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
Reenactment as research, rain forest idealism, and the gods of antiquity.
Novelist Will Chancellor and I first met two years ago. He and writer Kevin Jaszek were sitting at the bar I tended, each working on the other’s manuscript, each wearing a grimace of concentration. I asked Chancellor about his project. A novel, he told me, concerning one Owen Burr, a near-Olympic caliber water polo star who loses an eye. In the book, we follow him from Stanford to Berlin as he negotiates his impairment, a foray into the art world, new love, and his relationship with his father—Dr. Burr, professor of Classics. The novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014), was published this July. We met to discuss the writing at Old Town Bar. In a not uncharacteristic turn, Will began his own interview.
Will Chancellor I wrote my first piece of journalism last week.
David Richardson What was it about?
WC One of the world’s greatest rock climbers. He does these free climbs up some of the hardest routes in the world, up huge walls in Yosemite. He does free soloing—no ropes, no equipment—just climbing straight up a three-thousand-foot wall with shoes and a chalk bag. I interviewed him over the phone. It was funny because when I first called he sent me a text message while wedged into the face of Half Dome, saying, “Can we talk in like an hour and a half?” I told him, Don’t worry about me, fucking climb your mountain! So I spoke to him when he was on top and, as he was hiking down, we had our interview.
DR And now here we are: I am interviewing you on your proverbial hike down. Your first novel has been published. Can you talk about your preparation to climb that mountain, to write Brave Man?
WC I try to get as close to everything as possible, and it’s weird because my kind of preparation is nothing like, say, Hemingway’s. It’s not experiential writing—that’s not when I’m writing my best, that’s not what I do. Every single thing in this book was written, and then I reenacted it in order to research after the fact—if that makes any sense. The images and the story existed in my head first. For instance, Brave Man was always going to end in Iceland. And so I thought, Alright, guess I’ve got to spend two months traversing the country to figure out what Iceland is all about. So while it seems like I threw myself into a pretty extreme situation, I really just threw myself into the book. The entire plot has been here for ten years, and it just took me a while to reenact it all. I played water polo for two seasons. I learned some ancient Greek. I collaborated on a conceptual art piece for a New Museum festival. All this was in service to the story. I wish it were about something more noble—not to say that art can’t be noble. I wish I had a character who fought for clean drinking water, helped the homeless, or cured cancer, because then I would have to get off my ass and help. Alas, the stories aren’t like that for me: something is there, then I do it in order to get closer and figure out what the hell I’m writing about. But nothing in the plot really changed over years of preparation and writing, I just learned how to look at it better.
DR When you started conceptualizing yourself as a writer were you keeping a diary? Maybe doing shorter pieces? Or is this novel your first piece of writing?
WC Well, I definitely see myself as a novelist. I have no real interest in short stories. I think I need to process the world through a single story for years, not months, to distill enough from the ether. I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s Paris Review interview recently, and she said something to the effect of, “I’ve only published one short story, and it’s because I’ve only really written one short story. I write novels.” And for me, it’s the same. I don’t even read any short stories. I read almost exclusively novels, poetry, and essays. To answer your question, I started a novel at age twenty-one, but it wasn’t going anywhere and I ditched it. Cannibalized it—that’s probably better, as I took from it for Brave Man. But that was really it. Right now I’m about a quarter of the way into my next book, and I’ve already got the next two after that basically fixed in my head. I know what I am going to be writing about.
DR Which is to say, you know what’s going to happen to you in the next fifteen or so years.
DR The way you describe it, you’re sort of writing yourself into existence. Does that notion resonate with your ideas about how the activity of writing figures into your life? Of writing’s relationship to life and experience more generally?
WC I think I’m fundamentally a pretty empty person, and I’m not beating myself up saying that. I just think of myself as a very receptive writer, open to whatever idea might present itself during the compositional process. I look at both bizarre and mundane situations through characters’ eyes and think of how each new thing I learn fits into the world of the book. I don’t generally impose, and the times when I do, it ends up being really bad. For example, in the first draft of Brave Man, I wanted Owen to be a poet. I didn’t really see him that way. I just wanted him to be that way so he would fit within a greater conceptual schema. Being a poet fit with the idea of the Icelandic warrior people referenced in the novel, but it just didn’t work. So I try to be completely receptive to whatever the story is going to be, then research the hell out of it.
I also learn a lot from those wrong-headed initial impulses. I went into this book with the idea that my treatment of contemporary art would be vicious. I was very angry with a lot of conceptual art. I thought there was no real craft involved—it pissed me off because it seemed like bad poetry, rendered in neon, suddenly became worth a million dollars. I was just angry, I guess, but that’s exactly what I’m talking about in terms of wrong instincts. Over the course of writing this book I actually came to love conceptual art. I now recognize there’s a great deal of craft involved when it’s done well. If I had rigidly adhered to the idea that contemporary art is hurtful and needs to stop, then the book would have been shitty. It wouldn’t have been giving anybody his or her due. I definitely want to make sure it’s not simply satire. I hate the character Kurt, the conceptual artist Owen meets in Berlin, but I also kind of love him. If a conceptual artist read Brave Man, I’d want him or her to say, You know, that depiction is pretty harsh, but that’s fair. I’d do that. There are definitely people who exclude morality from any kind of artistic question, who say, Anything is fair if the work is good. I can do whatever I want. The detached version of me has a big problem with that, but the writer part of me wants to inhabit that mentality. To be open, empty to it.
DR You draw a line between this “detached” part of yourself and the writer part.
WC I do have a judgmental side. I don’t have any problem saying that I like one thing and dislike another, that one thing is capital “R” right and another is capital “W” wrong. I don’t have any problem making normative claims or value calls. But that’s death if you’re writing something. You’ve got to be totally open and neutral in order to inhabit the work.
DR In some sense, the characters need space to write themselves. This receptiveness is mirrored in Professor Burr, the character you have said you identify with most closely. Burr is somebody who consistently remains open to what might be written into his life, and this openness ultimately serves to bolster his agency.
WC Yeah, I think that’s his story. I think Brave Man is his story, in fact—moving from the incalculable loss of his wife and his subsequent closing up to the radical openness he displays by the end of the book.
DR How do Burr’s traits figure in his relationship with Owen, his son?
WC I think the central issue here is mysticism, a sense of spirituality, which Owen and Burr both embrace. Owen’s mysticism is more sensory while Burr’s is more intellectual, and I think the tension is that the father can’t see the gods the son sees—even though Professor Burr has devoted his entire life to their study. Owen has just grown up thinking the gods are real. He can actually see the divine world that his father is the false preacher of. While his father professes the beauty and centrality of the ancient gods, Owen thinks, Oh, you mean those guys in the corner? He knows he sees things most people don’t—he doesn’t actually see anthropomorphized gods, but he does see these washes of color and chooses to call them gods. His mysticism is something he inhabits from the start, whereas his father doesn’t have any real faith. Or, you could argue that the father has more faith, being that he is committed to something he has no real experience with.
Throughout the course of the book, the father starts getting closer and closer to the son, and that’s really part of Burr’s bravery, which is threefold: first, it’s brave of him to become a good father to such a crazy and terrifying son; second, he’s brave to leave his comfortable academic life; and third, he’s brave to pursue ideas to their breaking point, to really give himself whole-heartedly to what he believes in. Being brave enough not to just embrace the intellectual apparatus, but the full experience of what he’s talking about—the bravery of faith. If there’s not some sort of leap then there’s no real faith at all. I mean Burr ends up living in a cave as a way of practicing his articulated philosophy of liminalism! He starts getting a little weird.
DR Owen’s experience of the gods stands in contrast to Burr’s second-order, academic study of the gods, necessarily a little detached. As such, it engenders an economy of desire—Burr, in some sense, wants to be his son. There are things about Owen that astound him and that he wants to understand, but also he wants to embody and experience them himself.
WC You hit it right on the head. I’m glad you read it that way. That to me was kind of everything, that Burr was living in his son’s shadow, which is a story I don’t think is told that often. Most conventional father-son stories have the son living in the father’s shadow. That’s the reason I think it’s Burr’s story. He is the one who has to step into the light.
DR Interesting to think of it in terms of shadow if Burr is the titular Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall. We have height and light.
WC Right. I’ve always seen Burr as being just like a tree trunk. I think the organic metaphor of a tree for him is much more real than the constructed metaphor of, say, a seven-storey building. I think he has to grow to get out of the shadows. He exists under this canopy of his son—his son is everything above him. He has to grow in order to get any light, recognition, a separate identity.
DR It’s appropriate, then, that Owen is mistaken for Odin during his time in Iceland, Odin being the father god of Norse mythology. The son becomes the father and guides Burr to his own identity.
WC True! Owen also mirrors Odin in his action—Odin goes through two transformations. First, he’s crucified on the tree at Yggdrasil. That’s paralleled in Berlin—it’s funny, I saw that scene in my head before I knew it fit with the mythology. Second, Odin wasn’t coincidentally blind. He gave his eye at Mímir’s Well for the gift of poetry. In order to become an artist he had to sacrifice an eye, and I think there’s something true about blindness and insight and the artistic process. In early drafts there was a lengthy digression about one-eyed, or blind, artists. Our greatest poets, Homer and Milton, were both blind. I think there’s something analogical to the compositional process of poetry or novel writing—novels being world-building exercises—and the visualization you have to do to navigate the world when blind.
All the novels I love are worlds, full and self-contained worlds that have maybe a slightly different physics to them than ours. Again, I don’t think it’s coincidental that a lot of the greatest world builders have been partially sighted or blind. I think the explanation makes sense, that there’s some rewiring in your brain when you lose your sight. That rewiring for Owen is still kind of happening. He’s twenty-one when the book starts and extremely naive. And that’s why he gets chewed up by Kurt. It is also why Owen could not be an artist yet. I think that line “Wait, you’re a conceptual artist who hasn’t actually made any conceptual art? You’ll fit in fine in Berlin!” is on the money from my experience in a lot of different cities—New York not being one of them.
DR In New York you need to do it.
WC Yeah, you’ve got to actually prove it. I think that’s what’s great about this city. You can’t claim anything for too long without having to put out.
DR As a novelist, do you identify with New York? As opposed to being a Texan novelist, or a Hawaiian?
WC I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve ever thought of that. I don’t really see myself as an American writer. I’m not particularly interested in uniquely American experience. I don’t have any intention to see myself located that way. If I were to pick an identity, it would be the false one of being a Hawaiian. I’m not really a Hawaiian. I lived in Hawaii, my first memories were formed when living there, but I’d get jumped if I claimed to be anything other than a Haole from the mainland. But at the same time, Derek Walcott’s my favorite writer, and the island strain—there’s just something when you grow up in a rain forest, on an island, looking at this beautiful, lush world.
I lived on the north shore of Kaua’i, Hanalei. The wettest spot on earth is Mount Wai’ale’ale, which was basically in my backyard. So I grew up in a rain forest, then moved to Midland, Texas. San Antonio is like a greenhouse in comparison to Midland. I had fucking tumbleweeds at my doorstep and a real ontological breakdown as early as age nine or ten, going from this beautiful world to the desert. Not to take liminalism too seriously, but these two poles have been definitional for me: the beautiful, Terrence Malick world that’s full of twilight wonder, then the world of High Plains Drifter. The dialogue between those two is what defines a lot about how I see things. Comfort and wonder on one hand, screaming terror and horror at the possibility of nothingness on the other. So no, I don’t really consider myself a New Yorker.
DR Do you think the need to replicate, if only in your mind, the scenery of your tropical childhood around you in Midland, Texas perhaps spurred your interest in writing?
WC I think anyone who knows me will say that I’m an idealist, and they’re probably going to mean it in a really negative way. My friend Damian, a painter, says, “You could be the most romantic guy I’ve ever met!” and he means it as a complete insult. Growing up in an ideal environment, you’ll end up an idealist. I don’t know if that explains the kind of world-builder side of things or the affinity for fiction, but it definitely explains a certain idealism in my writing and process. I don’t necessarily want to make a perfect world. I just want to make a consistent world. Something that’ll run. So you can just sit back and watch it go.
DR Talk about some of your favorite novelists, your favorite world-builders.
WC Marilynne Robinson just killed me this year. She’s created the same kind of self-contained world as Faulkner or O’Connor. Her small town in Iowa manages to be everything that ever was. Similarly, David Foster Wallace was able to take the raw material of Massachusetts, of Enfield, and make a full world. Jesse Ball is able to create these dream worlds that are internally consistent. That’s probably closest to how I see the role of a world functioning in Brave Man. When I was writing it, I wanted it to have the same kind of dream logic, like Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. When you’re in the logic of the dream you don’t question it at all. When you look back at it in sober reflection, you’re kind of like, Oh, that strains credulity, I’m not sure that that actually holds up. That’s the kind of fiction I love, a book that could sufficiently describe a big chunk of the human experience, yet also has a kind of logic that flows from one scene to the next. When you wake up from what you’ve written you think, Fuck, how did I start talking about polar bears? I think good conversation does the same thing. You get carried away and end up at an unexpected terminus.
DR And so we arrive at my final question, though perhaps you expected this one. Critical theory figures prominently in the book. Burr espouses the tenets of liminalism, a send-up of postmodern cultural critique, and incites a riot in Athens. Jean Baudrillard is cast as a character. Could you talk about theory’s presence in your novel? About literature’s relationship to theory, and philosophy more generally?
WC If Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot did not have extended meditations on Roland Barthes, or if Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections didn’t have Chip’s section, I’m not sure I could have done this book at a major publisher. But I think it’s just a reflection of who we are as readers. And I think the only reason people don’t write about it more often is because it seems like blurring the boundaries and getting preachy, that it’s maybe pretentious or elitist. I think it will happen more often—literature explicitly engaging theory. The same way there’s a raft of books about the art world, fast-forward five years and you’re going to see a ton of books with, say, Žižek in them, in one way or another, if not as the protagonist.
The reflexive subject you find in a lot of critical theory is so integral to our understanding of the world that it makes sense for it to creep into fiction. It seems to me that we need all the ideas we can get.
David Richardson is a writer. He works at MoMA and is presently collaborating on an art and education project called Not Found. He 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