Luke Rolfes: Fiction writer James Brubaker’s meditative, immersive, and refreshingly unique second novel, We Are Ghost Lit, just came out from Braddock Avenue Books.  We Are Ghost Lit is part science fiction, part experimental auto-fiction, part exploration of grief. 
Thanks so much, James, for taking some time with us today to talk about this book. I’m curious about the genesis of this project. What inspired you to write this narrative that closely explores autobiographical sections of your life? 

James Brubaker: Hi Luke, thanks for taking the time to ask these questions. The genesis of this project is a bit convoluted, and I’m not sure I can even trace all of it, but I’d been playing with ideas, for a while, of writing myself as a narrator in fiction—I’ve got a couple of stories in collections that do that, and I’ve always been interested in the intersections of pop culture and identity. So there’s this sort of baseline set of ideas I’d been working with. Then, in 2015, one of my oldest, closest friends suddenly died, and for a while, there wasn’t a clear sense of what had happened, and the shocking loss combined with not knowing how or why led to some attempts to write through it. I wrote a few pieces about Pink Floyd albums for Brad Efford’s TheRS500 project, all of which sort of approached the same friend’s death from different angles, and one of those, the piece for Piper at the Gates of Dawn, had this particular rawness to it, and then I started to see ways it might connect to some bits I’d been scrawling in a notebook, frequently in bed after taking Tylenol PM to try to get to sleep, and then I just started pulling ideas together and the book started to take shape, almost as a conversation between the bits I’d written out by hand before, and myself as a curator weighing in on how it all fit (or didn’t fit) together. And so it’s this strange mix of bits and pieces from my friend’s life, and bits of pieces of my own life, and weird things I remember from the past that weren’t related, but seemed to fit, and pop culture, and sci-fi fabulism—it just sorted of emerged as this unwieldy thing I then spent a lot of time trying to wrangle into shape.  Maybe that’s a convoluted answer, but I suppose it was a convoluted process. 

LR: At the heart of the novel is a processing of grief over the loss of your friend. I don’t think of AUTOFICTION as a genre. I think of it more as a style of writing, or maybe even a technique. Do you have a sense why you chose the autofiction route as opposed to memoir? 

JB: Perhaps the last answer speaks to this, but it really did just sort of emerge. I did know, very early on, though, that the story needed to be primarily fiction. I wanted there to be bits of my friend in here, and bits of me, but I also didn’t want this to be a memoir about processing the loss of a close friend, in which I’d feel obligated to be always accurate and truthful. I was more invested in the idea of capturing the feel of our history as friends, the way it felt when I heard he’d died, and how it felt to grieve and work through that loss. I wanted the book to honor my friend and our friendship and the other people who orbited him, but I also didn’t want the people who knew him to read it and be like, “Oh, this book is just about [dead friend’s name].” That’s not to say he’s not in there—attitudes, taste, even a few anecdotes are at least inspired by real things, but ultimately, the dead friend in the book is a character who happens to be inspired by someone I was great friends with, just as the narrator versions of myself are, to varying degrees, not necessarily me. Ultimately, autofiction gave me the freedom to let this book contain elements of real life that helped capture the feelings I wanted to capture, while also giving me the freedom to shape the story and follow themes that emerged throughout the writing process, even if they weren’t necessarily part of “how things actually happened.”

LR: You mention Phil Elvrum, Star Trek, and Borges in this book, so I’m guessing these are inspirations for We Are Ghost Lit. Are there other books, films, songs that you see as integral to your writing of this, or that serve as companion pieces to this novel?  

JB: Oh damn—yes. I actually ended up cutting out a whole running thread that was kind of/sort of just an examination of Twin Peaks, especially season three. I think there’s a lot of that story’s DNA in this, still, and I think I left in a hint of Bowie, but he was a bigger part of the original draft as well (which was convenient, also, since he had a small role in Fire Walk with Me). My playlist for writing most of the novel was a lot of sort of ambient electronic stuff, Oneohtrix Point Never, Boards of Canada, Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, that sort of thing. I was also thinking a lot about Neil Young’s “Ditch” Trilogy (Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and, Tonight’s the Night) through part of the writing and revision as well, because that unreleased Homegrown album, which was recorded during the same era, was released a few years ago. More recently, post-writing, I even see ways that the new Wes Anderson film—Asteroid City—shares some similarities, and hell, even Barbie, which maybe isn’t so surprising because folks are already identifying weird comparisons between Gerwig’s masterpiece and Twin Peaks’ third season. This is a hard question, though, because I am a huge consumer of pop culture and it all sort of gets mixed in with anything I’m writing. I’m sure I could go on, and on here, but I think I’ve hit on most of the bigger influences. 

LR: The star of the show, in my mind, is the man of the stars---a character referred to simply as “the Starman.” The Starman is sort of endearing and beautiful in his innocence, and our understanding of his identity changes as the novel progresses. Where did the idea for this character come from? 

JB: I’m not sure I fully remember. The Starman was something I’m not sure I even remember initially writing. The character had a few scribbled pages in my Tylenol notebook, and when I’d flip through, I almost thought of it as an idea for a chapbook or series of standalone stories or something. But as I started working on the initial draft of the novel, pulling pieces together and seeing where the story might go, I saw an interesting parallel between the friend character and the Starman, and so I started playing with the idea of the Starman being this sort of story outside the story, that might intersect at some point, and then a little later on, it became glaringly obvious to me how the Starman needed to fit into the story. So, I guess it was a bit of a happy accident? Or one of those instances where my writing subconscious had an idea that I wasn’t quite ready to see at the very beginning. 

LR: At one point in the story, the narrator talks about your friend possibly being “catfished” by a woman named Portia, who, at one point, fakes her own death. Thinking back on this section now, I can see how the Portia thread serves as a test-case for what you are trying to discover, and how the ideas of relationship, love, and even death can be rewound and revised.   Can you talk a little about the Portia section in this book and how it shaped the future sections? 

JB: I don’t want to say too much about this, because it’s one of the things that has a kernel of truth to it, but I think it became its own thing in the novel, both in terms of how it’s presented, but also how it works in the friend character’s life. That’s why I wanted the novel to be fiction, ultimately—this is a great example of a thing rooted in the real but then took on a life of its own in the novel. Perhaps surprisingly, since this bit was rooted in real life, writing this section really helped me break out from just writing my friend and identifying some thematic and plot ideas to follow as the rest of the book evolved. 

LR: You have a bunch of narrators in here. One of which tells the story of the Starman and the Universe in the form of notes. One of which tells the story of your friend’s mysterious death. One of which comments on the novel itself. And then, toward the end, a new narrator emerges---one that is supposed to represent THE REAL James Brubaker. What inspired you to write the story this way? Did you have difficulty deciding which narrator to take the lead in certain moments of the novel, or did that come naturally?
JB: I think this sort of came naturally? Once I fell into the rhythm of the book, it emerged as a conversation between the narrators. The Starman bits were a bit finnicky to place, and even then, a few were rearranged very late in the process. That last narrator, though, was maybe the last thing the novel needed, and didn’t emerge until late, maybe draft 7 or 8 because the book’s ending felt very flat to me for a while, because it was just these narrators, telling these stories through layers of artifice, and so I started playing with the idea of the novel’s form sort of collapsing, leaving this singular more authentic voice in the rubble writing the hurt as plainly as the novel could handle without completely breaking the whole thing. And that last narrator is the closest the book comes to straight up memoir, though it still doesn’t quite get there. 

LR: As a follow up, was one of the narrators easier to write than the others? 

JB: The second person voice, writing about the friend’s death. Even though a lot of the details in there are made up, the feeling there is pretty raw and real, and a lot of that material just sort of spilled out and needed to be cleaned up later. The more critical narrator, though, that was hard to write at times, and then still was tightened up a ton. I had all sort of tangents in those sections that were cut over various drafts. 

LR: Along with competing narrators, there are other aspects of this book that stretch the imagination. At one point in the novel, the entire universe implodes or turns itself inside-out and becomes a “pocket universe.” As well, the Starman can step outside of linear time and consciousness and see the broad spectrum of time and space and information. These things are incredibly hard to wrap one’s brain around, yet you described them in a way that made it easy for the reader to understand. How do you go about tackling the indescribable? 

JB: Thank you! I always stress over that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time on that, trying to find the balance between under and over explaining. Years and years ago I read some of those popular audience physics books, like, Brian Greene books, that kind of thing. And then I’ve always loved Star Trek and some other pop sci-fi shows that go out of their way to explain their concepts, no matter how unrealistic they are, in a way that makes sense. So I guess I internalized those sorts of texts, but also, it’s fun coming up with metaphors and poetic imagery to describe these sci-fi concepts. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to writing.
LR: There are times when the narrators describe the telling of this tale as explicitly painful. I’m thinking of the section that imagines your friend’s continued life where he grows older, marries, and raises a child. I’ve talked to a lot of writers about the idea of writing as a way of “letting stories out of our brains and into the universe”---something we, as people, intrinsically want to do. Whether its catharsis or purging or simply wanting the story to be known, I’m not sure. Does it make us feel better? People usually respond with: “Sort of.” “Kind of but not really.” “Yes and no.” “Maybe?” Do you have thoughts on writing as a means to processing grief/trauma/etc.? 

JB: I’m not sure I do, really. It’s something I was maybe always skeptical of, and then I did it, and I see how it was helpful, but also how it wasn’t. I wonder if that initial pain of loss lingered stronger than it would have had I not written this book. I was picking the scab off most days for over a year while I was drafting, and then longer with rewriting, etc… So I guess my thought here is that I’m glad I wrote it, but it was hard, and I’m not sure I’d recommend writing through that grief for everyone without a ton of caveats about how it might feel, and how hard it might be some days to sit down to work on a project because of how it feels. That said, I suppose plenty of non-grief related writing projects might work the same way. 

LR: This might be a silly question. We Are Ghost Lit seems quite different from the other books that I’ve read of yours, and I’m wondering how writing this book changed your perspective as a writer. Did writing this novel evolve your writing in some way you didn’t expect? 

JB: I think for a minute after I was finished the novel made me question whether writing was worthwhile for me anymore. The book almost ends with a sense that the last narrator is almost writing into the void and the last sentences just trails off, and I thought to myself that maybe that was me not thinking I really had important things to say or write. It was as if I’d sort of smashed parts of my own ego writing this book (that’s probably a very crude metaphor for anyone in the psych world, apologies). But I was writing this story that was very personal, and very important to me, and I found myself questioning a lot why anyone cares what I have to say. And, when we get down to it, probably not a lot of people do. We’re all writing for fewer and fewer readers, so what’s the point? I’m not special. I’m just a dude who likes to write, so why bother? But as time has passed, I’ve moved from that feeling like “what’s the point,” to almost feeling a burden lifted. I’m just a dude who wants to write, so that’s what I’m going to do. I guess maybe I’ve been through that cycle a few times, but the stakes felt higher this time because this book came straight out of my guts in a way the others didn’t quite do as fully. 

LR: What’s next for you and your work? More novels? Back to stories?  

JB: I keep saying stories, and I’ve started some stories, but I also wrote a quarter of a novel I like, but I’m not sure what to do with, and I’ve been kicking the tires on a new novel idea I’m very excited about, and I’m doing some reading and watching some films to help develop the ideas, and I think that might be the next thing, but I’m going to try to finish a few stories first, because I miss writing short stories, my brain has just been working more in novels lately. We’ll see. If all goes well, I’d love to finish 4-6 stories while I’m thinking through this new novel idea, then dive into that.   

LR: Thanks so much, James, for taking the time! 

JB: Thanks so much to you as well!
Bio: James Brubaker is from Dayton, Ohio, originally, but now teaches and lives in Missouri. He is the author of We are Ghost Lit (Braddock Avenue Books), Liner Notes (Subito Press), Pilot Season (Sunnyoutside Press), Black Magic Death Sphere: (Science) Fictions (Urban Farmhouse), The Taxidermist’s Catalog (Braddock Avenue Books), and a number of short stories that have appeared online and in print. James is also the director of Southeast Missouri State University Press and the editor of Big Muddy. Before that, he was a founding and associate editor of The Collapsar (2013-2017), and served as music section editor of The Fiddleback for that journal’s entire run (2010-2013).

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