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Interview with Donald Breckenridge

by on August 30, 2017

Donald Breckenridge is the author of four novels and the editor of two fiction anthologies. He has also served as the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail for the last sixteen years, and is the co-founder and co-editor of InTranslation, and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. His most recent work, And Then (David R. Godine), is a haunting novella and taut meditation on the people that pass through our lives. The book sees Breckenridge announce himself as an exciting and original prose stylist, and should undoubtedly make some “best of” lists by year’s end. We recently talked to him about the intersections of music and literature in his life.

Angel City Review: Did your passion for music precede your passion for literature?

Donald Breckenridge: I don’t remember which one came first but some of my earliest memories are shaped by music and also having my father read to me before bed. When we lived on the Naval base in Philadelphia when I was around four I had a portable turntable in my room with some Disney records, also those Viewmaster reels with their accompanying records—Spiderman, Yogi Bear and the like—and a copy of Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits, which had “North to Alaska” on it and now, whenever I think about living there and playing alone in my bedroom, it is almost always accompanied by that song.    

ACR: Who were some of your musical and literary heroes growing up? 

DB: In elementary school I would have said Jimi Hendrix—who I still adore—and in junior high I would have said Lou Reed—I still listen to the Velvets all the time—although when I was in junior high in ’81-’83 hardcore was immensely popular. Albums by Channel 3, Black Flag, GBH, Circle Jerks, that This is Boston Not LA compilation and that Maximum Rock and Roll compilation, Not So Quiet on the Western Front were constantly changing hands in my remedial math class, in study hall (that I took so I could read novels during school without getting yelled at) and on the back of the bus. I didn’t really embrace hardcore until the Bad Brain’s Rock For Light came out although I first heard it through a post punk filter of mainly English bands as I was really into: Joy Division, Gang of Four, The Fall, Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, PiL and The Cramps by then. In high school my musical heroes were Mark E Smith, HR, John Lydon, Ian Curtis, Richard H Kirk, John King and Lux Interior. It was around this time that I moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria and began going to punk shows just across the Potomac in DC. I saw a ton of great music then—lots of DC hardcore (although ’85 turned out to be the twilight for hardcore) and bands from NYC, LA and also English groups were constantly blowing through town so I was really in the right place at a great time for new music. In high school I was reading a lot of Huxley, Mailer, Kerouac, Kafka, Burroughs, Celine and Genet.   

ACR: Would you say the DIY ethos / the aesthetic of punk inspired your creativity early on? Or did you get your creative inspirations from elsewhere?

DB: The DIY ethos of that era absolutely, and to this day, not just with writing but also how I present my work to the world. Whereas the punk aesthetic at the time was extremely important, and anger is something that you should never lose your capacity to embrace. However, beauty, love, and emotional honesty will enable you to thrive in the world because anger cannot sustain itself for very long. For me and for many other people, punk was a compass that enabled us to find a singular path. 

ACR: Did your creativity initially manifest through writing or were you driven to start a band like so many kids immersed in post-punk, hardcore at the time?

DB: I was far too aloof to try and form a band, although that’s not to say that I didn’t have a few friends who could have made music together if we had put an effort into it but we were seriously invested in making art: photography, painting and later performance art. We would critique each others work, consume the same authors, loved the same bands, immersed ourselves in galleries and for a time it was a secure and nurturing bond. I wanted to be a photographer before I started writing. My creativity initially manifested itself behind a lens and soon after through the theater yet I couldn’t afford to make the art that I wanted to here so gradually, glacially, I found the courage to begin writing fiction.   

ACR: In an interview I’ve read from a few years back, you mention that you wrote your novel This Young Girl Passing with music and certain films on in the background to immerse yourself in the era. Do you still write this way?

DB: Absolutely yes, with And Then I wrote most of the late 70’s era section with Television’s Marquee Moon and the 1st Gary Newman and the Tubeway Army album playing constantly in the background. I was really going for something cold—blithe yet psychedelic and angular, haunting and brittle. While writing out the late 80’s era section I spent a lot of time listening to Malcolm Mooney era Can, Captain Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station and mid-60s era Coltrane. I was searching for something haunting and spontaneous while at the same time it had to be completely visceral and kaleidoscopic. While much of the autobiographical section was spent listening to the post-punk from my teens as well as lots of records by the Television Personalities. Ultimately I was trying for something nostalgic that would sound and feel like every guitar solo Daniel Treacy stole from Roger McGuinn… and also a ton of Gamelan recordings from Java and Bali.         

ACR: How much does the music you enjoy inform your narrative style? If at all?

DB: Music immensely informs my narratives and it has since my first attempts at writing plays nearly three decades ago when I would have Coltrane Plays the Blues on repeat whenever I was writing dialog. So much of writing well is in listening and if you cannot hear what your characters are trying to convey then you will never be able to present them convincingly on the page. Listening to music and constantly seeking out new sounds enables you to hear and respond accordingly to your character’s motives and objectives as they continuously evolve throughout the narrative.

ACR: What are some albums that are inextricably tied to New York City for you?

DB:  John Coltrane: Crescent

Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde

Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus: Money Jungle

The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat

Archie Shepp: Attica Blues

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

Cabaret Voltaire: Red Mecca

Can: Tago Mago

Compound Eye: Journey From Anywhere

Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

John Cage & Kenneth Patchen: The City Wears a Slouch Hat

Valis l: Destruction Of Syntax

The Fall: Perverted By Language

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: With Thelonious Monk

Alice Coltrane: Ptah, The El Daoud

Miles Davis: On The Corner

Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Funhunt: Live At CBGB’s and Max’s 78/79

The Ramones: The Ramones

Johnny Thunders: So Alone

Luc Ferrari: Electronic Works

The Clean/Great Unwashed: Odditties 2

The Stooges: Fun House

ACR: You have mentioned that you are an avid record collector. Is there a record that started it all for you?

DB: My mother recently sent me her Elvis Presley albums from when she was a teenager. In the box she also included the 1st album I ever bought which was a copy of You’ll Never Walk Alone, that Elvis recorded with The Jordanaires in ’71. It’s a full-on unapologetic gospel album so many would argue that my first attempt at buying music was a proper swing and a miss. I guess that purchase taught me to be a bit more careful with my limited funds. When I moved to NYC when I was twenty I made the mistake of bringing all of my records with me and soon afterwards I had to sell them in order to eat, although I got next to nothing for them, so for a number of years I subsisted on cut-out bin cassettes and listening to WKCR, as that station is an absolute blessing and introduced me to jazz and classical music. I began collecting records again in earnest about 15 years ago and now I have a few thousand albums. 

ACR: Some people argue that New York City lost its “edge” years ago. Some people believe this has had an affect on the arts scene there as well (music / lit / etc). Do you believe this is true? 

DB: I think the city is constantly changing and no scene in NYC has ever remained in the same place for a very long time. It might have been cheaper to live here in the late 80’s when I moved here but if you have absolutely no money after making rent it is next to impossible to survive anywhere. Trust me on that because getting by here on a few dollars a week is no fucking joke and carving out enough time to create your art while working 40 hours a week takes nearly inhuman sacrifice. I’m sure that is true everywhere and yet art frequently happens anywhere because it absolutely has to. I think some people who claim the city has lost its edge are nostalgic for their loft dwelling twenties in that now misty golden era before Brooklyn became a global brand name. Or they never lived here in the first place. However getting older while watching your neighborhood change to the point where it is hardly recognizable from when you first moved in can be soul crushing. And having to move every few years to find cheaper rent sucks. I moved eight times in my first decade here. I lived in a really beautiful African-American neighborhood with a solid civic foundation during the height of the crack era and watched as a dwindling lack of social services; affordable supermarkets, reliable public-transportation, horrific schools, dysfunctional hospitals, daily shootings and a community-phobic police force drove nearly all of the long-term homeowners away before the banks and realtors swooped in to re-brand the neighborhood for a more affluent group of people who themselves were recently priced out of wherever it was they were coming from. The neighborhood where I live now is rapidly gentrifying and while the property values are soaring it isn’t getting that much better for the families who have lived here for generations. Every week I get calls from aggressive realtors with their all cash offers to buy our house and I positively relish the opportunity to tell them to fuck off.       

ACR: Your prose style (dialogue in particular) is incredibly unique to me in the way that it breaks up the narrative line. It creates a really vivid experience, especially in your new book And Then. Is style something that is self-conscious to you or is it something that you don’t think about much?

DB: I write very slowly—if I get five lines in a day that is a great writing day—and then spend weeks cultivating the spaces around the sentences. Narrative switchbacks, visual displacements and dialog that breaks through the lines—like weeds coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk—gradually overtake those spaces. I am always trying for vivid while keeping things present, so thank you very much for saying that.   

ACR: What are you currently working on?

DB: I’m working on a retelling of Sophocles’ Theban Plays. A short version of Antigone was published over at Fjords Review in the spring of ’16 and I am currently working on a longer version of Oedipus right now. What I’m attempting is a novel length triptych of King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone


Purchase And Then on Amazon.



Jesse Tyre (The Grand Southern) shares his literary inspirations

by on July 12, 2017

As part of our ongoing series where we talk to writers and musicians about the music and literature that informs their creativity, we welcome Jesse Tyre of LA-based alt-country outfit The Grand Southern. The band recently released a new EP titled “Traded Heaven,” which takes it’s cues from the great alt-country acts of the past (Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Son Volt) while wholeheartedly channeling a Southern California lyrical and musical sensibility that is both fresh and reinvigorating. Below are six books that have informed lead vocalist Jesse Tyre’s creativity throughout the years.

John Prine Beyond Words

This book is truly a gift. Lyrics and chords written out with pictures and stories. His handwritten lyrics on coffee stained paper with a phone number scrawled on the side of the notepad. It feels like you are getting a sneak peak through his personal scrapbook. His songs are mostly just stories from his own life, and he’s got the pictures to prove it. Often when I am short on inspiration, and my eyes dart between the unfamiliar and the external, I end up where I started – short on inspiration. We don’t have to look too far to find a story to tell or a song to sing. I will never have his voice, his character, but I can hone in on the best version of my own voice – the most genuine. There’s humor and heartbreak in the most mundane experiences, and what is glorious to some, may be simple and boring to others. Sometimes amplifying the trivial and muting the exaggerated makes the ride a lot smoother. When you find something to get behind, say it again.  In fact, say it three times and add a bridge and a catchy melody.  

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I read the British “Adrian Mole” series when I was a kid, as well as Catcher in the Rye in my early teenage years. The brilliance of these books is that they appeal to a universal commonality in the experiences of these young men, and the readers fascination with the mysteries of the teenage mind. I was convinced that I was Adrian Mole and later Holden Caulfield. How these characters spoke to me in such a profound way could only be characterized as the stars lining up just right, so the pages came before my eyes at the exact time my stupid adolescent thinking aligned perfectly with how these characters saw the world. I read David Eggers’ book in my early 20’s, and although a bit more mature and slightly more grounded in a reality, I felt a similar kinship to the character. I was also living in San Francisco at the time, yet his story had occurred a generation before me, so there was some implied expertise and wisdom of how to navigate through this period in my life. Our shared experience ends with these fairly superficial notions of age and geography. His story is interesting, but not riveting. His struggles are sad, but not devastating. How he shares his story, a perfect mix of humor, vulnerability, eloquence, and self-deprecation blew me away. It’s not enough to have a story and a rhyme scheme, its not enough to have something important or relatable to say.  You have to be smart. You have to be captivating. You have to be fearless in peeling back layers and showing the underlying feeling, even if it makes you or your audience uncomfortable.   This book is a perfect model of how a song should be written. It was the same sense of wonder I felt after hearing John Prine, Carol King, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson… so that’s how you tell a story.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

To oversimplify the book’s implication, we all start from an equal place of potential, and our success, sustainability, and even survival are generally decided by availability, opportunity, access, and necessity. Consciously or not, these basic themes have a profound on my relationship with music. Just as complex grains, animals suited for domestication etc, were available to Eurasian civilizations, music and fellow musicians are bountiful to anyone with a wifi connection living in Los Angeles in 2017. So plentiful in fact, that it is difficult to not be desensitized by the abundance of content and players. Often the most difficult task is to filter out everything and everyone that I don’t connect with. I am constantly learning from others.  From the days of the first Napster downloads, I could see what other music people who listened to my band were also “stealing.” This insight was impossible to obtain (at least on this scale) with this ease previously.  The constant opportunity to be inspired by sounds at a local bar or the Hollywood Bowl gave us the kind of direct access I always dreamed of as a kid growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lastly, the parallels between necessity and innovation are striking. I often reflect and wrestle with what many musicians refer to as their “need” to play and have an outlet, and our desire or “want” to be heard. Now that we are past the point of just trying to survive, is the motivation to make the best music we can still burning? The necessity exists if we want to be heard, but it must start internally as well. There is a need to constantly push for excellence, but also a great longevity in being resourceful and sparing. If you can record a great song with a guitar or piano, why build 100 tracks around it?  As soon as we take it on the road, it may be difficult to reproduce in any recognizable and meaningful way. We have an abundance of resources in one place, but leave the comfort of our geography and the equation starts again from zero.   

 A New Pair of Glasses by Chuck “C” 

This book is a lesson in perspective. That perspective only comes from smashing the ego and being willing to be vulnerable and honest. Writing lyrics requires that kind of internal transparency. It is too easy to taint the process with our ideas of how others will perceive our music, thinking about what people want to hear – and the darkest cloud – what will sell. The truth is that themes of the human experience are universal, and if I can share a story or convey a feeling as I know it or as I felt it, people will probably identify. Some people at least. And if no one does, at least I can live with the work I did knowing it is a reflection of who I am and how I see the world. And then I write another one, and another. “I love you and what you think of me is none of my business” is a powerful statement from the author. Difficult to apply in my daily life, but when I am writing and really tuned in, that mindset brings great comfort. He also says, “Walking alone is not normal, is not natural.” To think we have all the answers, or that no one can contribute to our composition, to our craft, to the 2nd line in the 3rd verse, is foolish.  Being open to collaboration and inspiration strengthens the vessel, and also informs us when we cant find our own voice.

Sex, Drugs, Ratt & Roll: My Life in Rock by Stephen Pearcy and Sam Benjamin

These figures were larger than life when I was a kid. Ratt had probably peaked before my time, but I had the VHS tapes with Milton Berle and Warren DeMartini crashing through the ceiling. The most fascinating piece of this story, beyond the hustle and sleaze that defined (and probably still lingers heavily over) the Sunset Strip, was that Stephen Pearcy was a fan of Rock n Roll. He sought out David Lee Roth before anyone knew about Van Halen. Finding him in the parking lot of a club, offering up a joint, and beginning a friendship that would last years. He was unapologetic about his range as a singer and what he had to do to get the band gigs.  None of it mattered. His voice worked, it was perfect for that band and perfect for those songs. When you’re young anything is possible, and that great unknown can be all the inspiration you need. Another lesson in perspective as the band deteriorated, you certainly get the sense that you are only hearing one side of the story, and that’s ok. Everything is perspective, and what a better way to tell a story that with a pinch of resentment, guilt, hubris, etc. I often forget what it was like to be young and inspired, to learn someone else’s song just to emulate exactly what they are doing.  Those things happen so much more subconsciously now and that’s probably a good thing, but to just be a fan and have a poster on your wall, that’s where everyone who plays music started. It’s a very pure place to be. 

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse

Change is unavoidable, yet inevitable. Change is generally easy with acceptance, however resistance to change and the reinvention required to adapt are difficult barriers. This fictional novel based in Echo Park is mostly the story of a working class community and the people who breath life and color into the neighborhoods. A few decades removed from the recent gentrification that has, once again, reshaped the community and its cast of characters.   Loosely based on the author’s experience, it really is a shining example of making the ordinary engaging. I find when I am really tuned in, I write drawing on my own experience, and the experience of others I can identify with. I am, of course,  the foremost expert on myself and my experience. The author weaves through the characters search for a destination beyond their destiny, for expectations and social class structure to be accepted and questioned simultaneously. These are universal themes, yet the story here is so unique to this geography and this community. Living in Los Angeles, we often have a culture overload. An abundance of performing arts, visual arts, museums, galleries, and fashion. The city is transient and evolving, not unique, not good or bad, just changing. However, the richness of generational community culture has become a thing of the past in many parts of the city. Maybe making room for a new set of characters to make new stories, or maybe creating a superficial existence where there is no time to create, because people need to spend their time paying rent and taking their dogs to yoga. There will always be a place for a scene, for a community, for traditions and culture to be shared and enrich, it just may not be here. Stories share those experiences, even after their gone, songs do too. Even if you know all the words and all the notes, a song can still be a blank space to insert your own faces, your own town, and your own experience. 

The “Traded Heaven” EP is now available on iTunes.