Meld the slipperiness of memory with the manic power of pop culture and you’ll get an idea of the lens Rebecca Brown uses to look at the world these days.
Brown’s newest book, American Romances, a collection of eight essays, mixes and matches in surprising ways: Oreo cookies and Gertrude Stein. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Beach Boy Brian Wilson. The Invisible Woman, John Wayne, Felix Mendelssohn, and the God Squad. They’re all in there—along with a lot of Brown herself.
“I’m trying to understand my individual life in the context of other things,” she explains in a phone interview from her Seattle-area home. “Clearly, some of the pieces are very personal. The autobiographical stuff is really autobiographical.”
Brown, who’s taught writing for twenty years, is best known for her novels: The Haunted House, The Last Time I Saw You, The Gifts of the Body, The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary—eleven in all. Her 2003 book Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, a powerful retelling of her mother’s battle with terminal cancer, provided her the opportunity to explore memoir.
But nothing quite compares to the essay style Brown creates in American Romances. “This was something different for me,” she says. “It was nice to do something different.”
Brown says she sort of just happened onto essay writing. She started by writing short pieces for various alternative presses and local weeklies, penning book reviews, essays about current events, and even a gonzo-style encyclopedia entry on E.M. Forester’s Aspects of a Novel. “I try to describe what I’ve read and what I’ve looked at,” Brown says.
The experience not only opened a new genre of writing for her but it opened a new kind of dialogue for her with readers. “I loved writing about the real world and getting that reader response,” Brown says. “There’s more of an immediacy about the conversation than when I’m writing just fiction.”
Calling the pieces in American Romances “essays” perhaps pigeonholes them into a genre that might sound too formal to really capture Brown’s imaginative approach. She infused her essays with personal memories that, she readily admits, are sometimes undependable or nostalgic. She peppers her essays with endnotes that take on tangential lives of their own. She offers citations for the things she stuffed into her head, giving readers bibliographic breadcrumbs they can follow as she makes connections between fantastically disparate elements.
Who knew, for instance, that a clear connection existed between “east coast Puritanism” of early America and the “west coast hedonism” of the late twentieth century? Who knew that Susan Sontag and Oscar Wilde both had connections to the Invisible Woman?
“People are responding to the pop culture and the unexpected juxtaposition of things,” Brown says. “This was a new way to play, a new way to add to the possibilities of writing.”
Brown uses Nathanial Hawthorne as an organizing conceit for American Romances, and she gives herself creative latitude by quoting from Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables. “When a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude,” Hawthorne wrote, explaining that a romance “has fairly the right to present [the] truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.”
Brown characterizes it as “a degree of personal fantasy—a blend of personal fantasy with facts.”
Take, for instance, her essay “The Priests.” Brown had been challenged to “write a mythic story about food.”
“Well, I was a white kid from the suburbs,” Brown says. “I didn’t have anything exotic or unique. I didn’t have Mama’s home cookin’. Our home cookin’ was boxed cookies.”
So Brown’s essay begins as she and her childhood friends playact as priests, using Nico wafers for communion. The essay gets into a discussion about the history of church communion rites, which gets into a discussion about various secret church societies, which gets into a discussion about the church’s persecution of homosexuals. Oreo-like cookies get involved, which of course evolve into Oreos. “The way you opened it, then what you did, would tell you and your fellows who you were,” Brown writes. Gertrude Stein gets involved, too.
“Clearly, Gertrude Stein wasn’t a high priestess of Oreo cookies,” Brown chuckles. “But all the history stuff in the essay is true. Some of it’s pretty horrible. I’ve found tying together humor and tragedy to be a useful tool for getting at things.”
Brown tried to get at some equally sensitive topics in her other essays without coming at them head-on. “I don’t know how to write about those ‘Big’ things directly—things like ‘Love’ or ‘God,’” Brown says. “That’s the kiss of death to me. I have to look at those things from a sideways angle.”
She cites her essay “My Western” as an example. “I started writing about westerns and all those images of heroism and masculinity, and suddenly I realized, ‘That’s my father,’” Brown says. Suddenly, her discussion of the closing scene of Shane—when the cowboy rides off at the end with a kid yelling “Come back! Come back!”—parallels her own experience as a child when her father left his family.
The essays touches on other westerns, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Shootist, for instance, and Brown draws parallels between her father and John Wayne. “He grew up in a culture with ideas of how men should be,” Brown says. “He really was a man who mourned the heroism of his earlier life. If he had been born as part of the Rat Pack, that would’ve been perfect for him but, y’know, he was a dad. He didn’t fit. He was born in the wrong era.”
This intermingling of cultural zeitgeist and personal reflection is pretty typical in American Romances. Brown also threads a nuanced sense of history throughout her pieces. “[T]he past is not so long ago, you tell me, and neither is the future,” she writes. The same could be said for the essays themselves: the past and the future are never far from each other, and sometimes the lines even blur.
“I guess I consider these ‘lyrical essays,’” Brown says. “How is that different from a memoir? How is a memoir different from a novel? There’s a contemporary, fiery conversation going on about those things. But you know what? It’s not a new conversation at all—we just think it is. Hawthorne and his contemporaries had the very same conversation.”
That conversation interests Rebecca Brown, the writing professor, but Rebecca Brown, the writer, seems interested more in the impact of her work than how its categorized. “Art is about touching the heart,” she says.
Brown is sure she’ll write more essays, but she’d also like to get back to her fiction, so she’s not yet sure what form her next major project will take. “Nothing’s worse than sitting down and looking at a blank page,” she says. “I’ve written a number of books by now, so you’d think I’d know how to do it—but I don’t. I’ll just have to wait and see.”