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Jason Brown

Jason Brown grew up in Maine, where these stories are hauntingly set. Hailed by many as one of America’s current best short story writers, he has forwarded his success as a Wallace Stegner and a Truman Capote Fellow at Stanford by blanching his work with a liberal dose of that which most affects the human heart: Home. His first collection, Driving the Heart and Other Stories, was published in 1999.

Short story collections

Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work (Open City Books, 2007) 

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Driving the Heart and Other Stories (W. W. Norton & Company, 1999) 

Interview with Jason Brown

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Jason Brown: Eight years—too long, for a lot of uninteresting reasons, a lot of dead ends: a couple abandoned novels, a memoir that was too personal for people of good taste, and a children’s book that turned out to be too depressing for children. I seem to have two speeds: “I have got to write this” and “I should write this because maybe then I’ll have a career and feel like a real writer.” When I am working in the latter mode, I may as well be chopping wood. I have written some things that are so bad—I am not exaggerating—that I am stunned to revisit them and see how stupid I can be. I don’t think I have improved as a writer, but I have gotten better at recognizing my own failures before I waste too much time.

The nice thing about the short story (and the reason I was able to finish Why the Devil Chose New England For His Work) is that, from my point of view, there are no ulterior motives for writing a short story or a collection of stories. You write a short story to write a short story. I would have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting rich and famous for writing a collection of stories, so I wrote them because I really, really hoped a few people would read them, and I am enormously grateful when I hear that someone has read a few of them.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

JB: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to write a collection about the small town where I had grown up. I thought at first that I wanted to have a main character travel through the stories (in the style of my very early favorite collections: Beggar Maid, In Our Time, Winesburg, Ohio), but that just didn’t happen.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

JB: I started to write stories that took place in Vaughn, the fictional town in central Maine where the stories take place. My initial reasons for doing this were personal: I am from that area, and the collection linked by place is my favorite form. The collection linked by place (Dubliners, Wyoming Stories and Winesburg) can create a world in the way a novel can, and it can have a wider scope than a conventional novel because it tells multiple stories. As I grew into the project, I began to feel (as I suspect Joyce and Anderson did) that I was documenting a vanishing place, a place with its own specific history, vernacular language, architecture, customs, relationship to the land, etc. This place had been lost to me, because I had left to escape the confines and claustrophobia that exist in any isolated small community, but when I looked back (and went back) I realized that the great maw of progress, American culture, was gobbling up the place I had known. It is a loss, though it is hard to think of it as a tragedy. The culture I grew up in had been in that area for two hundred and fifty years or so (a long time), but that culture had pushed out (wiped out) the native people of that area. Their tragedy is almost entirely forgotten by the people of New England. I did begin to feel, however, that there was something tragic about the loss I was witnessing and experiencing because the cultural forces taking over the area of Maine where I had grown up (and so much of rural America and the world) was soulless, for lack of a better word—it had no connection to the place, didn’t care about the history or people. It was voracious in its appetite and unrelenting in its ability to forget. I can only guess that the Abenaki felt the same way about my ancestors.

I know a woman in the landscaping business in that part of Maine, a woman whose people have lived in the area for several hundred years, and who now works mostly for people who have moved to the area in the last few years or months. One day she was putting in a garden for a man who had just retired and moved there from New Jersey. He came out of his recently purchased and remodeled 1810 farmhouse, stood next to her tapping his loafered foot on the new sod, and finally said, “This is all great, but do you think we could do something about that?” She stood up and looked where he was pointing, to the north of the field at a tangle of pine, birch, alder and one or two white oaks, the new growth mixed with the old. “What are you pointing at?” she asked. “That,” he said, jabbing his finger. “All that mess.” “You mean the Maine woods?” she said. He didn’t care what she called it. He just wanted to know what it would cost to clean it up.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

JB: It means why am I alive, why will I die, make me laugh, why are things this way, help me escape myself, don’t let me escape myself, lie to me, show me how I lie to myself, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe the things I remember are now only real to me.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

JB: A number of people I really respect sit on my shoulder—an old teacher and essayist I knew in Maine Franklin Burroughs, Tobias Wolff, and my wife, who knows better than anyone when I am full of it.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

JB: When I meet someone who has read my book, I immediately want to talk about anything else. I am usually in no condition to hear anything negative about stories that have already been published, when it is too late to make changes. I am always happy to hear positive things, but I get embarrassed in two seconds and start looking for the exit.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

JB: I don’t know if they are. I saw my sister buy one, and that is the only time I have witnessed a sale. I would like to think it is happening a couple times—it would make me feel good if a few people bought it. I don’t need to meet them, though.

TSR: What are you working on now?

JB: am working on more stories, as always, more stories about the rural Maine I remember. I am also working on a novel about a remote fishing port island off the Maine and Canadian coasts. The novel and fictional island are called Outermark. I am also making notes on another novel about a real island off the Nova Scotia coast called Sable Island. That novel is called The Island of the Ipswich Sparrow.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

JB: I rarely read a collection straight through unless it’s an Alice Munro book, but I’ve been poking around in [Charles D']Ambrosio’s Dead Fish Museum, [James] Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, Alistair’s Macleod’s Island, and Brownsville Stories by Oscar Casares.