells.

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 Colorado and stole a car and ran away with my girlfriend. We got stuck in the snow in the mountains. The police were chasing us and I turned off the highway and drove along a snowy ranch road and came around a curve and hit a deep drift. We were there for three days before I finally found someone at a rail-tending station who called the cops. They showed up and took us to jail. So I built Too Cool around that experience. I wanted to show a kid who everyone hated (except his buddies and his girlfriend) because he was so much trouble and impossible to handle. But I also wanted to give him some qualities that a totally troublesome teenager might lack. I gave him courage. I gave him loyalty. I gave him some insight into some of the grownups he came in contact with. I gave him also the ability to love one special person and put his life on the line for her. With the way those ingredients mixed in Too Cool I was able to build a story based on lots of true facts but also lots of fiction.

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.

DB: Exactly.