Conversation with Donald Breckenridge

Intern Nancy discusses inspiration, his new book, and more with our new Black Sparrow author.

One of our new Black Sparrow titles, And Then by Donald Breckenridge refreshes the traditional ghost story with dynamic interwoven narratives and direct language that subverts the typical suspense of the genre to contemplative tension. The hauntings explored in the novel go beyond encounters with strangers who have passed to become ghosts and those fleeting moments that are nestled within our memories. An engaging read with the crisp emotional clarity of an unaffected narrative, And Then is a succinct read that leaves you feeling fulfilled.

Donald Breckenridge is the author of four novels and the editor of two fiction anthologies. He also engages in editorial work as the Fiction Editor of the Brooklyn Rail, the Co-Founder and Co-Editor of InTranslation, and the Managing Editor of Red Dust Books.

Your career thus far seems deeply involved in the literary world, from writing novels to editorial work with the Brooklyn Rail, InTranslation, and Red Dust Books. As you started your career, did you see yourself as a writer first or an editor?

Writing fiction evolved out of writing plays and that was something that grew out of my interest in acting. When I came to New York at twenty I was deeply involved with the theater, I helped found a small company in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then gradually, when financial and aesthetic necessity began to dictate otherwise, I cautiously drifted into fiction. I say cautiously because I had almost no confidence in my ability to write fiction, and while writing dialogue and blocking for the stage came easily, especially in a youthful and wildly open collaborative environment, writing fiction was and still is a highly challenging route. Then about six months before my first novel was published, when I was thirty-three, I became very close with a few editors and the publisher at the Brooklyn Rail just when they decided that they wanted to publish fiction on a regular basis. I was asked to come on board and since it was guaranteed that I would have complete control over the content of the section I readily agreed. Until that point I never had the slightest intention of becoming an editor although I have always been an avid reader. So when I began at the Rail I saw myself as an aspiring writer simply posing as an editor who was positively determined to give back to the community by publishing work by other young ascending authors, older authors who at one point in their careers might have been successful from a commercial standpoint who were now being neglected by larger publishing houses and subsequently shunned by smaller independent houses, so-called experimental literature, and of course, world literature in translation which has always been my principal focus as a reader, my first love, and where I derive nearly all of my influences as a writer. At the time I expected that my involvement with the Rail would capture a moment, a very brief moment in time, that I would eventually outgrow this posturing then drift away from editing. Of course the exact opposite has happened; I have been at the Rail for sixteen years now, InTranslation, the journal I founded with Jen Zoble, turns ten years old this April, and my involvement with Red Dust, Joanna Gunderson, who founded Red Dust in 1962 and ran it for decades by herself, published my first novella in ’98, is only really just beginning.

That seems like a very fruitful way to connect to a creative environment and community, especially since fictional prose does not often have the same outlets as theater. I think the examples that can be found in literary history also make writing seem like a very solitary process, so editorial work does seem like a communal extension to that task. Do you find that your playwriting and editorial work influence your novels?

You are absolutely correct, writing fiction is an incredibly solitary process, which is one of the things that I really enjoy about it. Although on occasion it is a pretty good idea to leave the desk and brave the great outdoors. To be honest one of the hardest things for me when I was involved in the theater was being so exposed, it was nearly always too much, on stage or not, as I have never been very comfortable in my own skin. Being an editor and an author is a lot like being in the world but not quite being of the world. Editing and writing are both highly selective; you take your sweet time while you pick and choose. It is important to never rush. When working with a writer I always try to be as non-intrusive as possible. I’ve never aspired to be a tastemaker or a trendsetter. I’ve nearly always found ambitious writers, artists in general but writers in particular, to be incredibly dull self-absorbed imbecilic clowns. When I find a singular story, or a stand alone chapter, or a book that works brilliantly or has the potential to work brilliantly I want it, I have to have it; and if I’m lucky enough to get my paws on it I’ll do everything in my power to make it perfect. I can be incredibly harsh with my own work and occasionally that turns out to be a detriment but more often than not that is what saves the book. And finally, my technique of imbedding dialogue while cementing characterization around a character while they navigate a moment on the page is something I’ve adapted from writing plays:

“You boil a few medium-sized potatoes,” Russell had finished cooking them, “the red ones,” when Tom returned from the bodega. “Make sure you leave the skins on,” Russell emptied the pot into the colander, “the flavor is in the skins,” and steam rose from the sink. Tom removed two cold forties of Ballantine from the brown paper bag, “Here you go,” placed one on the counter, “the sour cream and butter is in the bag.” And Then (page 70)

The imbedded dialogue technique does add immediacy to the scenes. I think it also adds a sense of transience that feels very lived in. It’s exciting to read and clearly a benefit from having been involved in theater! I also admire the way you approach acquisitions. It can be tough for authors to find publishers that want to take a chance on their writing, but your energetic appeals really speak to your enthusiasm for reading and providing good books to read. You mentioned that translated works are very important to you. Do you read in languages other than English? How do foreign books find their way into your influences? Ionesco, for instance, is the epigraph to And Then.

I can only read English. I was born with the wrong genes when it comes to learning other languages, unless it is a wine list, only then am I truly multi-lingual. I became a voracious reader in my early teens, and world literature has always been extremely important to me. Much of And Then is a cumulative response to the work of Claude Simon, who has always been one of my heroes. Simon, thanks to Richard Howard, Jordan Stump, Helen R Lane and Jim Cross’ stellar translations, really illuminated the multiplicity of roles and possibilities a novel can accomplish while telling a compelling story. His masterful ability to explode fragmentary narratives into gorgeous mosaics while still retaining their overall push through the plot while his characters continue their gradual evolution is something that I never grow weary of reading. Also, Eugene Ionesco, his writing touched me when I was in my early teens and reading Ionesco, not just the plays but his fiction, and most importantly, his journals, helped me understand the limitations and possibilities not only of language but of existence as well. I have found the epigraphs for all of my books in the pages of Ionesco’s memoir Present Past, Past Present.

Navigating a wine list is a good skill to have; an even better one is navigating the possibilities of world literatures. There seem to be an abundance of voices that you channel into your works. Can you expand a little more on how And Then is a response to Claude Simon?

Yesterday I was visiting John Reed’s class at the New School, where I had been invited to talk to his students about how to go about submitting fiction to editors at literary publications, anyway, after the class a few of his students asked me about my forthcoming novel, and when they commented on how much they liked the title, And Then, I informed them that I had taken it from Soseki’s masterpiece of the same name. This would be the Norma Moore Field translation that Perigee Books published in ’82, and that Tuttle recently brought back into print. Natsume Soseki is another writer whose work, and I have to confess that he is one of a half dozen authors obviously including Claude Simon, is someone that I am always returning to and responding to in my fiction. All of Soseki’s protagonists share a sense of discomfort with their world, maybe exquisitely cautious dislocation is a better way of putting it, what Soseki does with dislocation is truly extraordinary, that nearly constant sense of cautious unease with the present is so expertly crafted and effortless. I have stolen the title from his novel And Then, but I owe his book To the Spring Equinox and Beyond (translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein, Tuttle Classics ’85) a massive debt as one of the main story lines in And Then is a response to that absolute gem. So anyway, while I was on the subway on my way home from the New School last night after this class I was thinking about your request to expand a bit more on the writing of Claude Simon in relation to my own paltry attempts at writing fiction and I’ve decided to respectfully decline to elaborate any further on the matter of influences. Believe me, I can go on and on about the writers who have influenced my work all afternoon, and I do greatly appreciate your questions, and maybe I’m being coy but in this case I think tossing a few bread crumbs on the path might be better than leaving you a tidy trail of stones.

That’s just fine! You gave me a thorough response, and I think there’s more than enough room for guesswork and intrigue in your answers. It’s good to leave some mystery in the process, and it leaves room for discussing And Then. It seems from the introduction that And Then is partially autobiographical. What was the emotional process of working on the novel like? The candid emotional discussions about dealing with life’s transience were particularly powerful to me as a reader. Was writing this novel cathartic in anyway?

Initially I wanted to write a ghost story about two people who occupied the same apartment at different points in time, to examine their possible connections and similarities while alternating the story lines—as the one who first occupies the space returns to haunt the one who comes later—while living through what I strongly suspected to be the last few years of my father’s life. I had actually encountered a ghost in the spring of ’06 and my intention was for this ghost story, inspired by actual events, to be informed by what I was experiencing with my father, it was to be my filter, and my plan was to keep the impending trauma at arms-length while gradually processing it through this ghost story. I began the book in earnest in the early spring of ’09 and my father passed away in the fall of ’10. I finished the book in the spring of ’13 and actually placed it that fall with Ted Pelton at Starcherone. He agreed to take the book but told me that he wouldn’t be able to publish it until the fall of ’15. So the story had served it’s purpose, and although it was complete and would soon be published, somehow a sideways confidence gradually overcame me in the summer of ’13, and I found myself writing out the last few months of my father’s life, describing how things ended for him, the where and how of why he chose to die, then going back further and really examining our relationship. Unblinking. I wanted to honestly describe this landscape of living memory. Everything in And Then that happened to my father is true. Everything that happened to me in this book is also true. My father and I were very close friends. What happened to him is just as what you’ve read in the book. It was an ugly and brutal way for someone to die. Writing out the 3rd part of the book, this autobiographical section was extremely painful and also wildly nostalgic in the best possible way. And yet he is still gone and I think of him everyday. I’m very grateful for the time we had together. I never suspected I would have the courage much less the ability to actually tell our story. So the initial ghost story became a stage for what gradually became the autobiographical section of the book, and finally, I wove all three sections together so now there are three alternating narratives instead of two.

Your dedication to recording the end of your father’s life and your understanding of the situation is apparent in the text. The ending, too, is matter-of-fact but sensitive. You leave the reader with a sense of closure without attempting to flourish. The image of the ghost is also well rendered! Is there a scene in the book that you enjoy rereading the most or that you feel most satisfied with how you wrote it?

I think that the Gare du Nord opening for the book works well to set a tone for what is to come, it is also a very concise narrative summary of an extraordinary work of art. That was an absolute pleasure to write. When I read out I tend to open with that, so much so that most of the people who have seen me read out in the last few years are growing a bit weary of hearing it. And I’m really happy that you like the way the ghost came off. That was a really incredible experience, it opened up an entire world of new possibilities, although not everyone believes me when I tell them about it. I think people who have encountered ghosts can relate to that moment whereas people who haven’t actually had that experience think that I might have lost my mind, or that I am spinning them a really convoluted yarn. Have you ever encountered a ghost? Generally feeling satisfied with what I have done is a giant red flag—a sure sign that something is horribly wrong with what I’m attempting—although there are a respectable number of places in the book that became high points when I completed them. Passages where the writing serves as a standard for what comes next. I’ve tried to pitch all the half-baked telling, the neon-illuminated characterizations and all the dull explications into the trash. Perhaps that is why the book is only 100 pages long. Which is probably a perfect length for me.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve encountered a ghost, but I’ve had ghostly events happen that I can’t attribute to anything else. It really makes you less skeptical when you’ve seen or experienced events that you can’t quite explain. Do you anticipate exploring ghostly themes or spiritual storylines in future works? It seems to have made a strong and positive impact on your writing. Perhaps there are more possibilities from here.

As a massive fan of Poe, Wilkie Collins, Nerval, Arthur Machen, Gautier, and J S LeFanu the realm of the supernatural has always captivated me on the page. I’ve always appreciated the genre but I wasn’t someone who believed—it was a device, atmospheric coloring, suspenseful sepia from another century and when used effectively by a master like Machen the end results were always profound—and even if I did believe I would certainly never even entertain the idea of confessing it in public. Is the Easter Bunny next? No, my worldview was far too steeped in the concrete and existential calamities of this toxic century, justifiably cynical, but yes, to answer your question, absolutely. The fantastic and spiritual are new vocabularies, doors are always opening and if the walls don’t cave when you put your back into them then they are probably easy to climb, and hopefully I’ll eventually learn how to incorporate them effectively into other writing projects.

Those sound like exciting prospects to me. Ghost stories and the supernatural have a broad potential for creating different atmospheres and stories. Is there anything else about And Then that you would like potential readers to know or keep in mind as they approach the novel?

I think that’s it.