Barbara Browning is the author of three novels – The Gift, published by the Emily Books imprint of Coffee House Press, and The Correspondence Artist and I’m Trying to Reach You, both published by Two Dollar Radio.
With Sebastien Regnier, she co-authored Who the Hell is Imre Lodbrog? (Outpost 19, 2018). She has also published an audionovel (Who Is Mr. Waxman?) and two academic books (Samba and Infectious Rhythm).
She has a PhD in comparative literature from Yale University and teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. She’s also a poet, a dancer, and an amateur ukuleleist.
Hi Barbara, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you tell us about your background in both comparative literature and performance studies, and how it has influenced your writing style in your novels?
I was studying, teaching and performing as a dancer during my doctoral studies in comp lit, and sometimes it seems to me that everything I’ve done since then is an attempt to figure out what can be said with words, and what can be said with the body. When I discovered the field of performance studies, it seemed like the perfect place to explore that, but it’s a question that animates my fiction as well as my scholarly writing – literally.
That is, my fiction is often animated (I think that might be a better term than illustrated) by dances that I make. Both I’m Trying to Reach You and The Gift have online videos of dances that relate to the narratives. The books function independently of the dances, and I didn’t expect that every reader would take the time to view them, but if one’s interested in the question I just raised, they might be of interest. Regarding your question – that of writing routines – it’s been a big part of mine.
As a poet, dancer, and ukuleleist, you bring a unique perspective and interdisciplinary approach to your writing. How does your artistic expression in other mediums inform and enhance your storytelling?
This is precisely what I was just referring to: toggling between different forms helps propel me forward in the narrative. And the story, in turn, prompts my other performances (lyrical, dancerly or musical). One thing you left out of this list, but that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, is handcraft – particularly knitting.
I’m teaching a graduate seminar this semester on craft (focusing on the fiber arts), and my students all seem deeply preoccupied with how working with their hands might inform their writing practice. It’s got something to do with temporality (I keep invoking durational performance art), and something to do with structure.
The etymological link between texts and textiles is obvious, and it’s been explored by lots of literary theorists, particularly feminist theorists. Writers often speak of weaving or knitting together a narrative – but it gets pretty interesting if you’re considering narrative structure in relation to, for example, hyperbolic crochet.
Your 2017 novel, The Gift, was published by the Emily Books imprint of Coffee House Press. Can you walk us through your experience with the publishing process and what made this imprint the right fit for this particular book?
Emily Gould and Ruth Curry had been very supportive of my first two novels, which were published by Two Dollar Radio, but were also distributed through Emily Books. When Emily told me they were initiating their own imprint, I approached her with the manuscript. I’d been very happy with Two Dollar Radio, and I continue to love the press, but for whatever reason, they didn’t feel The Gift was a good fit.
Emily and Ruth took it on, and were very sensitive, responsive editors – as were the other editors at Coffee House. The process was really lovely – it was the period in which I was sort of going bananas with this idea of gift economies, and I was making all those ukulele covers. I kept recording ridiculous, sentimental tunes for everybody involved in the process – proofreader, copyeditor, marketing assistant. They were all very indulgent!
What does your typical writing day look like? Do you have any specific rituals or routines that you follow?
I am definitely a creature of habit. When I start writing a book, I make a sort of contract with myself about how many pages I’ll write a day. I tend to work on my own writing in the afternoon. My mornings are dedicated to my students, and my correspondence.
Your works range from novels, poetry, audio novels to academic books, what draws you to different genres and forms of writing?
I think my website says, “I write works of fiction and cultural theory. Sometimes I like to confuse people about which is which.” I’m not sure that I should leave that there – it sounds a little cheeky. But it’s also true. Maybe I should say that I like to confuse myself about the difference.
My last book, The Miniaturists, was published by an academic press, and I suppose it’s a collection of essays, but they’re interwoven with personal narrative, and I thought of them as interlinked short stories as I was writing them.
I also teach a course called “performative writing,” and in that course I feel I have to address the various neologisms that people love to hate these days – autofiction, autotheory, fictocriticism. None of these terms are very helpful, really, and of course people have been doing this for a very long time, mixing personal narrative with fiction, theory and cultural critique. Like, hello, Montaigne.
How do you navigate the creative process when writing in different genres and styles?
At this point, it’s really one process for me – I may slightly alter the tone, though I think that has more to do with the material I’m dealing with than the audience. I’m hoping that at this point, it’s a single audience – people with the same preoccupations that I have, or who don’t mind following me down rabbit holes.
Do you have any specific tools or resources that you find particularly helpful in your writing journey?
I’m omnivorous as a researcher. That is, I’m as interested in suspect internet sites as I am in dusty old volumes that have to be borrowed through interlibrary loan. I often instrumentalize my own correspondence. My partner keeps a journal, and has for half a century. I write to others, but I often pilfer things from my own sent emails.
If you could have a conversation with any artist throughout history about their creative process, who would that be and why?
I recently had a very beautiful conversation with my beloved former colleague Ngugi wa Thiong’o about writing. It was very reassuring to me. I’ve been writing short stories, which I find very challenging, as my ideas seem to come to me book-length. He told me he felt the same way – he said it’s his daughter (Wanjiku wa Ngugi) who seems to be the short story writer in the family. Then we both started enthusing about Maupassant, which surprised and delighted me. I mean, it’s surprising and delightful to me that we both love Maupassant!
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
The stories I’m writing now are about the circulation of stories by other people – including Maupassant – the way they animate or inform interactions, interpretations of life. Especially around issues of gender identity. Some of the other writers threading through these stories are George Sand, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Zora Neale Hurston, Clarice Lispector and Amadou Hampâté Bâ.
What does your current workspace look like?
During the pandemic, I moved upstate with the lemmings. It’s so beautiful here – we live across from a wetlands preserve – it’s very isolated. I have a little office at the back of the house, which is also where I play the cello. I like to have my feet up as I type.
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