Jesse Bullington may be unfamiliar to you now, but I have a feeling that the upcoming release of his first novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart might change that. Whisked from obscurity on the wings of Jeff Vandermeer, Bullington found a home for his unusual first novel with Orbit Books.
I recently caught up (digitally) with Bullington and we shot the proverbial shit for a few days. We covered swelling heads, gorgeous covers, rambling tangets about art and music, Jesse’s late-night mis-adventures, and even the origins of the word ‘Fuck’, in the form of Fucked In Fucking: A Mildly Morose Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, a piece of original Flash Fiction that marks A Dribble of Ink‘s debut as a publishing imprint! As you can probably tell, the interview isn’t always for those feint of heart. For those looking for a good time… read on!
Alright, let’s get the most obvious question out of the way. That curlicue mustache speaks volumes. What can it tell us of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart?
It can tell you that it was written by one obviously lacking in the constitution to wear a beard, in other words, a liar and a cad. That the mustache is curled into dandy whips signifies an especially disingenuous character, the man who wears such curls telling the world, “behold, I smile at all things at all times, and am therefore to be trusted,” when of course the opposite is true. A down-turned mustache would at least admit sorrow at being unable or unwilling to champion a beard, but the boorish upturn of the mustache in tandem with a naked chin indicates a contempt, indeed, a scorn, for an honest beard. The longer the beard the more honest the man, and the higher the mustache the more treacherous the wag. Those who value a fair and true account of men with beards had best seek their novels elsewhere—the mustache gives away the author’s bias, and crows “slanderous revisionist historian” as loud and as proud as a rooster atop a midden heap.
Wow! Now that’s an answer. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is being marketed as a Fantasy, but reading the summary, it sounds more like a fucked up Brothers Grimm-fairy-tale-cum-The Blues Brothers. What was your prerogative, when you set out to write The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart?
Authors quibbling over genre classifications is something I try to steer away from—leaving aside how well I succeed at that—because a good story is a good story is a good story. The novel certainly has its share of the fantastic and may appeal to readers who, like me, grew up with a diet of fantasy that came from all the usual sources—fairy tales, books, movies, comics, roleplaying games, video games, etc., but it also reflects my long abiding interest in history and more obscure folklore. I wanted to incorporate as much of my interests into one project as possible, something with the humor of the medieval romances and Rabelais, the attention to the historical that I so love in the work of Calvino and Eco, the theological complexities of the medieval Church, the horrors of the age (be they real or imagined), the fantasy and adventure of my favorite folklore and fiction, and a gritty, almost hard-boiled approach to violence.
I must confess to not necessarily having too strong a mission statement beyond wanting to write what I thought would be a good story, something that would appeal as much to my current sensibilities as it would to the teenage me, and to my friends past and present. That I was writing a story about enterprising, religious-minded young men seeking an “honest” reward in the Middle East at the time that my nation was doing what it was, and is, doing certainly played into it on one or two levels, but at its heart this novel is both an ode to and satire of the pulpy fantasy and adventure I so loved growing up, an attempt to give the old tropes another go with a slightly more realistic bent. Realistic being subjective, of course.
Certainly not an easy hill for a first-time author to tackle. Were there times while you were writing, where you were convinced you couldn’t pull off the story in your head?
At the risk of sounding like an asshole: not really. How well I succeeded is of course subjective but the story really wrote itself, and while there were all the usual hang-ups and head-scratchers I was never convinced I couldn’t pull it off. Which is rare for me, actually—most everything else I’ve ever worked on fills me with a deep neurotic dread as I plod along.
From the sounds of it, then, perhaps being a writer was something of an inevitability for you. Is it something you’ve been working on since the crib? Or a newer development in your life?
I decided to be a writer in the fourth grade, if memory serves, so at around ten years old. I’d written stuff when I was younger but that was when I realized I wasn’t really interested in doing anything else, and from then on it was always a question of what I would do for a living to support my writing.
On the ‘Links’ page of your website, among a bunch of industry folk and authors, you list musicians and artists. If forced to pick one song and one painting that best describe The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, what would you pick?
The song that best describes the novel is Bon Jovi’s “Livin on a Prayer” and the painting is Rothko’s “White Center.” I love to brood on that little black swath cutting between the orange and white whilst the dulcet sounds of Jon Bon remind us, the viewer, that, much like Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, we are “half-way there,” and if we but take the hand of the artist we will make it, I swear, and—making fun of modern art in this fashion isn’t at all plebian or obvious. I am so goddamn funny it must be difficult for people to deal with my shenanigans. I mean, anyone reading this has probably already peed themselves, twice, so maybe I should just cut out the monkey business for a little while. OK. Sorry.
So, in all seriousness, the song is a little easier, so I’ll start there. I blogged about some of the music I listened to while working on the novel but even that list left off a lot of my favorites, such as Kronos Quartet and Okros Ensemble, and picking a single song by a single artist sounded difficult at first. Thinking over it, though, hands down the musician or group that best describes the novel would be the band the Tiger Lillies, though there’s quite a bit of Nick Cave in there as well. All of the Tiger Lillies music is grand but one song that I listened to on repeat over and over again during the drafting of the novel is their “Thousand Violins”, this beautiful, melancholy song which, if you’re familiar with the bulk of the body of work, has a sardonic bite to it. It’s a sad song in the same way that the story of the Brother’s Grossbart is a “Sad Tale,” I think, and the track is now forever wedded in my brain with the novel.
As for a single painting…that’s going to be difficult, no lie. Ian Miller is one of my favorite contemporary artists, but though I love his work—and that of Ralph Steadman, John Coulthart, Clive Barker, and countless others—picking one work that exemplifies the novel will require looking further back. If you’d said “work of art” instead of “painting” it would have been a little easier, I would have gone with a Dürer engraving, maybe the one they’re now calling The Knight, Death, and the Devil, though with the interpretation that the knight is not staring straight ahead because he is pure and righteous but rather because he is an ignoramus who is oblivious to his traveling companions, and the danger they pose to himself and everyone he comes into contact with. Dürer is a good choice all around because some of his paintings dealt with the same Grossbart folklore my novel is based on, such as his Kleine Grossbart and the painting inaccurately remembered as The Adoration of the Magi—the work is very clearly a reference to a popular Grossbart legend, which was sadly cut from the finished novel, where Manfried, a post-fire-shorn Hegel, and their assistant Al-Gassur relieve a repentant witch of her gold baby. This baby, a literal golden child, is held up so that Hegel may anoint it with his beard, while Manfried reconsiders his decision to let Al-Gassur hold onto his globe.
Yet I’ve forgotten that I have to pick a single painting…Bosch and even earlier artists like Konrad Witz very much capture the flavor of the novel, as does the unidentified Amsterdam Cabinet Master were engravings allowed. But only one, eh? And a painting? Tyrant.
Right, then I’ll go with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Battle Between Carnival and Lent rather than the more dire, apocalyptic pieces by Bosch and Durer that influenced it or his own Triumph of Death. Although this Bruegel painting depicts the mock battle as it would have been performed two hundred years after the events of the novel, and in the Low Countries to boot, it very much captures the essence of the world the Brothers Grossbarts inhabit—feast and famine are a breath apart, piety and pleasure are at one another’s throats, and the various monastic orders and beggars and merchants and nobles all rub shoulders instead of being removed from one another. The festival was this occasion where roles were flipped around so that the poor man could be prince for a day, where the frictions between the clergy and laity, the rich and the poor, could be addressed in a open and comical fashion, and this very much embodies the spirit of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.
[EDIT: A simple question, requiring but a single additional sentence to answer. The best song to describe the novel would be “Thousand Violins” by the Tiger Lillies, and the painting that most describes it would be The Battle Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.]
Hard-to-please blogger Larry Nolen said, of your novel, “I usually don’t like caper or anti-hero novels that much, or at least those that bowdlerize the dark aspects of such characters, but The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart grabbed my attention from the first page and I had to keep reading until the final page. This is the best 2009 debut novel that I’ve read, hands down.”
The story of your path to publication has been well documented, but I’m curious to hear about the your end, and how you keep your newly-published head from swelling too much.
I do what I can, with varying degrees of success—I worry sometimes that I’m the same modest fellow I’ve always been, but my friends and family assure me that my ego has inflated to zeppelin proportions. With a novel like this one, which will most assuredly not float the mainstream, I’m guaranteed to get plenty of flack before too long so I’m trying to enjoy the days of big headedness while they last. Seriously, though, I’m very, very fortunate that the reception of the novel has been so favorable to date, and I’m very much in the debt of Jeff, Larry, yourself, and other vocal champions of what it, frankly, an unorthodox project. From my neurotic end of things having individuals whose taste I respect talk up the project makes me much more confidant, and hopefully not too much more pretentious.
You mention that The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart ‘will most assuredly not float the mainstream’. Despite this, Orbit Books is giving taking a chance on your tale. What does this say about your publisher? What about the state of the Fantasy genre at the moment?
I think it says that Orbit is willing to give different voices a crack at the fantasy game, and that goes as much for authors like N.K. Jemisin, Amanda Downum, and Gail Carriger as it does for me and my Grossbarts. Again I’m using the F word for brevity’s sake but really, that’s what it comes down to—Orbit is willing, hell, they’re eager to hear from new authors with new approaches to genre, although I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what that says about the state of the genre as a whole—I’m an embarrassingly slow reader, and don’t stay nearly on top of all the new projects to weigh in there.
A slow reader, perhaps, but there must be someone you’re willing to shill. Who’s an author that you feel is criminally under-read?
As with the painter/song question, limiting myself is tough—I tend to be very indecisive and scatter-brained. I finally checked out Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and really dug it but considering all the awards he’s been up for I don’t know if he could really be called under-read. Granted, he might disagree—we could all be better-read, what? Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and William Beckford’s Vathek are a pair of Gothic novels that I’m always surprised to find people unfamiliar with, given their quality, accessibility, and weirdness. Balls, that’s three authors in one paragraph, I better cut it off here—after adding that Brad Neely is fabulous and under-read, though he’s mostly constrained himself to comics so far. And speaking of comics, there’s Kentaro Miura and Charles Burns and and and…
I suppose I’ll let you get away with that…. Now, you gotta tell me about the cover art. It’s brilliant!
István Orosz did the cover art, and he is, as you point out, absolutely brilliant. At his best he is every bit as good as Escher, who he obviously admires, and having such a contemporary master create the cover for my book has been one of the most exciting aspects of the entire book sale and road to publication. Tim Holman, my editor at Orbit, asked me early on if I had any ideas about a cover, and I talked to him a bit about how much I love etchings and engravings, and how such a cover might capture the feel of the work more than an illustration. He seemed very enthusiastic but one hears all kinds of things about how little input authors often have in regards to their covers, so I did, Tim forgive me, harbor fears of a perfectly competent painting of two bearded guys on horses overlooking a city, or, when the cheesedreams got really bad, twin Fabios with fake beards posing in front of a matte mountainside
So when Tim sent me the initial sketch Orosz did I was blown away, and the finished product far exceeds my highest hopes for the cover. I am deeply, deeply indebted to Orosz, and of course to Orbit for finding him—I was honestly unfamiliar with his work prior to this, but even if I had been I never would have dreamed that he might be willing to do my cover. The piece does fit nicely with his larger body of work; I mean, this piece, for example, is about as Grossbart as it gets, so I very much hope he gained the same pleasure from creating it that I garner from looking at it.
New authors are often a hard sell to readers, what do you bring to the table that will convince Fantasy readers to put aside Tolkien, Lewis, Jordan and Brooks and read The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart?
Hell, can’t we go back to talking about the mustache? Selling myself is something that’s never come very naturally, but I imagine that readers who are willing to try something a little different and darker from what they’re used to might enjoy what I’m offering. It’s at times violent, to be sure, but there’s a lot more going on than bodily fluids gushing hither and yon, and I think readers who can handle the stronger stuff might find themselves rewarded with more than they expected. With this novel I was trying to do something different, to tell a story that I hadn’t heard before, and that’s really all I can say without coming off like a greater ass than I may already have. It’s not for everyone, but nothing is.
Before your first novel has even hit shelves, you’ve already sold a second novel to Orbit Books called The Enterprise of Death. Can you spill the beans about this one? Is it related at all to The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart?
The beans, they are staying in the can for a little longer, save for one or two stray legumes. The Enterprise of Death will be very different from The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart but should still appeal to those who enjoyed the story of Hegel and Manfried—although I’m playing it a little straighter here there will still be some dark humor to it. The new tale takes place roughly 150 years after the conclusion of the Brothers Grossbart, and while it is set in the same historical past as its predecessor it is otherwise unrelated in story. This time around the protagonist is that mortal enemy of Grossbarts, a witch, and the plot involves her grim adventures in a Europe that is divided by the Reformation, the Inquisition, and the Italian Wars.
Here’s a bit of a challenge for you. Write me a piece of Brothers Grossbart flash fiction: 500 words or under. And before you complain, your answer about the painting and song was almost twice that.
Well, ranting about my favorite musicians and artists in an obnoxious fashion is a helluva lot easier than coming up with a halfway decent bit of flash, but I’ll set a timer for half an hour and see what comes out of the kiln. How about a bit of backstory, along with an etymology of everyone’s favorite profane F?
Fucked In Fucking: A Mildly Morose Tale of the Brothers Grossbart
“This ain’t what it looks like,” said Hegel, pointing his muddy spade at the open grave Manfried stood in.
The citizens of Fucking had fanned out in the churchyard while Manfried was bickering with his brother that any unease Hegel suddenly felt was the result of the torrential rain now soaking them and not, goddamn it, any kind of horse sense or witch sense or what sense. A good hunch was a good hunch, however, and peering over the lip of the grave and seeing the angry Fuckers lit up by lightning Manfried resolved to give his brother’s hunches more credence in the future. First, though, there was the grave to extricate himself from, which would have been much easier before the downpour filled the hole up to his knees with a slurry of gravedirt and rainwater.
“Looks like you’re robbing the dead!” shouted the boldest Fucker, waving at his fellows to tighten the circle around the Grossbarts.
“Well, maybe it is what it looks like,” admitted Hegel. “But you come at me with that hayfork I’ll bust you in the head.”
“Get me out this hole,” Manfried said in the Bart-cant that only his brother understood, and Hegel casually extended his spade. As soon as Manfried grabbed the tool and Hegel began hauling him up the Fuckers charged. Hegel did not want his brother to fall back into the grave, but he did not want to be impaled on a pitchfork, either, and so he swung his spade to the side and sent his brother crashing into the lead Fucker.
The Battle of Fucking was one long remembered by Fucker and Grossbart alike. The Fuckers shuddered to recall how the graverobbers had begged their Dark Master to aid them in fleeing the combat, the fiends hopping from gravestone to gravestone and gaining the wall before justice could be served. The Grossbarts, by comparison, always laughed to think of the way Hegel had, indeed, busted one of the Fuckers in the head, and the catalogue of curses the brothers had bestowed on the lousy serfs as they had subsequently cut a tactical retreat would not be forgotten by the Virgin, who would doubtless see that at least two or three were carried out. Remembering was for the future, however, and as the Brothers Grossbart fell over the cemetery wall and hoofed it for the treeline the mob of Fuckers gave chase.
“Fuckin’s a quiet enough spot,” Manfried aped his brother’s voice as they ran.
“Don’t look like rain to me,” Hegel shot back. “Then when it is and I get a whiff a trouble despite it, quit blubberin, just the rain givin you chills.”
“Those Fuck—” Manfried slipped in the mud and would have fallen if Hegel had not caught his arm. “Fuck…Fuck. Mint that shit, brother a mine, from now on I say fuck to Fuckin, and fuck to the Fuckers what fuckin fuck there!”
“But ain’t Fuck just a name?”
“Not no more, it ain’t—fuck Fuckin.”
There you go, as tasteful a short composition as you’ll see this side of Joyce’s “Araby,” and not a word over the limit—though it took me a full hour. This is why we can’t have nice things, Aidan.
Ahh, man. Fucking, Austria – every child-trapped-in-an-adult-body’s favourite European town. I was only a few kilometers from there last fall, it was one of my biggest regrets that I wasn’t able to make it there. As for your hour, I owe you a beer (or two), if we ever cross paths. How’s that sound?
This story brings up one aspect of your novel, which begins with a profane diatribe like the above story, that might concern some readers/editors/publishers/booksellers: the ribald language in your novels. Was this ever an issue as you tried to sell your novel, or once you hit the editing period?
A beer sounds nice—I’m a big fan of Oskar Blues, which is just up the road from me, and everything I’ve had by Stone has been delicious. As for the language of the book—Orbit’s put a warning on the back cover, which is something I haven’t actually seen on a novel before. Something of a badge of honor, that. I didn’t give too much thought to the profanity, because that was simply how the characters sounded to me, and we English speakers have a long tradition of profane language to uphold— in the era in which the novel is set the French had taken to calling their English adversaries Les Goddamns due to the coarseness of their language. If the language disqualified the novel for consideration by this agent or that editor along the road I never found out, and it would not have changed my opinion regardless. People have always used so-called rough language, and having the brothers coin terms we use today prevents them from “z’ounding” everything in sight.
The typical day in the life of a writer is probably pretty bloody boring. So, instead of you telling us how you get up, wax your mustache, watch Sportscenter, pretend to be productive, buy milk, sit at the computer, make a sandwich, call it a day, watch Sportscenter again, troll the local bar, leave alone and hit the sack by 9:00pm, I’d like you to lie through your teeth about what an average day looks like in the life of Jesse Bullington.
Well, first of all I’ve been nocturnal since 2005 so there’s the terminology to tweak. But a typical night goes something like this:
05:00 PM—Up’s time.
05:01-05:15 PM—The breaking of the fast, usually a fennel scone and a cup of Iron Goddess of Mercy.
06:01-07:00 PM— Cocktail hour, usually a neat oude jevenever or a Tom Collins made with Thai lemonade and Rogue spruce gin, taken intravenously in a bubble bath.
07:01-08:00 PM—The weeping hour.
08:01-08:45 PM—Skype Mother and see how she’s getting on.
08:46-09:00 PM—Exchange banter with Father, also on Skype.
09:01-10:00 PM— A constitutional around the grounds.
10:01-11:00 PM—Stagger around in my bathrobe suffering from the Horrors.
11:01-Mindnight—Second cocktail hour, or less, depending on how long it takes for the DT Rats to release me.
Midnight-01:00 AM—The witching hour, obviously.
01:01 AM-02:00 AM—Second breakfast, served in bed. Usually seasonal berries, black coffee, rye bread, and something amusing in its eccentricity.
02:01 AM-02:10 AM—Read over my Google alerts and curse.
02:11 AM-2:45 AM—Read over Dan Brown’s Google alerts and curse louder.
02:46-03:00 AM—Take the waters. Intravenously.
03:01-04:00 AM—Facebook, Livejournal, Good Reads, etc.
04:01-04:30 AM—Sin like the Devil.
05:01-05:15 AM—Put in a day atop the Underwood.
05:16 AM—Is it that time already? Dram of spirits to keep the spirits quiet, a nibble of Humboldt Fog or a suitable cheddar to color the night visions, and to bed. Repeat.
The reality is actually frighteningly close to this, only with less alcohol, delirium tremens, and clumsy stabs at humor.
Also frightening is how close that is to my father’s routine. Writer’s must be natural night-owls! Well, Jesse, it was a pleasure to exchange banter. Best of luck to you and Orbit with your novel!
Thanks Aidan, it’s been fun on my end as well!