Interview with Brian Morton, author of Breakable You
Brian Morton’s fourth and most recent novel, Breakable You, is a story about love, tragedy, and literary treachery. With perfect pitch and a rare empathy, he has crafted a moving story that portrays the life of the mind and how it plays out in the world, and brilliantly traces the border between honor and violation.
Q: In Breakable You, you explore how far a waning literary star will go to regain his fame. A Window Across the River, one of your previous novels, also features a novelist—though one who creates her characters by borrowing from the personalities and behaviors of her friends. What draws you to examine the line between literary license and literary treachery?
A: I don’t know if you can write about writers without writing about treachery. Joan Didion said it best: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Q: There are multiple points of view in Breakable You; some key scenes even depict the same event from a different character’s perspective. Why did you decide to tell each character’s story through his or her own eyes? How did you choose which scenes would benefit from multiple narrators?
A: The writers who've meant the most to me are those obsessed with the fact that each character is the center of a world. One of the things I love about Tolstoy, for example, is that he gets inside the mind of everybody and everything. If he writes about a foxhunt, he tells us what’s going on in the minds of the hunters—and then he tells us what’s going on in the minds of the horses, the dogs, and the fox. Exploring the way worlds collide—the way people see the same event in wildly different ways—might be the thing I find most fascinating in fiction.
Choosing which scenes to write through multiple narrators is more of an intuitive process than a rational one. I don’t want it to feel too patterned or planned. My other books came very slowly; this one kind of spilled out, and I didn’t want to overthink it—I just wanted to let it come.
Q: Re-examination of the past drives many aspects of Breakable You. What draws you to revisit the past of your characters even as you create a present and a future for them?
A: The different ways people come to terms with the past is probably the central theme in the novel—but it was one that I hardly was aware of when I was writing. I’ve always told my students that writers shouldn’t bother to look for themes—that their themes will come looking for them. So when I wrote Breakable You I was practicing what I preach.
Q: We’ve all heard the advice, “Write what you know.” Your books feature characters who are writers. How do you draw the line between your characters’ philosophies as authors and your own? How does examining the best and worst of a writer’s mind and soul affect your own creativity?
A: I write about writers all the time because I have no imagination. For a while I thought Adam was going to be a businessman, but I was so oppressed by the thought of doing research—you know, finding out about hedge funds—that I just gave up and made him a novelist.
Having said that, once I realize that I’m writing—yet again—about authors, I try to give them problems that are different from mine. I figure it’s the least I can do for them.
Q: In Breakable You, Maud is admired for her mind, and her mind is at its strongest when she’s contemplating philosophical theories. Are you a student of philosophy?
A: I don't read much philosophy. I usually can’t follow it that well. I was happy to find that Maud has more of a head for it than I do.
That Maud had to be a philosophy student became clear pretty early in the writing of the novel. I saw her as someone who’s always struggling with questions like “How should we live?” and “How should we treat one another?” And I saw her as someone who throws herself so fully into everything she does that I couldn’t imagine her choosing a career that didn’t involve thinking about those questions. I understood pretty quickly that she was a philosophy student and that she hoped to be able to wrestle with those questions in a classroom for the rest of her life.
Q: It can be a challenge to create a central character who is unwaveringly self-serving in his treatment of others while remaining immensely compelling to readers, but you’ve succeeded with Adam Weller. If you were to encounter Adam in real life, would you steer clear of him, or would you meet him for a cup of java and a chat?
A: First, thank you. I’m glad you think he was a successful character.
I enjoyed creating Adam because I'd never written about anyone like him before. Most of my characters have been preoccupied, perhaps absurdly so, with the ethical implications of their actions. So it was fun to write about someone who was unapologetically self-serving for a change.
But if I ever encountered Adam in real life, I'd run.
Q: When the characters in Breakable You suffer crises of self-confidence, they attempt to fix themselves through writing or through reading the words of great thinkers. What advice do you have for writers who struggle to remain confident in their literary endeavors?
A: I don't have advice for writers who struggle to remain confident in their literary endeavors because I've never found a way to remain confident in mine.
But I’m not sure “confidence” is a necessary quality for a writer. Some of the lousiest writers I know are very confident about the worth of their work. You keep going because you need to, whether you’re confident about your work or not.
I once heard a story about a theater critic who took a friend to a play on opening night. When the curtain went down, the friend asked the critic what he thought of the play. The critic said, “I don’t know yet. I have to go home and talk to my typewriter.” Writers are people who don't know what they think until they've gone home and talked to their typewriters. You keep going because you need to.