Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Little Rock's Kevin Brockmeier is the award-winning author of two story collections, two children's books and three novels, including "The Brief History of the Dead" and "The Illumination." His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney's, the Oxford American and the Georgia Review.
His new book (published on Tuesday), "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade," is his first work of nonfiction, a beautifully written and often unsettling account of his experiences as a seventh-grader in Little Rock in 1985-86 (a period, he says at one point, bookended roughly by the releases of "Gotcha!" and "Top Gun"). Far from an exercise in nostalgia, the book is a glimpse into the peculiar and particular terrible-ness of that stage in a young person's life, full of nebulous friendships, minor humiliations and melancholy boredom. The books rings awfully true, in other words, and Brockmeier's potent, honest prose makes for a vivid, funny and achingly familiar read.
You're known as a fiction writer. Why a memoir and why now?
The book had been gestating for quite a while, actually. In fact, I tried to start it several years ago, but couldn't figure out how to approach the material, so I set it aside to work on "The Illumination." I remember reading something that Charles Baxter wrote about William Maxwell's short novel "So Long, See You Tomorrow": "You feel that you have been given considerably more of what is precious to its author than is often the case in novels of many hundreds of pages." I was thinking of that as a sort of challenge: to give away what was most intimate to me.
Even the strangest and most unlikely of my books have had hard undercurrents of personal feeling, but very rarely have they depicted what literally happened to me. There are writers I love — Italo Calvino, for instance, and Octavia Butler — who wrote almost nothing about their own lives, and I love them no less for that, but I can't help wondering what such books would have been like and wishing they existed.
Did you find that autobiographical writing presented a different set of challenges from your previous work?
I always work roughly the same way. My shorthand description is that I broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I'm satisfied that they present the right effect, doing my best to complete each one before I move on to the next. My approach was the same here, except that the character whose world I was exploring was a younger version of myself. One of the challenges for me was figuring out whether I would reflect on that time in my life or immerse myself in it. How much distance, I wondered, should I permit myself? None, was my decision, or at least as little as possible.
I selected the third-person, present-tense voice — Kevin does this, Kevin thinks that — mostly as a matter of instinct, but on reflection I think that it gave me a very particular way of approaching the story, one that allowed me to investigate my life the same way I investigate the lives of my fictional characters, with both honesty and compassion. My fiction-writing muscles are trained toward sympathy, whereas if you're reflecting on your own life, you train yourself away from sympathy, or at least I do. I hope I found a way to be simultaneously transparent and generous with myself.
Why seventh grade?
There's this idea that only big lives, momentous lives, are worthy of memoir, and I remember thinking, well, maybe, but isn't every life momentous — or at least wouldn't it be if you approached it with enough care, enough perceptiveness? Take any one year of any one life, recount it with clarity and sympathy, and shouldn't it matter? Seventh grade was far and away the most difficult year of my childhood, but it's also the year I've spent the most time trying to understand, as well as the source of a lot of the stories I've continued to tell, and I thought it would make for fruitful narrative soil.
Good analysis, something completely lacking from the daily newspaper's sports reporters/columnists.
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