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SunLit Interviews

How a poet who always wanted to write about corn detasseling became a novelist

Author Brandi Homan dug into her Iowa roots for BURN FORTUNE, but also did extensive research on film star Jean Seberg, who hails from the same town

Author Brandi Homan.

Brandi Homan is the author of the novel BURN FORTUNE (CLASH Books, 2019) and two books of poetry, ”Hard Reds” (2008) and ”Bobcat Country” (2010), from Shearsman Books. She holds a PhD in English, Creative Writing (Fiction), from the University of Denver and an MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago. With her husband and children, she lives in the suburbs of Denver.

The following is an interview with Brandi Homan.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

Oh boy. I’d been wanting to write about detasseling corn for years and years. Detasseling is something that teenagers in Iowa, where I grew up, do to earn money during the summer. We’d meet at a gas station parking lot around 6:00 a.m., pile in the back of a van with the bench seats ripped out, and drive to the cornfields, where we’d walk down the rows picking the tassels from the tops of the four-to-six-foot-high plants until around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, when the heat became unbearable. Then we’d go swimming at a nearby lake. 

Not many people outside of the midwest and/or farming communities know what detasseling is, and it was a very formative experience for me—it’s a big part of my identity. I started my writing career as a poet, but for whatever reason, the detasseling background hadn’t made it into my poems, so when I began writing fiction, detasseling seemed like a logical place to start.

I’ve also always been particularly interested in writing the lives of women and girls and the ways that their lives differ from those of men and boys. I can’t help it. I grew up watching how different my mom’s life was from my dad’s, how the mothers of my friends had radically different lives than my friends’ fathers. It all seemed too much to be a coincidence, even when I couldn’t articulate how those differences were connected. So my protagonist, June, needed a young adult voice that was just coming into awareness of these differences.

While I was drafting early versions of the book, I had a fortune from a fortune cookie on my refrigerator: Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. It took me a little too long to realize that the fortune wasn’t necessarily a positive thing! But this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t phrase seemed so connected to my own life, the lives of the women I grew up around, and the lives of the women who surrounded me whose stories needed telling. Whatever we do, we burn somehow.

My CLASH Books pressmate Lindsay Lerman (“I’m From Nowhere”) says it this way: “Is it possible for a woman to reclaim her life without succumbing to suicide or submission?” 

Unfortunately, the answer often still feels like no.

It only seemed right to interweave the lives of Jean Seberg and Joan of Arc into these ideas, although their inclusion didn’t come until much later in the process. Seberg actually is from my hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, but I didn’t become interested in her life until long after I left, and then I thought about her off and on for years. Jean was fascinating; I haven’t yet seen the “Seberg” film but am dying to. She was chosen as a teenager from among thousands to star in Otto Preminger’s film “Saint Joan” (based on the George Bernard Shaw play of the same name), which tanked horribly. She then went on to become one of the stars of cinema’s French New Wave with her role in Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” and later she was targeted by Hoover’s FBI for her association with the Black Panthers. She is an inspiring and tragic figure, and as I became interested in her life and work, my protagonist June did too. 

BURN FOTUNE by Brand Homan.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

This excerpt is the very beginning of the novel. I selected it because, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, it’s the part of the book that I’m the most confident in.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

A lot of BURN FORTUNE was composed in the English doctoral program at the University of Denver, written with guidance from the novelists Selah Saterstrom (“The Meat & Spirit Plan”; “The Pink Institution”) and Laird Hunt (“The Evening Road”; “Neverhome”). I think you can find their influences everywhere in the book. 

A lot of research was also involved. There are a couple of Jean Seberg biographies available from Garry McGee and David Richards that I read, and of course I watched Seberg’s films and any of her available interview footage. Because of Jean’s role in “Saint Joan,” I read a lot of Joan of Arc biographies also. Reading biographies makes me happy.

In addition, I watched certain of Seberg’s films over and over, taking pictures of the screen every minute or so. Some of the material in the text is actually “found material”—quotes that appear elsewhere and are repurposed in the novel.

My husband likes to tease me about reading too many books about writing, and working on BURN FORTUNE was no different. I read Steven King’s “On Writing” for maybe the third or fourth time, plus James Scott Bell’s “Plot & Structure” and Kim Addonizio’s “Ordinary Genius”; I read books by James Wood, Hélène Cixous, and the screenwriter Syd Field. I’ll read just about anything that people have to say about writing. 

I don’t think I traveled anywhere, but I had gone back to Marshalltown in Iowa several years before I moved to Denver. There, I took pictures of local landmarks and other places I wanted to remember, some of which made it into BURN FORTUNE. This was before Jean Seberg was truly a part of the story, however, so unfortunately I didn’t visit the local movie theater (The Orpheum), which collects materials about Jean’s life. I kick myself a little about that one. The theater also sponsors the Jean Seberg Festival of the Arts, which I would love to attend.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

Because I started out as a poet, I really struggled with chronology and cause and effect, which I still do. It doesn’t help that chronology is less important to me than other writers.

Also, writing can be painful, and the things that I like about my writing make it difficult to compose longer work. I joke that the biggest criticism of my writing is always “Use more words,” but doing so is hard for me. I’m constantly criticizing and editing in my head (plenty of writers do this, I know) as I try to get anything down. I’m so jealous of writers who overwrite (and who, in my mind, do so easily) and then can edit down. I’m learning to write this way, but typically whatever I write is way too short and then has to be painstakingly fleshed out. Actually, for me, the whole process of writing fiction is so incredibly different from writing poetry that getting this novel on the page was very challenging. Not to mention that I was also working on my doctorate, getting married, having my first child, and etc. It was an exciting time, to say the least.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

I love this question; thank you for asking! I was getting ready to say that my writing process changes all the time; for example, right now, I’m mostly typing one-handed to revise my novel while holding my four-month-old. But then I realized that ultimately, my writing process is the same as it’s always been—just pen and paper. An obsessive notebook-keeper, I write everything out longhand first and then type it up later to revise. I’m very cranky about what types of pens and notebooks I use now (black Pilot V7s and Leuchtturm notebooks size A5), but pen and paper are still where I go, where I live, how I exist in the world. 

Oh and I can write anywhere. I prefer crowded coffee houses, the floor of the airport, or the notebook on my knees in the middle of our conversation. I have no shame when it comes to writing.

What’s your next project?

I’m currently on my third revision of a more traditional literary novel, KANSUS, which investigates the normalization of racial and religious hatred. In KANSUS, 20-year-old Dolly Shook is a socially inept, isolated postal carrier rendered silent by years of abuse from her alcoholic parents. Along her mail route, she meets Glennis, a mother figure who gets Dolly involved in a women’s group that functions as a hate group. Desperate to be accepted, Dolly performs increasingly disturbing tasks that culminate in a disaster that is devastating to herself and the few folks to whom she is connected, however fraught those connections are.

— Buy BURN FORTUNE at BookBar.
— Read an excerpt from BURN FORTUNE.

Rising Sun