Interview with Brady Harrison
The Term Between
I suppose it could be called serendipity. A few years ago the Press ran a contest devoted to the long-story form, and our reader selected “The Dying Athabaskan” by Brady Harrison. In 2018, we published the odd but thoroughly engaging narrative in paperback and digital editions. Little did I know that Brady’s artistic sensibilities aligned so closely with my own that publishing the long story would lead to a long-term relationship between Brady and Twelve Winters. We have recently published his story collection The Term Between and plan to bring out his—odd but thoroughly engaging—novel A Journey to Al Ramel later in 2022 or ’23.
Over the last few years, working on publishing Brady’s writing, we’ve exchanged countless emails, text messages, and Facebook comments, and we’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings (Brady lives in Missoula, Montana; I in central Illinois). However, we didn’t meet in the real three-dimensional world until only recently, at a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a hoot to talk shop with Brady about his work, about writing, about teaching writing, and myriad other topics related to and unrelated to all of the above.
As it turned out, our time in the Southwest was just a few days before Brady’s Zoom reading kicking off the release of The Term Between (YouTube link). My talks with Brady in Albuquerque and his thought-filled responses during the reading’s Q&A encouraged me to ask Brady to do an interview covering some of the same ground in more depth, plus a few new topics. He happily—and being Canadian, politely—agreed. What follows is the result of an email exchange of questions and responses, edited hardly at all.
The stories in The Term Between vary greatly in terms of length, subject, and tone. Was this a deliberate artistic choice when bringing together the collection, or does your work tend to vary this much from project to project? Or, said differently, how would you account for the wide varieties?
FUNNY: it was both deliberate and a product of restlessness. On the one hand, I very much wanted to try for a variety of styles, tones, and subject matters. I wanted to try my hand at writing micro-fictions and a novella; I wanted to write a long story of some complexity (and considerable grimness: “The Guest”) and the sort of uncanny encounter story that Joyce Carol Oates does so well (in the collection, I think of “Los Borrachos” as my JCO tale). On the other hand, I’m really restless when it comes to projects and I tend to go in several directions at once. At present, I’m working on a new novel, articles on quantum physics and literary interpretation, articles on my favorite literary form (that strange, all-over-the-place, multi-genred hybrid, the anatomy), and some new stories—ghost stories, of all things. I’ve long thought that I would be much better off, professionally, if I could focus on one thing, but I really enjoy going where curiosity leads. So, by design and by inclination, I want to try out as many styles and tones—and more—as I can.
At the same time, I can say this: what unites all of the stories in The Term Between, I think, is that they each explore a moment, or moments, of crisis, a moment where the ties that bind the individual to others—to family, to friends, to community, to a shared humanity, to other living things—become subject to extreme forces. How will the person react? What values, ethics, or hopes will guide them? Under profound duress, can the individual, can family, can community, can the fragile ties that bind and sustain us survive?
How much time is represented in the stories in terms of composition? That is, when was the earliest written, and which are the most recent? Do you see any distinct differences in style or artistic concerns when looking at earlier versus later pieces?
WOW—you might say that this collection was a lifetime in development. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing fiction, but for the longest time, I wouldn’t give myself permission: I have a day job, and I always have a lot of projects on the go. Then, in the process of writing an article about Leslie Fiedler, that great wildman of American letters who wrote many of his most celebrated works while on the faculty of my university, I tripped across this line in his Preface to A New Fiedler Reader: “I have never managed to remember—indeed, I never quite understood—the differences between making stories and criticizing them, asking my readers to respond to both with the same act of poetic faith.” Fiedler was both a scholar and writer of stories, and I thought, if it’s good enough for Leslie Fiedler, then it’s good enough for me.
But to get back to your question: the first story I published, “Stones,” was written nearly twenty years ago, and I wrote a couple of others along the way—I also took time to write a bizarre novel—but it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I really dove in and made story writing part of my everyday mix. Now, I can’t imagine not writing fiction (even as I can’t imagine not working on scholarly projects—I enjoy both processes).
In preparing the collection, I revised all of the stories—some more than others—and in revisiting them, I did find one common feature or current in my work, one that I sought, in the revisions, to draw out a little more: call it a sort of quiet Gothicism. A friend, for example, wrote me about “The Guest” and called it a work of rust belt Gothic, and I quite liked that. In “Stones,” I also wanted a certain sort of creepiness, a strangeness, an extreme psychological and distressing scene. In revising “Wreck on the Highway,” I wanted to make the crash as Gothic as possible, the truck becoming a sort of split open human form. In “The Dying Albertan,” I see the tar sands setting as a Gothic terrain. Clearly, these stories are not Poe—there are no dungeons, no burying someone alive (or is there?), no sentient houses—but I am interested in exploring chilling moments and the mind under extreme duress, subjected to extreme pressures. I’m also interested in poverty as a Gothic state: while we sometimes associate the Gothic with wealth or a sort of faded aristocracy—the Castle of Otranto, Dracula, the Ushers—living on the margins, always skint and subject to the depredations of those with money or badges, might be the most Gothic of conditions.
The final piece is a novella, The Dying Albertan. You have talked about being drawn to the novella form. Would you speak to this attraction further?
I LOVE THE NOVELLA FORM. As a reader, I read novels, novellas, and story collections in about equal measure—I imagine I’m a bit more dedicated to seeking out the middle form more than most readers? (Well, Stephen King has legions of readers, and he writes exceptional novellas—“The Body,” “The Mist,” and “Hearts in Atlantis” are three of my favorites—and Joyce Carol Oates routinely works in the form, so the novella, we might say, is alive and well in American letters.)
Like a lot of readers, I enjoy the complexity and breadth of a novel: we get to settle into a world and to engage with characters and their plights—that old, thorny problem of being human and trying to get along in the world—and we are transported out of our everyday existences into other worlds, cultures, lives. At the same time, as Randall Jarrell once famously quipped, a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it—novels, in their complexity, seem really difficult to control, are sometimes sprouting extra heads and limbs that they don’t need. (Maybe you’ve had this experience?) To go back to Stephen King for a moment, folks seem to love the gargantuan nature of his novels, but don’t we also have the feeling, sometimes, that he could use a more forceful editor? Some novels seem perfect, not a word, character, plot line, detail, or emotion out of place—The Great Gatsby and Beloved come to mind—but others seem to meander, run into cul-de-sacs, have characters to spare, image patterns that don’t quite coalesce?
Stories, on the other hand, can achieve a crystalline perfection due to their density, their concentration, the limited number of characters, milieux, and plots already at the breaking point. Stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” “Wall of Fire Rising,” “Sonny’s Blues” or “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” seem to me superb examples of the perfectibility of the form.
But what if you wanted to work in a literary form that has something of the scope, complexity, and breadth of the novel even as it also seeks the sparkling intensity of the short story’s plot, setting, and character? The novella, I think, draws at least some of its energy and power from that tension, that expansiveness in conflict with restraint and precision. (Not that stories can’t be expansive in scope and feeling—Alice Munro’s long stories, especially the interlocking ones like, say, the Juliet stories in Runaway or the Rose and Flo stories in The Beggar Maid, can feel like novels in their richness—or novels restrained and precise. Maybe great works are just great works. For the record: I make no such claims for my stories!)
I think we have in common that we both teach courses in the novella. From a teaching perspective, what is the value of the novella? What are some novellas you’d recommend for the classroom?
RIGHT: we both love teaching courses on the novella. For my own part, I enjoy teaching novellas for lots of reasons: in a 15-week course, you can experience so many different styles, techniques, modes of characterization, milieux, conflicts, and more. And, nobody has time to get weary or bored. (I also teach courses where we read Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy: they make serious demands, we might say, on the reader’s time, attention, and good will.) My favorites to teach: Bartleby, the Scrivener (now, is that a long story or a novella?), Beasts, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Coming Through Slaughter, The Dead, Ethan Frome, Heart of Darkness, The House on Mango Street, In the Penal Colony, Offshore, The Widow, and many others. The greatest novella I know (or is it a short novel?) is Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, a work criminally unknown outside of Canada. I can’t recommend that one enough: brilliant prose, harrowing plot and characters—it’s as powerful a work as I have ever read.
In the Afterword (to the paperback edition), you talk about the connection between nature and being outdoors to your writing and creative process. Can you speak to that further here, including perhaps when you first had a sense of this connection?
AH, MOUNTAINS—I don’t feel well if I don’t hike in the mountains at least a couple of times a week. I’ve been a pretty keen camper, backpacker, and hiker all my life, but since moving to Missoula, with the foothills and Bitterroot Mountains so close, I head for my favorite trails as often as I can. Once I’m out there, life—work, bills, maintaining the infrastructure of the everyday—seems to fall away. Not only am I exhilarated by the exercise and air and pines and streams—endorphins, baby!—but I tend to lose track of where I am and what I’m doing. Some altered form of consciousness takes over, not daydreaming, but actual dreaming without being asleep: the flow of images, unrestrained, mixing the breeze and the sun in with the day and the past and the present and the inchoate, untrammeled thought, tapping into a wellspring but able to come back to surface and hold onto ideas and intuitions. The Dying Albertan asks, among other things, where do ideas come from?, and I find mine from being out in nature, from hiking in the mountains, fording streams and rivers, following the trail—and remembering to look around, once in a while, for black bears, grizzlies, and moose: they move faster than I do.
And, that first connection: as soon as I read your question, a place immediately flashed to mind: a shelf of waterworn smooth granite, near the headwaters of the mighty McLeod River, not too far from Cadomin, Alberta (Population 54). When I was a kid, my dad and I would camp at Whitehorse Creek, and I would wade across the McLeod—man, that was cold—with a book and pack of sunflower seeds, and lay in those shelves along the river and read for hours, and so I think it all began there: the foothills just outside Jasper park, a roaring river, a great book, carefree, free to imagine, free in just about every way. That’s a sacred spot, to me, and we would spend hours and hours hiking in the mountains and exploring Cadomin cave—it’s since been closed to the public to protect a species of bat—or would drive up to the high alpine meadows or walk among the graves of a mining hamlet that used to exist on the shoulder of the Cardinal Pass, a slag heap of coal across the road that had been burning—internal combustion—for over 100 years. No question, that remote world with almost no one in it no longer exists—last time I was there, the roads were paved—but it’s where I got my start in life, I’m pretty sure.
Did I answer your question?
Everyone who finds out that the cover art of The Term Between is a detail of your own painting is astonished by your talents as a painter. How long have you painted? Are there other art forms that you work in? From a creative standpoint, how would you compare the process of rendering a painting to the process of writing a story or novel?
OK, THAT’S FUNNY: I’m no painter, not at all. As far as mediums go, I’m much more comfortable with words than oil paints, and most of my canvasses live in a cardboard box in the garage. For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to teach myself how to paint a stream, but with no luck. I’m a big fan of Fernand Labelle’s winterscapes—I’m in awe of his work; looking at one of his paintings is to find yourself, suddenly, standing in the Quebec woods, in winter, overlooking an all-but-frozen stream—and I’m hoping that if I can look deeply enough into his art, I might be able to capture the feeling of slow, icy water in motion. We’ll see. Oh, and when I retire, I’m hoping to take up sculpting—I have some ideas.
The Press is also bringing out your debut novel, A Journey to Al Ramel, which you have described as “a wild book,” and a distinct departure from the stories in The Term Between. First, tell us a bit about the novel (no spoilers), and what do you see as the chief distinctions between the novel and stories (besides length of course). In what ways do they cover similar artistic ground?
AH, THE NOVEL! For years, I’ve been interested in writers or artists who undertake, for reasons of their own, strange, obsessive journeys—call them savage pilgrimages—to remote, even dangerous places. In the course of reading the journals and writings of Michel Vieuchange, Isabelle Eberhardt, Arthur Rimbaud, D.H. Lawrence, Richard Burton, and many others, I kept wondering, What are these people looking for? What compels them to undertake these—sometimes fatal—journeys to obscure, faraway places? What do they hope to find? Do they even want to come back, to return home, or are they walking, perhaps without acknowledging it, toward their deaths?
Over time, these journeys began to accumulate and intertwine, and I set out to write a wild, uncanny novel where many of these travelers and searchers cross paths with one another. Of course, many of them did not live at the same time, and did not journey to the same places, but I thought that that wasn’t a problem: I would write a novel wholly out of time and place, and so the central character, Benard St. Martin, a young French poet who undertakes, with his brother’s help, a journey to an ancient, abandoned Moorish city in the Spanish Sahara—now known as the Western Sahara, one of the few places in the world that is not a country—receives a letter from a fellow journeyer who died before he was born (but who somehow knows that Benard will undertake his adventure) and he ends up, for a time, in a jungle—in the Sahara?—with a man on fire, and more (Benard may even run into other versions of himself as he travels). It’s a very odd work—the characters seem to keep changing shape—and perhaps gender—and one of his guides has no eyes and Benard finds himself in both the past and the future all at once. Oh, and parts of the novel are written in French.
For the stories, I wanted to retain some measure of that wildness—The Dying Albertan, for example, puts considerable pressure on the reader—but I also wanted to try out more traditional ways of telling stories. Many of my favorite writers of short fiction—Louise Erdrich, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others—often work in realist and modernist modes of constructing characters, plots, and settings, and I wanted to impose some of that sort of discipline on myself in writing these tales. As I mentioned earlier, I was consciously trying for a mix of approaches and ways of telling—most importantly, I hope readers find the mix appealing.
One of the things I admire about your work is your willingness to experiment in terms of narrative style. Where does that interest in experimentation come from, would you say?
OK, NOW WE’RE TALKING! In my heart of hearts, the writers I admire most tend to mix the experimental with traditional elements of narrative. Take, for example, William Faulkner: a writer could hardly be more experimental in terms of narrative strategies, but he’s not trying to dazzle the reader: he wants to dive as deeply as he can into the experiences and lives of his characters, into the social, political, cultural, economic, ethical, and emotional forces at play in the eras he writes about; he’ll do whatever it takes to tell the story he wants to tell, and invent ways if they don’t already exist. Joyce, too, isn’t showing off: he employs an array of narrative strategies in his effort to see as deeply as he can into consciousness, desire, place, history, and more. Writers like Faulkner and Joyce, though highly experimental, ask the hardest sort of questions: what are we? what are we doing, and why? and what forces, impulses, and decisions—among a thousand thousand other factors, many of which we hardly understand or have words for—compel, constrain, or harm us as we move through our lives? what is our relationship to ourselves, to others, to the cosmos? What did David Foster Wallace say? Fiction explores what it means to be human (though his language is more colorful than that).
You’ve also talked about writing a new novel. What can you say about that project?
WELL, it’s all very hush hush, and I won’t say much other than to say that it takes place in Montana in our contemporary moment. Whew—no spoilers!
Finally, my literary idol William H. Gass identified his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” fifty books that shaped him as a writer. What, say, three or four books would you include among your “literary pillars” and how did they affect you as a writer/artist/etc.?
FIRST THINGS FIRST: I love lists, and I love this question. But can I only mention three or four? Can I talk about fifty or one hundred? If Gass had fifty, that’s good enough for me.
Ok, I can answer this. What three or four books have I returned to most often? What three or four book have I so internalized that they’re part of my DNA, hardwired into what few synapses I have left? What three or four books have mattered the most to me and made me want to try my hand at writing fiction?
The first book, no question, is Melville’s Moby-Dick. Hands down my favorite book, and the book I have read most often. And, talk about a wild book! It’s actually several books in one—an adventure novel, a meditation on fate, a Shakespearian tragedy, a deep dive into humanity’s relationship with the cosmos, a Bromance, a sea and nature story, a Gothic thriller, and much more—and despite being all over the place, it’s one of the world’s great literary masterpieces. (In fact, my all-time favorite literary genre is the one that Northrup Frye dubbed—somewhat inaccurately—the anatomy: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Woolf’s Orlando, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and a few dozen others: they’re exuberant, harrowing, death-obsessed, wildly experimental in the mixing of genres and forms, usually gargantuan, and very often very funny.) A close second—a very close second—is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, another wild, extreme fiction. Not only is it brilliant in the telling—how many narrators are there?—but also in its characterization and its exploration of extreme psychological states—what’s up with Catherine and Heathcliff, anyway?—and it’s doublings and plotting. More, it’s very Gothicy and who doesn’t want to walk the moors and feel deeply passionate about life and love?
While I’m pretty sure about those two, after that, there are so many—Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Sun Also Rises, The Double Hook, Leaves of Grass, The Tempest and Hamlet, Invisible Man, The Deptford Trilogy, the Yoknapatawpha cycle, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, Goodbye to Berlin, the Miramichi trilogy, Novels in Three Lines, The Street, Seed Catalogue, Age of Innocence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, War and Peace, The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Round House and Love Medicine, Don Quixote, Housekeeping, Jane Eyre, Song of Solomon, The Name of the Rose, Ulysses, the Aubrey and Maturin books, Alias Grace, Glengarry Glen Ross, Offshore, The Music of Chance, Winter in the Blood and Fools Crow, Blood Meridian, Anne of Green Gables—but I can, if forced, name two more spectacular works at the top of my list, Beloved and The Rings of Saturn. In each case, the first time I read them, they knocked me down—and they have knocked me down every time since. Both works explore, with great dignity, catastrophic violence, they’re both brilliantly written and staged, and they’re both staggeringly smart and emotionally stunning. If I could only take four books with me for my sojourn on a desert island, it would be those four (and maybe a few more than I snuck along without permission). Oh, and Rovelli’s little primer, The Order of Time: it changed my life.
The Term Between is available in cloth, paperback and digital editions. See the Twelve Winters Press page.
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