ONE QUESTION: Gerald Brennan

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By Gerald Brennan

“What are you hoping to accomplish with your writing, and why should anyone pay attention?”

I remember going to Barnes & Noble early in my writing career and being overwhelmingly conscious of how many books were on the shelves. Everything seemed well-reviewed and amazing, and I thought, “What can I possibly add to all of this?” And that’s faded over time, but it’s still there, that feeling that I need a Stuart-Smalley-in-SNL level of self-affirmation just to keep going — “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

But I get a lot of story ideas, and the good ones stick, and they kind of nag at me; I’ll read an interesting Wikipedia article, and sometimes I’ll find out that there’s some definitive work on the topic that I need to check out, but sometimes there’s nothing, and I get this amazing feeling, like, “I can’t believe nobody’s written about this yet.” The artists I most admire tend to say something along those lines — that the book (or album, or movie) they were looking for didn’t exist yet, so they had to create it.

And that goes hand in hand with another feeling I get, the feeling when I encounter a classic for the first time. The first time I listened to, say, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, I didn’t just think “This is a great song.” It was more along the lines of “I can’t believe this didn’t already exist,” like it was somehow always out there in the universe, this Platonic ideal of a song that was just waiting to be discovered. It isn’t just good — it’s so good you have to stop what you’re doing and listen.

Steve Martin has some famous advice for entertainers — “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” And I think a lot of writers forget that they are entertainers. I’ve learned as a publisher that there’s a lot of decent writing out there, a lot of competent writing. And a lot of authors get hung up on style and craft, or engrossed with their own ideas, and forget that, first and foremost, you have to entertain people, or they won’t keep reading. You have to give them a reason to turn every page, a reason beyond, “Well, I have to finish this so I can say I finished.” So I’m writing, in part, to entertain people, and create something engrossing, because if I don’t at least do that, nobody will pay attention to any of the ideas. (A lot of the works I most admire — and often I think of movies, like Bridge on the River Kwai or North by Northwest — are profoundly entertaining, and you can watch on a superficial level and get swept up in the story, or you can go on a much deeper dive.)

I’m also writing to challenge people, and to try to convey those ideas that won’t leave me alone. I remember reading about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and thinking, “Why doesn’t everyone know about this?” The Allies assassinated a leading Nazi — arguably one of the most evil men in the Second World War, which is certainly saying a lot — and it’s an event that gets left out of many histories of the war. And it nagged at me, and as I started to read more about it, I realized why: We want the killing of a bad person to be a good thing, but in this case, it’s hard to say if it was. And after a good eight years of thinking intermittently about this event, and six years of writing and revising my own take on it, I ended up coming out with Resistance.

I like to think my writing’s literary and engaging, but a lot of it is also deeply rooted in history, whether it’s pure history, like Resistance, or alternative history, like Zero Phase and Public Loneliness and now Island of Clouds. There’s a lot of innovative art that comes from having constraints — like Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath inventing a whole genre of music because he had to play his guitar heavy and slow because he’d lost the tip of a finger, or Chuck Close working from a wheelchair to create his pixelated portraiture. And I like the constraint of depicting actual historical figures as honestly as possible; I think it imposes a certain level of realism, and it can challenge the reader a little more, because a lot of people who’ve done some interesting things are actually complicated and interesting themselves; they’re not the perfect noble people we might imagine, and I think Island of Clouds gets at that a lot, looking at some of the flawed and fascinating people who became astronauts.

Many bestselling authors are working with the freedom of completely fictional characters, and some create protagonists that are impossibly perfect — smarter and stronger and better than anyone in that room. And certainly there’s a huge market for that stuff, but it doesn’t always stick around for very long. It’s comfort food, in a way; we all get intermittently frustrated by reality, and it can be reassuring to dip into a fictional world, and identify with someone, and see that person triumph over all adversaries.

So I guess that’s what I’m hoping to accomplish — to see if I can entertain people while also giving them a story that will get them thinking, and maybe even change their thinking. It’s challenge food, not comfort food.

Gerald Brennan is a self-described corporate brat who hails from the eastern half of the continent but currently resides in Chicago. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and later earned a Master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He’s the author of Resistance, Zero Phase, Public Loneliness, and Island of Clouds. He’s been profiled in Newcity, and his writing has appeared in the Chicago TribuneThe Good Men Project, and Innerview Magazine; he’s the founder of Tortoise Books, and he’s also been a co-editor and frequent contributor at Back to Print and The Deadline. He’s into Camus, Dostoyevsky, Koestler, Hitchcock, Radiohead, and The National, but you can also catch him reading Jim Thompson and even sneaking in some Wahida Clark from time to time.


Messenger Spacecraft Image PIA10124: Approaching Venus Image #2. Original B&W image converted to brown gradient. Original Image Credit: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

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