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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
November 22, 1963: A Conversation with Adam Braver
Tin House Books: What prompts you to begin a work of fiction—an image, a character, a line of dialogue? What prompted November 22, 1963?
Adam Braver: Actually, it can be all of the above. A story can start from some characteristic trait, an odd sentence I’ve heard somebody mutter, or sometimes the incongruence of a setting and a character. I am drawn to inherent ironies—not for comic or cynical purposes—but rather in ways that show the complexities and beauties of the world around me. The idea of black and white, good and bad, doesn’t interest me at all. As with most fiction writers, I like to come to the area in the middle, where, for example, good people find themselves faced with bad ideas or intentions—those conflicts reveal a greater meaning than just right and justice.
One thing I try to stay away from is a preconceived notion of what the work is about before I start writing. I haven’t had much success with that. It either becomes too didactic or, most commonly, I run out of steam very quickly. Instead, it really is a matter of finding that voice—whether it is through the character, a line of dialogue, etc. The rest usually—hopefully—will start to take shape through the unconscious, and then eventually seed itself into the conscious process.
November 22, 1963 took on a life of its own. As a fiction writer, I’m most interested in the quiet moments, what is going on off-stage, the private moments in the wings. With that in mind, I was tempted by wondering what Jackie Kennedy’s plane ride from Dallas must have felt like for her—not only dealing with the violence she’d just witnessed, but instinctively knowing that her perception of self must have been altered in a matter of moments. We always understand the assassination in terms of what it meant to the country and its sense of identity, but I really wondered about it at the most personal level (which, perhaps, was a mirror for the country). In short, the book started off with a single story.
From there, I decided to keep going, thinking about others who had this connection to that day in Dallas, and how their perceptions of self also would have been altered in those few moments. About halfway through it occurred to me I wasn’t writing a book about the personal side of the tragedy (what brought me there in the first place), but rather a book about mythology, myth making, and memory. That discovery or recognition really gave me a much sharper focus.
THB: Let’s talk about fact vs. fiction. Two of your past books have also drawn on the imagined inner lives of historical figures. Can you talk a bit about what draws you to these subjects?
AB: The idea of a mythology, especially an American mythology, is so fascinating to me. It seems as though it is this constant work-in-progress, yet, paradoxically, one that sees itself as a finished product. And perhaps most intriguing is that our mythology seems to be created from facts and records, which, although they may be accurate to a degree, often discount the humanity. I’m much more interested in the human side. The giant steps are not interesting to me. It is the moment of putting on the shoes.
The historical figures I’ve written about have all been very enigmatic people. Grand lives. Grand perceptions. Almost mythic creatures. But all were deeply private people. They were haunted, scarred by tragedies, yet spoke or wrote very little about that side of their lives. That, of course, is where the fiction writer can take over, being able to get into those private moments where historians can’t go. And lastly, it is the ironies that result from the bump and grind of the imagined interior world against the factual world that interests me, especially for November 22, 1963. My hope is that out of all that mangling comes some sort of truth that is larger than the figure or his/her moment in time.
In terms of just the idea of going back into historic eras (whatever that means), I’ve been having the feeling that the contemporary novel has started a move beyond the world of the self, where it has resided for so long, and redirected its concern to the larger world—where the understanding of self is completely reliant upon the understanding of the world. In literary circles, some might label it as so-called historical fiction, but perhaps a more apt term is “research-based fiction.” Simply put, it is the inquiry into a richly detailed existing (or preexisting) world from which the fictional navigation brings a deeper sense of meaning to the characters, and, tacitly, to the reader. I sort of like that idea.
THB: What kinds of research did you do for this book?
AB: The research became incredibly important to this book. Unlike my other books, where research was for either verisimilitude or inspiration’s sake, the physical act of pushing the historical record against memory and imagination pretty much is the book. I was able to interview some of the people who come up in the book, which was a real treat. I also relied quite a bit on archives from the Kennedy Library, especially their Oral Histories (I can guarantee that I was the only person during my times in the research room requesting the records of the White House barber). The transcripts of the Warren Commission and the Assassination Review Board were extremely helpful. And lastly, the Internet was such a great resource, with so much information stored there, from governmental agencies to amateur historians. Just through digging and digging, I’d find items such as a PDF of the manual for Zapruder’s camera, the obituary for Vaughn Ferguson (whom I hadn’t heard of before), and countless other factoids and oddities that all shaped the book in their own ways. I did use a few secondary sources, but I really tried my best to stay only with primary sources. I wanted the interpretation to be between the lines of the facts and the fiction, as opposed to that of another researcher.
On a more personal level, I was born in 1963, so while I grew up in the shadow of the assassination, I don’t have the personal connection to it that the generation of the people in the book do. However, one of my strongest early memories was seeing Bobby Kennedy at a campaign rally in San Francisco right before he was killed. And I can still remember the intense shock and grief of the next day, following a hope and promise that I’d experienced (although, as a five year-old, I wouldn’t have understood intellectually, but surely intuited). I think I drew a lot on that memory that is so engrained into me.
THB: Did that research lead you to any surprises, any changes in your plans for the novel, or changes in your own view of the Kennedy assassination?
AB: As mentioned above, it was not unusual for some factoid or piece of research to shape parts of the novel. For example, Vaughn Ferguson’s obituary took me into another aspect of the aftermath that I hadn’t considered, as he was charged with cleaning out the limousine once it came back to Washington. When I interviewed Bobby Hargis, and he told me he was born in Cleburne, Texas, he explained as an aside that the town was named for a Civil War general. Out of curiosity, I decided to research General Cleburne, and his story became such an interesting parallel to the bigger story, as well as something that, for me, slowly erased the fragile line between our history and present. And the testimony of the photographers at the autopsy opened up ideas, reading about the Civil War bubblegum cards—all of these bits of research seemed to form lines to the fiction, and to the overarching intent of the book.
In terms of the assassination, I really tried to stay away from the who-done-it aspect, as that was never meant to be a factor in the book. Still, coming across theories couldn’t be avoided during the research process. I’m certainly not in a position to speak authoritatively on this, but I will say we have lived through the past eight years with perhaps the most secretive, authoritarian administration in history, yet they still can’t keep their secrets for that long. It’s hard to imagine that any organization could keep such a massive conspiracy secret for 45 years.
THB: When you began to write, did you find it more difficult to invent, or harder to hew to the facts? How much did you worry about accuracy?
AB: For better or worse, with November 22, 1963, I did not feel at odds with the fact and fiction. Perhaps, at the risk of sounding redundant, the factual and the imagination were not in competition with each other. It was very much a symbiotic (and even at times parasitic) relationship between the two, in order to bring the meaning and so-called truth to this particular work. I was much more concerned about accuracy than I have been with the past books, but still, no matter what, my allegiance as a fiction writer is always to the story. It’s shaky ground, though. Especially as the whole story of the assassination and its aftermath is one where fact, memories, and accuracies continually are questioned, and where ideas and personas are still reinvented. My biggest concern was that the book be honest.
THB: Could you have written this while Jacqueline Onassis was still alive, do you think? Would that have changed anything?
AB: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I could have written the book, at least the parts that suppose and imagine her thoughts and intentions. In part, I suppose it is because the mythology of the story was still actively being made when she was living. So, from that perspective there would be little room for reflection. Besides that, I’m not sure that I would have out of respect. With this book, perhaps because the line of history is so short, I was hyperaware that I was not writing or imagining characters—these were real people, many of whom have children and grandchildren still living. This was not a book that was ever intended to harm, reveal, or expose. Just one that was hoping for a cultural truth. All in a respectful manner.
THB: The book moves through the consciousness of many people. Were any of them especially vivid or memorable to you?
AB: Almost all of them were memorable in their own ways. However, some that stick out to me are the pieces about Zapruder, the White House servants, and Vaughn Ferguson—all for very different reasons. Zapruder’s story was so complex and haunting (at least as I imagined it), because he was witness to something he wished he’d never seen (and captured permanently), yet he also was in a position to profit from it, all the while trying to erase the moment from memory. The piece, “Mrs. Kennedy is Coming Home,” was one I enjoyed writing, mixing some fictional characters with some of the transcripts of interviews with the real servants. The idea of how the servants reacted, particularly during the in-between time when there was so much mystery, was very moving to me. The grief I imagined they felt, coupled with the reality of their being concerned about their jobs, along with a larger sociological issue about whether they were or weren’t really “members” of the Kennedy family was quite intriguing, on both an intellectual and emotional level. “Cleaning Up,” the story about Vaughn Ferguson, also resonates with me quite a bit—although perhaps for more “writerly” reasons. The story, in a sense, was a kind of ekphrasitic, although instead of basing it on an artwork, I created the story from Ferguson’s obituary. I wasn’t able to find very much else about him, other than citations in memos and such. So he really was built from the ground up, and something about that character, in this book, really stuck with me. That said, there are characters and moments in every story that stick with me for myriad reasons.
THB: Is there anything, a scene or an idea, that didn’t make it into the final book?
AB: There were a few stories that didn’t make it into the book. It wasn’t really a quality control issue, but rather how they fit. The stories that didn’t make it tended to be pieces of pure fiction about ordinary people, and what they were doing on the day of the assassination, and how it later affected the outcomes of their lives. I’m still fond of a couple of the stories, but they just didn’t fit side-by-side with the stories of people who had such an intimate connection to Dallas.
THB: Talk about how you came to writing. Do you work in other forms besides fiction?
AB: I’ve written in some form most of my life, but didn’t really come to fiction writing (at least in a serious way) until my mid-twenties. As a child, I wrote a lot of kid poems, stories, and plays that I suppose I was serious about at the time, despite their lack of discipline or structure. I grew up an only child, much of that time with a single mother. I always read like crazy, made up longstanding fictional scenarios in my head, and was always able to feel pretty content creating all these worlds alone in my room, or out on walks, etc. I’ve been very much into music my whole life (in fact, my first real ambition was to be a Beatle), and spent most of my teen years through my twenties writing and playing music. It was in those mid-twenties years that I started reading like mad again, and rather hubristically decided that I wanted to write the types of stories that were inspiring me so much as a reader. I went back to school—studied, wrote, and read while working plenty of different jobs—and really just kept at it. At that early stage, I wrote constantly. Nonstop. None of it good. Not even memorable. Mostly just shaping and shaping my sensibilities. It’s all been a slow evolution; one that I hope is still evolving.
THB: What writers inspire you the most?
AB: In the years that I began writing seriously, I’d have to say that I initially identified with that line from Chekhov through Hemingway and into Raymond Carver and his literary descendents. I also was quite taken with Milan Kundera—his combination of form and idea. But I’m not so sure about any of this anymore. It seems that nearly everything I read (old and new) seems to have some influence on me. Sometimes it’s related to structure or character, sometimes just the way a particular word is used, or especially how a sentence is constructed. I feel as though I’m not a disciple of one style or writer any more, just of interesting, smart writing that I admire. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been very much into music, and in many ways that still has a great influence over me, in terms of musicality and rhythm, and also the ability to have a complete conciseness of character and narrative in such a short timeframe.
THB: What are your greatest challenges as a writer? Have they changed over the years you have been writing, or have new challenges arisen in place of others?
AB: My biggest challenge is having to start over every time. Amy Hempel and I were talking about this last year, how after publishing a respectable body of work, it stills feels just as difficult and confusing with each new piece—as though I were just starting out for the first time again. At least there should be some secret I know by now! Along with that, I suppose, is my own internal need to keep things interesting for myself. I’ve always been very intrigued by form and style (in all art forms), and I’m always trying to find a way to feel as though I’m keeping the form fresh, finding ways to tell the story in a way that may not be so predictable, in terms of form. But perhaps the biggest challenge—and this really has changed over the years—is convincing myself that there is still another story to tell.
Adam Braver is the author of five novels, most recently Misfit. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders’ Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. He is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. In addition to having taught for the University of New Orleans’ Low Residency MFA program, he’s also been a regular writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.