Named for a Dallas neighborhood steeped in music history, Deep Ellum is a novel about family ties that draws heavily on place.
One of our chosen summer reads and Flavorwire’s 10 Must Read Books for March, Brandon Hobson’s Deep Ellum packs a lot of story into just 120 pages. The opening line “I left Chicago and returned to Dallas when our mother overdosed” sets the stage for main character Gideon, who takes a taxi to his sister, Meg’s, apartment in the Deep Ellum district “past the old buildings and neighborhoods with cars parked in yards, wood-framed houses with chipped paint.” His homecoming after almost a year also reunites him with his brother Basille, stepfather Gene and of course his mother.
Hobson also weaves in a colorful cast of characters along the way, from Gideon’s dyspneic and overweight friend Sawyer to Meg’s friend and lonely art dealer Warren Puig and her elusive drug dealer boyfriend Axel Mangus. As Gideon wanders through the city, the book reads like one long night of partying in college. You meet people, have a drink, maybe a smoke, laugh, cry and then keep on moving. Deep Ellum has accurately been described as both dreamy and gritty in reviews, but as Gideon comes of age so to speak in the novel there’s one thing he can’t escape. His family. Like most of us, he’s trying to make sense of and find his place in the family he’s been dealt, no matter how mad they might be.
We interviewed Brandon Hobson via email about the book, developing such memorable characters and what he’s working on next.
EZB: Why did you choose to title and set the book in Deep Ellum?
BH: The book was originally titled Nightbird, after a Chet Baker song, but Derek White of Calamari Press and I discussed it and he thought the song reference might be too obscure for most — and that Deep Ellum would be stronger in the end. I’ve always thought the Deep Ellum district would be an amazing setting for a book. The area is beautiful and gritty and has lots of music history.
EZB: Did you spend time there while writing the book or did you write from memory?
BH: I wrote most of the book in 2011, mostly from memory. I did some research to make sure the streets haven’t changed names or anything.
A preacher was on the side of the road, shouting something about freedom and spirits. He was wearing an old coat and dirty jeans. He looked to be in his forties, and nobody was paying any attention to him. I could see the pain in his face, the suffering, the sadness. This man, standing outside in the cold wind and snow, calling out a message to nobody.” – Chapter 3
EZB: Your characters are quite developed for such a short novel and each have their own quirks. What is your process like for bringing them to life and getting them onto the page?
BH: The novel was quite a bit longer, but Derek [White] thought it was stronger to cut parts of it. There were long stretches of dialogue, some digressions. I think it starts with an image. Specifically, the image of the Gray family members: Gideon, Meg, Basille, their mother. Then came Puig and Elvis Costello look-alike Axel Mangus. I’m glad they feel as alive to you as much as they do to me.
EZB: There are so many memorable scenes in this book, some funny, some sad and others almost dreamlike. Do you have a favorite?
BH: There’s a scene at a party where Gideon hears all sorts of random bits of dialogue that’s a favorite. I also really like the childhood scenes. Most of the childhood scenes appeared in the literary annual, NOON, edited by Diane Williams. I love Diane Williams, by the way. She’s helped me so much. I’m very serious about my love for her.
EZB: In my opinion, Deep Ellum is ultimately about the complicated relationships between family members and our responsibility to our families as adults. Even though this family is dysfunctional, has addiction and a myriad of other problems, they still love each other and have dynamics we can all relate to. What message about family did you want to leave the reader with at the end of the book?
BH: One of the things I really wanted to convey in this book was Gideon’s isolation and loneliness. There’s a common thread we all share in our twenties or thirties, maybe, where we have to try to figure things out. I think this is really a book about several things — addiction, depression, loneliness and isolation. But I think you’ve right, our responsibility to family despite their quirks and addictions and all the other problems is probably the overall theme. I hope it was successful.
In a movie my mother would’ve walked in and sat next to me. We would be showered in the last light of the day, having a mother-son talk. There would be music. The setting sun. An embrace. She would’ve told me how proud she was of me, how hard I tried, and that she loved me. But things never happen that way.” – Chapter 18
EZB: What can you tell us about [your next book] Desolation of Avenues Untold? Do you plan to continue writing in a shorter form or attempt a longer novel?
BH: Desolation is a much different novel than Deep Ellum. There are two storylines that revolve around the discovery of a private film reel rumored to be a sex film involving the famous actor Charlie Chaplin. It’s also quite a bit longer. Michael Seidlinger at Civil Coping Mechanisms will release it in the fall of 2015. I’m really excited about it. He puts out such great books there.
EZB: Since this is an interview related to our Summer Reading List, what books are you looking forward to reading this summer?
I just started Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting, but I’m also really excited about Catherine Lacy’s Nobody is Ever Missing, Jim Ruland’s Forest of Fortune, Ethal Rohan’s Out of Dublin and re-reading Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook. Good old Evan Dara.
Deep Ellum is available from Calamari Press.