Monica Brashears’ debut novel, House of Cotton, comes out this April.
Monica Brashears (‘19) double-majored in English (Creative Writing) and Africana Studies. Afterward, she enrolled in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, receiving her MFA in 2022. She grew up in Luttrell, TN, about 20 miles outside Knoxville. Her debut novel House of Cotton is set for publication by Flatiron Books in April 2023. She caught up with a former instructor, Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
GCV: First of all, congratulations. What it’s like to have your debut novel coming out soon? How do you feel?
MB: I feel quite excited and grounded, I think because I’m more focused on the second book. So it’s not consuming me entirely, which is nice. Publishing is so strange that there’s a stretch of just nothing and then, here’s some news, or here’s some task to do, and it all comes together and then it’s quiet again. So it ebbs and flows.
GCV: Your time at UT was part of the process for the genesis of this novel. Right?
GCV: Tell me more about that.
MB: I’ve been writing since I was a kid but I didn’t really have classes to give me structure, or I didn’t know where my influences really were, because my house mostly was just a lot of Bibles and Stephen King, and I can’t write like Stephen King, and I’m afraid of the Bible. So this is really where I found the writers who I love, and felt a little like home, and also some poetry courses. I took two classes with Bill Larsen, and got all of these different ways of learning to be visual and thematic and lyrical, tightening the language in poetry courses, the ethics of truth with nonfiction, any class where I could read something that I otherwise would not have had access to. I definitely had a very nice foundation before grad school.
GCV: And you started this novel in Professor Hebert‘s class?
MB: Yes. It was such a terrible short story and he was so very kind. Because I was still trying to be like Stephen King. That was the first class that I was really encouraged to be generative because there were daily exercises and we spent time on revision.
GCV: Did you always want to be a novelist?
MB: I started my first novel in fifth grade because I took the creative writing assessment and I got good feedback, and I was like, “Oh, I actually had fun doing this. Maybe I would like to be a writer.” So it was around then.
GCV: So when you came to college, you decided to major in English?
MB: Yes, because Stephen King, who was the only writer I knew well, I think I read in his On Writing that he majored in English. He did this, so well, I’ll do this. And I’m glad I did. Lots of opportunities to be generative.
GCV: What would you tell a young writer dreaming about publishing, or say an undergrad at UT, thinking about it, but perhaps afraid of how difficult it is?
MB: I would say to read broadly, even if the premise sounds like the worst. Read and write outside of your comfort zone but also don’t put so much pressure on reading tons or being generative. Go live life and prime yourself to be aware of all the absurdities you encounter on a daily basis. Because they’re out there. Every time I go outside, something strange happens and it is a nice inspiration.
GCV: Great, that segues to my next question. This novel really gives you a good sense of Knoxville. You bring up issues like homelessness or the status of our Planned Parenthood clinic. There are a lot of descriptions in particular of Broadway. There’s a funeral home that I feel like I know. Was it important for you to write about Knoxville?
MB: Yes, it was. It just felt so urgent to me because I needed to go to the dentist. I was terrified. I knew I had cavities. I was so scared I was gonna have heart issues because of it. And I was like, this is ridiculous. I need a book deal right now. So I was writing from a place of that blue flame, and for me, Knoxville has that. It’s all I’ve known, really, for most of my life. All of my experiences are just braided throughout the streets.
GCV: You moved to Knoxville for college, or were you here before?
MB: I moved my freshman year and then I ended up commuting the rest of the time, but my father lives in Knoxville. That 40-minute drive was basically like driving across half of Knoxville, just soaking in everything. I was struck by Broadway a lot because it hasn’t really changed from my childhood.
GCV: Can you tell me about the Gothic elements in the novel? Is there a reason you went Gothic? Obviously, there’s also a long tradition of the Gothic and the South and perhaps you were exposed to that in some of your classes?
MB: Yes, I would say the texts that I’m most drawn to are in the Gothic tradition, like Faulkner or Jesmyn Ward. Growing up as a black girl in a very small town, I had this very complicated relationship with the South and with Appalachia, where these terrible things would happen because of my makeup. But the land – I love the land so much. So I would spend a lot of time outside as a little girl, and I would try to reckon with, in very elementary ways, how can I love this place but the people in the place hate me. That naturally brings forth the darkness, while also emphasizing the beauty. And growing up Southern Baptist, that’s just a whole other level of fear that also holds hand with the Gothic tradition. So lived experiences, I’d say.
GCV: That makes sense. That was also another question I had. Obviously, it’s a novel that really is thinking about race, even the title. Can you elaborate on what you wanted to do with regards to that history?
MB: Absolutely. What I didn’t want to do is a modern retelling of slavery because I don’t think fictionalizing that is necessary when you can very much still see the impacts of slavery today. And the name [Cotton]: I think names are very important, and I love naming. It’s just so interesting when you see old money, it’s usually traced back to slavery or something terrible. So that is why his name is Cotton. So that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to highlight the current injustices while also saying, this is where it stems from. But it’s not like, remember the past, wasn’t that terrible? Because no, it’s still around.
GCV: First novels often build on autobiographical elements, and clearly, Magnolia, the main character, has some things in common with you. How do you negotiate pulling from your experiences but also being creative and not being limited by your own personhood?
MB: That is something I don’t really think too hard about and maybe I should. It’s interesting because I read something about Issa Rae regretting writing a memoir in her mid-twenties because she felt she had exposed too much. And I don’t really feel that way now with the debut, but it’ll be interesting in the future to see.
GCV: You mentioned your next novel and I was wondering if you could tell us more about that.
MB: Yes, I’m actually going to begin revising again shortly. I love film noir. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Elevator to the Gallows. There’s this scene where this woman is walking through the streets, looking for her lover, and it’s just saxophone. She looks so devastated. It’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen, and usually I write from a place of longing. I was like, I want to be in black and white, and I want to look so devastated and beautiful but since I can’t do that, I decided to write a novel where someone like me was devastated and beautiful and almost in black and white. So I brought it to the trailer park, and the bad guy is the landlord and the elevation there is through heirlooms. Film noir usually centers around boredom with wealth, and then that’s where the existentialism comes up. But what does murder look like if it’s not just to get more, if it’s just a means to survive?
GCV: Hearing you, it strikes me that you’ve moved between two genres, the Gothic and mystery or noir. Is there something particularly appealing to you about genre? Obviously, your writing is also literary fiction, but it seems like you have a taste for these sensational genres.
MB: Yes, I think that is because of what I was raised around. I wasn’t raised watching film noir, but my mother was very much into horror movies. And even just living in a small town in the South, people are fairly loud, fairly dramatic. I do enjoy quiet literary fiction, I enjoyed Ulysses, going deep into the psychology of Joyce, this strange dude. But I think I’m still intrigued mostly by drama and being very dramatic in different ways and that’s usually through genre. But I’m curious to see if that changes as I continue writing.
GCV: How many novels do you have planned?
MB: I have another one in me. I went to Ireland. It’s my entire personality right now, and I think it’ll be set there.
GCV: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about craft. How did your classes in English help you with the craft of writing?
MB: Recently on the pre-sale tour, I met with booksellers, and one of them asked, “Did you study poetry?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Oh, that makes sense.” I hadn’t really thought about it. But being a lyrical writer means having the space to kind of zoom in and focus on what the sound of the language is doing, and then transferring that over to fiction. Even now I try to practice poetry, like when I’m on a flight. I have a Notes app, and I’ll just start listing words that I really like the sound of, and then I’ll see some commonalities between them.
GCV: I was also struck reading your novel, Magnolia speaks in a particular way and I was wondering about how you developed her voice.
MB: Being concerned with music, that was just how she came to me. I don’t want to sound too woo-woo, she just came to me in a dream, speaking and singing. Also with the thread of hiding behind pounds of makeup and shape-shifting, I needed her home to be evident throughout, the core of herself, and for her, that’s her voice, her weird, wacky voice.
GCV: The novel is very much focused on death, and obviously that’s an element in the Gothic. It’s kind of striking for someone so young.
MB: Growing up Southern Baptist, there were many sermons focused on either saving the soul or what the apocalypse might look like. A family member had a phase where he wanted to be a preacher, so he read Revelations to us across a span of weeks. So that was on my mind. Then also I went to DC in eighth grade around 2012 – the world was going to end. There were a few predicted ends of the world, and so I was very anxious because the Church said these things were true. And I was just waiting any moment for the world to blink to black or burst into flames.
GCV: I was also thinking this book could really work well as an adaptation. Have your editors or publishers shopped it around?
MB: I’m working with a film agent at CAA, and I don’t really know what’s happening. I think after the book release, we’ll meet again and form a plan, so fingers and toes crossed. If you see Quentin Tarantino lurking the streets of Knoxville, flag him down.
GCV: It’s true, he needs to make a movie set in Knoxville. He was born here but he hasn’t done any serious representation of our fair town. Your novel might be just the thing.