NEW PORT RICHEY — When John Brandon reflects on his west Pasco upbringing, the acclaimed writer recalls an idyllic childhood in a small town.
But the sameness of days that can make a young boy's life so smooth, often becomes a recipe for a restless adolescence.
Some kids use the boredom to open their minds; others might turn to darker endeavors such as drugs, alcohol and even violent crime. Brandon found his passion in writing, but in talking of the "claustrophobia" he felt in his teenage years, it's easy to see where his troubled young characters in two popular books were born.
Brandon's talent led to his selection two years ago as the prestigious John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi and a rave review in the New York Times by Daniel Handler, otherwise known as famed children's writer Lemony Snicket.
With two books under his belt — the acclaimed Arkansas, which caught the eye of literary powerhouses at Ole Miss, and his second book, Citrus County, which drew the lengthy, solid book review from Handler — the buzz is growing over Brandon's work.
As the paperback version of Citrus County is due to hit bookshelves any day, the 34-year-old author spoke with the Times about the ups and downs of a writer's life, the seeds of which were locally planted.
Small town roots
Born in Bradenton, Brandon moved with his family to New Port Richey when he was "4 or 5." His father, Bill, had gotten a job at the Anclote power plant, where he still works today.
"I had very good memories of my childhood, and of growing up in New Port Richey," Brandon said. His parents, Bill and Sharon Brandon, still live near downtown.
Brandon went to elementary school in Elfers, and later attended Bayonet Middle School. He played with friends and had a passion for soccer. He attended Ridgewood High School for a year, then joined the first crop of students to attend River Ridge High School.
"It was new, so nothing was set," he said. "There weren't any cliques yet, no pecking order, the things that can make high school so miserable. You were just friends with all kinds of people."
He still hung out with his friends, but felt the stir of restlessness.
"I remember a lot of drifting around, looking for a house where someone's parents were out of town, or going to the soccer fields at night," Brandon said. "There was a lot of wondering how to get alcohol, or sometimes you had to steal it."
Then his boredom led to a discovery: He loved reading. He loved words.
"Around the 11th grade I just started reading a lot," he said.
Brandon plucked books from the shelves of the Waldenbooks at Gulf View Square mall. When he found a writer he liked, Brandon read the author's entire collection. He devoured Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway.
"I was very vulnerable to them because I had this feeling that I wanted something else. To see other things," he said.
Brandon continued to read and write up a storm, earning an English degree from the University of Florida and a master's in fiction writing from Washington University in St. Louis.
He married Heather, whom he met at UF, and her work as a traveling nurse took them from state to state: Oregon, New Mexico, Tennessee. In each new town, Brandon found a temp agency and asked for work. He spent his days in factories and warehouses, his nights writing. Brandon wrote a 300-page book that got turned down by every literary agent he sought out.
Brandon scrapped the book, feeling he could do better. Then the couple moved to Memphis.
The small towns they saw when they took trips into Arkansas inspired Brandon's first published book, Arkansas, a gritty crime drama centered on disaffected rural youths.
A string of literary agents passed on the book until McSweeney's publishing house in San Francisco saw its promise.
The book came out in 2008 and sold modestly. The couple hit the road again, while Brandon began writing Citrus County, another gripping look at adolescence through the main character Toby, a troubled young man who commits a terrible crime.
Inspiration for the book's setting came from the rural county Brandon drove through as a college kid, trekking from New Port Richey to Gainesville.
"I never really stopped there. It just had this feeling that I never forgot," he said.
But as Brandon worked on Citrus County, he soon found out the literary world wasn't done with Arkansas yet.
Arkansas appeared on the radar of legendary Southern writer Barry Hannah, a professor at Ole Miss and the man who every year chose a budding young writer for a prestigious writing residency founded by best-selling author John Grisham, who graduated from the Ole Miss law school.
Hannah contacted Brandon and asked him if he wanted to be the next John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence, a yearlong post on the Oxford campus. It was a dream offer that came out of nowhere.
"It's not something you apply for, so I had no idea. And Barry Hannah was one of my heroes, so it was amazing," Brandon said.
Brandon taught on campus and lived in a huge house that each Grisham resident lives in.
"It's a sweet deal. They put you in this house where if someone is on the other side of the house and you yell, they can't hear you," he said.
Even sweeter, the Brandons welcomed a baby boy, Charlie, who is a year old now.
"We move around so much, and we knew we were going to be here for a year, so we said let's do this now," Brandon said.
As it turned out, the Brandons stayed in Oxford a second year, following Hannah's sudden death in 2010. Brandon taught another year as the university found a replacement.
Last year, Citrus County came out to critical acclaim. Brandon now had his pick of agents. He signed with a New York agent.
Brandon's term just ended at Ole Miss, so the family is moving again — this time to Baltimore, for a one-year fellowship at Gilman, a private boy's school.
Brandon's next book is set to publish soon. It "deals with magic," he said.
It's set in New Mexico.