Rebecca Brown is past the point of apologizing for the clutter in her writing studio. All's treasure, after all.
Orderly and disorderly stacks of books make up much of the room's terrain. A cursory glance at some of the spines reveals a special affection for the romantic poets, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the historical fiction of Danielle Dutton.
Atop and around the books, Brown displays artifacts of her personal and professional literary history, all of which come with their own fascinating story. She shows me a small trophy she earned for winning second place in a writing competition in high school in Texas. She had always wanted to be a writer, but the tiny silver cup gave her the ego boost she says she needed to think such a life was actually possible.
After Texas, she moved to England and then to Seattle, where she has lived and taught writing for decades. She was the very first writer-in-residence at Hugo House in 1998, she won a Stranger Genius Award in 2005, and she has published more than a dozen books.
In one corner of the writing studio, a marionette doll of Franz Kafka dangles from a life-size statue of a saint. A drawing of a brooding but resilient Samuel Beckett adorns the opposite wall; elsewhere is another portrait of Beckett made completely out of broken vinyl records. On another wall, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas stare out from a framed cover of the Times Literary Supplement.
But the real jewels of the room are the two huge stained-glass windows filtering the light coming in through a pair of Gothic windows. Decades ago, Brown's mother purchased them as a housewarming gift from a now-shuttered antique shop on Capitol Hill. One features a miraculously youthful portrait of Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother and the finder of the True Cross. The other features a monk in a rope-cinched frock who was friends with Saint Francis of Assisi.
As we snack on a bowl of cut watermelon and sip iced espresso, Brown quotes a religious scholar who argues that Assisi didn't talk with the animals but, more importantly, listened to them. His is ultimately a story of the power of empathy, the power of staring into the belly of the beast and saying: "Oh, he's just hungry. We should fix him up a plate."
As she discusses the implications of that slight but meaningful interpretive shift, I notice little figurines of animals and characters from fables placed around the room. Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf. They seem like totems from her new collection of stories, Not Heaven, Somewhere Else, which will be published by Tarpaulin Sky Press in October. (Brown reads from it at Elliott Bay Book Company on October 15.) In it, she reimagines fables and fairy tales from the Western canon, updating their morals for our contemporary milieu.
If you need any more convincing of the special power emanating from all the stuff in the studio, during our conversation, Brown's "pet" squirrel runs into the room from her backyard, seemingly in a panic. Without hesitation, Brown pulls a couple of peanuts from her pocket to feed the animal, who gladly accepts the gift and runs off again.
In that moment, Brown's refurbished cottage feels less like a writing studio and more like an active portal to the fictive (and not-so-fictive) worlds she's created over the course of a steady and remarkable literary career.
Brown calls Not Heaven, Somewhere Else a "story cycle" to encourage readers to read the book from beginning to end. She feared calling the book a "collection" would give people license to read the stories at random, which would be a terrible mistake. Some of the stories she includes in the cycle date back almost 20 years. She's spent a long time working this book into its current form, and she wants you to read them one after the other. Doing so is highly recommended and highly rewarding.
The book begins with a beguiling, tone-setting piece called "The Pigs" (reproduced here in full—see inset). In the short-short, Brown swirls inspiration from "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and "The Three Little Pigs" together into an urgent tale about a pig narrowly escaping a burning house. Now that she's out, the pig says, she's going to tell her story "like the way I want."
Aside from establishing Brown's fabulist gambit, the emphasis on the word "like" is really the key to understanding the core mystery driving the book. At first blush, the language choice feels purely aesthetic, a kind of cutesy word whisker included to convey the character's country-bumpkin roots. But using the word "like" here causes us to pause and take seriously the deep truth embedded in this phrase.
Though her grammar sounds a little off, the pig is ultimately right. We can only ever tell our stories "like" the way we want. (This is especially true of particularly dark or traumatic material that the mind papers over in its attempts to keep the body alive.) Language's essential coldness can never perfectly convey our emotional experiences, so talking about those experiences is always "like" telling them the way you want.
Metaphors, similes, and narratives are some of literature's work-arounds to that problem. Using those tools allows us to create a shared, albeit fictional, reality. This linguistic arena—which takes the form of the poem, the story, or, in Brown's case, the fable—is one of the only places where we can really communicate our deepest emotional, philosophical, and artistic truths. This is a place that's like life, but not. Not heaven, but somewhere else.
Brown's use of language here evinces a love of speech as it's spoken in the wild. She shares this love with Samuel Beckett, who also finds great lyricism and accidental profundity in prepositions, helping verbs, and other grammatical odds and ends that other writers excise for the sake of "clarity."
After "The Pigs," the book descends into even darker territory with "The Girl Who Cried Wolf." It then wallows in depression with "Debbie and Anji" and the title story, "Not Heaven, Somewhere Else," before dipping into absurdity with "What Keeps Me Here." Humpty Dumpty is also in this book, but here she's a woman. Later, Brown gets gorgeously lost in the forest in an absolutely stunning allegory about the patriarchy called "The Brothers," and then finally finds a hard-won hearth and home filled with something like hope in "To Grandmother's House." Reading the whole thing in one sitting—which I highly recommend—you really feel this move from extreme darkness and desperation to light.
"The Girl Who Cried Wolf" and "The Brothers" are the two best stories in the book. In "The Girl Who Cried Wolf"—which Brown says was written well before the #MeToo movement—a pack of wolves tear apart a woman, ripping her flesh from her bones. She screams and cries for help ("Help! Help! Wolf! Wolf!") as the wolves turn her arms into bloody stumps. Instead of helping her, the villagers quibble with her definition of "wolf." The beasts tearing her limb from limb don't look to the villagers like wolves, so they decide not to save her.
A lesser writer would let the simple gender swap (after all, in the famous tale of the boy who cried wolf, everyone believes him even though there is no wolf) serve as a chilling reminder of our tendency to distrust girls who have no reason to lie and to believe boys who lie to gain power. However, Brown's narrator goes a step further, implicating herself in the villagers' distancing tactics. Even as she describes the wolves attacking in excruciating detail, she follows indulgent etymological tangents, wonders openly about bigger-picture catastrophes, and pointedly misses the point: There's a young woman dying and no one cares. Implicating the narrator prevents the story from slipping into pure moralizing puffery, and serves as a fitting and devastating fable for the #MeToo era.
Similarly, though "The Brothers" is about a group of people who roam the countryside beating up people because that's just what they've always done, these "Brothers," despite their name, aren't necessarily gendered. "Once upon a time we all were Brothers," Brown writes. The patriarchy—and really any fossilized idea of "the way the world works"—is embedded in us all. We all have to identify the beliefs and ideas we uncritically uphold and then root out the ones that unnecessarily hurt other people, even and especially if doing so means facing the wrath of the masses.
Sitting among her cathedral of books, Rebecca Brown rightfully dismisses my interviewy question about what drew her to writing fables at this stage in her career. She can come up with a million reasons—the stories have been around forever for a reason, she loves the old fairy tales like anyone else, using flat characters gives writers a chance to play with ideas in much more interesting ways—but really she was just following her bliss and trying to make the strongest book she could.
For me, though, these updated and revised fables satisfied a desire for moral discussion I didn't even know I had. The president and his attendant goons break so many norms so quickly that I often have to begin conversations by articulating an ethical stance I assumed everyone agreed on.
Does anybody care about this Russia stuff, really? Well they should, if they think lying is bad. Does anybody care if the president admitted on tape to sexual assault? They should, if they think people should be punished in a meaningful way for sexually assaulting other people.
Or let's not think about the president for just one second. What about the moral quandary of excessively rich people in this country? Tomorrow, Jeff Bezos could give Seattle the yearly estimated amount of money required to address the homelessness crisis at every level of complexity, and yet he doesn't... because why? At the heart of these questions are deep, foundational issues of ethics and right action that are somehow, surprisingly, still up for debate. Brown's book helps us see such choices in a new light.
The real treasure in her studio lies in the folders of unfinished, marked-up manuscripts stowed away in an unassuming tote beneath her desk. Brown, of course, self-effacingly refers to them as nothing—stories that aren't stories yet, notes toward something. But she tells me she has two big piles of stuff she hopes to shape into two other book projects in the coming years—one maybe a collection of essays, another some work of fiction. Now that she's given up one of her teaching jobs, she'll have more time to build more worlds "like" ours, but not quite. Worlds that help us understand our world better.