When Bryan Charles rolled into Penn Station from Kalamazoo in 1998, he was heartsick and laden with baggage both literal and figurative. Your not-quite-average college-educated Corn Belt heterosexual intellectual, he'd authored a short book about the Pavement album Wowee Zowee, bore an enormity of journal and manuscript pages, and "wanted to achieve extraordinary things."
Settling in Brooklyn with fellow Michiganders, Charles found a job at Morgan Stanley, on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower. He was still working there on September 11, 2001, and walked away alive, if horrified, by what he calls "that bullshit" in his new memoir There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, which he will discuss at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Wednesday, January 19.
Growing up in Kalamazoo shaped his life, Charles said. "My parents divorced when I was quite young; I was obsessed with tits and music; I played in a band. At some point in my late teens, my biological father, whom I'd never been close to, decided that that was the perfect time to really start bonding and he started making those bland kind of overtures," said Charles, who drew upon some of these experiences when writing his 2006 novel Grab Onto Me Tightly as If I Knew the Way.
It's a coming-of-age novel, and "coming-of-age gets kind of a bad rap, at least in lit circles," he said. "No one wants to hear about it and you get a lot of resistance — a lot of it a passive kind of well-meaning resistance, but still. You feel like a jerk telling people what your book's about."
Perhaps because the market is flooded with coming-of-age novels, his manuscript was initially rejected time and again, leaving Charles to wonder: "So what am I supposed to do? Scrap the whole idea and write a legal thriller? Or a multigenerational family saga? Something about the Holocaust? ... In the end, you just have to do your best with your material, and you have to believe in it and be committed to it in order for it to resonate and be real. I'm not saying it wasn't a struggle."
That struggle continued when writing There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From meant translating authentically lived experience into heart-wrenching nonfiction.
"I remember after I finished Grab — it was as if an enormous weight had been lifted," Charles recalled. "There was this deep-soul release and I thought, 'I'm never writing anything again.' And for over a year I didn't. I had to get back in a cubicle and refill the coffers and dull myself out. Then at some point, I got the itch." 7 p.m., free. DieselBookstore.com