Tamala Poljak interviews Amra Brooks about writing, reading, teaching, and more.
How did you begin writing 'California' and what was the original inspiration for the book?
1. I started writing California when I was in grad school at Bard College. I wanted to write about place and I wanted to focus on California, my home state. I had been living in NY for 8 years at the time and I felt like the distance provided me with the perspective I needed to write about it the way I wanted to. Some of these stoires I had been trying to tell for a long time and there wasn't enough distance yet or enough of a broader context. I started with memories a lot of the time and became very interested in the way that remembering can clarify or distort the experience. I played with things like tense a lot to show the way that we move through memory, sometimes an experience is very far away, or sometimes it is very alive and present and we are in it again. It is a nonlinear narrative as well, so that time gets collapsed and distorted much like our memories, and the confusion of moving around a lot as I did growing up is a central theme.
Do alot of people think the book is a memoir rather than a novella? can you explain the distinction between the two?
2. A lot of people assume this is a memoir and that it's a book of nonfiction. Right away I called it fiction. A novella is just a term for something longer than a short story, shorter than a novel. A memoir can hold a certain amount of pretension at times that I also wasn't comfortable with, something written by royalty-- or now it's become something that everyone writes and there's a kind of reality tv cultural fascination with people's hardships. While often I began with writing with a memory in mind, ultimately I didn't want to bear the responsibility of "truth" that we place on nonfiction; I needed the freedom to change things and let the writing take over and do its thing-- space for transformation.
How did you connect with teenage teardrops? or how did you end up publishing the book?
maybe discuss a little about the merging of your book into the literary/art/music world.
3. I had made a limited edition of chapbooks on my own, a pink edition and a green edition of 100 each that sold out. There was a small press in SF that wanted to publish the book after I graduated from Bard and I was really thrilled because they had also published my friend Ali Liebegott's amazing book The Beautifully Worthless. They held onto the book and kept pushing back the date for almost 4 years and it was really frustrating experience, they ultimately folded. Cali Dewitt, an old friend who was putting out records on his label Teenage Teardrops, said "let me do it!" And it just made sense. I have always been really involved in music, my dad had a record store in Los Angeles growing up, my mom was in band, Cali and I obsessed on obscure new releases throughout the 90's together-- it just worked. He puts out beautiful limited edition releases on vinyl, we both come from the same community of artists, so it felt like the right place. He's done several books since.
You are teaching creative writing at muhlenberg college in PA. how does teaching (or living in PA) contribute to how you work/write/create/relate to art and writing now?
4. I love teaching. I had such an incredible experience as a student and was fortunate enough to have real mentors from undergrad and grad school. My family didn't have money for college, I went to school on full scholarship and loans and so I really valued that experience. I knew it was a privilege and I enjoyed school for the first time in my life. I just hope to give my students a bit of what I got, which changed my life and made me the writer I am. There are these moments when they read something, or hear something, and you see their work change, their writing grow, their world open up, and that's the best feeling. Writing is such a solitary act, so teaching and collaborating are ways that help me get outside of my head.
What are you reading now?
5. Right now I'm reading Lynne Tillman's new collection of short stories called Some Day This Will All Be Funny, and wading through Jonathan Franzten's Freedom. I was visiting Santa Cruz, where I spent most of my early childhood, and I was reading his book on the beach there and saw on the dust jacket that he now lives in Santa Cruz half the year and it made me really jealous because it's a dream of mine to move back someday, but I don't think I'd ever be able to afford it. So once the envy subsides, I might pick it back up again.
What are you working on now?
6. I just finished a collaboration with the photographer Pej Behdarvand where we exchanged text and image every new moon and full moon for a complete year. I'm really excited about the way it turned out. We are hoping to publish a book and have an exhibit. I have been working on a novel for a while called The Scariest Movie Ever Made and a collection of poems called The Pinking Sky, as well as another book project with the painter Maureen Gallace. Collaboration has been a really cathartic experience because I live far away from the arts communitites in NY and California that I had been part of for so many years, so it's kept me connected.