A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: A Fresh Predawn Breeze does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Chris' novel, Shriver.
Release no. XV:
A Fresh Predawn Breeze by Chris Belden
Chris asked me to meet him in “a video editing facility”, but when I arrived, it was apparent we were at his house. His wife offered me tea and crumpets and then we walked downstairs to his basement, where he had a setup of six or so televisions, and a complete editing suite. I noticed on one screen a video of Donald Trump at the most recent Republican debate. But there was something odd: the camera was always on Trump, even when he wasn’t speaking, even as he stood still, both hands on the podium. Chris noticed me staring and said, “It’s important to watch a man even when he’s not being watched.” I didn’t know what he meant, but our interview, of course, helped me in understanding.
I'm here with Chris Belden on the eve of publication of his newest novel, A Fresh Predawn Breeze. If you're familiar with Chris' past work, you understand the titular tonal irony here; while the book does feature one decently strong and fresh predawn breeze, it is the book's sole calm and collected moment. If his previous novels were touched on by neuroses, this one has been invaded by the Democratic Republic of Neurosis, who've laid a ravishing and yet oddly stable government, enacting their rule with such expediency it's difficult to remember the old flag. Tonda St. Claire over at the New York Review of Books said, "Belden's hysterics are so contagious, I couldn't go to sleep for a month without my husband's face in between my palms." Stan Grayson over at the New York Times, who happens to be Ms. St. Claire's husband said, "It's true." Let's start with the first line of the novel, which is a brilliant harbinger for what's to come—did you write this first, or, as I suspect, was it the last sentence of the novel transplanted up front?
That line, like so many of mine, came to me in a dream. I was lying in the tub, as I often do, and drifted off, and when I woke up the words were there in my head. I don't remember anything about the dream except that it involved a badger. In any case, you're right, the line came to me toward the end of writing the novel, & whenever I tried to slip it in, the context seemed all off, and so I stuck it on at the very beginning, where it seemed to make the most sense. But then of course I had to rewrite everything that came after, because it paled in comparison. Which is why it took me ten years to finish the book.
Incredible. When you were finishing that version of the book, did you worry it would happen again, that you'd come up with a line you'd need to start a new book with? Did you avoid baths?
Writers with neurotic tendencies can either put the neuroses in the protagonist, in the world around them, or in both. In your opinion, which do you think you've done with A Fresh Predawn Breeze?
I didn't avoid baths, but I did avoid badgers, whenever possible. Which is difficult to do sometimes, especially when you live where I live.
In A Fresh Predawn Breeze I tried to put the neuroses into the words themselves with the hope that this would spill over--or ooze outward--into the protagonist, the world around him, and, if I did my job, off the page and into the mind of the reader. That's why there are what seems to be so many typos, inconsistencies, and continuity errors in the novel--my neuroses is right there on the page, infecting the words, even the letters, which, if you look closely, are sometimes backwards or upside down, and occasionally there are umlauts and accents where there shouldn't be. (I love umlauts.) Thus, the reader feels what it's like to live inside the protagonist's head (or my own, if I'm going to be honest, which isn't always the case, being a novelist).
Well I'm sure Simon & Schuster relished not having to pay for a proofreader.
Let's jump into the pulp now. Who do you think the protagonist resembles most in all of literature? What many critics are calling a "confusing" plot structure, I find refreshing. Comment on this, please.
First, I insisted on a proofreader. This was my first experiment in testing out the neurotic effect of the novel--when the proofreader demanded extra pay because I kept sending back the manuscript with intentional errors, I knew I was onto something. I think she's quit the business now and is taking one of those accelerated teaching courses.
But onto the novel and its protagonist! Of course the most obvious resemblance is to Jesus Christ--his rebellion against society's accepted norms, his Tourettic tendency toward parable-telling and other bloviations, his complicated relationship with his father, his recruitment of a ragtag posse of yes-men, and his wearing of sandals. Other inspirations for the character of Nedleb were Donald Trump (one of the great fictional characters of recent times), the Android from Blade Runner, and the Misfit, from "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
As for the "confusing" plot structure, I find it amusing that readers in this day and age are so flummoxed by a novel told in chronological order. I can't tell you how many people have asked me, for instance, why I start the book with Nedleb's birth. They can't handle it! When, half way through the course of the story, Nedleb reaches middle age, a lot of people bail. But I like to think that, by the end, when (spoiler alert!) the character dies by a self-inflicted bear trap wound, the patient reader is rewarded with a powerful emotional payoff. I just think it's important these days to force people to move in a straight line for a while.
I do think most people are used to the "biblical" telling of someone's life—full of flash forwards and hazy remembrances of youth's halcyon summers, so to hear it told so linearly is a bit jarring, sure.
I definitely get the Trump inflections, especially in the dialogue. It's never more apparent than when Nedleb divorces his wife because she's "Not awesome. You're a clown, Bertha. It would be huge for you to be the best, but you're a total loser. That's why", or when he earns his fortune by buying up lemonade stands and then waits for them to go bankrupt and somehow profits from it and proclaims "literally everyone in the lemonade business does this, the industry runs on bankruptcy, it's a fact."
All resemblance to Jesus, Trump, the Android and the Misfit aside, how do you want the reader to view, and judge, Nedleb?
Yes, the Trump inflections are all there for anyone who's paying close attention. I think I was watching a lot of CNN at the time.
It was always my intention that the reader "view" the protagonist as if through the wrong end of the telescope--at a great distance, slightly distorted, with the surrounding scenery (i.e., his habitat) somewhat distorted. On my wall I tacked up that famous shot of Sasquatch, running through the woods while looking back at something behind him, and I would spend hours staring at the photo, never once wondering if it was genuine, but more concerned with the idea of a creature (whether an actual Sasquatch or some fellow boiling up inside that fur-covered suit) being watched from afar, and then being exposed, without his knowledge, to the world at large. Who cares, really, if he's the genuine article? The question for me is: What on earth is he running from? And why? This was the feeling I wanted to arouse in the reader.
I didn't think twice about how the reader would judge Nedleb, though I did think once about it, and I decided I wanted them to judge him as someone so desperately in need of love (that's also where Trump comes in) that he would blow up a crowded Wal-mart with TNT, and then still find him identifiable. For, honestly, who isn't that in need of love, at some point?
Nedleb's search for love for would be apparent to even the densest of readers. For the bulk of the book we fundamentally have a series of flings, dates, sexual encounters of the first, second, third and fourth kind, and a long chapter on e-dating. And yet. It's hard to say whether Nedleb ever finds love, even given the full facts of his life. Do you believe what he and Bertha had, was, in fact, love?
I think it depends on one's definition of "love." If love means, to you, an orgasm so powerful that your genitals literally fall off, then yes, there was love between them. If, on the other hand, love means a mutual affection and devotion based on a profound kinship, then I would say that Nedleb found more love in his relationship with Helga, even though they only met through a series of ham radio dispatches and one long conversation via Morse code.
A word about the sex scenes in the book, or one in particular. I've taken some heat from the Catholic church for the use of a statue of the Virgin Mary in once scene, but I must defend myself on the grounds that this statue, which depicts the usual beauty with one foot on a snake (Satan!) and the other on a globe, in fact represents goodness in the world. It's only by chance that this statue is used as a marital aid.
It often felt as though you were either shattering love, or refracting it through Nedleb, in both grand metaphors separating the components of love and letting the reader feel each in his or her hand. You do this with a good number of emotions: hatred, empathy, friendship, jealousy. But perhaps the most mesmerizing moment is that scene of emptiness, when Nedleb is in middle age on the park bench, a sort of vacuous fulcrum the book relies on both sides to give its flourishes a comparison of nothing. We're nearing out of time, and so I'll close by asking this: That scene, where we aren't given anything to experience or to contemplate, felt the most honest, the most real, and, to me, won my trust that this wasn't just a story but a real thing. What prompted such a revelatory passage?
I wrote that scene while sitting on a very similar park bench myself, in the middle of a snowstorm. I started it as an exercise, to describe my feelings and environment, but as the snow fell onto my "My Little Pony" composition notebook paper, the ink started to blur, and all the details were lost, and instead of fighting that loss--of trying to get back the details I'd worked so hard to record in a way that felt emotionally compelling--I gave in to the negation, and finally came to the understanding that description and metaphor and character and dialogue are all meaningless, just bourgeoise concepts that add up to very little in the end. That's why there are those ten blank pages in the middle of that scene. The whiteness captures the snowfall I was experiencing, but it also captures the (as you so elegantly put it) honest and real aspects of that moment when Nedleb realizes that, now, in late middle age, after decades of working as an actuary, after dozens of doomed relationships and stabs at love, he is actually meant to be a lobbyist for the home insurance industry, and, even more importantly, he's really a lesbian trapped in a man's body. That was a very satisfying moment as a writer.
Wonderful Chris, breathtaking. Fantastic and superlative. Thanks for your time, and your words.
Thank you, Andrew.