A Life of Books with Brian Broome, author of Punch Me Up To the Gods

Brian Broome is a poet and screenwriter who lives in Pittsburgh where he is K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and instructor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been a finalist in The Moth storytelling competition and won the grand prize in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Writing Awards. He also won a VANN Award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation for journalism in 2019.

His debut memoir, Punch Me Up To the Gods came out earlier in 2021 and we corresponded via email so he could answer Debutiful’s reoccurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

When I was a child, we had a book of Grimm’s Faerie Tales. It was a large, hardcover volume that was old and worn. I loved it. I didn’t read the stories in order. For reasons I don’t understand to this day, I intentionally read them out of order. I would take them to a private spot and read one at a time. One story a day was all that I’d allow myself because I didn’t want to run out of them too soon. These were the versions of the stories without Disney spin. The stories that put the “grim” in Grimm. I think that reading that book was where I began to appreciate complicated endings that weren’t always happy. Most of the endings were quite sad, in fact. I loved the way I felt at the end of each tale. I knew that bad things could happen to good people and that protagonists didn’t always emerge victorious. My childhood wasn’t a happy one and the Brothers Grimm were there to keep me company with dark stories of the woebegone. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Children frighten me. Not because they are frightening in and of themselves. But because it feels to me that anything to which you expose a child could affect them for their entire lives. I never want to harm a kid. So I’d be very careful what I’d give to them to read.. But I do also think that children should read things that uplift. Especially Black children. Black children need books in their lives with Black heroes and Black characters of all kinds with storylines of their own. I think all children need more well-rounded characters from all backgrounds in what they read. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

Carrie by Stephen King. It wasn’t part of my school’s curriculum. In fact. I don’t remember my high school ever making us read full books. But I know that I read Carrie in high school. I remember my mother was reading it,and when she was done, I picked it up. I thought it was the dumbest premise in the world. I was unable to suspend disbelief in high school. I was the kid who would watch a horror movie and scream “That’s so fake!” during the gory scenes. But when I picked Carrie up as an adult, I found that there was so much more on the page than this girl with supernatural powers. And, in many ways, Carrie’s experience was a lot like mine in high school. We were both outsiders who wanted nothing more than to be popular and liked. We were both teased and we both craved revenge. When I was young, I was interested in proving that I was smarter than everybody else. Now that I’m older, I’m more interested in learning. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

I loved very little in my teens. I was that kind of teen. But I can tell you about a series of books that I loved then and still do today. The Pigman Series by Paul Zindel chronicles the experiences of two high schoolers and their bizarre friendship with a man named Mr. Pignati. There are three books. The Pigman, The Pigman’s Legacy, and The Pigman and Me. I devoured them. They were about fitting in and feeling lonely, which was something I could definitely relate to back then. They were also some of the first books I read with adult situations, and I felt mature reading them. These were the books that spoke to all of my adolescent angst. I still don’t feel like I fit in and I still feel lonely sometimes, which is why I continue to love these books to this day. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

I intentionally didn’t read anything while writing my book because of that age-old fear that I might accidentally steal from or be unduly influenced by another author’s work. But I can tell you that, while writing the book, I did have the opportunity to also write a screenplay. The screenplay was made into a short film and the director invited me down to the set to watch as they filmed. Seeing how the actors rehearsed, how the assistants moved set pieces in and out of frame, how the director of photography changed the lights, and how the makeup people powdered noses and reapplyed blush, inspired an entire chapter in Punch Me Up to the Gods. It was a scene from my life that felt produced and where I had to give a performance that I did not want to give. So visiting my very first film set changed that entire section. It was kind of a boon.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

I am currently reading Kiese Laymon’s Heavy and I am amazed with each turn of the page. I actually got the opportunity to tell him how envious I was. He laughed it off, but I was serious. It’s an incredible book. I try not to wish good books were mine. I much prefer seething with jealousy that they aren’t. 

What books helped get you through quarantining and social distancing during 2020?

I was writing my book during quarantine. I didn’t read during that time. So I guess the only honest answer is Punch Me Up to the Gods. The writing of it helped me to get through. There were days when the world just looked so dystopian and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then I would think, “Wait. I have a book to write.” With all that was going on, I’m grateful that my family, friends, and myself emerged relatively unscathed. And I’m grateful that I had the time to write a book.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Onward and upward. 

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