Brian Strause was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and now lives in Silver Lake, California.
Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.
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Some outtakes from our interview with Strause:
"I was fired from not one, but two, high school papers. (not, unfortunately, for anything heroic)."
"I can name all the prepositions on call."
"I grew up thinking Los Angeles would be the last place I'd ever live. Not only do I live there, but also I recently I got acupuncture for my dog. I suspect that this is a sign that I should probably move."
"I enjoy cutting up old magazines and making collages. If you have nothing better to do, you can see some of them at my web site."
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In the fall of 2005, Brian Strause took some time out to answer some questions about books and life:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Where the Red Fern Grows comes to mind, but I could just as easily say Watership Down; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or any one of a number of the books I read as a kid. Those books stuck with me ever since -- not so much the stories (I suffer from terrible bouts of literary amnesia) -- but the feeling that the world was much larger and interesting than I was led to believe. When you're a kid, your life is so insular and controlled. There's no freedom, you're at the mercy of adults. But books -- they're like covert a passport that gives you access beyond the imposed confines of your life. While I wouldn't say any particular book made me want to be a writer -- it was early reading experiences that crystallized my appreciation for the enriching power of books. Where the desire to read turned into a desire to write, though, I couldn't really say. It probably has something to do with my desire to stay at home with the dog.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you? The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey -- Revolutionary and irreverent, Abbey's masterpiece brings the American West alive in all of its grandeur and makes a potent case for why it's worth getting your hands dirty fighting for the environment. And considering the subject matter, it's not particularly didactic. It's as real and true as the sweat on Hayduke's brow. Once you read this, check out Abbey's The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel, the greatest road book I've ever read. Hilarious, tender and heartbreaking in its beauty.
Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks -- I'm a big fan of Russell Banks. He can be hilarious one moment and cut you to the quick with a painful truth, the next. Several of his books are worthy of a favorites list; this is just the first one I thought of.
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley -- I carried this book around for 12 years before I finally got to it -- just in time, it turns out. This portrait of a man swimming for bottom in some ways prompted me to start writing what would become Maybe a Miracle. If you ever felt like an outsider, take heart, you've never felt so outside as this. I took it as a cautionary tale -- a painful, hilarious, sweetly excruciating, split-your-sides-laughing cautionary tale. There are no hard and fast lessons here, Exley is no sentimentalist, but he does learn that no matter how far you try to run from yourself, there you are.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson -- If I'd read it in high school I probably wouldn't have floundered through every science class I ever took.
The Baseball Encyclopedia -- The bible to the world's greatest sport. If you can read between the lines of the numbers, the answers to all that ails you are in these page. Okay, maybe not, but I sure do find it intoxicating.
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger -- This book was a gift to everyone who has every felt alienated by our increasingly artificial world. It gave me hope at a time in my life when hope and optimism seemed pretty lame. Thanks to Salinger and so many other great writers, I've come to believe that's what novels are for -- to show us the possibilities of saying yes in a world where it's so easy to say no.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving -- I am jealous of everyone who has yet to read this book. You are in for one of life's great literary treats. All I can do is point the way to the table. Not to scream, but JUST READ IT. You'll soon know what I mean.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- I figured I better get an old classic in here. Somehow I managed to graduate college without reading the Great American Novel. Instead, I recently read it aloud to a 90 year-old blind friend of mine. It took about four months, one night a week, and was a revelation to us both.
A Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore -- I couldn't put it down and neither will you.
The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg. What Makes Sammy Run? is great, too, but The Disenchanted actually cuts deeper into the dark heart of Hollywood in all it's anguished, hilarious glory. Like Sammy, it could have been written yesterday, yet was published in 1950. I suppose in Hollywood the same story has always been written on the wall and no matter what it says, some genius is going call for a rewrite.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
It seems that so many of my favorite films are coming of age stories. I love it when events happen to a character for the first time. When you make choices that take you into the unknown, those choices define not only who you are, but who you're going to be. It's such an inherently dramatic and bittersweet time in our lives. Some of the ones I return to again and again include:
Harold and Maude -- This film has what few other black comedies have: heart. It's a celebration of life and love with an emotional punch that never fails to leave me moved. An instant cure for the blues.
Rushmore -- Max Fischer is a wonderfully idiosyncratic character whose impact far eclipses the sum of his parts. Thanks to the deft directing of Wes Anderson, this story of an unlikely love triangle is utterly believable and true.
Running on Empty -- I'm so angry at River Phoenix for dying. He was an amazing talent and he's at his best in this film as he portrays a gifted pianist who must leave his family -- his parents are on the run from the law for an act of political protest that went horribly wrong -- if he wants to achieve his artistic potential. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
Bad News Bears (the original) -- My dad took me to see it when I was a kid and tried to cover my ears whenever they cursed -- which they do a lot -- making his attempts at censorship all the more futile. Walter Matthau should've gotten the Oscar for his portrayal of Buttermaker, the perpetually drunk pool-cleaner. Meanwhile, Tatum O'Neal proved the Oscar she already had for Paper Moon was no fluke. Call it a tie with Bull Durham for the title of "the best baseball movie ever made."
What's Eating Gilbert Grape? -- The question is, if you don't love this film, what's eating you?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Music is a constant source of inspiration, transcendent at its best, especially when heard live. I'm inclined to say that it's hard for me to listen to music with words when I write -- too much competition with the lyrics -- but as I think about it, there really are no hard or fast rules.
Radiohead, for example, provides an excellent soundtrack for writing. They have a way of inspiring me to go off on unexpected tangents. A big part of writing for me is making myself available to the story and the characters, just sitting at the computer, waiting to see what comes. Sometimes I've found that music helps a story reveal itself, sometimes it takes silence.
West Coast 50s jazz like Art Pepper, Chet Baker and Paul Desmond frequently works. That's great stuff to write to. I also like to listen to baseball games on the radio while I type away. It's not music exactly, but it's got rhythm. It can be evocative. I will say, baseball's not so good for writing on a blank screen, but when it comes to the editing process, baseball is great. Other artists who fight over my CD player include: Wilco, Bob Dylan, Pavement, Gram Parsons, Bright Eyes, Calexico, the Kinks, Mojave 3, Harry Nilsson, Magnetic Fields... oh, the list just never ends.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'd probably a little late to the party, but I just recently read The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter and it's a book I want to share with everyone I know. In tackling the great subject of love, Baxter finds the eloquence and sublime in the ordinary and his characters are so finely drawn they not so much jump off the page as you find them sitting comfortably next to you on the couch. Just when I was getting over the ache of a beautifully written sentence, he'd hit me with another one. It was both a humbling and inspiring experience -- which I suppose is one of the main reasons I enjoy reading in the first place.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to save books from thrift store racks and yard sales and find appropriate homes for them. It's so depressing to see books that are at the end of their line and it's always very satisfying to pair a neglected book with someone who will appreciate it. On the other hand, I like to receive books with lots of pictures.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
The most important thing I have on my desk (besides the computer) is a cup of coffee. I write in the morning, once the afternoon comes around the day starts enveloping me with its other demands. My desk is cluttered. It's not like I like it that way, it just happens. We're in a constant battle. Its most consistent occupant, though, is a jar where I keep my wisdom teeth. I don't know why people would ever throw those away. Whatever wisdom you can get, you better hold on to it.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It used to be that novelists came to Hollywood to make it as screenwriters -- but all too often they became frustrated and unfulfilled with the production process that turned their words into celluloid (and drank themselves to death). Me? I had it all backwards. I must have been dead drunk because I came to Hollywood thinking I wanted to be a producer. Thankfully, I quickly realized I didn't have the stomach for it and soon thereafter started writing screenplays with a partner, most of which unfortunately languished in that special place that is so aptly referred to as development hell. It's not a satisfying place to be, having a project die prematurely. Some writers, I hear, think of their scripts as children. In that regard, it's true; some grow up to pay big dividends. Others die premature deaths. And some are kidnapped and raised by Neanderthals.
The thing about screenplays is that they're nothing more than a blueprint for a film. They're just a beginning. If you want to take the screenwriting process to its conclusion, you need to direct as well as write. John Irving once said, "When I feel like directing, I write a novel." That idea sounded good to me, directing a film requires much too much energy. So I wrote Maybe a Miracle. At least with a book, I figured, I'd have a completed project. And the thing about all those shelved screenplays that I wrote - some by myself, some with others -- in the end, as unfortunate as some of them were, they gave me the tools I needed to write my first book. After all, before I started writing scripts I was literally afraid to write dialogue, so I'd write stories where no one would ever speak. As you might imagine, it was a bit of an obstacle.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
The undiscovered writers I know are all screenwriters. Karen Krenis and Laura King have both written several wonderful, albeit un-filmed screenplays. A smart producer would be all over them.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Never give up. A big part of that for me was not having a backup plan. If there were something else I could do, I probably would have given up writing a long time ago. I'm incredibly unqualified for just about any real job. Fortunately, though, I never came up with a backup plan. In fact, that was the plan -- to have no backup plan, because I know if I did have a vocation to fall back on, I'd probably be sitting behind a very different kind of desk right about now and if that were the case it's doubtful I'd enjoy the incalculable benefit of having a hound snoozing at my feet.
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