Friday, May 4, 2012

Writing his way back

Bellevue native back to sign maiden novel topping Oprah’s must-read list

Express Staff Writer

Author Brandon Jones is a classical guitarist and metal sculptor from Bellevue now living in Hawaii. He returns to town Monday, May 7, for a book signing at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum. Courtesy photo

Thanks to social networking and the Internet, it's not hard to find out what happened to that kid we knew from high school. Some ended up just where we thought, some never lived up to their potential and some were recognized by others long before they believed in themselves.

Bellevue resident Brandon Jones falls into the latter category.

"I recently found a card given to me by the late teacher Carrie Bashaw Hislaire at my high school graduation, and on it was a command to "go to college, study literature and write, write write!" She saw it way before I did," said Jones, whose recently published novel, "All Woman and Springtime," has been recognized by Oprah Winfrey and is on her list of top 10 must-reads in May.

The story is of a pair of North Korean girls seeking a better life but ending up sold as sex slaves. How they find a path to healing is what drives this absorbing novel.

"Writing was always there, and I think it came more naturally to me than my other endeavors," Jones said. "That's why it took me so long to figure out that I needed to pursue it—I have a knack for overlooking the obvious."

It must have been something in the water that year. The Community School graduate's former classmate, Alexander Maksik, debuted a similarly well-received book, "You Deserve Nothing," just last year, which likewise got Oprah's attention. In her magazine's column "Books that made a difference to ...", actor Bill Paxton included it in his list.

"My wife and I visited him when we were in France a few years ago," Jones said of Maksik. "We keep in touch. I'm proud of that guy. The timing of our literary debuts is uncanny."

Jones will be in Ketchum at 7 p.m. Monday, May 7, to sign copies of his book at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum. Because his phone line in Hawaii where he's been living for the past decade and some years is weak, he chatted over email.

So how long have you not been a Bellevue-ite?

I've always been a Bellevue-ite, and will always be a Bellevue-ite. It will always feel like home to me, even if I never live there again. My family roots in Bellevue go pretty far back, actually. That said, I left Bellevue about 20 years ago.

People love to hear about the teacher who made all the difference in the life of a success story. Do you have any Blaine County influences you can credit?

I had so many wonderful and life-shaping teachers throughout my education in the Wood River Valley, and it would be difficult to list them all. Tom Johnson taught English and drama at the Community School until he passed away the summer after my senior year. He had that rare combination of brilliance, warmth, intensity and all-out wackiness that made him particularly effective as a teacher. But don't just take my word for it: Xander Maksik dedicated his first book, "You Deserve Nothing," to him. Carrie Bashaw Hislaire is another "precious friend hid in death's dateless night." She taught English with so much heart that it nearly broke mine, especially when she died. I will never forgive her for making me read "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." How can I not also name Bob Brock, Richard Hislaire, Mike Wade, Bill Quann, Kathy Gibson, Pam Whitman, Rem (John Remington) and Jim Cogan, just to name a few?

What families did you run with in South Valley?

My homies were the Pearson kids, the Martin kids, the Macdonald kids, all the Bellevue Bulldog kids—those are some fun memories (I played left field, though I didn't realize at the time that it was typecasting). I have something like 40 friends on Facebook who I knew in kindergarten.

Have a fond memory of home? Come here often?

When I think of home I think of China Rock (Is that really the name of that mountain, or did we just call it that?) and the way the setting sun hits it on late summer afternoons. That mountain was the view out our front window. Just before he left for college, my brother and I climbed up to the highest rocky outcropping overlooking Bellevue. I remember the dry sage smell, that perfect warmth of the summer sunset, and between thinking, "I'm gonna miss this guy," and, "Your room is mine, chump!" feeling a connection with the landscape and a real sense of "home." I try to come back once a year, but it hasn't always worked that way.


How important was it that your eight-city tour included Ketchum?

I was surprised and ecstatic when I found out that Ketchum was on the tour.

How long have you been working on the novel?

I began the physical act of writing the novel in early 2009, though it had been brewing for a couple of years before that.

When did you know you had put the period on the novel?

I remember the feeling well. I had penned a perfect sentence with a particular ring of finality. There just wasn't another sentence after that. The novel was done, and no matter what, that would always be its last line. I picked up the phone and called my wife, who was in Chicago at the time, and told her I had just written the last word of my first novel. A year later my editor drew a line in the manuscript 20 pages before that sentence, handed me a Samurai sword and said, "The book ends here!" The temptation was to turn the sword on her instead, but she was right. I brought the sword down on that line with all my might, really put my back into it, and haven't looked back since. Writing requires blood sacrifice.

Both of you and Maksik chose a basic plot line straight from the headlines—his, the teacher-student affair, yours, the sex trade, but you delved into a much more exotic story farther flung. Why did you choose this path? How did you immerse yourself in the culture and characters?

I had been making an effort to educate myself about North Korea for some time before I decided to write the novel, and it was striking to me how difficult it was, especially then, to find non-politicized human stories from there. I craved seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the people living under those bizarre conditions, and to hear their personal struggles beyond their rote fealty, so I finally decided to create my own. I was very disturbed by the dehumanizing speech often used in the news about North Korea, and especially their assignation to an arbitrary "Axis of Evil." I wanted to show a side of North Korea not often seen, and do it in a way that people in the West could understand.

I tried as best I could to become the characters as I was writing them. This often left me exhausted at the end of the day. By far the most difficult characters to write were the traffickers and pimps, because I had to find in each one a motivation that would cause him to justify his deplorable actions. It is one thing to undertake the thought experiment, "How would I respond to being forced into sexual servitude?," which is horrific, and quite another to consider, "How would I go about enslaving another person?" Those were some dark days at the keyboard.

Throughout the book I chose to focus on elements that I believe are common across cultural, gender and age boundaries, namely core emotions, and let cultural specificity be more in the background. This was very intentional to make my characters tangible to my audience in the West and to keep the focus on what binds us, rather than on what separates us. More than anything, I want my readers to come away with the sense that they have met people whom they can understand and care for, even though they are from an "enemy" state.

Obviously you nailed it, from relative anonymity (your words) to Oprah's list of top 10 to watch for in May within about a month. Why not an Idaho story? Don't "they" say, 'Write what you know?' Was that too safe? Not fun/mysterious enough?

"Write what you know" is perhaps the most damaging thing anyone has ever told a student of writing. Taken at its most basic, it would obliterate just about all the best writing on the planet and leave us with a pathetic legacy of self-indulgent memoirs. Fiction writers have to be able to extrapolate their own life experiences to an infinitely wide range of circumstances. Effective writers can see below the superficial layers of circumstance to the basic emotions, reactions and motivations that are common to and that drive us all.

I would argue that in "All Woman and Springtime," I did write what I know in a very broad sense. I know that North Koreans, like everyone, fall in and out of love, experience fear, hope and regret, have dreams and desires----I have experienced all of those things, too. I know what it's like to watch, reluctantly, as an icon falls from grace. I know what it's like to find out that something I believed to be true----counted on to be true----was a lie. I have manipulated and been manipulated. Perhaps my characters feel these things in different proportions, for different physical circumstances and to different extremes than I have, but does that preclude me from being able to understand and write convincingly about them? Ultimately, I had to write the story that was in me at the time and be true to that muse. There may well be an Idaho story forthcoming.

If the average man can't understand women, how do we get more men like you, who don't just know them, but can live through them?

I think that it's a dangerous assumption that the average man can't understand women----it's an anachronism that needs to die. It gives men permission to behave as if they don't, even if they do, and it allows lazy men, who haven't bothered trying, to continue to be lazy. Both men and women get a lot of mileage from the myth that men can't understand women; it's a kind of currency we use to manipulate each other, and the first casualty of it is true intimacy. It's time to get over it. Also, I think that a lot of men fear it would emasculate them to admit that they can understand women. I would say that a man who does not understand women is not a man at all. How could he be? How could he truly know who and what he is? Someday we will look back with amusement on men who claimed they could not understand women, just as we do now when we think of those poor male doctors who proclaimed, with certainty, that the female orgasm does not exist: They would have been embarrassed if they had known what they were admitting.

Did your wife play a significant role?

Always. In everything. She is my first reader, the one who tells me when my writing has spinach in my teeth. Mainly, she believes in me, and voices it many times throughout the day. She loves fearlessly, and is the one who says, "No matter what, just keep writing." Without that, I'm not sure I'd be where I am now. Actually, I'm sure I wouldn't.

Where do you go from here? Any possibility of joining the annual summer Writers' Conference?

The Writers' Conference is a possibility—I will be in the valley in August. I have been nominated for a fellowship to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont which takes place at the same time. A lot depends on whether or not I get it.

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