Situational Sagas: Brandon Graham on ‘Good for Nothing’ & ‘Missing People’ (Q&A)

Today, I am joined by Brandon Graham.

Brandon is the author of Good for Nothing and Missing People, both published by Tyrus Books earlier this month. A Southerner by birth, he has lived in eight states and four countries, and currently resides in Chicago. Brandon studied visual and written narrative at Columbia College for Book and Paper Arts, graduating with his MFA in 2008; he has received three university degrees. Brandon’s previous careers include working as a commercial pressman and an adjunct professor in Missouri and as a gallery director in Nebraska. He studied in Budapest, Hungary and Dijon, France, with a summer spent as a barman in England.

Brandon Graham.jpg
Author Brandon Graham.

Praise for the author:

“This book could be the lovechild of Bill Bryson and Martin Amis…. But at its heart is a very serious point. It is about the tsunami of destruction that has hit Middle America since the financial crisis.”—Daily Mail on Good for Nothing

“Set in Chicago, this acute psychological study from Graham examines the devastating impact [of] the inexplicable disappearance of 17-year-old Etta Messenger. This disquieting novel does provide some catharsis for its characters.”—Publishers Weekly on Missing People

Good for Nothing Plot Synopsis:

Flip Mellis believes his recent past would be best described as: a man with his feet planted on terra firma. As a husband and father, he was a consistent breadwinner. As a business professional, he was a go-getter. For twenty years, he did all that was expected of him, if not much more.

But a job loss in his middle years, in the midst of a national economic crisis, has knocked Flip squarely on his big, soft ass, where he has been wallowing for nearly a year.

Over the course of one hectic week, replete with a cast of colorful characters, Flip is forced by circumstances of his own invention to finally get his life headed in the right direction. Like a pudgy, irritable toddler, he carefully tests his balance and lurches forward, stumbling around absurd obstacles and grasping for any solid purchase. Ultimately a spark of human resilience locked deep within his core begins to spread. The question becomes: will Flip’s best efforts be enough to lead him safely to redemption or will they merely lead to a futile, purely graceless, and quixotic crash?

good-for-nothing-high-res-cover

Missing People Plot Synopsis:

Six years after the traumatic disappearance of Etta Messenger, it’s clear that none of the members of her middle-class family have finished mourning. Gaping emotional wounds have been poorly addressed. Etta’s mother, Meg, anxious to find closure and make what she can of the rest of her life, has organized a memorial service to mark the painful anniversary. Newton, Etta’s erstwhile high school sweetheart, a disabled Afghanistan veteran with anger issues, uses the impending anniversary as a convenient excuse to spin out of control. Charlie, Etta’s earnest blue-collar father, takes stock of his life and is reminded how he failed to protect his daughter. Her younger brother, Townes, who was the last of them to see Etta and is convinced his emotional outburst drove his sister away, has his fragile hermetic cocoon threatened by the heightened emotions of the day.

On the day of the memorial, a snowstorm threatens the city, and a chance observation on a commuter train entangles Townes in a dangerous situation that recall the events surrounding Etta’s loss. The characters are shaken from their mournful routines by an unrelenting chain of events, including Newton’s arrest, Townes’ dangerous heroics, Charlie’s recognition of his own shortcomings, and Meg’s shocking discovery. The action moves from the seemingly serene suburbs to the heart of a dangerous Chicago neighborhood.

Will this ensemble of damaged characters pull themselves together in time, or will new stresses rip their tattered lives to shreds…

Now, Brandon Graham reveals the unlikely story of his triumphant emergence …

John Valeri: You have two books out from one American publisher on the same day. Tell us: what led to this unlikely occurrence, and how can this both help and hinder branding efforts?

Brandon Graham: I am not particularly versed in the ways of book marketing, and so I won’t predict the relative value of having my first two novels released in North America on the same day. But I can explain briefly how it came to be. I wrote Good for Nothing, wrote a query letter, and found an agency several years ago. My agents went to work. After many (many) months we had an offer from a small UK publisher and interest from both a large US publisher and a smaller, not-for-profit publisher. Each of the interested parties expected us to answer their offers. So we decided to accept the UK deal, reject the smaller US publisher offer, and wait for the larger publisher’s offer to develop. As often happens, the larger publisher passed. So the book was published, reviewed, and sold far away over the pond. It was great to have my book in the world. But it was unreal. I was unable to walk into my local bookshop and see a copy of my work, lift it from the shelf, heft its weight and know it was an actual artifact in the world. So I wrote Missing People. Good for Nothing continued to exist in an alternate reality. This summer my agents contacted me to say 1) Good for Nothing was being optioned for a movie, and 2) Missing People sold to a US publisher. In the weeks that followed, in conversation with my new US publisher, I suggested that Good for Nothing was still available. In short order it was also accepted for US publication and the decision was made to release them simultaneously. Practically speaking, it made the editing process schizophrenia inducing, constantly switching between the two narratives, and it does make readings more complicated. But there may be a synergistic buzz about the two titles. It is, after all, an uncommon situation.

JV: One of your books (Good for Nothing) is a satirical novel while the other (Missing People) is a psychological study. What moved you to write in such different veins – and how do you see human emotion as grounding both, whether it be through humor or heartbreak?

BG: Further complicating the simultaneity of the publication date, Good for Nothing is a dark social satire while Missing People is a psychological thriller. My intention is not to hop from genre to genre so much as to write a given situation in the way that fits best. There is a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s anthem that goes, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Creatively speaking, I’m interested in the narratives we try to tell the world, the narratives we tell ourselves to keep us moving day to day, and the secret narratives we don’t want anyone to see. I’m interested in the specific traumas that split us open revealing our gummy center, the way we react to that trauma, and how we put ourselves back together. Both books are about characters that try to cope with trauma. Sometimes the trauma, as in Missing People, is an unexpected and unexplainable and feel like an act of god. Other times, as in Good for Nothing, it is largely self-inflicted. But in both the heart of the story is in exploring how the characters respond with strength and grace or with anger and self-abuse. I have a basic understanding that the most impressive of human of characteristics is the ability to get up after having been knocked down. My working theory is that the tropes of genre are mainly an engine to drive the narrative. Though, as I continue to understand the novel as an expressive form, I suspect I’ll find that my interests fit best in a certain category.

Missing People High Res Cover.jpg

JV: You currently make your home in Chicago, which is also the setting for Missing People. Does your backdrop acts as its own character within a story? Also, in what ways does place influence the ambiance of a narrative?

BG: A few years before I began writing Missing People, I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is set in post WWII Barcelona and the city itself is so visceral it becomes an important character (for lack of a better word) in the telling of the story. As someone who spent most of my early life as a nomad, the idea of place felt particularly powerful, important, and even magical. I moved to the Chicago area with my family eleven years ago. We fully expected to relocate after a few years. But it felt like a good place to stick. Now I’ve spent a quarter of my life here, it is as much a home as I have ever known. Novels are long projects, and staying put has had something to do with my ability to write longer pieces. Placing my novel specifically in Chicago and the West Suburbs is a kind of love letter to the place I call home. It is also an important way of anchoring the narrative in reality, which is important for a project that starts as a free-floating concept in my brain.

JV: You have traveled extensively. How have those experiences influenced your worldview – and in what ways do they inform your fiction?

BG: While staying put has helped me write, there is no doubt that my travels have informed my worldview and the issues I chose to highlight, the characters I populate my world with. As a boy I lived all over the south. I knew generous, warm, religious communities. I also knew violent, racist, angry hateful people. Sometimes those qualities lived in the same person. Later, when I traveled in Europe I adopted a Universalist philosophy. I believe humans are all interconnected; given the right circumstances we are strong or vulnerable, generous or defensive, capable of tremendous selflessness and unfathomable evil. There is a definition of art that says great art can hold opposing concepts in a kind of beautiful balance. I believe that. Further, I believe that expression of artistic perfect is a reflection of the human condition. Life is simple and complicated, as are we all.

JV: You studied visual and written narrative. In your opinion, what of these disciplines can be learned? Also, how do you view intrinsic talent and resilience as playing into a writer’s chances for success?

BG: Because of my background as a visual artist I have a unique perspective on writing. If I call myself a novelist, that brings to my mind the work of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Anne Beattie, Harry Crews, and Sandra Cisneros. These are giants in my mind. People I could never stand next to. But, I know how to make things. On any given day I may not have faith in my own ability, but do have an almost religious reverence for the creative process and my ability to participate in a process of making. In that way, when I sit down to write, I am able to swerve around the field of literature and think of what I’m doing as a kind of extended text art. Facing the blank page is, after all, just head game.

JV: Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

BG: And so I write on. A couple of pages a day. I’m uncomfortable calling the new manuscript sequel to Missing People. Admittedly it is similar in tone, setting and structure. But it is largely a group of new characters I am getting to know, with the exception of one crotchety detective that plays a subordinate role in both stories. My intention is to finish the new book (with a working title of Half Dead) by the end of summer. Though I’m finding novels tend to have ideas of their own about schedule and content.

***

With thanks to Brandon Graham for his generosity of time and thought and to Bethany Carland-Adams, Publicity Manager at Adams Media, for facilitating this interview.

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