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Brooks Hansen on The Brotherhood of Joseph

Brooks Hansen has written an account of his ultimately successful journey to becoming a father, after much disappointment, called The Brotherhood of Joseph. Like everything Hansen writes, it's honest and unusual and at times very heart-rending. Hansen has written a number of fine novels, including The Chess Garden which is one of my favorites of all time. I interviewed Hansen recently about the book.

Amazon.com: Many people go through difficulties in having children. Many of them are writers. Not all of them write a book about their experiences. You did. Why?
Brooks Hansen: Well, a quick glance at my output will reveal it’s not my first inclination to write intimately about my life. My books have tended to be about distant times and places. In this instance, I made an exception for two reasons, I guess. The first is that what Elizabeth and I went through is something a lot of people are going through these days, and that a lot of people are talking about. But there’s a real gap in the conversation. One doesn’t often hear the husband’s point of view. I don’t assume that I’m a typical husband or that our story is a typical one, but I still thought it might be worthwhile to get a male perspective out there.

Ultimately, though, if I’m being honest, that alone would not have compelled me to write the book. What compelled me to write the book is what happened to us in Siberia, specifically, in the course of around thirty-six hours. That day, day-and-a-half, was so far beyond anything I had ever experienced in my entire life, and ever hope to experience, I really had no choice but to try to express it. Given what I do for a living, it would have been cowardly, weird, and mildly deranged not to.

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Amazon.com: Did you keep a personal diary or journal during the period described in the book?
Hansen: The book divides in half. The first part is about my wife’s and my struggle with infertility, our experience with assisted reproductive technology, and the difficulty of transitioning from that to adoption. In general, it’s the more reflective – i.e., less narrative -- half of the book; really, it’s almost an extended essay. For that, no, I didn’t take notes or keep a diary. I kind of just let rip with everything that had been going on in my head for the last seven years.

When we got the call to go to Russia - and it’s that trip that comprises most of the second half of the book -- I did start to take notes, because I knew there was a likelihood I might write about the trip sooner or later, and I knew that what I wrote was probably going to be much more narrative in form, so I wanted to be sure I was remembering the sequence of events correctly, as well as what I was feeling at the time.

Amazon.com: Was the experience of writing the book painful, cathartic, or something else entirely?
Hansen: I didn’t find it painful. The fact is, as dismal as those years or waiting and struggling were, and as difficult as what happened to us in Russia was, by the time I got round to writing about it, I already regarded our story as being an extremely happy one, about two very lucky people. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to write it quickly and not let too much time pass before getting it all down, is that I didn’t wanted the happiness that I was feeling, and that we were feeling as a family, to obscure the intensity of frustration and anger and sorrow we had been going through before. As I point out in the book, it’s extremely difficult to remember pain. I had to get to that stuff while it was still fresh. 
How do you get enough distance from events to write about them effectively?

As I say, I didn’t really want distance. I wanted it to feel raw, because the experience itself was pretty raw. And yet of course, a certain amount of distance is required just to make sense, and there I think I relied on the fact that, by now, I’ve put in a fair amount of time telling stories. It’s the thing I know how to do. I know when I’m beginning to lose the thread, and I know how to stop and pick it up, just from experience.

So I guess maybe that’s the answer to your question. I have long been aware that I seem to have gone about this whole writing business in an ass-backwards fashion. The more traditional route is to begin one’s career by “writing what you know,” finding your voice, and then if you’re still determined to try to make a life of it, you take that voice and you go learn the other skills you’ll need to keep on -- like how to use your imagination, how to research, how to follow your nose, how to find stories and craft them; how, in other words, to write what you DON’T already know.

For me, it has worked the opposite. As soon as I was out of college, I started writing what I didn’t know, and that’s really how I taught myself to write: very much from the imagination, and history, and curiosity, because that’s the stuff that excited me. That’s what kept bringing me back, and made me want to work. And it still for the most part is – applying the high math of storytelling to people and places that fascinate me, but with which I may not be all that familiar at the outset.

And it’s not that I ever rejected the idea of writing what I knew, or writing about my own life.  For me, it just seemed clear that because of my own interests and my own process, I was going to learn how to tell a story first, and how to engage the imagination of a reader, and I trusted that those skills would still serve me if and when something happened to me that merited sharing. Something did. I hope they have.

Amazon.com: How is the book different in its finished form from how you envisioned it originally?
Hansen: Not too. The truth is, I have an entirely different relationship to this book than I’ve had to any other book I’ve ever written. Because it’s about something that happened to me, and because my impulse in writing it was simply to reflect that experience as clearly and as honestly as I was able, I find I didn’t trouble over things like structure, voice, or sequence as much. All those things that slow the process of fiction writing, they were already taken care of. Nor do I find myself troubling much over the book’s commercial prospects. Again, my feeling is, this is what happened to me. I am aware that this sort of thing is happening to a lot of people my age. If my experience can be of service to them, that’s great. Nothing would please me more, and I’ll do anything I can to get word out and be a resource. If not, well, the book still stands as a reasonably accurate record of probably the most extraordinary thing that will ever happen to me. God willing. I had no real choice but to do it, so I find myself curiously relaxed about whether it resonates, or how quickly it resonates. The book is what it is. The people who need it will find it.

Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Hansen: I actually just wrote a novella I’d been sitting on for a while – far more quickly than I’m used to -- but the big daunting project for some time now has been a complete telling of the Life of John the Baptist, kind of a composite rendering drawn from different traditions, and different disciplines. As of now, it’s due to come out next Spring from W.W. Norton, having been acquired by the same woman who did most of the editing on The Chess Garden, which is a good thing, but all that assumes I’ll meet a September first deadline. And I’m not sure I mentioned, but I now have a two year old and a four year old, and we’ve living out in California and it’s the summer.

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