So, Brandon Jennings—a writing colleague from my days at BGSU—and I recently got to emailing back and forth about our recent publications. As we exchanged some thoughts on writing and life, I thought it’d be fun to have an actual conversation with him about his latest work of fiction, a novella called Battle Rattle.
I had a few questions for Brandon, but because he and I are both talkers (and he’s not even Italian, so he really has no excuse), our conversation got a little too epic for one blog. So I decided to divide it up into parts—what I’m calling “A Week With Brandon.”
On Monday, our first day of “A Week With Brandon,” Brandon and I talk about daddying, influences, and—lest anyone be disappointed by the typical writer-to-writer fare—Jesus (The Jesus as well as my boyfriend Jesus).
RP: So, you’re a dad now, which is weird, ‘cause that means you’re old and stuff.
BDJ: I know. I know. It is weird, but yes, that’s the first answer. I am a dad now. I knew that one.
RP: I noticed you used some rhyming in Battle Rattle. Was the rhyming thing intentional?
BDJ: I’m laughing because never in a million years would I have expected anyone to pick up on that. I mean, I guess I should expect a poet to pick up on that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t intentional as if I was trying to do some sort of style that required rhyme or anything where I gave myself a strict set of guidelines. I think it just happened that way. Does that make sense?
RP: No. There’s dead silence on this end of the line because your answer was wrong. Jesus does not approve of this answer.
BDJ: We’re done here.
RP: Yeah. Question 1 is already a huge, embarrassing failure. I don’t even know why we’re continuing this conversation.
BDJ: I have a question for you: When did you notice that?
RP: It was the second time it happened. It’s not like every sentence rhymes or anything. It’s the things that stick out in the head, the things like “Oh well. What the hell?” And you’re right—it is because I’m geared more toward the poetry thing that I wondered if it was a pattern and if it meant something. Does it have significance because you did it more than once? I just wondered if it was deliberate or served some purpose, especially with respect to your title, Battle Rattle, which also rhymes.
BDJ: The “Oh well. What the hell?” we don’t have to talk about in too much detail because that’s an homage. “Oh well. What the hell?” is a song that was sung by McWatt in Catch-22. Vez doesn’t know that, but Rake does. Rake knows about a lot more things than he lets on because he’s “being a man,” which I think has a lot to do with why he kills himself.
There is a novel that this is ripped out of that I’m still going to try to sell after my collection of essays is finished in the fall, and some of the things you’re talking about get teased out a lot more in the longer work, but in the novella, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to develop them further. There was a purpose behind it, and it’s also part of a characterization that doesn’t get a lot of time to be developed in the novella. It’s interesting to me that you noticed them and noticed them enough that you wanted to talk about them. So thank you for that is I guess what I’m trying to say.
RP: No problem. As a poet, I can’t help but get microscopic; then I have to pull back and go bigger picture. You mentioned Catch-22. Who else’s work influenced you to write Battle Rattle? And did you include any other references? I’ve only ever watched the movie version of Catch-22.
BDJ: Which isn’t a crime.
RP: Or is it? I don’t know. I’ll have to double-check with Jesus on that.
BDJ: Actually, find out for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have read it.
RP: So, whose work helped you or influenced this particular novella?
BDJ: Definitely Jesus’ Son by Dennis Johnson. Sorry that Jesus is brought up again.
RP: You’re always trying to convert me and make me love Jesus.
BDJ: I know. I’m sick of you not loving Jesus. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Obviously Catch-22. Am I talking too quickly?
RP: I’m recording this. I do things like a journalist.
BDJ: I actually got my degree in journalism and then never used it and probably never will.
RP: That’s the thing, though; I actually think you do use it.
RP: But that’s another conversation. Or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know.
BDJ: No, I would love to have that conversation sometimes. Or sometime. Not sometimes. We can just have it once.
RP: There will be no continuation. We will never speak of it again after the one and only conversation about it. It’s a single conversation.
BDJ: Yes. Slaughterhouse Five was definitely a big influence for me as far as what subject matter is OK to write about—not necessarily form or style. Although there’s a little bit of actual me in that book, there’s nowhere in that novella where I’m saying, “I’m the writer. I’m going to write this story that’s fictional.” Then we’ve got Michael Herr. He wrote Dispatches, which is, in my opinion, the best reportage of the Vietnam War done in a creative nonfiction style. Bruce Weigel’s Song of Napalm. That’s a book of poems. We’ve got Galway Kinnel’s Book of Nightmares. I feel like I’m going to lose track. I’ve got a whole bookshelf over here of these people. I don’t want to rattle off a bunch of names …
RP: You just did.
BDJ: It’s funny because whenever I start to rattle off these names, I start to think of how much, stylistically, for some reason, I’m always more influenced by men. But when I’m thinking about the characters who are going to call into question these norms about femininity and masculinity—what is it that makes Taylor leave whenever she sees the little girls playing The Waiting Game, and why is that the thing that pushes her over the edge?—I start thinking about Eve Sedgwick and Irigaray and others I read in grad school. They’re creative, but they’re theoretical. I didn’t read a novel by Judith Butler that shaped the way that I tell a story. I don’t know what that means, and eventually at some point, maybe I’ll know, but for now, I don’t.
RP: It raises an interesting point because most of the time, when people ask whose work influenced a person as an artist, if you’re a writer, you most often refer to other writers, but given your personal life experience, you’re also drawing from real-world knowledge, whether you’re creating fiction or not. You could be influenced by music, by art. Obviously, you’re not going to cite the masterful work of a lieutenant, but it’s an interesting point you raise because our influences extend well beyond just creative pages.
BDJ: Well, they should. God, I hope so.
RP: Or do they? Another one to ask Jesus.