Whatever Happened to Scott Bradfield? and Other Troubling Questions About Publishing, Big And Small
Scott Bradfield has been the pea under the mattress of polite American literature for the past thirty-odd years. October 1989. I’m nineteen and living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, working on a useless bachelor’s degree. I find myself downtown, where I have walked to get away from campus. I push through the glass doors of a long-defunct chain bookstore, in a bad mood, expecting to find the usual garbage romances. On the wonky metal racks are the familiar names… Danielle Steel (Portuguese Baroness of Letters), Tom Clancy, Barbara Taylor Bradford… the usual guilty suspects. But nestled next to the BTB is a book with a weird, semi-translucent cover. I pick it up, glance at the title, appreciate the heft of it in my hand. It’s heavy and compact. I guess the cover to be designed by Chip Kidd, but when I look at the rear dust jacket flap, I see it was designed by Barbara De Wilde and Carol Devine Carson. Wow – two designers? I study the author photograph, taken by Jerry Bauer, who photographed William T. Vollmann for the back of his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels. I am perplexed by the Kansas City tuxedo. Who is this guy? Then I begin reading… I promptly purchase the book with Pell Grant money, walk back to my dorm room, and get lost for three hours, my roommate thankfully gone for the weekend, the walls disappearing, my consciousness fusing seamlessly with the author’s, an extremely rare occurrence in my forty years as a reader. People get hung up on sex, but reading is the closest one comes to experiencing another being’s consciousness, their totality.
Scott! It has been a while since I published "Closer to You" (from Dream of the Wolf) in the Coe Review. Thirty years! How does thirty years go by so quickly? You were teaching at the University of Connecticut at Storrs when I published "Closer." Do you still teach?
Hi, James. You published one of my favorite, and most often ignored short stories ("Closer to You"), and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for undertaking this thankless task of wondering what happened to me. The short answer is: Many things have happened. I have even happened (often) and continue to happen. And both my life and career have continually happened, it’s just that most people don’t know about it. It’s very nice of you to show some interest, and I’ll try to reply to your questions the best I can.
I don’t teach anymore. I loved teaching for many years, and I loved most (but by no means all) of my students, but now very happily I don’t teach at all. Maybe my dog. I try to teach her to stop barking at the mailman, otherwise, I just write, clean my house, love my wife and dog and parakeet, read for and write book reviews and essays, work in a used cd store in San Luis Obispo, try not to obsess about the awful daily news, and just enjoy the best parts of being alive. For those of us who love books, the universities have become fearsome paces, as you must know, since you recognized the uselessness of your bachelor’s degree several decades ago. I can’t imagine how university composition and literature programs could do a better job of teaching young people to hate writing and reading. I’m sure there are many great teachers out there but it’s hard to believe they get much help from today’s departmental and university administrations; I hope I’m wrong. I enjoy reading a lot more now that I don’t have to justify what I read and teach to my colleagues according to some racial-sexual logarithm that was recently calculated at the last PMLA.
I was twenty-two when I published "Closer to You" in the Coe Review, my college literary magazine. I wrote you a letter, a letter being a piece of paper nestled inside an envelope with a stamp affixed to it, for the youngsters out there who may not know, and you wrote back a few weeks later. Do you still receive letters from fans, from readers? Or does everyone communicate with you via YouTube? (Scott has a hilarious YouTube channel called Reading Great Books in the Bathtub).
I very rarely hear from people who know my books and/or stories or even my essays. But my YouTube “channel” seems my one portal of communication with the world of readers. On YouTube I hear from people all the time who share their love of reading, their enjoyment of what I say, and their non-enjoyment of what I say. Most productively they happily emote about the books and writers they love. Most people don’t know my books and stories. Even when I publish new stories in journals, I wonder if the editors even read them. I’m very proud of them, though. And I read them. In fact, I enjoy reading and rereading them all a great deal!
I have been lucky enough, however, to be approached every decade or so by a young(er than me) writer such as yourself who walks the extra mile to expose people to my fiction. Ben Strong did a great piece at The Believer many moons back, and the editor, writer and critic, Paul Maliszewski has walked many miles in making similar efforts. So while the “accolades” come pretty sparsely, they always express the sort of genuine affection for my books that most matter to me.
You lived in London for a great many years. Do you still have a place there, or are you living in the States full-time now? Do you miss London at all?
I loved and love London, but I don’t miss it. The Tories and “New” Labour parties have decimated it. I was a big supporter of Corbyn and the huge movement that supported him but the UK’s newspaper and television media are totally owned by the worst people in the country (in much the same way as our own.) I am very happy to be back in California, a place I love and am proud to belong to and with. The California central coast is my favorite part of the world, and I don’t feel much yen to leave it for very long.
The History of Luminous Motion is one of my favorite novels of all time. First published by Knopf in 1989, then again by Calamari Press in 2013. It was even made into a 1998 film starring Deborah Kara Unger, the actress from The Game. It is such a beautiful book. The History of Luminous Motion seems to have a troubled past, can you elaborate? Were you on the set at all during the filming of Luminous Motion?
Many stories here. The history of History is sad (to me) but not as sad as the rest of my books, since at least History was published in large quantities and can probably be found floating around the world of used bookstores and cheaply on eBay and so forth. If people want to read it, they can, and it can still be accidentally “discovered” by readers. The establishment literary critics and communities have shown no interest in it that I can see.
I sold the film rights to History for enough money to help me buy a flat in London that made me very happy for a couple decades, so I have no regrets. I wrote a script which was quite popular in Hollywood for many years, and got me a good deal of work, but the producers dumped it and replaced it with a script that (from what I read) was not very good. They also set it in New Jersey of all places! So I kind of paid as little attention to the production and filming as possible. I have never seen it, though Deborah Kara Unger was a perfect choice to play the mother.
The inside dust jacket flap of my first edition copy has a photograph of you taken by Jerry Bauer, who, along with Jill Krementz, is/was the preeminent photographer of authors. How were you photographed by Jerry Bauer, and for your debut novel, no less?
History was my one “success” story, publishing wise, so I might as well tell the story. In the last couple years of grad school at UC Irvine, I moved to London to write my dissertation, and through friends started getting lots of “hack” jobs which I enjoyed (and hated) immensely. Writing for a deadline was the greatest training I could have hoped for, since as a short story writer and novelist I have always been obsessed with getting everything just right and of course never do. But when you’ve got deadlines you can be amazed about how much good work you can produce in a short period of time. I wrote mainly book reviews, as well as some humor and travel pieces. But every day before the hack work I worked on my stories and finished my first collection after many years of struggle over individual stories, some of which took years to complete.
For some reason, I lucked out and found a few small magazines and journals that would publish these stories, and possibly because I was reviewing in London, a few publishers were interested in a collection and I sold one. About the same time, my ideas for a novel (which I had started and failed at for several years) came together and I wrote History in about eight months. We had a publisher who wanted to do it, but my agent at the time (the only good agent I ever had) thought the book could get a better one. She championed that book all over London, but it was turned down by every single publisher.
As I recall the story, she was still talking up the novel just when my first collection was about to come out, and there was a very tiny “buzz” about the stories, almost infinitesimal, but enough to catch the ears of Sonny Mehta, who had just moved from Picador to Knopf. When he came through my agent’s office one day on the way to the airport, she rushed out and gave him a copy of my novel and he took it with him, read it on the plane, and made an offer when he landed. It was a good offer, but he loved the book, and put a lot of money into promoting it before publication and published a lot of copies (maybe 20 thousand or so, which is a lot for a first novel!) he also gave away thousands of advance copies, and the book got a proper “buzz.” It got widely reviewed. And once Sonny bought the novel, all the UK publishers who turned it down suddenly wanted to buy it! So I could move out of the awful bedsit I’d been living in and buy a studio flat in Stroud Greene.
Yeah, the bigshot author-photographers came and took my photo. The novel got good (and bad) reviews all over the US.
At the end of the day, though, it didn’t sell as well as Knopf hoped. And while they had already bought my expanded story collection (Dream of the Wolf), and it also got good reviews and so forth, all the magic had gone out of our relationship. Sonny suggested ideas for what he wanted from me for a second novel (at one point he tried to commission me to write a detective novel) but I took what was good creative advice from my friend and mentor, Brian Moore, and refused to sell an unwritten novel. That was terrible business advice (and I give it to my own students as well) but great creative advice. It meant I carried on writing the short stories I wanted to write, and when I found a second novel that made me happy enough to write it, I wrote what Knopf didn’t want me to write. (What’s Wrong with America.) And shortly after that, my third (and favorite) early novel, Animal Planet. Sonny didn’t even reply to our submission of America, and when he turned his back on it, we had trouble getting it and my subsequent books published. When they came out, they got great reviews in the UK and US, but the publishers didn’t believe in them, didn’t get them in bookstores, and they quickly died a fast death.
I still believe the world of readers were ready for books like What’s Wrong with America and Animal Planet, but the world of publishers wasn’t.
And that’s the long and short of my first and only publishing “success.”
Your novels and short stories have a very California-ness to them, which makes sense, as you’re from California. Are you like James Joyce in Trieste, or Joyce in Paris? When you’re away from California, say when you were teaching in Connecticut, or when you’re in London, do you think Cal-ee-fawnia, Über alles? Does your beloved home state haunt you, even when you’re away from it?
I have always loved being a Californian, and I’m proud of it in ways that I’m not even remotely proud of being an American. Partly it’s just my love for the landscape and the spaces and general sense of freedom I’ve always felt out here to sort of find your own way in a region that is fairly accepting, fairly forward-yearning and, to some extent, kind of stupid and naive. At the same time, as a young man, I often felt lost and terribly alone in these spaces, and from the spaciness of the people, and it was only when I moved to London that I felt I was part of a literary culture where people could write for a (very poor) living, and where people seemed interested in books and literature in readerly ways.
I did very much feel like I was writing about California in my early stories and first two novels, and they’re filled with my general sense of the horrific and embracing and exhilarating sense of strangeness and metaphysical instability of living there. But after I moved away and began spending most of my time in London and Connecticut (where I taught at UCONN for many years), it took a while for me to write about a wider sense of the world. Eventually, my expanded sense of the world led me to write my “animal” stories that are set in fable-like landscapes, and ultimately to Animal Planet and my Dazzle the dog stories. I was proud that I found a way to write about my fears and delights about life and world in these stories and they still feel, to me, filled with the joy of discovery. A sense of discovery is what I look for in every story or novel I write–finding new ways to write about people and ideas that I never quite knew how to write about before. Basically, I start off with an idea that appeals to me, decide it’s impossible to make work, and keep playing with it until I prove myself wrong.
Though I still find time to write stories set in California, as well as in my renewed home ground of the central coast–especially in my Dazzle stories, about a misanthropic dog who travels around the state having various philosophical adventures. Each story is quite different from the previous one, and opens up on wider landscapes, until eventually Dazzle journeys into outer space. Which, to some degree, is exactly where Dazzle belongs.
Ok, we may as well get this over with… You and I both have a shared hatred for publishers. Luckily, I have a few small publishers (Expat Press, Nine-Banded Books, Anxiety Press) who put up with my idiosyncrasies and my lack of sales. I wrote an epic, complex, multilayered novel called The Moon Down to Earth a few years ago, and before Expat Press took a chance on it, I shopped it around all the majors. A woman in a fancy office in New York City told me ‘She couldn’t see her way through the story,’ which I take to mean she didn’t read it. Or perhaps she meant it wasn’t airport garbage, and she only publishes airport garbage. Or perhaps she just doesn’t recognize great literature. How does a huge author like Scott Bradfield, who has been published by Knopf and St. Martin’s Press, go from Knopf to self-publishing? Your self-publishing enterprise, Red Rabbit Books (readily available on Amazon!) has a kickass colophon, and your self-pubbed books, including The Millennial’s Guide to Death, 3 Paragraphs in the Life of Bob Johnson, and Reading Great Books in the Bathtub all have a nice feel to them, despite the Lightning Source barcode on the very last page. How did this happen, my friend? How did you go from Alfred A. Knopf, a Borzoi Book, to self-publishing?
You’re probably right about that publisher–she didn’t read it.
My journey into self-publishing has been gradual and, for the most part, happy. My experience with publishers is that the big ones aren’t any worse than the small ones; every time I finish a book (or even a story) my heart sinks a little. When I know it’s good, and sometimes know it’s very good, I also know it will be a hassle finding anybody who will publish it. These expectations are rarely disappointed. And whenever I find an editor who will publish something of mine, they almost always never want to publish anything else. That’s the part I’ve found most frustrating. With the possible exceptions of Steve Erickson at Black Clock (which no longer exists, alas,) and Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF (Gordon stepped down as editor many years back), I can’t recall a single editor who ever published more than one of my stories or books. Especially in book publishing, where they seem to make their decisions solely by looking up the last book’s sales figures. And my sales figures were never any good.
Eventually I just gave up on all publishers, and after a long struggle with the Amazon software, I have managed to slowly put together several books, and with my son’s design sense (better than mine, but then I don’t have one), and that colophon he created (the one you like as much as I do), the books don’t look bad. I’ve even crudely illustrated some of the covers, and my talented artist-wife Ji, has illustrated others much more beautifully. There’s even some great illustrations on Reading Great Books in the Bathtub from the talented cartoonist, Brian Smith. So it all feels like a sort of family project. Now I can just write the damn things, publish them, and have them ignored without the intermediary of publishers. Self-publishing always reminds me of that Woody Allen line about masturbation – “Don’t knock it, it’s sex with someone I love.”
My books are now published by someone who loves them.
In my debut novel, written nearly twenty years ago, I wrote the words I will walk where you have walked, I will see what you have seen. What I was getting at, in an overly-complicated way, was that I wanted a young person to seek me out when I was old, ask my advice – as if I had anything worth saying. A young woman at Cleveland State University, Brittany Wendolowski, wrote a master’s thesis about your contribution to American letters – wow, quite an honor. Do young people, like I did thirty years ago, still seek you out? Do you ever tire of it?
Well no, I never tire of being “sought out,” since rarely does anybody perform any seeking. I don’t know that Master’s thesis but I hope the writer enjoyed the books; that’s the only attention I ever wanted, just that people might enjoy the stories and essays and novels as much as I did reading them the first time they came into print.
The few people who have approached me, however, usually through emails or maybe posts on my YouTube talks, have all been exceptionally kind and betrayed no murderous behavior that I could tell.
As young writers, we both had our Harlan Ellison moments. Ellison told me, over the phone, that the writer must always get paid, because people don’t respect writers. Wanna know who writes all the garbage people watch on television? Writers! I loved his energy, which emanated through the receiver. I was nineteen. It was the same year I first read The History of Luminous Motion. Harlan also gave you some advice at a speculative fiction writer’s conference you attended in Seattle. Throw out that copy of Finnegans Wake and read Donald E. Westlake. What year was that? What’s the best advice an established author gave you while you were young?
Yeah I wrote about my Harlan Ellison anecdote in my recent book of essays, Reading Great Books in the Bathtub, which is the closest I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography. Most good advice was like Harlan’s–just the names of writers I should read. The only actual “mentor” I ever had was Brian Moore, whose work I loved as a young man and who I met (quite marvelously) while I was wandering the halls of the UCLA English Department in the late seventies. (I wrote about my friendship with Brian and his wife, Jean, in the Bathtub volume.) He gave me three pieces of advice I live by: 1) write every day, whether I know what I want to write or not, 2) keep a writer’s journal that keeps track of daily progress on stories and novels, and 3) never sell a book before you’ve finished it. That last piece of advice is creatively brilliant and professionally dire; publishers WANT to buy unfinished books because then they can imagine it’s something they want you to write instead of what you want to write. But as a result of following that advice, I have never had to write a page of fiction for anybody but myself, and that has made me happy creatively, and unsellable professionally.
I realize I may be courting controversy here, but would you like to discuss Toni Morrison? Do you feel you were perhaps shunned by big publishing after that essay made its way into the world?
Publishers were already shunning me when I wrote and eventually published that essay–which is a lot less sacrilegious than it sounds. But I was definitely shunned by academics, none of whom bothered to read the essay. It was the first personal essay I ever wrote and led me by many circuitous paths to write many more recent ones (collected in Bathtub), but my main interest in that particular essay wasn’t to undermine Morrison, but to explore why her academic and critical proponents are such assholes. I quoted from just a few of the academic books about Morrison in that essay, and to this day I can’t believe professional teachers of literature say stuff like that–about how people who don’t like Morrison must have something wrong with them, or don’t comprehend the horrors of slavery, or enjoy reading about women being raped and so forth. Literary academia reminds me a lot of the current Democratic Party–if you don’t say exactly what everybody else says, then you’re dismissed as a Trump supporter, or a racist.
In the Morrison essay, and the more recent essays (as well as the YouTube talks) I’ve simply tried to express what I love about reading fiction; and that Morrison essay was just the first step on a longer writerly project which may soon be coming to an end, since I think I’ve said everything I had to say on the subject of myself, my love for books, and the writers I love (and hate).
Are you a morning writer, afternoon writer, or an evening writer? Kafka was a late-night writer, and it feels like it. Do you feel the time of day you write in affects the mood or tone of whatever it is you’re working on?
Morning morning morning. Before I’m fully awake to the latest horrors of the world. Every good day of writing fiction fills me with happiness and hope. Which of course any further knowledge on any given day dashes all to hell.
Dewboy Fairchild aside (from the hilarious 3 Paragraphs in the Life of Bob Johnson), what are you working on now, Scott? You shared in an email a few years back that you were working on a novel about a murderous teenager, which sounds awesome. How is that coming? What projects should we expect from Red Rabbit Books in the near future?
The problem with self-publishing is that the job of formatting wears me down and I take long breaks from it, meanwhile the new books and stories keep piling up, and since nobody’s in any hurry to read them except me, I take my time and am constantly revising. I’ve got a novel about a young man who’s irresistible to women (hint: it doesn’t make him happy); another about that anti-social teen; another that’s a sort of weirdly distant sequel to History; at least one new volume of stories, another book of stories about Dazzle the misanthropic dog–stop me before I kill more! Oh, and another book of essays. Also there’s this long project of stories about insects in a garden. I think of it as my War and Peace–and the stories fall somewhere between a Pixar movie and a Richard Yates novel. Just where I like to be.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Scott. I still feel like that nineteen-year-old kid discovering a dark great secret each time I converse with you. Thank you for that.
Thanks for taking the time to wonder what happened to me, James. And if you find out, please let me know!
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