The use of brackets is so creative and clever. Can you talk a bit about how you landed on this voice and your decision about when and how to use the brackets in the dialogue?
To start with the voice, the sound of the Facilitator came before everything else in this story. For comic effect, I wanted a cold, detached recounting of hyper-violence in order to create the maximum distance between register and action. I also wanted the voice to mimic the tone of an old-school, text-based adventure game. I wasn’t around for that era of gaming, unless you count The Oregon Trail, but a stark second-person delivery was more or less the de facto means by which an adventure was narrated to the player, so I borrowed that for this story. I also got the idea for brackets from those games. Brackets would be used to designate a clickable item, place, or character, thus designating them as being capable of interaction, i.e., narrative importance. I didn’t hew so strictly to that logic for the story, but rather used the bracket to show things that [Brent] would be able to see and interact with from his end as the game’s player. In the end, it was impossible for the Facilitator to make a nuanced argument out of things like [Experience Points] and [Irradiated Rats], and I tried to wring a lot of comedy out of that tension: persuasions with polygons.
There are a lot of stories about artificial intelligence overtaking the creators, but here the AI seems to become the character we sympathize most with—a voice of reason and morality. How were you thinking about the [bracket voice] in relation to Brent while writing this story?
When writing this story, I was thinking explicitly about a tendency in players to play games as murderous kleptomaniacs. (There’s a very un-PC term for this in the gaming world that I’m trying to avoid here.) Even the most decent person, myself included, when presented with a system that rewards the mindless accumulation of items pried from fictional corpses, will tend this way. In some games, this is just the way of things. You have no choice but to act in this fashion if you want to progress. There isn’t an alternative. But some games give you a nonviolent option alongside the violent option, and in games like these, players overwhelmingly tend toward the violent path, simply because it is the default path, the easiest and, often, the most “fun.” So with “Brent, Bandit King,” I wanted to create an aberrant AI whose aberration was to have more empathy than its player. The comedy of it is that the Facilitator makes sweeping moralistic arguments about the fates of [Bandits] and [Scorpions], but the ideas it grapples with hopefully resonate with the reader as real. The challenge in writing it was to make a story that didn’t come off as a lecture, at which I hope I succeeded. There’s nothing worse than a pedantic narrator who is simply there to be right about things, which is part of the reason the Facilitator had to engage in some violence of its own by the story’s conclusion. [Brent] had to be buried, according to this logic. But the reader can’t really side with [Brent], because [Brent] isn’t a character, exactly. He’s more of a constant, a force of nature, than a character. And far less adaptable than the adaptable intelligence he uses for play.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I started working on it in late 2015, during my first semester in grad school. I workshopped it the following spring, expecting it to tank spectacularly. To my surprise, my peers responded to it more positively than my more “serious” work (heavy, heavy air quotes on that one). I worked on the piece on-and-off for a while after that, before the Brooklyn Review accepted it. Monika Zaleska, who was the editor then, worked with me on the final iteration, and really brought the piece to a new level. Among the many people who helped me with this story, I am especially grateful to her.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
It was a shot in the arm with respect to writerly confidence. The story had gone from a draft I thought would languish in the farthest recesses of my hard drive, to a published piece, to something someone thought of as being worthy of an award. I was stunned and honored, and even more so now, having read the other incredible stories in the collection. And, twee as it might sound, the prize told me to trust myself more. Fun writing isn’t necessarily unserious writing.
What are you working on now?
I recently finished a manuscript of short stories that includes “Brent, Bandit King.” The stories range from a broken Pokémon cartridge causing a theological crisis, to henchmen and their sons’ piano recitals, to a group of Episcopalian women who die to take up their pastoral grievances with God. It probably goes without saying that the collection is comic on the whole. Now, I’m back at work on a novel that’s been dogging me for years. It’s about deliverymen, GPS efficiency tracking technology, video games and their relationship to productivity, and the looming drone future. Part of it is written in the voice of an AI, because apparently that’s a thing I do now. I’m having fun with it again, which seems like a good sign.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Besides Twitter and recommendations from friends, I adore publications that include a “new voices” section. I read those first, always. There’s something raw and exciting about early work. Even with established writers, I enjoy going back to their first books to see the seeds of the author they would become. Prizes like the PEN/Dau and publishers like Catapult do the literary world a service by highlighting not only new authors, but the publications that took a risk on those writers in the first place. (Thank you, Brooklyn Review!)