VCU alum's novel long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award
Right: Photo by Marriya Schwarz
Brian Castleberry is an author and creative writing and literature assistant professor at the College of William & Mary. Originally from a small town in Oklahoma, Castleberry’s writing has been featured in many publications, including Narrative and The Southern Review. Most recently his debut novel “Nine Shiny Objects” was long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award, a prestigious honor that awards the best works of fiction written by American authors. A ceremony will take place in May at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., to honor the winner and finalists. Past winners include Tobias Wolff, Philip Roth, and, most recently, Chloe Aridjis.
We caught up with Castleberry to talk about his latest publication.
Describe your career upon graduating from VCU.
I finished the MFA at VCU just before the '08 crash, so for a few years after, I was mostly focused on finding work. I worked as a copywriter at Circuit City headquarters just before they went under, was a ghost-writer for a health guru, waited tables and worked at a nonprofit veterinary office for a while. Then I picked up some adjunct teaching at William & Mary, which after a few years became a full-time job. There, I've been directing the Hayes Writers Series for a few years, and just last year got a tenure-track position.
Can you tell me about your book, "Nine Shiny Objects"?
The novel follows nine main characters spread over several decades from the 1940s to the 1980s. It begins with the sighting of UFOs and a young man who will be inspired to found a religious movement aimed at creating a society of racial and gender equality. This is met with a familiar brand of American reactionary violence, and the other characters' lives ripple out from that event. In a sense, each chapter is its own story, focused entirely on a short period of time in one of the characters' lives. So it works like a puzzle. The reader helps to bring the full story to life as they make all the connections.
What special knowledge or research was required to write this book?
I needed to learn a lot of American culture in the 20th century — though a great deal of that was just stuff I was already interested in and reading about. It was important to me to get the details right (this song is popular, that term is used etc.) for each of the periods I was writing in. So there was a lot of sort-of-research well ahead of the book, and then more focused research as I wrote and revised. One cool story about that: when I was beginning a chapter set in the early 1980s at an arcade in Waterbury, Connecticut, I found a Youtube video someone had made of an actual arcade in Waterbury with home movie clips from the early ’80s. It was a gold mine for me, helping to make the place feel as real as possible.
How has publishing your first book changed your process of writing?
Well, I was cruising along working on another project until the reality that my book was coming out hit me, and like a lot of writers at that point, I suddenly couldn't write. I went through months feeling like I'd lost any talent I had, that I'd never had another idea. But with the help of writer friends who'd been through that, I settled down. Now I actually feel much more comfortable just writing without worrying about publication, just doing what I want to do and knowing that I'll have time to revise and rethink things, that nobody's looming over my shoulder with their expectations. So I guess at first it was really tough and now it is a sort of relief.
Who or what has influenced you the most as a writer?
Other writers. Especially daring writers who take risks and do things I haven't seen before. But I am endlessly inspired by the old Russian writer Anton Chekhov. It's kind of cliche for writers to like Chekhov, I guess, but his moral outlook, his belief in his characters--he's like the source I can always go back to for more energy. I'm also very interested in history and in trying to understand America as a place, an idea and a people. Books are about politics and ideas, as well as character and plot. They should be a way for us to engage with our world. That's all writers are, really: people trying to engage with the world in the best way they know how.
What does literary success look like to you?
Real literary success is doing the work you want to do and knowing you've presented that work as best you can. That means always honing your craft and always reading widely. There's a dangerous machine we've set up that tells young writers they should be aiming for money and fame. But the truth is almost every writer you love has a day job. And the better, more original they are, you can almost guarantee they have a day job or are looking for one. So better to aim for writing what you want to write.
How did your experience at VCU shape your writing?
One of the best things, for me, was the energy and experimentation that the MFA fostered. I was lucky to be in a cohort of writers interested in widely different styles and modes of storytelling. I took some of the early MATX courses (just as that program began) and learned about hyper-contemporary ways of thinking about storytelling in the information age. We got to meet major authors on on-campus visits. Plus, I worked on a very early and very different version of this book during the program — or at least what would become the seed of this book.
If you could offer a VCU student who is an aspiring author one piece of advice, what would it be?
Keep writing and read widely. That's two pieces of advice! But really, life will come at you after graduating, and a lot of stuff is going to get in your way. It takes time, patience and belief in yourself. But if you keep writing and reading in spite of all the challenges ahead, the work will be satisfying.