An Unexpected Portrait of a Fictional Seattle: Talking “Emerald City” With Brian Birnbaum

Brian Birnbaum

Some novels hew their focus to one particular character or motif, pushing that theme through infinite permutations. Others opt for a sprawling and vivid campus, sometimes combining elements in ways that have never been seen before. That’s the case with Brian Birnbaum and his novel Emerald CityIt’s at once a portrait of institutional corruption, a description of a familial relationship unlike many that show up in the pages of fiction, and an illustration of changes taking place in the city of Seattle. I spoke with Birnbaum about the genesis of his novel and how its unique structure evolved.

Within the confines of Emerald City, you cover everything from institutional corruption to college sports to organized crime. With such a broad narrative canvas, how did you decide what to leave in and keep out?

I love this question because it forces me to acknowledge exactly how bad-faith my motivations for writing were when I began this novel, over six years ago. 

I began the book by interviewing my dad about Video Relay Service fraud, of which he had knowledge through contacts in the Deaf world. Connecting fraud to organized crime came naturally. Connecting organized crime to drugs came naturally. Connecting drugs to addiction came naturally. Such links concatenated naturally from the locus of every character, from Marc Behrenreich’s VRS fraud derivating into his bribing for Benison’s spot on his college basketball team, to the VRS business’ inevitable interactions with the Deaf world, which brought in Marc’s time at Gallaudet and involvement in the Deaf President Now campaign. 

But the reason I like this question so much is because it forces me to admit that I came to all these topics as a matter of almost journalistic interest–which made for a terrible first draft, a veritable treatise that stood at a towering 225,000 words of dramaturgically bankrupt drivel. It wasn’t until I began writing from an emotional core–i.e. the characters’ histories, motivations, desires, dreams, traumas, etc.–that these topics started suffusing organically across the bread of the narrative. It happened first with Benison and his performance anxiety, which was the first chapter that earned serious praise from my thesis adviser, David Hollander. It was then that, at risk of a most terrible cliche, I began writing from the heart. I have no doubt that my narrative style will continue to bend toward this purer motive as I get older–yet at the same time, I’m immensely proud of the book I wrote, for all its complexity, as it represents an honest culmination of my best work at this point in my life and, furthermore, though any writer worth their salt wishes to make changes post-publishing, I do very much like what I’ve produced. It’s something that I’d want to read, which represents half my conception of ‘audience’. 

Your book is one of several recent novels that use sports as a means to explore larger questions about contemporary American society. What would you say makes the current literary moment abound with so many of them right now? 

Funny enough, I haven’t read a sports novel in quite some time, perhaps not since The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which I read circa 2014. This most likely makes me a philistine as pertaining to one of my favorite subjects, in a literary sense! 

So while I can’t speak directly to the current proliferation of sports-related literature, I do think its current increase parallels the inevitable progression of American culture. Sports provide people a sublimation of the good vs. evil dialectic. Essentially, rather than going literally to war, we go figuratively to war. In another sense, sports are a more civilized version of what took place in Rome’s Coliseum. And sports–or any expression of innate human aggression–are an extension of America’s economic competition. That is, essentially, capitalism is an economic Coliseum, which makes sports the perfect metaphor for the arbitrariness of rejecting a ‘team’ or ‘competing business’ or ‘ugly row of condominiums that devalue my property’ for the sake of, well, my property: be it my team, my company, or my house. 

For what it’s worth, I think hip hop offers a similar entrance into the American conscious. There’s aggression, challenge, and competition, and a very profound sense of socioeconomic turmoil. 

Emerald City features a number of ways for its characters to communicate. Was it challenging for you to convey multiple methods of communication via a novel that uses only prose?

I take this as reference mainly to the fact that the novel contains several Deaf characters, and the Deaf world to a certain degree. Though challenging in a ‘technical’ sense, I found the process of conveying and merging these worlds on the page quite enjoyable. I think it’s because I finally got a chance to convey Deafness and, more specifically, American Sign Language, in a way that I wasn’t able to with the hearing world throughout my life. 

Living between languages resembles or is in fact living a double-life. It’s common conception that language influences if not outright dictates the pathways of consciousness. Communicating with my parents, and the Deaf world at large, places me on a different modal track than when I’m using words among the hearing crowd; whether overt or subtle, the differences in tone and mode shift personalities, and therefore culture. 

The decision to write signed ‘dialogue’ in italics opened the door to espousing these two worlds. The italics, along with expressive descriptors–i.e. describing the signs being expressed–brought the two worlds closer together on the page, both eliminating and enhancing the differences between spoken and sign language cultures in a way that humanized all parties involved. 

Your novel’s structure involves a number of leaps forward and backward in time. How did you work out the chronology of it, and determine what the best structure would be to tell this story?

In its earlier stages the novel was more linear, with flashbacks framed by or embedded within present narrative. I found that this deprived the story of momentum, as the characters’ histories became more and more important to the story–i.e. as the novel became less of a postmodern work surrounding Video Relay Service fraud and the ancient ritual plant that Peter runs for the syndicate kingpin, and more of a character novel, a deeply psychological investigation of ethical and existential axioms. 

Which required that I untether from the main thread the characters’ histories. In the end, I decided to devote this aim to Part II, so that Part I could set up the inquiries that Part III would, not so much answer, but address in a way that was all the richer for Part II’s look back at how we got to the novel’s ‘present’. It didn’t hurt that this look back helped enrich the plot’s finer points. 

However, even within each Part, the novel still does jump around in time. Meaning, the Parts don’t only cordon off time; they also cordon off impact. Part II is a look at etiology, whereas Parts I and III are a look at what’s happening ‘now’, in an existential more than chronological sense. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Seattle, which seems to have undergone major changes in the last two decades. What was the appeal for you of using it as your setting? 

You alluded to my answer by mentioning the changes Seattle has undergone of recent. Even when I lived there from 2011-2013, much of the city retained its core elements: Capitol Hill was still grungy, even if the music had turned folksy; it was still a mecca for LBGTQ culture; and Pike Place Market was still viewable from most the city’s angles. This isn’t to say that the Seattle of 2012 was akin to the Seattle of 1991, but it certainly was far more so than the Seattle of today, which has become a glorified Bezostown, an Amazonian jungle of corporate tech complexes and corresponding apartments and posh shops. 

Mainly, I wanted to set my story in Seattle because it’s the first city I ever fell in love with. But the fact that I knew it was on the cusp of major upheaval also played a large role. Take the novel’s fictional Myriadal College, the ‘West Coast Ivy’ where Benison goes to play basketball, which sits in South Lake Union where, at the time, the ground lay fenced off and pulverized by construction equipment that seemed to be stalled by some sort of holdup in City Hall. Now, SLU is just another warden of skyscrapers and tech-posh eateries. 

There were other reasons, too. Seattle boasts a prominent Deaf culture. It’s not New York, where every novel and its mom is set. (My next novel will be set in New York.) Most of all, however, I set it there because I love it, and I still love it, despite the injection of corporate tech. It’s still one of the smartest cities in the country, one of the most progressive, and one of the most beautiful. 

Do you have a plan for what’s next following Emerald City?

I do have the aforementioned novel on the docket. It’s going to be steeped in big pharma, big data, addiction, tech’s imminent existential influences, and things of that nature. But that’s probably a few months away from initiation, considering the current book tour, Animal Riot Press editorial work, the ‘ole day job, the half-dozen weddings I’m attending this year, and overwhelming adult obligations of such nature. 

For now, I’ve just finished drafting a short story called ‘Spit’ that’s basically a heroin tale i told by the lovechild of Denis Johnson and Flannery O’Connor–super excited about this one, but it’s got a ways to go. I’m also in the very early stages of an essay about my experience getting sober. Finally, I’ve got vague notions of writing a piece about Trump, and how our values created the conditions in which such a figure could become president, but wouldn’t that just be a little too ironic? 


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