The PEN Ten: An Interview with John Paul Brammer
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
I would say Animal Farm by George Orwell. My mom used to teach English. She was really passionate about it. She had a select few books she saw as being hugely important; Animal Farm was one, and it was one of the first books I got my hands on. Some of the themes were lost on me, a literal child, but it nonetheless demonstrated what words were capable of doing, what freedom could be found in literature—I didn’t know there could be a serious book that has talking animals.
I tried making my own version of it about a zoo, a pretty clear knockoff. I wrote it on sketchbook paper and drew some of the animals. I’m glad I never submitted it for publication at age seven. Plagiarism would have been a stain on my career!
2. What is the most daring thing you’ve put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
I wrote about my experiences being bullied in rural Oklahoma in 2012 for a now defunct literary newspaper. It brought a lot of havoc to my life and to my small town. I’m still unsure if I’m happy I published it. It was my first feeling of “being published” at a place I could be proud of, but it felt like I was making a trade or a deal—that the scandal of what had happened to me was a kind of toll for a byline. I don’t like that feeling.
“You’ve got to really believe in what you’re doing. Getting something made in this climate is difficult. There will be many challenges. So you’ve got to be a person with a real itch, a real desire to write something and put it out into the world.”
3. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
I would love to meet Alice Munro. She’s had such an impact on my work, and she’s the writer I turn to when I feel I’ve forgotten how to write. I can’t imagine her being big on meeting random fans, and anyway I’d probably immediately have a heart attack or mess up my words. If we somehow sat down though, I’d love to discuss her favorite short story.
4. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. Can’t really explain it, but the album reminds me that it’s possible to make something really complete, something with peaks and valleys, personal and yet impersonal in the way that things that are “suspiciously good” stand apart from everything else. I find a lot of inspiration there, just knowing it’s possible.
5. What advice would you give to a writer who is trying to publish their book—not just in general, but especially in this current climate?
You’ve got to really believe in what you’re doing. Getting something made in this climate is difficult. There will be many challenges. So you’ve got to be a person with a real itch, a real desire to write something and put it out into the world. That’s not to say you can’t doubt yourself ever. Just that the appetite has to always win in the end.
“There’s something about writing that can turn thoughts into objects, into something that you can turn around and fiddle with and polish up. For me, it manifests the mental shapes and textures of any given experience, gives it weight and all that—and that’s something that makes me feel a bit more in control. I wouldn’t say it redefines any of my experiences so much as it gives me a way to put my actual hands on them, flip them over, and see something new.”
6. Your book is an adaptation of your online advice column, also called ¡Hola Papi!, which started running through Grindr’s LGBTQ outlet INTO in 2017. After moving to Condé Nast and then Out magazine, the column now lives on Substack, a content platform that allows readers to comment and “like” posts, as well as engage with each other. What are the differences between writing for a book audience versus an online audience? Do you enjoy the immediacy of a virtual audience that can respond to what you’re writing?
I don’t notice too much difference, honestly. Even between all the various platforms the column has lived on, I’ve hardly noticed a change in the work I do. I’ve hardly been edited or anything, mostly because all those outlets were short-staffed and low on resources. Substack is yet another machine I’m putting my words into and hitting “publish” on. The core of the writing has stayed the same. I don’t really read comments from people. The fact that it also gets mailed out does feel convenient.
7. You write at one point in your book, “We can’t change the events of our lives. They happened, and there they are. But the lines we draw to connect those events, the shapes we make and the conclusions we reach, those come from us.” Writing, of course, is one of the many (literal) ways to draw these lines. What are some of the ways the act of writing redefined some of your memories for you? Especially those that were quite traumatic?
There’s something about writing that can turn thoughts into objects, into something that you can turn around and fiddle with and polish up. For me, it manifests the mental shapes and textures of any given experience, gives it weight and all that—and that’s something that makes me feel a bit more in control. I wouldn’t say it redefines any of my experiences so much as it gives me a way to put my actual hands on them, flip them over, and see something new.
8. As you were writing your book, was there a specific reader or type of reader that you had in mind? If so, what were some choices you made in your writing that were specifically geared toward this reader?
Even in high school, I was imagining a reader. It wasn’t so much a person who I was writing for, more a fantasy of my writing becoming so far-flung one day that it would reach her. She lives in London, is wearing sensible workout clothes, and is on one of those big red buses on her way somewhere. She’s reading my work on some device, a phone or Kindle.
I’ve been imagining her for a long time. She’s this idea of reaching someone, of achieving a kind of knownness that even someone across the ocean—living a foreign life with foreign accents and eating foreign food—could find me through words I wrote. I still think of her sometimes.
“Loss is an active thing. It’s not mere absence, and it’s not ‘nothing.’ Loss grows with us, shapeshifts, influences our actions and the way we see ourselves. It is a condition. I think it’s important to talk about that, because people often perceive themselves as not having a culture. . . . But you have to look harder. Sometimes it’s a drawing in the negative, the blank spaces conspiring to make a picture.”
9. You grapple with your Chicano identity at multiple points in the book, but what stuck out to me was when you write, “Identity is defined as much by what you have as it is by what you’ve lost.” Why do you think making that distinction is important, and why do you think it’s so important for people to write about this type of loss?
I think loss is an active thing. It’s not mere absence, and it’s not “nothing.” Loss grows with us, shapeshifts, influences our actions and the way we see ourselves. It is a condition. I think it’s important to talk about that, because people often perceive themselves as not having a culture.
Americans do this a lot. They think they lack a culture because they live in a dominant culture, so they’re fish who no longer recognize they’re in water. But you have to look harder. Sometimes it’s a drawing in the negative, the blank spaces conspiring to make a picture. Training your eyes like that yields a lot of riches in places you thought were empty.
10. In addition to writing, you sell artwork and apparel on HolaPapiShop.com. Do the same themes drive your art as they do your writing?
I would definitely say so. The art and writing are different in many ways, but what they have in common is a sincere desire to express something of the interior, to bring the “in here” to the “out there.” I would say that’s my biggest animating drive in life. Sometimes I fall short of that, and with drawing especially, I have some technical skills I need to catch up on and put some hours into. But overall, they both bring me happiness. They both quiet the world around me and make me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
John Paul Brammer is an author, illustrator, and columnist from rural Oklahoma currently living in Brooklyn. He runs the popular advice column ¡Hola Papi! on Substack, which is syndicated in New York Magazine’s The Cut. His work, including essays, short fiction, and illustrations, has appeared in The Washington Post, Food & Wine, Catapult, Business Insider, and many more. ¡Hola Papi! is his first book.