Conversation with Erick Brucker

Erick Brucker’s short story, “Dank,” appeared in Backchannels Issue No. 2.

Image from  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/adorable-heroic-animals-museum-maritime-pets-180955012/  of a sea captain and his cat. Potentially worth noting, this photo was taken during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Image from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/adorable-heroic-animals-museum-maritime-pets-180955012/ of a sea captain and his cat. Potentially worth noting, this photo was taken during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

1. Your piece, “Dank,”has an unusual format. It felt like I was climbing the staircase of the story as I read. What role does form play in the piece for you?

I think that what’s unusual about it is that the title comes in the middle, and obviously the traditional place for titles is before the beginning. I got that idea, partly, from a book called Tristam Shandy by Lawrence Sterne, who was a contemporary of Daniel Defoe, one of the early British novelists. It’s basically a book about a guy who sits down to write an autobiography, but he keeps getting distracted and writing about other things. Anyway, in that book he realizes in Chapter Three that he’s forgotten to write an introduction, and he just slots it in there.

Form always plays a role in any piece of writing, whether it’s a novel, an encyclopedia or a grocery list – all writing is a collection of information that serves some purpose, and form is one the ways we marry content and purpose to produce interesting writing.

2. Where did you get the idea for “Dank”?

You remember that movie Grizzly Man? It came out the year I graduated high school, which is probably why I remember it so well even though I never actually saw it. It’s part of a class of survival adventure movies that was big for a long time. 127 Hours, Into the Wild, and so on – you know, movies where a lone guy goes out into the wilderness and ends up dying or almost dying. We think about more mainstream survival adventures, Jaws, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, whatever, and people have a reason to be in the situation they’re trying to survive. Like, they live on earth and earth is breaking. But these solo survival movies, like, the subjects put themselves in those positions. I recently re-read Into Thin Air and it still seems that the thing about these stories is that it doesn’t actually seem to matter to anyone whether the narrators can survive in the Alaskan wilderness, or climb Everest, or go rock climbing alone. In fact, if the narrator’s friends are going around saying it’s a bad idea, they won’t be impressed, they’re not interested. It always feels like they think they have something to prove, but the person they’re trying to prove it to doesn’t care, so why bother?

Also at around this time I lived on top of a third-floor walk-up, and I was a pack-a-day smoker, so that was hell. I was going to the gym and using the stair machine, because I was hoping that I could train myself to get to my apartment without sweating, which – I was never successful, but I did realize I could walk the height of the Burj Khalifa in under two hours. So I started joking that I was going to get that wilderness survival money, but my idea is climbing staircases instead of mountains. I’d say, you know, people are going to really love this book, the first line is: “The first step was the hardest.”

3. Talk to us about your writing process. How often do you write, how much do you edit, etc.?

I’ll give you an analogy, but with a couple of caveats. First, the old cliché that amateurs get inspired and artists get to work is basically true, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s certainly true that we wouldn’t accept it if anyone else decided they just didn’t feel inspired to come to work, and it’s a pretension artists and creative have that inspiration does them all that much good. Second, it’s also a pretension that the work of writing is as rugged, thankless, or impersonal as, say, a coal miner’s job, or a Target cashier’s, or whatever.

All that said, I worked at a Blockbuster for four years or so out of high school. When I think back on that job, I feel like the main thing I did was checking in and running movies. Every shift, we would do that as much as we needed to that day, whether it was thirty minutes or eight hours. When there weren’t many movies to check in, though, we did other stuff – restocked candy, helped customers, cleaned, whatever it might have been. Just because we weren’t checking in movies obviously didn’t mean we weren’t working at Blockbuster.

I think about writing the same way. I write to the extent that writing needs to get done that particular day. The rest of the time, I’m doing the related work to keep the store above water – reading, editing, submitting, workshopping, whatever it might be.

I edit for four hours a week, on Wednesdays.

4. What’s your least favorite short story? Why?

In terms of stories anyone might know, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. This one falls on the wrong side of the vagueness v. ambiguity divide for me. I mean, sure, it’s a story about a girl who’s on the fence about getting an abortion but leaning towards not wanting to, and her boyfriend who’s also on the fence but leaning towards wanting her to. Beneath that it wants to ask whether they’ll be happy if she gets an abortion, if this is really the conversation they should be having, how young they are spiritually regardless of their actual age. It takes a lot of its supposed power from the supposed illicetness of abortion, but try reading this story as though they’re not talking about something that’s supposedly illicit and see how hollow it actually is. Imagine he wants to eat lunch at Chipotle, but she’s saying she wants to go to McDonald’s, and he’s like, “well, si quieres to go to McDonald’s then I’ll support you but I think we should go to Chipotle,” and she’s like, “do you think we’ll be feliz again.”

Sure, abortions are more consequential than lunch so I’m being glib. But at the same time, Hemingway would have us believe 90% of the story is below the surface, but it’s not really. It’s really the super-text, what I’m bringing to the story from my biases and experiences that will ultimately tell me whether I think she should get an abortion, or whether they’ll be happy again, or whether this is the right conversation for them to have. But that’s not an analysis, it’s just me doing the work of finishing the story, which is why this one is more vague-in-the-boring-way than ambiguous-in-the-interesting-way for me.

But maybe that’s unfair, because I generally don’t like Hemingway. In terms of short stories I don’t love from writers I generally like, I never understood “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, this is a story that Antonin Scalia, a guy who stood for pretty much the opposite of every ideal Vonnegut held, once cited in a Supreme Court case. And Vonnegut’s response was that, well, Scalia didn’t seem to understand the story. I’m sympathetic to the idea that everyone is reading it as more polemical than it’s supposed to be, but if Vonnegut wants to say this story has some sort of didactic or idealistic message and everyone is just getting the message wrong then I’ve got to think, you know, he’s the one who framed it the way he did. Like, I get that sometimes readers see things in a story that the author never thought was there, or even that readers impose onto a story the opposite of what it says – Fahrenheit 451 being used as a cautionary tale for government censorship is kind of the model of that–but I really struggle to see what else Vonnegut was going for here. I assume I’m the idiot, to be clear.

5. If you had to be quarantined with one book for eternity, what book would it be and why?

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. I think Chris Hitchens wrote the introduction I read, and he talks about how it’s such a great bargain because it’s four books–a novel, a travelogue, a history, and a memoir–for the price of one. I think that’s true, and it’s hard to find a book that does so much. 

The first time I read it, I took diligent notes, underlining everything I thought was funny, or insightful, or well-phrased, or whatever. There was an underline or a comment on almost every page. The second time I read it, I did the same thing–but I kept finding myself ignoring all the stuff I’d underlined the first time; I’d come across stuff and wonder what was wrong with me that I had ignored it the last time I’d read it. Same deal the third time–though I didn’t finish it that time because I was moving.

It’s a book that’s never naive, or coy, but capable of a well-earned joy. Everything about the book is well-earned–there are no shortcuts to it, as one might hope in a thousand page book. When it’s funny, it’s genuinely funny, when it’s touching, or grandiose, or ironic, it’s all of those things genuinely.

I don’t have a copy by my side at the moment, or I would just transcribe some of my favorite sentences. Off the top of my head, I know that in the first paragraph, she’s talking to her husband in a wagon, and it’s suggested that she’s sort of badgered him into coming to Yugoslavia with her, and she says something like, “I promise that in the end, you’ll understand why it was necessary to take this journey, and why it was necessary to take this journey now.” That sort of direct, performative double-meaning is something a writer gets to do maybe once in a career, if they’re lucky. It’s a lot to live up to, and West does.

It’s also a good book to read in a quarantine because it’s so expansive. There’s so much  opening up, in terms of characters, history, landscapes. My other choice, my first choice if Black Lamb had never been written, would be one of those old unabridged dictionaries because they never close, they’re a series of short statements that all connect to one another so it’s more of a process than a book. Black Lamb is like that in some ways.

I think I could pretty much read that book forever. I’ve only read one other book by Rebecca West–The Return of the Soldier–and thought it was just fine, which is a disappointment.

Her cat was bombed during World War I.

6. What do you dislike most about writing? What part of writing is hardest for you?

Writing takes a long time. Even in the midst of it, I forget how long it takes. If it could take less time, that would be ideal.

7. If one piece of your writing (existing or otherwise) was guaranteed to receive worldwide distribution, what would it be about?

The sorts of problems that are faced on a global scale aren’t literary problems, which are the only ones I’m remotely qualified to answer. They’re socio-political, or psychological, maybe medical, I don’t know. But I can’t speak to them meaningfully. Like, questions of peace are really questions of suffering, and at best artists try to speak to suffering on a human scale rather than a global scale.

So okay, the world is in quarantine, and maybe I can make people laugh or, like, show people compassion. But those things don’t translate all that well across culture. I spend a lot of time thinking about suffering, and ultimately the best I can do as an individual is to recognize and honor it, and help out where I can but understand that because so much suffering (and so much joy) is ultimately alien to me, all I can do is dignify it.

But we can’t dignify seven billion people at once. Dignity is tied into the amount of space we give people, and the nature of trying to connect with the whole planet at once means some people–entire cultures–will get a short shrift.

So instead, I would just leave my Venmo username and ask for a dollar from each person who saw it. It would be “about” why people should give me a dollar. I’d probably give some percent of money–call it 90%–to a particular charity after reaching a specific dollar amount.

My Venmo is @e-bruck, by the way.

8. Why do you read?

I keep a spreadsheet of all the books I read, and it’s set up just the way I like it–every time I add a book and give it a score it updates with all sorts of data. It tells me straight away the percentage of women I’ve read, for instance, the average age of author’s I’ve read, what genre I’m reading, and so on. It’s useful, because without it I’d probably forget that HL Mencken and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries, much less like Phillip K Dick and Tom Wolfe. It tells me if my reading is getting too contemporary, too white, too novel-heavy, whatever the case might be. And because of my ratings it tells me what direction my biases are headed so I can try to keep track of that. 

I’ve spent so much time setting up this spreadsheet that it would be a shame if I stopped reading now.

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Erick Brucker is an essayist and fiction writer from Richmond, Virginia.

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