Interview by Isabel Quintero-Flores
On a chilly December afternoon I sat down for a conversation with memoirist James Brown in his dim lit office on the California State University, San Bernardino campus. Brown is the author of the award-winning The Los Angeles Diaries, and the more recent This River; both memoirs are about addiction, life, death and love. This River is the sequel to The Los Angeles Diaries and chronicles the almost immediate relapse of the author into the abyss that is drug addiction and the demons that must be slain in order to remerge-but never unscathed. The book is a collection of twelve vignettes that traverse the seedy underbelly of San Bernardino’s ghettos to the picturesque San Bernardino Mountains on a dark and personal journey towards redemption, however uncertain. Brown’s prose is vivid and honest-it hides nothing and spares no one, especially himself. An example of this is “Instructions on the Use of Heroin” where the readers are allowed into a very private ritual, “So they can see better, the kneel on the floor before the table lamp. They search, and in the dim light, heads bowed and blood leaking from their wounds, it looks to me as if we are all engaged in some grotesque act of prayer.” Somehow, though we learn that addiction is forever and that there is no true escape, as the narrator had suggested at the end of the first book, there is a sense of personal growth, true recovery and hope, which is ultimately what drives each story.
Isabel: My first question is pretty broad: what is memoir and why write it? Is there a formula to writing memoir?
James: Okay, well, (laughs) those are big questions. Memoir is supposed to be the truth and you know as opposed to fiction where we make up stories. The constraints of the memoir are such that you’re bound by what happened. Part of the art of memoir is recreating what happened in a dramatic fashion…so that others feel the experience as you felt it the time it occurred. So, you have to use fictional techniques to recreate mood, setting, even if you can’t remember it verbatim. You end up fictionalizing it to some degree, so memoir is more than just a simple recording of events. It’s a recreation of events in a dramatic fashion. It’s the way I imagine it.
I: So then my follow up question to that is how reliable is the narrator?
J: Depends on the integrity of the memoirist…because nobody really knows your personal experience, and what you really did experience and what you might not have experienced. You have the classic case of Jim Frey where he made up events that were so exaggerated that truth, fact checkers caught him in a number of, what would you call them, lies…and they were big lies, they weren’t small lies…so, yea, when I write, I don’t want to lie, but I can’t recall exactly what’s happened in the past, especially when I go back forty or fifty years, to when I was five years old but I can remember parts, details, so there is fiction in memoir; we do make things up but we have to be as close to the truth as possible if we are to maintain our personal integrity.
I: I’m going to start off with pretty easy questions. What is your writing process when you are writing a memoir? And is it different than when you are writing fiction?
J: The writing process is the same. If you’re talking about me sitting down in front of a computer and writing. That’s no different. When it comes to me imaging things, I have to abide by the constraints of the truth as it occurred to the best of my abilities. But I also, am obliged to fictionalizing certain areas especially when it comes to protecting the identity of others. I’m also constrained, and this is one of the tough parts of writing memoir, because you don’t want the memoir to sprawl. You want to be able to contain it somehow so that you can make sense out of your life, so you can shape it. That’s one of the toughest things I’ve come up against, “How can I tell the truth so that I can still shape a story? So that it feels like it has a beginning middle and end. So that it feels like I’m introducing conflict. So that it maintains tension. How do I reshape some events, even though I keep in mind that I have to abide by the truth, but how do I reshape them, how do I order them so they still generate some of the necessary elements that a fiction, I believe needs like conflict and tension.”
I: Who are your favorite authors and why?
J: A whole range of different authors. When I first started out writing my first exposure to a fine author was Ernest Hemingway. And I was not the brightest bulb on the block, so if I was to pick up Marcel Proust when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I would have been turned off immediately, but picking up Hemingway, the prose was so crisp, clear and sharp. I could read his work and enjoy it for the story he was telling and then as I got older, although it appeared simple, the language it wasn’t simple at all it was very complex. It was multi-layered in terms of metaphor and meaning.
I: Is there particular Hemingway book or story that sticks out?
J: I was first taken by his short stories. His best short story is “The Snows of Kilamanjaro,” in my opinion, and then of course there is, “The Short and Happy Life of Frances Macamber.” I really hate to see Hemingway relegated to these anthologies, that little short story that he wrote, ‘Hills Like White Elephants,” he’s written so much better work, so much deeper work. Then I was really taken early on, and for reasons that I didn’t know why, I was an undergrad in college at the time I read Flannery O’Connor and I didn’t really know what was behind her work. I didn’t really have a good analytical mind, I didn’t really know how much depth there was to her work, but I enjoyed her stories, and I loved her voice and her sense of humor and her ironic tone and even though I wasn’t real sharp and analytical I could still enjoy a Flannery O’Connor story. I think that’s important, that stories work on multiple levels. We can’t escape this notion that stories are entertainment. When we go to college we get corrupted and we start reading everything for meaning, metaphor, and symbol and we don’t enjoy our reading anymore because we become so conscious of structure. But these were some of the people that I enjoyed before I became conscious of structure and then later learned and went back and studied them and realized how much they had to offer.
I: Opposite of that then, who is an author you just can’t stand?
J: I don’t like sloppy writers (and here I’m going to generalize); most of the mass market books you find in the grocery stores I pick up and I look at the prose and I go, “Gosh, this is really bad or this is really corny or this is not true” and it just sends red flags up and there are many authors out there that are highly successful that I really can’t read because they’re so badly written.
I: So, a best seller doesn’t equate a good book?
J: By no means. By no means. No, if anything it could be just the opposite. If everybody likes it you know you’re doing something wrong.
I: Back to memoir. How do you grapple with complexity of writing about family and friends when some of your family and friends are still alive and can read your work? And read what you’ve written about them? How do you do it without outing them or do you feel you out them every time, even though you change their name?
J: Well, in The Los Angeles Diaries most of the people that were really close to me had passed on so that wasn’t an issue. However, there was my niece and my brother-in-law and when they read what I’d written about them…my brother-in-law…was at first very gracious and said, “Well, that’s your point of view and I respect it.” But, as time went on he stopped talking to me and so did my niece. And I think it had much to do with, not just what I’d written about them but also because of the death of my sister at the time and of my relationship with my sister…I kind of wandered from your question. What was your question again?
I: How do you deal with writing about family and friends are still alive and can read your work? And read what you’ve written about them? How do you do it without outing them or do you feel you out them every time, even though you change their name?
J: Well, one [way] I justify it in my own mind [is that] my life is inextricably linked to the lives of others. I can’t write about my own life without including the lives of others, I don’t live in a vacuum. So, I have to write about other people in telling my own story. In trying not to out them, I do what is required of me legally; I change identifying characteristics…So, I do what I can to protect the identity of the individual that I am writing about. Frequently I don’t even name them, especially if they’re minor players.
I: Do you ever regret using some people in your stories or putting them in? Do you ever feel like, “Maybe I shouldn’t write about them?” Or, “Maybe I should just leave them out?”
J: You know I regret not including my sister in an autobiographical novel I wrote called, Final Performance. I focus pretty heavily on my brother, on myself, and my mother, and I left her out of it. I partly left her out of it because I wanted it to be a brother-brother story and I also left her out of it because I didn’t want the added complexity of having to deal with her story in there. But when I look back now…well that book could have been a better book if I had included her story in there too. She actually was hurt that she wasn’t included in the book. So I’ve actually made the mistake of leaving people out who belonged…I left my stepfamily out of the Los Angeles Diaries although they played a tremendous role in my life, especially my stepmother. She was a wonderful woman and gave my father some wonderful years of his life…They were an American-Mexican family, and we lived in east San Jose.
I: You touched on her briefly in The Los Angeles Diaries.
J: I used her name Eileen, that’s actually her middle name, and she wasn’t too happy about it. But I don’t know about my stepbrother. He never mentioned it. He’s a very good man and very gracious to me and he never even mentioned, “Why didn’t you write about me?” And I have some interesting stories to tell about him. Maybe I should include him in the future. I left them out because I didn’t want to open up that door.
I: That was actually my next question. How do you choose what to leave out and are certain things off limits?
J: You know life sprawls. If you were to include everything and all the different people who have come and gone from your life your going to have a book that’s going to fracture and spin off in multiple directions. You have to make a conscious choice on how you intend to shape your memoir. Which means you’re going to have to leave some people out because you don’t want to open a pandora’s box. Like I said, I didn’t mention my stepbrother and he had polio and that played a role. And all of a sudden I had to start bringing in all these details about my stepbrother and what not. Then the fire or momentum that I had with my biological brother would get derailed into a different story. I had to make choices to leave people out in order to get the story into the shape or form and those are hard choices. There’s a second part to your question there.
I: Are certain things off limits?
I: So…what kind of things are off limits? In general, you don’t have to be specific.
J: (laughing) There’s no statute of limitation on capital offenses, so you do have to be very careful. I say that jokingly. There’s somethings in my personal life that I’ve done that I don’t want to share with other people. I think I’ve shared a lot in The Los Angeles Diaries, I’ve shared a lot in This River, but there are even darker things, darker places where I don’t want to go, that I don’t want to share with others.
I: This River picks up where Los Angeles Diaries left off. And so the ending of LA Diaries flows into the beginning of This River. You end with a story and you start with a story but the endings are a bit different. LA Diaries ends a little more positive, a little more hopeful and This River doesn’t. My question is why did you choose different endings and why did you flip flop from first person to third person?
J: I go into second person in “Midair” in Los Angeles Diaries.
I: Yes, and in This River, throughout you go into third and second person.
J: I probably do that to create a kind of distance on myself. Looking from the outside in. The differences in the ending…The Los Angeles Diaries did end on a hopeful note and when I wrote it I firmly believed that I was going to remain clean and sober and that there wasn’t going to be a relapse and then the irony of it is that when you read This River, you find out that when The Los Angeles Diaries was being released…I was in rehab at that time. That was the irony…I think I realized even more firmly…that I am not safe. There is nothing to say that after I finish this interview with you, and though I have years of sobriety under my belt, I’m not going to go to the liquor store like I used to. There’s really no safety net for me. Once you’re an alcoholic or addict there is always the possibility and always the threat that you will return to your old ways. So, I try not to be as complacent as I once was, so that I don’t find myself doing what I used to do. That’s why This River ends on a darker note. It’s like it’s saying, “Hey listen out of rehab this man is going to change and he hopes to change. But this man also knows that inside him that old self can resurface.”
I: You touched a little bit on “In Midair,” in Los Angeles Diaries. Why is that one in second person? Was that on purpose? Or was it when you were writing it that’s how it came out?
J: That’s one of those things that as I was writing it, that’s how it came out. And I think it was in part response to my failure in Final Performance that I did not include my sister in the story. To me I see that section as an extended love letter to my sister. The things that I wished I had said but didn’t say. For me trying to reconstruct her life, imagined and speak to her as if I were speaking to the dead. And I was, I was speaking to the dead in there. There’s a chapter in This River called “Talking to the Dead.”
I: Oh yea, it’s the first chapter.
J: What a cheery opening. But when I wrote that it was like an extended love letter, things I wanted to say but couldn’t have.
I: In part of that section you put yourself there with her, and I always thought that must’ve been very hard to put yourself in that place.
J: To go back to that place. That was actually, of all the pieces of that collection, the hardest one to write emotionally, the most emotionally taxing.
I: Are there ever times when you just say, “I’m done. I don’t want to go further. I don’t want to write it anymore?”
J: With Los Angeles Diaries I was determined to tell the truth no matter what had happened to me. So I went straight ahead and…I didn’t give myself time to have reservations. I just said, “I’m going to tell this story to the best of my ability. It means a lot to me.” And in This River I had reservations about telling the last story in there when I go to rehab. I really didn’t like that person that would jump out of a moving car and take his boy through the ghettos of San Bernardino. I thought to myself, “What kind of father does that? What kind of man is that?” I didn’t like exposing that side of myself, you’re right. And I’m working on another memoir now but I’m done going to the darkest places again. I want to write now more about recovery, more about the service that I’ve done [and] the great things that have come with living a sober life, that I was never able to recognize before. Taking this life that I had shattered and now with the help of people who love me putting it back together. That’s what I want to write about now. It may not be as moving, but maybe it will be.
I: For a lot of people, I think it would be. In “Instructions on the Use of Heroin” in This River pg. 142, you describe the scene where three addicts are shooting heroin- you, Crystal, and Eddie. You paint this tragic but beautiful picture, with the illusions to prayer in there. But I also go the sense that you might be writing for the two other people, the two other addicts, for them. Do you find yourself writing for other addicts, giving them voice, or is it just for you?
J: That’s a good question. Eddie, he’s passed on…And the young girl Crystal, I can’t really speak about her for public reasons, but I hope she’s doing better… Do I write for other addicts? Originally, when I wroteThe Los Angeles Diaries, and This River, and that piece in particular, I didn’t think that it might be helpful for other addicts. But over the years since the book has come out I’ve been invited to speak at many, many colleges on sometimes, just the basis of the books and oftentimes I go out during Red Ribbon Week to talk about awareness and I was a spokesperson for A Partnership for Drug-Free America for a while. So, as it turns out those books have been helpful to people struggling with addiction and who have dealt with losing a loved one to suicide. I’ve had many, many people come up to me, especially young men and women, and tell me that my book was very helpful to them. And I’m always stunned, flattered, and appreciative that somehow, something I wrote connected with them. I never set out to that, that wasn’t my intention; I wasn’t trying to help anybody. Maybe that’s why, it doesn’t sound or come out didactic. I hope it doesn’t sound didactic. [laughing]
I: When I read that particular chapter, you don’t paint the other addicts as bad people. You’re very hard on yourself but not on the other addicts. It feels like you feel bad for them and-
J: I do.
I: I feel bad for them. I really feel for them. That chapter was hard to get through. But the way you write them, they don’t seem like bad people. A lot of times when we hear or read about addicts we read that they’re just bad people, they don’t have will power, they’re lazy-
J: They’re weak.
I: And that’s not how you present them. Like I said, you’re very hard on yourself, but not on the other addicts. Now can we talk a little bit about “American Mariachi” and I only ask because we started our conversation talking about boxing, and this seems like a strange piece among all the other chapters.
J: It is. Because it doesn’t deal with drugs or alcohol. It was a piece that actually went into the book at the last minute. My editor wanted more from me and I said, “It feels like it’s done to me.” But he said, “Well, do you have anything else?” And I said, “Well, yea I’ve got a couple pieces. I’ll show you one of them…This one is polished but I don’t know if it goes. I don’t know if it fits.” I sent it to him and he liked it. He said, “Why not? Put it in. It shows another side of life. Not everything has to be circling around addiction and drugs and alcohol and your family. This is a nice companion piece to the book that shows another side of your sensibility. “And that’s how that piece came into the collection; by my editor’s choice.
I: Not your own.
J: Not my own. I wasn’t going to include that piece.
I: In this one you talk about Orlando but you talk about him by name. You didn’t change his name like you have for others.
J: Orlando said it was okay. Orlando reads all my work. Like I’ve told you before, if I can get his stamp of approval I feel pretty good, knowing that other people are not likely to be as tough on me as Orlando typically is. I can trust him to be very truthful with me and my work. Originally, I wrote the story kind of as you see it there. And then I cut out the stuff about the gay lover. It seemed to work better as a story that way, it was more streamlined with the masquerade of the ethnicity in the upcoming fight…[boxing] brings out the darker side of human nature in that regard; when it comes to one’s alliance with race. And I thought, okay that’s a story and it seemed to work. But I thought, you know what, it may not be as nicely tied…but the stuff about Orlando breaking up with his gay lover…that was what was happening at the time and I thought it would add another layer even if it didn’t directly parallel the intent of the other work. So, I thought, it would be better to…have some flaws because I thought it would enrich the work. Sometimes it’s better to have, I don’t know if you’d call it flaws, [maybe] diversions that might enrich the work even if they don’t add to the major thrust of the theme.
I: Okay, so out of all the books you have written which one is your favorite, which are you most proud of, and which is your least favorite?
I: And your least favorite?
J: My least favorite?
I: Do you have one?
J: (laughing) Yeah, yeah, I don’t like to many of my own books. I’ve been writing for so long now that I look back at some of my earlier stuff and say, “This is no good! This isn’t very good stuff,” I was lucky to get it published and now I know why people didn’t read it. Because it’s not that good! But there was one I came out with called, The Second Story Theatre, and that was kind of a novella. That’s probably my least favorite work.
I: And why was that?
J: God, I really don’t think I had the emotional investment. It is probably the work that is the most distant from my personal experience. Almost all my other work has autobiographical ties and I feel comfortable in my knowledge that I’m writing something authentic when I’m writing something somewhat related to my experience. When I move out of that comfort zone to the completely imaginary and I’m just making everything up, then I begin to second guess my self a lot. I look at the work and say, “Well, this doesn’t mean that much too me.” And that can be very personal because it doesn’t draw on experiences that I know to be real, authentic. That might just be my own little glitch.
I: Well, we write what we know.
J: Yea, I’m still from that old school, that we write what we know. And I’d add to that that we write what we care about, what we have empathy toward. That’s a huge part of writing; that we write about people, places, things that we care about, that we have compassion for, that we have empathy toward. And if you don’t…it’s going to be hard for your reader to feel empathy or concern or compassion for the characters…
I: My next question, I didn’t really know how to ask. We kind of touched on not wanting to write anymore; a lot of it is painful memories. How do you work through saying, “Okay I’m going to write.” Because I imagine, you wrote The Los Angeles Diaries, and it was a lot about your brother and sister’s suicide. This River is about you and your relationship with your sons and your dad. How do you work through that feeling of guilt, because you mention a lot of guilt in there. How do work through all that to get to the end?
J: Well, I’ll say I do feel a lot of guilt for the things I’ve done, for the harm I’ve caused others. And you know, in writing those pieces I have to relive that stuff, and …I want to make sure that I’m pretty damn clear about my role in the relationships I’ve had and if I can come closer to a better understanding of my role in the relationships…and I can admit my shortcomings, then maybe there’s a chance that I can become a better person later down the line. Doesn’t always translate, but maybe. Some of the stuff that I wrote was painful to write because I cared and loved the people that I was writing about and I miss them. I still miss them… And when I was writing about them, having to relive some of the experience we lived together that was heavy lifting emotionally.
I: But the thought of becoming a better person, at the end, that was what pushed you?
J: I hope so. Yeah, I hope so. I hope that I’m learning something by my own experiences but I find that I don’t always. There’s still part of my character that really need improving. I have so much room to be a better person.
I: But I think that’s true until the day we’re gone.
J: Yes, it is. But I want to be conscious of it, especially since I lived so much of life unconsciously (laughing).
I: Quick shift. You said you’re working on a third memoir. Besides that are you working on anything else? Fiction or non-ficiton? And do focus on various pieces and once? Or do you just focus on one?
J: I focus on one project at a time. I’ve had a lot of false starts on the book that I’m working on now but I feel good that I’ve gotten it on a right track. I’m still fumbling and I could still fail. But the more time I spend with it the more confident I am that I’m going to be able to navigate through this new book. And it has quite a bit to do with working with my youngest son, Nate…I’ve read so many books on drugs and alcohol that I know the genetic connection combined with getting off to an early start, can almost doom a person. So, when I saw it happening with my youngest boy I really, my wife and I both, Paula, really took an active role in turning things around. The book has a lot to do with my relationship with my last son.
I: How do you balance teaching and writing?
J: (laughing) That’s a good one. It’s always a tough balance. It really is. A couple of things I can say about it is that no matter if your in insurance salesman, or librarian or whatnot and you still have aspirations to write our going to be juggling your time; trying to find time to write, and make a pay check, and be a wife to your husband, and maybe some semblance of a social life. So, the teaching and the writing, that time you fight to get, is no different for a carpenter than it is for a teacher…One of the drawbacks…is that you read a lot of student work, you read books all the time; books you have to analyze, teach, translate and that’s subtracts…over a period of years, from your passion, so there’s a risk factor involved here. You can get too much of a good thing and that’s one of the draw backs of teaching. Teaching also, doesn’t really furnish you with a great deal of material. You live a relatively insulate life here. We have it so good as professors, we may complain but you look around and you see other people pounding nails forty-fifty hours a week or working in a machine shop or whatever they have to do to bring home a pay check, well that life’s a little bit different and a whole lot harder than the life of a professor, which is kind of cushy in my opinion…I’m grateful to have the job I have, it does allow me more time to write than if I would have made the trades, as I used to do…I found that very draining; I was physically drained.
I: It is a bit draining. In LA Diaries more than in This River you write about the constant rejection that comes with writing. What can you tell beginning writers that are going through that? And what advice do you have for writers?
J: Rejection is almost a right of passage. Expect it so you’re better able to handle it when it hits. Don’t give up. Perseverance and putting in hours writing: those are the two components that will take you a lot further than talent will…perseverance comes into the mix too when you finish your work you keep it out there, even if it gets rejected once, twice, whatever. Hotwire was rejected thirty-two times before it found a home. There were times when I wanted to give up on myself and I thought, “The reason why I’m being rejected is because I am not any good.” And if you listen to that voice in your head it will kill you. You will stop writing. So you need to write for yourself and believe in yourself. God knows no one else is going to believe in you, if you don’t believe in yourself. And then when that break does come you find an editor that likes your work-hang on to that person as tightly as possible! And follow that person to the end of the earth because you are lucky to have found that person who thinks and sees the worlds as you do. Or at least enough to want to get behind you and help you promote and publish your work.
I: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?
J: I think you’ve got tons there.
Isabel Quintero-Flores graduated with her B.A. in English from California State University San Bernardino, where she is currently a graduate student in the M.A. in English Composition program. She has had poems published in The Pacific Review, and Xican@ Poetry Daily. Isabel lives in Southern California’s Inland Empire with her wonderful and supportive husband, Fernando. She is currently working on a young adult novel-in-verse about a young girl’s struggle with body image, and on her thesis.