Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with David Braga
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: Your piece contains a very intense art scene. Is art something that you often incorporate in your writing? Have you ever seen anything like this exhibit in your life?
David Braga: I’m going to try to answer these in as much of a single stream of thought as I can, so that it feels more like a straight-on interview and so that I don’t overthink and overcraft the answers and come off extremely pedantic. I’m interested in art in the same way I think a lot of writers are — I think we’re all drawn to certain things in different disciplines. I studied film, so that’s really where I’m most at home in terms of theory and thinking about form and function and whatnot, but more traditional fine art, painting especially, is always interesting. As for the work depicted in the story, I’ve never gone to any crazy art shows, and while I find guerilla art or performance art interesting, I also find it a little silly. I guess I’m a bit like Robert in that way — I’m interested, but not sold on the concept. So I wanted to kind of explore what I would hypothetically think of as an interesting or arresting exhibit, and then sort of how that might be interpreted, and how people might miss the point. Especially with political art — which is what’s being viewed in the story — I think people miss the point, not necessarily because the art isn’t good, but because people have so much going on that they only have so much mental space to think about something. I’m not a believer in art changing the world, so I’m a bit cynical about it’s value, even though as an artist I obviously find it immensely important. In a way I guess the story is sort of making fun of myself.
RR: In the story, Robert has a lot of insight on how people represent themselves and the roles they play. How much of his musings were inspired by your own ideas about people and how they act? How did you approach crafting his view of the world?
DB: I suppose that because I write fiction and watch movies and write about them that I’m thinking a lot about how things function, and how artifice plays such a big role in our lives. Some of that is just my being a person that deals with a lot of anxiety and is neurotic and overly analytical, and some of that is that I’d recently taken a course at Emerson that did a deep dive into Baudrillard and his theories of simulacra and simulation, or the idea of pure simulacra where you’re simulating something that never existed in the first place. And he uses that to touch on culture and capitalism and history and how we process those things, but I wanted to see — and in no way shape or form do I think that this is an original idea — how far I could turn that inward. If we accept, and I think most of us do, that we play different roles in our daily life depending on what situation we’re in — at a job, with our significant others, with friends, with family — what happens if you just keep digging into the origin of those roles. When I’m out with friends, am I acting like myself, or am I acting like I think I’m supposed to be acting? Right here I’m writing and trying to answer this question as an author, but am I only acting how I think an author would act? If I’m taking cues from other interviews with authors, where did they get their cues, who taught them how to act like an author? At some point you go far enough that you get to a place where everyone is playing a role based upon how other people played the role. Can you ever get to the bottom of that and see where it started, if there was something authentic or real at the beginning that everything else is based on? Even this — we’re doing an interview, but I’m typing it from another city and so even though I’m trying not to, I have the ability to fix oddly worded sentences and clean up my phrasing. So this is already a few steps removed from an honest dialogue. And obviously, as an artist, that fascinates me. Because art, even if it’s abstract or surreal or post-modern, represents and simulates reality or feeling, but as a very anxious, neurotic person, I kind of want to dig down to the bottom of that. And so this story gave me a chance to do that both with the characters and the exhibition that they experience.
RR: This story was both dramatic and thought-provoking. What made you want to write this piece?
DB: Originally I just had the idea of a very violent or shocking art exhibit. But that’s not really a story, it’s just a description of something. So I had the art exhibit and I had ideas about characters starting to doubt who they were because they thought they were just playing roles or simulating the idea of being a couple — I think initially the idea for those characters was that someone was going to slowly convince themselves that they weren’t real because — but putting them together made sense because I wasn’t sure how someone that deep in their own head would react to a piece of art like the one depicted in the story. And what I found was that I liked the idea that this individual — Robert, in the case of this story — might not be sure what he thought, and that would probably mirror how I and a lot of other people think about really combative or provocative art. It opened up the opportunity to not tie up the story, but kind of turn it back on the reader. It was maybe the first time I got to a place that I’ve wanted to get to in a lot of stories, which is to force the reader to do a little more work than a more traditional narrative might. To me, anyway, it doesn’t matter what the characters think at the end of the story — I wanted to build something where after being in Robert’s head for so long, the reader wasn’t so sure what they thought about what happened. Not whether or not the characters made the right choices or were good or bad people — but just to dislocate them a little bit, maybe tip them out of their comfort zone so that they were thinking about things in a way they weren’t used to thinking about them.
RR: What were some of the challenges in writing this story? What has been the hardest piece you’ve ever written?
DB: Oddly enough, once I got the basic frame of this story together it came together really quickly. The first draft wasn’t terribly different from the final version published here — there was almost two years between them of tinkering and getting rejections and tinkering some more — but the main challenge was just hanging onto the vision I had for it. A few times I heard from people who’d read it, and myself because I’m nothing if not self-doubting, that it didn’t really feel like a story. That there needed to be a different ending. So for me it was to just keep my head down and remember that this was a different story, and it needed to be written the way it needed to be written. I don’t think that’s a good attitude for most writing — if a bunch of people say the ending needs work, it likely needs work — I just knew for this story that I was only comfortable with one vision, and I would either get it published or let it die as it was. It needed to be this way. As for the hardest piece I’ve ever written….that’s a tough one. I write in fits and starts; I always think I’m not writing enough and then I’ll look at the end of the week and see that I’ve got a few thousand words of something or other. I recently finished a novel that I’m currently shopping to agents — that was probably the hardest because it required the most discipline and fighting through the most sluggish periods and doubt and really digging in for revisions. Revising a twenty page story can be a lot of fun sometimes; when you get into the two-hundred page area, and realize you have to change something on page 5 that will affect every other page, it’s not necessarily an enjoyable process. But it also makes it far more rewarding, at least in terms of just finishing the thing.
RR: What’s the most interesting advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
DB: There’s been a lot of advice over the years, and a lot of great teachers and friends who’ve given it to me. Pages In equals Pages Out is a good one, I always try to keep reading. Take time every day to at least show up and write is another good one, but one I don’t follow as well as I should. I’m not sure one thing stands out as the most interesting, but one I’ve been thinking about a lot is something my little brother said to me not long ago. He’s a musician and DJ, and we were talking about making things and art and all that, and I mentioned that I was having trouble getting a story I really loved published, and that I thought it was maybe too weird and that I should clean it up a bit to make it more straightforward. And he basically said that if I believed in the story, I should keep at it and not compromise my vision. I liked that — I had just come out of an MFA program and a lot of the teaching there focuses on certain types of stories, the very “MFA” stories, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it just wasn’t what I was writing at the time. So not compromising — that doesn’t mean not listening to criticism or ignoring workshop advice — but staying true to your idea of what you’re trying to say, that was important to hear at that time. Although in the spirit of full disclosure, the story still hasn’t been published.
David Braga’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.