December 10, 2014
Michael McGriff: Though we never explicitly discussed Richard Brautigan during the writing of Our Secret Life in the Movies, he was and continues to be a huge inspiration for both of us. Looking back at our book, I see Brautigan’s fingerprints everywhere–from structure to style to ranges in tone. You’ve mentioned before that you read Brautigan early. Was there a particular book of his that grabbed hold of you?
J. M. Tyree: In high school, a science teacher loaned me a copy of In Watermelon Sugar, and I will never forget the pure pleasure of reading it for the first time. You could write this way? Who knew? But the book of his I return to most often is Revenge of the Lawn, his short story collection. I have a pocket paperback from 1972 with a lime green cover, featuring a photograph of a woman sitting in a chair next to a cake. Everything about that book is a delight. Just now I opened it up and found this line in “I was Trying to Describe You to Someone”: “I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma, Washington.” The movie turns out to be a documentary from the 1930s about rural electrification. Well, I didn’t have that line in mind when we were writing, but that is not a bad way to sum up our book. This is an unfair question, but which book is your most dearly beloved Brautigan?
MM: All those goofy paperback covers, each featuring a photo of a different beautiful woman. I cherish those paperbacks! They remind me that books can be everything all at once: delightful, serious, flippant, strange, nonsensical, opaque, wry, subversive, and even sobering. If you grew up in the Pacific Northwest, as I did, and if you wanted to be a writer, as I eventually did, then reading Trout Fishing in America was an absolute rite of passage. I was never assigned any of his work in college, yet Brautigan’s books were inescapable, much like the books of Ken Kesey, Marilynne Robinson, and James Welch. And there’s just something magical about his use of the micro form–the short short–that lends itself especially well to his quirky brand of parable-making. He hits so many deep social nerves by colonizing the morality tale and turning it into an experimental genre all its own. In Watermelon Sugar–a sort of David Lynch meets Tim Burton parable of counterculture life–is the book of his that I’ve read the most. That book has breathed new life into me on more occasions and in more ways than is possible to tell. He’s simply a gem.
JMT: Sort of an American Kafka. There was a beautiful moment for experimental fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Brautigan, Donald Barthelme. And some of the best stuff was science fiction–Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut, J. G. Ballard, Walter Tevis. Ballard writes in his Preface to Crash that our world, right now, is so weird there’s no reason to set things in the distant future or in outer space. That captures the spirit of the age very nicely, I think. A similar idea is being expressed in Nicolas Roeg’s film of Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth. I tend to think of all these writers in terms of a kind of Expressionism–the book jacket of Doris Lessing’s near-futuristic novel The Memoirs of a Survivor calls it “an attempt at autobiography.” That’s a good joke, but it gets straight to the point.
MM: There’s so much box-checking and genrefying and label-making that happens in art. Dan Flavin referred to this kind of market-driven categorization culture as “easy-quickie-look-alike games,” a world more interested in the discussion of labels than it is in the discussion of ideas. In my ratty old paperback copy of Revenge of the Lawn one of two things is happening, either the last few pages have been razored out, or the books ends mid-sentence: “He decided to go into sheep raising in 1931 and got a big flock and was very good to his sheepherders. He was so [–]” That feels appropriate.
MICHAEL MCGRIFF’s books include Home Burial, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection; Dismantling the Hills; a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola; and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire. He is a former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his work has been recognized with a Lannan Literary Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
J. M. TYREE was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford. His writing on cinema has appeared in the BFI Film Classics series of books from the British Film Institute, as well as in The Believer, Sight & Sound, Film Quarterly, and in the anthology Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: Best of McSweeney’s Humor Category (Knopf/Vintage). He works as an associate editor of New England Review.