Voices in your head
A conversation with writer Brandon Hobson
I first met Brandon Hobson in 2012, when we shared an office as graduate creative writing students at OSU. I was a wet-behind-my-ears first-year Master of Fine Arts student and Brandon was finishing his doctorate. Since then, he’s published two critically acclaimed novels: “Deep Ellum” (Calamari Press, 2013) and “Desolation of Avenues Untold” (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), with a third, “Where the Dead Sit Talking,” released by Soho Press on February 20.
Hobson’s new novel, narrated by fifteen-year-old Sequoyah, is a strange and powerful Native American bildungsroman. The novel tells the story of what happens after Sequoyah’s mother is jailed, and he is taken to a foster home in which the foster parents’ motivation for fostering is, well, slightly less than altruistic. Set in the fictional Oklahoma town of Little Crow, a place described by one character as a town where “everyone would rather be dead,” this novel breathes with a dark, pulsing life of its own.
Hobson, who currently lives in Ponca City, will be reading from his new novel at Magic City Books on February 21 at 7 p.m.
Nathan Knapp: You have a family, a full-time teaching job, and you write. How do you get anything done? Any pointers?
Brandon Hobson: Well, I mean, it’s cliché, but it all comes down to time management. Everybody has 24 hours in a day, and we choose what we can do with those twenty-four hours. What that means is that I don’t watch a lot of TV; I don’t have any kind of priorities for movie-watching, although I do watch the Thunder every chance I can. And occasional Oklahoma State basketball. But other than sports, I rarely watch television. I teach in the morning, leave in the afternoon, and then I go home, spend time with my family, and reserve the later hours. Usually I do a lot of my writing as a project in the evening—usually stay up late. Managing time is really not that bad. I have a great wife who allows me to do this stuff, gives me what I need: private time to go to the library or to work. She’s great about giving me that time.
Knapp: How is “Where the Dead Sit Talking” different from your previous books—or what’s particularly exciting about this one for you?
Hobson: This one for me is exciting because it’s an Oklahoma book, first of all, and I’m an Oklahoman. It also comes from the voice of a strong youthful narrator—technically a man looking back at his youth. But we’re getting this period of time while he was living in foster care, and so I’m able to write a little bit about—I’m Cherokee—I was able to write a little bit about Cherokee traditions and culture, which I hadn’t written about before.
Knapp: What’s the hardest thing for you, in terms of writing a novel, or the thing that you least enjoy? And what’s the thing that you enjoy the most?
Hobson: I really like drafting. Banging it out.
Knapp: The first draft?
Hobson: Yeah, I like that a lot. I don’t like any kind of ideas or expectations that creep their way into my head that become very self-reflective—as in, “Is this something that people would fine too offensive?” The whole process of what David Foster Wallace called the “fun” nature of writing, just having fun with it. That happens in that early drafting stage. But you can drive yourself completely crazy if you start worrying about what other people [will] think when they read it.
Knapp: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Getting all those voices out of your head is important, I think.
Hobson: It’s pretty much you and your head for long periods of time. It’s a really strange lifestyle. In a way, it’s like—I went and had drinks with [author] Ottessa Moshfegh when she came to Wichita. Afterwards she and I and the owner of the bookstore ate dinner and had drinks. One of the things she was saying was that it’s like acting. Which I’d have to agree with, because you’re getting inside the character’s head and then having to stay there. What would this person say? What would this person do? Walking around, you might still be inside the person’s head, even if you’re not at the machine writing. You’re still in their head. So, walking around the house or something, you might be still working through things. Let’s be honest: That’s very weird. It must be a lot like acting. But I don’t know, I haven’t acted since elementary school plays.
Knapp: Do you have a sense of what you want to have accomplished by the time you’re done—by the time you’re, say, seventy-five—as a writer?
Hobson: I don’t know. We know people who are dying—you get to know more people who are dying or who get sick with cancer or some kind of kidney disease. Not to sound super depressing, but a lot of times I just think, “Fuck, I’m glad to be alive.” I also try not to focus too much on ego. And that’s weird, because we want to publish, as writers, which is a kind of look-at-me [impulse]. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a healthy way of living, always worrying about how other people perceive your work or perceive you.
Knapp: And that goes back to what you were saying about other voices getting in your head while you’re trying to work.
Hobson: Right. Our president, his egomania—you know what I mean—to me, that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to be full of ego. I don’t think it’s healthy. But, at the same time, when we’re writing, we’re always looking—we want our name out there. Again, it’s really strange, what we’re doing. Maybe musicians have the same sort of things. There are a lot of indie bands out there who are maybe doing the same thing: worrying, “Well, we want to get our band out there.” I don’t know; that doesn’t make any sense.
Knapp: It makes sense to me. It’s the same, whether you’re a writer writing for an independent press or even a major press, as what happens to an indie band—the really quality ones have an essence of not giving a fuck about how they’re perceived.
Hobson: Musicians, writers, actors, painters, anybody really involved in wanting to create art—what we’re really interested in is creating art. To get back to your original question: I just want to create. To do the best work I can, whether that continues to be stories, novels. Right now I see myself continuing to write; I just don’t see that as something I’ll ever quit because I love it so much. It’s not something I’ll ever stop doing. I’ll always be working on something, while I’m mentally and physically able to.
Knapp: One of the great things about it is you don’t have to retire.
Hobson: Exactly. The key is to stop putting the pressure on yourself and start letting yourself do it.
Brandon Hobson at Booksmart Tulsa
Friday, Feb. 23 | 7:00 p.m.
Magic City Books, 221 E. Archer St.