In today’s episode, Brandon and I talk about our past lives in BG, how we’ve changed and stayed the same, and why Catch-22 isn’t funny, and Jesus. Because Jesus.
RP: Speaking of the past, tell me a bit about how you got to Bowling Green and how you feel you’ve changed as a writer.
BDJ: I went to WVU after I got out of the Air Force to get a degree in journalism, which I got. While I was there, I did a minor in creative writing and had a teacher one day who was like, “You can get an MFA in fiction.” I was like, “That’s a thing? People just go to grad school to write stories? That sounds good.” So I thought I’d try that.
I applied to a few places. He happened to be a BG alum, so I think that helped me get my stuff read. There was one story about a guy who lost his hand in the desert at war, and the other one was some kind of weird characters doing a Shakespeare play or something. I was kind of trying to make fun of Shakespeare, but I don’t think I was very good at it. I’m assuming that that was the story Lawrence liked, though, and Wendell probably liked the other one.
Anyway, I got in there. I only applied to four places, and I got into BG. That was the only one I got in. There I was, and I was pretty angry, but I didn’t really understand that because I didn’t really know how to process feelings all that well. That’s why I drank a lot.
RP: Not enough alcohol, too many feels?
BDJ: Yeah. Drinking a lot and making fun of everything were just my survival skills. That’s why I wrote a lot of … I feel like calling it satire is giving it too much credit. I was really just making fun of stuff, things I didn’t really understand and wasn’t taking the time to try to understand. Eventually, I met Theresa Williams there. Wendell was great for me, for sure. Lawrence did a good job of making me not like semicolons.
RP: I love semicolons; eff that.
BDJ: Yeah, I use them all the time. But Theresa … I just didn’t trust male authority figures at all my whole life because of a childhood experience I had, and I think that, working with Theresa and other women writers, it was easier for me to trust their advice than it was to trust the advice of any man older than me, I guess. Anyway, Theresa said some things in a workshop that stuck with me ever since then.
Wait, Shannon has turned the TV on. Great.
RP: Mad skills.
BDJ: One of the things Theresa said was, “Try to figure out why you write,” which of course, at first, I thought, “This is a stupid exercise.”
RP: I can totally see you doing that. I can still picture you doing something like that, which is why it’s so hilarious. It’s like, “Yep, that’s Brandon.”
BDJ: So, everyone’s going around the room and figuring out what it is. I thought about it, and the reason I write—that I determined at that point in time—was duty. Not poop, but actual duty. I kind of said that because I thought, “I guess I’ll just choose this,” but the more I thought about it, the more I feel like the reason I’m writing whenever I write about my time in the military or whatever it is I’m writing about is because I sort of owe it to the world to try and share whatever my experience was—good and bad—with others so that they might, if they come across whatever it is that I’ve written and they need to see something about whatever it was I experienced to help them in some way, then it’s there, as opposed to, “I’ll just curl up in a shell, and eff everybody else. They can figure it out because I had to.”
The other thing that Theresa said was, “Whenever you figure out the thing about your writing that makes you crazy, that’s the thing that you should do.” I was like, “What is she talking about?”
RP: “This lady smokes too much weed.”
BDJ: “Yeah, that sounds kind of crazy. Maybe I’m not going to do this. Maybe I’m not going to just be crazy.” But then I started writing nonfiction because I got so sick of workshops when I was in my Ph.D. There were just days that I was like, “I can’t work on my stupid story. I just can’t do it. I’m just going to write nonfiction today.”
With the nonfiction that I worked on, I didn’t really have anyone to share it with. I showed Dustin a few things, but I didn’t let any workshop do anything to it. It just did what it did, and I got responses from journals that never read any of my fiction.
There are parts in the nonfiction where I have two selves communicating with one another—sort of workshopping the nonfiction as it moves forward as a way to create tension and progression within the narrative. It isn’t happening all the time, but it definitely is in my nonfiction a lot more than it would’ve been had it been workshopped—or maybe it never would’ve been in there if I hadn’t had that workshop with Theresa, because I probably would’ve thought, “Oh, this is stupid. No one’s ever going to read this,” when I actually think it’s essential.
I think the idea of having one rigid identity and one rigid self is impossible. It’s an impossible idea that breaks people. Anyway, maybe that’s why the subject matter has gotten more serious. How do you define yourself? But I don’t think there’s a ton of jokes in Battle Rattle.
RP: There are, actually, if you know Brandon. Well, if you know Old Brandon. I’ll call him Old Brandon, even though he’s still a part of Current Brandon. The whole “’Cause f**k you”—that’s Old Brandon. That part of you is in there. I personally think of identity as nesting dolls. You’ve got one-year-old Raegen inside of two-year-old Raegen inside of three-year-old Raegen, and you’ve got all these nesting dolls of your identity. That’s my way to comprehend the multiple facets of my own identity.
I acknowledge this new direction in your writing, though, which is why I’m asking you how you’ve changed or grown since BG. You definitely have.
BDJ: I think all writers should, right?
RP: You would hope. I don’t know that they do …
BDJ: Or do something else.
RP: I definitely saw elements of some of your earlier work in there, though, for sure.
BDJ: As long as it’s positive stuff and not just, “Here’s that crap again.”
RP: I guess I would go so far as to call it sardonic. It’s just that biting sarcasm that’s weird because you laugh, but then you realize it’s not really funny, actually.
BDJ: Well, that’s good. I know I’m talking about Catch-22 again, but you have these professors who are like, “Catch-22 is so hilarious!” I’m like, “Obviously, you were never in the military, because had you been … ”
You’d think that in college, professors would understand the nonsense and absurdity of the bureaucracy because it’s the same as it is in the military, minus the potential for death, depending on the job that you’re doing. Not everyone in the military is facing death every day, and I did not while I was in it. Well, it’s hard to say if I was or not. I never felt in danger, but I guess it’s possible I was. But Iraq would’ve had to have had a much better military to have done anything that could’ve impacted me on a physical level, and if that were the case, things would’ve been much worse for us than they are now.
But anyway, Catch-22 to me: not very funny, although it is funny.
RP: “You missed the point if you think it’s funny.”
RP: It’s interesting because you said people in academia should understand bureaucracy, but what they don’t understand is some of the stuff that is in Battle Rattle because it’s a glimpse inside a different reality than most people are exposed to or will ever be exposed to. Now, how close what you’ve portrayed in Battle Rattle is to actual military experience—that part I can’t gauge because I’ve never been in the military—but I think that if you’ve never been, it’s like if you’ve never been an Asian man, you’re not going to really understand what it’s like to be an Asian man. An Asian man can tell you what it’s like to be an Asian man, but there’s a certain threshold beyond which you maybe mentally cannot cross.
BDJ: Sure. Anyone’s capable of understanding what it’s like to be “other,” but no one understands what it’s like to be othered as the specific individual who is being othered. Certainly, for me as a veteran in grad school, it wasn’t that bad at BG. That was a pretty smooth transition, and everyone seemed normal.
RP: Thanks, Brandon.
BDJ: What I mean by normal is, everyone was part of the same community. But when I went to Western and started to be in classes that were lit crit and gender studies, I’d walk into a room, and you’d do those introductions, and I didn’t want to tell people I was in the military because then, “Oh, OK, here’s the 6’2”, 200-pound white guy who’s straight and was in the military, so obviously, everything he says is going to be wrong. We don’t want to hear his opinion.”
RP: Well, Brandon, everything you say IS wrong, but it’s not because you’re white or male. It’s because Jesus says you’re wrong.
BDJ: Oh, because Jesus said so.
RP: Because Jesus.
BDJ: Oh, Jesus.
RP: So when you go back to do final revisions on the bigger novel from which Battle Rattle was drawn, I think some of the jokes could now be “Because Jesus” versus “Because f**k you.” That’s just a little editorial tip based on your recent conversion-in-progress.
BDJ: It’s funny that you mention this because actually, there is a component that I was working in where Vezchek potentially has religion play a bigger role, like he tries to find something to use as a way to get past all this stuff, but I don’t know. I don’t know how much of a benefit overall to the book that would end up being. But we’ll see.
RP: Speaking of writerly advice that you should not take, which my suggestion was because it was just a joke …
BDJ: Oh, I’m taking it anyway.
RP: “I’m taking it anyway because Jesus. It’s going in. It’s in.”