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‘Getting Cancelled Means You Are Permanently Working Class’: Elizabeth Ellen Interviews Brian Allen Carr photo

Brian Allen Carr has a new novel called Opioid, Indiana. That’s a great fucking title, even if saying so out loud makes me feel a little like a dick. Sometimes I feel like my hometown could be renamed Opioid, Ohio, and that sucks, and I feel a little like a dick saying that, too.

 Sometimes Brian Allen Carr says shit that makes him sound like a dick. But what I love about BAC is his lack of pretense, his recklessness, his intelligence, and his independence. And if you don’t sound like a dick sometimes, you’re probably living your life in fear. And I probably don’t care about your book because it’s probably boring. You’re probably boring.

I was listening to Penn Jillette on the Joe Rogan podcast a week or so ago, and Penn was saying, “I have a fascination and a respect and an affection for people who are able to get out of their filters.” He then quoted Thelonious Monk as saying, “A genius is the one most like himself.”

I’ve always been drawn to people like this, too: badasses who don’t have filters and get in trouble for refusing to be someone or something they’re not. Frances Farmer, Lenny Bruce, Kanye West, Courtney Love, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patricia Highsmith, Dave Chappelle, Jane Fonda, Yoko Ono, Charles Bukowski, Ottessa Moshfegh, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bret Easton Ellis, Nico Walker, Kiese Laymon … you know the people I mean.

I think Brian Allen Carr is one of those people. And Opioid, Indiana isn’t boring. And usually the person who occasionally sounds like a dick – because of their lack of filter and lack of regard for convention, is the least dickish person around. It’s the people who never say anything wrong you gotta watch out for. Don’t trust those people. Run.

                                     -e.e.

 

e.e.: Why did you decide to make the protagonist of Opioid, Indiana, Riggle, a 17-year-old boy rather than an adult? Did you always envision this book narrated by a teenager? How different is he from you at the same age? And how similar?

BAC: I taught high school for a year, and I was super impressed by how my students handled the unraveling world around them.

I didn’t like teaching high school. I like the students and my co-workers, but I don’t know how to teach people in this world.

What can be said?

Do your work or. . .

Or what?

You won’t have a vital role in this shitshow?

My kids would look up school shootings every day. And then it’d be like, let’s practice what happens if someone comes to shoot us.

And these kids, some of them had super traumatic lives.

Does anyone feel good about anything?

Does anyone think anything that anyone is doing is helping or working?

Kids, though, they just kinda go along with life. They’re troopers as fuck.

 

e.e.: How personal is this book for you? I remember reading your essay on The Rumpus in 2012, which deals with your brother’s death. He died in a car, that caught on fire, much like Riggle’s father dies in a truck, that catches on fire. Were you conscious of the similarities when writing it? Was this book at all a catharsis? To write?

BAC: There’s a ton of personal stuff in this couched in the life of a someone-other-than-me.

I recently moved from the Texas/Mexico border to Indiana.

My best friend on the border is a poet named Erika.

Bennet is kinda based on Tom Williams, because our relationship is so heavily based through our phones, but I do consider him one of my best friends ever.

But it’s not me. I pulled a lot from my life so that I could write it fast, because I wanted to right a very timely book.

I pulled the voice and behaviors from current 17-year-old boys, and with that voice, I delivered experiences from my life told from a different vantage.

I went to see Black Panther on the exact same day that Riggle went to see Black Panther. I thought the movie sucked, and Riggle liked it.

We have plenty of differences, he and I.

 

e.e.: I recently read Amanda Goldblatt’s novel Hard Mouth which is about a young woman dealing with her father’s inoperable cancer. In that book, like in yours, there is an imaginary friend of sorts. Her imaginary friend is Gene, based on a character actor from the 1930s, Eugene Pallett, who pops in every now and then to give the narrator, Denny, pep talks and to advise and amuse her. In Opioid, Indiana, the imaginary friend is Remote, a shadow puppet Riggle’s mother creates for him before she dies. Remote knows stuff. “Remote knew everything.” Are both these ‘imaginary friends’ stand ins for God, do you think? If we didn’t have a God we’d invent one, sort of necessity? Both Denny, of Hard Mouth, and Riggle, of Opioid, Indiana are only children facing death, alone, also…

BAC: I think many people believe we invented God for that reason, yeah. I think that there is a God, and that humans have to understand their God in whatever way they can.

In recovery, there is an idea of a “god of our own understanding.” There is an idea that a higher power is a construct that can be shared.

There are no atheists in a foxhole, as the saying goes, and I think no matter the substance or character, people cling to things that make them feel comfort. Babies do this with blankets.

Riggle is clinging to a memory that springs from the memories of his mother.

I’ll have to check out Hard Mouth.

 

e.e.: I remember one of the first “academic questions” I ever got re my writing was about place. A new friend who was a professor of creative writing asked me how much I thought my writing had to do with place, with where I was from. I’d never thought about it before. I was pretty clueless then. I thought place had nothing to do with my writing. I was very naïve. Also, I was stubborn. I didn’t want any of my friend’s ‘academic bullshit’ – as I saw his questions/observations then – to hold any truths. I also didn’t want to analyze my own writing, or anyone else’s, lest the magic be killed. But of course ‘place’ is an important part of my writing. Place seems to be a major influence on Opioid, Indiana, both of Texas, where Riggle lived until recently, and of Indiana, where he is living when the book opens. You, like Riggle, have lived both in Texas and, most recently, in Indiana. Now I’m going to be really lame and ask you the question I found annoying fifteen years ago when my friend asked it of me: How much does place play a part in your writing? And how much does it play a part in Riggle’s world?

BAC: Place is subjective. Because of that, no writing is about place. It’s about how one might experience a place. But how one experiences anything is contingent upon several factors. There could be a kid from the same town as Riggle who might call the place Miracle, Indiana.

We spend a lot of time talking about race and class and geography in our society, and how those factors affect people.

Perhaps a better way to consider a person is whether or not they come from a happy home. There is a major distinction between those who were raised happy and those who were raised miserable.

Riggle was raised miserable. So he sees misery in the world.

But because he was raised miserable, he understands that misery is natural.

The idea that youth should be untainted is new as fuck.

Kids used to go to war all the time.

Kids used to have jobs and shit.

American youth--school and shit--that’s like 100 years old. Most people’s great-great-great grandparents didn’t go to high school.

We are so quick to believe that things should be certain ways.

I remember how my mom used to tease my grandmother because she didn’t like to throw things away. “You’re just depression era,” she’d say. And a whole generation blamed that on why it was okay for them to throw away Parkay containers.

But my mother’s generation was the first generation to use plastic grocery bags, buy plastic Coke bottles.

We didn’t used to throw shit away, because there used to not be shit to throw away.

There ain’t no fucking depression era about it.

So, I don’t know. Place is time as much as it is location. My grandmother and mom lived in the same place. They perceived it differently. Just as I’ll perceive a place differently than my children.

And now we’re building new realities that don’t physically exist at all, but you can set a whole novel on the internet.

 

e.e.: Now I’m going to be really lame a second time and ask you the same question you asked me a couple years ago, because I’m curious your own answer to your own question:

            “I pursued the arts world because I didn't always understand mainstream rules. This is not some newfangled thing. Humans escape into the worlds that best welcome them. Do you feel like writing is an escape?” 

BAC: Writing, for me, is a way to make sense of the world around me.

When I was younger, if you had a hard time following rules, you became an artist.

Now, if you have a hard time following rules, you become an entrepreneur.

People in the literary world follow rules the most.

 

e.e.: But also, do you think ‘the arts world’ has different rules from the mainstream? And if so, what are they?  I was wondering if at one time you thought the arts world didn’t have rules…. Do you think that was ever true?

My personal feeling is that the arts world used to believe it didn’t have rules, even if, of course, it did, but now, it seems, the mainstream rules and the arts world rules are pretty much one and the same. Do you agree? And what sort of effect do you think this has on art and artists? On someone like you who said you pursued the arts world because you didn’t understand mainstream rules? Can writing still be an escape? If the mainstream rules have followed us into the arts world?

BAC: I believe that as competition increases, personal liberties decrease. Like, right, we “cancel” people now.

But getting cancelled just means you are permanently working class.

That’s how fucked up our society is.

If you don’t follow all the rules, you shouldn’t be popular enough to have an easy job and a nice house.

Cool.

 

e.e.: In the Kirkus review of Opioid, Indiana, the reviewer makes the comment: “racism empowered by the president of the united states.” I assume they are referring to the Bicycling Confederate, a man with a confederate flag attached to his bicycle. I hate to burst anyone’s political bubble, but I’ve seen the confederate flag* on trucks and in bedroom windows in my very small Ohio hometown since I was a kid, through all the presidents’ terms since Carter. It’s nothing new. It’s not new to this administration, I mean. Also, on Netgalley, they wrote, “With empathy and insight, Carr explores what it’s like to be a high school kid in the age of Trump – a time of economic inequality, addiction, Confederate flags, and mass shootings.” Ummm, it’s been like this in small, Midwestern towns long before Trump became president. Midwestern towns like the one I grew up in have been dying for decades. People in my hometown have been losing their secure GM jobs and turning to opioids/OD’ing for fifteen years at least, probably more like twenty (when I remember people we knew first getting laid off and dying from opioid overdoses, in the early 2000s).  Economic inequality, addiction, Confederate flags and mass shootings existed all eight years of the Obama administration, too. And before him, with Bush Jr. These problems go way deeper than one man or one administration. Your book could have been set anytime in the last 15-20 years. Aside from the vaping, nothing seemed specific to the last three years. How do you feel about book reviewers using your book as a political tool? Or to make political statements? Do you see it as such? I guess you moved to Indiana after the most recent election so maybe you only have experience there during the Trump administration?

     *not a lot. Very few. But they’ve been around. And I don’t see any more, and probably less, now than any other year or presidential term.

BAC: I got with my wife like 14 years ago, and I’ve been coming to Indiana ever since, and ever since I’ve been seeing Confederate flags up here.

Racism is super old.

But if it makes people feel better to pin it on Trump, that’s fine, but just remember that he’s a New Yorker, and that really what he’s cashing in on is the disparity established by the fact that he’s a New Yorker.

If he had been a loud mothed real estate mogul from any other town, no one would even know his fucking name.

Way to go, District One.

 

e.e.: I also know that prejudice and racism are not unique to rural America, and are the result of isolation and segregation, of creating different economic classes and races and countries. You write early in Opioid, Indiana of the similarities between Mexican-Americans in Texas and small town people in Indiana, “Honestly, in some ways these Hoosiers are just Mexicans with white skin. They love cars and America and guns and the military, and that’s just like Mexicans. And both old whites and old Mexicans are racists, too.” And you have an elderly Mexican-American man in Texas make the remark, “Just makes me mad we had a monkey before a Mexican,” referring to Obama being president. I see signs in yards here (a very liberal university town) that say, “Hate has no home here,” but I don’t believe them. I think if you asked, the people in the houses with the signs in their yards would say they hate rural Americans. Or Americans they believe – rightly or wrongly – voted for Trump. Or they wouldn’t want to talk to them. Or they fear them. All of which is the same thing. Pretty much. Do you think the divide is getting worse, as people say? Do you think we focus on something like Trump because it’s easier to hate one man than to think about complex problems that are decades in the making like the opioid crisis and economic inequality, the loss of factory jobs in rural America, etc., and will probably take decades to ‘fix’?

BAC: I wish I knew. The world at large confuses me.

In some ways, we’re progressing; in some ways, we’re skating backwards.

I think the wealthy are enjoying themselves, and everyone else is freaking the fuck out. And the powerful trick us with race stuff so we don’t start killing the rich.

Like, that’s what’s going on right now.

We should be killing rich people, and instead we’re like mad at stupid poor people because they’re stupid and poor.

 

e.e.: In a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy are talking, reminiscing about ‘the old days’, back when they were both coming up, at the same time, in the comedy world. Much of what they said/talked about reminded me of how I felt, how it was with my friends and me, coming up in the literary world, fifteen plus years ago. I specifically related to this part of the conversation, about when money comes into the picture, when you mix money with art (be it comedy or writing or music or whatever):

 

Eddie: Then it started feeling more like work.

 

Jerry: Well, because the money gets bigger, and the fun gets smaller. That’s the problem. Comedy and money, to me, are antithetical … When you add money to a project, you are tampering with the comedy. ‘Cuz all of a sudden, we’re building big things, taking time, taking the fun out of it.

 

Eddie: … and with a little pressure.

 

Jerry: Yeah. Little pressure. Little cheap. Little sloppy.

 

How do you feel about the mixing of art and money, of financial success affecting one’s art? Now that you have an agent, a larger press, etc? do you try to view each new project/book without thinking of money or publishing, or do you consciously give in to the fact you want to be ‘successful’ and so try to write something that will ‘sell’ or land a larger publisher? Also, is the literary world less fun now just to us, because we’re older and more serious about our writing, or is it less fun because the world in general is less fun?

BAC: I don’t worry about my books. I write those how I want to.

My agent and press have been very supportive. Bill and Simon and Bronwen and Mark and Paul and Steven and Rachel and Monica and Amara and Alexa and Rudy and everyone at the Clegg Agency and Soho who I’ve worked with are amazing.

But I don’t feel like I can be on social media or do much essay writing.

Because I offend people.

I haven’t liked the literary world since Word Press and HTMLGiant went away.

 

e.e.: Pgs. 134 and 135 – I highlighted almost everything on both of them. But I wanted to pick just a couple lines to talk about so I picked these:

“If you’re either one of those – if you’re miserable – you don’t know what will fix it. You go back and forth forever. Wanting a thing. Pursuing a thing. Getting a thing. Not wanting it. And you start all over again.”

I can really relate to that, in a way that makes me uncomfortable, which is what, in my opinion, good art should do: make you a little itchy, with relatability. I’m assuming you relate to those lines, also, or you couldn’t have written them. Care to say anymore? About any personal experience, about how you relate to them? About misery in general or specifically?

BAC: I recently quit teaching college and moved across the country because my wife wanted to move home, and now I sell cars.

I love my job. I get to work with these great folks, and most of them are positively in love with language. They love how a small statement can change the momentum of a conversation.

But it nearly destroyed me. I had spent a lot of time and energy getting to the point where I could teach writing, and I let it go for the sake of my family. And I had to change my identity. I’m not the same as I was before. And I’ll probably never be a full-time college professor ever again.

Most of life is making hard decisions though, I guess.

 

e.e.: Riggle talks about studying various philosophers throughout the book. Toward the end he says he’s reading about Epicurus, and compares him to Drake. He says Epicurus tells us we are chasing the wrong things to be happy, namely: sex, money, luxury. Riggle says Epicurus says, instead, we should be focusing on friends, work you like, time to think. He compares Epicurus’s advice to Drake’s song “Successful”, in which Trey Songz sings about wanting cars and clothes and hoes. But he (Trey Songz) adds an ‘I suppose’ to the end of the list, which makes me think he and Drake realize the (ultimate) emptiness of those wishes. And I think when you listen, again, to “Successful,” Drake may be realizing the same shit Epicurus is talking about. And maybe sex and money and luxury aren’t really any different than friends and work you like and time to think. Maybe they’re the same thing: Sex is friends and money is work you like and luxury is time to think. Maybe, what I’m saying is, Drake is the modern day Epicurus. Or maybe it all ties back to the question before this one: you chase something you think you want and then you get it and you don’t want it. Maybe nothing makes us happy. Because happiness is unsustainable. Over time. It’s all just a circle of misery and happiness. And Successful doesn’t exist. I suppose … I don’t know, this is less a question than a longwinded, out-loud thought. What do you think? Haha.

BAC: Dooooooooood, Drake should write a philosophy book!

 

e.e.: I’m curious if, in talking pretty honestly about race and gender and class, you had any pushback from your agent or publisher or editor, if you were asked to remove sentences or phrases, to censor any of the manuscript? Or if you were allowed your artistic freedom, in publishing Opioid, Indiana?

BAC: None at all. I think there was like one line that we cut about how it’s weird how the n-word is in almost every rap song and that we still get mad at white people for saying the n-word.

 

e.e.: Finally, what do you think happens to Riggle after the book ends? After he turns eighteen, and becomes an adult, on his own, in this world? Will he move back to Texas? Stay in Indiana? Opioid, Indiana? Will he end up doing drugs? Or will he escape his past? What are his odds? Of being “Successful”? and does he even want to be?

BAC: I don’t know.

Probably he’ll just stay where he’s at. Do his thing.

Yeah, I don’t know.

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