IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Publications of CU-Boulder Faculty
Robert Garner McBrearty, an instructor in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric since 2002, has recently published Episode, his second collection of short fiction, following his critically acclaimed first book, A Night at the Y. As a work-in-progress, Episode won the prestigious Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award (a stipend of $15,000). His fiction has been widely published in distinguished literary publications including the "Pushcart Prize" anthology, "North American Review," "Missouri Review," "StoryQuarterly," and "Narrative Magazine." His short stories have been performed on several occasions as dramatized readings at Stories on Stage in Denver and at the Arts and Letters Live show at the Dallas Museum of Art. Prior to assuming his current position, McBrearty taught short story workshops in Continuing Education & Professional Studies since 1991. He lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, and his eldest son is a student in the Leeds School of Business.
McBrearty responds to observations about stories and themes in Episode:
In Half Penny Man, I love the line "I will never pay for stories. I buy words." The value Mr. Urzik places on words is abstract. It struck me an allegory of writing as commodity—an author strings words together and they may or may not receive value back. Even the value they place on their own words can be diminished to a word count.
I think that does say a lot of what I had in mind there. When I was sending out stories many years ago, a lot of the literary magazines paid per word—often a penny a word, but sometimes only a half penny a word. More >>
That always struck me as sort of absurd, as if we could judge the value of a story by its length and how could a word be worth a penny or a half a penny, and it led me to the larger issue of just what value we place on art and how we determine what a piece of writing is worth. The buying of words, as Mr. Urzik does, sort of takes it to the absurd extreme. The value of a story is something he can't even bear to consider, so he'll just pay for each individual word in any random order. And yet Daniel selects each of his individual words with care, and I think what I'm saying there is that's all we writers have—that's our only real tool, the words themselves, opposed to the plumbers in the story who have tools and specific missions to accomplish. I was thinking a bit of the old Bee Gees song that goes: "It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." << Close
One of the themes that came across as I read the stories was balance. There's a striving for balance in several different ways.
Balance is very much one of my concerns. I think the protagonists are sort of teetering on the edge; one false step and things go badly, another step and they regain their footing, but it seems to go on and on. More >>
I think there's a feeling that the regained balance may only be a temporary respite. And yet by and large, I let them have that respite. My stories are more about hope than despair, though despair is always waiting in the wings—without it, at least in story telling, the hope doesn't mean much. << Close
Your stories are very real in the sense that the experiences seem to be pulled straight out of the inner life we all have bubbling away inside. Revealing these small things brings a rawness and richness that makes your short story format satisfying—like a very rich dessert, if you will.
I appreciate that comment very much. Readers have sometimes commented on the "immediacy" of my stories. I think what I do—though I want to be cautious about becoming overly aware of what I do as then one starts "trying" in a certain sort of self-conscious way—is that I sort of break down the barrier between the reader and me, almost as if we're joined in this enterprise and they, the readers, are sort of right there with me as we struggle with the issues together. More >>
But it's not like I'm saying, "Gee, I wonder if the readers will like this," it's more like we're just in it together, all sharing the inner journey, the victories and failures. And if there's a second element involved, I might just say that I get very closely connected with my characters. I use the "I" voice frequently, but the "I" quickly becomes his own self, doing and saying things that I probably would never say or do. I want to sort of get away from the notion of "creating a character" and make it seem, as much as possible, that here is a walking, talking human being stepping onto the stage. << Close
Many of the stories deal with physical displays of psychological metamorphoses. As characters challenge their bodies through sport or physical action, it's an outward expression of challenges going on inside, and the results don't always correspond—physical gains will be made without equal emotional gains and vice versa.
I like to start characters right at the moment of changing. The tendency of many writers is to start with the status quo and develop and explain and describe that state before their characters begin to change. More >>
I like to leave a lot of that unsaid, as part of the unspoken backstory. I like to start off with a charge. Speaking of metamorphosis, maybe I'm inspired by Kafka's wonderful story. Notice in the very first line of that story, Kafka starts with the transformation: "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin." I think I do like the notion of starting with the body—my characters often realize it's time to get back in shape on the physical level, and of course also on the more mental/emotional/spiritual level. Sometimes the gains are uneven. In "Excellence" the main character is very strong physically as a young man, but things fall apart, and it's not until he's weakened and beaten that he is ready to really change. << Close
In the title story, Episode, a character suffers from bipolar disorder. His expression of this is brought forth in a very matter-of-fact way, and the characters surrounding him deal with it on that level as well. It creates a symmetry that allows readers to take the story at face value, and weigh it for themselves.
I like the way you say, "weigh it for themselves," as it's important to me that the story not been seen as a representation of bipolar disorder in general, but the way the bipolar episode feels to this one particular family at this one particular moment in time. More >>
This is the way this one family deals with it, and there is both a level of familiarity and of surprise as they try to cope with it. I wanted to show, too, that there is much more to Len than just his mental condition. He's sensitive, he loves his family, he has a lot of strength and vitality as well as the illness. << Close
What is it you enjoy most about working with young writers?
The greatest thing about young writers is when they have a good attitude—when they're willing to learn and willing to work at it. More >>
I'd much rather work with a less talented person who is willing to learn than with more talented writers who think they know it all. There's something to be said for sensing the potential genius in oneself, but it's a hindrance to assume genius that isn't actually there. Fortunately, I encounter many young writers at CU who do have good attitudes, and they're a real pleasure to work with. << Close
Will you tell us a little bit about what you're working on right now?
I'd be happy to. I've published two collections of short stories now and placed many stories in various magazines, and while I plan to continue working in that form, right now I'm mostly focused on completing a novel. More >>
It's so different from short stories. Novels seem to take me forever to write—draft after draft. This novel is quite different from my short stories—it has similar themes of metamorphosis and sought after balance, but everything is ratcheted way up in intensity, with lots of violent, dramatic scenes. It's like the characters are trying to find their emotional balance while also being shot at and just trying to stay alive. Not a simple task. I think the book reads both as a suspense novel and a literary novel. I've been working on it, off and on, for a number of years, and I hope to finish it this summer. << Close
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