Justin Bryant is the author of the novels Thunder From a Clear Blue Sky (Malarkey Books, 2023) and Season of Ash (ENC Press, 2004), as well as the memoir Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness (Bennion Kearny, UK, 2013). His short fiction has appeared in Volume One Brooklyn, Bandit Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Thin Air, and others. He is a 2008 graduate of the MFA program at NYU and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife Sarah and their dogs Roxy and Bryce.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, a novel called Season Of Ash published by ENC Press in 2004, made no impact whatsoever in the literary world, but it validated my belief in myself as a writer, at least in terms of being someone who could follow through on a book-length project. I haven’t so much as glanced at it in at least a decade, but when last I did, it felt a little bit rushed, as if the only thing that was important to me was relentlessly moving the plot along. I would like to think my new novel takes a little more time to breathe, trusts the reader more, allows them fill in more blanks, and doesn’t hold their hand through the narrative.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Fiction felt natural to me because I loved disappearing into someone else’s story as a reader, so it made sense to try it myself.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Short stories come fairly quickly. Sometimes I’ll think of an image or idea and have a complete first draft within a few days, although a final draft will take many months or even a year or two. Novels take forever. I might finish a first draft in eight or ten months, but it’ll go through several years of revisions and might be almost unrecognizable from the original draft.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Usually work begins as an image for me. Thunder From a Clear Blue Sky started as an image of a small plane struggling to fly above a dangerous thunderstorm, and characters and a narrative just grew from there. What determines whether it’ll be a novel or a short story is how much interest I have in the characters beyond what I’ve put down on the page.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy readings, but I don’t think of them as really being part of the creative process. It’s more a chance to share my work with people who otherwise might not read it.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Oh boy, yes. Everything I write is trying to answer the question, ‘What are we alive for? How do we get through this life? Is there any meaning in anything?’ I definitely do not have the answers, but I enjoy writing myself a little closer to them.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It would be nice if we were still living in the times when people would wait expectantly for the new Hemingway story in Colliers, but we’re not. I think there are more readers than ever, but they have more demands on their time and more avenues of entertainment than ever before, too. I think it’s important to have writers who speak truth to power, who hold a mirror up to society, who give voice and representation to marginalized people. I’m not sure how much of any of that I do, honestly. Maybe I’m just telling stories. But I think all forms of storytelling have value and importance. Story is a foundational and essential element of human society.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s essential. Not difficult at all if you’re genuinely interested in presenting your writing in its best form. I have pretty thick skin in this regard. I’m all for anything that helps improve my writing.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Gabino Iglesias has said it on twitter a million times: no agent or publisher is going to accept your book, it won’t win any awards or sell any copies, and it won’t connect with any readers unless you actually write it. You have to do the work. You have to sit down and write.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
I feel like what I do is write novels, and I use short stories to feel creative and exercise those mental muscles when I’m in between novel drafts or stalled on a project. I’ve written some decent stories, but definitely think of myself as a novelist first.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write fairly late at night, whether first draft or tenth revision. I usually can’t start until around ten pm, after I’ve dealt with the day and life has gone quiet.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually have a second project going concurrently with my main work in progress, so when I feel stalled, I just spend a little time working on the second project. Just giving myself a break from continuously working on one thing has been a tremendous help.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I grew up in Florida, so anything vaguely tropical: citrus, coconut, the ocean, night-blooming jasmine.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of those! Nature and music especially. Both stir emotions in me that I attempt to express in my writing.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Such a long list of writers, but just a few here: Thomas Mann, Peter Matthiessen, Doris Lessing, Hardy, Virginia Woolf, all the usual Russians, Colson Whitehead, Olga Tokarczuk, Richard Yates, JohnFowles, Louis Auchincloss. Like any other writer, I could go on forever here.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to become fluent in a few languages. Spanish, French, and German. I almost certainly will not.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I was a professional soccer player and now coach for my primary income. It’s my other great passion, so I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to pursue both of them for my entire life.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always wanted to express myself, but had no real facility for music or visual art. Writing felt like the most natural way to do that.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson and The Banshees of Inisherin
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel set in a second-rate university in the mid 1980s called Basket of Years. I’ve been working on it for several years and have completed multiple drafts. I hope to have it ready to submit sometime in 2023.
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