January 29, 2019
Last August a photo of Brad Phillips’ book Essays and Fictions was posted on Instagram. The picture was a close up of Anthony Bourdain’s blurb—he’d only died a couple months earlier—that read “searingly honest, brilliant, and disturbing…” I guess I’m a sucker for excellent marketing, because I wanted to read the book immediately. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the novel’s release, and since the Instagram caption said advanced readers copies were available, I emailed Tyrant Books and requested one.
Essays and Fictions is a perfect example of why I love to read. Reading a book for the first time, a book I’ll grow to love, is an intimate process. The words on the page somehow seep into me, and the story stays inside long after the book is finished. The eleven stories in Essays and Fictions painstakingly focus on overlapping subject matter like drug addiction, sex, pain, loss, suicide and love—topics considered ‘disturbing,’ but the writing in this book about these topics is not only beautiful, but deeply sincere.
When I really love a book, I become obsessed and I do this thing: underlining various sentences, posting the underlined sentences on Instagram stories, tweeting sentences I connect with. I google the author, what else have they written that I can read right now? During one of my Brad Phillips k-holes online I found another blurb, The Paris Review said of Brad’s work, “…He doesn’t ask to be liked, even by his groupies, but he does want to communicate: ‘I’m not interested in the ones who are drawn to the creator of the work, I’m interested in the ones who are drawn to the content.’”
In Essays and Fictions, I’m drawn to both.
Brad and I corresponded in December 2018, after I finished the book, via a Google doc. The following is what we talked about.
Lauren Grabowski: There are not so subtle hints throughout the book that the entire contents of these stories are fictional—One chapter states, “Important to remember this is all fiction. Directed to myself or to you— it doesn’t matter. It’s all fiction. Remember though that all writing is fiction.” As a reader I wouldn’t have to be reminded of this while reading The Secret History, or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But it is something to be reminded of if I am reading Person/a by Elizabeth Ellen, or The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan, or Essays and Fictions by Brad Phillips because these are all works of fiction where the author has written about a fictional protagonist who shares the same name as the author as well as multiple identifying characteristics as the author.
Your book Essays and Fictions has a protagonist named Brad Phillips in several of the stories. I know to separate the artist from the art, but, not so subconsciously, I also think to myself, this character is Brad. I can’t help it, even though I want there to be a delineation between Brad Phillips the author and Brad Phillips the character. And while I want the delineation, I don’t want it ever explained to me what’s fictional in the book, and what isn’t.
You’re playing with the blurriness of Brad Phillips writing about a Canadian artist named Brad Phillips. What do you get out of that?
Brad Phillips: What I get out of using my name as the protagonist is the confusion. My entire body of work pre-writing also addressed the same things. Reading a lot of autobiography theory, the idea of fixed ‘self’ is now seen as unreal. Since all narrative that defines ‘self’ is all based on memory, which is very subject to influence by time, circumstance, subjectivity etc, means that inherently, all writing about oneself is unstable and unreliable.
I want to be the premier unreliable narrator. Were there aspects of these stories that were in fact based on reality, they’d still be being created through the prism of my own memory, as well as through the subtraction and amplification of the story I tell myself that defines myself through the unreliable self-narratives we create.
I feel like I am constantly telling the reader throughout each story that they should be skeptical about what they read. In a few stories I say, ‘this may be true, it’s possible it is’–theories in autobiographical studies say that really, it’s a phantom genre that cannot be fixed or defined, so essentially it’s a non-genre. Fiction is infected often by autobiography, especially in first books, but autobiography is also infected by fiction–primarily the fictions we tell ourselves.
I am not the same person I was twenty years ago. Does this mean I’m a different person now? I remember tidbits of my life from twenty years ago, the narrative is lost. So I’m presenting what I remember to be me, an idea of me, assuming anything is based on reality, which is not an assumption people should make.
The book is marketed as fiction, and that should be all I have to do, designate it as such. Beyond that, how people read the book is out of my control, but my interviews or responses still require me to assert that nothing that I write should be considered trustworthy. I’m constantly pointing to the unreliability of myself, as a writer and as a protagonist. It’s easy for people to believe a story where the protagonist shares my name as being autobiographical. Yet in the next story I may have murdered someone. I think it’s more difficult but important to abandon all of these ideas before reading, primarily because they’re irrelevant. Identity is nebulous, unstable, ever-changing. I want to reflect that. A character named Leslie Morris appears multiple times as a therapist, sometimes bald, sometimes having perfect hair. I switch out names as fail-safes against giving anything away…‘Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental’ is important for people to take at face value.
I enjoy confusing the public and long have. My Wikipedia page has said for years I was living in Jamaica, to the point where most people believed I was–I would include it in press releases. Now for the last 18 months I’ve been ‘born in Hungary’ and a year earlier. And my own esoteric mostly eastern based beliefs about identity and a ‘self’ (of which I don’t believe to be a fixed ‘thing’ so much as a projection or construct) have had the most influence on my writing. It doesn’t read, I imagine, as a philosophical text but I’d say that Buddhist ideas about the mistake of believing in a ‘self’ have been the biggest influence on this book.
And yes, in that story I clearly state that I’m now going to use my own name, simply because it’s easier to write that way for me. To my own detriment, at times. Philip Roth did very similar things. He had his own double or stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman for many books. It allowed him the backdoor from accusations of autobiography by using another name. And in his book Operation Shylock the protagonist is named Philip Roth, tracking down an imposter named Philip Roth. I’ve been influenced to some extent by that, by my interest in the JT Leroy hoax, and Clifford Irving’s fake ‘authorized biography’ of Howard Hughes.
LG: The story “Suicidal Realism” has the best writing I have ever read in my entire life about drug use and addiction. The narrator states, “The reason I want to write about drugs is that I don’t believe anyone has done a proper job of it.” I believe this is an accurate statement, especially after reading this story, which is about the ritual of scoring drugs, all the preparation involved, the anticipation of everything that could go wrong, the risk being taken because the reward is the dope high, it’s perfect, and in my experience someone who has had a long love affair with drugs could claim that the writing in “Suicidal Realism” nails the experience. From “Suicidal Realism”: “What I’ve learned, if I’ve learned anything at all, is that you need to reconcile living with your insatiable. You don’t have to love it, but you need to accept it. I’ve come to accept that I am a fundamentally incomplete creature. Parts of me are missing. I can’t reassemble myself, as much as I’ve tried.” I came to my own conclusions about being an incomplete creature and that nothing is going to fill the void inside of me, and I believe the void is supposed to remain empty. I try to turn that empty feeling into creating art.
My question for you: what experiences in your life motivate you to choose one art form over another? Meaning, does your desire to paint, or take pictures, differ from your motivation to write?
BP: From my own experience (or conversely from watching friends with similar drug interests), it was an interesting story to write. I did a reading in New York last month, and someone asked me how long I’d been clean. I’ve been clean a while now, but, never once in the book do I really claim to be drug-free and in ‘recovery.’ I SPEAK about recovery, but any questions about my own putative sobriety aren’t based on the book, but on what people may know about me from earlier interviews. But again, the belief in a first person narrative makes it seem like today I’m completely fucked up on drugs–or that an alternate ‘Brad Phillips’ is.
I did want to write about drugs simply because it’s often written about with glamourizing, sentiment, nostalgia and redemption. I’ve never experienced any of those things. There is no redemption, no glamour–addiction is base and ugly and crushing. I wanted to carefully avoid all of those tropes which seem to make their way into all writing about drugs and become cliché instantly. I could tell you my father was a drug addict, or ‘Brad’s’ father was. I refer in one story to a brother named Andrew who is also an addict. I don’t have a brother named Andrew, but in the end, I think looking for clues and hints about who the author is is a grave error. I’m a person telling stories. That I may have some expertise in certain areas does not mean I’m describing my life.
I also write about art history often, where I also have expertise. But I’m not an art historian. I’m someone who has done a lot of research. And I’ve researched all the themes present in my book. I said in many interviews–when I used to give many–(about my art career), that I often felt like a failed writer so used painting as an attempt to write. Painting is in some way mystical and outside of language. When I have inarticulable ideas, a painting is the easiest way to convey something outside of language. I’m interested in what exists outside of language. Photography, painting, writing, video, making fake business cards even–I see all of these as parts of the same project. I just use whatever medium best helps me to express the idea i want to get across. It’s very intuitive.
LG: I met Giancarlo DiTrapano, founder of Tyrant Books, in 2017. I was a student at the workshop Mors Tua Vita Mea he hosts and teaches at his villa in Italy, but I’d applied because I wanted to work with the writer Chelsea Hodson again, another creator of the workshop who I’d worked with previously in New York City. I didn’t know who Giancarlo was even though I’d read some books that Tyrant published. The entire workshop experience was incredible, and both Chelsea and Gian’s week-long instruction was worth every penny spent to get there.
How did you meet Giancarlo? How did he come to publish this book?
BP: I first heard about Giancarlo through Lauren Smythe who was my low-key agent. But most of this I owe to Sarah Nicole Prickett (whose magazine Adult I had written for twice), who sent Gian a copy of a novella I wrote in 2014. After that it was just simpatico between us. We sort of fell in love. I’m very grateful for Sarah and Gian and Tyrant and my editor Jordan Castro, without whom the book would not have been as good as it is, if it is good. Gian is incredibly supportive and works very hard for me, and he gets what I’m trying to do. I never had to explain anything to Gian. He didn’t ask me to edit much. It felt like kismet to work with him. He’s promised my wife Cristine and I can come stay with him in Italy for free. I’m just waiting until the off season and available free time. I’m not one to go to writing workshops, but I’m definitely one to chill out in the country in Italy.
LG: As a reader I’m generally not a fan of multiple pop culture references sprinkled into the writing but I was very interested in the two musical artists mentioned in the book: Jawbreaker and Aaliyah. Growing up in New Jersey I was raised on pop music and I took a turn into loving 90’s R&B and rap/hip hop once I entered middle school. In my early college years at Rutgers in New Brunswick, NJ around 2001 I was exposed to a lot of punk rock and hardcore bands—emo bands like Jawbreaker and The Get Up Kids never really did it for me but I love the Jawbreaker song “Do You Still Hate Me?“ What kind of music did you like as a kid, what have your musical tastes evolved into?
BP: My interests in pop culture outside of more recent artists like Aaliyah (in the book) are more late seventies early eighties movie references. I’m obsessed with film. Part of why my wife and I hit it off so quickly was that we both loved Aaliyah. I’m a bit older I imagine, so Jawbreaker was good, but I moved out of my house at eighteen, which was I guess 1992. So I was listening to the bands that predated what became a more poppy hardcore music. Fugazi played in my basement once. Whenever it was that people were discovering Nirvana, my friends and I had gone way past that into emo hardcore shit (not what people call emo now, and not that bypassing Nirvana was ‘cool’) – a lot of screaming and dissonance–Shotmaker, Antioch Arrow, Clikitat Ikatowi, Union Young America, Hoover, Codeine, Heroin, Unsane.
As a child I grew up in a very non-white neighborhood until I was twelve, so the first music I really related to do was at the very beginning of hip-hop culture. Grandmaster Flash, Houdini, Stetsasonic, etc. Rap music was so different then, very positive. Or political. In 1983 I would have been hanging out in a painters cap breakdancing on a piece of cardboard outside of a mall in parachute pants with a bunch of little kids. Then I moved to an all white suburb at 12-13, and that’s where I discovered punk rock. Early hip hop and post hardcore music share a lot of similarities. I’ve done the lazy middle aged person thing of not keeping up with new music, and still just listen to Smog and Bobby Digital and Fugazi, and also, maybe cause I’m older and like less treble, I mostly now just listen to free jazz (another thing I discovered in my early twenties that really affected me, because it was free of comfort, melodies changed as soon as they developed, and I think that constant dissonance and desire to discomfit the audience influenced me) and Russian pianist Sviatislov Richter.
LG: The story “Unexpurgated Craigslist Ad” is this sad, perfect beautiful story that I intend to plagiarize the shit out of as I continue to work on my own essay collection. The story is about an online relationship between a man and woman who never met face to face, but, “We then began doing what I now know to be common—we talked constantly and told each other everything about our lives.” I’ve had this with many, many people. Mostly men, a few women. Each relationship was distinct, and special. In describing the intricacies of the narrator communicating with someone online while being married, you write, “My life had become complicated spycraft web of calls and clockwatching which you were the center of.” I cringe at the notion of people being ‘unavailable.’ But I think the reason that I cringe at it is because it’s been my experience to be ‘unavailable’ for decades—either being unavailable myself or attracting men who are unavailable.
You have an Instagram account with over 30 thousand followers. Do you have any personal experience with developing an intimate friendship with anyone who’s ever reached out to talk to you over a private message? Do you have any opinions about how people chose to reveal themselves to the people in their ‘real’ life versus the people encountered over the internet?
BP: Please don’t plagiarize the shit out of it, just plagiarize a little. I was also unavailable to both myself and the world for long stretches of my life. Another example of my having to fill in the narrative of my life with a very few selected number of memories. I’ve made professional connections and my art career has developed due to Instagram. I’ve had a lot of ‘interesting intimate encounters’ meeting strangers who first wrote me on Instagram. A woman once found out my address and sent me all of her high school journals, so now I have a PO Box. But the person I’d say was obviously most important to meet online was my wife Cristine. I’ve met very good friends there. I’m ‘Generation X’–but in this way I feel more like a millennial, in that some of the people I feel closest to I’ve never met. But as in that story, it’s actually been something I’ve been doing for a very long time. The story of my meeting my wife is very romantic. I wouldn’t want to give away too many details, because I like that our story is our own, and can’t be projected onto or owned by someone else.
LG: In the story “Nothing Personal” topics of BDSM, non-monogamy, fetish and voyeurism are explored. One passage that stood out to me states, “I want to mention that I feel not enough research has gone into examining the significant danger of emotional and sexual dissatisfaction which can arise when one partner is not able to indulge their particular fetish within the confines of a loving relationship.” It reminded me of occasions where ex-boyfriends of mine expressed critical judgement over the suggestion of a gentle slap or hair tug, and this made me think Man, I can’t tell them shit. I’ve come to learn that telling the truth in relationships allows me to be vulnerable, and that vulnerability fosters trust and intimacy. From there I’ve fallen in love. If I can’t be honest, the relationship is doomed.
In what ways have honesty and vulnerability fostered growth in your relationships? Have you had any alternative responses to any expression of desire that caused you to realize the relationship wasn’t meant to be?
BP: I don’t really want to talk too much about my own personal relationships. I’ve learned over the last four years that radical honesty is far preferable to keeping secrets in terms of health and not feeling like shit about yourself, and that total honesty, even when difficult, just improves intimate relationships. And yes, men often are scared of or can’t accept that women may have desires that these men feel they ‘shouldn’t have’ or are not ‘appropriately feminist’–men tend to make these judgements much more than women, which is just a different way of censoring a woman’s sexual agency, shaming fetishes or desires that men believe must somehow be inappropriate, or that ‘they couldn’t really want that…’ etc. I’ve seen and through research discovered that a great many women are either shamed by other women or judged by men for innate sexual desires that are counter to certain politics, which really is just a fresh and new way to shame a woman for what she may or may not want–so often it takes women, or anyone really, quite a while to find a sexual partner that is naturally complementary, plus has all of the other elements that lead you to fall in love with them.
I’ll say that from my understanding, BDSM culture necessarily requires a great deal of communication and trust and honesty, and that then extends into every aspect of the relationship itself. Numerous studies say that people in SM based marriages are happier, less likely to divorce, and report more trust in their partners. It’s similar in studies of non-monogamous couples.
LG: “Letters From The Battlefield” is a story about a character named Brad Phillips who is writing letters to his wife Cristine, and all the letters are set in various time periods. They’re goodbye love letters to her that she is to read when the narrator dies. In it you write, “The dead are always available to us, just not how we would prefer. I’m not with you the way you want, but I am with you. If you look for me, you’ll find me. You can find me and everything that was important to me. You can find me if you put your hair behind your ear with one finger, gently, the way I used to. You can find me in that tree on Palmerston we loved, and the succulents at Allen’s Gardens.” I’m not an expert on any religion in any way whatsoever, but I saw Buddhist themes throughout these stories. Do you have any spiritual, religious, or philosophical beliefs that guide you in any way?
BP: Buddhism is like Fight Club. If I say more than that, I’m being bad at Fight Club.
Brad Phillips is a writer and artist based in Kingston, Jamaica.
Lauren Grabowski is a writer with essays in Hobart, The Fanzine, Triangle House Review, among others. She lives in Jersey.