Poetry Madness

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Powell's Q&A

Po Bronson

Describe your latest project.
It tells the incredible stories of twenty relationships. A father and his daughter, a wife and her husband, for instance. These are people who endured tremendous hardship and not just survived, but ended up with a better experience of their family — sometimes by rescuing a critical relationship, sometimes by ending a bad relationship and moving on. These are stories that tested me, changed me, affected me, so not one of them is obvious or predictable. These families come from so many of the world's cultures — Chinese, Mexican, Black British, African American, Turkish — too long a list to put here. I tell these stories as if I was writing a mini-novel — so don't think they are told in interview format, or as an oral history. They are shaped and honed. Each story is built around something akin to found poetry — a found metaphor emerges from their life and comes to symbolize their entire story. They're not funny or ironic (when it comes to our families, we have all the irony we will ever need). They will make you cry and fill you with hope.

The book is primarily meant to be a great read, first and foremost. But because we get to see real families working on issues that often aren't talked about openly, the book is also very cathartic. I learned a lot about love from these people; in seeing them fight through problems five times worse than my own, I learned to fight. I learned how to love my family through hard times, not just good times. And there's a humanity about these people that is refreshing. They are regular, ordinary people, just trying to make it through life. They are not the sort of people that books customarily get written about.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false. Why, or not?
False. Writers love elaboration, and want to attract attention to their creations. Real life liars know the less said the less noticed. The best liars rarely have to lie at all. In fact, I would say writers romanticize lying gratuitously, asserting things like, "A good lie can be more honest than the truth." It's ridiculous and self-indulgent. I used to write fiction and now I am writing nonfiction. The artistic challenge is enormous, when you don't have the luxury of simply making up details or events. Employing your imagination is perhaps the easiest artistic crutch; having to write, imaginatively, when you have only facts as your building blocks — now that's hard. I guess what I'm trying to say is, the mirror opposite of your question is just as interesting. Writers, on the whole, are worse at telling the truth than other people. They're only best at telling half-truths.

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
The sports section. Then I read the front section, then the entertainment, and then I re-read the sports section, just to make sure I did not miss that exciting news about some minor leaguer's hamstring injury, or what the cricket scores were in Malaysia.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I got an email from a guy who read my last book, What Should I Do With My Life? It prompted him to attempt suicide. In the days after finishing the book, he was so dispirited and unhappy with his life (he was a lawyer going through a divorce) that he got himself stone drunk and swallowed a bottle of pills. He passed out, but to his own surprise, he was found clinging to his life the next morning by his estranged wife, who came by to make him sign papers. His life was saved by paramedics, and then his wife and father intervened and forced him to confront his unhappiness. He quit his work and started a restaurant with his father and got counseling. Reading his letter put me through a roller coaster. He was writing me one week after he made the attempt on his life. By then, he felt like a new life was opening up for him, and he was euphoric, actually. He felt like my book triggered something that led to him being reborn, in a way. Needless to say, I called him immediately, and we talked for a few days until I was sure he was going to be okay.

It was a great reminder that books are no mere entertainments. They have the power to influence lives.

Why do you write?
To be free. To live in a way that interacts with the world. To express as much as I consume. To make our short stay on this earth a better experience.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
I'll never forget when the allure and romance of authors was shattered for me. This was back in June of 1994, I think. I was working for a small publisher, and my first novel had been bought by Random House, but it would be another year before it was actually published. I was at the Book Expo in Anaheim. There were all these parties with publishing folks. I was hanging out with Walter Kirn, whose novel She Needed Me was being celebrated at the book fair. We decided to go find Douglas Coupland, who was also there to promote Shampoo Planet, his first book since Generation X. So we found Coupland, but not at a party. He was in his hotel room, dining on room service top sirloin, using the corner of the bed as a chair so that he could have the best view of the TV. He was watching Johnny Carson. So that's all we did that night. Three voices of our generation watched Carson, the voice of another generation. Maybe we had one thimble of vodka from the mini-bar. Lame.

What do you dislike most?
Hypocrisy. Or, I should clarify, "Chronologically Simultaneous Hypocrisy." By which I mean, saying one thing and doing another, or criticizing someone else when the criticism is apt for you. But life will make hypocrites of us all, over time — we all end up believing in values we used to scoff at. In my own case, all the things I treasure most are things I used to say I never wanted — children, a house, marriage. So that's why I qualify hypocrisy as applying only to the "chronologically simultaneous"; otherwise, there'd be no room to change your mind.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
This involves my wife back when she was my girlfriend, some scrambled eggs with bacon, and a tiny apartment in North Carolina. She was getting ready for work. I'll stop right there. spacer

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