Q&A: Rebecca Brown

questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, August 2006

SS: What do you think of the concept of "ghostwriting"—writing in or for the name of another, writing that happens in relation to another's absence?

In particular I'm thinking about the mysterious thing that happens when text and image meet (such as your texts in collaboration with the portrait-images of painter Nancy Kiefer). I'm also thinking about books like Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary in which the narrative voice writes through the event of a loved one's death. What does collaboration, as you've experienced it, have to say about reciprocity, absence, and presence?

RB: In some way I think writing for me is always about, comes from longing. Longing for an absent other, an absence. And therefore trying to create a presence, a collaborator in the work. If I look back at the Excerpts book I see that I was trying to recreate, reanimate a time in which my mother was still alive. Trying to make her not absent. Writing is so often for me about wanting to go back to the past or trying to create a thing that never was but was always wanted. Right now I am trying to write something about childhood and the more I think about it (and read Wordsworth) the more complex and elusive it becomes. As in—to what degree can I recapture childhood when part of the nature of childhood is to be, to have been un-captured. It is inherently that which does not stay. Inherently, to write about it is to long, to desire what cannot be (again).

Working with Nancy Kiefer and writing from her paintings in order to create Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig was a very satisfying experience of collaboration on so many levels. Partly because of the simple thing that Nancy and I got together often at her house or mine and looked at her work and talked about it, read my work and talked about it, talked about what we can and cannot say in our art, talked about the mysteriousness of what we are trying to do in our creative endeavors. So, much of the pleasure was actually more social, having an artist to have ongoing conversations with. But there was also the thrill of having her and me make something together—and see and bring more things out of our work. I think that there are ways that having Nancy’s work—these faces, these portraits, these people I could see—that allowed me to just hear their voices or someone’s voice and move into an excess of style that I would not have done or been able to do without her work. There was something about her having created a parameter, a world in which to work, a pre-existing world, that allowed me a kind of space I usually cannot find or experience when I simply approach a white page and think I have to fill that thing with words.

My writing of Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary came directly out of my experiences with other people particularly with my mother, whose death is recorded in the book, but also with my siblings, spouse and other family members and friends who were present during the process of her dying. So in some ways the book is inherently about reciprocity—me showing back to my mother what she showed me, me trying to record both her grace but also the basic, impersonal, human animal thing that what happens when a living creature dies. It is also about trying to recreate an absence—obviously her absence—and about kind of creating a presence—knowing that her story exists not only in my memory but also the memory of others who knew her and now some others who have only read about her. And of course for me this book is a kind of container of/for my grief.

SS: What can we learn from collaboration—as a model—about being in a relationship in the world?

RB: So much of what I value in the world is relationships with other humans—my spouse, my friends, colleagues, students. Collaboration is about relationship, about conversation, about being equal or equivalents. It’s about learning from and valuing an other. Which is so different from so much of what we see these days in the detritus of the "Great Man" theory of history, that one great person has a vision and others are meant to be in subservience to that genius/vision. Which is so much of what our culture of materialism / awards / rewards fosters and re-creates. Though on the one hand I am all for the individual vision, and for one working in direct and unfettered communication with one’s muse or God or spirit or yes, even vision, I am suspect of the hierarchies that position one genre/aesthetic centrally and in terms of material. Collaboration seems inherently egalitarian.

On the other hand, there is the whole problem of "art by committee" in which, for example, arts commissions water down, pervert, derange and otherwise suck the blood out of an artist’s visions. That kind of working together creates diminishment of art. In a way, there are equally awful and very opposite problems: the "Great Man" way of thinking about creativity (i.e. nothing collaborative at all) and the "art by committee" way of thinking about creativity (waaaaay too collaborative). Both of which are AWFUL.

SS: There is another writer by the name of Rebecca Brown, the evangelical author of He Came to Set the Captives Free. In that book, Brown details her encounter with Satan via Satan's evil campaign to marry her friend. In her account, Satan wears a white tuxedo and rents out a Presbyterian church for the wedding (which sounds like a good story to me, and not unfamiliar, as I have attended several Presbyterian weddings).

Though (I'm going to suggest), the evangelical author Rebecca Brown probably intended her text to be read as an instructional/ testimonial/conversion text, it nonetheless puts me in mind of the Bluebeard fairy tales. I sense terrible, wonderful implications—the dark, bloody kind of wisdom one can only get from fairy-tales. This is a sensation I have had while reading your work (which at times directly references fairy tales). There have also been occasions when I have encountered your work as testimonial/conversion texts and have wanted that conversion experience—the experience of waking up, of seeing what is difficult, and surviving the seeing.

What do you make of this experience of having a kind of "double" ?

RB: I love the fact that my "literary double" is a fundamentalist Christian writer. In fact, there are a number of Rebecca Brown writers, even just here in Seattle, as I have discovered when I have received their mail or plane tickets or theater tickets and when we have phoned one another to say, “Someone is trying to get in touch with you.” One Rebecca Brown is an outdoors writer and has a book about her climbs. I think another one also has written about her mother. But of course my favorite, and probably the best selling, is the Christian. Partly, for me, because at one time in my life I could have gone that route not writing these apocalyptic books like hers, but believing as a fundamentalist Christian, which is something I went through when I was a teenager. There are ways I admire the conviction of that faith, but unfortunately more ways that I fear its exclusivity and tendency to damn others. The notion of the double has fascinated me for a while, long before I ever met or knew of another Rebecca Brown. Poe has that great story about finding a double, Dante Rossetti did that amazing painting, How They Met Themselves, and of course the German Romantics (Hoffmann, Chamiso) wrote fabulous things about finding/being a double. Even good ol’ Hermann Hesse. Because of course we all want to find our Other, our mate, the other half of our body/soul. But we also imagine what kind of life we could have if we had our own little containable Mr. Hyde. And of course, this notion of the “double” fits in with the idea of collaboration—collaboration being what two can make that one cannot.

SS: In terms of your work right now, what feels necessary, and what qualifies something as "necessary"?

RB: I think what is most necessary for me is to keep doing the work. I have always had periods of feeling really envious about my work—like why does someone else get the big grant or the big advance, the big review or whatever. And now, here I am at 50, with eleven or so books behind me, and any illusion I may have had about “the next book” being the one that will allow me to teach less and write more, well that illusion dies hard. So what is necessary is for me to constantly remind myself that the work itself is the reward, and the relationships I get to have around it, and that those are the important, necessary things rather than my wishing some day I’d get a Guggenheim or some other grant.

SS: I recently came across an article written by Matt Briggs in which he celebrated your work in part by saying, "It is exciting to see writers escape themselves as writers." How do you avoid falling into traps—i.e., becoming dependant on certain writerly tricks?

In some ways I wish I did have tricks that I could rely on! Writing continues—always—to be a really difficult endeavor for me. I revise and revise and revise, and the work still seems to take forever. For example, this one piece I am working on will probably be about ten pages when it’s finished, but I have been laboring on it for over a month and still feel like it is really gnarled and fraught. I have started gardening recently and every now and then I will dig up some huge awful messy dead root mass that has just been lying under the ground. So often I look at my prose in progress and it feels or sounds like that kind of gnarled root mass looks.

On the other hand, I know I have some things—if I don’t quite want to call them "tricks," let me call them "concerns" or "interests"—that keep being part of my process. Such as syllable counts. I often work on a really micro level, hearing or counting sounds in the work for a long, long time before I am able to stand above it, as it were, and see what the whole thing is trying to be about. On the other, other hand (how many hands are there?) maybe the work is about the miniscule, the incremental, the syllable, the pulse of the blood, the breath rather than the whole living body, the whole lifelong life.

Recently I have found more and more that doing things not at my desk—working out at the gym, taking a walk, working in the garden—are necessary for progress in the work. I get stuck so often and sometimes I just have to walk away from a project in order to be able to come back to it with any kind of movement forward.

Rebecca Brown's eleventh book, The Last Time I Saw You, was published by City Lights in 2006. Brown is also the author of Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig, a collaboration with painter Nancy Kiefer available at pistilbooks.net. Brown’s memoir, Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, was published by Granta Books, (UK), University of Wisconsin Press (USA), and Asahi Shimbun, Japan. Among her other books are the memoir-in-essays, The End of Youth and the fictions, The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary, Annie Oakley's Girl, and The Terrible Girls all with City Lights, and The Gifts of the Body, (HarperCollins).