Into the Literary Spotlight in Every Way

by Jeff Worley

Nic Brown swapped drumming for the long, quiet solitude of writing novels. Photo by Cinny Diguiseppi.

Nic Brown enjoys the ride with his new novel.

Chapel Hill art student Maria finds herself in a quandary. Unexpectedly pregnant at nineteen and recently stunned by the news of her mother’s diagnosis of cancer, Maria decides to give up her daughter for adoption. At loose ends, she agrees to go with her mother to the sleepy coastal town of Beaufort, where the adoptive couple Maria has chosen for her daughter just happens to live. An opportunity presents itself for Maria to accept a position as the couple’s nanny, and in this fortuitous way she becomes reunited with her baby.

Many complications follow.

This plot twist is the narrative hook that reels the reader into In Every Way, Nic Brown’s second novel, published earlier this year by Counterpoint Press. Brown joined the Clemson English department faculty in August of 2014 and, in addition to his own writing, teaches fiction workshops and contemporary literature. Brown explains that his new book was triggered by the birth of his daughter.

“This is the first novel I’ve written in its entirety since becoming a father,” Brown says, “so the main thing on my mind was parenthood.” He began writing the story from the perspective of the baby’s father, Maria’s boyfriend, but soon realized that this wasn’t really his story.

“I realized the compass was pointing elsewhere. It was Maria’s story, and once I established her as the point-of-view character, events unfolded more easily and naturally.”

Seeing Doubles

Nic Brown’s first novel optioned for film

Doubles, which Nic Brown wrote while teaching at the University of North Carolina eight years ago, has been described by reviewers as “a strange and lovely meditation on friendship and love and loss…filled with razor-sharp observation and irreverent wisdom,” and as “a refreshing and surprisingly precise take on the daily grind of the pro tennis tour.”

The reviews in Library Journal and elsewhere were extremely favorable, and now a North Carolina director and film producer, David Burris, is working to secure the movie rights for Doubles. In the world of film, Burris is best known for the TV series Survivor, for which he has produced over a hundred episodes.

It was no accident that Doubles came to Burris’s attention—Brown sent him a copy.

“I read it immediately and loved the novel,” says Burris, who has also written and produced TV documentaries. “I think Doubles is perfect to adapt for film because so many scenes are incredibly sad and incredibly funny at same time. That’s a powerful mix, and isn’t done successfully very often.”

Brown and Burris are far from strangers. They met, Burris says, “on tour together,” emphasizing the word “tour” and laughing at this glamorous-sounding phrase. “Okay, it was at a rock & roll club in Charlotte,” he explains, “when my band and Nic’s band played a show together in the late 1990s.” Burris was a guitarist in a group called Jolene, and recalls that his first conversation with Nic-the-drummer was about books.

“I was reading a Walker Percy novel for about the third time, and Nic was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about American fiction. We just clicked.”

“My overwhelming first impression of David,” says Brown, who believes their first-ever meeting was in Champaign, Illinois, rather than in Charlotte, “was that he was very smart and well read. As I remember it, our first conversation was in the back of a van, at night, on the way to a show—and we talked about literature. It was the antithesis of how people might think of how a couple of rock and rollers spend time together.”

Currently, the film adaptation of Doubles is in the developmental stage, Burris says. His company, Taking Pictures, is in “pre-preproduction,” trying to secure financing and working to get the best cast possible. The process that leads to a completed film is challenging and stressful, he says, but also fun.

“Right now we’re beginning to think creatively about how to put the pieces together. The casting game is a lot of fun, and one strength of the novel is that all five of the main characters in Nic’s book will definitely appeal to actors. All five are key to the narrative—the interplay among them is multi-layered, very rich and substantial.” At least part of the film, Burris adds, will be filmed in North Carolina.

For his part, Brown is currently cowriting the screenplay with Emily Testa, a writer and marketing consultant based in Savannah, Georgia.

“She dreamed up this whole idea to begin with,” Brown says. “Emily reviewed Doubles for the magazine Bomb, and then in 2013 got in touch, asking if I would be interested in adapting my novel to film.” He adds that the great thing about working on a screenplay is that, unlike writing a novel, he gets to work with other people. “Writing fiction can be so alienating—you spend hours alone in a room—but this project has involved a different kind of energy, and I like that.”

“There’s real joy in working with someone as talented as Nic,” Burris concludes. “A lot of good art can come out of collaborations like this.”

The irony of Maria becoming the nanny for her own baby was, Brown says, “just something the story needed. As an unmarried nineteen-year-old with a dubious (read: unreliable) partner, she felt she couldn’t keep the baby. But the story needs her to see her baby again, so how could I do that, put her in proximity like this?” It was, he adds, a technical problem he had to solve.

Brown’s path to becoming a novelist and university professor wasn’t a predictable one. Along the way, you could say, he marched to the beat of a different drummer.

“Yes,” Brown laughs, “you could say that all right.” His first professional job was as the drummer in a popular and successful rock band called Athenaeum, which formed when Nic was attending Greensboro Day School in North Carolina. He and his public high school bandmates clicked as musicians, soon found themselves playing gigs around Greensboro, and made a demo tape when Brown became a junior.

“We thought we were pretty good,” says Brown, a boyish thirty-eight, who sports a trim, black beard and tends to gesture with his left arm when he speaks, almost as if orchestrating his words. “Our demo tape caught the eyes and ears of a few people at Atlantic Records and, amazingly, we signed a big record deal—every high school rock and roll kid’s dream—with Atlantic and toured successfully for a decade.” The band released their major label debut, Radiance, in 1998. A single from that album, “What I Didn’t Know,” was a minor hit in the United States.

Being a road musician, as the phrase implies, involved a lot of travel but also a lot of down time, Brown explains. Always a voracious reader, when he wasn’t behind his set of drums in the studio or in performance he spent a lot of time reading novels and short stories, and in 1999, “between albums,” started writing fiction seriously.

“I wrote stories as just another creative outlet and found myself devoting more and more time to doing this,” Brown says. He decided that writing was now the creative outlet he most wanted to pursue, and since he had been accepted as a student at Columbia University a few years earlier (but wanted to see how his music career played out), he found out that he had “active deferment status” and so became an English major there. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do—take as many writing courses as possible.”

After earning a B.A. in English/creative writing at Columbia, Brown decided to up the ante—he applied and was accepted into the oldest and, many would say, most prestigious M.F.A. program in the country, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I was really naïve about getting into an M.F.A. program,” he confesses. “I kind of randomly applied to handful of programs and remember it as a great moment when I got the acceptance letter from Iowa, which included the offer of a fellowship.”

One reason Brown wanted to pursue an M.F.A., he admits, is that he had no perspective on his writing: Was it any good? How could he make it better?

And at this point in his life, for him literature easily trumped music. When he and his fiancée, Abby, moved to Iowa, that was clearly “the death knell” for his music career, he adds.

Brown says his interest in literature had been smoldering for quite a while when a teacher in middle school lit him up.

“One man really kindled that fire, introduced me to good books, and made it clear that writing was something a person, if he was serious and dedicated, could do as a livelihood,” Brown says emphatically. “Bill Moore made literature come alive for the class. How important is his influence? I’m teaching a gen ed lit class right now, and sometimes I feel he’s standing right beside me!” Brown laughs. “Last week when I gave a lecture in my Clemson class on The Great Gatsby, I found myself mouthing Bill’s lines from twenty-five years ago.”

“I vividly remember Nic on our campus,” says Moore, who describes himself as a semi-retired teacher and longtime blues musician. “He always had a bounce in his step and an observant, appraising eye. Nic was in my honors American lit class his junior year and wrote elegant, sassy, analytic essays that were wonderful to read for an English teacher who had too many banal essays on his desk to wade through.”

Moore adds that Brown stood out as an independent thinker with significant insights and strong literary opinions, and recalls that after taking a creative writing class, Brown entered his work in High Point University’s literary contest—and took first prize. “I even remember his winning entry,” Moore says. “It was a spooky short story that featured a young man obsessively listening to one mysterious word on a tape cassette.”

Years later, another teacher who greatly affected Brown was Chris Offutt, a prize-winning novelist and short story writer who teaches in the Iowa M.F.A. program. “He changed my life as a writer, teaching me the importance of paying close attention to language and structure. I learned from Chris the importance of craft.”

“Nic wrote part of his first book, Floodmarkers, while in my class,” Offutt says. “He’s a careful writer, able to surprise the reader while moving relentlessly towards inevitability. In the years since meeting, we’ve both worked to transcend the natural gap between teacher and student. We’ve become friends. Our families have become friends. When Nic and I get together, we mainly laugh and laugh,” says Offutt, adding that he and Brown recently taught together at the University of Mississippi when Brown was the John and Renee Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence.

A university literature teacher himself now, Brown loves to be in the classroom and says that if he hadn’t found a way as a fiction writer to be a teacher, he would have found some other route, and could have been happy teaching high school English.

“That would have been fine too. I like talking about books with students, and trying to get them excited by good literature.” Brown adds that the idea of being a professor enticed him even back when he was a drummer in a band. “I’d have my magazine subscriptions sent to Professor Nic Brown, clearly a weird part of my identity back then—I didn’t even have an undergraduate degree yet!”

Now that he has advanced by degrees into the life of a successful novelist, what is the biggest challenge for Brown as he moves a novel forward page by page?

“Maybe for me the most challenging thing is to enter the consciousness of my characters in an interesting and believable way,” Brown responds. He adds that this was initially “a bit tricky” in his newest novel as he entered the mind of Maria, who is nineteen and pregnant. “I suppose a reviewer might say that it’s presumptuous for a male writer to narrate a complicated story from the point of view of a woman, but as a craftsman I felt strongly that this was the best way to tell the story. I was a lot more interested in writing what it is to be human than in gender issues.” Brown adds that as a new father he identified with the immediate connection Maria feels for her baby and the young mother’s desire to be around her child.

When asked what surprised him the most about writing this novel, Brown pauses. “That’s a good question,” he says. “Truthfully, the biggest surprise for me was how much I missed it when it was over—missed these characters I’d invented. I felt a void after I was done because I loved writing that book so much.”

Nic Brown is an assistant professor of English in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. Jeff Worley is a poet and writer based in Lexington, Kentucky.

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