Donald Breckenridge has a story to tell you: He’s a failed-actor-turned-fiction-writer, playwright, literary activist/editor, and wine-seller who’s carving out a life for himself in New York City. Though I’ve never met Donald Breckenridge in the flesh, he’s the guy I’d like to meet for a beer. After reading his brand new novel, This Young Girl Passing (imminent from Autonomedia—see the Publishers Weekly review here; read an excerpt on NC here), it was clear to me that Breckenridge has a self-consciously intentional approach to crafting fiction, and this interview/conversation reiterates the thoughtfulness behind his work. If you haven’t met Donald Breckenridge already, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to him and his work in some small way.
Donald Breckenridge is the author of more than a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein (Red dust, 1998) and the novels 6/2/95 and You Are Here (Starcherone Books, 2009). In addition, he is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of the InTranslation website and editor of the The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (Hanging Loose Press, 2006). He is working on his fourth novel.
Here is what NC Editor Douglas Glover wrote about This Young Girl Passing:
This Young Girl Passing is a deceptively short, dense, ferociously poignant novel of sexual betrayal and despair set in impoverished upstate New York, a Raymond Carver-ish milieu of never-weres and left-behinds. Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. The novel’s triumph though is in its architecture, its skillfully fractured chronology and the deft back and forth between the two main plot lines, two desperate, sad affairs twenty years apart and the hollow echoes in the blast zone of life around them.
Our Endless Past: An Interview with Donald Breckenridge
By Mary Stein
MCS: Why don’t we start off with a little personal backstory: from thought to fruition, could you describe the gestation period of writing This Young Girl Passing? How did it compare with some of your other works?
DB: I discovered the article that this book is based on in March of ’00. It was a Saturday and I was waiting on the downtown platform at the 77st 6 train station. It was early afternoon and I was going home from my part-time wine shop job in Yorkville. I didn’t have a novel with me and there was a day-old copy of the Times on the bench. I was skimming through the NY section and I was taken immediately. The actual article is only four brief paragraphs but I knew right away that I wanted to write about it.
At the time I was writing my first novel, 6/2/95, which was a year away from being finished, so I cut out the article and put it in a drawer. I thought at the time I would turn it into a play but that didn’t happen for a host of reasons. After finishing, 6/2/95, I took a few months, March of ’01 till July of ’01, approximately, to work myself into an place that I thought would be a good beginning. I really wanted to write a book about child abuse that wasn’t autobiographical, so that’s where I began with Sarah, from her reaction to a shitty home life which is my how and why she became involved with Bill. I have never been even remotely interested in telling the real story of the actual participants in the article, that is absolutely none of my business, the truth really only belongs to the people involved. The article in the Times was simply a sketch and I let my imagination roll out from that point of departure. I began writing the first chapter that August, while my now wife, Johannah Rodgers, and I were staying in Door County, Wisconsin. We were there for 7 weeks and I’d wake up early every morning and work on this conversation that Sarah was having with Robert in the woods and in his father’s car.
All of my books begin in dialog, with a simple conversation between two people, and once that is recorded all the other information, vital or otherwise, is piled on top of that dialog. The novels all begin with dialog and all of them incorporate found news items. The gestation here was very deliberate, in that I wasn’t telling a story that was autobiographical, so I was separating myself from the story while at the same time grounding what was to become Sarah in this wounded and romantic landscape.
MCS: It doesn’t surprise me that you considered making the story into a play. In the novel, dialogue and physical descriptions (which read like stage directions at times) are braided together to create the sentence-level foundation of the novel’s structure. How do you feel your background as a playwright influenced this novel’s form?
DB: I’m a failed actor, I came to NYC in ’89 to study acting and was thrown out of school after the first semester, however I did meet quite a few truly talented actors in school and a year or so later I founded a theater company with a handful of them, The Open Window Theater, and at first we worked out of a storefront Co-op art gallery, Brand Name Damages, in South Williamsburg where I wrote and mounted my first plays, later we moved to a converted paint factory beneath the Williamsburg Bridge where we continued putting on plays, hosting readings and bands, there was a gallery upstairs as well where local artists would show—Williamsburg was a very different place then. After doing that for a few years I left the company and slowly, really glacially, I began attempting to write fiction, because it became prohibitively expensive for me to mount my plays and I had lost my cast. My earliest attempts were published as the novella, Rockaway Wherein (Red Dust 98) but to answer your question, I’ve always tried to capture the immediacy of watching a performance on the page. That immediacy where the reader is in the moment with the present, as if the reader was watching the characters performing on stage. For an actor all his lines in a script contain cues—when A is to stand up while speaking and how A is to then cross the room with a sullen expression while proclaiming his love for B who is sitting in a chair by the window overlooking the crowded street and is secretly waiting for her lover to emerge from the subway entrance at the end of the block—the actors playing A and B need to internalize all of their objectives and to thoroughly understand what their character’s psychological motives are beneath the lines, what the real motivations are, what moves them across the room and has them proclaiming and or hiding their love. This is of course a very simple example of what Method Acting is, and by making the psychological motives visible in the dialog, and by laying out the surroundings in the dialog as well—which is obviously equally important—I think I’ve brought a heightened present, or at least more urgency, to the page..
MCS: You accomplish a lot with such economical prose. The point of view is prismatic in the sense that the reader is made to understand the motivations and desires of multiple characters—oftentimes simultaneously. It seems that most writers find it challenging enough to convey the motivations of even just one character without compromising the complexity of another. How did you manage this?
DB: I try to be thorough and I’ve learned to be very careful, and although it has taken a long time, I’ve finally learned how to write slowly and for myself. That was my take-away from This Young Girl Passing; you have absolutely no reason to rush writing, ideally the work will last much longer than the time it took to create, so why rush? The hordes aren’t clamoring at my door. This book took forever and way too many drafts before it became an actual book, and although at times the wait and the rejections were incredibly frustrating—in the end I’m really grateful for the struggle, as clichéd as that sounds. I spend a long time on a single page, they often take weeks to write, and then I’ll go back a few dozen times and spend twice as much time as I really should compressing text and then reintroducing the lines. Also, I tend to get bored with all the tedium that is involved with writing everyday so I’ll introduce new narrative threads within the existing lines, this resuscitates the everyday exploration of what writing a novel should be and enables me to create that prismatic point of view that you mentioned. I’ll then build out of the gaps once I remove the obvious lines and attempt to formulate a stronger foundation for the characters in the scene once the redundant has been purged and purged again.
MCS: Your approach to time and historical context is met with a similar sense of refinement and narrative necessity. One of the defining characteristics of This Young Girl Passing is its back-and-forth movement between a post-Vietnam 1970’s and the late 90‘s (and your earlier novel, You Are Here, also moves through time within the 9/11 era). Yet it manages to avoid the entrapments of sensationalism that threaten to derail narrative. How did you inhabit both these eras in This Young Girl Passing?
DB: When writing out the dialog for chapters I always reach a point when I need to consult the newspaper and check the weather; so I get the light right, so the moon is full or gone on the right night, to make sure it actually snowed enough to be a nuisance, and knowing what the weather was like also helps me dress the characters. I’ll go to the library and check the weather for the day before the chapter, the day of the chapter and the day after, just to be sure. At times the headlines from those dates leak in as well and that helps inform the characters dialog—sometimes it’s necessary but I’m really careful with how I use it—and it also provides the reader with a skeletal time line. However, the people I write about aren’t on the cusp of breaking news, ever, with the exception of Stefanie in You Are Here, who is last seen entering the WTC on the morning of 9/11, my characters are all very marginal and quite content to be so, they might talk about current events but only in passing—like Bill and Sarah in the hotel room talking about Hale Bopp and Heaven’s Gate—headlines are always on the peripheral.
I’m very much into the music and culture of the 70’s, so for me, who was a teenager in the 80’s that decade represents an almost mythical time in America, and my father served in Vietnam so that war was and still is a very real part of my personal history.
MCS: I spied on your Goodreads account, and when it comes to reading, you certainly don’t mire yourself in one literary tradition. You’re the fiction editor of Brooklyn Rail and the co-editor of its InTranslation publication which gives exposure to English translations of new international voices that might otherwise go unrecognized. How does your involvement with Brooklyn Rail impact your writing?
DB: I’ve always been a ferocious reader since I was very young, and one of the happiest times in my life was when I read a novel a day for a 9-month period of deliberate and blissful unemployment during my mid-twenties. That was just before I began my attempts at fiction. What I’ve found with writing novels is that I cannot read them as avidly as I once did. What the Rail has allowed me to do is to ingest lots of current writing and to support it in a very public way. The work I do on behalf of the Rail and InTranslation doesn’t pay but I see it as a form of literary activism, which is a very nice way to go about doing something that you love. My work as an editor takes considerable time away from my own writing, obviously, which is at times problematic because I need to work harder at making money in order to survive in NYC, which also takes time away from my own writing, but my work as an editor has given me a greater perspective as to where my writing may or may not fit in this current publishing climate and it has enabled me work with some truly dynamic authors and publishers whom I might never have been in contact with if I’d simply stayed at my desk and toiled away in solitude.
MCS: How do you manage to survive as a writer and literary activist in NYC? What does a “typical day” look like for you (if there is such a thing)?
DB: No, no such thing as a typical day. If I can get 5 hours in a day on the novel, I know I’ll be able to face the rest of the day, and that no matter what happens it will be a good day. And if I can stay at home and write all day then it has been a fantastic day. I’ll wake up at 5 or 6 and write till 11 or noon and then get started on money work—I sell wine for a small yet prestigious wine importer. The reading and editing I do for the Rail and InTranslation takes place in the late afternoon and into the evening.
MCS: Going back to your voracious reading habits—which writer(s) do you feel have most impacted your craft and/or your approach to writing? Who are you reading now?
DB: The two most important authors would be the French novelists Claude Simon and Emmanuel Bove. Simon for the multiple layers and textures he brings to the page that make reading his novels (Histoire, The Flanders Road, Conducting Bodies) a nearly visceral, always urgent and wonderfully lucid experience. And Bove (My Friends, A Winter’s Journal, A Man Who Knows) for his precision, emotional honesty and pristine imagery. Also the Japanese novelists Kawabata and Soseki. And the German author, Arno Schmidt who is a tremendous writer, everyone on the planet should read Schmidt! Dalkey Archive just released a really handsome four volume set of collected works that John E Woods has translated over the years, and if you are unfamiliar with Schmidt’s work, Nobodaddy’s Children, which collects three of his early novels is an ideal place to start. And also the Brooklyn-born, Gilbert Sorrentino who is by far my favorite American author. I recently read and really enjoyed Chris Turner’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows that is a truly outstanding book and out from Seagull this month. I am currently reading Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves that Melville House published last year, also, Ahmet Hamid Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, one of the most elegant books that I’ve read in years, Archipelago published that a few years ago and I’m eyeing Ursula Meany Scott’s translation of Wert and the Life Without End by Claude Ollier which was just published by Dalkey Archive.
MCS: Earlier you mentioned thwarting the tedium of writing everyday by introducing narrative threads. Friday, December 19, 1997, is a distinct passage because of its absence of dialogue. Each sentence swivels back and forth between POV to capture the (almost) simultaneous but separate experiences of Mary and Bill. Yet, the reader is rooted in the text largely due to the very idea of “pristine imagery” you just mentioned, and the movement between scenes sustains the momentum of dialogue. While crafting This Young Girl Passing, did you consciously engage with an aesthetic that would interrupt the everyday tedium of writing?
DB: The line by line shifts in that chapter, as it finally exists are so different from a few drafts ago. Initially they had been alternating 4 to 6 sentence long scene blocks containing dramatic dialog that I stripped down in a few drafts. It was this half-formed, cathartic nonsense that I somehow felt obligated to write into the book—it was really terrible, like I was trying to wreck the novel. It works for me now because I dumped all of the false notes, everything shrill and moralistic, and all of that sentimental shit. Creating collages out of my imagery (I hesitate to call it pristine, although I try—perhaps too hard at times) on the page keeps the momentum going and at times it can suspend or stall a reader’s sense of disbelief. I wrote this book to music from the era, watched most of the films advertised in the newspapers from the days the chapters were taken while writing those chapters, studied the history of the era, so not really, other than editing the fiction in the Rail on a monthly basis, putting together the fiction anthology that Hanging Loose published in ’06 and curating a monthly reading series at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library from ’02-’08, my head was always in this book. That is until I couldn’t find a home for it, almost lost my mind, and then wrote You Are Here . This Young Girl Passing didn’t have a publisher until July of 2007, I was shopping around You Are Here, having just finished that. Both books got picked up that summer, which was a huge relief, because I was really dreading having two unpublished novels.
MCS: People who saw me reading your book in public asked me about its title, and I would respond with an imprudent amount of speculative gibberish. I swore that I would never ask this question for an interview, but I’m compelled to ask for this novel in particular—how did you settle on the title This Young Girl Passing? Would you be willing to share any working titles you rejected?
DB: The title is from the epigraph which is taken from Eugene Ionesco’s Present Past Past Present. Eugene Ionesco is one of my favorite authors. Each one of my novels and the novella, Rockaway Wherein, contains an epigraph from that book. What I tried to say with This Young Girl Passing, ultimately, is that the past we’ve accumulated, and cultivated is the same past we will into our present. We are predetermined to live in a present where the past resonates around us endlessly, and I learned that from reading Eugene Ionesco. The working title for the novel and the title that I shopped around for a few years when this book was a disaster was Arabesques for Sauquoit as I thought that spoke to the way it was written and the location, Sauquoit, where the novel takes place.
MCS: What’s next?
DB: I’m currently working on my fourth novel. I started it in the winter of ’09 and I have about a 100 manuscript pages that might be ok. It’s been slow as You Are Here came out while I was writing it and that was very distracting. My father got really sick in the spring of ’10 and then he died that September which was really brutal as we were very close. Incidentally, he is buried near the farm where he was raised which is in the same county where This Young Girl Passing takes place. Getting this book ready for publication was also incredibly distracting, in a good way, and that kept me away from the new novel, but now, finally, I can begin again in earnest!
— by Mary Stein and Donald Breckenridge
Mary, once again, your questions are equally intriguing as the answers. Bravo!
Great job! Kudos to both DB and MCS for a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a talented fiction-writer, playwright, literary activist/editor, and wine-seller!
Great interview! Thanks, Mary. His process is fascinating.
I enjoyed reading this conversation between Mary and Donald. The response about his personal writing process was inspiring, “you have absolutely no reason to rush writing, ideally the work will last much longer than the time it took to create, so why rush?” A reminder for us all to take the time necessary to write what we envision. Thank you!
Thanks for reading, everyone. I only wish you all had a chance to chat with Donald, too … it was a real pleasure to interview him.
Wendy, I was struck that particular insight as well. I think I need to type it out and tape it above my desk. I also loved his hilarious line following, “The hordes are not clamoring my door.”
Terrific work, Mary, and much thanks to Donald for the interview. The list of authors within the interview is staggering. It felt less like a standard interview and more like a really cool conversation.