For Gayle Brandeis, 2017 is shaping up to be a busy year. Her first book of poetry in many years, The Selfless Bliss of the Body, is set to drop in June from Finishing Line Press, and her first memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, will follow in November from Beacon. She has authored five novels, including one winner of the Bellwether Prize (The Book of Dead Birds) and one charmer of a YA novel (My Life with the Lincolns). She also wrote Fruitflesh, a unique craft book designed to teach women to use their bodies for storytelling.
Gayle and I met briefly in person last year, and since then we’ve been deepening our friendship over social media. She’s a beautiful presence, a woman of grace and light, but I’ve seen that she has a playful, snarky side, and I couldn’t wait to draw that out of her.
Tell me about your hatred of books.
I am generally not a hater, but every once in a while, a particular book ends up in my hands (or even just enters my awareness) that really raises my hackles.
Can I list a specific passage instead of a book? There is a passage I hate from Villages by John Updike, which I found in my room at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and read during my residency there in 2006. I don’t remember if I hated the whole book—I honestly don’t remember anything other than this passage (which I looked up, to refresh my memory): “Faye took him in hand. He slipped in. He became an adulterer. He went for the last inch. She grunted, at her own revelation. His was that her cunt did not feel like Phyllis’s. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze.”
Don’t men objectify women enough? Men are judging our secretions, too? This Updike passage left a bad taste in my mouth—a bad glaze, you might say. I should mention that when I did my search for the passage (plugging “Updike sauce glaze” into Google), I found it on the longlist for the Guardian’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award”; clearly other people hate it, too.
I must have said “Ugh” out loud when I read it. I just said “Ugh” again now.
When I read something like this, my reaction is always the word “Gross”, whether I say it out loud or write it in the margin. I didn’t realize it had become involuntary until I said it when a classmate was reading from a misogynistic story he’d written. Oops.
Ha! I actually find myself saying “Gross” and “Ugh” (as well as much stronger language) all the time whenever I read or watch the news. I know this conversation is about books, not other media, but, wow, am I yelling at screens more than I ever have in my life!
Any other specific books you hate?
Well, there’s Crippled America by Donald Trump. I have to admit, I’ve never cracked that book open, but the offensive title and offensive face on the cover are enough to send shudders through my body. I don’t use the word hate often, but I can unequivocally say I hate our groper-in-chief. I hate him with the fire of a million suns.
Also, I hate a particular boxed set of dinosaur board books.
Dinosaur board books?!
My mom gave them to my firstborn when he was a baby. I’m not sure what drew her to this specific set; she usually had great taste in books. There was nothing redeeming about the lot—the words were boring and factually incorrect, the illustrations had garish colors that turned my stomach, and the rough edges of the books made my skin crawl. The books seemed like an utter waste of ink and trees and time and whatever other resource went into to making them. My son liked to teethe on them, though, so I guess they were good for something.
Looking at my answers, I realize I have a visceral response to these books—all of them literally rub me the wrong way, make me feel uncomfortable inside my skin. I think I may hate them more with my body than I do with my mind. Although my responses to both Updike and our current—pardon me while I throw up in my mouth a little—president are definitely intellectual, as well, and reflect my intolerance for misogyny, not to mention all the other crap the latter embodies.
I am a somatic reader, for sure. I love this quote from Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” I love when a book gives me the good kind of chills. All the books I’ve listed gave me the bad kind. No poetry there.
This doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve read your book, Fruitflesh. Language and the body seem to be closely connected for you.
Deeply, deeply connected. My greatest creative passions throughout my life have been writing and dance, and I realized pretty early on that the body is where they intersect, where they both spring from. I love how words feel in my mouth, my ear, my muscles; I want to give voice to the wild stuff that pulses beneath our skin.
I suppose I am a bit of a writing snob, a seeker of language that has freshness and muscle. I don’t think I could even call what was in those dinosaur books “writing” and even though some may extol Updike’s prose, I find that particular passage clunky and stilted and annoying. I don’t have to open Crippled America to know I would hate the writing, the nuts and bolts of it as well as the content, no matter who the Cheeto’s ghost writer may have been. I can’t respect the writing of anyone who can sign off on such a disgusting title.
Do you think these hates have altered anything about your writing?
As a writer, I learn from everything I read—I find things that inspire me (especially when the writer takes creative risks) and things I’d like to avoid in my own work (sloppiness, cliché, lack of specificity, etc.) all the time. I don’t think I made any promises to myself based on these particular books, but I suppose they did make me excited to get back to my own writing and try to make it as beautiful and meaningful as possible. That’s the best way to shake any lingering bad-book residue out of the body. That, or reading a really good book.
I’ve noticed that when I read a book that doesn’t interest me, it takes a book with a serious hook to get me back in the saddle and reading voraciously again.
Yes, that definitely happens with me. If a book doesn’t excite me, it tends to enervate me, and I’ll usually put it down. Life’s too short to waste on books we don’t feel. Reading a great book after a mediocre one is like a shot of B vitamins—it wakes me back up, reminds me what it feels like to be fully alive. It makes me fall in love with language all over again. There are also times when I start reading a book that I know I’ll enjoy when the time is right, but the time isn’t right now—books I set aside to come back to when I feel pulled to them.
What was the last book you read that excited you?
I just reviewed Rebecca Solnit’s latest, The Mother of All Questions, for the San Francisco Chronicle, and can’t recommend it enough. Solnit always helps me see the world with clearer eyes, always lights a path from despair to hope. She is such a role model for me—I love how she weaves together activism with artful writing, and brings so much curiosity and joy to the mix.
I still haven’t read any of her books. I’ve read a lot of her work online, but I’m intimidated by how many books, on so many different subjects, she has written. Do you have a suggestion on where to start?
I would say read the previous books in this particular trilogy—Men Explain Things to Me and Hope in the Dark—before you read the new one, which builds on them both (although it definitely stands on its own and will hold up even if you don’t read the others first). You honestly can’t go wrong with any of her books. Because you’re a writer, you’d probably love The Faraway Nearby, which is about storytelling (and so much more, as her books always are)—it’s stunning.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I used to have the hardest time getting rid of books; they are amongst my most cherished companions. When I move, I only feel at home once I’ve unboxed my books and can see all their lovely spines. That said, before we made a major move in 2014, I got rid of 30 boxes of books, and last year, when we moved again, I got rid of 16 boxes more. In that last culling, I tried to keep only books that are especially meaningful to me and I can’t bear to part with, those I knew I’d use for reference or teaching, and those I hadn’t read yet and knew I would. It was liberating to give the others away, but I admit I do have some regrets—there are certain books I wish were still with me.
I used to be much more of a miser about my books until I read The Collector, by John Fowles. It explored the way in which collecting things, whether people or butterflies or inanimate objects, can imprison them.
I had a bit of a similar experience. I hadn’t thought of my tendency to hold on to books as miserly until a friend said something to me about how it’s selfish to just have a book sitting on a shelf when someone else could be enjoying it.
That made it easier for me to let go of all those boxes full of books, too, the thought that my giving these books away could lead to other people’s pleasure.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room? Which one, and why?
The one time I can remember throwing a book across the room wasn’t the fault of the book. I was taking a short dose of prednisone for some reason, and it turned me into the Hulk. I just wanted to smash things. I shut myself in my bedroom and lobbed pillows and at least one book around until I exhausted myself. I don’t remember what book it was, but I do remember the satisfying crack when it hit the wall.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading Isadora by Amelia Gray for a book review. I love it now but I kind of hated it at first because Isadora Duncan has meant a lot to me over the years. I found myself mad that I hadn’t written this novel myself. Of course, that hate wasn’t truly directed at the book, but at my own shortsightedness. Once I got over myself, I was all in.