An Interview with Rebecca Brown

Rebecca BrownCentrum: You’ve said that often the genesis of your work is a sound, or a phrase. What is that process like?

RB: The origins of my work are very mysterious to me. I don’t start off with a conscious agenda or mission, like “I’m going write this and here’s how I’m going to do it” as much as I start with something that has dredged up from my subconscious. I’ll hear a phrase— not gobbledygook, of course, but a phrase of words. One of these phrases came to me several months ago. I woke up one morning and the phrase was “Your head on a platter.” And I thought, where did that come from? But as I followed it, it ended up turning into a short piece. Another phrase years ago that came in my head was “I did not kill the child in the garden.” I wondered: Who’s the I? Who’s the child? Where’s the garden? And as I followed it, it turned into a piece. Hearing these phrases and pursuing them has happened a lot in the last couple of years. A lot of my writing comes from a sound and an almost conceptional and visual sense more than from a narrative logic.

C: Is your writing also affected by music? 

RB: Yes. I’m a big fan of pop, classical, opera—all kinds of music. It’s a big pleasure in my life. A couple weekends ago my spouse and I went to see the Seattle Winter Chamber Festival—we saw four chamber concerts in three days. It was just a lot of pleasure, a spiritual feeding of my soul and spirit.

The work I do is really rhythmic. I do syllable counts for most of my sentences. I’ll beat out the rhythm while I write. There’s ways that my writing is less like prose writing and more like a poet in terms of rhythm. Music is important to my writing in that way. Also, some of my pieces actually make references to certain pieces of music. I did an essay a couple of years ago that starts off with something that Mendelssohn wrote to a friend of his. And then in my most recent book there’s a quotation from a Tom Jones song. [Laughing] There’s Mendelssohn and Tom Jones, and anything in between. There are also certain things I’ve written that the rhythm really isn’t a big part of—that most people reading it wouldn’t say, “Wow, there’s a syllable count right there.” And I’ve written other pieces that people would notice that. I remember years ago, at a reading, this poet came up to me afterward, and said, “Did you know that whole piece is in iambic pentameter?” And I said, yeah, thanks for noticing, but another part of me thought, you jerk, of course I know that. I labored over that five hundred words for six months. But that’s the assumption, that of course the prose writer doesn’t know about rhythm. With a piece like that it’s very apparent that there’s a musical rhythm to it, and with other pieces the narrative [of the piece] is more apparent than the sound.

C: Did you grow up interested in both music and writing?

RB: Yes, in both. When I was eight years old I knew I was going to be a writer. I took vocabulary words from my vocabulary list and made a story about them. That year I also became an obsessive Beatles fan. I was just obsessed with the Beatles. I went and saw them when I was nine. Writing my first little novel as a kid and listening to Beatles music all happened at the same time. But I was always “I’m going to be a writer when I grow up” in a way that I wasn’t going to be a musician. I never took music lessons. I can’t read music and I can’t play an instrument. I’m just a fan, a real aficionado of it. Whereas I’ve really devoted myself to the study of writing—how it works, and its position in the world—in a way that’s just a pleasure for me.

C: As a teacher,  what do you tell students about rhythm and sound? Do you encourage them to read aloud?

RB: Absolutely. I encourage them to read aloud, and to read aloud to one another. If a student is reading a piece of a work aloud in a class, or a class situation, very often they’ll stumble over a certain sentence and I’ll say, That’s probably telling you that sentence needs revision. Writing, and spelling, and putting stories down on a piece of paper is really secondary to oral literature. People were telling stories before they were writing stories. They were singing poems before they were writing them.

C: Some of your bios—for example, the one that will appear in this magazine—say that you have an eclectic collection of classical, rock and roll, and “weird” CDs. What are your “weird” CDs?

RB: [Laughing] Yeah. There’s a series called Songs in the Key of Z. It’s really kind of outsider music, written before outsider music was a big deal. It’s just the bizarre and beautiful stuff of people who might not be musically trained, but have an ecstatic, crazy, wonderful vision. That’s one. This morning, I was listening to Wesley Willis. I actually take him seriously. His song “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” is a great song about American culture. Ditto his homages to rock bands. I mean, he’s got something. There’s a kind of purity to his work that’s really great. I listen to Daniel Johnston, I’m a big fan if his. I like theremin music. And gamelan music. I’ve been listening to a lot of international pop lately. I was in Spain, and I bought a whole bunch of Spanish pop from the sixties. It’s fascinating stuff. Wonderful. I bought some stuff from a band called Los Brincos, who had the Beatles haircuts. In Spanish, brincos means something bright and shining, and they had the same Beatles setup of three guitars and a drum. They also had similar kinds of harmonies. So there was this Spanish thing going on at the same time as the Beatles. Same thing in Japan. There was this band called The Spiders that was seven guitars and a drummer and it was just exceptional insanely passionate crazy jubilant Japanese pop. I love that stuff. And I’ve been listening to Brazilian psychedelic pop. When you think of Brazil, you think of Jobim and Gilberto—beautiful suave stuff—but they actually had psychedelic pop stuff in the sixties that’s nutty, and Brazilian. I just love it.

C: You wrote the libretto for The Onion Twins, the dance opera that premiered at Centrum in August, 2005. How did that process come about?

RB: The BetterBiscuitDance Company is a dance troupe co-run by Freya Wormus and Alex Martin. They had approached me years ago about writing a text for a movement they were doing, and I’d written a text for a twenty-minute performance. We really enjoyed the collaboration, and then Alex wanted to do a really big project. She had this fairy tale she wanted to do something with. She talked to me about it, and a third person who came into the collaboration was a person named Michael Katell, whose music I thought was really lovely. At one point when Mike and I were watching [a] BetterBiscuit [performance], I leaned over to him and said, “Mike, do you want to do an opera someday?” We were like: Oh sure, great, but then lo and behold Alex said, “Rebecca, Mike, do you guys want to do an opera?” And we said yes.

An opera, as we in the West understand it, is vocally-generated and vocally-based. This piece was really dance-generated. We started off with a plot which we took from a Swedish fairy tale, and switched it around to our own purposes. Mike and Alex and Freya and I spent a week up here at Centrum, and traded ideas about this fairy tale, and how we wanted it to go, then I wrote a libretto. It took several months to do that, and Alex started playing with movements, and then Mike composed this thing. The whole thing took more than two years in the labor of it. My part of was early on and over quickly. But the rest of them were working their tushes off. It was a really neat project. I wrote the libretto before I heard Mike’s music for it and basically re-wrote most of it because Mike’s music was very beautiful, serious music, and I’d had a lighter, more “Broadway” sense of the songs. I re-wrote with much more gravity than I had previously. Essentially he set the text to music, and then he and Alex set the dance and the music together.

C: Do you have plans to do something like that again in the future?

RB: My future plans are always up in the air.  I never know what I am going to do next. I’ll think of something or maybe make a plan with somebody. I would certainly enjoy doing something like that I again, but I never know what I’ll do next.