Donald Breckenridge has served as the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail since 2001. In addition he is the author of several novels, including You Are Here, 6/2/95, This Young Girl Passing, and Rockaway Wherein. His latest invention is the second volume of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology.
This second helping of the Rail‘s fiction section is that rare collection that is joyfully archival: a work which genuinely spans the globe. It is a dusty-fingered, crypt-cracking dossier of stories that conjure laughter, fear, and awe. It reminds us that anthologies were once anthologia – “collections of flowers” – by forming a garland of wild blossoms, artfully linking Brooklyn-in-bloom to plants of international origin. Fair warning: the Rail‘s compiled fiction will send hapless rookies and even a few sage hounds back into dogged, lifelong addiction to thrilling tales and lost yarns. It will return you to that fabled moment when you first entered some back-alley record shop or bookstore in our fair borough and found gatekeepers sorting through stacks of unknown pleasures. Breckenridge and his band of archaeologists are those treasured excavators who stood before you and uttered those magic words, “Have you ever tried this? Because if you like that, this’ll knock you out.”
In Breckenridge’s beautiful Bedford-Stuyvesant home – one brimming with books – he prepared the two of us a fantastic lunch, poured an excellent wine, and shared some of the story of how he became an editor, wine seller, and fiction writer.
The anthology is dedicated to Barney Rosset, the former editor of Grove Press.
He was my “in” to literature, along with reading Ionesco in school. The book’s dedicated to Barney, and Grove published Ionesco along with so many other great writers. Barney was a remarkable person: he gave me the Ionesco piece in the book. Spending time with him was quintessential. When I first came to New York, I had a list of all the former addresses of Grove, because they moved around three or four times in their lifespan. I went to all the different addresses, just to see them. So to finally meet Barney and drink martinis with him and his wife Astrid was a great time. I always felt like I could have spent more time with them, but I didn’t want to be a pest or a nuisance. I read the books he published about New York – Selby, Miller, Burroughs – and they really made me want to move here. Sort of like when you listen to the Velvet Underground.
It seems important to have those mentor figures, or idols who become mentors, especially in the New York of the eighties, which has for people my age this dark, romantic aura of a place where one got stabbed every night of the week.
I lived in Fort Greene, a neighborhood that was plunged into the crack epidemic. There were shootings every night, murders on the block, ten and twelve year old boys on the corner selling crack. And you got to know them, and their parents. And I bounced around, working terrible jobs. Fort Greene is completely gentrified now, but eventually I was living rent free for a long time, from ’92 to ’97, working for a friend as the super of the building.
Being a super has always felt like an interesting job to me, in that it’s a close quarters engagement of humanity, where you see people at their best and their worst, and ideally serve to help them in a very direct way.
It all sounds very romantic, but the truth is I just got lucky. I befriended a poet who owned the building. Sadly, he drank himself to death, and his wife came out from New Mexico, and she entrusted it to me. Fort Greene’s always been incredibly beautiful, but it wasn’t a particularly desirable area back then. The bank didn’t foreclose for a long time, but I’m sure that now that place is easily worth two a half million. But I seriously can’t put a nail in a wall, so it was always like, “Uh… we’ll deal with this! Your ceiling’s collapsed? I’ll totally call somebody!” But if you were late with the rent, I was cool with that. I was twenty-four: what am I gonna do? “Hey man, we’ve got muscle coming.”
“The same guy I got to fix your ceiling is gonna come beat the hell out of you.”
The kicker was the furnace, which would break for weeks at a time, always in the dead of winter when it was so brutally cold.
You were writing a lot at this time?
I was reading a lot. I didn’t have the confidence to be a writer, and I was out of work, but I had a period of about nine months where I read a novel a day. I was fully immersed. I had done theater, but I didn’t have the confidence to write, or the money to do theater anymore. The most valuable thing you can have, especially when you’re that young, is to have enough time to figure out how it is that you wanna do what you wanna do, and to be able to fumble into it. Like how you were talking before we started recording about what you thought this novel that you’re working on was going to be, then discovering a smaller, more personal story which you enjoy more.
Life intervenes and hopefully gets a writer closer to detailing their own singular experience. What were you reading during this novel-a-day period, and how does it relate to your work today at the Rail? There was this period before you became a professional wherein you were gearing up: you’re saturated with influence.
I didn’t go to college, but I’d always been an avid reader. Modernism was really important to me, but also a lot of writing in translation from Europe and Japan. So much of what I was into then I continue to be into now. They’re often deemed inaccessible or difficult writers, but I don’t know to whom they’re difficult in comparison. I remember discovering Celine in tenth grade and thinking he was amazing. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that people started telling me he was hard to read, when I found him to be someone who made me want to read more and seek out others of his generation.
This is a coarse example, from Penn Jillette of all people, who’s kind of a blowhard in some respects, but when he was in high school he very consciously sought out the smart girls who were reading De Sade and Henry Miller, because he supposed that if they enjoyed reading about sex, they’d likely want to have some.
Smart girls are the sexy ones. But we’re gonna get in trouble for that one, as it really smacks of… the patriarchs! Pontificating!
How’d you get hooked up with the Grove crew?
Oh, that was years later. The Ionesco piece that [the Rail] got from Barney was published in like, ’06. The truth is that I just don’t like to bother people, but I’ve still had some incredible conversations over the years with great writers. David Markson was really incredible. I remember when I first called Gilbert Sorrentino, it was to ask him to read at the library, and I remember even saying his full name over the phone was amazing. Being an editor at the Rail, I have a great deal of freedom, and so I just try to put out as much good writing as possible and let the readers figure out what they like, by keeping the quality high, but also varied. I want always to keep an open mind about what we publish, and I really don’t want to be didactic. I have no interest in being a gatekeeper or trendsetter. There’s so much time and energy wasted on aspiring to deny others great writing. Wondering what’s commercially viable or cool… there’s no commercial conceit to the Rail, which leaves it wide open.
There seems a prevailing idea in many arts that the more exclusive you are, the higher quality of party you’ll get to attend, when in reality the people who are much more open and gregarious have more fun in the long run.
But they don’t get invited to those parties. Or they do and they leave early. They have jobs! But for the Rail, it’s always been: everybody in the pool. Let’s open all the channels and get as much out as possible, so long as the quality is there and the work is singular.
With the Rail, were you in on the ground floor?
They’d published three issues by the time I started. This sounds like a story, but it’s actually true: in February of 2000, there was a stack of what I think was the second issue of the Rail at Mercer Books, and I tripped over the pile. They were on the ground and I was looking at the stacks, not paying attention. I picked up a copy and brought it home. It looked like I could send my own work there, and they published an excerpt of my first novel. I got to know Ted Hamm, the founding editor of the paper, and I started sending them work by friends of mine, which they published as well. I sent Ted a letter in October of 2001 asking if he wanted a fiction editor. I was happy to do it, because I thought that the paper was important. It was free. There were no ads. It seemed like the right place: if you could get your friends in, there were probably other exciting people around the world who you could present to readers. It hasn’t really changed in that regard since then. I was never taking this on so that I could be an editor at the New Yorker or some other place: it was just this.
It seems not unlike the Nouvelle Vague directors who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema: Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut, Rivette. Artists who were able to write fiction while being celebratory, critical purveyors of other people’s work. And it often seems that the headaches of editorial work are often self-induced. Curators will sometimes make things harder than they want to be self-important, or have some title and sense of prestige.
But that’s probably how they fuck up the rest of their lives too. Editing is just a side project for the rest of the calamity that comprises their existence. Including the spouses of other editors.
That’s staying in the interview, by the way. Part of the reputation of the Rail is that it’s very by committee, that there is less of a hierarchy in place than certain other comparable publications, and that there is an autonomy between sections. And that there’s a consistency in how it’s produced.
Definitely. One difference between then and now is that I don’t produce as many readings as I used to: we used to have a lot of them at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Putting on a reading series is great fun, but also a tremendous amount of work and worry. You get a blizzard and nobody shows up. So many factors can wreck a show, whereas with the paper it’s very tight, concise, and something over which you can have more control.
Did you envision yourself as a journalist?
Never. But I just wanted to write. When I took this on, I never thought I’d be doing it so many years later, and I certainly never thought I’d be talking about it this intensively…
…into a robot?
Into a machine! But no, I primarily saw myself as a writer, and still do. I write every day. And these other outlets enhance that work. And I’m still doing it. I must be insane, but it’s fun.
In terms of that daily grind of being a novelist, what works for you in composing fiction writing? For all the readers out there who aspire to write fiction, I’d like to ask about your methods, what works for you in terms of practicing the daily act, and what you’ve learned from a perspective of “If I knew then what I know now…”
I’ve made some extraordinary mistakes, and I’ve learned from them. But when you’re in a novel, or short story, you need to write every day. You get up every day and you work. And you work until you can’t anymore, then you worry about the rest of your life. One thing that I’m often guilty of doing is sending my work out before it’s really finished. I get excited about something, and I can’t see how others will read it. I’m kind of blind to it, and so convinced that it’s done. I don’t let things incubate, and then four or five days later I’ll look at it and go, “Oh my god! I can’t believe this.” And I can’t unsend it to this person who I cared most about giving it to, who I most wanted to read it and publish me. I sent it to them first, and three or four months before it was ready.
Speaking for myself, I’m in a very extroverted phase where I want to expel every idea I’m having into the world. But in earlier years, I had a hard time showing work to people at all. I think a lot of people are on that other side of the spectrum, who have two-thirds of a manuscript in their desk that goes unpublished because they were too afraid to hear feedback.
I wish I was more like that, though! I get excited, and I should be excited, but when I get excited, there’s a mechanism that clicks in that says, “If you’re happy, it must be finished!”
Journalism, whether it’s penicillin or a Band-Aid, is one solution to this problem, in that there’s a deadline. It will be as ready as it’s going to be when the time to file your piece approaches.
Fiction is different, though. Fiction writers are often in such a hurry to get something published, and then it’s out in the world, and it’s going to be around a lot longer than you want it to be out in the world.
The Internet teaches us this constantly. Old pieces can haunt you when revisited.
I’d love to have every copy of my first novel. Not because it was a terrible book. Well, yes, because it’s a terrible book. But I didn’t think it was terrible at the time. It was a necessary book at the time, because I never thought I could write a novel. By some miracle it got published. But I wish they were all gone. David Foster Wallace who called the first novel “the beautiful stillborn”, or “beautiful mutant child”, or something that I wish I could remember. You can look at half of the baby and it’s okay, but not the other half, which is kind of shriveled.
People are sending money to your first book because they saw it on an infomercial.
Sally Struthers is urging you to please give.
But it’s a youthful discharge. You have something to expel, and getting it out is what’s paramount.
It was the most important thing I’d ever done, and I was thirty-three. I didn’t think I could do it. Jesus, no. I loved to read, but that didn’t make me a writer. Writing every day makes you a writer. But the idea of writing that’s never shown to anyone else makes me think of Borges’ idea of the greatest library being an invisible one.
Talk about a guy with a day job.
I always think of him as the ultimate clerk, the best example of producing incredible work while holding down a steady gig.
And being blind. But yes: Kafka, Pessoa, Borges… Pessoa was the least ambitious. Kafka was funny as hell. Calvino had a day job, didn’t he? Calvino lived a life. Natsume Sōseki was a professor for many years.
I read more working as a clerk in an antique store than I did in four years of college. I had more time and more genuine inquiry. You can have as many hours as you want to write, but in a sense if you aren’t as devoted to reading as you are to writing, then you don’t step on the grapes, so to speak. But to switch gears: how has the Rail changed in your time there?
Initially, Brooklyn was a lot smaller and the paper was geared to a very clear audience. This was following what had been a very quiet era in Brooklyn, before it was considered – and this still cracks me up – the literary mecca. When I came here, you were told that you didn’t want to live here. And now Brooklyn has topped Manhattan as this height of art and culture. But the paper back then was for a small community of artists, writers, and leftists. The readership has expanded since then. And in addition to international writers, I’ve been focused on trying to publish writers who were overlooked. The paper looks much better than it used to. Long ago it was to be given out at the Bedford L train, for your ride into Manhattan. The Rail is very rooted in Brooklyn, but it’s Brooklyn with both its feet on the ground. That it’s both free of charge and diverse in its writing is really important. But that was Brooklyn before the Gold Rush, and will hopefully be Brooklyn after the Gold Rush.
Though while it’s tragic to see artists priced out of homes or otherwise displaced, it does seem that in considering the creative types who made you want to come to New York… there will always be weird people. Wild living isn’t going out of style, whether it’s Miller or Hubert Selby or whomever else.
And I’m not saying that no one should come here, but if you do, then start a band, or a magazine, or a theater, or a small press. It’s a lot more expensive than it used to be, but when you’re taking so much time out of your day to make art, it doesn’t really matter where you go in order to pursue it. You can come to New York and be just as hungry as you would be in Detroit or Berlin or wherever. There’s still great people coming here all the time to make art and enrich their lives.
We both started out doing more theater work than prose writing: what are your recollections of that time and how it formed your current sensibility?
I got kicked out of school, but by then had befriended a lot of theater people. I started working at a liquor store on Myrtle Avenue, and the other clerk had founded an artist collective. So this group of Pratt students got together and rented a store front on Bedford and South 1st, and called it Brand Name Damages. It was a tiny gallery, and ironically it’s now another liquor store. Paintings and sculptures on the walls and floor: the sculptor Roxy Paine came out of there. He also did the music for the first play I wrote. Part of which was this Kurt Schwitters piece where this man comes home from work and throws up everywhere. I used oatmeal to just vomit all over the room. We’d taken police barricades and sawed them in half, put them on cinder blocks, and that was what the audience sat on. Twenty-four people packed to the gills, and I’m throwing up oatmeal onto the floor before being flogged by another actress. I was twenty-one, twenty-two? It was Dada: a Big Lebowski moment.
The romantic allure of Brooklyn is that such experiences feel timeless: that each generation is able to find their fellow oddities willing to share in oatmeal vomit, and forums to stage your strangest impulses. After Armageddon, the two things that will endure are cockroaches and performance art.
And zombie movies.
Are there aspects of the job that you’d change given the opportunity?
Not of the job necessarily, but perhaps it would be more fun to see more of an interplay between reader and author. But part of the issue is that fewer people read nowadays. The bulk of people who used to don’t anymore, and it isn’t a priority for young people growing up now. They’re not indoctrinated.
Do you recall more of a public dialogue about books occurring a generation ago?
Absolutely. In part, publishing nowadays is geared toward celebrity authors, as is every other facet of entertainment or politics. Here I go, winding up the old crank. [inflecting a crotchety voice] “It’s not about quality, it’s about celebrity!” And who cares about that? If you’re spending your life doing this, you should do the best work you can and not worry about how many people will read it, because at the end of the day the most important person reading it is the person writing it.
As an editor, who do you want to publish? Moreover, what makes for a good editorial colleague?
Engagement. High level of passion. In a writer you want someone who will bring you something beautiful, and again, singular. In an editor, the people I work with are offended by typos and psychotic about grammar. Because I’m not, I’m fortunate to have people who are such sticklers for detail. To have their names on it is pretty amazing. The two roles compliment one another. A writer spends so much time on a sentence, paragraph, or page that it’s hard to see it anymore. It’s about refreshing your eye, seeing a new perspective in pursuit of the least redundancy, the best rhythm, and the most clarity, as concisely as possible. An editor aids that experience. The composition of good writing is something you hear. It’s like Thelonious Monk. There’s the composition, and there’s the space around the composition which allows you to fully find yourself in relation to it and enjoy what you’re experiencing. The dissonance and negative space.
How’s writing going for you these days?
I’ve finished my fourth manuscript in January. I think it’s good and sent it to some people. This is why writers should feel in no rush to send out their work until it’s finished: you’ll wait forever to hear back from anyone you care about. And I’ve been writing short stories for the first time since I started writing fiction, and it’s really fun. I’m just about done with one, and was asked to contribute to a journal. There’s a novel that I’m not emotionally ready to write, but until I am, short stories have been a real pleasure.
To actually know when you’re emotionally ready or in the mindset to write a certain book seems knowledge which really comes from experience. That’s a big step forward.
You know from your own experience that there’s an immense emotional weight and time commitment to writing a novel. The one that I want to write is about the last few years of my father’s life. He passed away in 2010, and we were very close. At night, when I think about what I need to do to write that book, I know that emotionally I’m not ready to pull that off. But that’s a long way from now. What’s nice about short fiction is that you can get it out there: there are more venues to publish, and it’s great to write every day.
When I was younger, I organically wrote constantly, whether it was in a journal or fiction for my own amusement. But after college, for a few years there, I got very concerned about prestige and how I would present myself. I got precious about it, and thus got scared. It takes time to refind that exuberance or love of the game.
The spontaneity. But also, while this sounds really hokey, I pass by my desk each day, and I look at the light from the window falling down upon the desk. It looks so beautiful that I really do want to sit there. It’s amazing. That desk is worn at the elbows.
I’m not a pious or even spiritual person necessarily, but writing is the one thing that I do get ritualistic about, or utilize to enter a meditative state.
You go there and there was a sentence that you were either dying to write from the night before, or which was problematic the day before. And you’ve slept on it, and maybe there’s a new approach. Maybe it’s two sentences, or it shouldn’t be there at all. It’s got to go. And before you know it, you’re back at the desk.
One of the most satisfying moments can be when you gather something up and hit Delete. It’s a sigh of relief.
And now the rest of the day will be good. Because I accomplished something which was necessary!
What are your future aspirations as an editor, in terms of what you’re reading and what you want to publish?
I’m reading Dante right now, but that’s not likely to find itself in the Rail. [Gathering multiple translations and editions of The Divine Comedy from the next room] The best way for me to read it is this. I read one from the illustrated edition first, then I go into the Princeton series, then I read the commentary, then I read the lecture, which has a canto in it. I try to read one a night.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But it feels like you’re really digging in the crates with this approach, in a scholarly, inquisitive manner.
It’s scavenging, really, which is how I do everything now. What do we need to do in a day? Wake up, write, find a way to make money, cook, clean, read, buy records.
Do you have any closing words of wisdom for young writers? Frankly, a lot of the people who read Vol. 1 likely do have writing that they’re doing, or aspire to do, if only to present it to themselves or their peers. If you were talking to a slightly younger Donald who was just starting out, what might you say?
I certainly wouldn’t listen to an older Donald. Don’t listen to anyone. You’ll figure it out. Did you actually get advice that you listened to? Nobody actually takes advice! I mean, we all ask for it, but you never take it. I don’t have any advice, and that is my advice. Which is good advice. Just read. Read books. Or maybe I should advise people to not read books, which will cause them to read in protest. People want to complicate it, but there’s no divine wisdom. No one who tells you that you can’t do it is worth a damn. If we all listened to our detractors, we’d all have drunk ourselves to death three or four times by now. When starting out, I got in my own way by not having the confidence that others who were excited about me had in my work. I didn’t ask for much advice, because most of the writers I like are either dead or living in other countries. Don’t get in your own way. Don’t aspire to be famous. Don’t worry about trying to be the latest hot young author named Jonathan.
I was speaking at a class at the New School maybe seven years ago, and a student in all seriousness was very upset after I’d gone through an anti-commercial spiel. She asked aloud, “Why am I doing this if I’m not gonna make money?” To which I could only say, “You’re asking me?”
I am interested that in your other daily occupation, you sell wine. I’m sure inspiration strikes while you’re at this other job.
If you have an idea while you’re working, and it’s a good one, then you’ll remember it. You don’t necessarily have to write it down. And there are similarities to wine and books. Vineyards come out with a new bottle every year, and it isn’t ever the same wine twice, year over year. There are so many factors at play: the weather, the quality of the fruit, whether there was mold in the vineyard that year, or insects, or something happened in the winery. Likewise, you’re never writing the same book twice, even though you have the same material to work with.
It’s a rather touching idea, that as a writer, you’re aware of your soil and how it changes over time.
It’s always changing, and I think the most interesting wines are the ones that a winemaker will hang on to and let mature for a few years before it’s released, just as I’m starting to feel the same way about fiction. It’s farming, really. Foresting. The same vines never produce the same work twice.