SHORT, SMART, FUN, BAFFLING: An Interview with Brian Allen Carr

SHORT, SMART, FUN, BAFFLING: An Interview with Brian Allen Carr

Let’s get to work. With Bad Foundations (Clash Books, 2024) Brian Allen Carr constructs a book populated by characters in a tight squeeze. Up in the crawlspaces, animals scrabble in rotation, stumbling across big bags of bloatation. This is employment designed to break your back and lead you to an early heart attack. Maintained as a hostage to fate, it’s time to “renovate or evacuate.” When life hits us like this, perhaps the sanest response is to hide in the walls.

 

Rebecca Gransden: Bad Foundations centers around the character of Cook, whose job involves the exploration of crawlspaces. What made you want to embrace this theme for the book?

Brian Allen Carr: A couple years ago, I left teaching in higher ed and took a case study writing job at an engineering school. It was a one-year, grant-funded appointment that wasn’t exactly as advertised. 

I was supposed to do immersive writing—embed myself with engineers and companies and report back with findings. Grounded theory or gonzo journalism stuff, but unfortunately it was a befuddled venture that didn’t really satiate my desire to do that kind of writing. 

When that gig wrapped up, I decided that I would just continue along the path on my own. 

I took jobs with the goal of writing about them. 

I went and sold phone book ads, but I couldn’t really get a handle on it. I taught high school a year and wrote Opioid, Indiana. Then I sold cars thinking I could write about that. I could sell cars well, but I couldn’t find a story I wanted to tell there. 

With Bad Foundations, I worked in the foundation-repair industry. No one has written a novel based in that world. I like writing about newfangled things. 

This book is basically my love letter to raconteurs. 

RG: A character named JP is referred to several times in the book, although only reported secondhand as he died in a crawlspace. This incident is spoken of with the quality of an urban legend. Was JP and his sad demise based on a real-life occurrence? 

BAC: JP is a completely true story. His name wasn’t JP. Juan Pablo Viallalobos is one of my favorite living writers, and so the name was sort of an homage to him. 

But, yeah, when I was a kid I met a boy whose father died in a crawlspace. 

A lot of this book is kind of autofiction. 

RG: Workplace dynamic is explored in Cook’s interactions with Darby, Kipler, and Cowboy Dan, and the common nicknames and camaraderie of that environment bring authenticity to their interplay. What was foremost in your mind when creating the world in which these characters exist?

BAC: It’s basically just a typical blue-collar workforce experience. I worked for a decade in higher ed, and there’s not much camaraderie there. Or, if there is, it’s comically political. 

For all the issues with meritocracy, at least it starts with well-articulated rules for advancement. 

In non-meritocratic spaces, advancement is based on assumptions and emotions. 

It’s like Robert Reich says: losers of rigged games get angry. So, most people in non-meritocratic spaces are angry.

When the only way to advance is to be liked, if you aren’t advancing, it’s because no one likes you. That’s worse, I’d say, than in meritocracies. 

If you are failing in a meritocracy, there are several reasons why that might be, but it’s usually performance-based, not identity-based. 

I’d rather suck at my job than just suck, TBH.

I guess the opposite of that is interesting, though. 

In non-meritocratic systems, if you are successful, it’s because “You” are successful. Not your approach. Not your performance. “You.”

In meritocracies, what you do is what makes you successful. I guess that’s less fulfilling than just being “Greatness.” 

RG: You incorporate text conversations and shifting POV into the structure of the book. How did you come to settle on the style choices for the novel?

BAC: My favorite novels use myriad narrative techniques. I suppose in some ways it was an homage to Moby Dick, using the different structures. Moby Dick is, of course, one of the best books about a weird job. 

RG: How long did Bad Foundations take to write? Do you associate it with a particular time of your life?

BAC: I worked for 2.5 years in the industry before I began “writing” the novel, and then the book took about six months to finish and place for publication. 

I was going to leave the industry recently, but I’m still doing foundation repair. It’s the best setup I can find right now. I get to be an agent of sustainability, I make more money than I did in higher education, and I feel like I have more time for writing and research. So, I suppose the book is about “now” for me.

RG: “Old smells have strange lives.” Some buildings exude their history in their scent. Have you experienced this in any of the places you’ve lived or visited? How did you approach the use of the senses for the novel?

BAC: Odors are uniquely peculiar, because, of all the senses, we know the least about smell. Some people think it has to do with vibrations. But it’s uncertain how we smell anything. 

My mother’s house always smelled like eucalyptus. Whenever I smell eucalyptus, I guess I think about my mom. 

Within the world of the book, most odors are bad ones. If you can really smell your house, there’s probably something wrong with your house. 

RG: Confined spaces are attractive when a kid. Did you have any small or secret spaces of your own as a child, and if so did that experience feed into the book?

BAC: I liked to sleep with my blanket over my head because I always worried about getting abducted by aliens. I would pretend that my blankets were impenetrable to aliens. I don’t know why I was so scared of aliens. 

RG: Have you ever experienced claustrophobia?

BAC: Not really. Even now, if my head can fit through an opening, I’ll go. Less than 12 inches of clearance is no fun no matter who you are. But I’ve slithered through some tight-ass shit. 

RG: In some ways, the houses Cook examines mirror the challenges he faces. The buildings are fighting against decay and dilapidation, the pressure of outside forces, struggling to stay upright and intact. Does the book set out to address wide social themes or is the scope of the novel on a more personal scale?

BAC: Everything moves toward disorder. It’s entropy. And, yes, I’d say that there is definitely a social component to the book. 

Mainly it is this: no one understands reality completely. We obviously see what we are looking for. And yet everyone acts like they know it all. They are miserable, and stymied, and inadequate, but they can fix you. 

It’s infuriating to watch my peer group become less intelligent and more certain as time winds on. It’s supposed to go the other way. The more reality you experience, the less certain you should be. 

Of course, most people these days experience a reality that they’ve filtered and curated. They have signal-boosted aspects of the world to themselves. Because of that, there is less likelihood to be shocked. 

Working in construction and being a father reminds you, every single day, that you can do everything the right way, and shit will fail. 

Sometimes bad decisions lead to good outcomes. Sometimes good decisions lead to bad outcomes. What you want is often bad for you, and what you need often feels and tastes fucking miserable. 

But that’s the point of aging: to learn again and again that the universe is a mysterious one that you are not in control of. 

At some point you have to take the computer off your lap, the phone out of your hand. Without that aegis, you are nude to reality. 

It’s like God said to Eve: Who told you you were naked? Well, the sun. The wind. The rain. My own feelings. My body told me my body was naked. 

Social media is to clothing as reality is to nudity. It’s what we all use to feel less what we’re feeling and more of what we want to feel. 

RG: Cook’s job is one typical of blue-collar employment, that of Sisyphean toil, physically demanding manual work, and the pressure to not get sick. How conscious were you of portraying this world accurately? 

BAC: Existence is Sisyphean toil. I live in a society that has fought over the same five things for the last 50 years. 

But it def seems like we now feel that the rock Sisyphus pushed is alive and well and doesn’t want to be moved. 

We have decided that we are foreign agents on the planet that birthed us. 

A bird’s nest, as far as we can tell, is nature. An automobile, as far as we can tell, is anti-nature. How? What is a honeycomb? What is a wasp’s nest? 

If every human being died, every human invention would be reduced back to dust and become part of nature again. It might take a long, long time. But there is nothing unnatural in the entire universe. 

There are items that are organized in a non-natural way. . . but even then. I am designed to need more than the world has designed for me. I have to make manipulations. I start with a hut. I build a fire. I cook something on accident. If I follow that line long enough, I come to an internal combustion engine. 

When did I get off the natural path? When did I become foreign to nature? 

Carpenter ants will murder trees. Where are they? A lion will eat a living creature: what has it done? 

RG: The book features a series of simple illustrations, some as if lifted straight from an instruction manual. How did their inclusion come about?

BAC: I think every book should have pictures in it. But I really wanted the book to have some breathing moments. 

I write a very specific kind of novel. Short. Smart. Fun. Baffling. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 

RG: The title, Bad Foundations, suggests a grand metaphor, but the book subtly undermines that. When writing it, did you have a clear intention or message you were aiming to convey?

BAC: Oh, there’s a metaphor, but it’s just not a heavy-handed one. Basically it is this:

There is always a problem. Sometimes we don’t know what the problem is. Sometimes fixing one problem causes another problem. Sometimes you accidentally fix the right thing. 

But, as Beckett says, “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.”

RG: You can dive as deep as you want into why wood is different. I have been in a crawl space where all the wood was from the same species, age, location, and had been treated, presumably, in the same manner. But of the 100 or so joists: four had mold on them. You sit in the crawl staring up at the affected joists and just say: “Shit’s baffling.” 

In many ways, Cook’s existence hinges on keeping score. Themes of chance, prediction, and belief recur throughout the novel. Could you elaborate on the role of speculation and faith in the book?

BAC: This is the theme of America. We are all just credit scores. Speculation and faith is how we buy nearly everything we own. 

We are all just the stories of our expenses, the stories of our earnings. And from this, in theory, we can extrapolate the future of our payments. 

A human is an algorithm. Reality is a program. The universe is information. Data, data, data. 

RG: Bad Foundations is set to be released by Clash Books. What attracted you to publish with them?

BAC: I mean, they’re doing badass work, and the big presses mostly aren’t. 

I dunno. 

I fucking hate almost everyone in this game. I feel miserable around most of the private school, literati people. That’s how I think of them: private school literati people. 

I wish I liked horror more. I just don’t. I only want to play in the literature sandbox. It’s the only book world I want to fuck with. But there’s a catch, and the catch is my feelings. 

I feel undereducated, though I have an MFA. I feel unaccomplished, but I’ve sold a decent amount of books and won awards and had a story turned into a movie. I guess I have imposter syndrome. When I’m around big-press people, I feel like I’m wearing clothes I made myself. Like I woke up in a hollowed out tree and wandered earth stained into a tea party. 

I feel good around Clash, though. Hopefully we can get something good cooking. It’s a tricky world though. It’s like RXK Nephew says:

Them people gonna keep makin’ up shit

Tryna keep you in the same grade

RG: As you reflect on the book, what is your feeling toward it now? Do you have any hopes or expectations for it?

BAC: It’s the exact book that I wanted to write. That is literally as much control as any of us have over the process. 

I expect it will do okay, and that in three years we’ll start seeing more books like it but with female protagonists written by upper class people and those books will get National Book Awards and such. But by then I’ll be onto the next thing, though it’ll be what I do. I write a very specific kind of novel. Short. Smart. Fun. Baffling. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.


Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Burning House Press, Muskeg, Ligeia, and Silent Auctions, among others. Her books are anemogram., Rusticles, and Sea of Glass.

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