Brian Panowich joins us Saturday, July 11, at 5 PM on BookPeople’s second floor for a Happy Hour celebrating the release of his debut novel, Bull Mountain. Panowich is joined by special musical guests The Dan Adams Band, who will perform a song written for the novel.
– Interview by Scott M.
Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain is an attention-getting debut dealing with two brothers on the opposite sides of the law. Brian will be joining us for a discussion and signing of the book on July 11th and was kind enough to accept this opening barrage of questions.
MysteryPeople: Family plays a big part in Bull Mountain. What did you want to explore with that idea?
Brian Panowich: Mainly that family, not only relationships between fathers and sons, but mothers and daughters, siblings, and even husbands and wives inform your every decision, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s the strongest bond imaginable between any group of people, and simply deciding to not be a part of where or who you come from isn’t nearly as easy as it may seem. Even that decision was informed by blood. Especially in the South, where a family’s heritage is entrenched into the land they live on. A family goes way beyond just its name and traditions, and this book digs deep into how those bonds can blur the lines–and in some cases completely erase them–between what is considered good and evil. What one person thinks of as evil, may very well be what another thinks is the right thing to do by their family.
MP: Does family take on something different in the place you write about?
BW: I think so. I’m an army brat and my small family of four was like a satellite circling the rest of my relatives who were spread out all over the country, but after meeting my wife, a native of North Georgia, and setting root here, I was fascinated at how interconnected her kin were with the area they’re from. The sense of pride and belonging to something that is just for them is overwhelming in the South. It’s unlike anywhere else I’d ever lived. The idea of leaving, or not being a part of the place they love isn’t even an option to them. Home is absolutely not where you hang your hat. Home is the familiar dirt and land that has sustained them for decades. As a kid, I never lived anywhere for more than two years at a time. I’m not in touch with a single person I’ve ever known from the years before my father retired in Georgia, and just the idea that my wife not only knows, but still remains close, to people that were born in the same room of the same small county hospital as her is mind-bending to me.
MP: Clayton Burroughs is such an interesting character in the sense, he has the possibility of going any direction. What was the trick to writing him?
BW: The appeal of writing Clayton was that the conflict he struggled with was never about him wanting to “do the right thing” or “to right his family’s wrongs”. His internal conflict came from knowing he wasn’t cut from the same cloth the rest of the Burroughs clan were. He knew he was a disappointment to his father. He knew he couldn’t do the things his brothers were capable of doing to preserve their way of life. He’d known it since he was a boy, and that guilt of not living up to the Burroughs name forced him to make hard decisions that would eventually put him at odds with the same people that reared him. I don’t even think Clayton was drawn to the law as a way to make amends for his family’s sins as much as it was a way of sticking it to them, like getting the last word. That non-allegiance to either side made him unpredictable and volatile, and that’s the kind of character I wanted to write.
MP: This being a debut, did you draw from any influences?
BW: I have no doubt I incorporated a ton of what I’ve learned by reading other people into this book. I don’t think it’s possible not to. Elmore Leonard’s books taught me so much about dialogue, world-building, and how to make every word on the page necessary, so I’m sure my love of his books will come through to his readers, and the epic scale that I wanted to convey in Bull Mountain is clearly drawn from my love of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy. I’m sure there is a lot more of my influences in there too, folded and stirred into what I wanted this book to be, but the end result I think is uniquely me, and uniquely Georgian. I also think as long as I continue to read great writers, great writers will continue to help me refine my own voice.
MP: Each of your chapters come off as these well-crafted short stories. How did you approach constructing them?
BW: I knew the first chapter and the last before I even sat down to write the first word. I made a one page outline committing a sentence or two to each chapter in between those bookends as a road map, and then I just let the rest of it unfold as I went. If I thought the story needed to go back in time, I wrote a chapter from that era. If I thought someone else I hadn’t originally planned to expand on had more to say, I wrote a chapter from that person’s perspective. I really didn’t follow any rules. I wasn’t even sure what the rules were. I’m still not sure I know now. I just wrote the story the way I thought it should be told. Not a lot of the process was spent on compiling it them right way. Of course my agent, Nat Sobel, and my editor, Sara Minnich, came on board and helped streamline the narrative and flesh out some back story and I’m incredibly grateful to have them on my team. They are the best there is in this business.
MP: You play with time in the book, dipping into the past several times. Other than allowing reveals to strike at the right moment, what else did the non-linear method allow for the story?
BW: Believe it or not, the only way I was able to allow the reveals in the book to unfold the way I wanted them to was to write it the way I did. Before I sent the book off to my agent, as an experiment, I took all the chapters and rearranged them in a linear sequence according to the timeline and it was a completely different book. It wasn’t the book I wanted to put out there. I wasn’t sure if the format I decided to go with would work or not, but it felt like the only way to get across to people what I needed them to know about the Burroughs family. So I went with my gut, and sent it as I originally wrote it. I’ve read a few complaints from a few reviewers about it being a tough book to follow, but I’ve had a lot more people say it’s one of the book’s strengths. I suppose we’ll see.
MP: It seems like you are the latest in a wave of rural noir authors. What makes the South a great setting to explore the darker side of our nature?
BW: I think the vast amount of unexplored terrain and endless string of backroads that lead to unknown places lend itself to that mystique. Violence and darkness have almost come to be expected in an urban setting, it’s par for the course, but it’s entirely different in the woods. Where the rules don’t apply. Things could be fine at the end of that dirt road, or it may get very ugly, very quickly. It’s beautiful here for sure, but at the same time can be fierce on a moment’s notice. That balance makes a remarkable setting to tell stories like this one, and it’s nice to see the South being represented by all these amazing authors I have the honor of being bunched in with.
I think for the most part, the south gets a bad rap. Considering the way TV (especially reality TV) and film have perpetuated the myth of the toothless hillbilly over the years, it was important to me that Bull Mountain showed the world that wasn’t the case. Not even close. The Burroughs clan may be fictional, but the folks that reside in the foothills of North Georgia have been in the same game other places like Kentucky and Virginia are famous for…without ever getting caught. They have managed to stay under the radar for decades, because family was the point. Not the fame. And I think that speaks volumes about the intelligence and strength it must have taken to pull it off.