Renée Branum’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Narrative Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, Brevity, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. She was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Prose Fellowship in 2020 and is currently pursuing a PhD in Fiction in Cincinnati.
We asked her to answer our recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
One of the books that springs to mind as hugely influential on my development as a writer was A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. When I was growing up, it was a family tradition to read this book (and watch the BBC film adaptation starring Denholm Elliott) every year at Christmastime, and Thomas’ work really demonstrated the power of language for me even at a relatively young age. The book’s story is largely plotless; rather, it consists of a series of vignette-style memories of Christmases from the narrator’s childhood, written in extremely evocative, sensory prose. The sharpness and vividness of the lyrical writing served as an invitation to inhabit the narrator’s experiences, and it was such a fun book to read out loud, to experience the language as a form of play that also works to conjure memory and magic.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
If I had children of my own, I would certainly want to expose them to many of the magical reading experiences from my childhood, but I would also encourage them to seek out books on their own that speak to their unique set of interests. I think an important aspect of reading for children is that it’s a shared activity. Growing up, my parents read a lot of children’s classics out loud to my sister and I (Peter Pan, Dr. Dolittle, Heidi, and The Chronicles of Narnia for example), but even when I got a little bit older, my sister and I used to read books out loud to each other on camping trips (the Dear America books, Cynthia Voigt’s novels, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle to name a few). Although I also did a lot of reading just on my own back then, I loved seeing books as experiences that could be shared, seeing the stories as spaces we could inhabit together.
A couple of years ago, I worked part-time tutoring children in reading and study skills. A third-grader and I were reading the first Harry Potter book out loud and working on his reading comprehension together. At one point, he stopped reading, set the book down, looked at me intently, and asked, “Wait. Where does magic exist? In which dimension?” This nearly blew my mind. I was so smitten with the idea that, for this little boy, magic was real, and it represented a place that, though removed from us, was no less concrete. This is exactly the sort of moment that shared reading experiences invite – turning stories into conversations that are active, that both parent (or adult) and child can learn from.
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?
This is a difficult question for me to answer, because I was a sponge in high school and pretty happily read any book that was placed in front of me. One of the books I found myself struggling to connect with in high school was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but I reread it recently for a graduate literature class (“The History of the Novel”), and still found it difficult to like – just as dense and moralistic a read as it was when I was fifteen (although I remember, back then, having a pretty good time watching the absurd film adaptation starring Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duvall with my fellow students – which I highly recommend for those lovers of any movie that’s “so bad it’s good”).
One book that I didn’t necessarily “skip” but that just didn’t cross my path when I was a high schooler was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which I’m sure I would’ve adored had I read it at age sixteen. I definitely still loved this book when I read it as an adult (all in one sitting on a rainy winter day when I was twenty-three), but the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking of my high school self. I think that Esther Greenwood’s experience of the discrepancy between what society is telling her she’s “supposed to feel” as a young woman and what she actually feels would’ve been extremely validating for me at that young age, especially as many of the popular literary models for “teen angst” (like Catcher in the Rye) focus on male protagonists and don’t really delve into the nitty-gritty grapplings with suicide and mental illness that The Bell Jar does.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
If you’d asked me in high school what my favorite book was, I would’ve told you it was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The first time I read Crime and Punishment, I was in our high school production of Grease: The Musical, and one of the principal actors had left a copy of the novel in the green room backstage. I sat on the floor with my felt poodle skirt pooling around me, and I was completely hooked. I could hear from the stage “Stranded at the Drive-In” and “There are Worse Things I Could Do,” and I marked time in how many pages I could get through between songs, before I’d be summoned to the stage for a group number. And the whole time I was on stage, I just wanted to get back to the story of Raskolnikov’s murder and what follows. I reread Crime and Punishment recently, and although there’s a lot I still admire about Dostoevsky’s storytelling, I definitely didn’t connect with it as deeply as I did when wearing my poodle skirt.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
While working on my novel, I kept revisiting books that, much like Defenestrate, closely explore a single theme or subject matter and meditate on that theme through a number of lenses. Books like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, or more recently Heather Christle’s The Crying Book to name just a few. In all these books, the author conducts research on a topic or theme using science, culture, art, history and her own personal experience to explore the subject matter. Although Defenestrate is fictional, it contains a lot of facts, true stories, and researched material that all explore the idea of falling, and so I felt that these books served as useful models for curating and arranging information and incorporating it with an overarching narrative.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
So many. Pretty much anything by Alice Munro. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. More recently: Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous.
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
I just finished reading Elissa Washuta’s braided essay collection White Magic, and I was blown away by how deftly she weaves together themes of magic and personal heartbreak with depictions of Native American myth and ritual or cultural touchstones like the Pokemon Go app or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This struck me as very smart and soulful writing.
As far as planned reading goes, a friend of mine recently let me know that Dana Stevens’ book on Buster Keaton is coming out the same day as my novel (January 25, 2022). This is a wonderful coincidence since my novel includes a lot of material about Keaton’s life and work, and I can’t wait to read Stevens’ biography of my favorite silent film comedian, which is called Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Lightning, lies, lineage.