John Brandon

I liked John the first time I met him, he has that kind of personality that I felt comfortable with right away. I meet a lot of authors in my business and most are absolutely brilliant, John certainly fits into that category. We laughed and chatted for a long time. His second book, Citrus County, was my introduction to his amazing talent (and quirky sense of humor) and I've been a fan ever since. 
When I asked him to be one of the contributors to my "Time Travel" collection, he put his ingenious mind to work and came up with a totally unique way to answer my questions.
By the way, since so many of you liked the personal questions I put forth to Leif Enger, I decided to make them the standard that all of the future authors in this series will be asked.
Here is John standing in front of one of my favorite bookstores.




Bio:

John Brandon was raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida. His second book, Citrus County, was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. John has served as the Grisham Fellow in Creative Writing at University of Mississippi, and as the Tickner Fellow in Creative Writing at Gilman School in Baltimore.  He now teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.  His three novels, all published by McSweeney's, are Arkansas, Citrus County, and A Million Heavens.  He recently published a fantastic story collection called Further Joy.
 Arkansas hires   Citruscounty paperback hires         Further Joy



Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.


I live in Minnesota, up north of St. Paul, in an expanse of cornfields that’s becoming an expanse of townhouse complexes.  It’s possible I’m learning to love this climate.  I’m attracted to character-building exercises—trudging through 20-mile hikes and writing novels and such.  I’ve endured two winters, and all the folks here swear they’ve been exceptionally cold and long and snowy.  They seem like trustworthy types, so maybe it’s true.  Anyway, it’s summertime now, which is fantastic.  There’s a city park in good repair on every corner and when you leave town there are about 1,000 state parks, all of them impeccably looked-after.  You just cannot avoid parks in this state.




Where were you living when you were 7 years old?

By the time I was 7, we were settled in New Port Richey, where my parents and my brother’s family still reside.  Gulf Coastal but no beaches.  Cheap, good seafood and sometimes a breezy dock to eat it on.  When I was a boy there were lots of orange groves and only a few too many strip malls.  Now the groves are mostly gone, and the malls are ubiquitous.  That’s what happens.


Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?

The most recent was my senior-year English teacher, Mrs. Roll.  She gave me a ton of leeway to make my own reading list and turn in alternative assignments.  She was very encouraging, but also she was simply a reasonable person.  Not many adults seemed reasonable to me when I was 17.  I mostly felt sorry for them (which now that I’m an adult, I know was the correct feeling).  Mrs. Roll seemed wise to me.  She had something figured out about life.  I haven’t seen her in awhile because she lives in Colorado now, but I know our paths will cross again.


Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?

I was read to as a small child, and all those books undoubtedly shaped me in ways, but I wasn’t interested in reading of my own volition until 10th or 11th grade.  I never did the Hardy Boys or comic books or anything.  I was playing sports from a tender age, to the exclusion of most else.  But when I was 16 and stuck in a crappy town with no art and very little variety as far as people (trashy white people and non-trashy white people), my wanderlust was fired by reading Kerouac.  They’d be barreling through the West, buying gas with quarters and meeting girls and talking about Zen.  Hitchhiking in Mexico and attending little jazz parties in New York and whatnot.  And then there was Hemingway in Paris and Spain.  And the olden Russians, so civilized and philosophical.  The underbelly of London.  Etc.  I was gripped with fear that there were a bunch of things happening I’d never see, places I’d never go, or if I did get there, it would be too late.



Do you have a favorite children’s book?

As you know, Jon, I’m partial to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?

I never left the South until I was in college.  Thing was, I was supposed to have.  The summer I got my learner’s permit, my family had a big trip planned to hit all the Western highlights—all the way to California.  It was to be a several-week deal.  Well, my parents had the poor judgment to let me take the first driving shift.  It was before sunup, headed north on route 19.  The old Isuzu Trooper with a pop-up camper in tow.  An animal scurried across the road—can’t remember what kind—and I swerved to miss it.  That would’ve been fine, except for the camper.  It started to fishtail and pull us around on the road and we wound up skidding into the median and dumping over on our side.  The Trooper was worse for wear, but the camper was totaled.  No one got hurt, but the trip was off.  This display of driving acumen happened one county north of where we’d started.  One county.  We regrouped and wound up going to the Smoky Mountains instead.


Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?

No thanks.  I wouldn’t know what to say except to give advice, and I’m not much for giving advice.  I don’t think I was ever very good at taking it either.


How did you meet your wife? How did your first date go?

We met at a crowded dance club in Ybor City, which used to be a grimy part of Tampa where kids went to have fun and now is a manicured part of Tampa where anyone can go to have something akin to fun.  The music was incredibly loud.  I think there was a sink-or-swim drink special—where you pay $10 and drink all the watered-down rum and cokes you want.  She yelled her number in my ear, and despite a significant drunk I remembered it until I got home and was able to write it down.  So yeah, we met in a bar.



And…………………………
Will your fans get to read another book from you any time soon?

Sadly, it’ll be awhile.  All thirteen of my fans will have to muddle through for a few years until I can write the next novel up.  I’m starting it this summer.  It’ll be set in Florida in the 19th century.    



Now, here is John's totally distinctive way he decided
 to answer the time travel question:

IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME



to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,

be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,

actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,

meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.



When would you go?

Where would you go?

Who would you want to meet?

And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?




THE WINDOWS of HEAVEN



Dwyer was stuck in what he would call a ravine, reclining in the shade of trees that seemed like they would bear fruit in certain seasons.  The terrain was dry like the desert but full of vegetation, like parts of California, a state he had driven through once years ago.  Now Dwyer lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Well, right now he lived in this ravine, in some dusty and mild Biblical land, a trickle of cool water but nothing to eat.  He had started to grow hungry but the feeling had dissipated.  His stomach wasn’t growling anymore.  Through the branches of the fruit trees, the sky above Dwyer seemed like a small detail in a long, long story—a tired blue, the clouds still incidental.  Back in Tennessee, nobody would notice he was gone.  He had every intention of returning but he felt profoundly stuck, possibly abandoned.  Maybe the couple in the other side of the duplex would wonder what had happened to him, if it turned out he never made it back, but they wouldn’t wonder strongly enough to make inquiries, even casual ones like coming over and knocking on Dwyer’s door.  He worked odd jobs and temporary factory gigs, so it wasn’t like he’d be missed around the office Monday morning.  There was a to-do list pinned to his refrigerator; he hoped there was nothing embarrassing on it. 



Before being brought to the ravine, Dwyer had observed the vast yet tidy construction site.  Workmen and tradesmen had been called, he could tell, from near and far.  There was an area where pitch would be warmed, an area where wood was treated and another where it was measured and cut.  A cluster of tents stood at one end on a bank of high ground.  There was even a sort of cafeteria where mutton and carrots were stewed in caldrons day and night.  Mealtimes were not observed; a workman strode by and was handed a steaming bowl and took it with him, to slurp down on the way to his next task.  Honestly, there were no breaks at all.  The urgency of the assignment, of course, but Dwyer wondered how much the absence of cigarettes played into the work rate.  He remembered, back when he smoked, being out on jobs and forgetting to bring cigarettes and feeling not merely uninterested in breaks but annoyed by the idea of them.  Sometimes he had a partner for the day, and the partner might be out of smokes too, and Dwyer would find himself angry with the man, like the man had cheated him at cards or something.  




            It had seemed to Dwyer, on the site, that the workmen had not been aware that a sea vessel was being built.  They were content to toil blindly.  They were being paid quite a bit, he suspected, and good pay had a way of trumping curiosity.  He didn’t notice anyone making fun of Noah, as the Bible suggested, but good pay could take care of that too, could cause a man to do his boss-mocking in private.  And in truth, Noah seemed more a figurehead.  There was another guy, one of these guys born to be an assistant, one of these guys who soared in the role of right-hand man.  Dwyer saw this guy all over the site.  He was smaller than the workers but wasn’t a bit afraid of them.  His hair wasn’t wild and he had little red hands that hung like meat from the sleeves of his garment.  Because of this man, no one got near Noah.  He hadn’t even heard Noah’s voice.  This assistant negotiated pay and acted as a translator.  Dwyer had noticed that the assistant only ate the carrots, not the mutton.  He had tried to stay close to this man without being obvious about it.  He had blended himself in with this work crew and then that one, general bustle and a language barrier his cloak, and no one had seemed bothered by him.  As was stated in the rules, he’d arrived with the correct clothing.  From his life back home he’d brought calluses and muscled shoulders.       

            The famous practical problems of the ark, which Professor Blakely had discussed with Dwyer before he had embarked, seemed trivial in the context of the buzzing construction site.  The waste disposal, the feed for all those beasts.  Of course there was always something to nitpick and always an answer to be found in response to picked nits, but when you heard the grunts and smelled the sweat, fussing about practicality seemed moot.  The labor was the fact.  The ark was less than half built, hadn’t looked at all like a boat yet, and Dwyer could not begin to fathom whether it could house a pair of every animal, but of course it would.  It would be as big as it needed to be.  He was aware of the reported numbers of cubits, but when you saw the skeleton in front of you, it was like standing in front of a stadium; you knew it was big because it was a stadium, but was it huge?  It occurred to Dwyer that many things that happened in centuries distant from one’s own might seem outlandish.  Earth being round.  Automobiles.  Power tools.  That a man could work and work for years, nearly a decade, making other men rich and richer, and end up with, for himself, only a few thousand dollars to his name.

            Suddenly, in the ravine, the sky the same inscrutable blue though the day was getting late, he worried that if there was a God, He would get the wrong idea about Dwyer.  He would think Dwyer had traveled here for some other reason than for money, like because Dwyer was skeptical, like because Dwyer didn’t trust Him and wanted to poke holes in his legends.  Really he just longed for a fair shake.  That was all.  He wanted to be appreciated in small ways.  Clapped on the back.  Given a bonus once in his life.  He wanted girls to start being sweet to him again.  These were reasonable things to ask of God.  Whatever tall tales God wanted him to swallow in return, he could swallow them.



Dwyer was getting hungry after all.  He thought of the leftover Indian food in his refrigerator back in Chattanooga, how he would’ve scraped it out into a bowl and warmed it in the microwave and scarfed it down with a Coke.  Maybe he still would.  Night was falling.  The best thing he could do was sleep.  He thought of pleasant things.  He thought of going fishing as a kid in a neighborhood pond, walking though empty lots with his little brother, standing on the mud bank.  They’d chop up hot dog and tug sunfish after sunfish up into the light.  One day they’d snagged a hognose turtle.  It was like dislodging a motorcycle from the depths of the pond.  Dwyer thought of that drive he’d taken, whizzing through California with his shirt off, munching on beef jerky.  The money the trip had cost him had been well blown.  He still believed that.  He thought of when he’d been very young and his father had taken him to the Navy Yards to watch a new ship dropped into the bay.  The ship had submerged almost fully, lost to the world, sending waves lapping up over the docks and splashing into a nearby playground.  There was a frozen moment and then, patiently, like it enjoyed worrying the onlookers, the ship righted itself.  Of course it did.  It wobbled and sloshed, great rivulets of heavy saltwater pouring down its sides, cannons glistening.  



The night had been the perfect temperature for sleeping.  Dwyer had been dealt plenty of bum cards in his day, but he wasn’t going to be the type of person who refused to acknowledge when something nice came his way.  He liked to be cool when he slept, liked to get under a blanket, and that’s sort of what he’d done.  He’d taken off his garment of animal hide and huddled beneath it and slept hard.  That was one of the rules—when you arrived at your destination in history, you would be clothed appropriately.  Another rule was that Dwyer was supposed to be able to comprehend the language, but evidently he hadn’t read the fine print on that one.  He could only understand Noah’s assistant and a few others who seemed closely connected to Noah—the three sons maybe.  The problem was that most of the workmen hailed from far off regions where foreign dialects were spoken.  You couldn’t understand every language, Dwyer now saw, just the important one, the one you’d need to know to gather information.           

            The main rule was that Dwyer would be safe.  No harm would come to him; that was a part of the contract he’d actually read, or at least dutifully skimmed.  And strictly this rule had not yet been broken, but Dwyer had been manhandled, had been dragged from camp and thrown into a ravine, and he was hungry.  Occasionally the wind would carry him the scent of the stewing mutton and by now it was all but driving him crazy.  The hunger wasn’t in his stomach any longer.  His head was light and limbs heavy.  The main thing, he knew, was to stay calm—not to think too much.  He couldn’t afford to get down on himself for agreeing to this.  It was a job and he needed money; since when was he picky about jobs?  But he wished he’d asked Professor Blakely some pointed questions, wished he’d taken the contract home and picked through it.  The truth was he hadn’t wanted to know the details.  He hadn’t wanted to discover something that would’ve kept him from signing on.  And now he was entertaining notions he didn’t want to entertain.  He was thinking Professor Blakely was too nerdy a professor.  He’d been wearing a bow tie.  He’d been wearing a jacket with patches on the sleeves in ninety-degree weather.  He’d been remarkably awkward, had botched his and Dwyer’s handshake.  Dwyer didn’t know where this line of thought had started or where it lead, but he was now giving credence to the idea that Professor Blakely could have been an actor, a front man, meant to seem innocuous and consumed with scientific endeavor.  Professor Blakely’s name could’ve been Steve Simpson or Ben Cole and he could’ve had a couple regional commercials in his credits, a slimy agent, a stack of headshots. 

If he was going to keep thinking about it, which seemed the case, Noah’s assistant didn’t even seem real.  He seemed like a person from Dwyer’s era, not from Chattanooga but from a city somewhere, a mean uptown kiss-ass.  He seemed like someone who could do well in Washington DC.  If whoever was behind Professor Blakely could send Dwyer back in time, then other parties could send other people.  Competing interests.  No, he hadn’t thought this through at all.  He could hardly remember now what the other choices had been, besides Noah.  The loaves and fishes thing.  That was one.  And Lazarus.  Noah had been the first on the list, so Dwyer had chosen him.  He hadn’t wanted to weigh options; he’d wanted an assignment.          



High noon.  The sun white and silent above him.  Dwyer had scoured the ravine for berries or nuts or mushrooms, and had come up empty.  He was thinking again.  No use trying not to.  He was thinking about the fact that God had promised never to flood the world again not because he felt sorry about it, but because he’d realized humans were beyond help.  Humans were broken and deaf.  “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” is the way God put it.  Dwyer remembered that from Bible school.  That part had stuck with him. 

            He stared upward.  No clouds.  Something was up there, though.  There had to be something hiding up there, for it to look so plain.



There was nothing special about the two men who had thrown him into the ravine.  They’d been drunk, which was against the rules of the site.  They hadn’t been angry with Dwyer.  They’d roused him out of his tent in the night and dragged him what he estimated was less than a mile to this makeshift prison and he hadn’t seen them since.  No abuse.  No threats, even.  They hadn’t tried to rob him.  The possibilities:  They had forgotten altogether about putting Dwyer in here, had gotten up the next morning and gone back to work none the wiser and would never know a thing about this deed they’d committed one night in a drunken reverie.  Or, with colossal hangovers, they’d been assaulted by the morning sun and their own bowels and had been unable to work and were shown the door by Noah’s assistant.  He had seen that happen dozens of times in Chattanooga, dudes throwing up all morning and finally getting shit-canned at lunch.  The two guys hadn’t even seemed to enjoy dragging him to the ravine.  They hadn’t laughed.  They hadn’t argued.  They’d said a few things, in one of the countless languages Dwyer couldn’t understand.  He was having a hard time picturing the pair now.  They had looked mostly alike—that he remembered.  Maybe that was why he couldn’t picture them.  One spoke in an eager ramble, and the other cautiously and without inflection.  It seemed the fast-talking one was foolhardy and the other wise, but that may not have been the case.  The quiet one may have been quiet because he was dull-witted.

            Dwyer was dull-witted.  That wasn’t in question.  He was stuck in a ravine.  He was stuck in a ravine and the worst storm in all of history was brewing out over the sea somewhere, headed for him.  He took some deep breaths of the thin air.  He could’ve used a cigarette.  He hadn’t lit up in the sober light of day for many months, but if offered a cigarette at this moment he’d have gratefully accepted.  It was getting to the hottest part of the day and he was trapped in the shade of trees that in another part of the year might produce juicy, sweet sustenance. 

Dwyer’s patience was fraying fast.  He was not meant to be cooped up.  He kept thinking of that damned assistant, and now the two workmen who’d thrown him in the ravine didn’t seem credible, either.  They seemed like movie ruffians, like goons produced in order to advance a plot.  He was a pawn but maybe God had his pawns as well.  Dwyer wanted to gaze skyward but he wasn’t going to indulge in that anymore.  He put his feet up on a big rock that seemed to be ticking with warmth.  He looked at his hands.  They were familiar.  He wanted to be home in his duplex.  He wanted to appreciate what he had.  He wanted to be young, and maybe he was.  He looked at the sky, ignoring its static, smirking hue, trying to imagine a wonderful rainbow.

Here is Mr. Brandon contemplating his next step in life
(or not).

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