Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Taking Life to New Heights: An Interview with Will Chancellor, Author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

In the summer twilight there is a moment of perfection. The light becomes copper, unnatural, the air shimmers and a door of possibility opens. These moments, elusive and startling, make a body give pause, reflect and, most unexpectedly, wonder.

If my favorite moment in the span of a summer’s day could be tamed and encapsulated inside of a novel, that novel would be Will Chancellor’s epic debut A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall.

There are myriad layers to A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, but at the outermost is the story of Owen Burrs. Twenty-one, poised for the Olympics and near unstoppable, Owen loses an eye in a water polo match and is forced to reconsider and re-imagine his future. He goes on to do what any intelligent, reasonable, Stanford student would do: cast off his father, run away to Europe, become immersed in the art world, meet people whom he can’t stand to see alive and can’t live without, fall to the depths, rise to the heavens and experience LIFE.

Peel back a layer from this and you get a map of comparative mythology that Joseph Campbell would have liked to get his hands on. Keep going and the quest archetype gives way to the destruction of the concept of art, which gives way to the existence of innocence, which gives way to the winding staircase of falling in love and so on and so on… This is the sort of book that was meant to be examined, analyzed, read and re-read. The sort college professors need to be adding to their reading lists for the fall.

It is also simply the beautiful story of a man in the world. I think there is no shame in reading it at that level as well. However you choose to approach A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, I hope that you do. In the meantime, there’s more. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Will Chancellor a few of the questions that were swimming around in my head while reading my already dog-eared copy of his book. Please enjoy.

Steph Post: You have an extremely unique voice and story, but I’m one of those readers who is always making comparisons. About halfway through A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, I found that your writing style and content, for me at least, reads like the crazy lovechild of Jennifer Egan and Donna Tartt. Would you make comparisons between yourself and other writers? Are there are any authors who had an impact on the writing of this novel?

Will Chancellor: Seems like you've already peeked at my family tree, Steph. You're dead on about Tartt and Egan. It's funny though, I only read Tartt this year (Brave Man was 'finished' and submitted in April of 2013). There are some uncanny parallels between Goldfinch and my book, which makes me think that we have common ancestors in literature and probably read similar non-fiction/do similar things when not reading. What I hope I share with Tartt and Egan is crafting something that is first and foremost highly readable. I want to write books that people finish. I try to keep a forward lean at all times. This has been the biggest change in my writing during the past ten years. I get lost in the maze of literature and experiments with language if I'm not always keeping an eye to readability.

This book took so long because I was learning how to write. I wrote the first draft isolated in northeast Texas. It was 1200 pages of highly referential shit that was explicitly in dialogue with Joyce's Ulysses. I moved into the Chelsea Hotel in 2004 with this unwieldy draft and spent three years tinkering before eventually scrapping the entire experiment, let's call it the Joyce draft.

I started the second draft from a different point of view (first person) with a character who is no longer in the book. This was my Patricia Highsmith draft. The book was tight and entertaining, but antithetical to the central theme of Brave Man--that central theme, by the way, is explicitly voiced in the first paragraph of the book. So I hit Control A for a second time and deleted that draft.

The third draft owes much to two of my favorite writers, Bulgakov and Walcott. I was aiming for the dream logic of Bulgakov and the closely seen, deeply felt, imagery of Walcott. I wasn't conscious of this until the book was in galleys. But looking back on it, I think that's what was happening all along. To me, it just seemed like I was being truer to the book I wanted to write.

SP: Although A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall really only focuses on a year in the life of Owen and Joe Burrs, it reads like an epic. In part, this is due to the obvious references to Greek myths and Icelandic Sagas, but I think the structure and form of the novel has something to do with it as well. For starters, there are only seven chapters in the span of 377 pages and the book contains no quotation marks or action tags to indicate dialogue. How would you classify the genre or form of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall?

WC: The first draft was explicitly trying to adapt seven of the Sagas of Icelanders. The book began trying to figure out the psyche of Owen, who is not only privileged, but unburdened by existential paralysis. The nearest/only antecedent I found was in the warrior poet sagas. Structurally, I was also working with the Odyssey and the six poetic revisions in Bloom's Anxiety of Influence--sounds like a hoot, right?! Jesus.

Vestiges of all the early drafts are probably still there. It's a saga. And a thriller. Everything in my life for the past ten years has been filtered through this book, so that's why it's hard to classify. Luckily 'novel' is a hell of a catch all.

SP: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the focus on colors. Owen Burr, as a child and a few times after he loses his eye and goes to Europe, sees the world in washes of color that he connects to Greek gods and goddesses. Owen tells his girlfriend Stevie, “The world was tinted a particular color, as if I were looking through a colored film, a laminate.” He continues, “It wasn’t just a sensory thing. It’s like the inside of my head was lit with a strange light; my intuition, my thinking, it would get shifted. When I was little… the world was a sacred place.” I found this concept fascinating; it’s almost a mythical, spiritual form of synesthesia. Where did you come up with the idea of Owen’s ability to view the world through a god/color lens?

WC: That's a really tough question. I think what you're highlighting is just me translating the way I see the world into story form.

Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line was the first thing I experienced that made me feel like someone saw the world the same weird way I do. Color is everything for me. But it's color in a glowing twilit sense. It's non-literal and mystic.

Ooph. There's no way I can reverse engineer this part of the book. I think it just has to be experienced.

SP: This is a ridiculously enormous question, so take it as you will. Much of the novel is concerned with the contemporary art world. When Owen interacts with rock star artist Kurt Wagener, questions of economics, status and concept vs. product abound. Although I don’t believe he is mentioned directly, Kurt and his artistic endeavors reminded me of Damien Hirst and the controversy that surrounded his 2007 For the Love of God sculpture. So, my big question is: in your opinion, what the hell is art anyway?

WC: Easier question than the last one!

To me, there are two essential components to art: honest execution of a vision and technical mastery. Both are necessary components; neither is sufficient. If you only have a good idea, sorry, but that's not art. If you happen to be a fantastic draftsman or painter but lack that original seed, I'd say you're skilled, but you're not making art.

I wasn't thinking specifically about Hirst, though I think he certainly passes the test I'm setting here. I was thinking more of Chris Burden. Somebody recently saw Darren Bader in Kurt. I totally get that, but I didn't have him in mind. Honestly, there are a hundred successful Kurts in contemporary art. Some of them are total frauds, some are very talented. My goal in depicting that character was for any artist who reads this and sees parallels with his own life to feel that it is harsh, but fair. Kurt does horrible, immoral things in the service of art. I think there are a lot of artists who would agree that an artistic end justifies monstrous means. That's Kurt's outlook at least.

It took me a long time to learn how to see contemporary art. Thomas McEvilley's book, The Triumph of Anti-Art, is a must. I've also been fortunate enough to be close friends with artists from this book's early days (Van Rehny Hecht Nelson) to present (Damian Loeb and Daniel Subkoff).

SP: And while we’re talking about art, I just wanted to say that I appreciated the mention of one of my favorite artists, Joseph Beuys. One of my favorite lines in the novel is, “Kurt said he looked like Joseph Beuys and asked if they could find a coyote or maybe a dachshund. Something yappy.” How much research into art history and the contemporary art world did you conduct while writing A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall?

WC: Well this book began as a take-down piece. A lot of contemporary art enraged me. I read it as bad philosophy and/or bad poetry, carelessly thrown into the world. I bought that McEvilley book I mention above expecting it to be an echo chamber. Instead, McEvilley praises the genius of conceptual art. This threw me. I wanted Brave Man to be a grenade lobbed at the anti-art camp, and here was this theorist, whom I deeply respect, defending the wrong side.

Around this time, I became close friends with a conceptual artist named Daniel Subkoff. I told him about a central theme of in-betweenness in Brave Man and he immediately saw parallels with his own artwork. The chance arose in 2010 for us to collaborate on a large-scale installation for the New Museum. We designed a conceptual artwork and were invited to exhibit in the 2011 Festival of Ideas for a New City.

It took us over a year to design the 14-foot sculpture that visitors removed from the gallery one handful at a time. They pressed the clay into plaster molds and left with a small figure embedded with wildflower seeds. From there, the choice was the viewer's: they could either keep the figurine, in which case it would dry out and crack in a few months, or they could throw it into an abandoned lot, thereby allowing the soil and clay to interact with the elements and serve as a makeshift incubator for wild flowers.

During the year we worked on this project, Past Fits and Future Pulls, my views on contemporary conceptual art changed radically. I saw how much care and technical skill goes into the choice of materials or presentation of an idea.

The upshot, I hope, is something that is not strictly satirical. I prefer the term 'playful'. At the end of the day, I love Kurt and think his biggest artwork, the culmination of everything at Art Basel, is legit. And, in my opinion, satire only works when it comes from a place of love.

SP: Along with art, there are many references to music, especially when Stevie and Owen are together. I was surprised by how many band and artist names mentioned brought back memories of my own time as a college student exploring and defining the world. I mean, Portishead? Wow. And the music “game” that Owen and Stevie play was one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful ideas I’ve ever encountered. These scenes between Owen and Stevie really reminded me of the power of music, of one song, even, to influence the direction and perception of our lives. Is there a story behind Stevie’s CD game with Owen?

WC: It's the only way I could think of to describe two young people in love. But it's entirely fictional. I will say that I fell head over heels in love with a girl at sixteen and that we spent most of our time talking about the Beatles.

SP: Outside of being the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, how crucial is art and music in your own life?

WC: I have a large-scale installation planned for sometime next year in California. I was close to doing something at Miami Basel this year with an NYC gallery. I think I'll continue to make art, but with two provisos: 1) that there's no way to translate the idea into fiction or poetry; 2) that I don't attempt to make money from the work--I have too much respect for my friends who are real artists to dabble in that way--not that I'm turning down checks! The art world is every bit as fucked, financially speaking, as the literary world.

As for music, I'm not very talented. Despite this, my friend Noah allows me to co-write songs occasionally for his band, Noah and the Megafauna.

From an aesthetic standpoint, both are crucial to my world view. It's interesting though, I'm almost positive that I'll never write about art, or the art world again. My best guess is that I'll continue to draw on Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys et al, but the concerns of my next book are totally different. It's about physics and outer space.

SP: Finally, I wanted to bring up a line from the novel that, for me, summarized the entire story: “Owen put both his palms to his brow, trying to undo the world.” In the direct context of the story, Owen here is trying to grapple with being at Art Basel and his inevitable confrontation with Kurt. I found this line, though, to represent all that Owen, his father, Stevie, really everyone, wrestles with throughout the story. The characters are trying to fight who they are, or have become, and find a new self out of the ashes of the conflict. Do you think this character analysis is accurate? What do you think these characters and their struggles can tell us about life?

WC: Not only accurate, that's exactly the point. First off, the world is almost irreversibly fucked. I tend to view things on a large time frame, like hundreds of years, and when you look at things in that light, we're all in ashes. Now here's the trick, as a writer you get to invent the physics of your universe. In mine, kindness is gravity. So even though things might be dire, we still have to be kind. And to me, that takes bravery. It's incredibly difficult to build again when everything around us has burned down. But we must.

Owen is kneading his head because we have to sculpt ourselves again every time the world chips a piece away.

Thank you so much to Will Chancellor for stopping by! Pick up a copy of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall and read, think, share, discuss, live.

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