Po Bronson is the rare writer that makes no claims to having an extraordinary or controversial history. On his web site, he states, "I'm a regular guy. I don't have much of a particularly unusual story." While some may assume such a description might not be the makings of a person with any stories worth telling, it actually provides the perfect background for a writer such as Bronson. He has made it his mission to relate the stories of his fellow everyday people, and with books such as What Should I Do With My Life? and Why Do I Love These People?, he has proved that ordinary people can lead extraordinary lives.
A prolific writer with a talent well-suited for a variety of genres, Bronson started out dabbling in screenplays, op-eds, TV and radio scripts, performance monologues, and literary reviews, and his first two books were satirical novels. Bombardiers (1995) was a sort of Catch 22 set in the bond-trading business; The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest: A Silicon Valley Novel, Vol. 4 (1997) a tale about the West Coast tech boom of the late 1990's. With his third book, The Nudist on the Late Shift: And Other Tales of Silicon Valley, he turned his focus away from fiction and toward the true stories of the tech-heads he encountered while working as a writer in Silicon Valley. Hailed by The Village Voice Literary Supplement upon its publication as "the most complete and empathetic portrait of the Valley so far," the breakout bestseller established Bronson as the first author to truly capture the spirit of the high-tech heyday.
In writing What Should I Do With My Life? (2003), Bronson posed that very question to a variety of regular folks all around the globe. The result: a rich and fascinating compendium of inspirational, witty, and insightful personal stories about finding one's direction, vocational and otherwise. The book was a tremendous success, and Bronson had clearly found his niche. Why Do I Love These People? followed in late 2005. This time around, Bronson questioned a multitude of people about illness, resolving familial conflicts, infidelity, prejudice, money problems, abuse, death, and other provocative issues, once again illustrating that one need not be a celebrity to lead a life worth reading about. Among others, Bronson encounters a Southern Baptist in the Ozarks who tracks down the teenage son he had abandoned at birth, a woman who fought for her life and the life of her children while trapped underwater in a Texas river, and a Turkish Muslim who wed a U.S. naval officer -- a union resulting in death threats from her own father.
Bronson characterizes his recent books as "social documentaries," but he doesn't rule out returning to the other genres he's loved. He does, however, credit his recent work with one important feature: "I used to write novels, and maybe I will again one day," he told BN.com in an audio interview, "but I have found that writing these social documentaries is good for me as a person."
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Some fun factoids gleaned from our interview with Bronson:
"Well, when I look upon what I've written to the below questions, there's a lot on how I became a writer, but not much on how I came to write the books I have been doing the last six years. I write social documentaries, in which I tell the life stories of ordinary people. I used to write novels, and maybe I will again one day. But I have found that writing these social documentaries is good for me as a person; they make me a better person. I put myself in a position where I need to listen and learn from other people I interview. And even if the books were not successes, I would be a better person just for doing so much listening."
"Okay, I realize now that's now what you were really asking. It sounds like you want personal details -- you want to know me through my lists: my lists of books, films, music, restaurants I eat at, hobbies I enjoy. I'm not sure that's the best way to know the soul of a person, because it kind of suggests that who we are = what we consume. However, I'll answer, by all means. Here we go:
What I drive: Toyota Sienna minivan
Where I buy clothes: Banana Republic, Mexx, and thrift stores
Cell phone brand: Treo 650
Kids: Two. My son is 4, my daughter 1
Dog: golden retriever, 84 pounds
What I cooked for dinner last night: Pork tenderloin in a mustard crème sauce
What I'm cooking for dinner tonight: Nachos
Where I exercise: in my basement, on the elliptical machine
Favorite TV show: House. But I am a huge fan of football, basketball, and baseball. So actually my favorite TV show is Sportscenter
I play soccer in the Liga de Latina in San Francisco. I will play until I die
Favorite Cities: London, Hong Kong, Paris, Ronda, Verona
Parents: Still alive
Grandparents: one left. My grandmother. But I knew them all, and had lots of time with all of them
Favorite Beach: Todos Santos, Mexico
Why a name like "Po": Why not?"
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In the winter of 2006, Po Bronson took some time out to answer some of our questions about his inspirations, favorite books, and his life as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It would be untruthful of me to pin it all on one book, so let me describe how a few books have saved me at different times as I've matured. At each of these junctions, I was facing a decision in my creative direction.
1989. I had been writing at night for a couple years. I was wondering whether it was worth it. I had applied to a night-program in Creative Writing at our local state school, and I was unsure whether to attend -- where this might take me. Certainly, it would take me away from the working world I felt practical and safe in. Then I read Ethan Canin's first story collection, Emperor of the Air. The beauty and grace of the book stunned me, and in its pages I found an indescribable answer as to why to pursue such an impractical dream.
1993. I had been writing short stories for four years. They were decent and well crafted, but I felt trapped by the conventions of straightforward, chronological narrative. I was suffocating inside my stories and my characters. Another way to say it is, I was letting only a little of myself into my fictional realms. There was no humor in my work, no anger, no politics, and no ideas. Then I read Catch-22. It allowed me to put my whole self into my writing, to unleash my personality and my anger.
1998. With two successful novels under my belt, it was occurring to me that I was going to have to do something for money between writing novels. The magazines were calling. I didn't consider non-fiction to be my art form. Then I read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and the whole realm of non-fiction became my new playground of experimentation.
2001. Six years after "turning pro," I once again started to feel like my writing paled compared to the life around me. In particular, I grew tired of my relentless ironic dark humor. I had stopped making fun of people years earlier, in my personal life -- why was I still doing it in print? I was hungry for a compassionate voice, a voice that respected people, treasured them. I found it in Irvin Yalom's Love's Executioner, his book of nonfiction tales of psychotherapy. The way he loved his subjects allowed me to do the same in my writing.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I just listed four. They're so good that sometimes I wish I had never read them, just so I could have the pleasure of discovering them all over again. Six more I feel that way about:
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
The White Album, by Joan Didion
This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff
Clockers, by Richard Price
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
As for why, all I can say is I turned the pages as fast as they could come, and they humbled me, and they inspired me to keep writing.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Ha ha. Few readers will know these references, but I would characterize these bands as urban hipster listening, eloquent guys with guitars with an occasional female at the mic. I see a lot of live music at small clubs. Okay, tonight I'm going to see Wolf Parade, they're a Montreal band on tour. I've been listening to them constantly. I've also been listening to The Magic Numbers. While writing Why Do I Love These People?, I listened to a half dozen albums, most prominently Stars Set Yourself on Fire, (another Canadian band), The Wrens Meadowlands (from Jersey, obviously) and Fivehead's Guests of the Natio (from Austin). Any one of these bands could be the next Modest Mouse or Death Cab.
Perhaps of more interest to the reader: I write with headphones on my ears (well, ear buds), and I crank it, and I use the repeat button. I will listen to the same song for a week or more. It becomes a sort of mood-setter, and energizer, but a pleasant white noise that almost disappears. It helps me concentrate when I'm in my writing closet (What? A writing closet? More on that below!).
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
This is a hard question for me. I've never been in a book club. I'm not sure exactly what happens in one. I've attended two in my life -- once it was my own novel being talked about, and another time it was a female book club and so I was only allowed to be present for half of it. So it's a great mystery to me what goes on in one. But I have been in year after year or writer's workshops, and writers discussing literary work do so quite differently than it is done in an English class -- we talk less about what's there, but rather how it can be a little bit better than it already is. We are supportive as we can. Basically, I hated English class, I hated the way they talked about books, it seemed so unnatural. So maybe from that, I have a mild fear that a book club might be like an English Class, and it scares me away.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in a closet. Literally. I'm on my fifth closet. They are small, tight, and dark. I don't recommend it for anyone with claustrophobia, but I do recommend it as the best way to avoid all distractions. My first closet was the smallest -- it was 2 feet by 3.5 feet. The only light comes from the laptop screen. I spend most of all day in there when I am in a writing phase.
If it sounds somewhat deranged, please know that for the last ten years, my closets haven't been at home. We founded a cooperative writing space in San Francisco, where every writer has a private room. It costs about $250 a month. We are on our fourth location. The first location had 6 writers; today we have 32 working here. So whenever I pop out of my closet, three or four times a day, there are other writers to chew the fat with and eat lunch with. So I don't write in a closet because I'm antisocial. I write in a closet because I'm naturally social, and I need the isolation chamber to cut off distraction. Our website is www.sfgrotto.org.
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?
I have a series of essays on my web site about my process of becoming a writer, which are too long to reprint here. So I will pass on this one crucial idea. I want you aspiring writers to keep this in mind.
You hear all the time about slush piles of manuscripts, how editors are inundated, so much so that they don't even look at their piles anymore. Many houses don't even accept un-agented manuscripts. So you feel despair at the numbers, and this sick thought occurs to you: even if I write a great book, will anyone be there to notice it? Once this thought gets hold, it eats at you, makes you doubt yourself, slow down, stop. Well, I used to work in small press publishing, and I know a ton of New York editors, and so I've seen it from both sides. Let me assure you: editors are dying for a great manuscript. They have piles of mediocre manuscripts, but they would do anything for a rare, great, new, original voice. These editors live in a fishbowl, Manhattan, and it's very status-driven. The way you get status in that world is by having the hot new book. An editor would rather buy something special and exciting than a work that is super proficient and polished but lacking in uniqueness.
All of the editors I know -- and I know a ton -- are dying to find a great book. They can't find manuscripts worth buying. That's how they think. By no means do they feel like they are gatekeepers or kingmakers. They're desperate. If you write something great, they will find it.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I have to laugh again. The last time a publication asked me to discover a new book, it was People magazine and the book I picked was James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Four million copies later (all thanks to Oprah, not to me)....
Okay, here's a wonderful novel that was completely overlooked -- a novel by my friend Noah Hawley, called Other People's Weddings. It's the story of a female wedding photographer who's divorced and jaded, until she realizes, in going through her wedding prints, that one guy keeps appearing at all these weddings. He's a wedding crasher. They fall in love, of course, and then have to let go of their skepticism about love. It's a short novel you can read in a few hours.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't be jealous of others' success. Jealousy and envy are the enemy of genuine creativity. Wish others well and hope to join them someday.
To be writing is good for the soul; it's good for your character -- to be observing, interpreting, producing (not just consuming). Pay attention to this. It's very important. Success is not measured by bestseller lists. Certain types of great books sell very well; other types of great books don't sell a lot. A great thriller might sell a million copies. A great poetry book might sell a few hundred copies. But they're both great.
Allow for many paths to your goal. Do not fixate on one path, because then you are likely to give up when that path is blocked.
It takes an average of ten years dedication before you can make a living writing creatively full time. Even those who succeed early are often rewarded with praise too early, trapping them in a yet-to-mature phase as they attempt to repeat their success. It all evens out over time. Finding a way to allow yourself the time, to buy time as you mature into your writing, is the biggest "how to."
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