John Brandon's debut novel, Arkansas, is a blackly funny chronicle of the lawless world of a couple of drug runners in the Southeast. His second, Citrus County, is a coming-of-age/love story between 14-year-old Toby and 13-year-old Shelby — even though Toby kidnaps Shelby's little sister (unbeknownst to Shelby) and is keeping her in a bunker underground. Both novels drew a committed, if not enormous, readership, and strong praise. The San Francisco Chronicle raved, "I finished the novel a true believer: that Citrus County is gorgeous and deserves to be read widely; and that John Brandon is a great young writer who can — and probably will — do just about anything."
A Million Heavens is just as tautly written and intelligent but perhaps less directly menacing, and it's a warmer book. Set outside of Albuquerque in a small town called Lofte, the novel has a large collection of characters, including Reggie, a recently deceased musician; Cecelia, Reggie's friend and a member of his band, Shirt of Apes; Soren, a boy who fell into a coma after playing the piano for the first time; Dannie, a woman who has left her entire life behind in California; Arn, Dannie's much younger boyfriend; and a mysterious, music-haunted wolf. Library Journal marveled, "Brandon well deserves his role of indie literature's rising star. His southern drawl bleeds through into his sparse but lyrical prose, at times reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy; his plots pack a punch....[He] is a master at spinning a yarn. Be prepared to stay up late with this one!" We're proud to announce that A Million Heavens is our choice for Volume 35 of Indiespensable.
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Jill Owens: Place is obviously an important part of all your books. Your first two novels were actually named after their settings. What made you want to write about a small town in the desert in New Mexico?
John Brandon: So far, I've wound up writing about places that I don't know terribly well. That's freeing to me. It's easier than trying to write about my hometown or a place where I know all the people and where every store is. The places I write about have been those that give me some kind of feeling that's unusual, I guess. Arkansas felt like there weren't any rules, and it was hard to tell what anyone was up to. It felt really open to me and unfinished. I felt I had a lot of room to work in it.
I lived for three months in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the same type of thing. I had been in Phoenix, in Arizona, before, but for some reason Albuquerque seems less polished and less well planned than Phoenix. It was something about the random feeling of it and how far out in the middle of nowhere you are.
While you're in town, you kind of forget that you're not supposed to be there in the desert, because everyone waters their trees, and so there are trees and buildings. But as soon as you go a little bit outside of town, you realize you're not supposed to be there. It's ridiculous that there's a city in this spot.
I found that interesting. It also seemed to me mystical and magical, like everyone says. [Laughter] Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but it did seem that way. Maybe I just wanted to write something supernatural and thought that seemed like the spot to do it.
I don't know which came first. I guess I knew I wanted to use that as a setting before I had any real ideas.I've always been attracted to the idea of having a bunch of characters that swirl around each other. That would give me the opportunity to have a lot of different outcomes and to make the book feel a bit random and not super planned. You could just forget about a character altogether. Then, with another one that seemed way off on the side, you could pull in and focus on that one. Some of them could be connected and some of them couldn't.
That was what was fun about it when I started. I'm sure I went too far in that direction, and then, my editor [Eli Horowitz] and I had to consolidate and ask ourselves how many characters people really wanted to keep track of. We knew that there had to be at least some satisfying connections and happy-ish endings.
When I was writing Citrus County, there was a way in which it was not fun because, after I had the kidnapping scene occur, I couldn't get away from that. I was just dragging that boulder behind me the rest of the way. I think the reason the book turned out the way it did, which was feeling kind of off kilter, is that I was trying to not write about the kidnapping, even though there was a kidnapping.
Jill: I was talking to somebody about that book yesterday and telling them that that's a remarkable thing about it. The kidnapping happens, and you know Shelby's sister is down there in the bunker, but you still really like Toby. You keep going along, but you know that darkness is there all the time. It's a very interesting tonal relationship.
Brandon: Yes. I guess it worked out okay, but it wasn't a plan, I think, as much as that I was more interested in the characters walking around above. I didn't feel free and easy at any point after the kidnapping happened. Writing this book was a lot more fun because I could just switch to another character at any time, and I could put the emphasis where I wanted to at any time and just go away from things and come back to them. I was always happy to get back to a character. It would have been 20 pages or something since I had seen that character, so I wasn't tired of them. I was happy to get back together with them.
Jill: As a reader, it takes you a little while to get to know everybody. Then, as things coalesce, it's like an accelerating swirl, with Soren, and maybe also the wolf, at the center.
Brandon: I was picturing it as circular, too. I was thinking of these objects blowing around the desert. They're not really going to leave. They can only go so far from Albuquerque. They're sort of stuck there, but they're kind of blowing around in a circle. Sometimes they collide, and sometimes they don't.
There are so many characters that that was one of the main concerns when we were editing: how to make the first, say, 70 or 100 pages seem fast enough, because there's some level of introduction that you have to do in a novel. But when there are two main characters, that doesn't take long. When there's a dozen, it takes a while. There's really no way around it.
We had a lot of conversations about how to combine sections together and cut sections down so we could get to one of the turning points, for example when Reggie is able to communicate with Cecilia. That's a point where, in the writing, I felt like, Okay, I can take a breath. People will be happy that something has developed and something has happened. Now, the pacing will be easier. Before that, I was always thinking, This is too slow. I'm not getting to the stuff that needs to happen quickly enough. That was one of the challenges of having that many characters that I had to introduce.
Jill: Why did you want to have a wolf as one of the characters?
Brandon: I'm not going to have any kind of good answer for that. [Laughter] I can't remember when he came about, but I feel like he was one of the later characters. I don't think I got interested in him until I realized that maybe he was immortal. Then, I saw an arc for him. All I knew at the beginning with him was that he was losing instinct and gaining knowledge. That was going to happen slowly over the first several sections I wrote for him.
I knew that he had something to do with music. I wasn't sure what. I'm still not sure that I know what, but it had something to do with the fact that music is something that humans do that requires both instinct and skill. Since he's in this struggle between instinct and knowledge, he's weirdly attracted to music and he doesn't know why.
It was at the point where I thought, Okay, maybe this can be something that's happened to him before, and he's just in a cycle. I could see that as a whole other circle, and I kept seeing circles. That's when it got more interesting to me.
I don't think there's a spot in the book where it definitely states that he's immortal. It's something that I was always thinking about and hinting at. That seemed like something interesting to carry his character along.
Jill: That's interesting that you say that he's losing instinct and gaining knowledge. The concept of innocence also comes up in the book. I'm not sure if innocence is aligned with instinct, but it seemed like there was a larger struggle, or at least tension, between innocence and knowledge or wisdom.
Brandon: Yes, I would say so, in that innocence does align with instinct in that way, the way thatyou don't consider a shark evil — it's still somehow innocent, even while it's ripping sea lions to shreds. That's part of what was interesting about a wolf losing his innocence.
Jill: How did you think about Arn's character? He's the only one who gets a history; his sections are actually entitled "History of Arn." We know a few key things about everyone else's past, but we get this really detailed backstory for him.
Brandon: Yes. He was the one, maybe, where I was aspiring to some plot cleverness early on. With the other characters, I don't think I was. I was discovering them as I went. The idea for Arn was that a lot of the Dannie sections happened before you really know a lot about Arn. And then when you read the Arn sections, you see things happening that contradict what he tells Dannie.
I wanted that to be a moment where the reader realizes something. Hopefully, Arn changes in the reader's eyes and becomes a little more dangerous and less dopey.
That was something that I had to fix the timing of pretty carefully, so that his sections would be close to Dannie's at certain points, so it would be fresh enough in your mind that you would think, But didn't he say so and so there? Now, he's saying so and so?
I wanted them to both be lying to each other, but there was something more interesting to me about having Dannie think that she's just lying to him, so she can feel pity or look down on him, like he's this dumb kid, but the reader knows that Arn's got his own scam going.
But I liked them as a couple and I was rooting for them.
Jill: I liked them as a couple a lot. The love stories in this book have a real sweetness to them. This book is happier than your earlier work, in some ways. I wouldn't call it a happy book, per se, but it's happier. There seems to be more warmth in this book.
Brandon: I think that was conscious. It was obvious to me while I was writing it that these were better people, people you'd more like to know in real life, more than the characters in Arkansas or Citrus County.
It's such a difficult thing with love stories, because they're supposed to end up happy, but then that doesn't feel real. Then, you get into this circular logic, thinking: should I purposefully make it not happy? Because that's artificial, too, because sometimes love is happy.
I liked having all the different characters because I could have this one end up really happy, another one be sort of happy but confusing, and another ending be just weird.
For some reason, I found that I didn't want the love stories to end badly. I just didn't want that to happen.
Jill: There's an almost existential quality to your writing in this book — in earlier books, too, but particularly in this book. With these characters, it's all about acting or not acting. In a way, of course, that's what all characters in fiction do, but your characters seem more conscious of it than most.
Brandon: Yes, I think they are more so, probably. The gas station owner definitely is that, right? He has such a hard time starting. He just wants something to do. Then, he thinks of something to do, but he can't bring himself to do it for a long time. Then, he finally does it. The way I felt about him was sort of like he had already won at that point. He couldn't really lose at the point when he finally did something.
I liked Cecelia because she learns to act earlier in the book. She's the one that I could depend on to do something when the others weren't. She's young and frustrated and more spontaneous, I think, than a lot of them.
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and we were talking about writing female and male characters and how you have this feeling — wrongly, I think — that when you have a female character do something crazy, you have to explain really thoroughly why they would do that. When you have a male character do something crazy, it's just like, "Oh, he was being crazy again!" [Laughter] and you move on.
So, I had fun just having this young girl do crazy stuff when she felt like it. It sort of made sense, but not a whole lot of sense sometimes. I think I was thinking of her as kind of a foil to Dannie, because Dannie does a lot of sitting around in her condo. I thought, Dannie will sit around with her binoculars, and Cecelia will be out there doing stuff, and that will be kind of a balance.
Jill: That's interesting, because, by the end of the book, I had started to think about some of the characters being foils for each other. Cecelia and Dannie, the gas station owner and the mayor, and maybe Reggie and Arn, I think.
Brandon: Yes, I believe I was thinking of it that way. You usually just have the courage to keep some kind of balance in the characters, and that's one way to do it. Reggie I think is a really, really, really good person, which is maybe why he had to die before the book started. He's just extremely good. Arn is the other side of that.
Jill: Why did you want to write about music in this book?
Brandon: That's a good question. I'm sure part of it is that I never had. It wasn't something that I got into much in Citrus County or Arkansas. It's hard to go back to when you were staring the book and try to put the carts behind the horses. A long, long, long time ago — well, it's not that long ago, but in writing hours it's a long time ago — I wrote a novel. It was my first novel, and it didn't get published. Occasionally, I can use it for a scrap part here or there.
One of my favorite parts of that novel was this band. It was extremely on the periphery, but this band was Shirt of Apes. At that time, Reggie was a harmonica player, and Nate was there and Cecelia was there and they weren't very formed. There was something that I liked about them. I was tinkering with them and realized that Nate was kind of a jerk and that Reggie was really good and that Reggie had to die.
So, then I guess the natural question is how is Reggie going to communicate with Cecelia? The answer is with songs. I was also interested, with Reggie and the idea of... Well, I never say this in the book, or I never really have him think this, but if you're an artist and you create art and if you thought you'd never have an audience, how would that change things?
He's in this place where he has no expectation that anyone would ever hear a song he wrote. At some point, he figures out that someone is trying to coax music out of him. Out of stubbornness, out of defiance, he doesn't want to write any music.
I think it was probably a way for me to tinker around with ideas about creating art without making the character a writer. [Laughter] That would have been boring to me. I'd rather he be something fun like a musician. I could pretty much go any direction that I wanted to with Reggie. He was in an almost empty room in a fictional place. I mean, I could go into any issue that I wanted to. There were times when it seemed more like he was blocked, and there were times when he was refusing to write music, and there were times where it just seemed kind of pointless.
I guess maybe it's because I'm a writer, but songwriting seems so much more mystical and inexplicable to me than writing a story or a novel does. I was dealing with these kinds communications that are impossible and magical. That seemed like the natural way to communicate. Reggie can send a song to Cecelia and then the wolf can want the song, too.
Music is great and so powerful and everyone knows it. It's just a given, which seems like a good thing to have on your side if you're doing magic and mysticism and all this stuff. Music just seemed tied up in that to me.
Jill: Kristin Hersh from Throwing Muses had a memoir that came out a couple years ago, called Rat Girl. She did hear songs in that way, after she got hit by a car. She was receiving songs in a really similar manner, though they weren't from anyone other than herself.
Brandon: Wow. I should look at that. That sounds cool.
Jill: Right after Reggie dies, he's thinking that spending time writing songs or books, in particular, is just one of the saddest ways that someone could have spent their time while they were alive.
Brandon: Right. When you look back at the end, you can't think of that as a great decision that you sat alone and noodled around making things up. [Laughter]
Jill: The character of Soren, the boy who fell into a coma, is like the cipher at the center of the book. There are the vigils held for him, and a lot of the characters and plot seem to spiral out from there.
Brandon: When we were editing the book, something that we talked about was the fact that we had to find a balance. I didn't want the novel to be able to click together perfectly, like a math formula would work. I didn't want it to be like, These are the rules when it comes to sending songs in the afterlife and where they might end up and what happens if you get one. This is exactly how it might affect a wolf. You know?
I didn't want to explain it all the way down to the last decimal, but then it also has to be at least close to making some kind of sense or at least suggested strongly enough so that people can do that on their own if they want.
The song and Soren were always at the center of that. The way we were talking about it, we wanted it to make enough sense but for there to still be some sort of gray area. I don't know where we wound up falling on that. Of course, my editor was pulling me towards having things make more sense.
But I hope we fell in a good middle ground. It's sort of like what happens with the wolf and the gas station owner. That part made enough sense to me as the next event that might happen. But as far as why it happened or what the greater meaning of it was, I didn't want to try to explain all that or create precision around all that.
From the beginning, I somehow just felt like there was an eeriness to having everyone's attention focused on something quiet and still. What you get out of Soren is this eerie feeling that helps the tone and then also a connection, which is at least something that is enough to get the reader through the part that you need them to get through at the beginning. Okay, these characters are all related. They all go to these vigils. I can see that there's some kind of plan here.
Yeah, it was much more enjoyable having Soren in his coma than having Shelby's sister in the bunker. [Laughter] I could just deal with Soren. His father was there in the room with him. It was much simpler. It was just, is he going to wake up? And if so, when is he going to wake up? There was nothing tyrannical about that, about having Soren there the whole time.
Jill: This is a small thing, but I noticed one other similarity between Citrus County and A Million Heavens, which was that the teachers in both the books don't want to be teachers. And they're really bad at talking to their students when some kind of loss occurs, in both books. I was wondering if that was inspired by anyone or anything.
Brandon: That's inspired by me. I'm just working out my stuff. [Laughter]
I'm good as a college teacher, but right when I was out of my MFA program, and I was young, around 25, I taught high school, and I was so bad at it. It was way too much for me. I just wasn't up for what it takes to do that, to manage 15- and 16-year-olds. I think it sticks with me because it was a failure, and there's no way to spin it otherwise. I tried this thing and failed at it. It still bothers me, so I wind up writing these teachers.
I mean, I make them worse than I was, for effect, but I think that's where it comes from. Maybe I want to write worse teachers than I was so I don't feel so bad. I don't know. That comes easily. It comes easily to me to write disgruntled teachers. I don't know why.
Jill: How did you choose the title?
Brandon: I didn't. [Laughter] This is how that went. It's usually ridiculous to come up with titles when you're 50 pages in, but it's kind of an indulgence. It's like thinking of what you're going to name your kid is fun, and raising a child is just a lot of work. It's kind of the same thing. You get tired of the work of writing, so you're just like, Oh, today, I'll think of a title. I thought of "Desert Measures." That was the first title I had which I thought was good because it's measures, like music.
Then, I don't know if it was me or someone else suggested "The Dry Measures." So, it's just getting more punny. Because then it was like dry/liquid measurements, plus the music... [Laughter]
I thought that was okay. Then, when it came time where we were really going to have to decide, I was really unsure. With Arkansas, I was totally fine with the title. My editor and I were talking about it and I said, "Well, if you can think of anything better than 'Arkansas' let's hear it or else let's just go with that." We said, "Okay, that's fine." Same thing with Citrus County. This was the first one where we had troubles. Anyone who I would talk to about this, about half of them liked "Dry Measures" and half of them didn't.
But then my buddy Jack Pendarvis said something like, "First of all, you can't have the word 'dry' in the title of a book. Nobody likes that. You've got to give the critics more of a challenge. You know? They're going to say, 'Dry? Certainly. Measured? Indeed.'" [Laughter]
Jill: I would have never thought of that. That's brilliant.
Brandon: Yeah, that's Pendarvis.
So, we had to call it something else. Eli Horowitz, my editor, picked out the "A Million Heavens" from the text. I was okay with it. I still thought that "Dry Measures" was cool. From there, it was really polarizing, in as much as a novel and the title of it can be polarizing. People were like, "'A Million Heavens'? No, that's too commercial sounding." Other people were like, "I don't like 'Dry Measures.' That's weird. I don't get it." In the end, Eli got his way and I came on board with "A Million Heavens."
Jill: I can actually see how it would be polarizing, but I think I like "A Million Heavens" better than "Dry Measures."
Brandon: Oh, good.
Jill: I think it was the right choice. Although, now Dry Measures sounds like it should be the name of some band from Albuquerque.
Brandon: Yeah, yeah. Coming up with band names, that's fun, too. Musicians probably do that when they don't want to write songs.
Books mentioned in this post