Writing instructors always say, "Write what you know." Novelist John Brandon doesn't buy it: "I'm interested in all the things I haven't done."
Brandon defies expectations in a lot of ways, and so does his compelling second novel, Citrus County. A coming of age story crossed with a crime novel, a very dark comedy that's a little Elmore Leonard, a little Flannery O'Connor, a little Holden Caulfield gone very wrong in the Florida suburbs, it's a book that keeps surprising.
And yes, it is set in Florida's Citrus County, a version of it that's nothing like a tourist brochure. Brandon knows Citrus County — but not too well. "If I know a place really well, it feels claustrophobic to write about it. I know what it looks like, the details of the landscape, but the energy there was different."
Brandon, 34, grew up just two counties south of Citrus, in New Port Richey, where his family moved not long after he was born in Bradenton. He was not one of those people who know from early childhood that they have a burning desire to write. "I don't think I was aware you could be a writer," he says. "You know New Port Richey. Now imagine New Port Richey 20 years ago. It just wasn't an option I knew about."
But in high school he began reading. "In 10th, 11th grade I was reading all the time. Nobody else I knew did that, but I just had this appetite for it."
He graduated from River Ridge High School and went off to the University of Florida, where, he says, "It dawned on me, you can be a journalist or a sportswriter."
Then, in his sophomore year, he took a fiction writing class. "It felt completely different from any other class — how seriously I felt compelled to take it. The class didn't even matter; it was important to me to write a really good story. I thought it should be as good as the Flannery O'Connor stories we had been reading.
"It wasn't even a decision. It was: I care about this. This is it."
Taking it seriously has paid off. He is, as far as can be determined, the only person who grew up in Pasco County to have his book reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review — by Daniel Handler, no less (that's Lemony Snicket to his millions of readers). Handler wrote that Citrus County "subverts countless expectations to conform to our expectations of a very good book."
"That was pretty amazing," Brandon says, but his career as a writer has had several amazing features. Along with that advice about writing what you know, aspiring writers are always told they need an agent to get a book published.
When Brandon wrote his first novel, Arkansas, he dutifully went that route. "I was getting a lot of wishy-washy stuff back from agents for maybe a year," he says, before he decided to send the first 25 pages of the book to McSweeney's, the publishing company founded by writer Dave Eggers, without an agent's intervention.
"I didn't know anybody there. They do a lot of debut novels, and somebody picked it out. In a couple of months, I had a contract."
McSweeney's published Citrus County as well, and only now does Brandon have an agent, for his third novel, which he's still writing. He is also teaching at the University of Mississippi, after having spent a year holding the John and Renee Grisham Chair in Creative Writing there.
That was another surprise. Brandon earned an MFA in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis but was not teaching, instead taking a variety of jobs (like working in a Frito-Lay warehouse) while he wrote. Academic appointments usually involve rounds of applications and interviews, but no applications are taken for the Grisham chair. "I wasn't aware it existed," Brandon says.
He and his wife were living in San Diego when he got a call from Barry Hannah, legendary fiction writer and longtime Ole Miss writer in residence, offering him the appointment. "I'm on the phone with Barry Hannah — I couldn't even get my mind around that." Brandon says that novelist Padgett Powell, one of his teachers at UF, recommended him to Hannah (who died earlier this year).
Brandon says he enjoys teaching now, unlike a semester he spent teaching ninth-graders in Memphis. "I couldn't hack it. I was too young, about 25. They just walked all over me."
Some of that experience went into Citrus County — one of its three main characters is a stressed-out middle school teacher, Mr. Hibma, who plots the murder of another teacher. "I think I had some unresolved guilt," Brandon says. While writing the book, he didn't know whether or not Mr. Hibma would follow through — he likes to let his characters surprise him, too.
The book's other two main characters are Mr. Hibma's 13-year-old students. Shelby is the smartest girl in school. "She's more commonsensical and decent than anyone else, but that's not what comes out in her behavior," Brandon says.
The other is Toby, a boy Brandon had written about in a short story. "That was about the good Toby. He was the same age, in the same situation. He used his ingenuity for positive things.
"I liked that character so much, but I didn't think I could write about good Toby for the length of a whole novel. He'd get boring. So I made him bad Toby."