Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Kat Gardiner about writing 100 tiny stories, recreating a building from memory, the feeling of sunshine through a car window and why she doesn’t keep a journal.
There were so many memories to draw from, and it was far enough removed from my current life that it had already formed into fictional mythology inside my head.
I know you originally started this book by writing micro-fiction pieces every day. When did the story of the coffee shop take shape?
I knew I wanted to write a story a day for 100 days. It was always something I had wanted to do. I did some digging to see if 100 days of writing prompts existed in some fashion. There are a variety of these challenges in the visual arts realm, but I hadn’t heard of anything in the literary space. Turns out there wasn’t one — at least not one I could find.
Barring that route, I decided that it would be best to pick a theme for my own 100-day project, so as to keep the stories grounded and connected to each other. I brainstormed a few ideas, but the one I had about fictionalizing the experience of opening and closing The Backporch, the all-ages music venue and cafe my husband and I owned and operated out of the back of a record and book store in the small town of Anacortes, Washington. That was the idea that stuck.
There were so many memories to draw from, so many stories I wanted to tell, and it was far enough removed from my current life that it had already formed into fictional mythology inside my head. So much happened to us that year, and there was a real arch of personal growth — or growing up. Working for 80 hours a week for a year, non-stop, really taught me how to keep going when I thought I was done. It also lent the whole year a dreamlike quality of the sort I love to draw upon in my fiction.
Please compare writing to something truly physically exerting. A sport, a physical altercation, a conversation with conservative family members…
Full disclosure, I’m stealing my answer, in part, from an interview I heard with Colin Meloy where he compared writing a novel to carrying a large pile of stones from one end of a parking lot to another, piece by piece.
I would add to this by saying that, for me, it’s more like taking a brick from a beautiful building, carrying it a mile away, and trying to recreate the original building as best you can from memory, knowing that there is no way you could possibly get it right.
There’s a level of endurance, of pushing past the feels of hopelessness and endlessness, and also acceptance that you will never be able to ever create on the page what you envision in your mind.
Do you keep a journal or a notebook? Can you share a random page with us?
Unfortunately, I don’t. All the literary brainpower I have right now is funneled into my daily stories, and getting back into The Big Novel I was working on before I became a mother. Turns out, having a toddler, a day job and a book coming out takes a lot of time.
When I do find myself with a spare moment, I’m more likely to express myself artistically through photography — Polaroid and 35mm — and physically through fiber arts like knitting, or culinary arts such as baking, pickling and cooking. I’d be happy to share a mean pickle recipe, if you’d like.
I still remember waking up, head pressed against the cold glass, and seeing the Rockies towering above us. I thought they were close enough to touch.
Please tell me the first memories you have associated with these objects: coffee cup, mountain, cordless phone, yo-yo.
My mother drank terrible coffee growing up, with powdered non-dairy creamer stirred in. I loved the smell of it, though, and the way the liquid would change the color from ebony to a caramel brown when she stirred in the powder. She had this weird quasi-psychedelic ’70s coffee mug covered with cats that she used most everyday. I called it the Mom Mug, and recently, she’s bequeathed it to me. I now drink from it most every day.
I moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Seattle, Washington, when I was 8 years old. My father drove the U-Haul with my older brother, and my mother drove our navy blue Jeep Wrangler with me and our five cats. I still remember waking up, head pressed against the cold glass, and seeing the Rockies towering above us. I thought they were close enough to touch, but we wouldn’t be to the foothills until the next day. I was awestruck by the enormity of them, and how nothing in Oklahoma but the sky seemed nearly as giant.
My mother was 37 when she had me — which was very old compared to most people in Oklahoma having kids in the ’80s. She’s also a bit old-fashioned. Or at least reticent to technological advancements. Because of all these things, I grew up primarily with an arsenal of rotary phones. Black, beige, pale pink. After we moved to Seattle, it was like we had stepped into the future. We left those phones behind and got the unthinkable — touch-tone. It wasn’t until I went over to my shiny new suburban friend’s house that I saw a cordless. I was star-struck. The fact that you could take the phone with you anywhere. That it wouldn’t get tangled around you. That you could have the privacy to talk in your room without a physical outlet. It was like the epitome of freedom.
I don’t remember the first time, but I remember the best. In fifth grade, our school held a top-notch presentation of the yo-yo arts. After they performed their sparkling, hair-metal themed tricks for us, everyone in school immediately had to get a yo-yo of their own. The elementary school I went to at the time had a commissary we could by little 50¢ trinkets. The yo-yos went from being less popular than pick-up-sticks, to being sold out, and then on the recess black market for more money than most of us had. No one knew what they were doing with these things, though, so a month later, these once sacred objects were mostly litter around the garbage cans of the playground.
What was the last mixtape you made? Who was it for? What was on it? Also, this should be a physical tape.
The last physical tape was probably the one I made for my good friend Thomas Hughes right at the tail end of college. He had made me a summer mixtape the year before that riffed on the theme of “Heroes and Villains.” I repaid the favor with a winter one. I don’t think I was strict about the theme. The tape was mostly filled with songs I loved from back then.
At the time, I was really into pop music, and was also quite depressed. I can’t say for certain, but you’d probably find some combination of: Apples in Stereo, Broadcast, Mirah, Broken Social Scene, Dolly Parton, Olivia Tremor Control, Donovan, The Clientele, The Fruit Bats, Joanna Newsom, Quasi, AC Newman, The Marshmallow Coast, The Moldy Peaches, Sloan, The Starlight Mints, Songs: Ohia, Sparklehorse, Wolf Parade, The Constintines and The Zombies.
You have a child. She is adorable. What has she taught you about writing?
She’s definitely taught me to be less precious about the writing process. I used to need space and time and ritual to get into “the zone.” Now I’ll take five minutes here and ten there, whatever I can get. It’s not perfect, but perfection is rarely completed. Regarding writing itself, she’s taught me a new depth of love. Also — and I know this is an obvious one — what it means to be a mother. This has lent me more depth to storytelling, as it’s introduced me to another side of the story I didn’t know about before. I don’t think I can write mothers the same way again.
I remember the warmth of the sun coming in through the car window and landing on the back of my hand, and how it shadowed on the book’s cover.
What was the first feeling that coursed through you when you first held your book?
I remember the warmth of the sun coming in through the car window and landing on the back of my hand, and how it shadowed on the book’s cover. It’s not much, but I know it’s an image I’ll never forget.
Why should we read your book? When and how should we read it? What should we be eating and drinking while reading your book?
Read it if you want to remember what it’s like to jump off a ledge. Ideally, have a stack of records or tapes or albums in any form by your side. Play as you go, each album start to finish. Have the first album be a lifelong favorite you haven’t heard in a long time, the next, something you’ve never heard before, but have always been meaning to check out. Repeat as necessary until you finish the book.
Start the book with a cup of coffee and something made in slowest way possible, and finish the book with a whole bottle of wine.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Email
Transcribed by: Morgan Enos
Published: November 29, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 1473
Reading time: Five minutes
35mm, album, Anacortes, arch, Brenna Ehrlich, California, coffee, Colin Meloy, cooking, creamer, culinary, Detroit, dreamlike, endlessness, enormity, Father/Daughter Records, growth, hopelessness, Kat Gardiner, knitting, Michigan, mixtape, mountain, mug, novel, object, phone, pickling, Polaroid, powder, precious, psychedelic, record, recreation, removed, Rockies, sacred, Stillwater, suburban, sun, tape, toddler, touch-tone, trinket, warmth, Washington, window, wine, yo-yo
About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
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