A BRAVE MAN SEVEN STOREYS TALL
1. What is your name?
2. What is the title of your new book?
Just about everybody misspells the ‘Storeys’, so I guess I should explain why I chose it. First, the British spell some words better. Grey aeroplane arse! There, I’ve said it. Second, I wanted to be clear it wasn’t a short story collection. Third, Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain almost convinced me to join a monastery, so I thought a tip of the hat was fitting.
3. When was the book published and by whom?
July 8th, 2014. HarperCollins (Harper).
4. What other books have you authored?
This is my first.
In 2004 I abandoned all hopes of a normal life and moved into the Chelsea Hotel with a 1200-page draft of this book (it now comes in at a cool 377 pages). I wrote two completely different drafts, page-one rewrites as I’m learning they’re called, before showing up at Harper. I lived out (re-enacted?) almost every plot point in the course of completing Brave Man: I collaborated with conceptual artist Daniel Subkoff on a 14-foot clay sculpture for the New Museum, for two months I traversed Iceland on foot from the westernmost tip to easternmost point, I learned ancient Greek and played water polo. This book was really my world for the last ten years.
5. What section should this new book be shelved under?
Bestsellers–if there”s any justice in this world.
6. What is the book about? What is its plot, focus, or subject?
Owen is 21 and on the brink of competing in the 2004 Olympics when he suffers a career-ending injury. He drops out of college and naively thinks he can make it in the Berlin art world by dint of will.
Ooph. Bad call, Owen. He gets chewed up by a few art monsters and spat out at Art Basel. He makes all of the mistakes most of us made when we were young and unburned, but his mistakes are amplified by his stature and his unwavering ambition.
At its core, Brave Man is a father/son story. The father, Professor Burr, has to summon the courage to peel himself from his little corner of Mission University and send up flares in Athens, Berlin and Iceland in hopes of hearing from his son. Over the course of the novel, Burr ceases to be a man of idle contemplation and becomes a man of action.
The book is about doing something worthwhile with your life. It is about having the bravery to be open and kind. It’s about accepting the uncertainty and in-betweenness of the contemporary world.
7. How did this book come about?
There was a weird exchange my freshman year of college between a huge water polo player and our professor. First day of classes. We’re in a seminar room, hands sweating on a polished conference table, looking at a wall projection of a classical statue.
Professor: Ok guys. What do you think of this representation of Poseidon? What do you see?
[Silence. Then one enormous arm goes in the air.]
Athlete: I don’t think it’s that accurate.
Professor: Accurate is an interesting word. It’s a statue of a god. What do you mean it’s not accurate?
Athlete: Well I always thought Poseidon would look like me.
This world-view baffled me. Who the hell says something like that?! What kind of a person has the hubris to not only say that he looks like a god, but to say that a god would look like him? I spent years trying to untangle the knot of that psychology. The result is Owen. And the father’s struggle to understand his Olympian son mirrors my attempts to understand this character.
8. What was the hardest thing for you about writing/creating this book?
The solo traverse of Iceland was stupid. There were a couple times I almost died. I gave Professor Burr one of my unfortunate experiences of downclimbing a slick wall with moss covering every foothold. Half of the holds blew out, half held. It was only forty feet, but I didn’t have climbing gear and was in such a remote area that a broken, or even severely sprained, ankle would probably have meant an early checkout.
The really tough stuff was the growing pains of becoming a writer: going from voice-on-an-answering-machine first draft to a finished version that you love reading. On a technical level, it was very difficult to ‘rip it up and start again.’ I wasted years of my life tinkering with a first draft that I should have just discarded. It’s scary to hit ‘Select All + Delete’ with something you’ve spent five years on. But in my case it was absolutely necessary. The good imagery all stays in your head, and after you’ve started over the water’s clear enough for new crystallizations.
9. What was the easiest thing for you about writing/creating this book?
I found out that I really like doing events at bookstores, which surprised me since I always choke up and start sweating when I ask a question of another author at a reading.
10. Who are some of the authors (or artists) you admire that have inspired you?
Filmmakers have a bigger influence on my writing than novelists do. The Berlin chapters of Brave Man owe a lot to Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Aesthetically, I’m drawn to the crumbling world of Wong Kar-wai and how this erosion beautifully spills into character (I’m thinking here of Leung’s cop in Chungking Express who looks at his sliver of soap and asks, “Do you realize you’ve lost a lot of weight?” or In The Mood For Love, where walls and hearts and time all flake away, all carried perfectly by the bouncing bow strokes of that haunting song, “Yumeji’s Theme”). My world-view is eerily similar to Terrence Malick’s–in a way, this book is an extended meditation on the same golden-hour light that Malick has almost trademarked at this point. There’s an underlying belief to his work that resonates with me. Belief in what, who knows. I don’t shy away from mysticism—which is nothing if not a twilit way of thinking. And I’d consider Malick a mystic director.
Derek Walcott stands alone among living writers. His work taught me how to see closer. For instance, at the beginning of Omeros there’s line “as eels sign their names along the clear bottom-sand.” For years I would read something like that and process information rather than actually seeing it closely–seeing the cursive and maybe a seismographic jump of eels swimming in shallow water. Walcott taught me how to be fully in the moment when I write and when I read.
11. If it were entirely up to you, what would the film adaptation of your book look like?
Director: Martin McDonagh (circa In Bruges)
Burr: David Strathairn or Bill Murray
Owen: T.J. Miller from the new HBO show Silicon Valley. I’ve heard he’s versatile. A young Klaus Kinski would also be fun.
12. What are you working on now?
Well two days ago I was presented with an opportunity to write a non-fiction book on or about a big contemporary artist. I’m trying to figure out if it makes sense to do this, given that I’m a third of the way into my next novel, To Test the Meaning of Certain Dreams, and having a lot of fun with the story. It’s set in 1969 Soviet Russia. I’m thinking of moving to Brighton Beach.
Will Chancellor grew up in Hawaii and Texas and lives in New York City. This is his first novel.
Questions by PMc Magazine
Photography Courtesy of HarperCollins
Design by Francesca Rimi
Cover of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall & Will Chancellor Author Photo, Photography Courtesy of HarperCollins