What Novelists Can Learn From Playwrights

Brontez Purnell on writing fiction from a theater background

A portrait of Brontez Purnell with colored triangles
Melissa Dale Neal
Editor’s Note: Read Brontez Purnell’s new short story, “Early Retirement.”

“Early Retirement” is taken from Brontez Purnell’s forthcoming novel-in-stories, 100 Boyfriends (available on February 2). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Purnell and Amy Weiss-Meyer, a deputy managing editor of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Amy Weiss-Meyer: In the first few lines of the story, the narrator, Antonio, describes his new habit of applying Preparation H to the bags beneath his eyes. It’s a darkly funny introduction to a character who is both vain and shiftless, self-conscious but unapologetically himself. What, to you, are the primary uses of humor in storytelling?

Brontez Purnell: Sometimes I feel like I write fiction from a strong theater background—fiction is drama, and the story has to move. In my head humor and drama are such close siblings. Fraternal twins, maybe? One is always coming out of the other. Also, the character in the story, Antonio, is experiencing a deep depression, and there are ways (sometimes) when in those bouts we become these funny characters. Like, people who show up to CVS in complete pajamas and slippers—midday, no less. Are these people deeply depressed? Oh, hell yeah. Are they kind of funny to watch? Yes. I just like Antonio as a character because you can tell he likes, or at the very least is certainly not afraid of, who he’s become.

I feel like I use humor as a tool the same way my characters are using it: as a flotation device, a defense mechanism, a point at which to rest or energize. What can’t humor do, really? I like taking risks in my writing, and using humor is kind of based in risk—it can sometimes be dismissed as lacking intellectual rigor, and worse still be seen as lowbrow. I think all good theater and literature should run the zodiac of feelings: Some of it should be sad, some of it profound; some of it should be boring and some of it should jump completely off the cliff. Whatever vehicle I’m using, I’m always trying to arrive at a certain sense of balance.

Weiss-Meyer: Some of the funniest asides in your writing are also the most cutting: on the gentrification of San Francisco, for instance, or white neoliberals. Do you see your fiction as a form of social commentary?

Purnell: I’m really, really Black and really, really gay so by design anything I write becomes “social commentary.” It’s sooooooooo exhausting. I have always wanted to have Walter Cronkite’s very specific white-man privilege; they literally called him “the most trusted man in America.” Like, whatever came out of his mouth was the honest-so-help-me-God truth. I would really hope that’s where my social commentary would vibrate someday, at the same pitch as that. That said, I would also like to quote a writer friend of mine and say, “I’ve done too much petty hustling to be wildly credible”—again, truth. As for my relentless attack on whiteness, I can assure any offended white neoliberals that I have only about as much contempt for white neoliberal fundamentalism as it has for me.

Weiss-Meyer: Antonio is a struggling actor who’s nearly ready to quit the field. He wants applause, but has grown uncomfortable with direct attention. Is that dilemma primarily a professional one, or is it playing out in his personal life too?

Purnell: Strictly professional. All plot and drama aside, he’s really just like any person who has come to hate his job. This story is about an actor, but could have easily been about a teacher, a pilot, a professional skateboarder, a tech engineer. He’s a marijuana grower by trade, which is seasonal work. He’s reexamining the seasons in his life, and deciding he has to make a change if he wants to grow and be happy.

Weiss-Meyer: The phrase early retirement implies a choice to voluntarily walk away from one’s profession. In Antonio’s case, the final blow to his career comes when he gets drunk and blacks out during a performance—his “onstage retirement party.” Is there a sense of joy, or liberation, to be found in the ruins of a career?

Purnell: I think sometimes that we as people can behave like shook-ass octopuses in times of distress—like, totally gnaw our own arm off to get out of a situation. That said, though his exit was violent and bloody, I think Antonio mostly feels a liberation or a weight let off his shoulders.

Weiss-Meyer: Throughout the story, Antonio references the feeling of being underwater, which, depending on his mood, can be either comforting or disconcerting. He also spends time working near a lake poisoned with mercury, in a place where he needs to make special trips to the store to procure drinking water. What is the function of water as a metaphor in the story?

Purnell: It works in a lot of ways. When he’s listening to the highway at night and intuiting it as hearing the ocean, he’s conjuring a kind of peace for himself. But then there’s this other battle with water as bell jar, making everything dense and murky, and there’s a hard distortion on how to move ahead, or where to file memories. He’s intensely tethered to both metaphors.

Weiss-Meyer: The task of “killing all the boys” (eliminating male plants from the marijuana crop he tends) suits Antonio, as does working alone. Is the alienation temporary, or does it signal a larger shift toward solitude? Is he done seeking applause?

Purnell: I think certainly for the time being he’s done, but again, this story had a strong sense of “seasons” to it. He’s done for this season of his life, but I can’t say what that character would do in the long run. He has a certain combustible quality, right?

By Brontez Purnell

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