Scott Bradfield is the author of The History of Luminous Motion, which was recently reissued by Derek White at Calamari Press. It was originally published by Bloomsbury in 1989. His other novels include What’s Wrong with America, Animal Planet, Good Girl Wants it Bad, and The People Who Watched Her Pass By. He has written four short story collections: The Secret Life of Houses, Dream of the Wolf, Greetings from Earth,and Hot Animal Love. And two books of criticism: Dreaming Revolution, and Why I Hate Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Bradfield lives in London, England. I conducted this interview via email.
BRANDON HOBSON: Can you talk a little about how Derek at Calamari came to rerelease The History of Luminous Motion? Was it his idea or something you’ve been wanting to do?
SCOTT BRADFIELD: It was one of the few instances of serendipity I’ve enjoyed in the world of so-called Literature. For years (decades even), I genuinely believed that world would beat a path to my books and stories, but eventually, as everything I wrote went rapidly out of print and stayed there, I wised up and started assembling them in e-format editions, with my son doing the jacket designs, and composing these new afterwords, if only to remind myself where I was when I originally wrote them, and what in the world I was thinking about. Since I have no clue how to work scanning software, I ended up retyping the entire published edition of History into my computer, and endlessly copy-editing it against the Vintage paperback edition, which is the sort of mindless, dull, unimaginative work I’m pretty good at. Writing brief afterwords, on the other hand, has turned out to be much harder.
About the same time that I was posting the first e-versions of History at the various available venues (Amazon, Kindle, Kobo), a young guy asked me to answer the proverbial question, “Why do you write?” and while I normally avoid such questions, I perversely wrote him something incredibly brief along the lines of “I have no idea why I write,” which is true, and when my answer was posted on his website, I suddenly heard from Derek at Calamari, who not only followed the site, but who remembered History as a book he had discussed with his brother in another life. Within weeks of my gratefully agreeing to have Calamari republish History, Derek had formatted, designed and illustrated the new edition, and it arrived on my doorstep in hard copies. (I usually wait twice as long to wait for publishers to turn down one of my books!) As we all know, the big city process of publishing books can take years to accomplish – and rarely with such pleasing results.
BH: How did History originally get published by Knopf? Did you know Gordon Lish or another editor there?
SB: I never knew Lish. History was purchased by Sonny Mehta shortly after he took over at Knopf in 1988. At that point, the book had been rejected by almost every British editor. I was living and reviewing in London at the time, my first book of stories was being published in the UK, and, as I recall, my indefatigable agent, Anne McDermid, shoved the manuscript in Sonny’s hands as he was coming through the office. Apparently he read it on the plane and made an offer a few days later when he landed in New York. He put a big promotional effort behind it before publication, and while it did pretty good for a first novel, it didn’t do as well as they had hoped. Knopf published my first US collection, Dream of the Wolf, a year later, but when I eventually sent them my second novel, What’s Wrong with America, they didn’t even reply to the submission. New York – the city of big ups and big down.
BH: One of the things I really like about Phillip is how he has all these strange, outrageous ideas that seem to be borderline psychotic. Why did you decide to write from the mind of an eight-year-old rather than, say, a teenager?
SB: I am not especially good at remembering the actualities of the world I inhabit, but I have pretty strong associative memories of how it feels to live in that world, and to wonder at its weird machinations, at any age. I enjoy entering the viewpoint of characters who are as different from myself as I can get – children, elderly women, animals, a sexy death row murderess – and to imagine how these disparate individuals see the world’s cruelty and beauty and vastness. Perhaps teenagers don’t interest me as much as children do since I still feel (even at 58) to be a fairly adolescent personality, especially in my enthusiasms, and I find myself an uninteresting fictional character. Philip possesses all the qualities I admire in a person – imagination, loyalty, passion, intelligence, endurance. He just doesn’t know how to make the best use of these qualities, or to make himself very happy. He keeps learning the wrong things too well from the wrong people. We all make terrible mistakes in our lives. Some of Philip’s mistakes may just be a bit more terrible than others.
BH: I can see that. I think his character continues to fuck with me in the way maybe a David Lynch character does. I’m left wondering why I’m so drawn to him, questioning why he’s so damaged and deranged yet completely likable in the darkest ways. Part of this is his abnormally mature voice. Was this voice much of the drive of the novel for you, or was it more of the dysfunctional family?
SB: For me, the main inspiration to write a story or novel is the voice of its central character, or the narrative voice of the story itself. The basic premise of History – as is often the case when I write – kicked around a long time in my head, but it wasn’t until I heard Philip’s way of speaking that the story took off. I’ve always liked the fact that fiction takes all these pretty unquantifiable human feelings and experiences and projects them onto the page in ways that make interior human sense, even when they aren’t entirely believable, and the fact that Philip could communicate these childlike (to me) feelings and sensations and philosophies is what made his story so interesting. Like a lot of people, what Philip knows is sometimes amazing and maybe even profound, but what he doesn’t know often hurts him. I can’t think of a more philosophical time in a person’s life than when they are children. It’s the one time when ideas are really beautiful and amazing and all-encompassing. They are life.
BH: Are you still writing novels and short stories? What plans do you have in terms of your work?
SB: In terms of a “career,” I never have long-term plans, and certainly don’t want to spend several years, say, writing a “long” novel. I write every day, stuff I like or want to make into something I like. I’ve published several virtually invisible novels and several dozen even more invisible short stories over the years, all of which still give me joy – unlike the cumulative experience of seeking publishers for them! I have a new novel near completion which, like my last one, The People Who Watched Her Pass Her By, suggests that my work is getting progressively gloomier, unlike myself, since I feel like a progressively happier man. Go figure. Every time I start off a book or a story I feel like I’m developing a new style or approach for that individual story alone, and it sometimes feels as if readers are looking for the same style/approach from the same writer over and over again, which hasn’t helped me in the publishing biz. But since I enjoy what I write, it keeps me going.
BH: Do you feel comfortable talking about what you’re working on anything right now? Another novel or collection on progress?
SB: I’m always working on something. At the moment I’ve got a new collection of stories sitting in my computer waiting for me to develop the audacity to submit it to publishers so they can tell me they don’t like short stories. And a new novel which awaits simply enough attention divided from my current teaching to tidy it up – and another coming along in draft. My venture into e-self publishing means that I finally made a home for a collection of my essays and reviews, entitled Why I Hate Toni Morrison’s Beloved: several decades of reading unwisely. (Weirdly, it’s been selling surprisingly well on Amazon and Nook.) And a very short e-chapbook type deal entitled Confessions of an Unrepentant Short Story Writer. See I don’t just keep writing short stories nobody reads — I actually congratulate myself for doing it! I’m getting old and ornery. Thank god.
Brandon Hobson’s writing has appeared in The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, NOON, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. His novel is forthcoming from Calamari Press in 2014.