10 Questions for J Brooke
- By Edward Clifford
I will try to put this in perspective in the coming weeks. Heading down to Ocean Road Beach just after sunrise, standing at the water's edge, looking toward the horizon for signs of calm and peace, I'll interpret an overhead blue heron as postive harbinger, a far-off tanker as portent of stability.
—from "Tanker," Volume 63, Issue 3 (Fall 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The undergraduate college I attended didn’t have a creative writing major at the time, so my first piece was a novella created during a yearlong independent study with a professor at the neighboring college in satisfaction of my senior thesis. Loosely based on my father, the story was about a man who created two families, running between them while concealing the existence of each to the other. The 80 pages were dreadful, garnered an undeserved honors grade, and were unceremoniously torched in my dorm room fireplace before I packed my car to leave campus following graduation.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
My early DNA was comprised, for better and worse, by white grizzled male authors . . . Salinger, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Bukowski, Borges. The way I write now is most likely influenced by a combination of that foundation and where I’ve focused my reading this past decade; Roxane Gay, Meg Wolitzer, Samantha Irby, Claudia Rankine, Joan Didion.
What other professions have you worked in?
I began as a copywriter in advertising. That morphed into writing/directing and bringing to fruition short films and two feature docs. The feature docs were self-funded, so to earn money during those years I operated a small motel a mile from my house.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be Joe Namath, who was the quarterback for The New York Jets. If I couldn’t be him, I wanted to be a writer.
What inspired you to write this piece?
While author Pat Conroy is credited with the quote I’m about to paraphrase, I think most writers write to explain life (or more specifically parts of their life) to themselves. I’m certainly one of those. Even when I know the arc and trajectory of a piece, in the actual writing and editing, things become explained to me that I didn’t know or couldn’t know at the onset. I was reaching for that with "Tanker." I had processed the trauma and grief of losing our child after a long struggle to save his life for three years, when I sat down to write it, and my hope was that in the act of creating the piece, something more than what I continued to feel would be revealed.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Sort of. I was born and held captive in New York City until I was old enough to seek out more natural habitats. I have lived and/or spent sizeable time in rural parts of Maine, Vermont, Florida, Italy and Canada. For the past year and a half, my spouse and I have lived along a river in Connecticut, bordered on two sides by estuary and one side by thick woods. In each of these places I have been an outsider attempting to become less of one, trying to shake from my shoulders this sticky urban mantle of my birthright. My writing is influenced by the comfort born of familiarity with this discomfort of being an outsider; of being the “other”, arriving late to the dance and eyeing the cool kids all standing together.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I had a terrific Western Civ Professor in college who insisted all writing is made better after one glass of red wine. I learned a lot from this fellow, but he was wrong on this. I need to write with as clear a head as possible. To achieve that I’ll take a brisk nature walk or a fast quarter mile swim before I work. Intrusions like the news cycle can ruin my flow and when that happens, I dose on poetry to get my brain back where I want it. I’ll open a Tracy K. Smith or Gabrielle Calvocoressi book and read some familiar pieces to get my mojo back. I recognize all this creative caretaking as luxury though . . . for many years when our kids were younger the intrusions were such a constant that my only clear path to writing was 4:45 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It really depends on the piece. I know a lot of people rely on their spouses/partners as first readers, and sometimes I ask my spouse, Beatrice, to read an early draft. But when my writing ventures into difficult times experienced during the raising of our kids, I don’t impose those reads on her . . . living through it is hard enough. "Tanker" is an example of this. I’ve told her about it in broad strokes, and while she may choose to read it at some point, we have discussed her perhaps sparing herself.
Because TANKER was a highly personal piece for me, I hadn’t really shown it to anyone before I shared it with Massachusetts Review Prose Editor, Morgan Talty. Morgan and I knew each other in grad school, worked on the literary journal together there, and stayed in touch after (he was a reader and invaluable editor of a story of mine The Fiddlehead is publishing this coming winter.) In terms of "Tanker," I felt safe sharing it with Morgan and having him subsequently edit it because I knew his skills and trusted his gut on writing, but more so I trusted his heart, because he too has experienced immense personal loss and writes about it.
Teri Elam is a sometimes first reader of mine; she and I bonded first week of grad school and stayed close friends. We pass work back and forth a lot, it helps the work that our styles and genres are wildly different. Author Melissa Bank was a close buddy of mine and often read early drafts I’d hand her. I’d ask for an opinion on two pages, and she’d give me four pages of notes plus links to additional suggested reading.
What are you working on currently?
Recently I’ve been fortunate with assignments to write about culture. I refer to what editors request in these essays as the “new review”, because it’s a discussion of other work or works through the lens of personal essay. I wrote such an essay for Denne Michele Norris at Electric Lit (I’m a huge fan of both editor and pub) about Jendi Reiter’s trans poetry collection “Made Man” as seen through a generational lens I share with the poet. For Incluvie (a righteous media website focused on diversity and identity) I reviewed Amy Schumer’s “Life and Beth” Hulu series through the lens of eschewing labels. I’m currently working on a piece about Ethan Hawke’s HBO six-part doc on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, processed through the lens of blended families. I have a short fiction piece I’ve been sparring with, so there’s that too . . . And I’m at the earliest stages of putting together a collection of my personal essays.
What are you reading right now?
My reading group (also known as my marriage) is currently reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. It’s a thorough and beautiful biography of a gifted man who died tragically, as meticulously researched and lovingly written by his college roommate. The Well of Loneliness by Radlyffe Hall came via my dear friend Cynthia, an esteemed college professor in possession of many more smarticles than I, who wants my take on it, so I’m committing . . . In the Margins by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) because I’m a sucker for reading a genre by an author better known for a different genre as well as fresh takes on Gertrude Stein, and this slim volume offers both.
The Ultimate Book of Dinosaurs, a wildly informative children’s picture book by Claudia Martin with superb illustrations by Mat Edwards I sourced because my original prehistoric info is laden with inaccuracies (like there is no “Brontosaurus” anymore it’s “Apatosaurus”, and the largest creature ever, Dreadnoughtus, was discovered in the past 15 years, and all dinosaurs are now considered reptiles rather than birds or mammals.)
I recently finished The Beauty of Dusk by Frank Bruni because I like his writing as much as I like his politics. I’m travelling next week to the west coast and am bringing Unfollow Me by Jill Louise Busby for the outgoing flight and Dirtbag Massachusetts by Isaac Fitzgerald for the return. Both books have perched patiently by my bedside, uncracked all summer, because each week’s “The New Yorker” rudely cuts in front of them.
J BROOKE (They/e) won Columbia Journal’s 2020 Nonfiction Award for their autobiographical essay “HYBRID,” in the Womxn’s History Month Special Issue. Their work has appeared in The Normal School, The Harvard Review, The Maine Review, Bangalore Review, The Fiddlehead (upcoming), Beyond Queer Words, and others. Brooke was nonfiction editor of the Stonecoast Review while receiving an MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine. Brooke currently resides with their spouse Beatrice on land stolen from the Hammonasset People.