“The external stimuli that motivate and inspire me”: An Interview with Brett Petersen

Brett Petersen is a speculative fiction author, among many other things: musician (he’s been described as “the Daniel Johnston of metal”),  artist, cartoonist, and Tarot reader, to name a few. His high-functioning autism, as he puts it in his bio, “only enhances his creativity.” Petersen earned his B.A. in English from The College of Saint Rose in 2011, and since then, his writing has appeared in more than a dozen journals. I was initially drawn to Brett not just because he is a Saint Rose alum, but because of how captivating and colorful his web page is (and how absolutely hilarious some of his commentary is). This year, CLASH Books published his debut, The Parasite from Proto Space and Other Stories, which is composed of nine fictional retellings from Brett’s life. Our email exchanges consisted of some bonding over our experiences at Saint Rose, and a whole lot of ways to pull inspiration from anything we find intriguing. Rest assured that, after the pandemic ends, Brett will also be going on a Proto Space Tour come 2021! 

From reading the foreword of your book, I gathered that a sense of community promoted its writing, and this really amazing sense of self-empowerment. Do you think coming from a small academic environment had any effect on your ability to be so personable to people you may never actually meet? I noticed being in a small academic setting proved to me that I was a lot more similar to my peers than I once thought. I am also curious as to how (and honestly if) this had any impact on you being such a voice for the ASD community. 

Attending a small school such as Saint Rose empowered me tremendously and instilled in me a sense of empathy so that I might return the favor by empowering others. The professors who taught me (many of whom, I’m sure you’ve met) were incredibly supportive, even going as far as steering my writing back on course when it began to veer into unethical territory. They taught me all I needed to know in order to be a writer, and Professor Nester even helped me land my first book deal several years after I graduated (the book we’re talking about right now!).

Honestly, there weren’t many students as crazy as me in my classes, and I felt quite distant from my peers at the time. But the small class sizes and one-on-one time with the professors was exactly what I needed as a person on the spectrum. Taking a writing class with 100 people and an unapproachable professor would have been disastrous for me and I imagine any other autistic person. 

You know us: we LOVE to talk about our favorite books with anyone who will listen, especially professors whose book knowledge is equally encyclopedic. 

At the opening of The Parasite from Proto Space and Other Stories, you discuss that external and internal stimulus will help you achieve that “holy grail.” Which external stimuli do you think shaped your work into their final form? When trying to find the right stimulus, what do you think were the most important components you needed to motivate you?

 Most are my favorite books, video games, movies and anime as well as real life experiences and interactions with people and nature. Here is a list of specific external stimuli that helped shape this book and continue to inspire my writing to this day:

Video games: Xenogears, Xenosaga, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Shin Megami Tensei (including Persona), Nier, Nier Automata

Authors/poets: Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, Harlan Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Karen Russell, Rebecca Ore, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Jeff VanderMeer, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, Mary Shelley, Arthur C. Clarke, Ken Kesey, Anthony Burgess, (A Clockwork Orange, specifically), Colin Wilson; I realize it’s mostly dudes on this list, and I really am trying to read more works by women

Films/anime: Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, π, Ex Machina, Annihilation, Snowpiercer, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain, Paprika, Gurren Lagann

Music also inspires me: especially doom/sludge/stoner metal, psychedelic, shoegaze, indie folk, blues, rock’n’roll, hardcore and punk. Whenever I go walking in the early summer with doom riffs blaring through my headphones like a nuclear sun radiating holy information into the leaves of trees as well as our bodies, I feel inspired to write. The music I listen to will often reflect the state of my psyche and vice versa. Last summer, I listened to nothing but My Bloody Valentine and The 13th Floor Elevators. While listening to that music, the world becomes a sea of color and sound rippling through me and tuning the antennas of my brain to strange frequencies from worlds on the outermost layers of human conception. These frequencies are then decrypted and processed by my brain into pages and pages of Technicolor prose like what you read in Parasite.

I’m also inspired by people and the interactions between them which I observe carefully. My characters and their behaviors are drawn from friends, relatives, strangers, and celebrities both famous and infamous. Most of the characters in Parasite are composites whose names are totally made up and whose traits are a patchwork of various people including myself.        

Your book collects nine different stories, and while they have in common your personal experiences, how did you narrow your experiences down to these nine? Each story tells various different stories with different emotions. Is it hard as an author to “switch gears” both subject-wise and stylistically?

Actually, I planned on having twenty-two stories in this book (one for each Hebrew Letter/Major Arcana of the Tarot) but since my publisher mainly puts out books of a page count lower than 200; they had to narrow it down to nine. They also had to pick stories that fit the genre they intended to market it as (weird/science/speculative fiction). 

Switching gears in writing is actually not hard for me at all. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air to jump to another story after working on one for so long. I’m working on a novel right now and I’m halfway done, but it will be so nice once this thing is finished and I can write about something else. But the way I operate, I simply can’t abandon a project until it’s finished.

You have several different talents, like your music and your art [see above]. Do you draw inspiration for all three crafts from the same place? I noticed that your art is often bright and elaborate, but some of the stories chosen for the book do have a darker mood. Do you think they represent three different characteristics of yourself as an artist, or do they all represent you in your entirety just in three separate sensorial ways? 

I think my art tends to be brighter because my style has traditionally been very cartoonish and I’m personally fond of bright colors. Some of my latest pieces however (which nobody has seen yet) are several shades darker since they depict bizarre monstrosities inspired by more Lovecraftian/VanderMeerian schools of the weird imagination. My taste in writing, music and art pretty much all stems from the weird, otherworldly and incomprehensible: whether bright and happy or dark and sinister, if it roto-rooters your mind or leaves it feeling like it has undergone a very thorough and intimate medical examination, I like it.

One thing I always wondered as a reader is how authors choose names for their characters, especially when these characters are based on true events. Being that these stories are from personal experiences how do you choose names for the people involved in the stories? Are they variations of the names of the people the story is based on or are they adaptations of the names based on how you characterized them for the story? Or is it a secret?

Surprisingly, there’s only one character in this book named after someone I knew in real life. That would be Bobbie-Sue Viola from “A Free Ride to Pleroma.” Her name is very similar to that of a girl I knew in high school. Bobbie-Sue’s personality has nothing to do with her real-life namesake, I just liked the name. As far as the rest of the characters’ names in the book, they’re pretty much all made up from scratch. Their personalities are generally composites of people I know as well as other fictional characters. I believe one of my biggest strengths as a writer is coming up with believable characters completely out of thin air which are not overtly based on anyone I know in real life. My upcoming novel, however, is a totally different story.  

I saw that you were scheduled to have a book launch in March at Saint Rose, which was canceled because of the coronavirus-related closings. What goes into preparing for that kind of a gig? Do you feel like a launch reading makes you more or less connected to your work? I myself would feel incredibly pressured reading my book in public, but I can see how this experience could draw you that much closer to your work.

Before the coming of Mexican Lite Beer Virus, preparing for gigs such as my book release was essentially my nine-to-five office job. I would take the bus or walk to Starbucks or the library early in the day and would sit at my laptop until late in the evening composing emails to local bookstores, colleges, coffee shops, and other venues, querying as to whether they would have me do a reading and signing.

I felt that taking my book on tour and doing reading gigs, signings, conventions and public appearances would’ve been absolutely essential not only to increase sales, but to network with fans, other writers and publishing industry people who would’ve served as my allies in this cutthroat literary market. Touring this year would not only have made me feel more connected to my work but I believe it is an integral part of being a writer. And it would’ve been fun too! All the more reason why COVID-old-enough-to-act-in-a-porno-but-not-old-enough-to-drink has been so immensely frustrating for me. Hence the endearing nicknames I’ve given it.

In the short story “Ca-Caw!” there were a lot of really vivid details and I could recall so many people I have worked with that had such vivid and intense moments like Jimmy has in this story. Being that I work with young children on the spectrum, and these instances often call for “grounding” techniques. Do you have any grounding tools you use as a person on the spectrum? 

When I have panic attacks (I haven’t had one in half a year thanks to the wonder drug known as Thorazine), I rub my fingers together and focus all of my awareness on how the skin of my fingertips feel. In terms of unwanted thoughts, a therapist I had a long time ago told me to picture thoughts as boxcars on a train going by. Whenever you have an unwanted thought, just picture the couplings between the cars or the spaces in between your thoughts. If you’re able to stand outside of your own thoughts and act as an observer, you can overcome lots of negative emotions that might otherwise overwhelm you. I haven’t had a public meltdown in years thanks to these thought techniques. 

The events in “Ca-Caw” were drawn almost exclusively from my adolescent years living in residential facilities and witnessing others having meltdowns as well as experiencing them myself. Fifteen-year-old me just wasn’t mature or attuned enough to receive such wisdom as the boxcar trick. In my thirties, I became so versed in it that, during my most recent crisis, I was able to dig my nails into the edge of the Cliff of Life while the Abyss of Suicide yawned beneath me. No matter how painfully my nails peeled back and bled, I just held on knowing that the pain and the abyss below were just thoughts and would pass in time.

Emily Wood is a junior at The College of Saint Rose. She majors in inclusive early childhood special education with a concentration in English. Emily really enjoys reading other people’s works as a way to connect to people.

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