Shooting the Breeze: Holler Brown

Holler Brown is a man of immense depth, having once literally worked in the bowels of the New York Public Library, cataloging books deep underground and finding plenty of time to read.

During the evenings he wrote, producing six novels and numerous short stories, one nominated for the prestigious literary Pushcart Prize. After a tour of his home and gardens, we talked about Tolstoy’s mother-in-law, the genius of David Foster Wallace, and the elusiveness of being happy.

by Joel Finsel  
for Coast, August 2013

You’ve been vegan for twenty-five years. What made you stop eating meat?

“At the New York Public Library some fairly obscure things came across my desk, including some really graphic images of animal abuse. I began reading more and it really stuck, so I wrote a novel about an animal laboratory where they do obscene experiments on animals, like spray hairspray into rabbits’ eyes. I’d recommend the film Earthlings to anyone thinking about going that way in their own life. Animals are not treated with respect or regard to their sense of self. Reminds me of a story about Tolstoy: his mother-in-law came and wanted a chicken dinner, so he gave her a hatchet and said, ‘Go out in the yard and kill one.’ She wasn’t going to chop its head off. If people had to kill the animals they eat, they wouldn’t.”

Still write every day?

“I look back on how I used to write diligently from 8-12 every night and question it. The main reason I was doing this was for approval from my family, peers and friends. David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest, a big deal book, and realized, Now what? I’m not happy. I’m still the same person. Now everyone’s expecting the next book. Is it going to be as good?”

“But artists are driven by things other than success. To my advantage, I’ve been able to let go of a lot of the ego that goes with it. It’s less crucial for me to succeed, but it’s still important for me to write. I still want to publish and have people read my stuff, but my self-view is not dependent on that the way it used to be when it was all or nothing. DFW said he wrote eight hours a day, and when he wasn’t, he worried about not writing.”

Would you say he’s your favorite author?

“I read his stuff and think ‘oh, my God, it’s so beautiful.’ But I can’t talk about favorites without talking about decades. In the fifties it was Jack Kerouac; forties, Henry Miller and Hemingway; 19th century Dostoyevsky… I’m fascinated by geniuses like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, whose dialogue is like nothing else.”

What are you working on now?

“Amassing a body of published short stories to submit as a volume.”

Tell me about the Pushcart.

“Truthfully, I spent a lot of years without success. I didn’t begin publishing until my mid-forties and I’d been writing regularly for over twenty years. When Solomon’s Seal, the novel about animal abuse, placed second in the Carolina Novel Award, I suddenly had editors clamoring; then dismissing me as often as accepting. The Pushcart nomination was for a short story published in Vincent Brothers Review. All writers say you can plaster your wall with rejection letters. We work with what we have, and if it brings you joy, keep doing it.“

Happiness is such an elusive thing.

“For me, happiness is basically letting go, opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Imagine it’s nighttime, you’re in the middle of nowhere in the woods, you have no clothes on and your heels are over the edge of a cliff. You have no idea what’s behind you, but you have a sense it’s a long way down. But you just release, let go and there’s no longer any problems. You’re free. You’re falling. You don’t know if there are sharp rocks at the bottom or a deep lake. It’s all means. You just are. You’re in the moment.”

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