Why do you write?
Ever since I learned to read, I’ve found writing to be magical. To transform abstractions (letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages) into something vivid—something tangible and palpable—in a reader’s mind is a beautiful trick. I wanted to learn it.
What do you hope to achieve in your writing?
I hope to introduce readers to places and situations and emotions they haven’t experienced or, if they have, I hope they find in them a kind companionship—a reason to feel less alone.
What are major themes found in your work?
I like to write stories about underdog characters who hope to achieve something in a world hostile to their ambitions, such as in “A Detective’s Story” from my first book, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, and in “Pistachio” in my latest book, Truth Poker. The former is the story of a man whose success in solving a crime involving an American diplomat puts his life in danger; the latter is the story of a talentless actor who decides to pursue an acting career anyway—from his seat in the audience.
Because I lived in Guatemala for three-and-a-half years, I like to write stories about characters whose perceptions of their cultures—and of themselves—change as a result of their relationships with people of different cultures. For example, in “Coming Home,” from my collection An American Affair, a woman returns to the States with her Guatemalan husband but, after the troubling reception she receives from her family, wonders whether, in leaving Guatemala, she hasn’t left her true home.
I like to write stories about ostracized characters who know all too well how the world (mis)perceives them and use the prejudice they face to their advantage—if they can. For example, in “José del Río,” also from The River of Lost Voices, the mute title character is deemed an imbecile because he was “born dead.” But he’s more intelligent—and more successful in staying alive during his country’s era of violence—than any of the people he knows.
And I am not above riffing on themes made famous by other authors—Shakespeare, for instance—as I do in my novel Julia & Rodrigo, which is a Romeo-and-Juliet story set during the latter part of Guatemala’s thirty-six-year-long civil war (or la violencia, as it is sometimes called).
The stories in my collection The Incurables center on characters who struggle with mental illness. In the title story, a male porn star, impotent and plagued with herpes and guilt, quits the business and returns to his hometown. Unable to shake his depression, he decides to leap from a bridge. Intercepted by the town’s sheriff, he checks into the psychiatric unit of the local hospital, where he meets a bipolar woman who changes his life. I spoke about The Incurables, and my own struggles with mental illness, on the Diane Rehm radio show.
What influences and inspires you most?
I am a former Peace Corps volunteer, and I am inspired by people who strive to make the world a better, more just, and more inhabitable place: by my colleague Katy Ryan, who founded the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which sends books (18,000 of them thus far) free of charge to women and men imprisoned in six states in Appalachia; by Mike Tidwell, who founded the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is engaged in tireless and courageous work on issues of climate change; by Bernie Sanders, whose recent presidential campaign highlighted the need to protect our environment and to find long-lasting solutions to the democracy-endangering inequalities between the United States’ rich and poor.
What not-very-famous poet, fiction writer or artist should we check out?
Poets: Faith Shearin, Kim Addonizio, David Hassler, Erin Murphy, George Looney, James Harms, Shara McCallum, Geffrey Davis, Stephen Crane (yes, he isn’t only the author of The Red Badge of Courage—his poems are incredible).
Fiction writers: the list would be too long (and I would forget someone)!
Musicians: Brooke Annibale (an amazing singer-songwriter from Pittsburgh); essence (an amazing singer-songwriter from San Francisco whose first album, Mariposa, deserved much, much wider play); Silvia Gers (an amazing singer-songwriter from Buenos Aires).
Where else can we find your work?
One of the benefits of having the last name Brazaitis? It’s easy to find me (and my work published online) with a Google search. And there’s always online (and brick-and-mortar) bookstores.