Barry Brennessel: A Small Town Boy With Big Dreams

Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today, Barry. I’m going to confess to doing a little bit of snooping around your website. You, sir, have a very interesting and varied background in writing, so why don’t we start by having you tell us a bit about yourself?

I guess you could call me a small-town boy with big dreams. I grew up in a village outside Rochester, New York, where I hiked the hills, wandered the railroad tracks and snuck into abandoned buildings, all the while creating stories about what might have happened—or could yet happen–in these locales. I was always armed with a movie camera and a tape recorder and pads of paper.

Always the escapist, I fell in love with movies and television, novels and plays. I dreamt of faraway places. I wrote short stories and screenplays. I tortured family and friends with my Super 8 movies and “radio” programs.

I risk sounding corny here, but through perseverance, hard work, and luck, those boyhood dreams have come true. I managed to see a lot of those faraway places (99 and 44/100 percent of Europe; Japan; Australia; 37 of the 50 states). I found homes for my short stories, and won some awards along the way. I’ve placed in a number screenplay competitions. And—gasp—actually brought a novel into the world (with another on the way).

Was there a defining point in your life when you realized that you wanted to be a writer?

I think it all started in kindergarten. I happened into a second grade classroom one afternoon, where I saw these odd letters posted on the wall. The older students were using these magical symbols called cursive writing! I raced back to my teacher and told her I wanted to draw these letters. So we had a series of one-on-one sessions where I practiced cursive, which was interesting as I was still learning the alphabet at that point. After sort of mastering the tools of the craft, it was on to the stories! Our classroom had piles of stuffed animals, so along with two fellow classmates, we created a land called Animalville and “entertained” grades K through 2 with little plays. It was a stuffed animal soap opera. From then on, I was hooked.

Was there any one person who influenced and encouraged you to follow that dream?

I majored in filmmaking my first year of college. The program was really geared toward technical careers: sound engineering, lighting, etc. I soured on it pretty quickly, because I was far more interested in the scriptwriting aspect. So I changed majors as well as colleges, but felt totally lost that next academic year. Then I discovered my first fiction writing workshop, and the professor who taught it really took a shine to my writing. He was my most influential guide, and I still consider him my mentor. We keep in touch, send each other our latest tomes, and are currently working on a screenplay together.

What was your first book and how long did it take for it to be published?

I wrote a novella, The Price of Silence, based on a short story I’d written in the above-mentioned fiction workshop. It wandered around for some time. But then, after a few months, it found a home! It was released in February. I finished my first novel, The Sulphur Cure, three years ago. I sent it out into the world, and for two years it too wandered and wandered. In the meantime I finished a collection of short stories, Reunion, and yes, off it went and took two wrong turns somewhere and got lost out there. Then came the second novel, Tinseltown, which took about a year to write. I sent it off to MLR Press, and to my shock I received the acceptance letter shortly after! I really did fall off my chair. But you’ll never guess what happened next: both Reunion and The Sulphur Cure were accepted, and will be coming out later this year (from Lethe Press) and early next year (from L&L Dreamspell), respectively. It was kind of a banner year.

To date, how many stories have you written and published?

To be all stylish, I’ve put them in a fancy bulleted list:
• Tinseltown, available from MLR Press, won 3rd PLACE in the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest
• Nagasaki, published in Polari Journal Issue 2 (October 2010), was a FINALIST in the 2010 Dana Awards, and will appear in the short story collection Reunion, upcoming from Lethe Press
• Shin-Kiba Park, published in Gival Press’s ArLiJo, was nominated for a 2008 Pushcart Prize and will appear the short story collection Reunion, upcoming from Lethe Press
• The Price of Silence, published by L&L Dreamspell, was a FINALIST in the 2009 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest and received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• The Sulphur Cure, upcoming in 2012 from L&L Dreamspell, was a FINALIST in the 2006, 2008, and 2009 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contests and received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• The Darkest Recesses (short story collection) received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition and was a SEMI-FINALIST in the International Competition #14
• Ficelle, published in SNReview, Summer 2007 received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• A Rather Salty Little Farce, a La Carte (short story) received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• A Special Kind of Folk, which appears in the Dreamspell Nightmares anthology from L&L Dreamspell, received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• Pot Roast (short story) received HONORABLE MENTION in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• The Gift: Home Is Where the Hearts Are (teleplay) was a FINALIST in the 2006 & 2008 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contests
• The Simpsons: She Derided Me With Science (teleplay) won 3rd PLACE in the 79th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition and was a SEMI-FINALIST in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• The Simpsons: What a Revoltin’ Development (teleplay) received HONORABLE MENTION in the 74th Annual Writers’ Digest Competition and was a SEMI-FINALIST in both the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition and the International Competition #14
• The Simpsons: A Spoonful of Medicine Helps the Medicine Go Down (teleplay) was a SEMI-FINALIST in the WriteSafe Art & Writing Competition
• The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Branching Out (teleplay) was a FINALIST in the WILDsound Winter 2011 Screenplay Contest

How long does it generally take for you to finish a manuscript?

Some stories just spill out and I can finish them in weeks to a couple months, while others are like squeezing blood from a stone (or turnip, if you prefer) and take a year or two.

Do you approach the writing of a screenplay/teleplay differently than you would a novel?

I do, yes. Film and TV have their own visual language, and fairly rigid timeframe (thirty minutes, sixty minutes, two hours). Whereas in a novel the narrator can spend a paragraph or two or even a couple pages describing a setting or a sensation or can take us into the mind of a character, the filmmaker has to communicate these things in a far different manner.

Which would you say is easier to write, comedy or drama?

I can’t say comedy is easier to write, per se, but it does come more naturally. Getting the emotional pitch just right with drama is a little trickier.

If you could co-author a screenplay/teleplay or novel with any one writer, who would that be?

In the screenplay department, there are so many to choose from, but I would have to pick (assuming the pool consists of both the living and the dead) Jean Cocteau. His eerily brilliant film Orphée still gives me goosebumps to this day. Oh, to work with a mind like that.

If I were co-authoring a novel, I might choose Truman Capote, one of my favorite authors. But working with him, I suspect, would be, to quote Margo in All About Eve, a bumpy ride.

Do you typically outline your plots before you begin the writing process, or do you write in a more freestyle fashion?

I never outline. I let the characters lead me along.

Do you write full time? If not, how many hours per day do you attempt to dedicate to your writing?

I do write full time. Each day is different. Sometimes I’m chained to the desk for seven, eight, or nine hours, and other times I’ll write for an hour, come back for another half-hour, ten minutes here, twenty minutes there….

Is Tinseltown based on any of your own life experiences?

Hm…well I did earlier admit I was a film student. And some of Micah’s friends might faintly resemble mine. And I did live in Seattle.

It’s said that fiction is autobiography in a dream. That’s true, to a degree. I won’t go so far as to paraphrase Flaubert by saying Micah, c’est moi, but…ya know. *shrugging shoulders*

Of all the characters you’ve created, do you have one in particular who stands out among the others as a favorite? If so, who and why?

Oh, tricky! It’s like choosing a favorite child! Hmm…not an easy task, but if I had to pick one, it would likely be Helen Sage-Brown from The Sulphur Cure. She’s a delightfully off-balance beauty holed up in a decaying health resort that she claims to loathe, but, in truth, could never abandon. And just when you think she’s confused, she reads someone’s mind. She comes off as strong, confident and self-reliant, but her vulnerability bubbles up in subtle and affecting ways.

Do you find you have your characters’ names chosen before you begin the writing process, or do they name themselves as their stories evolve?

I always pick the names first. Names do evoke some sense of personality. (There is something off about a buff stud named Elmer or a history professor named Rory, unless you’re going for some quirky comic effect). Sometimes the name will change, but I really need that anchor before starting a story. And besides, that’s always the fun part: choosing a name!

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received with respect to the art of writing? How did it change the way you approach your craft?

You hear this a lot, but there’s no wiser advice: read, read, read. Again, that’s read, read, read!! You learn so much about the craft when you see how other authors have done certain things. It’s the same with filmmaking (watch, watch, watch!). You discover how much is communicated in Citizen Kane with a single shot while a less-skilled filmmaker might have two talking heads filling us in for fifteen minutes with bad dialogue and special effects.

Will you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?

1. It’s a tough business. I mean, tough! You have to keep pushing yourself even after that 500th rejection letter. You have to knock on a lot of doors before one will even open a crack. You really really have to be persistent, and that means being ready to revise something many times before sending it out, and sending it out again and again after it comes back to you with “Rejection” written all over it. And then revising it yet again.
2. After you’ve been published, steel yourself for criticism. Some people will love what you’ve written, others may loathe it. You can always learn from criticism, because you’ll never write the “perfect” story. But don’t ever let your inner-critic stop you from moving that pen!
3. Don’t ever ignore the small presses. Sure, we all dream of the million-dollar book contract from Random House. A handful of writers have managed that. But what’s important is getting your work into readers’ hands, and there are great small presses out there that aren’t so hung up on the financial end of what they put out there but more on the quality end, and they’re far more willing to experiment with a story that might not fit into some “traditional” category.

If you were to offer a word of advice to a new author just starting out, what would it be?

The three R’s: Read, Revise, Re-submit. And don’t give up!

Do you have a most memorable fan experience?

Well, I’m not sure how many fans I have out there, besides my mom, but I did receive a wonderful comment on my website recently from someone who told me they read Tinseltown while trapped in a commuter nightmare, and that he “fell in love with the story, the main character and everyone in it. It blew me away.” It was amazing that a quirky story from my crazy brain could touch someone in that way.

How much of yourself, your life experiences, and the people you know manifest themselves into your characters?

I think all my characters have some aspect of me, if even a trace, and friends and family. And many characters are based on observations of the General Public. And bits and pieces of my life experiences will work their way into the stories. But there’s so much invention I have to do as well. Of course I never lived in the hills of New Hampshire in the 1930s, or had a crazy woman blackmailing me over the death of my wealthy aunt, or was sketched, after having sex with a young man, by an elderly man who survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.

When you have the chance to sit down and enjoy some quiet reading time, what sorts of books are you most likely to pick up? Who are your favorite authors?

In the same way I listen to music, my book reading is all over the map. And I read several at the same time. My mind is able to mark a story, and I can pick it right back up even if I’ve been away from it for a couple weeks. So I might sit down and read Willa Cather, then a history of the Golden Gate Bridge, a film script or two, a collection of Japanese short stories (translated, of course).

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I envy actors, singers and dancers. Again, not the easiest fields to find gainful employment. But, wow, if only I could do Broadway!

My second choice would be a train engineer. Whoo whoo!

Aside from writing, what else do you enjoy doing? Do you have any hobbies?

I love gardening, despite its frequent frustrations. I have a fascination with antique telephones, music from the 1920s, skyscrapers, classic cars. Wine tasting is enjoyable. Those cooking programs are fun to watch, too, as I envy chefs.

If time travel were possible, what time period(s) would you most like to visit? Why?

Ancient Rome. What a fascinating civilization. I can’t get over the technical and artistic levels they achieved. Of course, with my luck I’d end up facing a lion in the Coliseum. But you never know. I might meet some wayward lad sunning himself on the side of the Appian Way….

If you had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with one famous person, either past or present, who would you choose and why?

Ben Franklin. I have a feeling a dinner party with him would be one crazy night.

How would you describe your sense of humor? What makes you laugh?

I appreciate wit.

And there are three “humor categories” that most often make me laugh:

One is a sort of “structured lunacy”—where you have a colossal clash of personalities tripping over themselves in the confines of a social setting. The best example of this is Fawlty Towers.

Another category is the outright skewering of society and all its hypocrisy. The best example of this would be the early John Waters movies, especially Female Trouble.

And the third would be those everyday slapstick moments that I seem to have several times a day, but funny only when they’re happening to someone else (I guess with my German last name I should qualify that as Schadenfreude): the person dropping his cell phone into a mud puddle, the Mercedes driver stalling out in front of the girl he’s trying to impress, etc.

Do you have an all time favorite fictional character?

Gustav von Aschenbach from Death in Venice. Such a study in loneliness, desperation, longing, hope, demise. Each time I read the novella I come to understand this man on a different level.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

I loathe rudeness in all its forms. From texting in a theater to cutting in line to yelling on a cell phone to whispering and pointing.

Do you have a favorite personal mantra, quote, or saying that describes your outlook on life and the way you approach each day?

I do have a personal favorite though being an imperfect human I don’t always live up to it:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Do you speak more than one language? If so, which one(s)?

I have a degree in French, and lived in France for a semester. At that time, I would call myself hovering in-between conversant and fluent, but now I consider myself “tres rusty.”

Of all the modern conveniences, which one would you most likely say you couldn’t live without?

The dishwasher is my best friend.

Do you have any new projects coming up that you’d care to share with us?

Look for my short story collection Reunion to come out this year, and my second novel The Sulphur Cure in early 2012. I’m now at work on my third novel, set during the Gold Rush days in California. It focuses on the racism facing the Chinese, and love that grows between two young men at that time.

Thanks again for spending some time with us, Barry. Will you tell us where we can find you on the Internet?

Thanks so much for having me. It’s been an honor.

Goodreads: Barry Brennessel on Goodreads
GLBT Bookshelf: Barry Brennessel on the GLBT Bookshelf
L&L Dreamspell: Barry Brennessel on L&L Dreamspell
Manic Readers: Barry Brennessel on Manic Readers Barry Brennessel’s Page on Amazon

And we’d love if you’d share a favorite excerpt from one of your books with us.

Here’s an excerpt from the short story “Nagasaki”, which appears in Reunion:

A branch scraped against the window. That’s what Yuji thought at first, but this seemed closer, from inside, near where he lay. He felt Toru’s breath on his neck, an irregular rhythm. Perhaps he was dreaming. They were nude, with only a sheet covering them, the bedspread bunched up at their feet. Only a small amount of light shone in the room.

The scraping sound continued. He couldn’t make out what it was. He lifted his head, and Toru let out a soft grunt, then rolled over to face the wall.

Yuji spotted the figure, seated in front of the window, hunched over a large block of wood resting in his lap. His hand moved back in forth in synch with the scraping sound.

“Lie back, lie back,” the man said. It was Takahishi-san.

“What is it?” Toru mumbled, his eyes still closed.

“Turn him, please,” Takahishi-san said.

“Turn him?”

“To face you again, as you were before.”

Yuji put his hand on Toru’s shoulder and gently nudged him. Toru turned over and buried his face in Yuji’s shoulder.

“Good, good,” the man said as he resumed sketching. “So, then, was he pleasing?”


“Last night. Here. You both were cuddled together so tightly this morning I assumed there was genuine affection between you.”

“It was very pleasing,” Toru said, surprising them, for it seemed he was still sound asleep. He kissed Yuji’s nose.

“I am almost done here,” Takahishi-san said. “We can have breakfast shortly.”

“Will you give us enough time?” Toru said.

The man laughed. “You can minimize time. The bath fits two.”

Toru kissed Yuji’s forehead. “Oh, a bath too. That’s a very good idea.”

Takahishi-san laughed again.

At breakfast Toru was silent. He ate slowly, his eyes downcast. Though it looked as if he were studying the dishes before him, he wasn’t focused.

“It takes him some time to fully wake up,” Takahishi-san explained.

Toru nodded, like a small child, his gaze still elsewhere. Yuji wondered if he lived here with Takahishi-san, or if he was a merely a “regular visitor,” so to speak. He watched as Toru dipped into his bowl of umezuke and brought the chopsticks to his mouth—those beautiful lips—in such a smooth, graceful motion, despite his sleepiness. He couldn’t understand why, but Toru’s lack of attention was causing a tightness in his chest. He wondered if he’d done something wrong, or if Toru was routinely comatose after sex, or when his stomach was empty. This was all such a stark contrast to the way he behaved the night before, and earlier, when they’d made love first in bed, then in the bath. He longed for another kiss, even a brief peck on the cheek. That mouth was such a work of art. He wondered how it had been represented in the sketch that Takahishi-san had been working on.

“Sasaki Yuji, you—I must admit—took some time to discover. As for Miyake Toru here, I found him rather quickly after I’d decided to embark on this project.”

Toru slurped from his miso when his name was mentioned, as if on cue.

“What is…the project?” Yuji asked.

Toru turned and looked into his eyes. Yuji’s heart fluttered. How had this boy captivated him so in just one night?

“We are models,” Toru said, proudly.

“Of good behavior?” Yuji said.

Toru laughed. Yuji’s heart fluttered again.

Silence then hung in the air. Apparently no one wished to embellish on the nature of this project.


  1. Barry,
    Karen McGavisk-Sawdey found this on-line for us. Congratulations on your success! I think you are the only one from the Class of ’82 who is famous! This is fantastic. And I’m so thrilled you’ve incorporated some of your childhood memories into your writing. I wish you continued success. My brother-in-law is an English professor at MCC and I forwarded your link to him. He has had a couple of poetry books published.
    It was great to find you!
    Jenni White-Leuzzi


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