Novel Improv: A Conversation with Bradley Bazzle

Ryan Teitman

An editor once called one of Bradley Bazzle’s short stories “a delightful, alchemical mixture of realism and complete bullshit,” which is probably the highest compliment I can think of for a piece of fiction. No matter how absurd the premise—the tyrannical behavior of Magellan on his voyage around the world, or a mysterious Christmas company called Santa Direct—Bazzle’s fiction finds the anxieties and insecurities that are burrowed deep inside all of us.

 His first novel, Trash Mountain, was published by Red Hen Press on May 1. It’s a slyly funny coming-of-age story about a boy trying to blow up an enormous pile of garbage, but it’s also a portrait of class and racial struggles in working-class America. The two towns under the shadow of Trash Mountain could easily be plopped down in Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, or anywhere that people are struggling.

 Before shifting his focus to fiction, Bradley spent many years writing and performing comedy. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter. We spoke by email about the origins of his novel, the creeping specter of authoritarianism, and his thoughts on humor and contemporary fiction.

Ryan Teitman: Ben Shippers, the narrator of your novel, spends his teenage years trying to infiltrate and destroy Trash Mountain, the gargantuan pile of garbage that looms over his town. The book opens with his bumbling effort to set it ablaze with Molotov cocktails. Why is Ben so invested in destroying Trash Mountain?

Bradley Bazzle: The occasion of the novel is Ben’s decision to destroy Trash Mountain, but I hoped to give the impression that he and his big sister, Ruthanne, have long been fixated on Trash Mountain. That type of youthful fixation really interests me. Because kids aren’t as self-conscious as we are, their obsessions can be more outlandish and intense.

A story I always come back to is Dan Chaon’s “Big Me,” in which the child narrator becomes fixated on the new teacher who moves in down the block. The kid starts spying on the teacher and decides the guy might be an adult version of himself sent from the future to warn him not to become a lonely, hairy alcoholic. A more recent example is the preteen girl in J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, who spends her time sleuthing online about the couple who were killed in their house in upstate New York. The girl’s mother is just as obsessed, but as an adult, she takes less action. The girl really goes for it.

So the question, to me, is what weaponizes Ben’s obsession: what makes him want to destroy Trash Mountain as opposed to staring at it, chart its height, etc.? It’s tempting to call the mountain a symbol of the crappiness of his surroundings and home-life, but that crappiness is fundamental to Ben’s frame of reference; it isn’t something he questions until later. The thing that’s changing for Ben, when the novel opens, is that Ruthanne is outgrowing him. They used to obsess about Trash Mountain together, but now she spends all her time reading sleazy romance novels, and, worse, trying to do well at school. She’s growing up, and Ben is left more alone than ever. This estrangement from Ruthanne is also, in part, what leads him to the delinquent boys at school and the homeless trash pickers at the landfill, and then, finally, to Whitey Connors.

RT: Speaking of Ben’s “crappy frame of reference,” can you talk about setting of the novel, the two towns that surround Trash Mountain? They’re racially segregated—the residents of Komer are mostly white, and the residents of Haislip are mostly black—but they’re both working-class towns without much opportunity. Why set the novel in these two towns rather than making Trash Mountain the defining feature of a single place?

BB: I grew up in a segregated city, Dallas, and live in one now, Athens, that’s less overtly segregated but offers a very different experience to its natives (many of whom are black) than it does to its students and young professionals (most of whom are white). For years I lived in a part of town that’s still mostly black, patches of which didn’t have electricity until the seventies. Whenever it rained, the area behind my and my neighbor’s houses would flood, floating trash into our backyards. The scummy forest behind our houses had been a dumping ground for many years, I learned. My neighbor, a black woman about my mom’s age, told me not to bother complaining to the city. I never complained, so I can’t say for sure that my neighbor’s attitude wasn’t outdated and that the city wouldn’t have done anything, but at the very least she grew up in a place that didn’t care about her complaints.

Anyway, by splitting the town in two, into the imaginary towns of Komer and Haislip, I hoped to heighten the potential us-versus-them dynamic. Ben and his delinquent friends are the type of people we might imagine being susceptible to authoritarian fantasies and fearmongering, and one of the ways that works down the line, after you realize the authoritarian leader isn’t actually going to do anything to make your life better, is by convincing you that you’re part of the in-group and that the out-group has it way worse. I’m paraphrasing Timothy Snyder here. His latest, The Road to Unfreedom, is riveting and harrowing, and essential right now.

RT: Even though Ben has an ongoing obsession with destroying Trash Mountain, in the rest of his life he gets caught up in the gravity of whatever group he’s around, whether it’s the delinquent boys at his school, the trash-pickers at the dump, or Whitey Connors. Is that a function of his limited opportunities in Komer or something about Ben’s personality?

BB: Honestly, I never questioned the degree to which Ben immerses himself in the work of those around him. That may say more about me than about Ben. I used to do a lot of improv comedy, and one of the instincts you develop, doing that, is not to wring your hands over whether or not to do something. You just do it, and you go all the way with it.

When I’m writing, particularly in the first person, there’s an element of performance that seems to kindle those same instincts. I may go too far, though. One of the criticisms I got from Steve Almond, who judged the Red Hen contest, was that Ben rarely took a step back to reflect on what he was doing. I made a major revision based on that criticism and others, but Ben is still a little reckless, and recklessly trusting.

What I can’t decide is if that element of Ben’s character is simply an outgrowth of my writing process or if it’s a small part of my own character, easily exploited for artistic purposes.

RT: As I was reading, Ben’s movement from one group to another felt like a very accurate portrayal of growing up (sans Molotov cocktail attacks, at least for me): you leave some friends behind, make others, then do it all again, most of the time with no big falling out or event as a catalyst. You get older, and you just drift into new things.

BB: I suppose that’s true. Growing up (even next to a landfill), there’s always the promise of new friends and adventures. And then the brutal, Clarissa-Dalloway-style stripping away begins. Adulthood!

RT: Trash Mountain began as a short story. What was it like expanding it into a novel?

BB: I enjoyed writing the story, and found Ben’s voice came easily, so writing the novel was a matter of re-inhabiting Ben’s voice and directing it towards what I hoped would be an escalating action based on causally linked events: the firebombing fails, so he needs better equipment; to get better equipment, he needs a job that pays money; he can’t get real job, so he gets a sketchy one; and on and on. The results were pretty rambling and weird, so revision involved a lot of cutting.

For instance, there used to be a chapter where Bob Bilger, the mountain climber and Haislip native, speaks at Ben’s school, and Ben gets so pumped that he sneaks out to the VFW that night to see Bilger again and ask some hardball questions. The chapter was funny (to me, at least), but Bob Bilger didn’t tell Ben anything that he didn’t figure out on his own over the course of the novel. Something I discovered as I wrote and revised was that Ben’s voice, the impetus for the novel, was changing (maturing?) as I wrote.

RT: You use humor regularly in your fiction. When I hear humor discussed regarding fiction, it tends to be an indicator for a genre: “comic fiction.” But it seems to me that humor is more like a tool of craft–being good at jokes the way you would be good at plot or dialogue. How do you view it? Or is creating that kind of distinction missing a larger point?

BB: When I first started writing short stories, my stories tended to be very short and based on escalating jokes, not unlike the comedy sketches and one-act plays I wrote in college and the years after when I was performing. The shift away from that was gradual—and incomplete, as of this writing. I like to think that my pacing is better now, and that my characters are more sincere and believable, and not all teetering on the brink of madness. But at some point, I stopped trying to resist those instincts. So much of human interaction is joking. It’s part of how we make sense of things, and writing is nothing if not a sense-making project.

RT: Now that Trash Mountain has been published, what are you working on now?

BB: Three other novels. That may sound like a lot, but the way I’ve been working in recent years is to rotate among projects. I’ll finish a draft of one novel, then move to another for a few months. The breaks help me see the novels anew, and revise more drastically.

The furthest along takes place in a near-future America dominated by pharmaceutical conglomerates, where some people discover, and experiment with, a drug that allows them to enter the worlds of movies and TV shows. The newest is about a race of mutant seductors in Atlanta who hibernate in shallow graves. Both of those are written in a split third POV and involve sci-fi elements. Somewhere in between is a shorter, first-person novel about a homemaker in Dallas who decides his brother-in-law is a wizard, only for the true wizard to turn out to be their neighbor: former Eagles frontman Don Henley.

Bradley Bazzle’s first novel, Trash Mountain, won the 2016 Red Hen Press Fiction Award, judged by Steve Almond. His short stories have won awards from The Iowa Review, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. They also appear in New England Review, Epoch, Copper Nickel, Web Conjunctions, and other literary journals. Bradley grew up in Dallas, Texas, and has degrees from Yale, Indiana University, and the University of Georgia, where he taught writing. He remains in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter.

Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012). His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in Philadelphia.