"I wanted The City to be, in some ways, a completely unique environment, but in some ways an extension of our own world; insofar as the people who live there are still left to wonder what comes next. What will the third terrain of existence be?"
"I didn't want to answer any of those sorts of questions definitively because I wanted The City to offer the possibility that that third realm of existence could be anything at all -- anything that we've ever been capable of imagining or anything that we've ever failed to imagine.
"One of the things I tried to do with The Brief History of the Dead was give the last couple chapters a real sensation of closure, and yet allow the mystery of that third terrain of existence, to survive."
"The first chapter of The Brief History of the Dead appeared in the New Yorker as a short story. At that time, were you already considering this as a full-length novel?"
"I was. I had written half the novel by the time the New Yorker published that first chapter. In all the longer pieces of fiction I've done, I've tried to construct the opening section or the first chapter as though it were a self-contained short story. First, as a way of easing myself into the book, but also as a way of ensuring that if the novel falls to pieces on me, at least, I'll have gotten a short story out of it. So, with The New Yorker piece, I had written that first chapter, and then, I had written all of the even-numbered chapters, the Laura chapters. And then the New Yorker published the first chapter, after which I went back and filled in the rest of the odd-numbered chapters."
"Amazing. What are you working on next that you can talk about?"
"I try to follow each book for adults with a book for children." [ Grooves: A Kind of Mystery was published by Katherine Tegen Books on March 1.]
"You've been compared to children's author Daniel Pinkwater. Where did you first encounter him?"
"Well, my favorite book when I was ten years old was Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy from Mars., by Daniel Pinkwater. I must have checked it out of the library half a dozen times. Then I forgot about the book, and years later I happened to re-encounter it. And I discovered that I still enjoyed it just as much today as I did when I was a child, only it revealed all sorts of more subversive currents that weren't apparent to me when I was little.
"I wouldn't have guessed that he was an influence on my adult fiction, but he's had a very direct influence on my children's fiction. Simply because I enjoy what he does so very much and have enjoyed it for so long.
"I love his sense of humor; I love the way that he incorporates these strange, fantastic events into the real everyday lives of his characters. And so, I'm trying to do a similar sort of thing with my children's books, definitely.
"I taught at the University of Iowa last semester as a visiting professor, and one of the classes I taught was a children's fiction workshop, and had them read a few books. By far, the most popular was Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater."
"There is a lot of talk these days about the failure of public education and that children are not able to read, do you observe that when students are talking with you about your writing?"
"Not at all. In fact, I'm always surprised by how astute children seem to be about the publishing process. Not only are they interested in books, but a lot of them seem to be interested in things like why it is that a hard cover will be published and you can't get the paperback until a year later. Or, how it is that an agent works."
"Weren't you also a student at the University of Iowa?"
"I was a student there from '95 to '97."
"What was it like coming back as the visiting writer-in-residence, rather than as a student?"
"Well, it was intimidating at first, frankly. First of all, because I'm still pretty young. [Mr. Brockmeier is 33 years old this year.] Younger than the rest of the faculty, definitely, and as young as many of the students. Iowa is a program that tends to skew kind of old. So a lot of the students are in their early 30s, or older. Some of them are fresh out of undergraduate school but that's the exception rather the rule there.
"Then, I just had so much admiration for some of the teachers who had taught me when I was there and it was hard for me to envision myself sitting in the same chair."
"Did you work with Frank Conroy when you were there?"
"I did. I worked with Frank Conroy and Marilynne Robinson. Those were the two whose guidance meant the most to me. Also, with James Alan McPherson and Judith Grossman."
"Were you there when Conroy passed away last year?"
"I was invited to teach as a direct result of the fact that he passed away. He would have been teaching the course I taught, you know, if he had still been around."
"What shoes to fill."
"Exactly. It's not as though anybody was really expecting me to fill those shoes. I was trepidatious about it, but after a week or two, I kind of settled into it and became much more comfortable with the whole idea and I feel as though I ended up really having something to offer to the students. I taught the two classes; the graduate fiction workshop that everybody teaches and then, 'a seminar of your own devising,' which in my case was a children's fiction workshop.
"With the children's fiction workshop, I felt a great deal more latitude from the very beginning, simply because nobody had ever taught a class like that there before. So, I knew that I could make it into whatever I wanted it to be. I also knew that my students in that particular class were really in the program to concentrate on their adult fiction. So that the children's fiction was kind of a separate stream for them. And it just made it easier for me to approach the material."