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English Instructor's Southern Roots Span Years in 'Birmingham, 35 Miles'

James Braziel's Georgia upbringing played an important role in bringing his first novel – the first in a two-book deal – to life.

Date: 3/1/2008
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Melanie Cannon
James Braziel's recollections of working a family farm are vivid and poignant.

Memories forged in those fields reach across the years to fuel Birmingham, 35 Miles, the first novel by the adjunct assistant professor of English.

James Braziel, adjunct assistant professor of English


Publisher's Weekly says of Birmingham, published by Bantam in February: "Set in a near-future Alabama rendered virtually lifeless by a hole in the ozone layer, Braziel's relentlessly dark debut focuses on Mathew Harrison, a young man who's never known anything but dust storms, heat, the killing sun and a life of migrant labor … Poetic, grim and hallucinatory, this harrowing work is not for the faint of heart, though it will appeal strongly to anyone who loved Cormac McCarthy's The Road."

Braziel has published short stories and poems in Berkeley Fiction Review, Chattahoochee Review, Hayden's Ferry Review and Clackamas Literary Review, among other journals. Weathervane, a chapbook of his poetry, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2003. A two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, he has been the recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts.

A few questions:

Q) What does it mean to you, personally and professionally, to have your first novel picked up by Random House in a two-book deal? That has to be pretty sweet.
A) Relief, vindication, hope, and good stress (yes, believe it or not, stress can be good). I've had stories and poems published in journals, I've received awards, but until I got the "break," I felt that I was writing in a vacuum. Professionally, Bantam offers a high visibility for Birmingham, and in turn, I hope this visibility helps me gain a readership.  Personally, after years and pages of crafting and revising, it was nice to have this acknowledgement of my writing. I'm currently hard at work on the second book, Snakeskin, and while, it can be stressful writing to a deadline, it's great knowing that it'll be published when I'm done – good stress. And they have an option on a third book, so I'll be busy for awhile.

Q) How did you celebrate inking the deal? 
A) I kissed my wife – she has been extraordinarily supportive of my writing career.  I hugged my children and told my parents and friends – the important things. I believe there was a dinner at Tink's, a glass or two, maybe three of wine, meeting friends at Arlin's. This was in December 2006 and my memory, well, let's just say it's aging, and leave it at that.  

Q) You're a Georgia native. Did firsthand knowledge of life in the South provide help and/or inspiration as you wrote Birmingham, especially in the character of Mathew Harrison?
A) Absolutely. I grew up on a small farm in Pitts, Ga., just on the edges of what W.E.B. DuBois called the Black Belt, and spent Junes and Julys harvesting acres of watermelon and cantaloupe. There were a lot of hot days walking the rows, stirring vines, and often dry. You couldn’t wait to get back to the truck, the ice water, slip inside the cab, and turn on the AC. One summer was so parched, a white haze carried from the fields to the farmer’s market until August. That haze, the dust, and my own constant thirst stays with me and was the inspiration for the novel Birmingham, for Mathew Harrison’s life in his desert world. There are some things you can never get out of your skin.

Q) Are you the type to read reviews of your work? If so, what does it mean to you to see this novel described as "lyrical," "innovative" or "harrowing" – and how would you describe it if you had to write the press release?
A) I have read reviews, but just a few, and I think it best to keep it that way. To see the novel described as lyrical, innovative, and harrowing was humbling and gratifying. One of my main aspirations is to create fiction and poetry that connects to readers. In these reviews, I felt that I had made that connection. I would describe Birmingham as a novel about an environmental disaster in the South, about the struggle of one of its inhabitants, Mathew Harrison, to make sense not only of the word he's grown up with (a desert wasteland much like the 1930s dust bowl), but the past world of his father and mother (with its crops and as Mat puts it, "green with a ceiling of blue and thick-shouldered clouds I've never known," a breathable life), and the world just north (unknown, but supposedly still alive, where his wife, Jennifer, is heading). He finds himself trapped in these geographies (dreamed, remembered, and lived).      

Q) As a young writer and reader, whose work did you enjoy – any Southern or science fiction writers in the bunch? 
A) Yes! For Southern writers, I took inspiration from William Faulkner, Mary Hood, and Raymond Andrews. The speculative fiction writers I enjoyed most were Huxley, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Orwell, and Atwood.  Huxley's savage land in Brave New World had a strong influence on Birmingham. I was fortunate to have a professor, Marilyn Brownstein, who allowed me to write a creative essay emulating the styles of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Mixing their language with my own Southern groundings made a significant impact on my writing. I loved the poetry of Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Ai, and Robinson Jeffers. Ron Hansen's use of vignettes in the short story "Wickedness" was another important influence … I must also mention the music of Gillian Welch and Billie Holiday as well as the paintings of Andrew Wyeth as influential on my writing of Birmingham.  

Q) It's amazing to hear that Birmingham unfolded over more than 15 years! Share, please, a little of its evolution. Were there periods on that timeline when you wanted to throw in the towel or when you didn't know why you ever started it in the first place?
A) It started as a short story in 1992 while I was finishing my MFA at Bowling Green State University (after the first wave of global warming concerns).  Many in the workshop said the story needed to be a novel, so I placed it aside for eight years while working on other projects. Around 2000, I began to transform the story into a novel. Over the years, many events impacted the novel's direction and concerns: the Iraq wars, the Alabama/Georgia water rights battle over the Chattahoochee River, the construction of walls along the U.S./Mexican border, and ultimately the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I never thought of giving up on Birmingham. For me, whatever's brewing and stirring will ultimately get written.  I'm dogged about these things.    

Q) If you could impart just a couple of pieces of "wisdom" to your students in terms of dealing with life as a writer, from a big sale to flat-out rejection, what would you tell those young people?
A) Believe, persist, and dream.  At the core, you have to believe in your voice and your writing – this is nonnegotiable. And that belief has to carry you through the rejections because they're coming. Through it all, you have to dream your characters into existence, your story arcs and images, because without the dreaming, your words will drop false and flat. Expect to get discouraged, but don't stop writing – this, too, is nonnegotiable. 

Q) What three books would you like to read (or re-read) if you could find the time?
A) How about five books that I go back to again and again: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell, The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

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