Brad Neely’s debut novel, “You, Me, and Ulysses S. Grant,” is probably one of the funniest books I’ve read in the last decade. I was laughing so hard at one point while reading the book that my wife came from the other room to see what was going on. The book pulls off a remarkable feat—not only is it a hilarious, quick-moving account of Ulysses S. Grant’s life and war-time work, it’s also oddly moving. Beyond the jokes and riffs, the book reminds the reader of a trait that’s accidentally, but not essentially, American, and that also happened to be demonstrated by a host of Union soldiers during the Civil War: the willingness to sacrifice yourself for your belief in what is right and just—an idea of what your country could be—and to prevent the immiseration of oppressed people. The book is a portrait of an imperfect man who was striving, like many others at the time, to create a more perfect country than the one he was born into.
Neely kindly agreed to speak about his book over the phone and answer follow-up questions by email. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first have the idea for this book and how did it come to you? Did you always want to focus on Ulysses Grant, or did you start with a wider view of the Civil War era?
I started the project in 2004-2005. I had done the “Wizard People” thing and I had done the George Washington thing. And I wanted to combine those two projects. I wanted to write a book that shined a light on presentism.
When I was younger, I read Ulysses S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs.” Right away I asked myself, “Is that ‘Personal’ necessary?” Then, while reading I found it to be the most impersonal memoir ever written. I thought, “Great trick, Grant,” and I wanted to repay this paradoxical joke.
When I read about the life of Grant, I couldn’t resist seeing my own life in his, as a metaphor, so the book is about how we as people, as writers, as historians, and as readers do this kind of “making it about us” when we do history or biography, and why that makes biopics and the like corrupted.
How much research did you do before or while you were writing it? I was surprised at how many legitimately wild facts you have in there—for example, that Grant’s father and John Brown knew each other. Did you already know a lot of that before you started?
I did my research. The timeline is correct(ish). The events are correct(ish). The Who and The Where are all correct(ish). The How, and the style, and the Why, however, are all mine. It’s hysterical historical fiction, I suppose. Many people, places and problems get collapsed into amalgams for thematic or structural purposes. All the tricks of the trade that fall into the presentism, subjectivism problems that I see in doing biography in history. I wanted to do everything a good non-fiction person shouldn’t do. I wanted to make the anti-Robert Caro book. I went to no locations. I read a few books. I watched a few docs. And the rest is “history.”
In the end this is, but it isn’t a “Civil War book.” I’m no buff. This isn’t about the Civil War, which should be seen as more of a setting. No, those readers with cursory Civil War knowledge will enjoy an extra layer of reference, but I’ve not written the book for them. I wrote this book for my wife. She wants a funny, touching human drama, and to her I hope I’ve delivered it.
Do you often have someone in mind when you’re writing stuff? If you’re writing for TV and popular entertainment, is that something you always think about?
Well, yes and no. In popular mass media, the audience is talked about pretty explicitly between the creative team and the executive team of the studio and the network, and that’s talked in terms of a demographic. You make your show with a demographic in mind. I know that sounds disgusting, but that’s just kind of how the nature of that business goes.
The people who watched Charlie Rose Show probably weren’t going to watch my TV shows, even though I wish they did. But with books, I think that I am that audience. I am writing this for me. Books are a form of self-expression to me. My favorite books seem to be written in the same way, not at all compromising the individual artist’s content because they’re thinking about who is going to be the audience. Those are my favorite kinds of things. This book is dedicated to my wife because she and I are kind of a symbiotic single entity at this point.
And I felt the relationship between Julia and Ulysses Grant was a beautiful thing from a distance. I drew from my long-term relationship with my wife to be able to fill out those sections that felt like him losing that relationship was part of the stakes for him.
What was the writing process like for you? I remember you saying at some point that writing about the Civil War isn’t very funny—something along those lines. How were you able to get through that? Did you have to take a break from the book at any point?
It was an on-and-off project. But I finally just saw it in the right light and it all fell into place. But it’s a 20-year project. And I have other projects for books that are just as old. I spin a lot of plates over a long time, but then surprise: one of them has a meal on it and it’s ready to serve.
I wrote a full version in 2005 listening to Prince’s “Parade” and Zimmer’s “Batman Begins” soundtrack over and over, and that version was terrible. I don’t blame the music. But when I hear any music from Parade or Zimmer’s BB… I feel like I’m in trouble.
I picked it up again and again.
But the main thing is I kept throwing epiphanies into the file. Over time there were so many jokes and details⎯none properly worked into a final process⎯that I finally… started the hard work of building a narrative around the facts and my nuggets.
Then it’s revise, revise (stops, cries) revise, revise.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t working daily on it for 20 years. I think a lot of that was just keeping myself from rushing into a bad version. And just realizing, “Okay, this kind of sucks right now, just let it simmer. Go do some other things.” And then I’m sure that if I read it right now, it would be full of things that I’d like to change or revise, but I don’t think I’ll ever read this book again for the rest of my life.
I feel like that’s a very common reaction. A lot of writers are like, “I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at it again.”
Yes, yes. It’s like birthing a baby into a FedEx box. Just like, “Good luck. Good luck.”
So you were working on the book on and off, but what helped you see it in the right light? Was that a recent thing?
I think it had to do with Trump, to be honest. I wrote the original draft and thought, “Man, you don’t know how to write a book. And also this isn’t that funny, and okay, the Civil War is kind of a dicey area in 2005.” That was how it felt. But then Trump comes along, the anti-birther stuff, just the politics of the Trump era. You see Civil War trending on your socials every day. So it kind of felt like, “All right, it’s not just me that’s wanting to talk about this,” for good or bad reasons. So I thought it’d be at least not just an out of the blue, strange—it is an out of the blue, strange project—but it kind of felt to me there was a way to see it in the context of my own time, as something that might be, I don’t want to say necessary like I’m saving the world or anything by doing this goofy book, but I kind of wanted to throw a log on the good fire.
It’s kind of incredible that a book about the Civil War would be so topical with what’s in the conversation now, especially in politics. The book feels really urgent because of that, I think due to the way you write about some of these issues.
Well, I come from the South. I grew up in Arkansas, which is the South, even though it’s kind of in the West and nowhere. But I grew up around very disgusting prevaricating around the Civil War. There were Confederate monuments outside the courthouse in my hometown, which really, I was used to the nasty way to see it. And so I always kind of felt like my generation… I was dumb thinking, “All right, well my generation is obviously on the right side of this issue, and we’re just going to kind of outlive some really old perspectives.” But surprise, here we are and it’s so fucking strange, but it’s not surprising. It’s just I can’t believe it, but I can believe it.
During the whole Civil War the Confederate flag never made it inside the Capitol building. But we saw that happen on Jan 6. And it’s not surprising, sadly. It should fucking be surprising and scary. But we’ve gone numb to the implications.
I believe in a more and more and more perfect union, so long as we keep talking about these evils, these terrible ideologies and POVs that brainwash people into thinking they’re superior to other people. So it’s not surprising to me. I think we have to stay vigilant and overt in our naming the devil. Mocking the evil. I want to make white supremacy seem uncool and for losers, because it is. I want to make fun of it so it doesn’t give anyone power, it makes them look as ignorant as they are.
How did you arrive at the voice of the biographer/narrator? It seems similar, in some ways, to the narrator character of “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” especially in the way that the Grant biography feels like a conversational retelling of history, and “Wizard People, Dear Reader” was like a wild, off-balance retelling of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Is there something about that kind of retelling that you’re drawn to or that allows for more humor or narrative experimentation?
I have a few writing personas I use for different forms. I assumed a character for the narrator, a version of myself that is and isn’t me. I like flawed narrators because all narration is flawed in comparison to being there.
This narrator character is Darby Elen. This is the same character (and the same voice) that I used for his unauthorized “audiobook” “Wizard People, Dear Reader” that synced with the first Harry Potter movie. And for the audiobook for “You, Me, and Ulysses S. Grant” I use that exact same spoken voice from “Wizard People.”
Darby Elen mixes up his own personal concerns as well as the public concerns of his day (which happen to be the years roughly between 2005-2022). It’s Obama in white supremacy America. It’s Trump, and then the Jan. 6 insurrection. This writer has been living through these times as he studies the life and times of Grant. Darby, like Grant, also has traveled the nation for money, leaving his family, ruining his life for the adventure of career. I saw myself in Grant, but I knew that to do so had limits. Darby sees no such limits.
He wrote the book with a toxic empathy, a kind of “fool’s golden rule” where he treats others the way we’d want to be treated and so he assumes that they want what he wants, that they are like himself, and that they exist in a shared kind of universalism, which we know is a stretch to say the least. And then he turns and applies the same narcissistic rule to his readers, assuming that they want whatever he wants. He knows his subjects and his readers only by converting them into auxiliary selves with which he may run amuck as himself, in their avatars, in their lives. This is the real meaning behind the title. And I believe that this is what we do, to greater or lesser extent, depending on our conscious efforts against it. It’s all about projection. Darby then has Grant do the same about Henry V and other heroes, making Grant more and more like himself, until Grant learns this lesson, and I guess so does Darby.
Darby uses embarrassing words. Words that I know are against the current idea of good taste or against the simplistic, refined, strong American English of the journalistic Hemingway tradition.
Darby collects odd words from outdated eras. He loves their sound and their old usage. Their lost meaning. For him he’s not laughing at his choice of diction (or anything, for that matter). He’s passionate and enthusiastic and lost in a kind of mania of data dumping and sharing all his favorite things. For us, and through me, Brad Neely, Darby is set up to speak as freely as possible so that we may have an extra layer to laugh at while still accepting and going along with the story he’s telling underneath it. He gets a pass for the oddities and bad taste and the purple prose and the ten-cent words, and the direct address and all the no-no’s we’ve been browbeaten about through the chestnuts and writing guides and the sadomasochism of restrictive style manuals. Though even Darby has standards and to my mind he’s never truly out of line. Never truly pretentious or even amateurish. He’s breaking rules and it’s fun to witness. Like watching someone run unscathed through a minefield.
He’s over his head: out of his depth, but he barrels through as if under pressure to keep the show going on. And who’s not doing the same actually?
Was that one of the parts of writing the book that you enjoyed most—being able to break some of those rules and throw in some of these older or different words?
Yes. Emphatically yes. I’m a sentence-level creature. I love James Joyce for that. I love to read for the sentences, for the syntax, for the diction, for the odd decisions to go long on this, but short on that. And sometimes it’s like, “Why did you not swap and go long on this thing?” And I like that sort of mischief in the book because it’s also against the usual zig when you’re supposed to zag. Spend way too much time talking about the thing that doesn’t matter. Makes me laugh all the time, all the time.
But the sounds, words, the rhythms of words, the pairings, and then finding questionable usage just buried in words that we use all the time. I don’t know if I did this, but it’s popular to talk about being under or overwhelmed. And then everybody in their heads is thinking, “What is whelmed? Why don’t we use that?” That’s where I love to live, is just in that kind of confusing area.
How did you decide to include the basketball references throughout the book? I laughed out loud at the part when Grant refers to Gen. Philip Sheridan as a hot-shot prospect with great skills.
First off, basketball is so American. And sports is such an American thing. I wanted to use that vernacular just to be able to express those ideas to a general reader. Even people who don’t like sports know that kind of terminology. And those idioms are so just cliched and dead at this point that they become funny because you’re using them in the wrong place or something.
I’m a very big basketball fan. If I get into something, I get all the way into it. I’m an all-or-none person.
And I thought, “Well, in this mode of the Darby character, the Darby narrator, just give him basketball because that’s part of me.” It would be so fucking surprising if you’re just ripping through “The Power Broker” and all of a sudden Robert Caro is like, “Yeah, Robert Moses was kind of like Michael Jordan in ’93.” You’re like, “What?”
You touched on this a little already, but it seems like you’ve taken inspiration from American history throughout your career. The Washington short was the first thing I saw of yours, and “China, IL” features two history professors as main characters. Have you always been into history, American or otherwise?
Yes. And even though I’ve made a very irreverent, fake polemic, and in a way, hidden in a parody about the validity of historians and biographers, I read quite a lot of it, and revere the people who actually put in work doing the appropriate research and following up and vetting and crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s, trying to get the facts and the sources and all of that. It’s staggering. I really don’t understand how they’re able to do it and know that they can rest easy that it’s not an interpretation of the past, but a representation of it. That said, philosophically just as a topic, history and past and representation and accuracy and completeness is just the hairiest of things to consider for me, and how easy it is for us humans to get things wrong. I know I get things wrong all the time, so much so that I just own it and make a book of it where I just get things wrong. Fallibilism is a real thing for me, and I think history is just one of those vehicles for that freight to roll around on in my head.
Brad Neely is an American comic book artist and television writer/producer known for his work on television series such as “South Park,” “China, IL,” “Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin’ Sclopio Peepio,” and “The Harper House.” He is responsible for the web series “I Am Baby Cakes” and “The Professor Brothers,” and he also created the short “George Washington” and the Harry Potter spoof “Wizard People, Dear Reader.” Neely lives with his wife and their daughter in Los Angeles.