NER fiction reader Andrew Kane talks to Scott Broker about tonal friction, the “sinister pastoral,” and near-death experiences in his story “Kingdom” (NER 42.4).
Andrew Kane: There’s so much to love about this story—from the imagery and characterization to the language, which rides the line of zaniness without ever quite crossing it—that it’s difficult to know where to begin. But, since I have to begin somewhere, I’ll start by asking about the tone, which you strike right from the story’s first lines: part camp, part desperation, but immediately engaging and relatable, it constantly feels as though it’s shifting beneath the reader’s feet. What were you hoping to achieve with this kind of language? Did you have some sort of blueprint in mind, either in your own previous work or that of other writers, for how to lay down that type of language?
Scott Broker: Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad you asked about tone, as it’s one of my favorite craft elements. A lot of my writing includes the kind of tonal friction you’re describing, moving between different registers from start to finish. The intended effect, in this story at least, is of instant and ongoing destabilization. Gwen’s life is funny, and harrowing, and lonely, and mundane, and absurd, and relatable, and foreign. For the reader to be tugged in a different direction every few sentences helps convince them of this, and puts them in the same position Gwen is in, which is one where the future, both immediate and distant, cannot be forecasted.
A few years ago I took a workshop with Gabe Habash, author of the excellent Stephen Florida, and he helped give me more structure for how I think about this approach in the way he described bathos. In its simplest form, bathos is about subverting audience expectations, traditionally in a shift from the sublime to the trivial. During our workshop, Gabe expanded this to include any kind of unanticipated swing in tone. I realized I’d been doing this already, but it was nice to have more concrete language for the method. In terms of other writers who I look up to in a tonal regard: Joy Williams, Amie Barrodale, Muriel Spark, Diane Cook, and Jen George.
AK: The imagery, too, is striking, and the world Gwen and Jimmy inhabit feels as though it’s barely holding back some encroaching, sinister pastoral—there’s something of the pioneer to it all, a circle-the-wagons mentality that casts the natural world as an ever-present threat. Still, during the dinner party, she is gripped with a desire to flee to “somewhere less human,” longing for “a cactus, a canyon, or a cloud.” What is it about these characters—or perhaps Gwen in particular, or Los Angeles, or daily life under late capitalism—that gives nature this dual aspect, both solace and threat? What were you hoping to explore by bringing that element into this piece?
SB: I love that you picked up on nature’s hybrid quality in this story, and think the “sinister pastoral” is an excellent way of describing that duality. If I’m honest, the binary way Gwen encounters nature very much mirrors my own experience. I can’t speak for others, but I imagine a lot of people share in a similar estrangement from the natural world. Walking through the woods, I’m likely to be called toward revelry and dread in equal measure. When you live in a city, nature is difficult to access in so many different ways. Of course there’s literal distance, but I also think nature’s occurrence in a city can feel almost anachronistic. If I see a coyote walking along the highway, my first thought is What are you doing here?, when I really ought to be asking the same question of myself. Gwen’s world is full of nature, but it is split between real and artificial nature, because that is how the natural world manifests in cities—a real wolf, a real bird, a real desert, and, at the same time, a set of porcelain animals, a stuffed swordfish, a howl that might be an ambulance siren. Gwen wants nature to save her because it is so far from the life she is leading, yet she is also terrified of nature because her connection is fundamentally severed by the industrialized world.
AK: I’d like to talk a little about how you came to arrive at these characters, who are so idiosyncratic and oddly (but very humanly) opaque to themselves, none more so than Gwen. Did Gwen and Jimmy come to you more or less fully formed, or did you find yourself returning to craft those characters over time? What is your process like for creating and fleshing out the characters that you write?
SB: I wouldn’t say I had a great sense of Gwen and Jimmy before starting the piece, save for Jimmy being content (or willing contentment) with their new life, and Gwen being unhappy with it. Their specificities began to emerge within the first few paragraphs, which is common for my process. At the risk of sounding woo-woo, I do think characters have a way of determining themselves. For me this typically occurs through dialogue, where a character will say something, and even though I’ve written the thing they’ve said, I’ll find myself surprised by it. If the surprise feels like it has energy, I will build on it. So, for instance, Jimmy’s first lines of dialogue are foundational to who he is, both in terms of stated interests and in terms of general obliviousness, but I only realized that after the lines were written. Gwen clarified herself once I wrote about her failed efforts with gardening and poetry, where her desire (and failure) to make meaning for herself first makes itself known.
I’ve never been someone who maps out characters before I write, and the idea of filling out a character sheet sounds unproductive to me. I know it works for a lot of writers, but I prefer to let scene build character as much as possible. My hope is that the characters feel organic to the piece, then, including all of their idiosyncrasies, because they have been created in tandem with every other element, as opposed to in some overly-determined, out-of-scene space.
AK: I’m curious about the choice for this story to revolve around these major injuries and near-deaths. What made you want to write about near-death experiences, and what do you think it is about those experiences that builds walls between the initiated and those who are not?
SB: The essential challenge faced by most of my characters is loneliness. Part of what makes loneliness compelling to me is how ubiquitous it is. We’re just as likely to feel lonely when we’re home alone as when we are out at a bar with our closest friends, on a date, or sitting at a meal with our family. This isn’t to say these experiences are all lonely all the time, but that no facet of life is immune to loneliness. Moreover, the source of one’s loneliness can be obvious or opaque, sometimes both. In this story I wanted to create a separation between the characters that is quite extreme, i.e., near-death experiences, and to explore how the loneliness felt by that sort of overt division relates to the other, more everyday divisions in Gwen’s life.
Regarding the near-death experiences, I liked the idea of someone seeing the “other side” and being terrified by it, because so often the narrative is one of enchantment or peace. Maybe this says something about my feelings toward the afterlife, but I think it is a foundationally overwhelming concept, even beyond the notions of heaven and hell. That’s why the characters’ descriptions of the edge do not read to us as bad in any traditional sense. Instead, they are struggling to find language that articulates something inarticulable. And that’s part of what makes the whole thing so awful, and lonely—this inability to truly convey what one has seen. The irony is that Gwen is suffering from a similar pain insofar as she can’t nail down language for her own life. In my mind, this compounds the sense of alienation she feels. In not having seen the afterlife, Gwen is refused any validation or commiseration for her emotional state.
AK: What do the nuts and bolts of your writing process look like? Do you have any formal process for keeping notes and tracking ideas, and how do you know when an idea is ready to become a story?
SB: For better and worse, I’m incredibly loyal to routine. Depending on my work schedule, I write at the same café, at the same time, three or four days a week. Typically I’ll work for two to three hours. This happens in the morning, with an occasional burst of editing later in the afternoon. I’ve accepted that I’m a slow writer, and that a good day often yields less than a page, with the occasional anomaly (joyous every time) when I’m able to produce more. Part of this slowness has to do with my inability to not edit the few pages prior to wherever I am. Some people push against this approach, but it’s how I get back into the present scene, and also tends to make for tighter drafts.
I’ve always wished I were someone who wrote by hand, but my handwriting is so ugly that I would never be able to stand it, so a laptop it is. I keep a note in my phone with ideas for stories, and another note that’s specifically for my novel, but both lists are quite short at the moment. Similar to my approach to character, I’ve learned that the fastest way for me to steal the wind from a project’s sails is to outline exactly where it’s headed. I typically have four or five plot points that I expect to occur, and I’ll use those as guides, but most often I’m trying to build the story in the most organic way possible. Sometimes this works, other times it fails.
I wish I had a clear way of knowing when an idea can become a story! When I’m writing short stories, I typically have five or six false starts before landing on an idea that sticks. The measure, maybe, is when the narrative begins to unfold without so much tugging on my end.
AK: I believe I’ve seen on social media that you have recently completed a novel, and I know that you have had a number of other publications over the past few months. Is there anything else that you’re especially excited to be working on at the moment? And, perhaps unrelatedly, who and what are you reading when you aren’t working on that?
SB: Right now I’m working on my second novel titled The Disappointment. I don’t have a great logline, but have been messily describing it as a combination of Shirley Jackson and Garth Greenwell. In the broadest strokes, it is about a couple who go on a doom-fated vacation while trying to escape their respective grief states. I’m trying to strike an even balance between literary realism and absurdism, not dissimilar to “Kingdom.” Some of the topics I’m exploring are ambition, failure, art, loyalty, and conflicting types of loss. But it’s also funny. (I think.)
This year I’m trying to read more nonfiction, because I’m very biased toward fiction and poetry. I began 2022 with Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, a brilliant and epic history of ACT UP New York, and recently read and enjoyed One Friday in April by Donald Antrim. In my bag currently is Claire-Louise Bennett’s forthcoming novel, Checkout 19, which has been mind-bogglingly good so far. And here are a few more books I’ve admired recently, some of which are forthcoming this year: Trust by Hernan Diaz, Revenge of the Scapegoat by Caren Beilin, The White Dress by Nathalie Léger, Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong, Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah, and Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? by Jesse McCarthy.
Andrew Kane, a longtime fiction reader for NER, has work published or forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol online, The MacGuffin, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. A former senior writer for NPR’s Ask Me Another, he is currently earning his MSW at New York University.