By Heather Scott Partington
Bruce Bauman’s novel Broken Sleep is six hundred pages of madness. But it’s madness with intent. The author’s postmodern rock and roll saga takes on politics, art, and the idea of inheritance. Moses Teumer, a professor suffering from leukemia, goes looking for his real parents to find a bone marrow match. He discovers his mother, Salome Savant, was a young artist impregnated by a rumored Nazi; Salome was told after Moses’ birth that he was dead, while he was skirted away in a quick adoption. When Moses finds Salome, he also discovers he has a half-brother, Alchemy Savant, who is a star in the most famous band in the world, The Insatiables. But in a book where characters believe they can time-travel through their DNA, nothing is as simple as it seems.
Bauman, senior editor of the well-respected but recently defunct literary magazine Black Clock, is a professor for CalArts’ MFA and Critical Studies programs. His work in Broken Sleep is unlike anything I can remember reading. Its multi-layered plot, titles, character names, discography and puns operate on a level unlike most contemporary fiction. Bruce and I caught up recently by email after our panel at the LA Times Festival of Books (“Fiction: Finding a New Normal”).
The Coachella Review: You said at our Festival of Books panel that Broken Sleep was called “a novel that can’t possibly be summarized.” What was the inciting idea of this book? Did it rise out of the distinct voices of each character, or out of an idea related to one of the plot lines? Can you share how it came to be?
Bruce Bauman: Thanks, Heather, for a terrific panel and asking these super smart questions. My publisher, editor, and Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm all said that about the difficulty of summarizing the book. I’d like to think two out of three meant it as a compliment.
When I started nine years ago or so, I had the idea for Moses and playing with the idea of turning the Biblical myth upside down. Born a Jew raised by an Egyptian to my Moses being raised a Jew finding out, um, his heritage is um, quite the opposite. And I had the idea of Alchemy and the Insatiables, and the lead singer running for president. It took a while, but when I realized Alchemy and Moses should be half-brothers, sons of Salome, and combined the ideas—the book started to fall into place. The first voice I had was Ricky McFinn aka Ambitious Mindswallow. Salome’s voice came next. Originally, Moses was in first person. Steve Erickson read an early, early version and said Moses should be in third person. And he was right. Once I had those down, and then Hannah—the characters took over and they began to talk to each other in my head and on the page and to tell me the story—as they must if it is going to feel right to the reader.
TCR: Characters in Broken Sleep are outsiders. There are visual and performance artists like Salome and musicians such as her son and his band, The Insatiables. They’re part of a counterculture, and they are all divergent thinkers. Is it significant that your characters are artists? Do artists have greater license to challenge the status quo?
BB: In this book, yes, the characters had to be outsiders. Not so in my previous book.
The question is, are they artists because they’re outsiders or they became artists because they were outsiders? I don’t know. It comes to this—are writers (artists) born or made? The answer is both. Because if you’re not born with talent, you can’t buy it. But if you don’t have a certain kind of life, you don’t need to become an artist. Maybe this is romantic on my part, but wanting to be an artist isn’t enough. You need to do it. While working, you can’t think about what will happen after you’re done.
Not only do artists have a license to challenge the status quo, I think every citizen has that license. I think artists have the responsibility to challenge everything. But to do so outside of your specialty takes more than just mouthing off. (That’s easy—speaking as professional mouther-offer.) It takes work and no fear of jeopardizing your career. I quote Shelley in the book that artists are “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. I believe that. I may be a dinosaur—I believe art can change the world.
TCR: This novel is massive in scope, spanning from the 1950s to the early 2000s. It must have been quite the undertaking to write. I saw a picture—from years ago—of an early draft of Broken Sleep. You essentially wallpapered a room with a draft. Can you talk about the process of writing this novel? How did it change from your original idea of what it was going to be?
BB: I had ideas for three novels thirty years ago before I actually started writing them. And I spent lots and lots of time thinking about them. Kinda getting ready. There are artists like my wife who are what I call supernaturals—she began exhibiting when she was in her early twenties—they just have the goods and they know early on. Dylan is perhaps the greatest example. Orson Welles is another. I wish that had been me, but… no.
The walls got repapered a few dozen times. After a few months I knew this was going to be long and take years. I accepted and embraced that. Our society makes everyone rush. That’s no fucking way to make art. For me, that’s no way to do anything.
I always had and kept the idea that Alchemy was going to be dead at the end, and the reader would know that from pretty early on—so many other things changed. Most of the time I just went with the flow of the characters and story and I stayed out of the way. I was very lucky to have some great input from a very few friends, my agent Jenifer Lyons, my editors Terrie Akers and Anjali Singh. Allen Peacock, who is a friend and superior editor, sorta retired, doing indie stuff, read a mid-period “finished” draft. There were two major changes he insisted on—and he was right. I had resisted both because they were hard, hard, hard to do craft-wise and emotionally—but I as the writer had resisted listening to what the characters were saying and needed, and Allen saw that. Those changes were absolutely essential.
TCR: When I was reading Broken Sleep, I was struck by the complexity of so many things—there’s a full discography for The Insatiables, and on both a syntactical level and a plot level, this is a novel of layers on layers on layers. Your chapter titles are full of puns and allusions to religion, poetry, other works of fiction, and music (chapters are called things like “The Burning Bushel and a Peck”). Did you title the chapters after you wrote them, or as you were creating them? What was your approach when it came to making this both a fictional world, and one that pays dues to so many other artistic works? Can you talk a little bit about how you chose to name your characters, too? Was it as much fun to write as it seemed to me as a reader?
BB: I can’t overstate how much fun I had. The most fun of anything I’ve ever done in my life—and I’ve had plenty of fun to go with plenty of misery.
And also yes, there are many levels in the book and that too was always my intention. Multiple ways to read it and relate to it and that was all intentional. Anthony Miller, a good friend and fierce critic/reader, suggested I make chapter headings. I chose the titles after each chapter was written. Knowing when to be unconscious and conscious is unteachable but essential. The contents of each chapter determined the heading so they were entirely conscious and carefully chosen.
Nobody creates in a vacuum. We are all indebted to what came before. So, much of what is mentioned or alluded to is what helped me become a writer. Self-indulgent as it may seem, it is my way of paying back. Maybe somebody reading the book will pick up a book by Thomas Mann or Djuna Barnes or listen to a Roky Erickson and Lou Ann Barton record. When I’m writing it is my world—I make no difference between fictional and not. I want people to love it, but if not….
Some of the names came from my dreams like Absurda Nightingale and Bohemian Scofflaw. Others have Biblical roots. And some, like Laban Lively, are purposeful anagrams. His is “evilly banal” and suits his character. Others, like Camille Javal, are nods to movies.
TCR: One of my favorite scenes in the novel comes early—when Salome puts on a performance art piece called “Art is Dead.” Poor Art actually dies. I think it sets the irreverent tone of the rest of the novel, and of Salome’s facetious creations. Broken Sleep, for all its serious explorations of art, politics, performance, and family bonds, is very funny. Who are your favorite irreverent artists or authors?
BB: Groucho Marx is my all-time number one. Lenny Bruce, Mae West, Rowan & Martin. Richard Pryor, Cary Grant, Mel Brooks. Lord Buckley. Professor Irwin Corey. Miley Cyrus and Cicely Strong are two faves now.
Writers—Joseph Heller, Richard Price, Nietzsche (he’s funny, folks), Dorothy Parker, Gregory Corso, Gogol. Wow, there are so many.
Artists—James Ensor, Dali. Duchamp—but he unleashed a torrent of posers with minimal talent. The Guerrilla Girls. Lee Lozano. Barbara Kruger.
Jesus—the greatest performance artist ever. Guy took no shit from anyone and then performed—well—convinced the world he died and was reborn. Started a religion. Can’t beat that.
TCR: You’ve worked with writers as both an educator and an editor for many years; would you give any advice to writers? Is there some advice you wish you’d been given?
BB: Choose who you listen to very, very carefully. I have no blanket advice about “writing” except to read great books.
I try to treat every student as an individual and each one needs different things, and needs to be talked to differently. My only rule is try to be kind and generous. I try.
I will say this about publishing. You need learn how to deal with rejection. Be prepared—it’s coming and it is never, ever going to stop. I don’t care who you are. But also, if you can get your head out of the New York publishing industrial complex—sure, super if they embrace you but don’t count on it—it is a wonderful time to be a writer. There are so many terrific small presses doing adventurous work. The internet has opened the world to possibilities that I can’t even imagine. Go for it. Take chances. Don’t be afraid to fail. In the end, have fun and enjoy creating.
TCR: What’s next for you? I was sad to see Black Clock publish its final issue last month. What literary projects are drawing your interest right now? Any forthcoming projects that we should know about?
BB: I too am so sad to see Black Clock go. I’m going to miss so many things about it—working with the interns and the readings and launches. And working with Steve Erickson and so many writers. I’m really pissed because there were so many more writers, especially young ones I wish we had gotten to publish.
I want to write an article about reading and writing long novels. I hope to do that this summer. The characters in that third novel I talked about are going, “Hey, now us!” It’ll be different than either of the first two. So, who knows? The journey awaits.
Bruce Bauman is an award-winning author, an instructor in the CalArts MFA Writing Program and Critical Studies Department, and the Senior Editor of Black Clock literary magazine. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and numerous anthologies and other publications. Born and raised in New York City, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter Suzan Woodruff.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic. Her writing appears at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Goodreads, Las Vegas Weekly, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus. Heather holds an MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. She teaches high school English and lives in Elk Grove, California with her husband and two kids.