Q and A with Jason Lee Brown, CHAMPIONSHIP RUN
Much of this Q & A originally appeared in Michiganders Post online
1. Your new book, Championship Run, takes place in rural Illinois. We certainly get a sense, a real feel, for the industrial Midwest, which plays as a backdrop to action of Championship Run. Are you writing from your own sense of place?
The setting in Championship Run is a fictionalized version of my hometown. I was born, raised, and educated in Illinois, and the Midwest setting, specifically central Illinois, pervades most of my writing. Championship Run is the anchor to my recently finished story collection, Midwest Everyman, so I think the title says enough.
2. Your previous works include a novel as well as poetry. What made you set out to write a novella as your latest work?
The “germ of the idea” for the story started with an incident that happened while I was in high school in the early ‘90s, and though this novella is fiction, the incident made me obsessed with how one moment can change the trajectory of your life, how you think, act. Most of my writing comes from real-life incidences that I can’t quite set straight in my head, so I fictionalize them to make better sense of them. I wrote this during the summer of 2011, more than twenty years after the germ of the idea. I wasn’t trying to write a novella necessarily, though I knew this would be a longer story.
3. The story moves backwards in time, taking the reader closer and closer to a tragic event that shapes these characters’ lives. How did this structure come about?
As far as the process, this story took shape early and followed structurally what I imagined for it, which almost never happens in my writing. I knew my ending, and I worked the plot backwards from there to a beginning I had in mind, which really wasn’t that different than running the plot chronologically. It’s the same tropes, plot points, character development, etc. It usually helps me to know the ending to my stories while I write because it’s easier for me to add in theme and metaphor on a first or second draft, instead of stumbling on to them six or seventh draft into the story, which I like as a process as well, but for me, the “stumble on to it” process always seems to take longer.
For example, when describing where Think lived, I wanted an image that revealed who Think was as a character, which was and had been for years this burned-out-light-bulb guy. I knew this before I started writing, and instead of rewriting really bad sentences into better ones, I was able to write on the first to second draft a line I thought perfectly fit Think: “Think’s trailer’s in the far back, below the busted streetlight that kids without shoes and shirts throw rocks at even though it hasn’t had a bulb in it in years.”
Most of the ideas I have before I start writing a story change along with the development of the story and characters, which I think is how the process is supposed to work, but this novella completed almost all the main goals I wanted to achieve, from beginning to end. I wanted what I call the character ghost—the incident in the past that makes the character act the way the character does in the present—to be the best moment and memory of the character’s life instead of the worst. Of course, the shared tragedy is a character ghost for all three friends, but the main character, Jay, has his best memories of his life haunt him almost as much as the shared tragedy. I also wanted three themes on the championship run: the long work run at his machine, the long meth run, and the basketball high school run—and I wanted them all to relate to each other.
4. How does the time structure help tell this story?
The structure I hope helps in several ways. The reverse narrative forces the reader to see the results of the characters’ decisions before the decisions were made. This also allows the reader to be in denial or a purposeful forgetfulness along with the main characters. The characters and reader have to face those life choices together through the story until the end (or beginning).
5. What are you working on now, if you don’t mind telling us?
Championship Run had been the only previously unpublished story in my collection Midwest Everyman, and now that the novella has been published, I’ve been submitting the full collection to contest and publishers, which feels good after ten years of adding and substituting stories. To keep from writing more stories to substitute into the collection, I stopped fictionalizing my hometown and central Illinois and started writing nonfiction about my hometown and central Illinois.
For the last couple years, I have been researching and writing on my creative nonfiction book, The Pana Massacre: An Untold Story of Labor Violence and Race Riots. It's a historical narrative about the 1898–99 Pana, Illinois, riots between capital (coalmine operators) and labor (union miners) that ended in an all-day massacre. I am finishing a synopsis and the first two sample chapters (the importation of nonunion miners from Alabama and then the kidnapping and near hanging of mine operator Lewis Overholt. As soon as this long semester is over, I’ll be submitting proposals to agents and publishers.
Here is a short sample:
The strike had hampered business, but Lewis had never seen the heart of the city this calm. A few citizens who had nothing to do with the strike attended to their business, but what concerned Lewis was the lack of miners flowing in and out of the Post Office, Schuyler Bank, Jehle Hardware, and, more suspiciously, the many saloons and whorehouses up and down the streets. Lewis was acutely aware that tension had grown beyond lawsuits. Just four days ago, August 28, strikers, or their sympathizers, had fired thirty shots at the boiler room of the Springside mine. Lewis told his uncle David something was wrong; they needed to get back to Springside mine now.
David’s name was listed as the current mine president, but he was more of an advisor. Lewis, the superintendent, had taken over the day-to-day operations. Lewis, of German and English lineage, was only twenty years old and had plenty of fight to lead the charge against the Local Union No. 101 and the UMWA. What Lewis didn’t know was that two union lookouts were hiding nearby, ready to inform other union miners when to attack. The first whistle echoed through the street while Lewis untied his horse from the wooden post. The second whistle originated from the alley. Union miners—handkerchiefs and hats hiding their heads—rushed out from behind nearby buildings and alleyways. At least 100 union miners armed with Winchesters and revolvers surrounded Lewis and David Overholt. Lewis and David hopped onto the buggy to escape, but a union man grabbed the reins behind the horse’s jaw. He petted the horse to calm it.
Without word, a short but strong man took hold of Lewis’ shoulders and pulled him off the buggy, tossed him to the ground. The flat thud of Lewis’ chest knocked the wind out of him. His glasses flung off and landed in the street. He mustered a breath but inhaled from the dirt cloud around his head. The bottom of a boot pressed against the back of his neck, grinding his cheek into the dirt. The union man pulled Lewis’ arms behind his back, and a muffled crack released from deep inside Lewis’ shoulder. A warm pain shot up his neck. Once the man wrapped a rope tight around Lewis’ wrist, the boot let off, and the miner yanked Lewis up on his feat and pushed him stumbling forward. Next to Lewis, David was in the same position: hands tied behind his back, dirtied white vest and shirt, bowtie broken off, in a total panic thinking this was the last moments of his life.
The union miners formed a horseshoe and herded the Overholts up the street. The ruckus brought businessmen and citizens to the thoroughfare, some in shock, some cheering on the mob, some with a look that said, It was only a matter of time. The businessmen and citizens followed the mob of armed men. Though the majority of the general public was in line with the union, Lewis figured his only chance of survival was to scream for help while he still could. He begged the citizens to intervene, screamed for someone, anyone, to send for Sheriff Coburn, send for Deputy Watts! To move Lewis along, a union miner kicked Lewis from behind and told him to shut his trap if he knew what was good for him.
Even without his glasses, Lewis thought he recognized a few of the union miners—Louis Hurt, William Taylor, George Shanks—but most of them were out-of-town miners here to counterbalance the hundreds of newly deputized sheriffs and the 300 imported miners camping at Springside mine. The procession headed north toward the Springside mine, until Dr. Reverend Millard, a Pana minister, ran from the St. James Hotel screaming for them to free the Overholts. The procession’s movement stopped in the middle of the street. The elderly reverend had clout in Pana. People regularly sought the reverend’s advice. But these were union miners, who did not care if the reverend was close to God. It was the reverend’s closeness with the mine operators that concerned the union men. Reverend Millard had been a staunch sympathizer of Lewis Overholt and George Penwell. When the union men demanded the reverend remove himself, Reverend Millard held his hand in the air and stayed put, blocking any path forward. He said this would solve nothing. He implored the men to think about the ramifications.
The small union man, who Lewis now assumed was D. J. McGavic, grabbed Lewis from behind and pushed him into Reverend Millard, knocking the reverend to the side. While union men pushed past him, Reverend Millard stumbled to stay on his feet. He stubbornly fought his way back to the head of the procession and again stopped in front of Lewis Overholt. The procession halted. Miners mumbled, annoyed with the interruptions.
Reverend Millard said there had to be a peaceful solution to this strike; this was not the Christian way. He started in on another speech when a union miner slugged the reverend’s arm with a club. Reverend Millard’s face was stern. He said he would not be push around because God was on his side. A tall union miner with a tan handkerchief hiding his face walked up to the reverend and said to move or suffer the consequences. When Reverend Millard stood stock still, the tall union miner paused for a couple seconds before hammering down the butt of his pistol across the reverend’s temple. Millard’s body dropped. Writhing in pain, the reverend cupped his hands to keep his bulged, bloody eye inside its socket. A few union miners kicked at the screaming reverend and told the old man if he interfered again, they wouldn’t be so kind. Union men stepped over his body and the procession continued toward Springside mine.
Jason Lee Brown is the author of the novel, Prowler: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the novella, Championship Run, and the poetry chapbook, Blue Collar Fathers. He is the Series Editor of New Stories from The Midwest and a contributing editor of River Styx. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Kenyon Review, Literary Review, North American Review, The Journal, Southern Humanities Review, and Ecotone. He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.