Brian Birnbaum on Persevering With A Debut Novel

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BirnbaumA book set in the competitive, and often extortionist, world of Seattle’s Division I College Basketball, Brian Birnbaum’s Emerald City offers a story with drug peddling and addicted young adults, a crime syndicate backed by powerful corporates, and an authentic look at Deaf Culture and those who make it. It’s a novel that’s tailor-made to play to Birnbaum’s strengths as a storyteller. An only Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), Birnbaum has worked closely in his parents’ interpreting business, and is a student and practitioner of work that explores the underbelly of our world—the dark, seedy corners where money and morality are exchanged with an almost Sorkinian velocity. All of this makes the book a dynamic, free-wheeling story of crime, grief, and deep psychological burden.

The story of how Emerald City came to be is also a book in and of itself. Birnbaum began writing the story at the end of 2012, and the project was picked up by an agent at The Writer’s House. It was the kind of momentum a young writer can only dream of. But before the agent could set the book up for the big leagues, he dropped out of the literary industry altogether without offering his author an oar to peddle back to the shore. Birnbaum kept working on the book, evolving its narrative, shaping its intention. In 2018, he,—along with his partner and writer M. K. Rainey, and friend Jonathan Kay—founded the Dead Rabbits Books, a press to publish “books that matter.” For the three co-founders, Emerald City was the story that would kickstart their mission, to make space for work that is audacious, experimental, and even weird.

Leaning into the brusqueness of a world where money calls the shots, the story takes a tender look at young adults who are torpedoed into a world manipulated by power hungry elders. It also examines the obsessive masculinity that occupies the world of competitive sport and corporate crime, an almost virile sense of power that, for good or naught, is interlinked with sexual superiority. And within these themes, is the larger care with which Brinbaum handles drug use and addiction in the novel—a story he knows much too personally, for he had to seek rehab two months before his book’s release, an experience he is open and candid about. Birnbaum’s willingness to dare and speak is what gives his words a certain chutzpah, an insolence that takes a pretty grim tale to enjoyable highs.

Brian and I met the evening after the launch of Emerald City, where there was cake and pizza, a dead rabbit art-making station, an interpreter for his family and friends from the Deaf Community, and the kind of electric, all-people energy that is galvanized by the effort of independent publishing. There was a restfulness to his countenance, a relief almost to have been done with the book that was so many years in the making, and for having come out of an experience that was life-changing, to say the least.

“I was, in my active addiction, writing a book that implicitly is largely about how terrible addiction is, not like morally, but spiritually. I’m not going to give away the last line but honestly reading the last line, like two days ago, for the first time since I had gotten out of rehab and everything. And I was like, holy shit, this is a basic entry text into Narcotics Anonymous. And I’m writing these characters, the journeys about what they’re doing, where they’re going wrong. And I don’t mean that in a moral sense, because addiction isn’t a moral issue. It’s a very, fuck death issue. They call it a disease for a reason, right? But it’s just very strange reading that line. But I’m glad I did it. I feel like I wrote something true, despite the fact that I was kind of destroying myself, you know, to be writing that.”

Emerald City was as close to a novel’s story as Birnbaum could get, without it getting autobiographical. While the novel’s three crucial characters—Benison Behrenreich, the hearing son of deaf royalty, who earns a spot in his college Basketball team with his rich father’s interference; Julia Paolantonio, a young woman who loses her father to drug addiction, and is currently living with her estranged drug-lord grandfather; and Peter Fosch, a sordid, wasted college drop-out who gets caught in the drug world—bear no likeness to Birnbaum’s life story, they all sprung in individual narratives that came together to form the book’s core arc.

“The story began with the idea of Benison’s performance anxiety, and his father’s engagement in Video Relay Service fraud (VRS being a videoconferencing interpretation tool for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing). I started by interviewing my father, who owns (a totally legit) interpreting company, for which I now work as a technical writer and marketer. A friend of his got caught up in the VRS gold rush, including its gaping maw of fraud. The interview lasted hours, done in several installments. From there I set about writing a first draft that totaled to 225,000 words and which, after giving it several months to cool on the digital shelf, I trashed completely, starting from scratch late in my first semester at Sarah Lawrence College, where I went for my MFA, in late 2013–about a year after I first interviewed my dad. The first thing I wrote after trashing the first draft was the present-tense Peter section, an impressionistic regaling of Peter’s last days back in his hometown, which initiates Part II. This chapter got, by far, the best feedback out of my three workshopped pieces that semester. The following semester, I wrote an early draft of the novel’s second chapter, wherein Benison struggles with his inability to perform on and off the basketball court during his freshman year at Myriadal College. Returned to me with edits, my thesis adviser wrote first: ‘This shit is on fire.’ I was onto something. With these two firmly established as main characters (amid a book that features 157 named characters—my editor counted), Julia quickly became the third and final protagonist, if you will. At first she was the glue, a secondary character whose mobbed-up granddad, Johnny Raciti, linked the VRS fraud scheme to Peter’s involvement with the crime syndicate. But my then-agent noticed something in an earlier draft: that I really fucking enjoyed writing her character. And there was so much to be mined, from her father’s defection from the ‘family business’ and his corresponding drug addiction, to her self-actualization as a queer cis-female. By the end, Julia was indeed my favorite character.”
Emerald CitySeattle might seem an unlikely backdrop to a tale where three young people are forced to confront the squalid dealings of the corrupt, but to Birnbaum, it was most apt to situate his novel in the city. “I moved to Seattle after college and remained there for two years. Seattle was municipal love at first sight. The air is different, cleaner, clearer. It’s difficult not to see the city through rose-colored glasses, because every evening, when it’s clear, you look out over the Puget and see dusk falling in pink-to-violet hues, white peaks to the west, or a comforting shroud blanketing the city. Back before it became Bezos-town, Pike Place still stood out like Seattle’s version of Atlantic City’s pier, if you replace the speaks and barkers with fish-throwers and artisan crafts. And there’s nothing like Capitol Hill. Absolutely nothing. So Seattle became the backdrop to these otherwise unrelated things—basketball, drugs, corruption—because superimposing such things over a place I love and knew best made the most sense. In many ways I did grow up in Seattle.”

And grow up, Birnbaum’s characters do. Benison, Julia, and Peter, while complex and self-sabotaging in their own right, are first mere pawns in a story puppeteered by the more powerful adults in the story. At a time when we question intention and effect, Birnbaum is unafraid to stretch the morality of his characters, willing them, especially Peter, into actions that are questionable to say the least. “If life is a series of choices, morality is their manifestation. As Yuval Noah Harari so aptly put it in his latest book, 21 Questions for the 21st Century, morality is simply the desire to reduce suffering; and to reduce suffering it’s imperative that we explore those who cause suffering, a modus operandi perpetually two steps behind our exploration of those who are suffering–i.e. we tend to judge and lay blame long before attempting to figure out why the culprit has performed their heinous act. All of which is to say that I’m interested in writing about why people can be so shit sometimes. In that regard, I don’t think Emerald City stretched the imagination of behavior so much as pulled back the curtain on things we’re not really willing to talk about openly. No one wants to admit their ethical shortcomings. This manifests in small ways, such as the college basketball player, one of my main characters, Benison, who copes silently with the fruits of his father’s corruption. It manifests in widespread ways, such as addiction, which is still stigmatized, and leaves people like Peter, another main character, to cope with the trauma of childhood molestation through drink and drug use. And it manifests in blunt force, such as with Stephen Klimnick, the sociopathic kingpin, whose own government propped him up for its personal gain—as the US did with Osama, and as US citizens did with The Apprentice, and through hip hop songs like ‘Country Grammar.’ None of my characters are ‘like-able’—save for Julia, I think—and this is exactly how I wanted it, because it’s truer to me that we’re all complicit in something. We’re all human, born in sin, born in the limitations of our venial skin. To dwell in a world of social media’s virtue signaling and humble bragging is to dwell in a world of censorship and glib thinking. Which is why literature remains important.”

Literature is indeed important, but the novel itself is arguably not the only leading bastion of literary speak. Today, poetry, memoirs, and nonfiction essay collections have risen much in station for tapping into the vulnerability of a generation that seems to be caught in the middle of something grand and catastrophic. For Birnbaum, a relentless novel writer, this shift is visible, and he’s all the more thankful for it. “To our credit, I think our generation deserves responsibility for much of the vulnerability that nonfiction and other genre-blended forms offer. Take the addiction memoir, for example, which came into vogue a few decades ago and in many ways was a harbinger of nonfiction’s ability to challenge common preconceptions. Such vulnerability has spilled into all genres, and I think fiction has been one of the farther-flung outposts, resistant to that tender fluid, for reasons both understandable and unfortunate. On the one hand, fiction is the realm of limitless possibilities, where writers can, as one does in a therapeutic environment, explore without notions of ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t,’ but, instead, ‘why’ or ‘how.’ On the other hand, fiction has been dominated by straight white males—inherently limiting its breadth of possibility. As Obama said, fiction taught him empathy. So I think novels today should think outside the binary box of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t.’ Fiction is the final bastion of the human imagination, and whether it’s the novel or the gilded screen, its potential to expose the depths of the human condition, and to provide a conduit to the center of our imaginative powers, to me, remains of utmost importance.”

Birnbaum with Sergio De La Pava and Caits Meissner

But of course, literature is an art form existing within an undeniable capitalist market. If it’s hard as an emerging writer to be discovered and published, then it’s also hard if you’re a writer, like Brinbaum, with a sprawling 400-page non-linear narrative that thrives in prose that skitters and spirals into crescendos. Emerald City is Birnbaum’s 5th novel, if you count the 84-page sci-fi-ish work he created at the age of 19. He thrives on working in the grand form. “I wanted to be Zadie Smith at 23,” Birnbaum confesses. “And that wasn’t healthy.” The literary industry too can be a bit dispiriting as he discovered. But by his own admission, indie publishing is where he’s willing to place his bets, both as an author and as co-founder of Dead Rabbits Books.

“To have been invited to work with an agency that includes several of my literary heroes was a life-altering event. But when my agent left the industry, they reneged on their promise to pass me along to a colleague, without much regard for the fact that I’d staked quite a bit of time, energy, and, most importantly, passion into my project. This sort of behavior reflects more than the indifference of Big Five publishing; it reflects a fecklessness that gives good reason for their continued failures, especially on the literary front, and an inexorable need to consolidate their powers (the Big Five will become the Big Four, and so on). Independent publishing is the future of literature, just as The Roc was the future of hip hop. It’s no coincidence that the best rappers began taking control of their own music; once they realized that the studio suits and A&Rs didn’t know what the hell they were doing beyond the exploitative legalese laced like land-mines in their contracts, they realized that they could, in the words of LeBron, take their talents to South Beach–i.e. they could make music, the record labels couldn’t, and with the advent of personalized production software, they no longer needed Warner Brothers for studio time. This is why you see Travis Scott recording his album in his own house, his entourage cooling in the pool.”

Emerald City is the first book to kick-off Dead Rabbits Books that, in the upcoming year, will be publishing the next novel of writer David Hollander, a nonfiction debut on queerness by Annie Krabbenschmidt, a children’s book yet to be officially announced, and the debut novel of editor-in-chief M.K. Rainey. Their work is inspired by author Sergio De La Pava, who teamed up with his partner Susanna to self-publish his debut, A Naked Singularity, that won him widespread critical acclaim, and whose latest Lost Empress found a home at Penguin Random House. “Sergio was fortunate enough to have percolated through the microbe-small pores of the publishing world’s wall, and he was fortunate enough because he had people around him—namely Susanna, and in the case of Lost Empress, his editor at Penguin Random House, Tim—with the ability to dissolve the artist’s moral fiber into the barely solvent agent that is big publishing’s dissolution. Put simply, we aim to be the Susannas and Tims of the publishing world—readers, writers, editors, and publishers willing to put our muscle behind the stuff we truly believe in.”

For now, Birnbaum is relieved to have written and released Emerald City into the wild. “At the end, I was getting so obsessed with making it as good as possible. Like, I really do want to put something out there that I’m really proud of but yeah, I was sick of it. And I think that’s normal for people. I already have the idea for my next novel. I know what I want it to be. And I’m ready for that. I have a short story I’m working on, I have two other essay ideas. When I was in rehab, I wrote 62 pages. Exactly. Like I literally numbered them. And you can see that in the beginning, when I’m like detoxing, it’s all this messy big print and shit. And then by the end, it’s neat little print. And, I’m writing these little snippets of stories and essays and work. So yeah, I’m definitely happy it’s over. Because retroactively, the first thing I’ve ever truly been proud of is getting sober. And then, holy shit! Like I wrote this book. People are looking at me now. Sergio De La-fucking-Pava came up to me and said ‘dude, you did this.’ And that’s fucking amazing. I don’t care how many books I sell. That’s all it matters to me.”

Brian Birnbaum grew up thirty minutes west of Camden Yards in Baltimore, where at four years old he cried because the Yankees were losing. An MFA graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, his work has been published or is forthcoming in The Smart Set, The Collagist, Atticus Review, SLAM Magazine, Lit Hub, Political Animal, and more. His first novel, Emerald City, is out with Dead Rabbits in September 2019. Brian is a child of Deaf adults (CODA) and works in development for the family sign language interpreting business. He lives in Harlem with the writer M.K, Rainey and their dog.




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Meher Manda is a poet, short story writer, journalist, educator and the Interviews Editor at Atticus Review. She is the author of "Busted Models," forthcoming from No, Dear Magazine in Fall 2019, and her work has appeared in Bustle, Firstpost, Scroll, Forbes, and elsewhere.

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