Interview With John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown is the author of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery and The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur. He teaches at Sweet Briar College, where he holds the Julia Jackson Nichols Chair in English and Creative Writing. For Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, Brown was awarded the Lyndhurst Prize (1993), the Lillian Smith Award from the Southern Regional Conference, and the Steinbeck Award. He has also received the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation fellowship (1998-1999) and was a regional winner of Granta's "Best Young American Novelists" competition (1996).

Cover of Audubon's Watch by John Gregory Brown
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Q) The idea for this novel came from a short passage in Audubon's journal in which he refers to spending an evening keeping watch over a dead body. What is it about such an event that captured your imagination? In what ways did this reimagined event allow you to examine how John James Audubon the man fit into his times?

A) In the passage in Audubon's journal that prompted this novel, his description of sitting up with the body—standing before it, studying it, and then drawing it—struck me as precisely the process he used in producing his depictions of birds. (He would shoot the birds, fix them in poses with wires, and then draw them.) The combination of beauty and flight with loss and death also seemed to me a remarkable distillation of the nineteenth-century romantic imagination, and Audubon was, if anything, the quintessential nineteenth-century romantic: a seeker of beauty and truth enraptured by the sublime, a wanderer, an outcast, a lover of the natural world.

There were no doubt other factors that made this passage compelling for me. My father, a physician, died not long before I began work on the novel, and I think I was attempting to come to grips both with his life as a physician and with my own life as an artist.

Q) In your research, did you find that Audubon bore the characteristics of the men of his generation? What surprises did you find?

A) There is a grand irony to Audubon's life. He was born on the island that would become Haiti, raised in France, and sent at eighteen to America. He was born to a mistress of his father's who died before Audubon was a year old. Another mistress, a mulatto woman, raised him until his father took him to France to be raised by his wife. I became convinced in the course of my research for this novel that what Audubon wanted more than anything was a home. Given the grandeur of his personality and the nature of his artistic temperament, he chose to establish America as his home by setting out to locate and draw all of the birds that could be found here. The irony of this pursuit, this quest for a home, is that he was destined to spend his life wandering, first in search of these birds and then in search of those interested in publishing and purchasing his work.

I was surprised to discover that despite the thousands and thousands of words Audubon wrote about his adventures, his art, and the birds he studied, he had almost nothing to say about why he had come to love birds so much. It is as though the psychological truth of this passion resided too deep within him, too near his core, for him to truly examine it. This was a wonderful challenge in depicting Audubon, to try to examine this issue while remaining true to his character.

Q) What is it that draws Audubon and Gautreaux to one another? Is Gautreaux an actual historical figure, or did you create him? What did he represent to Audubon and to you as you wrote?

A) Gautreaux is a wholly invented character who emerged as I began to research the medical and pathological practices of the period. The study of anatomy was condemned by those who felt that it was a violation of the sanctity of the body, and many anatomists were therefore forced to become graverobbers in order to secure specimens for study. With Gautreaux, as with Audubon, I wanted to examine a character in precisely the sort of detail in which he conducted his own studies. At the heart of any great human endeavor, it seems to me, are conviction and passion, and I wanted to create a character who, unlike Audubon, chooses to abandon that endeavor.

Q) Writing fictional biography presents its own temptations. How did you decide when and where to depart from the known historical record? What advice would you offer to other writers who are considering fictional biography?

A) For me, the primary difference between using wholly invented characters and using actual historical figures in a work of fiction is that the historical figure is a vessel of sorts, into which the author pours the ideas and emotions that he is interested in addressing, whereas with invented characters the vessel must be created along with those ideas and emotions. I did not feel bound by the actual circumstances of Audubon's life as much as I felt they provided a structure, a framework, for the themes I hoped to pursue.

Other authors, of course, might wish to portray a particular historical figure as accurately as possible, and while that is a fine pursuit, it is not necessarily a literary pursuit. Any writer setting out to write biographical fiction should try to understand exactly how he feels about "using" a life for the purposes of his work. The answer is not, of course, a simple one.

Q) You mention Pat Barker's World War I trilogy as a fine example of fictional biography, but the historical characters in her novels, such as Siegfried Sassoon, are less central than Audubon is to your work. Did you feel any apprehension with making a known historical figure the central character of a novel?

A) My primary concern was to create dramatic and psychological circumstances that were appropriate for the period and for the character of Audubon as I imagined him. Audubon is revered as a great nature artist and is the namesake for the preservation of nature's beauty in this country, but that is a simplification of who he was and how he lived his life, as all who know the details of his life can tell you. If anything, I hoped to create an image of the man that more accurately reflects his complexity—a complexity that we all have in our characters because we are human.

Q) Audubon's paintings of birds rise above clinical depiction and have attained a reputation as art. If you were to examine this work as one examines the work of Picasso or Vermeer, what would you see of Audubon's character?

A) Throughout Audubon's work there is a tension between his scientific and his artistic aims, between his wish to document the truth of what he observed and to create works of art that achieve balance and beauty and complexity. He resolved this tension by drawing birds "in action" rather than in profile—birds feasting on the corpses of other animals or quarreling or singing or hunting. There is a narrative element to many of his works that suggests his love of adventure and discovery and the complexity of social interaction. As solitary as Audubon's life often was, he was very much a social creature, a raconteur, a dandy.

Q) You are married to Carrie Brown, another well-regarded and successful writer. Do your writing lives intersect? In what ways? Is she your first reader, and are you hers?

A) Carrie's success as a writer has been one of the great joys of my life. I read her fiction, as she does mine, from the first halting drafts to the finished product, offering advice and encouragement and praise, all of which are necessary to any artist who sets out to produce a work which may take a very long time to create, with real doubts and missteps along the way. I feel very fortunate to have so adept and perceptive a reader, especially one who understands not only the art of fiction but also the psychological and emotional circumstances that inform that fiction.

Posted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 2002 Houghton Mifflin Company, All Rights Reserved.