Stacy Brewster’s debut collection, What We Pick Up, spans space and time. The stories take place everywhere from rural Oregon to Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, and occur between the 1930s and present day. The collection centers queer characters dealing with their version of family (both of origin and chosen), masculinity, and love. It is available now.
The Mercury recently spoke with Brewster, who lives in Portland, about how the book came together, writing queer aging and queer joy, and how brotherhood is depicted in fiction.
Mercury: How did this book come together? Tell me your book’s story.
BREWSTER: My book’s story is feeling completely bereft of creativity in the first six months of the pandemic, but feeling like I had a body of work going back eleven years. I printed out a manuscript of this [collection] maybe three years ago, and it sat on the shelf as I was working on screenwriting. I was like, “Yeah, it's not quite baked yet. It's going to sit there.”
Finally, something clicked last summer . That was when I started looking at all these stories and seeing that they had something to say to each other. Some were very new. Some were eleven years old, but they were still in conversation with each other in ways that I hadn’t picked up on, not fully yet. I sent it to an editor friend of mine, saying, “you can make sense of this in ways that I can't.” She said, “Actually, let me pitch this to my boss because they’re going to want to publish this.” Then the focus was on putting the bit of juice that I had creatively last year to finish up those stories and really, really think how I wanted to lay it out.
I didn't realize that some stories you had written were that new. I thought everything had been written a decade ago, but they are definitely in conversation with each other. There are reoccurring characters and the themes of queerness, masculinity, brotherhood, and family all run through the book. When you were working on these stories, did you have the collection in mind?
I wish I could credit myself with being conscious of these themes when I was writing these stories. I feel like it's very conscious now. It's very conscious when they started butting up against each other. But in isolation, each of these stories were written apart from each other, but obviously subconsciously I was still working through a lot of the same themes, the same issues. And once I could see that, there was a deflated feeling of I haven't matured at all, or like I'm still working on these same problems, but then I was like, “Oh well, actually, I'm working on these important problems in different ways.” It’s attacking the same trauma, wounding, whatever word you want to bring into it from different angles, from different perspectives. This wasn't an index of the things I had published. It was stories in conversation with each other, even work that was written a very long time ago.
Do you mind if we talk about your TV pilot too?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Because I’ve read your television script, and maybe I haven't read enough of the series, but that's so much about Old Hollywood and queer culture in LA post-World War II. From what I've seen on the project, I don't see a lot about families or brothers and fathers. Is there the notion these themes are what your fiction tends to tackle, where when you write scripts, you want to work on different themes, or is that just the two projects being their own?
They are all part of the same universe for me. The script actually started as a concept for a novel that spanned generations. I've written parts of screenplays that are in Weimar-era Berlin. It’s this threading of queer generations through time.
Did you grow up with brothers?
No. I am a brother. I have older sisters. I have a lot of brothers that I know or straight friends that I'm in relationship with, and I've seen that dynamic a lot. It's a dynamic I'm familiar with. But it's not about brothers. It's about where straightness and queerness intersect in a family.
So, especially with two men in our culture, that dynamic is always something I wanted to write into, whether it's about friendship or fathers and sons, or in these stories, there's a lot of brothers. The concept of brotherhood, outside of the context of a sports team or a military context, how does that show up? We're given a lot of messages from our culture about what these relationships are supposed to look like, and what's good or bad, and that’s the subversive engine behind all of it.
Forever the stories we were allowed to tell as queer/trans people were our coming out stories or our moments of pain and destruction. We don't have a lot of aging queer stories, because we had a giant pandemic that wreaked havoc on a generation of queer people. It seems like you set out to not write stories full of pain or a coming out story, but instead write stories with older characters and some joy.
You mentioned the AIDS epidemic. My entire seminal years, the time I was going to college was during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and early 90s, when it was still an absolute death sentence. The drugs weren’t where they would be by the mid 90s, so I feel that really stunted me. I didn't come out until after college.
I was living in New York City, and I wasn't out. I didn't have these queer elders to show me the path and my chosen family was very small. So, there’s the biological family wounding, but the absence of that other chosen family was just as big of a wound. I wrote into that, from my own experience, from friends’ experience. A bulk of this is fiction, but still the work is to not to just be trauma porn, but to really see people after the trauma is in the past and they’re processing, how they begin to embody and move through and grow from that. Not always successfully. Not all these characters do that successfully.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a feature screenplay right now that I wrote the first draft of during lockdown. I'm going to be working on adapting some of these stories into a screenplay format. I want to explore the connected stories and “The Census Taker” in particular as a short film and see where that goes.
What We Pick Up by Stacy Brewster is available at bookstores now.
Emme Lund lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Boy with a Bird in His Chest.