Brandon Hobson, THE REMOVED

Brandon Hobson, THE REMOVED

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brandon. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Brandon Hobson: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Your latest novel, The Removed, is a beautiful story, so well-written, about all different characters as they relate to the loss of a fifteen-year-old boy, Ray-Ray. Tell me a little more about what inspired you to write this novel. Where did it come from?

Brandon: It came out of a question. Chekhov says that fiction should begin with questions. The question is always what I begin with in my work. The big question here was, how do we grieve and how do we heal? I’m also really interested in the question of, what is home? I think that applies to this book as well as some of my other work. That’s the starting place for me, examining those questions and then taking it from there.

Zibby: I feel like you tapped into so many different things. If somebody had an issue going on, it’s probably in this book. Someone with Alzheimer’s, someone with an opioid addiction, someone with loss, all of these things are so relevant to everyone. Yet somehow you even weave them in and threw in a foster care child to boot. You packed so much in. Yet it all interwove seamlessly by how you divided the different points of view into the different chapters. How did you decide to take this view by all the different people in the family and shifting the camera lens, if you will, around to different places and perspectives?

Brandon: For one thing, one of the things I like about fiction writing is getting inside characters’ heads. Here, it was an opportunity to take the Echota family and get inside their heads. The different points of view are all first person. That means trying to have very distinct voices. I don’t know whether I pulled that off as well as I could’ve. I don’t know. That’s part of the fun. It’s sort of like acting. I heard Ottessa Moshfegh say this a few years ago. I went to read her reading. Then afterwards, we went out to dinner and talked a little bit. One of the things that she said, and I think it’s certainly true of me, is that it’s sort of like acting in that you’re getting inside a character and really seeing how they respond to certain situations. That’s a big part of the pleasure of writing, is doing that and playing with voice and circumstance. This family, I had the mother, Maria, she was maybe the most challenging because she’s an older woman who’s lost a child. I wanted to try to get that voice somewhat distinct and specific. I actually talked to a friend of my mom’s, and my mom’s in her seventies, a friend of hers who, many years ago, had lost her teenage son. I talked to her a little bit about that experience, which was hard, but it needed to be done.

Zibby: That’s true. I should’ve added this to the many themes that you touched on in the book, which is also police brutality in a way or, really, racism and targeting people on first glance based on how they look, which is what happened with Ray-Ray in the story. So many powerful, powerful issues to be explored. It’s really amazing. When you sit down to write this book, okay, fine, we have Chekhov’s question. This is the question you’re doing. How did you decide how to craft all of these characters and what you were going to tackle in their passages? Obviously, you did research by talking to your mom’s friend. Did you research all the characters? Did you outline the whole thing? Did they just appear in your head?

Brandon: That’s a very difficult question. Where do characters come from? I don’t necessarily outline. I start more with an image. Sometimes images will come that I’ll see. I’m not sure what the scene is or when it takes place, but I’ll see a character doing something. For Edgar’s part, which is probably the strangest of all of them because he does have some addiction problems, I wanted those sections to be the most surreal, the most strange not only because of his drug use, but also because he finds himself in a sort of mythical place called the Darkening Land. The Darkening Land is out of old Cherokee stories. That’s a specific place. In this place, I kind of had free reign to create it however I wanted to. I really wanted to hone in on the strangeness of this place and hopefully parallel it to the strangeness of the country we’re living in right now in terms of, look at the way that racism is so prevalent today and the way that video games are used, and virtual reality. Edgar becomes a target of a game that he fears for his life, a real shooting game. That was really exciting because that was, again, crafting out of an alternate universe, a very dreamlike, surreal place. His sections were really fun. I knew that I wanted Sonja to be very obsessive and obsessed with romantic — she’s a very strong woman. She’s very confident. She finds herself involved with a guy who is not native who becomes very dangerous. I knew that I wanted Sonja’s character to be in a situation with someone who was dangerous. She’s placed in danger. Edgar’s placed in danger in the Darkening Land.

The mother, Maria, is really the one that is trying to pull everything together. She’s dealing with her husband’s Alzheimer’s. Her husband Ernest is just really suffering from his Alzheimer’s. Then they take in this wonderful little boy named Wyatt who almost feels like he begins to heal Ernest because of, look at how closely he resembles Ray-Ray from fifteen, twenty years ago. At the beginning, it just was taking off. I was doing each character separately. I was writing. Here’s the way I knew that I was writing Sonja’s, her thread, and I was writing Edgar’s thread. I knew with Maria and Ernest, their threads just started taking off. I think that’s often what happens when you start writing and you really get to know your characters very intimately, very well. They sort of start doing things on their own. You just follow along. I don’t really outline much. All that sort of stuff comes with editing afterwards to help with the structure and shape after the draft. I think the most fun part is the very first draft because you’re just — Charles Johnson, he wrote this fantastic craft book. He was a student of John Gardner’s. Charles Johnson, in his craft book, talked about the pleasure, the fun of writing. Finding that pleasure really is where I feel, for me — I feel very strongly about that and its importance to my work.

Zibby: How many times do you think you’ve started novels at this point? Have there been others that you’ve started that haven’t been finished?

Brandon: Oh, yeah. In my twenties, back in the nineties, I had several novels. It took me a really long time. I’ve been writing since I started college, for thirty years. I wasn’t writing as a kid. I started writing fiction in college. It’s been a long time. It’s taken a long time to develop an understanding of how to do it.

Zibby: Writing novels takes so long relative to a round of tennis. If you only played five rounds of tennis, you wouldn’t be that good, especially your first round. Because novels take so long sometimes, then they think because of all the amount of work and time invested, it should speed up or something, but it doesn’t. You still need the practice. Another author I was talking to said, “It took me twenty-eight novels to get to number one on the best-seller list.” That makes sense to me. If you do something over and over and over and get better and better at it, then it stands to reason you might have your most success at your twenty-eighth book versus your first. Not to say that there aren’t — anyway.

Brandon: There are great, amazing, young writers. It just is amazing to me when you have someone in their twenties, which is really young to be so good. They’re out there. I think that’s great. It is a lot of work. I don’t have a whole lot of other hobbies, really. I have two kids here. My hobbies are usually spending time with them and shooting baskets with my thirteen-year-old or my seven-year-old. There’s an obsession about it, I think. That’s probably true of anything. Like you say, tennis, I think one has to have an obsession in order to really, it seems like to me — I don’t know. There’s probably a lot of natural ability in sports. I don’t know if that’s true with writing, this natural ability.

Zibby: I think people have natural ability, but I think that some people who don’t can get really great at it. I think some people who do can squander it.

Brandon: That’s true.

Zibby: I have two thirteen-year-olds and a seven-year-old. I also have a six-year-old. I find that that makes my ability to ever write or be productive a little bit impaired. How has that been for you, especially with the pandemic? How has that affected your writing to be parenting with everything else?

Brandon: It’s really strange. My thirteen, as you know, they’re pretty self-sufficient. The math, my wife has to help him. I don’t remember seventh grade math being that difficult. I like helping my seven-year-old, especially with the art projects. We went out and found leaves. I live in the desert. There are not a lot of leaves out. We went over to a tree and found some leaves a few months ago and were able to make birds. Those have been fun. My writing, especially during the pandemic, I haven’t been able to write during the day. It’s been between the hours of ten PM and two or three AM, usually. During those four hours that I sit down to really think, this is my writing time, I’ll try to get as much done as I can. I tell myself it’s a success even if I just go through and edit or write half a page or a page. That’s a success because you can go days and days without writing. During the day, I’m always trying to think about it. I’m kind of a night owl anyway. I will sleep a little bit later and stay up late, but I’ve always been like that.

Zibby: Interesting. Did you feel like, after your book got nominated for the National Book Award, that you had anxiety about starting another book, or did that fuel your resolve to write something else amazing?

Brandon: I don’t know that it really gave me anxiety. There’s so much out there. There’s so many books. Part of it, for me, I published a couple of books with small presses, and I’m used to people not paying that much attention that I don’t think so much about it when I work. I think had that been a debut novel, like the first thing I ever published, it might have created some more anxiety. Most of my anxiety — I do have anxiety. It comes more along the lines of when I’m having to be in a social situation with people and talk about it. With you, one on one and I’m at my house… But talking about the book in front of large groups of people gives me significant anxiety. Then I find myself having one too many glasses of wine or too many beers to try to overcompensate. Then I may embarrass myself. It’s gotten better.

Zibby: I feel bad. I said the thing about anxiety because I was literally just putting myself in your shoes. I worry about everything all the time. Then as I was saying the question, I was like, okay, this is my own issue that I am now asking him. It just happened that you also have that same thing.

Brandon: You know what? I do. I have severe anxiety. When I was a kid, I had such social anxiety so bad. I just wouldn’t talk for long periods of time. It’s gotten way better now. I’ve talked to a therapist my whole life, so that helps.

Zibby: I had a lot of social anxiety as a kid as well. I went this one entire summer on a summer program to France where I just didn’t talk. I was supposed to go learn the language and live with the family. I spoke a little in French, which now of course I don’t remember a word of. With my peers, I was so shy. I didn’t open my mouth the whole summer. What I found during that time, which I think of a lot — I don’t know if you do the same thing. I spent so much time analyzing language because it seemed so natural for other people to just talk. I was so struggling with the ability just to talk and figure out what would come next. I just listened all summer. I think about that sometimes now as I ramble or write my heart out or whatever, how at times it’s so hard to even form a sentence and how that ease of conversation, it’s sort of stayed with me.

Brandon: I went to Paris for the first time the summer before last. I taught for a week-long writing workshop. That was the best, most amazing trip I’ve ever been on. It was so great. I love the language. I love the city. I loved everything about it. I’d never been out of the country. I’d been to Mexico once in my entire life. I’d never been anywhere else. I walked around a lot. It was just amazing, an amazing experience.

Zibby: Interesting. Are you working on anything else now? What is it you’re doing in the middle of the night?

Brandon: I am. There are a couple of things I’m working on. One, it’s too early to really know what it’s going to form into yet. I’m going through this first draft. It’s not much yet. It’s not much at all. Then I’m working also on a children’s book, not as in real young, but as in middle grade. My son’s a seventh grader. I’ve started that and hope that that — I just like to do different stuff in terms of writing. Stuff is a weird word. I always like a different project. We’ll see.

Zibby: Got to keep mixing it up.

Brandon: There’s always something I’m working on, always.

Zibby: That’s great. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Brandon: One of the most important things is just, this is what everybody says, but to read a lot and read widely with a very open mind. Writing, it’s almost like, the more you do it, the more fun it becomes. If aspiring writers are not in a program or have taken a workshop or a class, sometimes those get really bad — I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t go for an MFA. I have an MA in English. Then I went on and got a PhD. There’s something to be said about being around a community of other writers and people who are in the same space with you and you’re all looking at each other’s work and helping each other. There was a time in my life where I didn’t have that at all. When I did, I became very grateful. I think that that was largely what helped me become a better writer on a craft level, is having that community of people. I would just say other than reading widely, get your work among a community of readers that you can share each other’s work and talk about what’s working and what’s not working.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I feel like especially now with the whole world on Zoom and your local habitat opening up to everybody else, it’s easier to find those like-minded souls than it was before when you were sort of confined by the people around you who may or may not share your interests at all. Now you’re in the desert somewhere talking about writing. I’m in New York City. It’s so neat.

Brandon: One thing I didn’t talk about in terms of the new book was, there’s an ancestral voice named Chala. One thing I did want to mention, if it’s okay, was that Chala, in the book, is based on a real man named Chali. What happened was he was killed for refusing to leave the land when Andrew Jackson ordered removal. Before the migration, what’s known as the Trail of Tears, some people refused to go. There was one man who, with his son, died. This Chala, this ancestral voice, is based on him. He’s speaking to the Echota family in the book trying to weave in — here’s, again, that question. How do we grieve? How do we heal? He incorporates the traditional Cherokee stories. It was also fun because I also had a couple of my own that I just write.

Zibby: Was one of yours the — who had the one about the deer, the doe, talking to the guy in the woods? He had to run. Then he stood where the — I’m not explaining this well. Then the leeches would get him.

Brandon: The leeches, that’s based off a traditional story. Him rescuing the wolf and the wolf speaking through his eyes, that was me. That’s not necessarily from a traditional story. To return to the pleasure of writing, to go back for aspiring writers, I really think there should be a lot of enjoyment and a lot of pleasure. I like the strangeness of it. It’s Coleridge who said great art should incorporate some type of strangeness. That was Coleridge who said that, so I don’t know. Take what you will. I do feel very strongly about the pleasure of writing. If it starts to feel like it’s not pleasurable and it’s just work, then it’s maybe time to just put it aside and start something else.

Zibby: Excellent, excellent advice. This is great. We started with Chekhov. We ended with Coleridge. This is fantastic. I feel like I just had a little English throwback class here today. Thank you for dusting off the volumes in my mind.

Brandon: That’s what getting a PhD does to you. It makes you throw these names out there, I guess.

Zibby: Might as well get your money’s worth out of that PhD. If not now, when?

Brandon: Exactly.

Zibby: Brandon, thank you so much. It was really a pleasure talking to you. I hope this wasn’t as anxiety-invoking for either of us as perhaps some other settings.

Brandon: No. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s been a pleasure to talk one on one with you here today.

Brandon: Thank you. I really appreciate it. It was fun.

Zibby: Good. Have a great day. Bye-bye.

Brandon: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Brandon Hobson, THE REMOVED