The Sound of Young America: Novelist John Brandon

Episode 163

John Brandon is a novelist who was raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Citrus County is set in his home state and is his second novel, focusing on a teacher and two middle-schoolers who have their loneliness and status as outsiders in common. The book is part crime novel and part exploration of the adolescent pysche.

Episode notes

John Brandon is a novelist who was raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Citrus County is set in his home state and is his second novel, focusing on a teacher and two middle-schoolers who have their loneliness and status as outsiders in common. The book is part crime novel and part exploration of the adolescent pysche.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse thorn. My guest on the program is the novelist John Brandon. He’s a professor at Ol’ Miss University. His new book is called Citrus County. It’s set in Citrus County, Florida, which is simultaneously the northern and southern part of Florida; physically northern and culturally southern. Places where there are no beaches and people have not bothered to turn it into Orlando.

It’s the story of two middle schoolers and a middle school teacher, and a horrible crime, and basically the feeling of being lost in one’s life. Either as a very well justified adolescent or as a maybe slightly less justified almost 30 year old. John Brandon, welcome to the sound of young America.

JOHN BRANDON: Thanks a lot.

Click here for a full transcript of the conversation.

Jesse Thorn So can you describe the three main characters that are in the center of the book for us.

John Brandon Like you said, the one adult is Mr. Hibma, and he’s a middle school teacher. I tried teaching high school a few years ago, and I lasted a semester.

Jesse Thorn Wow, didn’t even make it through a year.

John Brandon No, sadly. I just quietly crashed and burned and knew that I wasn’t going to make it. The kids just ran all over me. Not one minute of any day did it feel natural. I really just couldn’t do anything about it, I guess it left a bad taste in my mouth.
A couple years later I started writing Mr. Hibma, and I’m sure it’s partly based on that; which is rare. Usually your characters, especially the central characters, it’s so hard to say where they come from; to unpack it all. It’s just an amalgamation. This one was pretty directly influenced by my own experiences. Mr. Hibma’s different than me, in that he stays in there and fights. He really wants to be able to be a teacher. He doesn’t understand why he can’t be. He knows that he’s probably smarter than the other teachers, but they’re just so much better at it than he is. It’s hard for him, but he stays there and he keeps trying. He also gets by with some dark fantasies. He can do things that I never could do and say things to people that I never could say. He was fun for me to write, for those reasons. The kids, Toby and Shelby, who knows about them.

Jesse Thorn Possibly you.

John Brandon If I don’t I guess we’re lost. I grew up not far from Citrus County, two counties south, Pasco County. As a real general thing there was just nothing for young people. I didn’t have a bad childhood or anything like that, but there was this sadness to every day of, “What are we gonna do?” There’s just these old people everywhere, and then some teenagers. Anybody with any wherewithal in their 20s would leave, maybe that’s sort of changing now. But you just always felt like you weren’t supposed to be there. I think at least at the foundation that’s where Toby and Shelby came from.

Jesse Thorn A lot of writers like to write about what they know, right? They like to write about their hometown, or they’re writing about literary gadflies in New York City or whatever is, and you seem to have decided to write about what you kind of know. The thing that has some separation from what your experience was, rather than writing a story about life on Mars or writing a story about life in the county that you actually did grow up in.

John Brandon That’s the space that I like to be in. Where I know it well enough to know the energy, but I don’t know it so well that my imagination has nothing to do. I feel hemmed in if I know the place that well physically. Or if I have a lot of emotional attachments then that gets in the way, it clouds things. I can’t just freely imagine it the way I need it to be. I grew up a couple counties from Citrus County, but I never lived there or anything.
I used to drive through it between Pasco County and Gainesville when I was in college. Driving to Gainesville and back, there was nothing to stop me, you just drive through. But every time I drove through I would think, I could use this as a setting. I was a very young writer then, but already thinking there’s this weird energy here that I can’t figure out at all, but I bet if I tried to figure it out then that would lead to something good.

Jesse Thorn You were a high school teacher, why did you choose to make these two kid characters middle school aged?
John Brandon That’s a good question, I haven’t thought about that in a while. But that was something that I was thinking about. I think I wanted them to still be where they had some claim to childhood and then some claim to the adult world. Part of that was probably because – – we’re talking about geographically little schools like that. Between high school and elementary school, which have, to me, more distinct feels, and then there’s just these two years where you’re absolutely lost. You’re in between the two things. I think that interested me more, maybe.

Jesse Thorn It’s quite literally liminal, it’s in the middle. It’s middle school. I feel like we can’t really discuss the book that much without at least revealing the big horrible thing that happens about 40 or 50 pages in, which is that Toby, one of the students in the book who’s sort of a loner, a little bit of a lost loner type, kidnaps the young four year old sister of Shelby, who’s more of a bookish, achievey loner type.

John Brandon Toby, he’s not wanting to be another one of the thousands of petty delinquents that Citrus County is full of; doing their small vandalisms and such. So he gets filled with this idea that he is better than them because he’s more evil. He can achieve a higher evil than them, and set himself apart; prove himself, to himself. The opportunity comes along because there’s this girl, Shelby, who he’s obviously very interested in. I guess if he were 25 years old he would just ask her out on a date, but he’s just very confused about the fact that he likes her, and she seems to like him which is really terrifying to him. Somehow he cracks the idea of kidnapping her younger sister as a way to act out and then pretty quickly realizes that it wasn’t a great idea, and there’s really not much glamour to it and it’s really just a lot of chores. He goes downhill from there.

Jesse Thorn The other big thing that’s going on in his life besides this sort of adolescent romance and his kidnapping that he’s perpetrating, is deciding to become a pole vaulter.
John Brandon After he does this deed, he starts to regret it immediately for a few reasons. First of all, it’s just so much work. Somewhere in there just regular old guilt started to creep in. His response to this is to try to become a normal student. His storyline is kind of mirroring Mr. Hibma’s who wants to be a formal teacher. Toby’s new program starts to become, I want to get Bs, and nobody really noticed that, and then I have to join a sports team like everybody else and then nobody will notice me, and then just kind of do everything in a middling way that everyone else does. He still somehow ends up pole vaulting I guess rather than running a relay. That’s more interesting.

Jesse Thorn It’s sort of like David Letterman started a scholarship program at Ball State, his alma mater, for students with GPAs between 2.5 and 3.25.

John Brandon That’s true.

Jesse Thorn He felt like there wasn’t enough scholarships for people who were okay.

John Brandon Absolutely. It’s an underrepresented group.

Jesse Thorn More of my conversation with novelist John Brandon when we return on The Sound of Young America, from maximumfun.org and PRI, Public Radio International.
It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is the novelist John Brandon. His latest book is Citrus County. It’s a novel about some lost adolescence, and he himself had a lost adolescence. How did you feel as an adolescent growing up in Florida in a place that I can’t imagine had a buzzing and exciting literary community where you could find lots of great mentors? Maybe a mall book store?

John Brandon Thankfully I had a pleasantly uneventful childhood.

Jesse Thorn No kidnappings.

John Brandon Right. I would wish my childhood on anyone. I guess the other side of the coin was that there wasn’t anything going on that you could classify as culture. Not anything. Everywhere is strip malls nowadays, but I would go out on a limb and say that New Port Richey, Florida, is the strip-malliest of all. They’re all middle of the line 25 year old strip malls everywhere. I played tons of sports when I was really young, and then some more around – –

Jesse Thorn You’re a big athletic guy too; I should point out for those that are hearing you speak in the voice of a sweet, friendly novelist. You are a strapping man.

John Brandon Big still, if not athletic anymore. Around 9th or 10th grade I kind of lost interest in playing a lot of the sports. Everybody’s got competitive streak for some things. Sports wasn’t what mine was for. I started reading a lot, and we lived very close to this mall, like you say, and it had one of those little Walden Books in it, which probably is – –

Jesse Thorn I think Walden Books is out of business.

John Brandon Yeah, that sort of thing is probably extinct. But you think back to how their would be a mall, and their would be an Orange Julius in every one, and there’d be this tiny Walden Books. I used to go up there and steal books from the Walden Books to take home to read. If you remember how small they were, it was bestsellers, and then classics, and then magazines basically; some cookbooks. I had no idea what to read, I had no guidance in that area. Maybe most people don’t when you’re 9th or 10th grade.
I would just grab anything and three-quarters of it I could not understand at all. It would be old German philosophers, I wouldn’t understand a word, I would just read it all. And it wasn’t costing me any money, so I would just skim some of them and just get another one.

Jesse Thorn It’s surprising to me to hear the story of someone going to the bookstore and stealing books as an adolescent wasn’t stealing Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson.

John Brandon If I did it would be an absolute accident. One time I got American Psycho, that was a big enough book to be in Walden Books. That sort of blew my mind at that age. I thought, wow, you can just say this in a book? Holy cow! That was probably eye opening. When I got more wherewithal, when I got one that I knew was good I would just read all there was of that person. I would just keep randomly – – you know, I would hit Dickens, and just read a bunch of Dickens. Like you said, Kerouac at some point, 11th or 12th grade read all his stuff, and got infected with wanderlust, of course. Really couldn’t wait to leave New Port Richie after that.

Jesse Thorn You mentioned the wanderlust that infects the teenage Jack Kerouac reader. You wrote your first two novels, Citrus County and the previous one Arkansas largely while being semi-itinerant after college. Tell me what your life was for the years after college.

John Brandon My wife now, my girlfriend at the time, we were done with college and we ended up living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is a really nice place. She had a jobby-job, and I was just doing a little adjuncting and working at factories and doing temp work. It was fine, but we started thinking, it’s not over, right? This isn’t it, we can’t just stay here forever. As health professionals can do, she signed on with one of these traveling companies. You’ve heard of traveling nurses where they send you somewhere every three months. So we said sure, let’s try this.

We started doing it and this was when the economy was really good, so we could just blow into town. She’d have her job waiting on her with the company. I would just go to the temp agency and tell them I’m not picky, I just want to work. The next day, usually, I would be at a warehouse. It was so easy, and we’d just stay there for three months and we just had what we could fit in our two cars, and then pack up and go to the next place that the company sent us.

Jesse Thorn In moving every three months, did you feel that almost adolescent, weird, dislocation and alienation? Just from not having friends that live in the same place as you?

John Brandon I wouldn’t put the word alienation on it, though. There wasn’t that much that was negative about it; it was mostly fun.

Jesse Thorn Every time when I’ve moved, I remember just moving back from college; moving back to San Francisco where I grew up when most of my friends had gone to college elsewhere and lived other places; or moving here to Los Angeles. Even though I was with my then girlfriend, now wife, who I love very much, we get along like gangbusters; it still was like, oh my god. You just realize the first six months that you’re there that I don’t know anything, I don’t know anyone, I don’t have any control over anything, you know what I mean?

John Brandon I think the fact that you knew that it was only going to be three months helped everything. It made it where you could just focus on everything that was positive; because anything that was negative you’re leaving in three months, so it doesn’t really matter. That’s kind of what allowed me to get up at 5:30 in the morning and go to the warehouse. If you have that light at the end of the tunnel, you can put up with anything. Also knowing that it was going to be a different situation in three months because we’d be kind of in the middle of nowhere for one of them, and it would get a little bit like that. Then the next one would be in Los Angeles and we’d have a few friends, and then we did one down in Florida once and we were around people. The loneliness is there, but you know something else is going to come along, and we just had that vacation mentality the whole time. Just looking forward to the weekend and going to do everything that you could do in that area because we’d probably never be back. I think it was mostly fun.

When we got to Oxford it was nice to feel like you could attach yourself to someone. That’s another thing that happened when you’re only going to be there three months, you kind of keep to yourself a little just for the fact of – – you’re just going to leave. So you don’t really want to put yourself into starting a bunch of friendships or anything. It’s nice in Oxford to just be able to carry on normal relationships with people.

Jesse Thorn John Brandon, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.

John Brandon Thanks for having me! It was fun.

Jesse Thorn John Brandon’s wonderful new novel is called Citrus County, it’s available now in bookstores from McSweeney’s.

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Bullseye (formerly known as The Sound of Young America) is a weekly celebration of the best of arts and culture. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring listeners in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

The show is carried by public radio stations around the country, and was the first public radio program west of the Mississippi to podcast. It has received plaudits from publications like Time Magazine (which called it “Pick of the Podcasts”) and Salon.com. It was also honored by the iTunes editorial staff as a “classic” Best of iTunes selection. Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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