An Interview with Bruce Bauman, by Neni Demetriou
January 22, 2016
Bruce Bauman’s second novel, Broken Sleep (Other Press, 2015), is one where rock music, politics, art, religion, and love all come crashing together in epic proportions. But more than that, it’s a book about family. Broken Sleep is what happens when a writer bridges the magic between their pen and their mind. It’s innovative, it’s heartbreaking, it’s beautiful, it’s emotional—it opens with a bang, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Which is why I was thrilled to talk to Bruce about it, where I was able to find out about his writing process, what he loved most about this book, and the relationships writers have with their characters. I also got some pretty cool pieces of advice.
At 620 pages, Broken Sleep is a massive novel that sprawls across cities, decades, and characters. How did you end up with this structure?
With a great deal of attempting different voices and perspectives. For example Moses was originally written in the first person. Steve Erickson suggested I try third and that was the ticket with him. Salome, at one point was written in the present tense. That didn’t work. Finally all the voices spoke to me. Mindswallow had been first and was the easiest voice for me. He was written in a much harsher slang. The late Paul Kozlowski and Judith Gurewich suggested I go with a softer, easier to read style, which is what you read now.
I always knew it would be non-linear. I wanted to work out of time. I did that in the short story “Day Time” fifteen years ago and it just felt right from day one. The ordering of the chapters came next. From the very start I put all my pages on the on the walls of my studio from floor to ceiling so I can see the ebb and flow of the action. I got advice to start with Moses. I said no, Salome is the matriarch, the reason of the book and she has to open the tale. It was kind of easy to find The Art is Dead chapter and then go to Moses. Let that flow for a while before bringing in Mindswallow.
A really important piece of advice that helped the structure came from Anthony Miller. He suggested using chapter headings like picaresque novels. We jokingly called this a post-modern picaresque novel. (Moses’ Dr. is Hank Fielding.) That was so much fun and helped the shape.
I remember you saying how planning and outlining isn’t the smartest thing a writer can do, because then it’s harder to let the writing take you where it wants to go. How surprised were you when the novel ended the way it did? At what point did you realise it was something that had to be done?
What I said is writing down an outline is (I think) not very helpful. In fact, I think it’s detrimental. You can’t lay any train tracks that can alter the path. I keep a million things in my head and write myself notes and have notebooks with ideas but not in any form that can mess me up so when the characters talk to me that gets in the way.
Early on, very early on, I knew Alchemy’s fate. But that was about it. Everything, and I mean everything else evolved from that. And much changed as the book went on. My original ending is not what you see now. Two people helped immensely with two major evolutions. In an early version Moses did not go to see his father. Alan Peacock, a super editor and friend, demanded I change that. And he was right. I’d been too chicken shit to write that chapter. The second I started writing it, I knew he was right and that is exactly what Moses would do. I got great input from my agent Jennifer Lyons. And Anjali Singh, who, along with the treasured Terrie Akers, was one of my two main editors. And Anjali and Alan did pretty much hate the original ending. They were right. They didn’t tell me what to do. When I rewrote the end you see now, it came pretty easily. (Of course I rewrote it 10 times to get the language and pacing right, but the final action never changed again.)
You mentioned above that Salome Savant had to open the first chapter of Book One, and in essence, the opening chapter of Broken Sleep. What was your relationship with her? Why did you feel she was the first voice the reader heard?
People have been asking me how I would qualify this book, a rock novel, a political etc. My answer is none of that – it is a novel about a family. And Salome is the mother, without her there is no story. Salome gives birth to the story. Her character also demands that she start. I didn’t want to hear from Salome I was being an asshole in letting Moses or Alchemy open the book. She’s kind of a narcissist, you know.
I love Salome. I love all my characters, even the evil ones. They need to exist for my book to exist. I don’t always like them. And Salome can, can really be a pain in the ass. But she made me laugh and cry and pissed me off and I always felt empathetic to her.
(And if I sound as crazy as Salome talking about these guys as if they are real people, well, they are to me.)
What did you love most about writing your second novel? What scenes were the hardest to write?
I loved that I got to create and think I was in control of this world. Because I know I have almost no control in my everyday life.
I got such an energy rush of going to my studio, cranking up the music and seeing what the hell was gonna happen. Sure, some days sucked and nothing happened.
The hardest was Mindswallow flipping out on Alchemy. I didn’t want to do that. But I had to. Moses and Jay’s scenes when things were going downhill, the first confrontation between Moses and his mom. But even the hard ones were fun when they got going. The challenge is fun and frustrating. But when you hit it and you know it, man, what a great feeling. It’s also what I’ve told you—if you ain’t having fun doing this shit—then do something fucking else. There’s enough suffering that comes with just living, why add to your torture if there’s no pleasure?
I was excited to see some crossover from your first novel (And The Word Was), and it felt like seeing old friends. What made you do this?
Hey, it’s my world and welcome to it or not. Neil Downs was an ER doctor in the time frame of And The Word Was when Salome went to the hospital. It seemed right that Moses would be a fan of Levi Furstenblum. I’d previously written some short pieces with the detective Sidonna Cherry and I’ve published 4 or 5 stories with the ad agency of AY&S. They all fit naturally into this story. Nothing was forced. That’s where you fuck up.
Is there a question you wished I had asked you about this novel? What would your answer be?
What about all the religious allusions in the story from the chapter headings to some of the names to the characters?
I’d say that is a damn good question but my only clue would be to go the lone Alchemy narrated chapter. Look at what he sings-says. You might notice an integration of Jesus’ laments from the cross. Then I’d say you might want to relook at the book from that perspective. Or maybe not.
Bruce Bauman is an award-winning author, an instructor in the CalArts MFA Writing Program and Critical Studies Department, and the Senior Editor of Black Clock literary magazine. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and numerous anthologies and other publications. His first novel was And The Word Was. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Flushing, Queens, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter Suzan Woodruff.
Neni Demetriou is a Greek-Cypriot fiction writer who fell in love with New York City after living in Los Angeles for two years. She’s currently a Content Strategist by day and the Social Media Associate for Slice Magazine by night.