By Emmanuel Gutierrez |Features Editor|
Critically acclaimed author of “Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir”, screenwriter, and mentor James Brown is a beloved English professor at CSUSB.
One day, a student called, gushing over her favorite professor’s literary accomplishments, the disheartening details of his youth, the awe-inspiring road of self-betterment he walks today, and the humble, generous man she appreciates every day when she walks into class.
Brown’s considering retirement soon, and in effort to hopefully persuade him to stay longer so she may enroll in his master’s program, she requested an exposé on the man.
Suffice to say, the Coyote Chronicle immediately folded at the proposition to acknowledge a living legend—a paradigm for professors everywhere.
The following is an interview between Brown (JB) and myself (EFG).
EFG: Where were you born and raised?
JB: I was born in San Jose, California, and raised there until I was about eight. Then I spent the next six or seven years growing up in some seedy parts of Los Angeles, before returning to east San Jose to live with my father when I was fourteen.
EFG: Where were you educated? And what was your field of study?
JB: I think I must’ve went to 11 or 12 different schools as I was growing up living with my mother. When I returned to San Jose to live with my father, I attended high school a couple years at James Lick on the east side and later Willow Glen on the west side.
I did my undergraduate work at San Francisco State where I majored in English, and my graduate work at UC Irvine where I earned my M.F.A.
EFG: How long have you taught at CSUSB?
JB: A long time. 27 years.
EFG: According to Goodreads.com, the authors listed who’ve most influenced you include Hemingway, Tim O’brien, Virginia Wolff, and Raymond Carver. Do these remain true?
JB: Yes, these writers were an early and major influence on my writing.
EFG: I’m personally most familiar with O’brien’s The Things They Carried, so I can see the power in that story—the story telling—and the prose itself being noteworthy.
Which novels carried the most weight in shaping you and your writing?
JB: I don’t think there was any single book that carried the most weight in shaping my writing, but I think I learned the most about writing from reading Ernest Hemingway. His prose is sharp and clean and powerful. I know of no other writer who weighs his words so carefully, so insightfully. Tim O’Brien is in that same vein, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with him over the years. He’s helped me immensely.
His prose is sharp and clean and powerful. I know of no other writer who weighs his words so carefully, so insightfully.
Tim O’Brien is in that same vein, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with him over the years. He’s helped me immensely.
EFG: To my understanding, “LA Diaries” is under option for a feature film with producer Jude Prest and Lifelike Productions. Any word on that?
How does it feel to potentially have slices of your life on the big screen? How’s the movie business (my friends asked this follow-up question; I apologize for the lack of specificity)?
JB: The movie business is ugly. It’s incredibly hard to get anything made, let alone a good dramatic project, especially if you’re not connected to someone who knows someone with power, clout and money.
Jude Prest is working hard to set up “The Los Angeles Diaries” as a cable-series or feature, and Steven Soberbergh is attached as consultant and advisor.
But Soderbergh needs to commit to producer status for us to see real movement, and I’m told he just might if Jude lays the proper groundwork.
How would it feel to have slices of my life on the big screen? I’m sure there’s a good chance they’ll screw it up, but I should be so lucky to have that complaint.
Fact is, I’d love to see my work make it to the screen. It’s a dream, a big dream, but you never know. I’ll keep hoping.
EFG: Did your past—your history with drugs and alcohol, your relationship with your parents, your siblings’ suicides—have any influence on your decision to go into teaching?
JB: Working with my father in construction, sun up to sun down, made teaching look awfully attractive, so I’d say, yes, doing manual labor for many years influenced my choice to become a professor.
As for the darker part of my life, the substance abuse and the loss of my brother and sister to suicide, no, none of that was a factor in choosing my current profession, though it certainly provided me with material for my memoirs.
But I will say that my brother encouraged me to write from an early age, to read and think critically. He worried about me getting into trouble, and for good reason.
I took a few detours enroute to becoming a writer and teacher, petty crime mostly, and some things you just doesn’t talk freely about.
EFG: Do you have any advice for students who are having difficulties with their own problems? For those who feel like they have nowhere to go but down?
JB: If you’re referring to alcohol and drugs, and I think you are, yes, I do have advice. No matter how fucking bleak life might seem when you’re trapped in that dark, ugly, stinking place called addiction, and no matter how wretched and miserable your situation may seem, do not buy for a second that there is no hope.
Don’t give up. Fight. Fight. So long as there’s hope, there’s the possibility of change, and with change, for the addict and alcoholic, that can mean a whole new lease on life you never imagined possible.
EFG: On ratemyprofessor.com, you’re well-reviewed by students; the top 20 tags that you are associated with include: “Inspirational”, “Amazing Lectures”, “There for You”. And you have that hot chili pepper thing as well—congratulations.
I have not had the pleasure of attending one of your classes, but these tags, and words from current and past students, to me, paint the picture of an excellent educator.
Let’s flip things around. How would you describe the ideal student?
JB: First off, thanks for mentioning all the kind and generous comments from my former students. To flip the question, my ideal students care about their work and take it seriously.
They don’t hesitate to rewrite. They know that we discover what it is that we want to say in the process of attempting to say it and that means revision, sometimes seemingly endless revision.
The ideal writing student is, oddly, something like an addict in that they both suffer from obsession.
EFG: Do you have any advice for writers starting out?
JB: If you want to be a writer, you need to read widely. You need to read good books, and by good I mean well-written, honest books with emotional and intellectual integrity.
You need to write regularly. Like anything else, you need to practice, to train. Write every day.
Put in long hours, and, when for whatever important reason you can’t, squeeze in thirty or forty minutes anyway.
You need to fight through some material to get it right and you need to know when to throw it away. And just like the alcoholic, you can’t give up. You can’t lose hope.
EFG: Which part of the writing process do you find most difficult?
JB: Writing good clean sentences and material of substance. For me, at this stage of the game, if I can’t write something I feel has substance, then I don’t want to do it.
I don’t want to add another book to the world unless I can delude myself into believing that it’s worthy of adding.
EFG: The nature of your works, LA Diaries and the River in particular, are heavy, personal works—your memoirs. Are there any characters or stories you’d never write about—no matter how amazing or interesting—due to personal or ethical reasons?
JB: Yes. I share a great deal of myself and my life and the people I love and those who have loved me in my books, but there are other things left unwritten and unspoken that I’ll take to the grave with me.
EFG: If teachers teach, do professors profess?
JB: I’d say “yes,” writing professors “profess,” or at least I do.
I have certain aesthetic sensibilities regarding language and stories that I believe to be of substance and value, and I’m likely to stress these values when I discuss matters related to craft as I’ve come to learn it through many years of writing novels, memoirs, short stories and screenplays.
EFG: Do you practice anything in particular, a routine or “remedy”, to combat writer’s block?
JB: I’m not a big believer in “writer’s block.” Too often it’s used as an excuse not to write. When you find yourself in a tight spot, you need to work your way out of it.
Sometimes that means wrestling with the story longer and harder. Sometimes that means coming at it from a different angle.
Sometimes it means throwing it away and starting over, fresh, but that decision shouldn’t come easily. You need to put up a good fight first.
EFG: Is there any advice on writing that you would give your younger self if possible?
JB: I wished I’d been more empathetic to characters and people in my work that I didn’t like. I wish I hadn’t wasted so many years drinking.
EFG: In your 27 years of teaching at CSUSB, was there ever a time when you thought “Wow, that was a stupid question”, despite the common notion that such things do not exist?
JB: Do stupid questions in the class exist? Of course. It’s nonsense to suggest otherwise. Do students ask stupid questions? All the time. Have I asked stupid questions?
Absolutely, especially in my personal life, and far too often. But I think what you’re getting at here is how as a professor do I respond to student questions that miss the mark.
I work from the assumption that many students are insecure about talking in class, that they’re afraid to speak up if they don’t understand something, and when they do work up the courage to voice their thoughts and those thoughts aren’t the brightest, am I any kind of teacher, any kind of person to not do my best to answer that question as if it were a fine one?
The professor who humiliates, the professor who embarrasses his students when they’re earnestly trying to understand something is nothing short of an asshole, and God knows we have enough of those in the world.
EFG: To me, you are an exceptionally accomplished person, but is there anything you’d still like to do, or perhaps devote more time to?
JB: I’d like to spend more time with my boys. They’re all grown but they’ll always be my boys. I’d like to spend more time with my wife.
Writing is a solitary act, and though I’d like to write more, as I’m getting older I’m increasingly aware that the clock is ticking and I don’t want to lose too much time in isolation.
EFG: Are the rumors of your retirement true?
JB: Yes. I plan to retire in another year, but I’ll teach part time for a while after that, so I’ll still be around to harass the students.
EFG: I recently interviewed one of your past students, Martin Lastrapes, for his newly released novel. I thought you’d like to see what he wrote:
“EFG: During my research of your works, I came across an article posted on your website concerning your former Professor James Brown and his memoir LA diaries.
Brown, according to one of his current students, is considering retirement from teaching and I was hoping you’d comment on this news.
ML: If James Brown decides to retire, I’d be very happy for him.
He’s had a long career and he’s done a lot of good for a lot of students, so it’s about time he gets a break.
Of course, that’s easy for me to say, because I’ve already enjoyed the benefits of being Brown’s student.
EFG: As a former student of his, how measurable of a loss would his absence be to the campus, the strength of our faculty, and future students daring enough to pursue creative writing?
ML: Honestly, I can’t imagine the creative writing program at CSUSB without Brown in it. For me, my writing improved immeasurably after I came under Brown’s guidance and I know without question that any success I enjoy as a writer will always be linked to the time I spent as Brown’s student.
Even after I graduated, Brown has been someone I’ve leaned on for advice and guidance—and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
I feel sad for the future CSUSB students who won’t get to enjoy Brown’s classes. I trust that the CSUSB brass will fill their classrooms with capable professors, but James Brown is something special and he can’t ever be replaced.”
James Brown’s works, including his most recent, critical success “Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir”, are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.