This is a blog interview I did with Heather Cassaday in June of 2017:
Good afternoon all! Today we meet author Brandon K. Nobles. He is an author, poet, and student of nearly every section of academia out there. He is multilingual and culturally diverse. Also, someone I now consider a friend. Read here and click his links to check him out.
1. Let’s talk about your published work first. In Nobody: An American Tragedy, where did your inspiration for the main character, Neddy, come from and what made you want to tell this tale?
Brandon – Considering Nobody, one of my favorite ways to explore a character is to look at the characters who would otherwise be in the background, watching as tumultuous events go on around them. It really is a look at a person who is always in the background, the people no one really takes a chance to get to know. Nobody was about a slave, told from the slave’s perspective, a child’s perspective essentially, and my inspiration was an old slave plantation I used to visit as a child, a manor house with gables and gardens and mazes. I remember looking at this long row of shanty houses where slaves once lived, out at barren fields where slaves once worked, where rows of corn were barren. I like telling stories that transition from fruitful, figuratively speaking, to barren, and then try to make it grow again. That’s what Neddy, the main character, attempts to do. He sees his master as an evil person, not as a human, but as an abstract evil. But after he murders his master (and his master’s wife in the panic of the moment), once he sees the blood – that’s when he realizes that he’s human. He may be a poor specimen of humanity, but in the end redeemable (perhaps), and seeing his master’s children makes him fake his death and flee. He goes from place to place, always changing names and identities, making up who is until he has no idea who he really is, and, in a sense, goes back to the barren field to try to make it come alive again. On a personal level, I was going through withdrawals from an opiate addiction, something that I’ve struggled with throughout my adult life, and Neddy Atman is a sort of transliteration of the Sanskrit ‘neti atma’ – ‘this is not me’ or ‘not self’ and to kill of this slave (the Latin word for which is addictus – meaning ‘bond slave’ or ‘debt slave’, something which I imagined opiate addiction had done to me). It was more than catharsis; it was exorcism. It was a way for me to put that part of myself to rest, and I guess Nobody is the epitaph for the debt slave I had become. I wanted to tell a story that is personal and universal, macrocosm and microcosm, in a sense everyone could connect to while, in the specifics, being uniquely expressive. I was inspired by an empty field, which is to say I was inspired by the absence of something, which ultimately affects us as much as anything material or physical. Loss is something that people carry around. It never goes away. So, Nobody is about the people who suffer, who are lost to history, to people who often invisible in a crowd. These people deserve the same attention and can reveal as much about humanity as the study of high lords and ladies and I think those stories should be told.
2. For the other novels, Songs of Lalande, The Dream of the Louse, and The Make Believe Ballroom, all three deeply explore the real world psychological tendencies of humans as they face some pretty fantastic situations. How much research goes into works like these and do you have any tips for us newbies for effective researching?
Brandon – When it comes to research and development, if I’m writing about a washed up musician attempting to make his life matter again (as in the Make Believe Ballroom), I try to find someone who has been in that position. With that story I was lucky, in a sense, because the main character isn’t fictional entirely, but rather a man who once lived near me who had been a country music singer and phenomenal musician but as he got older, he got arthritis, and gradually he lost the ability to play the instruments he lived. It’s sort of like the intense need of an insect to feel out the world with its antennae, only to realize the receptors have been damaged. I studied the physical and emotional symptoms of arthritis; the medication often taken by those suffering from the disability; the possible side effects, possible contraindications with other medications and food; the diaries of forgotten stars still aping their hits from 20 years ago, still holding onto the idea that it’s all permanent; I studied mania and depression, as the man I was to write about was easily excitable and as easily depressed; I looked into possible alternative treatments in case the character decided to change medication to make his life better. To me, it’s an existential nightmare. To be a musician without hands, a pianist without fingers, a writer without a pen or pad, like the poor insect with defective antennae, stumbling dumb and unaware through the world, bumping into one thing after the other, leaving little impression and exciting little more than a bit of pity or sympathy which soon passes, and the world moves on – and sometimes the world moves on without taking others with it. He was a man the world had left behind, and without his music, he attempted to write a story, to get his ‘glory’ back, and he creates characters that react to him, to his love and kindness, to the power he exercises over them, until at last they escape from the fictional world and begin to take over his own, a sort of metaphor for how absorbed one can be with one’s work, and they all wanted the same thing, all screaming the same thing, eventually: demanding a happy ending, demanding him to write it, to make it perfect for them so they can be remembered. If art is nothing else, it is a testament to the imagination and human faculty for creation, and it is made in our own image. At the same time, I had recently lost a job and was forced to writing for lazy college students, and had begun to learn to play the guitar. He was my teacher. This is real life, so to speak, and this was a very friendly and honest man. Again, we make art in our own image. And it certainly reflects how real a story can become to a writer, and how overwhelming it sometimes feels when so many demands are being made on a person. The fantastical is a way for me to explore the mundane, human curiosities whether in joy or sorrow. It is a way people explore their minds, so to speak, and a lot of my work has this element to it. You don’t have to know all about a character to empathize, to imagine how you would feel in such a situation, but authenticity often comes from the smallest of details and whether consciously or subconsciously a reader picks them up, and when writers read their favorite authors, it’s always a good experience to see that they have made an effort to build their characters, to give them agency, depth, and humanity. The rest is just trimming.
3. For Counterpane: And Other Poems, it is described as being highly personal and musicians will often say that music is their therapy, is poetry your therapy and how has it helped you to express yourself in this medium?
Brandon – Of everything I write, I get the most personal joy out of my poems, but I’ve resisted the temptation to try to be a full fledged poet. Since it’s a more personal aspect of what I do, my poetry remains all over the place in my room, just book after book of it.
I like to play with the words, use different languages, play with it. But it’s less serious than the work I do that I sell to have nice things for myself. Being honest, it’s rewarding but for the psychological effort it is a job. Poetry is something that has always been more natural for me, but I think they’re mostly bad, so I keep them to myself. My poem collection was put together by a nice man (I won’t shame him) and published for me and it was only popular to people who just knew me. That’s not a large demographic, and they’re very personal and very tragic of course and I think some time will come where I go through those notebooks, maybe, and try to cull some good ones from what I do for, usually, a respite from writing.
Some of the poems that were most popular were a series of elegies I did where several people died over a short period of time, and I had to write the elegies of people I grew up with, people I loved, because that was my job.
So in private I did these really long form poems, to honor them as I would think they would want me to.
(His elegies are beautiful and moving. Please read them.)
4. Tell us about your work with Amygdala Magazine.
Brandon -Working with Amygdala started after a short story of mine came in 2nd place in a contest for general submissions. I developed a friendly relationship with the founder of the magazine, a really nice guy, and I approached him with two short stories I had finished and didn’t have a publisher for yet and he was good enough to get the properties so I could afford to write the stories, though one was finished when I approached him. It’s nice to make friends, friends who can show you how to do this and that to get your work out there.
5. Talk to me about the evolution of your blog. You write about pretty much every academic subject in the world but have also released some personal projects like short stories and so on, what has gotten the biggest response and what do your followers expect from you?
Brandon – My first agent wanted me to keep an archive of my work and publish new material on my website as much as possible, and I follow my interests in academic studies and fiction, mostly. One is a discipline of the intelligence, I think, and the other a more expressive medium – not to say non-fiction can’t be harrowing (George Orwell – An Homage to Catalonia, an account of the Spanish Civil War). Having a bibliography that someone can quickly find gives a potential agency an idea of how much work you actually put out and how much you put into what you put out. The academic work on the site is just a collection of mostly outdated papers in this or that, but a small representative of the the extent of my versatility in the various disciplines which rely on the professionalism of writing. The more you can do, the more opportunities you have to make a living as a writer.
I try to avoid being lecturous. I taught English/Russian/French lit for a long time, and I don’t want to pontificate but I want to be thorough. And what do I think my readers expect? Usually, I don’t want them to know what to expect, something that puts people under microscopes. I am interested in what makes people who they are, and there’s a way to get truth out through fiction, to tell an emotional truth with fiction that is.
6. Who inspires you? What do you read?
Brandon – For thousands of books over ten years you pick up a fluency in a lot of different things, and I think of myself in the sense of a 19th century academic who had busts of Roman Emperors and studied Latin and Greek, but I was born in an age where the largest information database in history exists, and I consume it. It may not seem important at the time, but some of my books are my best teachers. Dostoevsky, Proust, Stendhal, Bulgakov, Turgenev, or character novels. I’m interested in human beings more than the spectacle around them. Crime and Punishment is well known, but Demons, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, all are perfect (despite what Vladimir Nabokov had to say in his lectures at Cornell on Russian literature, commenting that Dostoevsky wasn’t worth the inclusion because he found no single line worthy of inclusion. But the writer Jorge Louis Borge (author of the Labyrinth stories: The Aleph, the Library of Babel). I prefer psychological or surrealist naturalism, but my teachers are on my shelves, and the first step to being a good writer, I think, is to read as much good writing as possible. Reading is a great teacher, as long as you have a system.
7. What are you working on now and what is next for you?
Brandon – I’m working on a novel, Holy Fire, about a cult that moves into a small town and starts infiltrating local institutions. Hard to explain! Alongside this, my friend Max and I plan on starting a podcast, Cult Review, which will look at cults both modern and historical. Academically, I’ve been working on a research paper for several years now that hypothesizes a proto-language from which all human languages descend. I have 3 essays set to appear in An Anthology of American Conspiracy Theories in May. The research project on a sort of master language from ancient Egyptian to Sanskrit, like an historical divergence of languages treated as peoples in the way evolution looks at species. Learning ancient Egyptian was a great experience. To be able to read hieroglyphs and such. I believe that there was some point in our history in which sub-vocal patterns where shared by all human species but based on tone and inflection instead of grammar and syntax. I’m talking about languages before the first large migration of human beings out of Africa. Now there is evidence of rituals and the burying of the dead going back hundreds of thousands years. I am trying to reconstruct from all world languages, at least the ones I have working knowledge of, a sort-of primordial language that people would be able to understand all over the world without learning words or grammar or even phonemes. It’s based on the way crows communicate. Crows pass down specific information from one generation to the next through tonal, vocal oscillations. I think subconsciously there is a universal language for humans.
– I’d like to thank Brandon for stopping by my blog today! This has been a great experience. If you’re on Twitter follow him here. If you’re on Facebook follow him here. And don’t forget to check out all the other author interviews on my blog!
*The original post appeared on In The Coming Time but that site is in the process of moving to heathercassaday.com and will be available at its new home soon.