A Conversation with Brian DeLeeuw

By Kimbel Westerson

When we reach Brian DeLeeuw to discuss his book, In This Way I Was Saved (Simon & Schuster), he is finding a place to hide to stay away from the Yankees victory parade in Manhattan.  He is a long-suffering Mets fan, which is bad enough, but he’s also a devoted Jets fan, which lends a whole new level to fan pain.

Brian DeLeeuw’s In This Way I Was Saved is his first novel, an inventive melding of the coming of age novel and thriller.  From the beginning, Luke and his imaginary friend Daniel are bound to each other, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, until the ultimate action on Daniel’s part puts both of them in danger.  It’s a provocative story that presents the dilemmas of family love and its limitations, the boundaries between creativity and insanity, reality and fantasy. 

Is the mental illness factor in the story merely an invention, or has a friend/loved one experienced this struggle?  Why was the supernatural/psychological fascinating to you in the first place?
I guess mental illness hasn’t touched my life directly. I’ve certainly known people who have been diagnosed with depression, but I don’t have experience dealing with someone who’s bipolar like Claire.  I didn’t want it to be too defined, but I guess it could be said that Luke has elements of paranoid schizophrenia.  It wasn’t something that came into my life and I had to use a way to work it out.  It was more about the imaginary friend that had to assert himself over and over again and was refusing to be cast aside.  That would be understood in our world as mental illness.  That side of it came out of the plot, the more gothic idea.  I wanted to get it (the mental illness element) right, though, so I researched it.
One way I tried to keep that is after the fall, Luke is still alive, even though he is severely injured.  If he was dead, it would close off the psychological reading.  This comes more from movies than books, especially horror movies – this idea that you reach the resolution and then there’s this little coda where you realize this is going to keep happening.  In the movies, that plot point is there to set up potential sequels.  This evil is going to reoccur.  … I’m writing a second book that’s totally unrelated.

I’ve seen In This Way I Was Saved referred to as many things – a coming of age novel, a mystery, a thriller.  How do you see the book?  What was the intention?
I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of genre, necessarily. I wanted there to be two types of book in one – really fast moving on the surface that people read in a day or two.  But I also wanted it to be the kind of book when you finish, it doesn’t leave your mind quickly.  … The idea was to do both and have a sort of suspenseful plot but have these issues underneath.  That was an intentional goal.  I was aware that were gothic elements to it and I’m a fan of those kinds of books.  That was intentional.  I’ve read lots of gothic novels and more contemporary literary thrillers, so I knew it was going to fall into that category.

Had you written a novel before?  What was the process like for you, and how long did it take you to finish the manuscript?
No, I hadn’t written a novel before.  It took about pretty much two years to write it and the first year of writing the book was my second year of graduate school, in that school year.  Really quickly.  It was kind of a mess, but it was the foundation and then when I graduated I spent pretty much exactly a year, so two years of writing and then nine months of some editing with an editor at Simon & Schuster.  Total time was a little under three years.

You’re working on a second book.  Can you speak about that?
I don’t want to talk about it too much yet, it’s too early.  I will stay that the style of the writing on a sentence level and style, is similar but the subject is different.  It’s not taking its cues from the gothic style at all.  I keep trying to force myself to write something less grim, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.  I feel like in this book a lot of things changed, and I don’t want to say anything concrete.  It could change.

You are also an assistant editor at Tin House.  Has this affected your writing?
No.  Not really.  I mean, reading clearly affects your writing.  I think that especially when you’re younger, one of the best things to affect your writing is to read constantly and read good stuff.  Editing is another part of your brain and you can keep the two separate.  I haven’t really noticed my writing change from that as much as my work on my MFA.

Do you have a daily writing schedule?
I don’t write every day, but 5 or 6 days a week.  For me it’s more important to write a little bit each day instead of a couple days where it’s intense.  This isn’t true when I’m editing the book; I can focus for long periods of time then.  But there’s a point of the day when there are diminishing returns, when I’m no longer productive.  But if I take too many days off, I feel like I spend the entire time getting back to where I was before.

What made you decide to get your MFA, and did it make a difference?
After college I was working in publishing in London and I’d been there for about a year at HarperCollins.  I always wanted to write and was in creative writing at Princeton, but my writing wasn’t very good.  I was too preoccupied with other academic stuff.  You couldn’t just treat it like another subject. I had to make a decision whether I was going to give fiction a shot or plunge into a publishing career.  I knew after that year I couldn’t do both to the degree I wanted to do either.  It was a good time – before I got too far along in a publishing career.  I thought the best way to do that was doing an MFA because it would give me the structure.  … Writing fiction was the focus. MFA programs are really good at that.  There’s a debate about whether they’re useful.  It was really useful for me.  I had classmates for whom it wasn’t useful at all. It’s not like the degree means anything on its own. It’s the work you produce while you’re there that’s meaningful.  If you’re not writing a lot it will make you.  Clearly it was useful for me because I wrote most of this book there.


Brian DeLeeuw is an editor at Tin House magazine and a contributor to the website ThisRecording.com. He received his BA from Princeton University and his MFA from The New School. He lives in New York City, where he was born and raised. Find him at www.briandeleeuw.com.

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