I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The debut writer on how vignettes became a novel, bodies as objects, and why discomfort is comfortable to read.
The unnamed protagonist of Ari Braverman’s debut novel, The Ballad of Big Feeling (Melville House), “falls asleep next to her lover, thinking about trepanation.” She smells herself in the sheets. She stages a “seduction scene” for one friend and texts another asking whether her new sweetheart knows “about that thing behind [her] knee.” She is jealous of her dog’s affection for her own lover. “She is an adult child who meanders from one impression to the next.” She “is tired of containing institutional memory.” The tensions of this book are the quiet tensions of living. How much of one’s inner life should be kept private? How does one move through a world that makes little space for feelings? How does trauma travel?
When Braverman moved away from New York City, where we attended graduate school together, I recall seeing three boxes on the curb. They were labeled: “Jackalope shoes”; “Ari’s cow skull + blankies”; “stockpot, Diane Williams, blender, fancy breakable pot.” Like these boxes, The Ballad of Big Feeling reveals, in intimate and surprising detail, the strangeness of the everyday. Braverman’s prose is associative, a feat of compression, characterized by a keen attention to affect, relationships, the emotional charge of objects, and the natural world. Toward the end of the book, the woman sits on the stoop of the house she’s helped her mother empty and sell: “The shapes of irrational totems from her childhood—a favorite doorknob, a rhombus of sunlight on the floor of the dining room, the soles of her mother’s best pumps—float among the evening clouds.” Well after I’d turned all its pages, this book offered me new ways of seeing.
—Liza St. James
Liza St. James Your book is all about one person, who is referred to as “the woman.” It’s not written in first person, even though we’re so close to this protagonist. That choice lends it a lot of power. Was there ever a first person version? How did you know you needed to give it that distance?
Ari Braverman Yeah there was, and it was not good! [laughter] It was too easy for me to meander. Third person put a really tight box around everything. The distance exerted control over the prose. It also allowed for the fiction of seeing this person from a multitude of angles. A surround-sound or a three-sixty view as opposed to a video game, first person.
LSJBut she has a lot of thoughts that we’re privy to. We see her “powered by rumination,” imagining different lives for herself. Fairly early on we get this sentence that I love in part because of the deft way the first half of it outlines a crude story arc of the book: “A long time ago, before the health problems that are also money problems, but after the lessons about God and violence, her mother taught her about oud and civet: ‘Unless you look like a model or a movie star, it matters what you wear and how you smell.’”
ABI don’t think I’m a super crafty writer. I can turn a sentence, you know. But mostly I do really adhere to an emotional or an intuitive logic. I was trying to write into a full range of feeling and experience more than story. Even though to me, they’re the same thing. Feelings make people do things, or have a type of thought, and that makes a story. The kind of books I prefer to read and hopefully the kind of book that I have made is not a typical plot-driven book.
LSJIts structure reflects that. Can you share a bit about how this book came to be?
ABI started writing it in 2016. I kept writing little vignettes and it became clear that they were all things happening to the same person, and that if I thought of a novel as a container for all of these shorter things that then they would feel more complete and resonant.
LSJ Did you have shorter pieces that didn’t fit?
ABDefinitely. The protagonist of one of them was a man and that piece was published as a stand-alone story. It’s even got the dog from Ballad in it, but it’s just a totally different thing. It’s called “Lascaux Park” and it’s about going to the vet.
LSJ Do you remember how the title first came to you?
AB It’s called The Ballad of Big Feeling, which I still can’t say aloud because it embarrasses me so much. I knew it was the appropriate title because it felt really vulnerable. Early on I probably had a document that was called “untitled” or “working whatever.” Then it was just “Big Feeling” because I was contending with all this stuff. The word “ballad” came into my mind because I think of ballads as songs with different movements, or chunks of narrative that coalesce into a cohesive thing, like this book.
LSJ There are these short one-page chapters comprised of lists interspersed throughout Ballad, and when I was thinking about them, I was reminded of the poems and hybridity of Jean Toomer’s Cane, which you recommended to me years ago.
AB I owe everything to that book. [Pauses.] Sorry, I didn’t expect to feel emotional talking about it, but where we are as a country right now, talking about a book by a black man about the South and about the Great Migration is just—it feels like a lot. Cane explodes notions of possibility about what a narrative can look like and what a novel can be. There is something to writing about place and an embodied experience of geography in a fragmented way that just makes a lot of sense to me. It is a text structured around the arrangement of pieces as opposed to a conveyor belt of scenes.
In a plot-driven book it’s like: scene, scene, scene, and then there’s a narrative arc. I still have to look that up on Wikipedia because I don’t remember how it goes, because I’m so disinterested by it and I don’t experience living in that shape. When I make breakfast there’s rising action, climax, and denouement, sure, but maybe that happens a hundred times a day. When I read contemporary American avant-garde, there’s an absence of earnestness and feeling sometimes, and Cane somehow is everything: brilliant, brilliantly constructed, avant-garde, lyrical, emotional, filled with what feels like real people. Cane wasn’t a book that had to compromise any of its strangeness or its hominess. And by that I mean the hominess of being a person engaging with other people.
LSJThat’s a huge part of the pleasure of reading your book—the attention the protagonist pays to others. Her neighbor, her coworkers, her friends, strangers. Are there other models for this or influences on your work?
AB “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” William Gass. Diane Williams, although I don’t write like her but I wanted to. Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel, again it’s a cycle of small pieces.
LSJ Were the lists always there?
ABThe lists exist because they get at things that I didn’t know how to write about in scene. That’s what’s cool about poetry, right? Accessing things through intuition and a muscle memory of writing and speaking or proclaiming that takes over. I think?! I don’t know. I’m not really a poet, but obviously I have an affinity. I dabble.
LSJ Some of the lists are focused on objects, and objecthood is an important thread throughout.
ABObjects are always really interesting to me and it was impossible to write a book that was so embodied without also writing about the universe of objects because a body is an object in space, a personality is a kind of object, a person is a kind of object.
LSJ It does seem like there’s no hierarchy of relations in the book. The woman desires a sort of rhizomatic family model and seems to look for family everywhere.
AB You’re absolutely right. There is a tie between family and the body that I hadn’t really thought about. Your family member’s bodies are most like yours genetically speaking, and so she has ties to this family of genetic origin. But if the body is also the location of the things that become feelings, and if an affinity for another person is a feeling, then maybe it’s also an embodied experience. I do write about her connection with other people in very physical ways. When she’s in the truck after helping move that car, she puts her mouth on the water bottle in the spot where her friend left all this goo. I think she’s hungry for some kind of communion. And communion is a physical thing. It’s a transgression of boundaries, and what is the ultimate boundary but the physical boundary between two people? I think it’s about rupture, too, which is the reason objects are inscrutable. Because they have dimensions that we can’t breach. She wants to breach and be breached except with her family.
LSJSpeaking of goo and physical boundaries, you write about living in a body, about being a human animal, in such precise, intimate detail. Aches, farts, orgasms, cramps, itchiness, bloating, masturbation, all find their way in here.
AB I didn’t know I was so preoccupied with being a body until I wrote this book. It’s a book that is so much about the body and it’s also about the mind as much as anything else. In trying to render this person’s experience of being a sentient creature that is the receiver of these affects and feelings that become thought and then affect how she relates, I couldn’t separate what was happening inside her mind from what was happening in her body. I myself find them to be the same and I find them to really affect each other.
When I’m upset, my body does weird stuff or I feel differently about how my body looks or moves. When my body hurts or feels good, my mind works differently. So, it’s about portraying a human animal but it’s also about portraying a human human. We are uniquely self-aware and sometimes being self-aware is being aware of the physical individual geography that we inhabit. Feelings live in the body. Your brain is where your mind lives, isn’t it? And your brain is just a weird—what is the brain even made of? Fatty tissue?
LSJ It’s an organ…
AB Yeah, it’s an organ. And all that stuff comes from somewhere and that’s what I was really interested in.
LSJ There aren’t many men in the book, but the two principal men, the woman’s dad and her lover, are kind to the woman in ways that she finds annoying at best.
AB That was maybe less a comment on gender and sex, than a way to characterize the protagonist. I find her to be incredibly unlikeable. She doesn’t flourish when people show her positive attention. It’s a comment on the ways in which those things can feel bad if we’re not accustomed to reading them as things that are supposed to feel good. Or if we feel embattled in our bodies and feelings.
Maybe it did also feel important to contend with these very gendered expectations of women being manufacturers of warmth and intimacy, because I don’t find that to be true of my experience of human beings. People ebb and flow in terms of their ability to perform intimacy and grace and kindness, and it’s really mono-dimensional to write characters whose emotional processes track along one particular arc. The only person who she’s intimate with really is herself, and even then, not really.
LSJ I’m surprised you see the protagonist as unlikeable.
ABI think she’s just so uncomfortable. And the sense that I gather from people reading the book is that perhaps her extreme discomfort is comfortable to read about because everybody is really uncomfortable. But maybe she reminds me of my own constant discomfort and dissatisfaction. I mean, let’s be real, I made this character, she is in large part the sum total of a lot of my own emotional shortcomings.
LSJ There’s a ton of sly humor in the book. A moment I love is when the woman goes shoe shopping and there’s a sort of layering effect with even the narrator poking fun at the protagonist: “‘Originally, mules were meant only for the boudoir,’ she says so that the young man can enjoy the exquisiteness of her sense of humor.”
ABI didn’t think I was a funny writer until I wrote this book, and I will say that I do think it’s funny. But it was never intentional. It’s funny to me that the moments that I wrote and thought were going to be really serious and resonant and fucked up are the ones that reveal how ridiculous life is. Also, if I read them at a reading and people laughed I’d be like, Oh that’s cringey, Ari—you’re taking yourself way too seriously and the universe has done you a favor by actually rendering this passage very hilarious.
Don’t you think life is a comedy not a tragedy?
LSJ I hope so!
ABHow else are you gonna get through life? It’s like a very gentle gallows humor, that hopefully also has a lot of warmth and compassion. I’m gonna pee while we’re talking.
[Brings video to toilet.]
LSJ We can take a break if you want.
LSJOkay, I’ll take this opportunity to read from a page I love, from the start of chapter XII: “The girl pretends the whole town is dead… In her fantasy, life turns predatory and meaningful. The country’s population has almost disappeared but buildings and infrastructure remain, jutting from the landscape like the bones of a carcass… No evolution, no smart, no stupid, no college, no virginity, no cell phone, no money. Strange, windy new gods blow in and she announces their names from the highest empty skyscraper…”
I love that you’re on the toilet while I’m video recording.
AB I just had to go.
She’s playing a pretend game right? Anybody who’s old enough to get catcalled is probably too old to be playing a pretend game.
LSJ Oh, really?!
ABNo, I said that now, but what woman hasn’t gotten catcalled at, like, eleven, so—
LSJ And also what person doesn’t play pretend games until, like—
ABExactly, that’s the point. We all do! You’re hitting on it because it’s humorous but it’s also what we all do.
LSJNow that we’ve been to the bathroom, let’s talk blood. I’m on my third quarantine period, and your book has a brilliant period scene.
AB I had my third last week. It’s crazy to have menstruated so many times in quarantine. When I got my first period in quarantine I was like, this hasn’t been paused? I was really surprised! [laughter]
LSJWas including menstruation in the book important to you?
AB I never see people writing about adult women getting their periods, and I don’t know why. Any writing about menstruation I’ve come across has always been “a girl coming of age” and I’m like, Cool, but you don’t just get one big period and then you never get your period again. It’s like you’re always getting your period, and if you’re me, it always sucks.
In that scene it felt important to me to problematize the existence of being a sexed person, or someone who menstruates. The protagonist is contending with these very masculine elements while she’s menstruating. I get frustrated with the idea that gender is only experienced one way, and that even in literature and art, it’s often the single lens through which the rest of the world is experienced. I don’t experience life that way. Encounters and situations can be multiply sexed, and so it felt important to have her menstruating while she’s connecting with her father.
LSJ And she tells her father, who she hasn’t seen in a year, that she’s bleeding and has to leave before dinner to get tampons.
AB A lot of women don’t necessarily like to discuss with their male relatives when they’re bleeding, or if they have cramps, or any reproductive experience that they might have, so I think it just felt like a moment where there could be transparency in this relationship that was clearly fraught.
LSJ Because of the structure of the book, we’re alternately seeing the woman as a girl, and there’s a section where we learn about a book she read that “drew her through puberty” and influenced her experiences of gender and sexuality.
ABI don’t experience sex and gender to be immutable even moment to moment, and it just felt intuitive to me to write a female character who has different emotional experiences of being gendered at different times. Those kinds of gender things come into play for her when she wants an extra kind of physical agency, something that feels boyish or masculine. Not just because of the symbolism behind masculinity but also because you aren’t physically weighed down by breasts or other things. To me, people are androgynous inside and it felt important to render that.
LSJ The woman frequently imagines what her life would be like if she had grown up under different circumstances, and while there’s longing and desire there, in her acts of imagination there’s a lot of empathy. We also see her interacting with people who have class backgrounds or circumstances that are different from hers.
ABIt’s important to me to write about class because it’s something that isn’t baldly addressed in a lot of fiction, and I don’t really know why. I think it was a way for me to implicate my own class background as a fiction writer. It’s not autofiction, but I’m a writer who comes from an upper middle-class family, and my background is not devoid of its own class complications. I didn’t think I could render someone’s reality without talking about their class status and about how they engage with people of different classes. Depending on what class you come from you live in a different reality, and if I’m interested in rendering my interpretation of reality I have to contend with the things that make it what it is, even for fake people. [laughter]
LSJOne moment that comes to mind is when she arrives at this beautiful house where she’s babysitting, and she waves at a housekeeper across the street who doesn’t wave back.
AB I wanted to give the housekeeper, even if that person just appeared really briefly, a moment of agency. And to always critique my character, who has these foibles.
LSJEven the way she connects with the little boy she’s babysitting, she hates him for a moment. You write that kind of quick rage so well.
ABI feel intimately familiar with the process by which you just fucking hate someone for a second. [laughter] And I think that’s just being a person.
LSJThe person she was babysitting for is her supervisor at work, and we see this woman’s job as one aspect of many in her life, which also allows us to see its fuzzy boundaries and the tensions she faces there too.
ABWork is such a weird place. Who actually keeps it professional at work? No one. I definitely have experienced work as a place of incredible intimacy with a built-in distance. So, when her coworker is like, This thing happened to me, the woman is like, I don’t wanna hear about that, that is not in my job description, I am not here to be your therapist. And yet, you kind of are—we do live in a world where we spend most of our time with our coworkers in terms of intimacy and connection.
LSJThe coworker says something like, You’re the intake person so you must be a good communicator and therefore have empathy.
AB It’s such a compliment for someone to trust you. But it also feels like such an imposition when it’s something that you don’t want. When you’re talking about those moments of rage, it doesn’t matter how intimate someone wants to be with you, sometimes you just hate someone. Or sometimes you just don’t want to be violated in the ways that intimacy is a violation. That’s what’s so weird about it. But it’s also what’s so good about it. It’s a violation but you’re not as alone as you were before.
The Ballad of Big Feeling is available for purchase here.
Liza St. James is a senior editor of NOON and editor-at-large for Transit Books. She lives in New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee