Jason Lee Brown is the author of the novella Championship Run, which was released on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. The novella has been called “masterful,” “compelling,” and “as funny as it is sad, as nightmarish as it is illuminating.” Brown’s first novel Prowler: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon was published in 2014. Brown is also the series editor of New Stories from the Midwest. We caught up with Brown to discuss his new novella as well as the anthology series. -MP
Part 1: Championship Run
MICHIGANDERS POST: Your new book, Championship Run, takes place in rural Illinois. We certainly get a sense, a real feel, for the industrial Midwest, which plays as a backdrop to action of Championship Run. Are you writing from your own sense of place?
JASON LEE BROWN: The setting in Championship Run is a fictionalized version of my hometown. I was born, raised, and educated in Illinois, and the Midwest setting, specifically central Illinois, pervades most of my writing. Championship Run is the anchor to my recently finished story collection, Midwest Everyman, so I think the title says enough.
MP: Your previous works include a novel as well as poetry. What made you set out to write a novella as your latest work?
JLB: The “germ of the idea” for the story started with an incident that happened while I was in high school in the early ‘90s, and though this novella is fiction, the incident made me obsessed with how one moment can change the trajectory of your life, how you think, act. Most of my writing comes from real-life incidences that I can’t quite set straight in my head, so I fictionalize them to make better sense of them. I wrote this during the summer of 2011, more than twenty years after the germ of the idea. I wasn’t trying to write a novella necessarily, though I knew this would be a longer story.
MP: The story moves backwards in time, taking the reader closer and closer to a tragic event that shapes these characters’ lives. How did this structure come about?
JLB: As far as the process, this story took shape early and followed structurally what I imagined for it, which almost never happens in my writing. I knew my ending, and I worked the plot backwards from there to a beginning I had in mind, which really wasn’t that different than running the plot chronologically. It’s the same tropes, plot points, character development, etc. It usually helps me to know the ending to my stories while I write because it’s easier for me to add in theme and metaphor on a first or second draft, instead of stumbling on to them six or seventh draft into the story, which I like as a process as well, but for me, the “stumble on to it” process always seems to take longer. For example, when describing where Think lived, I wanted an image that revealed who Think was as a character, which was and had been for years this burned-out-light-bulb guy. I knew this before I started writing, and instead of rewriting really bad sentences into better ones, I was able to write on the first to second draft a line I thought perfectly fit Think: “Think’s trailer’s in the far back, below the busted streetlight that kids without shoes and shirts throw rocks at even though it hasn’t had a bulb in it in years.”
Most of the ideas I have before I start writing a story change along with the development of the story and characters, which I think is how the process is supposed to work, but this novella completed almost all the main goals I wanted to achieve, from beginning to end. I wanted what I call the character ghost—the incident in the past that makes the character act the way the character does in the present—to be the best moment and memory of the character’s life instead of the worst. Of course, the shared tragedy is a character ghost for all three friends, but the main character, Jay, has his best memories of his life haunt him almost as much as the shared tragedy. I also wanted three themes on the championship run: the long work run at his machine, the long meth run, and the basketball high school run—and I wanted them all to relate to each other.
MP: How does the time structure help tell this story?
JLB: The structure I hope helps in several ways. The reverse narrative forces the reader to see the results of the characters’ decisions before the decisions were made. This also allows the reader to be in denial or a purposeful forgetfulness along with the main characters. The characters and reader have to face those life choices together through the story until the end (or beginning).
Part 2: New Stories from the Midwest
MP: How did you get involved with the New Stories from the Midwest series?
JLB: When I found out New Stories from the Midwest didn’t exist, I decided in grad school to create the series myself. At the beginning, I based it on three anthologies: I took the regional aspect from Shannon Ravenel’s New Stories from the South, the “Guest Editor” policy from the Best American Short Stories series, and the “Contributing Editors” feature from the Pushcart Prize anthology. David Sanders, who was director of Ohio University Press at the time, said he would be interested in a best of the Midwest anthology. So I collected sample stories and wrote a proposal. Since then, I have moved the anthology to New American Press, which has been great. The anthology publishes every other year (odd-numbered years) and in the even-numbered years, NAP publishes New Poetry from the Midwest.
MP: What is the selection process like for the works that are included?
Editors from literary magazines, journals, and writers nominate stories for inclusion via Submittable. I read through all nominations (along with a select group of readers, including my co-editor Shanie Latham) and we select sixty or so stories that we give to a guest editor, most recently John McNally, Rosellen Brown, and Lee Martin. The guest editor selects twenty-five stories to include in the anthology.
MP: The Midwest is a region that is definable in some senses and vague in others. In terms of selecting stories that are Midwestern, what are the qualities that you’re looking for? What kind of guidelines and restrictions do you work with?
JLP: I always quote Stuart Dybek, “There’s a mix of writers and sensibilities that inhabit the literary Midwest as to make the term unpredictable.” And we hope to represent that with New Stories from the Midwest. We want published short stories set in or inspired by the Midwestern United States: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The qualities I look for are this: the story/characters have to be emotionally engaging and entertaining, and those two elements can come in many forms.