In his debut novel, Nine Shiny Objects, Brian Castleberry peels back the veneer of a rosy, postwar America, exposing the messy inner workings beneath. The novel is divided into nine hefty sections, each with a different protagonist whose life intersects in one way or another with a mysterious UFO cult. The book begins in 1947 with Oliver Danville, a small-time Chicagoan hustler, who, after witnessing a murder and reading about a strange UFO sighting, feels compelled to head west to investigate. Danville eventually establishes a group called “the Seekers,” and what follows is one chance encounter after another, as the story wends from coast to coast, spanning four decades, and all the while explores the limits of utopian dreams and the reactionary forces poised to strike them down. A whole world populates this richly woven novel: farmers, rock stars, city folks and suburbanites, a poet, a salesman, a conspiracy radio talk show host, and more. This is an American novel with heavy American themes, and at the same time, Castleberry reveals the humor in the absurd. In an email exchange, the author discussed with me some of these themes and how the book came to exist.
This is your debut novel. How does it feel to put your baby into this world right now?
It’s a strange time for everything. To tell the truth, I’m not all that worried about the book. I want it to find its audience. But I started writing it after an openly racist authoritarian was elected president with the help of a foreign power. Nobody thought this was going to go well, excepting the members of his cult. I’d definitely rather we weren’t in such a precarious position democracy-wise, and I’m much more worried about who will be made to suffer, and who is already suffering under this regime. I set out with the book to try to understand how we got here, but really the “here” in that phrase is outstripped, and will be so again in a few weeks’ time. If things were even remotely normal right now, it would be great to do all the debut novelist stuff.
I once had a professor who described William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! as a picture of a picture of a picture of the downfall of the South. I was thinking about this notion when I read your book. In Nine Shiny Objects a cult figures prominently in the story, but we never see more than glimpses of it. It’s both ubiquitous and absent at the same time, more of an idea than a tangible thing. How did you think of this novel in terms of what it is “about” and how its nine central characters relate to the cult at its center?
The book is definitely about a sort of downfall. I was thinking about a wider change in American culture during the postwar years, which a lot of the moving parts (including the “cults” in the book) are meant to emphasize. We sort of forget that coming at the end of the second World War, Americans had grown used to a sort of communal society—nothing like communism or anything—but a sense of all being in on the success of the place together. Roosevelt established that, sure, politically. But really the twentieth century had been all about bringing the country together under a shared sense of culture with the advent of radio, movies, modern advertising, what have you. Now, this wasn’t a shared community for everyone. Not at all. But at mid-century we had the opportunity to keep rolling forward with what was working, to follow the lead of the Civil Rights movement, to make good on all this country’s rhetoric. The country didn’t do this. Instead, the project of America splintered, and by the end of the period I was looking at, greed was the thing: not only economically, but spiritually, and, especially when it comes to housing, physically. In reality, not to over-simplify things, this was a time of white power backlash. I feel like as a kid I thought of the postwar period as a sort of upward curve of freedom and progress, and in many ways there was progress, but in our current time it’s hard not to see that period better defined by the resistance of so many white people to any sort of change that could upset the racial hierarchy that is the shadow-promise of American life, the thing we all know is there but pretend isn’t.
Now, those were the things I was thinking about, wrestling with: this festering white backlash and how it’s shaped us as a country. The story I wanted to tell were these ideas, I guess. I wasn’t aiming to write a history or a “philosophical novel” or anything, and doubt anyone who reads the book would find it very philosophical, just a bunch of rambling characters. But I wanted to find a way to get those ideas down, to think through them as I wrote and discovered the characters. Structurally, I started thinking about the book very early on as one that would be told by many voices, and the thing that clicked for me as I began writing was that the wider plot of the book could—as you say—be “more of an idea than a tangible thing,” that not only the cult experiences but really the bones of the plot that connect all these characters, could sort of loom in the background, be both “ubiquitous and absent.”
I was thinking of it less a philosophical novel as a social novel. On the surface it appears quite serious, but there is a lot of humor imbedded in the prose. I caught whiffs of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow all the way though. Did you read any postwar authors for inspiration? How important was it to get the vernacular and the history right?
Yeah, definitely a social novel. I guess I don’t fall into the “art isn’t political” worldview. That’s fine if that’s what you like to read or write, but I feel like as human beings we’re engaged politically and socially, or we should be. That should be part of what the novel does, at least for me. Roth and Bellow are foundational authors for me—I love their rambling characters, the sense of a deep inner life, the celebration of experience and memory. Ellison is important to me as well from the period you’re talking about, along with Baldwin and Stafford. As I wrote, my influences were more contemporary, at least when it came to solving story problems: Egan, Orange, Marra. The vernacular and the history were very important to me, though. I spend a lot of time on research, or as Hernan Diaz lovingly calls it, “reading.” I find a great deal of historical detail in biographies and in old movies and magazines. But I love history and knowing what made the present. My wife’s literally an archaeologist. So there’s that.
The novel has nine chapters, which are almost like standalone stories, so it feels like a story cycle at times. How did you approach writing it? Did you take it in chunks?
The image I kept in my head as I wrote and revised was of a painting with a foreground and background. In the foreground are these characters in each of their stories, but looming behind them is this shared background. Maybe a tapestry would be a better metaphor. Or a triptych—whatever that would be for nine. A lot of religious art is like this, Christian art, all the stations of the cross, that sort of thing. But I’m just talking about the sort of metaphors that help a writer make sense of the story in front of them! It’s nothing like the stations of the cross. More importantly, and more to the point really, this structure allowed me to create a sense of characters flowing through history, absorbed in their personal lives even though we (readers, I mean) can see and understand that history, those bigger shifts happening around and to them.
I couldn’t help but notice that the book is dedicated to Steven Millhauser. Can you talk about why?
I had the good luck of meeting Millhauser a few years ago. He’s one of my literary heroes, since I read Martin Dressler in my 20s. He was visiting to do a reading on campus where I teach, and to multiply my luck, I was in charge of showing him around and making sure he got meals, etc. We talked continuously for, like, two days, almost exclusively about writing and writers. It was a baffling experience. He got me into Chekhov in a real way. I’d read a couple of Chekhov’s stories, in anthologies, but didn’t know anything about him. Talking to Millhauser changed my approach to fiction, because through him I started to think a great deal more about our moral obligation as authors, what it really means to discover a character, to allow a character to be themselves, to embody a character like an actor. A lot of writers get you there, but for me it took Chekhov, and that came from hanging out with Millhauser.
So, I should have given this full disclosure earlier in this interview, but I suppose it’s never too late. I’ve known you since I was thirteen years old and we sat next to one another in typing class. I know this book has been around in your head, and some versions on paper, for years. Can you talk about the evolution of this book from its earliest iteration to the one we can hold in our hands?
Yeah, definitely not that early in life! But yes, there was another book idea I’d had years ago about a UFO cult, which basically told the story mostly left out of this book, or at least only looked at obliquely. That was set aside a long time ago, but was there, ready for me, as a launching pad for this book. I kept the title from that other one and kept the single name of Charlie Ranagan, who in the earlier idea had been a lot more important. It was really the election that instigated this book. My horror at what the country had just done, my desperation to understand it and to connect it with my understanding of the nation’s history.
I also had another book out in front of editors which I’d worked on for years, and which didn’t sell. When I started working on this one, I was in the dumps; I guess you could say. The Trump years were beginning, and I didn’t feel great about my writing career. So I threw myself at it to hold onto something solid. I’m not above saying that some of the book’s style was also emotional—that sense of fragmentation and searching. Writers are in their work. At least I think so.
In this book there are lots of characters from many different walks of life, and many different identities, who, at various times, take center stage: a queer woman, an African American poet, a young punk rocker, an elderly white man, and on and on, all of whom, in my view, are handled with precision and care. How did you feel about entering into such fraught waters as writing from other points of view besides your own? More to the point, what, generally, is the responsibility of the writer—especially the white, cis writer—to write about races and sexualities different from his own?
Generally, I guess I don’t think white male writers should do this—or at least, they should think twice and then think twice again, and then be sure they know why they’re doing it. There are much better writers on this subject than myself (Chee, Rankine & Loffreda, Morrison, etc.), but I guess the first line of problems that a writer of this type, a white guy, is to believe that their own experience of the world is universal, that they “know” what it’s like to be from a group other than themselves. There’s also a massive dose of privilege there, a sense that you, as an individual who gets all the benefits of the power structure, can just try on characters like different sets of clothes. It is at least fraught, if not something worse. The problem of this book—which I feel is more about white racism and characters butting up against the limits of what white supremacy does to this country every day—is that it simply couldn’t be just about white straight characters or white male characters. For me, the only conspiracy is the conspiracy of white supremacy, and I wanted to try to show that, at least obliquely, through the experiences of these different characters, and by emphasizing the notion of evil.
Of these characters different from myself, Stanley [the African American poet] was the most challenging. If the idea that had struck me was to write a book all about Stanley, that’s where I would have stopped. That, I think, is where we get into white privilege territory, “giving voice to the brown mass” or whatever that novelist called it. For this book I was thinking of all the characters working in concert, like a much bigger novel, where you would still want everyone to come across as real and round. I needed Stanley and so I had to work to discover him and understand him as best I could. We see him for about a day, and I worked—as I do with all my characters—to find some part of me that he shared. But generally, no, I don’t recommend it. White writers need to have non-white friends, and to read non-white authors, and straight writers need to have non-straight friends and read non-straight authors. You need to be humble and be informed, and you need to listen. But even then, I feel like white authors still have so much work left to do in order to unpack and be honest about ourselves, our prejudices, our privilege. If a writer is aiming to create an “other” character for sport, they need to stop writing.
So, the final inevitable question: What’s next?
I’m cleaning up some stories that I think make a coherent collection, partially surreal and partially autobiographical. And I’ve started work on another book, or rather three different books, which I keep shuffling around. I’ll figure it out.
Brian Castleberry‘s stories have appeared in Narrative, Southern Review, Day One, and other literary journals. He teaches literature and creative writing at the College of William & Mary, where he directs the Patrick Hayes Writers Series.
Jason Christian’s reviews, essays, and journalism have appeared in the Baton Rouge Advocate, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Country Roads Magazine, The New Republic, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans.