An Interview with Author Ernest Brawley

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ERNEST BRAWLEY is the acclaimed author of three novels, including the incendiary prison novel The Rap, originally published in 1974 by Atheneum and brought back in print and in digital format by Roots Digital Media in 2015. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to ask the Brawley about writing, his unique use of language and about the writing of The Rap.

Roots Digital: How did you develop the unique, rhythmic, lyrical, rapping writing style we enjoy in The Rap? Many writers struggle to find their unique style. Would you share with us how you came to yours? 

Ernest Brawley: As a kid, I spent hours listening to my grandfathers. They could not have been more different, but they were both natural storytellers with a lyrical, almost poetic, old-timey way of speaking in their different languages. I’ll never forget my drawling Louisiana grandpa’s outrageous tales of life on his father’s plantation, his escape from the local sheriff on a stolen horse, and his adventures in the Far West of the early twentieth century. Nor will I forget the magical tales, delivered in the uniquely melodic Norteño dialect of my Mexican abüelo, whose three hundred mile cattle drive from Ures, Sonora, to Tucson, Arizona, at the height of the Yaqui Indian War, is a family legend.  

In my teens I was enamored by the marvelous rhythmic tones of Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner and other Rhythm & Blues greats. And without really thinking about it, I incorporated their rap into my own speech patterns. 

Later, I worked in a tomato packing shed with a number of Chicano kids from East LA. Their gangbanger dialect, combining Street English and Street Spanish, was also very cool, hip and rhythmic. So that stuck with me as well.

Then in my early twenties, while working as a guard in San Quentin Prison, I was privy to thousands of cell-to-cell conversations between the prisoners in my custody. South Central Blacks and Mexican Mafia for the most part, they killed their months and years inside by rapping to each other in their own unique styles. Their bap-bap-bapping way with words captured my imagination. 

During my early thirties, I lived far up at the jungle end of the Manoa Valley, on the island of Oahu. My neighbors were for the most part native Hawaiians, and I found the drumbeat of their Pidgin English infectious. 

Roots Digital: The kind of linguistic mastery of quintessentially American English that your work demonstrates is rare in contemporary American literature. Do you think that Americans today have pride in their language, in American English, in the way that, for example, the British have pride in English, or the French in French language?  

Ernest Brawley: There is no question in my mind that some Americans, especially young people, take pride in at least one unique brand of our American English, Rap Music. And I can think of several contemporary writers who, though perhaps not beboppers like me, obviously take pride in creating literature with the kind of beat and flow of words that makes traditional American prose unique. I am thinking particularly of the novelists Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Charles Frazier.

Roots Digital: In your novel The Rap, you’re clearly writing about the state of California, although you called it New Sonora.  Why?

Ernest Brawley: As penniless writer living in Paris, I could not take a chance that the conservative Republican government of California at the time, very much like the one described in The Rap, might sue me for libel. So I invented a state for the setting of my story. I chose the name New Sonora for personal reasons. The Mexican side of my family came from Sonora, Mexico, so California was in a sense our “New Sonora.”

Roots Digital: The Rap, I’m guessing, had to have been inspired by your experience as a prison guard at San Quentin. If there were specific people you knew upon whom you based any of your characters, would you talk about one or two? 

Ernest Brawley: Absolutely. First, the entire Weed family is based on my own family. Their penchant for naming their kids for little California towns is taken from the fact that the Robles clan of light-skinned Mexicans changed their name to Brawley when they briefly resided in the border town of Brawley on their way north. I am very much like the young guard Arvin Weed who impregnates his girlfriend and dreams of escape. My father and two of my uncles really were prison guards, while one of my other uncles really was an inmate in the same prison. And my family really did live in a guard’s cottage at San Quentin Prison. Wasco Weed, who stabbed his father with a knife in the novel, is based on one of my cousins who actually did that. Galliot, the black writer who escapes in the end, is an amalgam of the prison activists Elridge Cleaver, George Jackson, and the writer James Baldwin (whom I knew in Paris). Galliot’s travels about the world are very much like my own. His girlfriend is loosely based on Angela Davis, whom I never met.

Roots Digital: In The Rap, you write of a dance created by the black writer and revolutionary leader, Galliot, who leads How did you come up with Black Fence? Did you witness anything at San Quentin that resembled it? 

Ernest Brawley: I came up with the name “Black Fence” because I knew of a gang in East LA called “The White Fence.” While I was working as a tower guard in the Big Yard, I used to watch a group of black political activists do rhythmic political raps together while a circle of sympathetic blacks protected them from White Power groups. However, they did not do a dance. I made that up. I knew that anti-Apartheid blacks in South Africa danced like that, and I thought it might be an effective way for blacks in America to attract their people to the cause.

Roots Digital: You write knowledgeably of Anglo, Black and Latino cultures. You’re comfortable, it would seem, in all of their skins. Would you speak to that?

Ernest Brawley: As for the Anglo/Latino part, my mother was born Helen Bee Wasson, and my father was born Ernesto Robles, so I’ve got both in my blood. My grandparents on one side spoke Spanish, and I do as well. I love Hispanic music, films, and literature, and I’ve lived in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain. For the black part, my two best buddies at San Quentin were African-American correctional officers, my girlfriend in Paris was Martiniquaise, and my fellow Left Banker was James Baldwin. For this reason, along with my early attraction to Jazz and Rhythm & Blues, I’ve always been fascinated by black culture, music and literature. When my daughter grew up, she married a rap artist from Ghana, and my two granddaughters are called black, though they’re actually a beautiful mocha brown.

Roots Digital: Who are some of your favorite writers and how have they influenced you?

Ernest Brawley: My favorite contemporary writer is Cormac McCarthy. I believe his novel Blood Meridian is utterly unique, and the American masterpiece of our time. His writing style is poetic, beautifully cadenced, meant to be read aloud. His vision profound. His irony merciless. His story addictive, hypnotic.

I suppose the bee-bop in my writing can be blamed on my youthful fascination with writers and poets of the Beat and Post-Beat Generations, including Jack Keruoac, Allen Ginsburg, and Ken Kesey. 

The classic twentieth century writers who have influenced my somewhat “stream-of-consciousness” writing style are James Joyce, “Yes, I said yes I will yes…” William Faulkner, “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…” and the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “Verde que te quiero verde, verde viento, vierdes ramas…” The writer who engaged my interest in the fluidity of time, and the enhanced, amped-up reality where I feel most comfortable as a writer, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “time was not passing…it was turning in a circle.”

Of the classical works of the nineteenth century, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black influenced my romantic tendencies, “L’amour est le miracle de la civilization.” The stimulus for my interest in carnal desire and passion probably stems from Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina, “If our love could grow any stronger it would grow stronger because there is something horrifying in it.” And my desire for a ripping good story of love and betrayal probably rises from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, “She had a certain way of looking at life which he took as a personal offense.”

Roots Digital: You describe a world in The Rap in which the government is exceedingly corrupt. Would you say something about governmental corruption today?

Ernest Brawley: I would say that government corruption in the Seventies was small-time compared to now. The Supreme Court decision in the Citizen’s United vs. FEC case, for instance, along with the creation of Super PACs, has given billionaires such as the Koch Brothers the right to buy elections and collect favors on a scale never seen before. ∆

Get your copy of The Rap here.

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#WhatAreYouReading, Sara Mae Elbert?

Sara Mae Elbert is a writer. She’s also the mom of the mom and pop restaurant and inn, Brushland Eating House, which she and her fiancé Sohail Zandi established a little over two years ago in the beautiful no-stop-light town of Bovina, NY. Don’t let the funny cow-town name fool you. Bovina’s got juju. In no small way, the power of that juju is growing as a result of this young couple and the locals who love them. Both had experience in the restaurant industry in New York and in Martha’s Vineyard before they dreamt up this food and lodging haven tucked discretely into the rolling hills of the western Catskills.

Sara and Sohail have managed to make Brushland feel simultaneously like the warmest and yummiest of small town eating houses and the hippest and hottest of bustling Brooklyn hotspots. Locals, week-enders and folks from afar frequent its cozy tables and busy kitchen.  All praise the food, the service and the comfy, country-chic ambience.

But what many who eat or stay don’t know is that when Sara isn’t charming the guests at their tables with her natural smile, wit and sweetness, or working her tail off with Sohail to run the backend of the eatery and the two-apartment inn above, she’s a contributing writer to the Edible community of magazines, including Martha’s Vineyard, Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Having begun as a copywriter and continued into food writing, she’s now writing short stories and non-fiction essays. See her latest piece in Dirt.

We sat down with Sara at Russell’s  the general store down the road from Brushland, and when we asked her what she was reading, she showed us the book she’d just devoured: Tina Fey’s BOSSY PANTS (Hachette, 2011). The comedian-writer-producer’s laugh-out-loud, raucous good time of a memoir about being a lady boss was called “a spiky blend of humor, introspection, critical thinking and Nora Ephron-isms for a new generation” by The New York Times

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And for writerly inspiration along a different vein: before bed every night, Sara has been reading from a stunning, rouge-colored, hardbound copy of NEW YORK CITY FOLKLORE: LEGENDS, TALL TALES, ANECDOTES, STORIES, SAGAS, HEROES AND CHARACTERS, CUSTOMS, TRADITIONS AND SAYINGS edited by B.A. Botkin (Random House, 1956). Sara says the stories hail from a time before NYC developers sliced up and branded the city’s neighborhoods. These tales, she says, were born in moment when the City was as authentic as Bovina and her new life in the Catskills is today.

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Follow Sara on Instagram to learn more!

Living History: The British Re-take Fort Ticonderoga

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The Continental Army’s drummer.

Living history. A phrase used to describe historical reenactments, an educational medium in which participants authentically portray historical moments, people, events, battles and more. War re-enactments are a form of living history, performed by historians and history buffs to keep history alive, educate and commemorate key battles in our nation’s history. This past weekend at Fort Ticonderoga up in the Adirondacks, the July 1777 British siege of that fort was re-enacted spectacularly.

I’d been to a couple of reenactments before, but never one with Fort Ticonderoga’s high standards and high volume of participants. The re-enactors’ uniforms were impeccable. The Americans wore hand-finished, wool broadcloth coats in brown, red and blue, underneath which were single or double-breasted woolen waistcoats. They wore woolen breeches with stockings and worn black leather shoes with buckles. Mind you, it was 80 degrees at the Fort that day.

Before the mock-battle, as visitors to the great fort walked across its high walls, marveled at its cannons and walked through the Continental Army’s camp, the soldiers mixed with the visitors and proved themselves fonts of history, ever-willing to answer questions knowledgeably about the fort and the battle.

Historically, the outnumbered Continental Army, led by General Arthur St. Clair, surrendered the fort in the beginning of July in 1777 to the British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne and his men. The surrender of what was thought to be an impregnable fort outraged the Americans, fueling the passion and determination that paved the way for the revolutionaries’ first decisive victory at Saratoga.

This past Sunday, the crowds at Fort Ticonderoga who gathered to watch the re-enactment pressed themselves up against a line of orange twine before a long green meadow. In front of us, a Continental cavalry soldier on a spritely bay rode this way and that across a long green field. Beyond the criss-crossing cavalryman, the American soldiers manned a large redoubt, representing a defensive position outside the fort. To my far right, Americans got into battle formation. But where were the Red Coats? I couldn’t see. “When’s it going to start?” someone asked, and we shifted our weight from one foot to another, craning our necks to the left, to the right along the green. When a shot rang out from below a green hill far from us and down to the right, squeals of delight lit the crowd.

From where I stood, I couldn’t see the Brits at all and thought I’d chosen my viewing spot badly, but with the piles of visitors behind me, I’d never get a spot this close to the twine elsewhere. The Red Coats fired and plumes of white smoke rose from below the hill as the Americans above them and to my right returned fire. Slowly, the British made their way up over the rise and—BOOM! A cannon positioned on the redoubt thundered out a shot, and another! Cannon smoke wafted back over the redoubt as the Americans scrambled to load again. The Brits were unfazed and the Americans in the field called for retreat, running now toward the center of the field, toward where I stood spellbound. Now Continental soldiers kneeled down just in front of me to load, aim and fire long muskets at the pursuing Brits. Just a thin strand of orange twine seemed to separate me from the fighting, the battle.

The Americans abandoned the redoubt! Red Coats ran up from the lower hill in a blurring, shouting swarm, “Huzzah! Huzzah!” The Brits took the structure cheering, shouting slurs and firing their Brown Bess muskets at the running revolutionaries. A Continental soldier not twenty yards in front of me took a shot in the chest. His arms flew out and he landed splayed in the grass as a fellow-soldier ran to his aid if he should need it, but no, it was too late. The Americans ran on, dragging their dead, their wounded, firing at will and hoping to find safety.

And then there was nothing going on in front of me, and I wondered if the re-enactment was done, but while I’d been rapt, the crowd around me had moved off to the left where Red Coats were coming from the other side—right where the Americans were running! Trying to act casual and like a collected adult, I fast-walked over to where the crowds were newly gathered, way on the others side of the meadow and across a road. Sweating and slightly winded under the hot July sun, I thought of the folks on the field in their woolen uniforms, running with packs and long, wooden muskets, carrying their dead.

Here on the other side of the road, Continental soldiers lay wounded on the battlefield in silhouette having been dragged beneath the shade of great trees. Their wives brought water and tried to tend to wounds, but the Red Coats rose up behind them lit bright in day sun. A Brit cruelly bayoneted a wounded American on the ground and the soldier cried out in agony, dying.  With the redoubt abandoned, the Red Coats ran toward the fort.

The truth of war on that long field was told both authentically and choreographed picturesquely, like an extraordinary piece of interactive theatre, like an elaborate, open-air opera. Disturbing and delightful, the re-enactors told an important tale from our past, as great historical theatre does, performing on the very ground that this piece of history was made.

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One of the cannons on the high walls of Fort Ticonderoga aiming out over the Lake Champlain.
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A diorama inside the fort’s museum depicting a battle during the French and Indian War when the French held the fort.
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Inside the walls of Fort Ticonderoga.
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A cavalryman on his mount before the battle.
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A narrator closes the re-enactment, regaling the crowd with the historical significance of this siege in establishing our nation.

Watch BROKEN COUNTRY – Episode 2

The Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, New York

When we heard about The Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, NY, we drove there immediately.

Set within a firehouse built in 1889, The Spotty Dog—selling books, beer, coffee, gifts and art supplies—is probably the hippest thing on Warren Street.  And that’s saying something, because Warren Street, with its boutiques, gourmet pizza and antique shops, just may be the hippest street on earth beyond the boundaries of Brooklyn itself.

Roz in front of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, NY
Roz in front of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, NY

Inside, our lovely booktender (and store manager) poured us a cold brew to-go (translation: ice coffee) and made every effort not to roll her eyes when a hipster at the bar asked, “Are those cups made of composted plastic?” But all hail this shop’s hip clientele! Heavily bespectacled and wearing the coolest smarty pants, they enable this rare indie bookstore to stay in business. (Besides, Roz’s new glasses are a tad on the hipstery side. Hmm.)

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Chris reading in the comfy chairs and bright light of the firehouse’s front windows.
The fiction shelves.
The fiction shelves at the Spotty Dog Books & Ale.

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Watch THE COUNTRY HILL – a Microfilm by Mya J. Kollig

A video posted by Roots Digital (@rootsdigital) on


Mya J. Kollig, a gifted young filmmaker, took our challenge to make a 60 second country noir or country horror microfilm. Her piece, THE COUNTRY HILL, begins atmospherically and musically noir, rendered in black and white and eerily scored with contemporary crime jazz. Deeper into the work, we see the classic markers of country horror: the shaky, ambiguous POV of a frightened victim—or are we looking through the eyes of a stalking killer? Her titles flicker in and out, giving a sense of instability as they describe, poetically, a story about a country town on a hill where shadows lurk. The line, “They lurk the town,” is original and arresting.  Stark shots of shadowy woods, jittery moves and jump cuts, set the viewer on edge. Silhouettes of sinister-looking girls flash darkly in a blindingly bright distance; concealed in hoods, their stillness disturbs. A beautiful pan of a black and white bloodied knife and a rising score sets us up for the appearance of the killer. Her hair falls like a menacing mask completely over her face, until she runs at us, wielding her knife like the lost girl-child of Michael Myers.

Mya Kollig and her production company, Invisible Lights, reveal raw, natural talent in this brilliant, one-minute country noir/horror microfilm. We’re honored to feature the work of this rising young star.

#microfilm #patina #rootsdigital #countryhorror #countrynoir

Watch “Here They Come” – a Country Horror #Microfilm!

#WhatAreYouReading, Briana Riera?

Some books you read once and move on.  Others, you read time and again; they’re that good.  For Briana Riera—Super Mom of Bovina, New York—those time-and-again reads are books from Elizabeth Peters’s New York Times bestselling Amelia Peabody series.  “A fast-moving, intrigue-filled plot [features] beloved archeologist and amateur sleuth Amelia Peabody Emerson,” says Publisher’s Weekly of Children of the Storm (William Morrow, 2003), book 15 in the series.

We sat down with Briana at the Blue Bee Café in Delhi, New York, where she cheerily told us that with the world in chaos here and across the globe, with this year’s election cycle being such a wild spectacle, with her job as a mom, as board member of the Bovina Historical Society, as a baseball coach, an assistant at a local marketing consultancy and occasional house cleaner (pause for breath and marvel at how she does it), when she, at last, has time to sit down and read, she wants simply to relax.

This whip-smart young woman loves a good thriller to escape into, but bestselling thrillers today are such savage, disturbing reads.  She couldn’t unwind reading about a serial killer mowing down innocent bystanders with a Mercedes (Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, Scribner, 2014); she couldn’t chill with a drunken, could-be murderess, certainly crazy, British stalker obsessively riding a train (The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, Riverhead 2015); she couldn’t de-stress with a high-strung, precious literary Barbie who’s finally gone ’round the bend like Amy Dunne (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Crown, 2012).  Wisely, Briana is reading Elizabeth Peters’s adventurous historical suspense/thrillers, and she’d love to find more like them.

Of Book 15, Publisher’s Weekly says, “The end of WWI offers Amelia, now a grandmother, and her family little respite when mysterious events start to plague friends, allies and coworkers. One person dies after suddenly turning to religion, while others fall victim to sabotage. Valuable artifacts go missing, and Amelia’s son Ramses is lured into a bizarre encounter with a woman who appears to be the living embodiment of the goddess Hathor…. [The novel is] powered by evocative depictions of 1919 Egypt and the engaging voice of Amelia herself—a bright, independent woman, who relishes her role as family matriarch.”

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Family matriarch, Briana Riera at Blue Bee Café, Delhi, New York.
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Briana’s well-loved copy of Elizabeth Peters’s CHILDREN OF THE STORM, Book 15 (William Morrow, 2003) in the Amelia Peabody series

#WhatAreYouReading #RootsDigital #Patina #ElizabethPeters #AmReading #thrillers #Suspense