On the Burdens of Family Mythology: Q & A with Brandon Wicks

What book is currently on your nightstand?

Author photoFor about a month now, I’ve had Vehlmann, Kerascoët, and Dascher’s Beautiful Darkness by my bedside. One can read the entire thing in about fifteen minutes, but I find myself picking it up every few nights to re-examine a particular page or panel. It’s a gorgeous interplay of innocent cartoons, naturalistic watercolors, and sinister social machinations. Imagine if Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies allowed you no distance to find its series of child-deaths amusing, while also pushing you deeper and deeper into the disturbing recesses of human motivation. I’m not sure why I want these to be the last images dancing through my head while drifting off to sleep, but sometimes the urge strikes me.


Name three commandments for writers.

  1. Never name a character Bob. Bob is every poorly thought-out secondary character who is white, middle-aged, somewhat avuncular, occasionally obnoxious, and ultimately shallow. Bob is the placeholder where a real name (and character) should go.
  1. When writing dialog, peel away the expectations of regionalism. Depend on your reader’s ability to pick up on nuances of idiom, word choice, and rhythm, rather than on rootin’ tootin’ misspellings or cringe-worthy colloquialisms. If you must misspell, then do so with panache and an ear for the music, like Lewis Nordan, spote.
  1. Find someone, anyone, who truly understands the quirks of your worldview and ask them for feedback.

Describe your relationship to the characters in this book. Are you a merciful writer?

AmericanFallout_1500wMy relationship to the characters in American Fallout, in particular, is a complex one. When I first started this story seven years ago, I felt a need to explore the beauty and burdens of family mythology—and in doing so began, as the germ, with a few of my own family mythologies that were important to me. I suppose I was seduced by two impressive-sounding (and potentially dangerous) edicts. One, from George Garrett, is that we, as artists, have a responsibility to mythologize those we love. The second, from Alan Cheuse, is the observation that we, as Americans, don’t have mythologies; we have childhoods.

So creating these characters began in an odd, intimate kind of anthropological space, since none of my fiction before (or since) has touched such personal aspects of biography for me. The book, of course, is a work of fiction, but given the source of my inspiration, I’ve alternately felt very protective of these characters and a little startled by what they’ve become.

That said, am I a merciful writer? Probably less than I’d like to believe. I like my characters to be unflattering. I like them to be a bit grotesque, to lean on the side of caricature and in doing so try to redeem the ugliness which seems so fundamental to all of us.

What’s the craziest (worst?) idea for a story you’ve ever had? Did you try to work with it or move on?

The most bizarre (but hopefully, not worst) idea for a story that I’ve had is the novel I’m currently working on: the story of a fraudulent translator of 12th century Japanese poetry trapped in the purgatory of 21st century Chicago, fashioned as a N? play. Here’s a doodle of the main character:





The novel follows Japanese aesthetic tropes (such as mugen, or “dream unreality”) and technical ones, too, in the structure and tempo. It’s been enormous fun to draft—kind of a playpen full of the ideas I’ve encountered as a reader of classical Japanese literature—but also a mess. In revising, I’m working to shape all those elements in a way that’s as inviting and entertaining for readers whose exposure to Japanese culture might come from, say, the sushi place downtown. I’ll let you know how that goes.


Brandon Wicks studied creative writing at George Mason University, where he received his M.F.A. He serves as an associate editor for SmokeLong Quarterly and teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. American Fallout is his first novel. Web: bpwicks.com.