In Wednesday’s sesh, Brandon and I talk about the intersections between fiction and nonfiction, where he draws the line, and why unlikable characters get the job done.
And Jesus. Of course Jesus.
Brandon’s daughter Shannon also jumps in on the conversation … and noshes on some sweet grub while we adults get down to adulting.
RP: You mentioned that you weave some elements of nonfiction into fiction, and you’re looking to bring these two genres together. They’re supposed to be distinct from each other, but they never actually end up that way, I don’t think.
BDJ: Right. That’s the whole thing: It’s got to come from something. Like, a dragon—where does that come from? Now it comes from other people coming up with dragons, but it had to come from something. People didn’t just think that up. No one, other than Jesus, would be capable.
RP: Exactly. Hey, I hear someone joining our interview!
BDJ: Yeah. Hi, Shannon! She wants some grub, I think. I’m strapping her into this highchair.
RP: So, where do you draw the line between the nonfiction elements that you bring into fiction or where you’re defining an essay as nonfiction, since there’s always an act in writing that fictionalizes anyway because our memory is imperfect? Where do you draw the line on what you draw from?
BDJ: That’s going to be difficult to answer because it’s something I think about every day and reevaluate on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The rule I give myself is, if I write this as nonfiction, is it going to hurt someone I care about so much that I can justify the potential gain I could get from writing about this? Am I willing to risk losing a person I care about for the rest of my life in order to get a publication?
RP: Jesus would say, “Yeah, go for it.” We’re all gonna die anyway.
BDJ: Yeah. We’re all gonna die anyway. Certainly there was a time in my life where I felt that way about a lot of things.
RP: I’m totally kidding, Brandon.
BDJ: Well, I’m not. But the more connections you make with people, the less you feel like you’re worthless, and who cares, and all that Negative Nancy-ism, and the easier it is for me to be like, “Maybe I shouldn’t write this one specific anecdote about something that happened with my mom when I was really young when she made a mistake because she’s a human. Maybe she doesn’t have a thick skin, and I don’t want to hurt her in a way that, for the rest of her life, she thinks, ‘I can’t believe my son shared that with the world, and now everyone thinks I’m a terrible mother.’” But then there are also things where, you have a parent, they made a mistake, and by sharing whatever event with the world—and by with the world, I mean the one person who reads what you write …
RP: You’ve got two, Brandon. I’ve also read what you wrote, so it’s you and me.
BDJ: Thanks! Thank you so much! There’s also the ability to show that a person made mistakes, and it humanizes them, and then it becomes a way of showing the world how much you love a person, writing about that thing. My mom has done so many amazing things for me and sacrificed a lot of stuff for me. Same with my father. But they’ve also made mistakes and did some things that could be viewed pretty horribly. I think I’ve found a pretty good way to strike a balance between those two things to show them in an honest light—which, fortunately for me, ends up showing them as good people. And who doesn’t want to be seen as a good person? Well, I guess Trump thinks he’s a good person. When you see him later, could you tell him that he’s not?
RP: I’ll just be like, “Look, I know you’re fixing my bathroom right now, but if you could just wrap that up so I can tell you you’re a terrible person …”
BDJ: Fixing my bathroom! I’m cutting up cherries right now.
BDJ: That’s a thing that you do for babies.
RP: Baby life is grand. So, speaking of your characters and where they’re coming from, I don’t think I’m telling you anything you didn’t know or intend when I say that your characters aren’t likeable people. Yet I was still invested in them and their stories. I think that’s because, in some sense, I can understand them. That would be my reasoning for why I personally felt invested, anyway. For a long time, in fiction workshops especially, writers were told that their characters had to be likeable. What does it take to get readers invested in unlikable characters? What are you doing on a conscious level to make that investment happen?
BDJ: I probably could’ve sold a lot more books if I just wrote a book about a guy who’s running around and wants to kill Osama bin Laden because he’s just a good guy who wants the world to be safer for his family and the lives of every American. I’m not going to say that there aren’t people in the world who are like that, but to me, that is quite uninteresting as far as story goes because that’s a simple person to understand. He wants to do good. He wants to be good. And he is good. And he tries to be good. And whether or not he lives or dies, you root for him because he’s trying to make the world better for you. I think that makes sense. But ultimately, to me, that’s just not a very interesting story. The idea of having a character who’s conflicted, on the other hand …
If Vez was just sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend or wife and doing whatever other things he was doing that are just not awesome, and he never thought about it and just kept doing it, and I just wrote the book that way, I also think that’s a boring story. Vez recognizes the fact that when he meets Kaylynn and doesn’t sleep with her on the first night that he respects her more, but there’s an animal part of himself that respects him less. The idea of them sleeping together on the first night that she met him would be insane to some readers. To me, it isn’t because that’s something that happens. I don’t think it’s bad.
RP: Jesus does.
BDJ: Well, good for Jesus.
You think that’s funny, Shannon? You got cherries all over the place. It looks like you’re a vampire. A good vampire. She just sucks the blood out of cherries.
Anyway, the fact that Vez recognizes that that is a thing, that it’s a duality that people are capable of recognizing in themselves without being able to control, is what it means to be a human.
I’m not sure if you heard that because Shannon was laughing at my stupid ideas.
RP: Even at such an early age, you’ve got this huge critic in your family.
BDJ: Now she’s like, “Ha, ha, ha! Fool!”
RP: She’s like, “Daddy, you’re an amateur.”
BDJ: I know! “Why do you tell people what you think when what you think is so stupid?”