"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

An Interview with Brontez Purnell, author of Since I Laid My Burden Down, our September Pick for Soup of the Month!

Dan Lรณpez: Since I Laid My Burden Down deals with some pretty serious issues but the tone remains light throughout. How do you find the humor, and how important was it to cultivate that voice?

Brontez Purnell: I think all comedy is based in tragedy – the two are forever linked. It can be a sugar pill for things too, which I have varying degrees of uncomfortableness with. I think it’s a learned behavior too, from my family and the circle of friends I ran with since I was young. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and the absurd mess of the human condition. Otherwise I don’t know how to present a real 3D picture of the world. I think it sucks too how a lot of tight asses in the world don’t view comedy with intellectual rigor. I find that view rigid and unforgiving and also just fucking lame.

DL: Something that really strikes me about your writing is its capacity for forgiveness. Your characters have suffered and in many cases continue to suffer, yet you find a way for them to shed their victimhood and move forward. Is this something that you wanted to highlight or did it come out naturally in the writing? 

BP: Both. When we forgive I think it’s not so much to absolve others. Forgiveness is also this spell that gives one the courage to move forward. It’s a way of throwing away a lot of baggage.

DL: You’ve spoken about how you wrote your first book (Johnny Would You Love Me If MyDick Were Bigger) in spurts of time and how for Burden you took advantage of a grant. How did the different processes affect the final product?

BP: I think Johnny has a frantic, funny, “I just got off of work at 5am” mania that I think added to the urgency of that book. Burden is a more collected type of frantic. They both I think carry an appropriate tone for what they are. 

DL: You write that DeShawn was a man “that liked things feeling ‘equal,’ things coming full circle.” Can you talk a little bit more about that idea?

BP: I like the idea of symmetry – like something revisited that’s finally dealt with and put into its proper place. The whole theme of the book is reconciling so it’s important to me that all issues are dealt with and not like some forever-spiraling narrative like fucking Game of Thrones with 90 plot twists every 9 seconds that go nowhere. That shit bugs the fuck outta me.

DL: At your book party the other night, you joked that you sometimes like to start drama with your loved ones just for fun. I’m curious about how you see the utility of provocation in literature and in a public persona. What do you gain and what are the risks? 

BP: The main risk is being labeled a drama queen but we already knew that! I don't know – I have lots of friends and lots of friends where the emotional pitch is static, but I guess I’m just a fucked up person cause sometimes I enjoy connections with a high emotional pitch. Probs residue from growing up in a super big messy family. I dunno...

DL: In many ways, the book centers on the theme of men withholding their love from DeShawn. He wonders what he would’ve gained had these men instead taken the opportunity to love him. Can that question ever be resolved for DeShawn? 

BP: I think ultimately a character like DeShawn has to realize that these shitty men not loving him back was a blessing in disguise. He’s the type of guy who is looking for his inner boyfriend and sometimes the type of men we pick is a metaphor for how we feel about ourselves. Or sometimes you can have all the self love in the world, and the universe (seemingly just to fuck with you) will deliver you one fuck boy after another – I’ve been on all sides of this situation.

DL: You’re known as a bit of a creative Renaissance Man. How has simultaneously pursuing multiple projects informed your creative process? 

BP: It adds a kind of complexity that can’t be found sitting in a room doing one thing alone. Like dance as a body based practice teaches you how to emote/express without using words, which can give you a whole analytical arsenal in turn – it’s funny how it works.

DL: Do you find that some forms are better suited for certain types of expression? For instance, your books are super funny but, while still fun, I wouldn’t describe your music as “funny.”

BP: In music I get to be a truly cheesy poet that I sometimes need the license to be! With book writing, you have to explain yourself more cause it’s not like this 3 min format where you have to get all the plot points in such a limited space.

DL: What’s one thing that you’d like to see more of in contemporary novels?


DL: And finally, let’s play bookseller. What are three titles that you’d shit yourself to hand-sell to people?





Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Our September Soup of the Month is Since I Laid My Burden Down by Brontez Purnell

Brontez Purnell is something of a secret for now, but not one you're likely to keep. Seriously, ask your artist friends. They probably know about him already. They may have even attended a show by his queer punk rock band, or a performance art piece.  They're possibly among the first to know the pleasure of his novel  Since I Laid My Burden Down, or its predecessor Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger?  - Two novels that are not for the faint of heart, and too queer, too black, too frank about sex and sexuality for most publishers. So thank you to Feminist Press for making sure this voice doesn't get lost although Purnell strikes me as someone who is unbothered by such things and would write anyway, if ten people, or ten thousand read his words. That's where booksellers come in, and trust us on this one - you should read this novel!
Purnell's protagonist DeShawn is wickedly funny, unflinching, and honest, in that way that only people who have nothing else to lose can be. Having grown up in a small town, he kicked and scratched and crawled over the bodies of others to get out, making it all the way to a new life in San Francisco. It's that call home for a death in the family that reminds him and by extension, us, that we'll always be that kid from Alabama, Kansas, etc, and that while we can reinvent ourselves any number of ways, somebody, somewhere - maybe an aunt or a secret lover, will always know the truth.
This novel is truly a discovery and possibly outside of your own reading comfort zone, but in a volatile year like this one, perhaps it should be.

- Dan Graham, Assistant Promotional Director

Monday, August 7, 2017

An Interview with Author Samantha Irby

It's a funny thing: setting up a phone interview with a writer whose book proclaims clearly, on page 266, "I don't wanna talk on the phone". The first thing I said to Samantha Irby - after how much I love her work and how excited I was to speak with her - was, "do you wanna bail and do this by email?"

A couple of emails and one broken – then fixed – computer later, the hilarious and very brave author of We Are NeverMeeting in Real Life shares her thoughts on memory, honesty, and the importance of keeping your day job:

Nadine Vassallo: Where are you right now? Describe your surroundings.
Samantha Irby: I am in my bedroom in Kalamazoo, MI. In bed, with a brand new, freshly washed duvet, which is really my kind of party. My still-packed suitcase is at the foot of the bed because I just got back from a week working in LA, but I hate unpacking so it's just sitting there mocking me. On the dresser across from me there are TWO STACKS of books that every day I promise myself I'm finally going to read (Gork, the Teenage Dragon and MeddlingKids by Edgar Cantero are at the top of the list) but then night falls and I'm watching TV and I don't want to stop so I think "oh I can just read those tomorrow." Lather rinse repeat. One of the cats is walking around looking for something expensive to chew on and destroy, and I'm listening to a Beach House playlist I made on Spotify.
NV: You write for a wide variety of media: blog, comedy, essays, live storytelling, TV... Are there different things you keep in mind while writing for different audiences and formats?
SI: The only time I really think about the construction of a piece is when it's one I know I'm going to read aloud. Like, super-long sentences will ruin your life onstage. Going on for too long in general will put people off. You gotta know how and when to land the jokes. I write my blog pretty stream-of-consciousness and post it before I spend too much energy agonizing over it. I like to rehearse performance pieces, to edit them for length and clarity, but when writing something I know a person is going to read I just let it flow. TV writing is totally different because it's mostly dialogue, and I still have absolutely zero confidence that I'm doing it well. I guess that remains to be seen!
NV: Your writing is so wonderfully open and honest, and I imagine people tell you that's "brave" a lot (because it is!). Do you think of yourself as brave? Do you get tired of hearing that?
SI: No I think it's great, although I don't feel particularly brave. It's always my hope that this gross oversharing I do is useful to someone else, whether it makes them laugh or think or helps them process something. Brave feels like too much of a word to describe what I do, though. I mostly write about poop.
NV: Are there times you choose to censor yourself or not to be honest with your audience?
SI: I think that I, like most people, have certain scabs that just aren't ready to be picked. Maybe I'll evolve to the point that they feel comfortable to talk about, but for now I only talk about things that don't make me flinch when I hear them repeated back to me.
NV: One of the passages from your book that really stuck in my heart was the part where you write, "I can tell you with near certainty that I was wearing an oatmeal-colored knit turtleneck sweater, but not the ratio of heart attacks to strokes my dad had at the end of his life." (As both a wearer of turtlenecks and someone who's dealt with memory issues surrounding similar experiences, I relate.) How does your memory work? How do you use it in your writing? What's the most difficult thing about crafting art out of memory?
SI: The most difficult thing is getting the details correct. I vowed to myself that this book was going to be the last time I write about anything that happened in my childhood because I am getting older every day and that makes the memories less and less clear. And despite the fact that no one is around to refute it, I don't want to reconstruct bits of my life that I'm not totally certain about. Embarrassing things really burn themselves into my memory, though. I remember the first day of my freshman year of high school I wore an oversized mustard yellow shirt because some kid said I looked like Fat Charlie Brown and now, in 2017, that's hilarious but in 1994 with hormones and insecurities boiling through my veins I thought I was going to drop dead on the spot and now I will never forget it. Good times are often a blur but the bad ones live on forever, often in intricate detail.
NV: In another interview, you mentioned that you've found your writing "freeing." Do you feel like you've come out the other side, to where that liberation is? Or are you still getting there?
SI: I'm still getting there, I think. I'm too anxious to ever actually be 100% free. But it does make it easier to be a disgusting human garbage can in front of people when I can look at them and say, "I WARNED YOU ABOUT THIS."
NV: In some ways, your POV feels inherently political. Do you see your writing as political?
SI: Not explicitly, because I feel like you have to have a certain level of verifiable smarts to write about politics? And I definitely don't have that. I have opinions, sure, but when they're grounded in "feelings" that I can't use scientific evidence to prove I feel like I gotta shut up and let actual scholars do the heavy lifting. Like, I'm not a person who knows statistics. Or history. So I stay where I'm best acquainted. I am a queer black woman writing about my experiences in the world and I guess that's political but I don't really think about it that way.
NV: This question comes from one of our booksellers: What advice would you give to younger writers, especially someone who struggles to be more open in their own work?
SI: Okay I have two pieces of advice, and please keep in mind that I am an idiot.
1: Have a day job. Like, this is the least romantic thing I could ever say about writing but it's so real. I worked at an animal hospital for 14 years while toiling away on my blog and books at night or on my lunch breaks, and it's 100% worth it because I never had to compromise any of my work so that it would pay me. I didn't have to write clickbaity articles or anything like that because I had a steady source of income that kept my bills paid. There's so much creative freedom when you aren't dependent on your writing for a paycheck. Also it's unrealistic to think that writing alone can keep a roof over your head. Even now I only write because I have a wife who goes to work every day and has insurance. TL;DR: don't ever quit your job.
2: I feel like you can't push yourself to be open about things until you're ready; until you're ready for someone to ask you about that thing your wrote, until you're ready to defend it in front of strangers. I don't write about anything I'd be ashamed or uncomfortable hearing read back to me, and I don't owe anyone access to the things I don't. When you're ready, you'll write about it. And if you're never ready, that's okay, too.

NV: What are you reading right now?
SI: I just, literally just, started reading The Grip of It by Jac Jemc. And I also got Samantha Hunt's new collection of short stories called The Dark Dark. I love creepy shit, especially when women write it. I'm stoked for these two.
NV: Thank you! This has been fantastic. (Also I am obsessed with Samantha Hunt and if you haven't read Mr. Splitfoot, you gotta!)

Nadine Vassallo is the General Manager of Book Soup.

New People by Danzy Senna

Recommended by Afton.

A quick read, but one you'll think about for a long time after you finish it. On the surface, New People is a simple story - a woman in the process of writing her dissertation and getting ready for her wedding becomes infatuated with a poet she barely knows. Under the surface though, this book explores the many layers and nuances of being mixed race 20 years ago.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Our August (Book) Soup of the Month is We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby!

Transparency is rare.
Embarrassment is real.
We are more alike than you think.

These are some of the conclusions I made after reading Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

Families are messy.
Your body may someday betray you.
Just because he's cute doesn't mean he's a catch.

I needed to read this book in order to have these mini-revelations. Irby’s words evoke honesty and introspection in a way only she can: with a massive amount of expletives and definitely too much information (but low key - not so low key - that's why I kept reading). It's extremely refreshing to read a voice that resembles the one in your head. You know what I mean, the one that jumps to conclusions, passes judgments, gets really caught up in the Real Housewives of Atlanta, that voice. Irby shows us exactly who she is, the good, the bad, the extremely uncomfortable.

Parents are human, flawed, and sometimes a burden.
I can be really good at a job I don't like.

This collection of essays was my first introduction to Irby’s personality and style. Her humor is dark and slightly offensive. You will, however, find yourself nodding when she goes on rants about friends who become parents and treat their children like fragile experiments. And being fat and dating the guy from Best Buy. One of my favorite essays “you don't have to be grateful for sex” recounts some of her past hook ups with men who deemed themselves “out of her league" but still did not hesitate to get all up in her pants. Somehow, these so called “attractive guys” believed their mediocre presence was a gift sent from above. As a plus size black girl, not only did I think “same”, but I also thought “please let them know we out here pulling D’Angelo circa How does it feel? type men in these streets! Sure it might be just for a night or a few nights but dammit, we out here!” She lets us into personal moments when she tells us about her relationships with her parents and how she never knows where to place them, even after death. We meet her cat and arch nemesis Helen Keller, the spawn of Satan and destroyer of favorite things. And we follow her as she experiences relationships that inevitably lead her to her wife, the person she chooses to compromise for. 

Truthfully she is all of us. She came from a messy dysfunctional family (same). She has had failed relationships and desperate hook ups (same). She is overweight and deals with health issues that sometimes make sitting down and binging trash TV sound one million times better than anything outdoors (almost same, but same). She has allowed love and relationships to change her routine, but fundamentally not change her (to be determined). And even though we've never met in real life, I feel like I know her.

Review by Tameka Blackshir, Book Soup Bookseller