The PEN Ten with Kelly Braffet
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Alex Segura speaks to Kelly Braffet, author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving, and Josie and Jack. Her writing has appeared in Post Road, Fairy Tale Review, Salon.com and Vulture.com. She currently lives in upstate New York.
Kelly Braffet’s writing gets under your skin. It sticks in your brain. It’s never comfortable, safe, or cautious. Like some of the writers we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing as part of the PEN Ten Series, Kelly also doesn’t conform to expectations or preconceived notions of what her work is or should be. Her three very different novels, including the most recent, the magnificently disturbing Save Yourself, share a few traits: they explore the world through characters left on the side of the road—the downtrodden, the pariahs (self-classified or otherwise), the lesser-thans, and show the reader what these characters would do if faced with an unbelievable choice.
In Save Yourself, Patrick Cusimano must make a fateful decision: turn his father in for an unspeakable crime, or cover up the evidence to hold onto the scraps of family he has left. Braffet’s books make you think—they’re sharp, dangerous, sexually charged, and evocative. Her characters feel like real people you’d probably think twice about wanting to meet. Huge thanks to Kelly for taking the time to do this interview.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
To a certain extent, I think it always has. Books were always important to me, and I knew that writing was what I wanted to do more than anything else; when I was younger, I clung to the idea that I’d someday write books mainly as a way to get through the tediousness of high school. It didn’t matter how boring and petty my day-to-day existence felt, because someday I’d do the thing I was determined to do, no matter how many people told me that it wasn’t possible. My parents were always incredibly supportive, but not everyone was. Telling myself that I was right and the negative “everyone” was wrong sort of gave me ground to stand on as I grew up. It was sort of an angry, defiant, foot-stomping ground, but it was solid. (By the way, this did cause a few problems once I actually did start publishing: when your whole identity is based on doing the impossible thing, and then you do the impossible thing, some readjustments are necessary.)
Having said that, I think the first time I actually started to take myself seriously as a writer was in graduate school. One of the best reasons to go to grad school for writing is to find a community of people who take their writing seriously. For most of my life, everyone from my well-intentioned auntie to the person on the other side of the desk during a job interview had been telling me that writing was a pipe dream, and suddenly I was in this environment where the people around me took writing, and the idea that we all wanted to be writers, seriously. It was like the world opened up.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I’m not sure there’s anyone whose work I’d like to steal, point-blank. There are writers out there whose success I wouldn’t mind a dose of, certainly, but the writers I truly envy are the ones with wild, out-there imaginations: China Miéville, Tim Powers, Nick Harkaway, Ysabeau Wilce, Kelly Link, Philip Pullman—writers who either create worlds that feel entirely singular or who view our own world from such a singular angle that it might as well be another world. Even then, I’m not sure I want to steal their work. I just want to borrow their brains for a while. Which I guess I sort of get to do when I read their work, so that’s great, but I’m still jealous.
Where is your favorite place to write?
In my cluttered, sunny office, right across the hall from the washing machine. It’s full of books and empty seltzer bottles and cats; I have a nice squishy chair to write in, and a tree to look at outside my window, and a windowsill full of weird things that make me happy for times when the tree isn’t doing anything interesting: a Jack Kerouac bobble-head, a little figurine of John Steinbeck, some bizarre sculptures I made in a high school pottery class, a bunch of Doctor Who toys. We live in the woods and it’s quiet. Sometimes the neighbor’s dog barks. I take breaks to reorganize my iTunes playlists or my Goodreads shelves. It’s my own little despotic kingdom. Sometimes my husband drifts in and takes away some of my empty coffee cups and I always get annoyed with him for it. That’s my squalor, damn it. Hands off.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
For me, writing is about empathy. So many of the awful things I see in the real world seem at their heart to stem from a failure of empathy, from an unwillingness to see those around us as full-fledged people in their own right, with all of the flaws and mistakes and emotions and experiences that we have, ourselves. It’s so easy to file people into boxes without knowing anything about them. At their best, writers open up those boxes and invite readers to step inside. Nobody is ever as simple or clear-cut as we like to assume they are; everybody worries, everybody suffers, everybody feels joy. Human beings need to be reminded of that.
Tell me about the most touching moment you’ve had with a fan—where someone shared how they’d been affected by your work?
In Save Yourself, Patrick’s father is in prison for killing a child while driving drunk. The book is, in a large part, about him coming to terms with his own guilt and sense of responsibility for his father’s crime, but it’s also about him dealing with the judgment he feels from the people around him. The idea actually came from Internet comments on news stories about crimes: I saw so much vitriol and anger toward the accused that it made me wonder what it would be like to see all of that rage directed toward somebody you loved. Once after a reading, a man came up to me to get his book signed. I was sitting at a table, doing my thing, and he sort of crouched down next to me so that he could speak quietly. He told me that his father had been involved in a crime—I’m not going to go into the details of the story he told me, but I will say that it seemed pretty clear-cut and premeditated—and that he’d grown up with that shadow hanging over his head, that Patrick’s story could have been his. It left me a bit awestruck, actually. When you’re writing a book you spend so much time trying to get it right. All that time I’d immersed in my little writer world, working to create Patrick’s story convincingly, and meanwhile there were real people in the real world who had been living it. It was humbling.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
They’re ever-changing. I tend to be a breadth-over-depth person; I don’t feel compelled to know every detail of every aspect of something I’m interested in. Take Doctor Who: I love the reboot, and I’ve seen every episode, but I don’t sink too deep into the Doctor Who fandom, if that makes any sense. I don’t need to watch the classic episodes or read every comic book and novel. What this means, practically, is that I keep pretty quiet about my Doctor Who thing, because I know that if I get into any kind of discussion with an actual Whovian I’m going to look like a dilettante. But the truth is that there are so many things that I enjoy, and I feel like I have so little time to enjoy them, that I would rather just watch the show, and then take the time I might spend arguing about show-runners and use it to watch something else, or read a book, or eat cookies. I have all the respect in the world for people who really dig in and learn everything there is to know, but I’m not one of them.
But—obsessions. Things I’ve been obsessed about in the past include Buddhism, the shootout at the OK Corral, astronomy, tarot cards, people who think they were elves in a past life, medieval romance, a million other things. (And even now, I’m finding myself wondering if I should delete this list because what if somebody asks me a follow-up question about one of these things and I can’t answer it? Maybe one of my obsessions is, um, obsessing.)
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Why does it stand out for you?
Caro Haller, one of the characters from Save Yourself. The main protagonist of the book is a man named Patrick, and one of the things I always say about both characters is that they’re smart people who grew up in worlds where being smart isn’t seen as particularly valuable. The difference between them is that Caro learned young that her sexuality was valuable, and since she grew up in fairly desperate circumstances she doesn’t have any qualms about leveraging that value to survive. By the time we meet her, she’s pragmatic to a fault—but she’s also starting to realize that she’s been boxed into a life she doesn’t particularly want. She hasn’t necessarily developed the tools to get out of that life, though, and she barely even has the words to describe what’s wrong. She makes a lot of terrible decisions and she takes the easy road more than once. None of this is revolutionary stuff, but she’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written because her conflict feels real to me. Ordinary, but real. And there were readers out there who hated her, who just couldn’t forgive her some of those terrible decisions; either they couldn’t see how those decisions are the product of Caro’s entire life weighing down on her or they just didn’t care.
But here’s the thing: I feel like the emotional heart of that story all hinges on Caro. I knew when I was writing her that there were readers out there who wouldn’t be able to forgive her, and that there was a good chance the book wouldn’t work for them. Honestly, if I’d known a woman like Caro in reality—and I’m sure I have—I probably wouldn’t like her either. But that made her all the more interesting to write.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Oh, I wish I had a good story to tell you here. I’ve never been arrested. For all the terrible things that I make happen in my books, I’m incredibly law-abiding. I don’t even drive fast anymore. Although I hardly ever leave my house, which makes being law-abiding really easy. I’m extremely unlikely to get arrested while making a sandwich in my kitchen. Unless maybe it was a really dangerous sandwich.
About being law-abiding, though: last night I was reading my five-year-old a children’s book about Rosa Parks. I think we try to be really fair parents—we do a lot of discussing and explaining in our house—so my daughter’s experience of the world is that it’s a pretty fair place. In her world, if something is unfair, you point out the unfairness and somebody says, “You’re right, that’s not fair,” and fixes it. So she didn’t understand why Rosa Parks had been arrested for, essentially, pointing out the unfairness. I explained to her about good laws and bad laws, and how sometimes breaking the law is still the right thing to do. It’s a pretty mind-blowing concept for a five-year-old. (I wish the world worked the way she thinks it does. It would be so very reasonable.)
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I feel like the obvious answers to this question are books like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Orwell’s 1984. But I think it’s naïve to assume that those people wouldn’t have read those books, or at least be aware of them. I’ve found that when it comes to strongly held beliefs, people tend to double-down when challenged. For whatever reason—personal gain, ideology, power—the people making decisions in those governments have decided that what they’re doing is justified. It’s not that they don’t know that their actions cause suffering; it’s that they don’t care.
So with that in mind, I’d go for a book that speaks more broadly about human society as a whole, something like Bleak House or Anna Karenina. Or even a genre series, like Asimov’s Foundation books or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, both of which are rooted in an exploration of free will. (Although you’d have to be careful with the Pullman, which is amazing but has made a lot of religious people really angry.) All of those books force their readers to climb out of their own boxes, and into somebody else’s.
Do you see your genre—or genre in general—as a tool for social commentary? Is it something you use consciously, or do you prefer to let it happen on its own?
I don’t know if I do it consciously. I think crime novels lend themselves easily to social commentary; most of my books are about people who are struggling in one way or another, people without a lot of options. When they end up in trouble, it’s that struggle and that frustration that leads them there. Even books about characters who are closer to true psychopaths—I’m thinking of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, or Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me—have other characters in them, and the way those other characters react are going to tell you something about the world where they live, its failings and vulnerabilities. In all honesty, I think it would be difficult to write any truly realized novel that’s utterly devoid of social commentary. We’re all the products of our experiences in the world, and despite what my five-year-old might believe, the world isn’t fair. I wish it was.
Guest editor Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Miami crime novel Silent City, the first in a series featuring Pete Fernandez. Silent City and its sequel, Down the Darkest Street, will be out via Polis Books in 2016. He has also written a number of comic books, including the best-selling and critically acclaimed Archie Meets KISS storyline, the “Occupy Riverdale” story and the upcoming Archie Meets Ramones. A Miami native living in New York with his wife, Segura will be interviewing a number of crime and genre-bending fiction authors for The PEN Ten.