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 Randall Brown 


Website: RandallDouglasBrown.blospot.com

Randall Brown teaches at Saint Joseph's University. His work has appeared in Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, Concho River Review, Connecticut Review, The Saint Ann's Review, and others. His stories have been nominated for Pushcart and O.Henry awards.

Read Randall Brown's guest post on the Short Review Blog: Giving Thanks

Short Story Collections

Mad to Live
Flume Press, 2008

Winner, Flume Press 2007-8 Fiction Prize

Reviewed by Barry Graham

 Interview with Randall Brown

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

Randall Brown: It took about 3 years. A lot of the revision focused on trying to get the endings to work. I recently attended a talk by Billy Collins, and he likened the structure of his poems to that of an eye chart. Each poem begins (metaphorically of course) with that large E that most everyone can read and then moves toward the mystery of that final line. Getting those final lines to be both accessible and murky proved to the biggest challenge.

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

RB: I didn’t think that I did, but recently I came across some bios from stories published in 2004 and there it is at the bio’s end: He is currently working on a collection tentatively titled Mad to Live, a title I got from a Kerouac quote. I think it was sophomore year of college that I read On the Road—and I still have this line about what I wrote then in a paper: “His books smell like Fall, like the rain and autumn breeze dripping off the leaves.” So, not only does this line explain why I couldn’t get a date in college, but it also connects Kerouac to the Fall, and there’s something in each story (perhaps) about the attempt to recover something unrecoverable, something like innocence.

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

RB: An arduous process. I did a lot of the writing during my two life-changing years at Vermont College’s MFA program. Post-MFA, I worked with Ellen Lesser on figuring out the strongest stories and the ones that felt as if they worked together to tell another story when juxtaposed and collected. The final section—the one that is metafiction (fiction about fiction)—originated in my love of Robert Frost and his poem “The Oven Bird.”
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
And here there’s that “other fall we name the fall” that Kerouac’s work evokes for me and the “mystery” of that final question. The answer, for Frost, of what to make of a diminished thing, is to write a poem. I wrote a collection of stories.

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

RB:  Oh, a lot of things, but I think the best stories end with haunting, either because of their profundity or their emotional resonance. The desire for these things—for meaning and feeling—maybe drives narratives into existence, a desire shared by the character(s), readers, and the author. That coming together of these entities around wanting something, desperately and urgently, gives reading and writing (for me) its charged intensity. The writer Douglas Glover says this of the short story, "Literature is a way of thinking in which you think by pushing your characters through a set of actions (testing that character in a series of scenes which involve the same conflict)." I think Aristotle said something profound about a story having a beginning, middle, and end. Joseph Campbell discovered in his reading the ONE way to tell a story, the Monomyth, which Kurt Vonnegut summarized as "The hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble." "Separation—initiation—return," writes Campbell, "might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” In describing the narrative pattern of journeys, such as Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, Clift and Clift argue that stories work to "help one make sense of the boredom before and the terror during each journey." Out of these ideas, a very simple, workable definition of plot and narrative structure emerges: As the result of some inciting incident, desire (the beginning of a story) creates actions (the story's middle) leading to an outcome (the end).

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

RB:  I entered college never having kissed, never having dated. And I really, really liked the young woman who lived on the 3rd floor of the dorm. I pretended I didn’t know how to type, and I sent her assignments (that of course had never really been assigned) to type and hopefully read. So, the Reader is someone like that, someone who doesn’t know me and I’ve no clue how to reach except through making things up that are somehow more (and less) me than I am in person. Or something like that.

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

RB: The desire is to ask, “So did you like it? I mean really like it?” But there seems to be no satisfactory answer to that since I have trouble believing that I wrote a book that someone might read and like. So maybe the question is “And what would you like me to read of yours?”

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

RB: Surreal. I kind of feel as if it—the book—has happened to someone else, that part of self immersed in story-world.

TSR: What are you working on now?

RB: I put together another collection that is in the process of being read by some very smart, helpful folks whom I know will help me make it better than it is. I spent a post-MFA semester at Vermont College working on the picture book with recent Newberry Honor Award winner Kathi Appelt (for the amazing, incredible The Underneath). I wrote a whopping 24 picture books during those 6-months. And I still would like to write a novella/novel length work. Any ideas?

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

RB: I read an amazing collection by a writer I’m not sure you’ve heard of. But Tania Hershman’s The White Road and other Stories is pretty remarkable. I read Rose Metal Press’s award-wining collection, Geoffrey Forsyth’s In the Land of the Free. And now I know how much better I have to get to enter this year’s Rose Metal Press competition. And I’m almost finished with Stefanie Freele’s upcoming collection, Feeding Strays. Look for it. She’s brilliant.