Q&A: Novelist Bryan Charles

Bryan Charles is relatively new to Knoxville, but he’s not new to writing. His first novel, Grab on to Me Tightly as If I Knew the Way, came out in 2006, and his monograph on Pavement’s album Wowee Zowee for the 33 1/3 series, which the Portland Mercury called “one of the best pieces of rock journalism in recent memory,” was released in early 2010. Later that year, Open City put out Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, an unsentimental account of trying to make it as a writer in New York at the turn of the century. Charles describes his triumphs and failures, heroic actions and shoddy behavior in spare, unflinching prose, and it makes for an addictive, unsettling read. He’ll be reading from the book at the monthly meeting of the Knoxville Writers’ Guild, so we sat down in his kitchen to chat about the book.

So you moved here last year from New York. How’s the adjustment to Knoxville going?

I like Knoxville. It feels very livable to me. I was very stressed out in New York by the end.

Your memoir tells the story of you first moving to New York and trying to make it in the big city. It’s kind of like a traditional coming-of-age memoir, except then 9/11 happens.

Yeah. I guess I should say first that I started to write the book as a novel, and I worked on it for three years and basically wrote a full draft of a novel. It wasn’t very good in the end. ... And so just one day in a fit of—not quite despair, but something similar, I started writing the very first moment I arrived in New York, to see what that was like and how it felt. And then I thought, “Oh, maybe this could be an interesting story.” I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t have any idea how to do it, I was coming from Michigan, which I felt very insecure about, even though I had a couple of friends who were living in New York and getting by somehow—in a way, now, looking back, it seems foolish that I did that, just because I was so ill-prepared. I didn’t have very much money with me—some paltry sum that evaporated instantly.

There’s a scene in your book in which a friend just casually mentions that he’s getting published in The Paris Review, like it’s no big deal, and you’re kind of devastated by that.

I’m still embarrassed by that. That was not my best moment. But there was something about the casualness of the revelation that was more devastating than it might have been otherwise to me. I was so hyper all the time, especially then, when he told me that, because I had been trying to get these stories published and it wasn’t going very well. And at the time it seemed like so long, it seemed like a lifetime, it seemed forever. But looking back, of course, now that all these years have passed, I see that it was really not very long at all, like two or three years. But still, two or three years of steady rejection is two or three years of steady rejection.

It’s impossible to scrape by as a writer in New York City, even if you had been getting published in literary journals, so you take a job as a professional writer of financial marketing materials, and you end up in the World Trade Center when it is hit by a plane on Sept. 11.

Right, right.

Your writing about that is very effective, and I found myself wondering, “Is he going to make it out alive?”

Summer 2001 was kind of a grim time. The allure of it had worn off. I was making money, but it seemed kind of hollow to me at that point. ... So that whole summer was really a strange time already for me—it was not nearly as strange as it got afterwards, but I was already in a weird place. ... Before 9/11 I thought, “I guess I’ll just always have this job. I’ll just have this job, and I’ll try to figure out how to make it work. I want to quit, but probably I won’t ever have the courage to.” But once 9/11 happened, it altered my perspective. It made me want to write a novel now. I thought, “I’m going to die tomorrow. The whole world is going to explode tomorrow.” I just had this sense of impending doom.

And you wrote a novel.

Yeah. I started to write a novel and I worked on it for three or four years, and much to my shock almost, it got published. ... Even though I had been thinking about it for so long and for so many years, when it finally happened, I thought, “This has really gone beyond [my wildest fantasies].” But that doesn’t last either. ... Because for so long I thought, “Just let me publish this novel and then I’ll be happy and that’s all I want, that’s all I need.” And of course that’s not the case. ... It’s good to talk about this and remember these things. That was an exciting moment, but it’s hard to hold onto those, you know what I’m saying? Something good happens, but then a month later you have to write a check to ConEd or something, and everything seems futile again.

So what are you working on now?

A novel. ... I can’t say anything about it really. It will jinx it. But Knoxville seems very amenable to writing for me.

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