in conversation with Nika Knight

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the short story collection Things That Fall From the Sky and the novel The Brief History of the Dead. His latest novel, The Illumination, is about a world in which all physical pain is one day, seemingly without reason or cause, expressed as light. The novel is comprised of six chapters, each of which follows a different character — ranging from a novelist to a missionary to a homeless street vendor, among others — as they move through their lives against the backdrop of the the Illumination. I reviewed the book here on Full Stop, and, well, loved it. Kevin Brockmeier agreed to answer a few of my questions via email about the book, its themes, his writing process and what he’s reading now.

Throughout The Illumination, you link romantic love and physical pain – a character seeks solace from heartbreak through self-inflicted injuries; a writer can’t allow herself to be romantically involved with someone as a result of painful, constant mouth ulcers; a woman severely injures herself as the result of her ex-husband’s practical joke… and on and on. What do you believe is the relationship between love and pain?

It’s always interesting to see the patterns other people discover in your writing. When I started working on the novel, I intended to propose a relationship between pain and beauty: what if the world suddenly revealed that illness and injury and all the other agonies of the body were not ugly at all, but the source of their own strange grace and magnetism? I suspect I found myself writing about love so often—and you’re right to observe that I do—because when we search for beauty in other people, or when we try to assuage our pain in them, we either begin by loving them or end by loving them or at least pass through loving them somewhere along the way. That said, I’m not sure the book restricts its focus to romantic love: there’s Chuck Carter, for instance, whose story examines the love his parents ought to have for him but don’t; and Ryan Shifrin, whose entire life is shaped by his love for his sister; and Morse Putnam Strawbridge, who loves everybody, or at least understands them, and wishes badly that he didn’t.

Something I loved about The Illumination was how simple and also fantastical the central idea was – that physical pain was, one day, suddenly expressed as light. How did you come up with the idea? Why did you decide to make it the crux of the novel?

Sometimes I imagine that was the impulse behind the whole novel: to take that one simple image, of pain generating light, and put it through a long series of rearticulations. I don’t know. What I’m certain of is that without it the novel wouldn’t exist. The truth is that I spent several years enduring an illness a lot like the one I describe in Nina’s section of the book. One day I was thinking about my situation and the various forms of pain people are forced to endure and found myself asking a chain of questions: What could all that suffering possibly be good for? —> What if it was beautiful and that’s what it was good for? —> What if, in fact, our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? —> What if, moreover, our pain was what made us beautiful to God? —> What would that say about the world and our place in it? These are the same questions I have the missionary, Ryan Shifrin, ask toward the end of his life, in his great plaint of grief and anger. When I was posing them myself, an image came to me along with them: a picture of someone hurting so intensely he literally glowed with his injuries. That equation, of pain with light, dictated the terms of the novel.

The novel is comprised of several very separate chapters, whose characters are linked almost solely by a notebook filled with love notes that passes through each of their hands. In the first chapter, the notebook is a powerful, central force in a character’s life, but with each successive chapter it seems to become more peripheral to its protagonist’s life (and the book also simultaneously physically deteriorates). Could you talk about why you used the notebook, and how and why its effect changes throughout the novel?

Maybe this gives me another way of answering your first question, about the relationship between love and pain. Over and over again, it seems to me, the novel says: This is why life is hard. The notebook, though, says something different: This is why life is sweet, and amusing, and beautiful. I wanted it to lend a layer of love and compassion, of sentiment, to a book that otherwise narrows its gaze so often on pain and disability. And more than that, I thought it would shine its own kind of light on the characters: how would they react, and how would their reactions differ, when something at the border of their lives began whispering a love story into their ears? You’re right to observe that the notebook is immensely important to Carol Ann Page and Jason Williford, both of whom knew the woman it describes—though Jason much better, of course, than Carol Ann. It’s important to Chuck Carter, too, but for a totally different reason: he sees it as an object in need of tending. Ryan Shifrin seems to cherish it less than the other characters, but keep in mind that we follow his story through a much longer span of years, and the notebook remains in his hands for only a short time. Nina Poggione is too thrown about by the desperations of her life to use the book as anything more than the raw material for that strange eldritch fairy tale of escape she’s composing. And Morse Putnam Strawbridge values it for reasons he doesn’t quite fathom—values it enough, at least, not to sell it.

The chapters are all so different from one another – how did the book come together? Was your process for each story unique? Was any one chapter more challenging than the rest?

I knew the basic shape that five of the six characters’ stories would take before I began working. (The last, Morse’s, I discovered midway through the book.) I also knew roughly how each would be connected to the one that succeeded it. That said, I left myself plenty of room for exploring the many little slanting interior pathways each one followed, and it was only bit by bit that I learned exactly how the characters’ minds worked and what sort of companions they were to themselves. My actual working methods hardly ever vary—I simply broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I’m satisfied that they present the right effect—but it was Chuck Carter’s section of the book that provided the biggest challenge for me. Early on, he mentions the function of rules in his life: “Rules were extremely important, and the more exact the better. Rules kept the world from turning into a vicious trap. There were dangers everywhere, a thousand tripwires in the grass. People had to watch their step, even in the sunlight.” One of the rules Chuck devises for himself is that every sentence that passes through his mind must be exactly ten words long—no more, no less. I abided by that rule when I was writing the roughly 13,000 words of his chapter, a mathematical constraint that set me up for a difficult journey.

The protagonist of the first chapter, Carol Ann Page, at one point begins to see emotional pain expressed as light. Another character, Chuck Carter, sees physical objects as emitting light — as if they, too, are experiencing pain. Why? What made these characters’ perspectives different from the rest?

I would guess that the characters’ similarities are as noteworthy as their differences: they’re all grappling with injuries and crises of faith and awful mad tangles of pain and love and beauty and disease and light, mostly because those are the issues that have preoccupied me over the last few years. As for the two heightened observers in the book, all I can tell you with assurance is that I tried to remain faithful to their perceptions. My theories, though—and these come from thinking about their experiences rather than devising them—are as follows: in the case of Carol Ann Page, who begins to see the shimmer of other people’s emotional distress, I suspect that what she’s noticing is that bare element of feeling that manifests itself physically—in the skin, the muscles, the nerves. There always is such an element, isn’t there? And as for Chuck Carter, who seems to see the suffering of objects, it’s my sense that he shares a perception common to many children, and a few adults, too, who believe the inanimate world is saturated with feeling. An example: I have friends who recently gave their three-year-old daughter the choice to sleep on either her bed or her futon one night. She couldn’t make up her mind, because she knew that no matter which she chose—the bed or the futon—one or the other would feel hurt and neglected. Chuck has the same sort of mind.

In the world of The Illumination, people are careful not to draw attention to or comment on each other’s pain, although it’s visible to everyone. If we could suddenly see others’ pain, why wouldn’t we address it more directly? Why is politeness the overwhelming response?

For the same reason strangers stand in separate corners and avoid each other’s eyes in an elevator: we worry about adopting more closeness than we’ve earned. I imagine that the more intimate a relationship, and the more dynamic and growing and vital that intimacy, the more likely people would be (and are, frankly, in our own world) to notice and try to assuage each other’s suffering.

In one compelling passage, you describe famous photojournalistic images that have been photoshopped to include the new phenomenon of the Illumination:

A Spanish soldier reeling from a bullet strike, his head ringed in a silver corona. A man in a naval uniform crying as he played the accordion, a bright cloud of grief surrounding his face and fingers. The motorcade in Dealey Plaza, November 22, 1963: the President leaning into the eruption of light at his temple. A group of civil rights marchers hunching against the blast from a fire hose, the tightly contained spray of pain from their bodies matching the tightly contained spray of water. A young girl with napalm burns running naked in a dazzling aura. A famine victim staring out of the radiance of her hunger. A dozen men in fire helmets floating like lanterns in a field of smoke.

Do you think we already take pictures and publish images of others’ pain because we find it visually compelling? Is there already something voyeuristic about watching others’ pain? At what point does witnessing another’s pain become an act of empathy?

A story: I spent my junior year of college studying in Northern Ireland. One day my creative writing teacher, Robert McLiam Wilson, showed our class a set of photographs and asked us which one we would choose to write a story about. The photo I selected showed a bicyclist who had been involved in an accident that left his head emptying blood onto the pavement, his bicycle twisted beside him in a heap. A distant figure stood looking on from a park across the street. Robert told me I should be ashamed of myself for zeroing in on the single most violent image in the entire stack. I mollified him by saying that what interested me about it was the bystander in the park and what he must have been thinking as he regarded both the accident victim and the photographer snapping his picture. I’m not quite sure how to apply this anecdote to your question: maybe what I mean is that you’re the bystander, and I’m the photographer, and my characters are the ones lying spread out before us trying to endure their injuries? I don’t know. What I can tell you is that I worried about exactly this element of voyeurism in the novel, so I tried to bring as much compassion to the lives of my characters as I could. All of this might be my roundabout way of saying that I can’t answer your question, but it’s one that fascinates and frightens me, and certain sections of the book—mainly Jason Williford’s and Ryan Shifrin’s—were specifically designed to construct and examine the effect that such acts of witness have upon us, whether they overtake us (as they do Jason) or rage all around us without violating our bodies (as they do Ryan).

The characters in The Illumination all struggle with human connection. Do you believe that a true connection between two people is possible?

Absolutely I do. (Don’t you?) That’s not to say that other people don’t retain their shadowy spaces, their mysteries, and it’s not to say that human connections don’t vacillate or erode over time, but frequently enough I’ve understood what someone else was experiencing at the same time someone else understood what I was experiencing and we both knew it—far too often to believe that such a thing is at all rare or illusory. It’s my suspicion that this ability to suddenly and intuitively perceive the deep center of someone else’s humanity, to take it into your stomach and feel it as if it were your own, is where characters with souls, or at least the illusion of souls, come from.

What is your writing process like? How was the process of writing The Illumination different than that of other books you’ve published?

Slow, slow, slow, but then I’ve stopped expecting it to be otherwise. Lately I’ve been attracted to an idea I heard in an interview with the writer Barry Lopez. He talks about the Japanese word “kotodama,” which means that each word has within it a spiritual interior. “Your work is to take care of the spiritual interior of the language,” he says. “The word is like a vessel that carries something ineffable. And you must be the caretaker for that.” The difficulty, then, lies in attempting to treat every word with the respect it demands. That’s the process by which I try to keep a story in motion, by investigating words for their insinuations, their dim traces of other times and places, and trying to fit each one properly to the next. But maybe you’re curious about the process by which I actually begin a story. For me, the introductory features of a story—if not its most essential elements—are its shape, its tone, and what I’ll call its presiding notion. I’ve already talked about the presiding notion behind The Illumination—the correspondence of pain with light. The book’s tone is probably inseparable from the rhythms and melodies and stillnesses and promises and fluctuations and mannerisms of its sentences. As for its shape, very rarely do I begin writing a story without knowing roughly how long it will be, how many divisions it will have, and how its sections will rest alongside each other. I conceived of this particular book as something like a set of six transparencies, each nearly the same size, each containing its own odd abstractions of line and color, which finally, when layered one on top of the other, would reveal a single complete image.

What are you reading currently? What books are you planning on reading next?

My reading life is the opposite of my writing life—fast, fast, fast. If you ask me again in a few days, I’ll have a new answer for you. For now, though, I just finished The Golden Age, which is a fictional travelogue by the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz about an unusual island civilization that seems to organize its entire social, political, and recreational life around the idea that the boundaries between things are infinitely mutable, as if everything in the world needed only the slightest flick of a finger in order to become something else altogether. Right now I’m reading The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant. The next books on my stack are a story collection by Pamela Zoline called The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories, a children’s novel by Lydia Millet called The Fires Beneath the Sea, and a novel by Michael Crummey called Galore. And the new releases I’m most looking forward to this summer are a couple of translations: Proud Beggars by the French-Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery and The Seamstress and the Wind by the Argentine novelist Cesar Aira.

What advice, if any, do you have for young writers?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” First, then—and this goes almost without saying—you should read as much as you can. That’s what other books—or at least the great ones—are: the immensity of the sea. And there’s nothing wrong with learning from what you read by osmosis rather than careful study, either. Sometimes I’ll return to a book I admire to examine its clockwork, of course, but I can’t imagine giving up the essential pleasure of reading for the more mercenary pleasure of reading-like-a-writer. The price is too high. I also think it’s useful to discover whether you’re the kind of writer who moves a story forward sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph: they’re two different ways of conveying meaning, and it’s good to know which one suits you. A friend of mine proposed what she calls the “fractal theory” of writing, the idea being that just as fractal images are made up of many different iterations of a single shape, a well-worked piece of fiction should allow you to extract any sentence (or paragraph, depending) and have a small piece that could be spun around on itself to produce something like the whole—not the whole narrative effect, exactly, but the whole rhythmic effect, the whole linguistic effect. I like this idea, too.