Local singer/songwriter/stay-at-home dad Robert Burke Warren has penned a perfectly unbroken story of all the ways (or many of them, at least) that things can come undone. Some of these ways are instantaneous, such as when inclement weather threatens life and dangerously alters the landscape. Others seem to occur, sneak up on you, when you’re just not listening carefully, like a guitar string that goes out of tune and sours the music. In Perfectly Broken both sorts of changes are visited on a young family, forcing each of the characters to come to terms with infidelity, financial strife and uncertainty. Told from the dad’s perspective, the tale offers readers an alternative take on relational responsibility. And it addresses the basic resilience of human dignity and the possibility of forgiveness.
Perfectly Broken is Burke Warren’s first published novel; two previous novels, he says, schooled him in what it takes to be disciplined and get the job done. “One was a YA novel I wrote as a birthday present for my son, Jack, when he was 10,” he says. “That got the whole ball rolling. I’ve always been a writer, but I hadn’t gone through the process of sitting down and writing a book. We’d moved up here [to the Catskills] in ‘02, and Holly and I read to Jack every night. Then we started making up stories.
“As a surprise, I brought him about ten pages of one of our stories, and he was flabbergasted, like, ‘You can do that?’ It was like Christmas morning. He pestered me to do more. You learn how to write a book by writing, just as you learn how to be a parent by being a parent. It was so fun. Later I got an agent, who shepherded me through a rewrite. Then I wrote another one, a little more skewed towards an older audience.
“I started writing Perfectly Broken after [Hurricane] Irene. I’d been wanting to write a book that I would want to read and recommend to my friends. It’s not as autobiographical as it may seem to people who know me. I took aspects of my life that I thought were unusual and interesting. And then I created that world, and based some of it on the Catskills that I know. All of the characters are inventions.”
“When you began, did you have a plan?” I asked him.
“I didn’t have an outline, didn’t know how it was going to go. I had some bullet points: four couples – the narrator and his wife, two other couples and the neighbors who are significant. I looked at when you’re thrust up against people who seem to have different values, how you’re forced to live with them under certain circumstances. I didn’t know who was going stay together and who wasn’t. I became a sort of spiteful god. I put them all through Hell.
“One of the things that inspired me to do that was – you know, you get to midlife, and the things that happen to these people happen to everybody. Whether you’re a local contractor who plows the roads or a stay-at-home dad/former wannabe rock star or a successful rock star or a writer or a trust fund kid – all the stuff that happens to them is gonna happen to you: the grief, feelings of failure, of incompetence as a parent, worries that you’re gonna repeat the things that happened to you as a kid. I thought it was fascinating, especially in relationships in grief and trauma.”
“You wrote, ‘Death suspends the rules…Bad times do not bring out the best in everyone, apparently.’ So, why do you think people who are in monogamous relationships stray?” I asked him.
“No spoilers, now! Intimacy is a tricky thing. Some people need it more than others, or need different types of it. It can take different forms. Humans need intimacy, and sometimes it becomes destructive, depending on how you put your life together. Trauma can make people more like animals – furry animals. In our culture, too, especially if you’re a secular person, there’re no rituals for death. This sets us apart from the rest of the world. For the most part, this thing happens, and if you don’t wrangle that energy into something symbolic, it will work its way through you one way or another. In the wake of significant trauma, whatever the governing principles of your life are, they kind of get suspended. I’ve seen it happen.
“When you write fiction, you don’t want to write about happy people. It’s kind of boring if no one is learning; even the ugly stuff, that will broaden your sense of the world. This book was a three-and-a-half-year process. I really have to give props to Glaring Omissions, my writers’ group, who gave me feedback. The interesting thing was, in the beginning I would compulsively shield my characters from conflict without realizing I was doing it. My group would call me on it. What fascinated me was, when it came time to put characters through it, I would feel it viscerally. This is fiction, so if I feel uncomfortable, it’s probably good.”
“What about the memoir you’re writing now?” I ask. “Many authors start out writing fiction and then turn to memoir, like Abby Thomas, Mary Karr and Alice Sebold. If you’re immersed in your memoir, does one inform the other?”
“Yes, and I’m also doing a couple of short stories now. My agent keeps saying I have to finish my memoir. Beverly Donofrio has been really a great teacher, too. There were aspects to my own story that I wanted to mine for the novel: The rock ‘n’ roll/ stay-at-home dad stuff was juicy stuff. I sat down with Jack and said, ‘You have to know that this guy is not me and this kid is not you.’ It was tricky. I wanted to have it be that the reader would realize the father is in a beautiful part of his life, but he doesn’t really realize it. I said, ‘This guy complains a lot, and he’s not having nearly as good a time as I’m having with you.’
“Jack’s a writer, too. He’s way ahead of the game. He gets it. I wanted to take that dynamic, and the whole notion of giving your kid what you never had, as if you had to right some cosmic wrong. At the same time, this puts an onus on the kid. If the kid gets a notion that he’s playing a part in this drama that he didn’t ask for, and it’s mostly about his parents, that gives the kid a sense of pressure and responsibility. I wanted to take these kinds of conflicts and turn them into compelling fiction.
“As the book goes on, it becomes ever more fictional. I look at being a stay-at-home dad and what that does to your manhood, parents as sexual beings, feelings of failure and jealously, money woes…and then the weather happens! How do you reconcile not turning into a furry animal? The only thing I think is objectively true about parenting is that time speeds up. Everything else is subjective.”
“How many stories do you think you have in you?”
“Lots! I have this thing, it’s in my genes. My grandfather was longtime entertainment editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Variety; my Mom was a Journalism major. I was a big letter-writer for a long time – an epic letter-writer. But I remember having this distinct sense in my 20s that I didn’t have any stories to tell. I did, but I didn’t recognize them. I also didn’t have the discipline. The work of sitting down and writing stuff you know is not good – you have to suck for a little while and know that you suck, and just work through that. Being in the Hudson Valley has been extremely helpful for me because of the community. You just have to show up; and I had to accept that it would be a lot of work.”
“To have faith in yourself, you mean…”
“It’s amazing,” he says. “I experienced rejection with this book, too. And I’ve submitted a lot of short stories, and I’ve become intimate with rejection. It’s all right; part of the process. If you can go into a room where four stern people are looking at you and sing a song, you can do anything.”
I ask, “Are you afraid of anything?”
“I’m afraid of a lot of stuff. I’m afraid of rejection, even though I know it won’t kill me. I’m dealing with anxiety over how my book will be received. When people say, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ I hate that. I would say: ‘Be afraid. Accept the fear as best you can and work through it. Get to know it, work to understand what it is you’re afraid of and don’t beat yourself up.’ Courage is not the absence of fear; I think it’s plowing through fear. As a performer I always get the jitters – always. One of the benefits of getting old (and not dying), I just don’t give a shit what people think – that is, much, much less than I used to. It’s just not real. If you survive to middle age, you realize the difference between real problems versus problems that are not really problems. There’s not a lot of reality in my book. The real stuff I’m saving for my memoir. But a guiding principle for me is: If someone who hears one of my songs (or reads my novel) thinks it’s real, then that means it’s a good song. It has a resonance to it.”
The author will appear at the Kleinert/James Center next Saturday to read, play songs featured in the story (www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLyQqMOHq3zCLvT4BOc4iAVAQ9U37BXUxB), hold a question-and-answer session and sign books. There will be refreshments.
Robert Burke Warren’s Perfectly Broken book launch, Saturday, March 5, 7 p.m., Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-8000, www.goldennotebook.com/event/robert-burke-warren-perfectly-broken.