by Andy Shi
In 1947, the report of nine shiny objects—disc-like flying saucers—brings not alien life, but a vision of an extraterrestrial paradise. After an unrealized prophecy, the Seekers, in Brian Castleberry’s alternate history of the real UFO cultists, pursue a new vision with the creation of Eden Gardens. Their halcyon community would transcend prejudice and intolerance and inspire a wave of imitators across America.
In the story that follows, the reader learns of the events that lead up to the stillborn tragedy of Eden Gardens and its reverberating consequences through the decades-spanning, fragmented stories of nine characters. These characters are connected to both the Seekers and its antagonist, the Civil Action Defense.
Nine shiny objects; nine characters. The first comprise a Pollyannaish vision of the future; the latter a vision of America. However, the vision of America is a harsh dichotomy, where that optimistic vision of idealism and inclusion finds itself pitted against a reactionary conservatism where America goes back to being “for Americans.” It’s a story of unbridled, even delusional, hope confronted with McCarthyan suspicion and cruelty.
But more than dialectic, Nine Shiny Objects is a story of the nuanced individual: the political and personal hopes and beliefs that drive us all; the sacrifices we justify in the name of the greater good; the capacity to evolve, even later in life, and recognize the harm we have done. It’s a story of shirked responsibility for the collateral of our actions; a story of trauma, forbidden love, unfulfilled passion, and unearned forgiveness. Most of all, for all the conspiracy and cultism, Nine Shiny Objects is the story of the frustratingly elusive but seemingly always-in-sight American dream.
Nine Shiny Objects, nine individual dreams that clash, tear apart, seed hatred, and culminate in conflict’s perennial victim: innocence. If in these characters you recognize your own psychosis, if the plot at large seems less redolent of the Red Scare of the 1950s and resembles more today’s sociopolitical bedlam, you are not wrong. Perhaps those nine shiny objects were a vision of the future after all.
Few authors have crisscrossed America in so many capacities as Brian Castleberry. Growing up in Oklahoma and circling the South and Midwest for college and the odd job, he ventured east for graduate school and now teaches at William and Mary College in Virginia. In his forty-plus years, he has worn many hats and seen play out the social and personal dramas that enrich and aggrieve our lives. No less could have written the story of America.
I had the pleasure to speak with Brian about his debut book and the winding and eventful path that brought him here.
Andy Shi: You have been an aspiring songwriter—which led to a pursuit of poetry—and crisscrossed the American heartland selling shirts. These are professions which you share with several of your characters in your book, Nine Shiny Objects, not to mention the Midwestern ties you share with several others. Are these coincidences a matter of “writing what you know,” or would you consider some or all of the characters, in their hopes, fears, and regrets, autobiographical to a degree?
Brian Castleberry: I’m a believer that writers leak into their work—certainly. I hadn’t thought about the connections you mention until just now, though. But yeah, they’re there. I was never as good a poet as I believe Stanley to be, or as good a songwriter as Skip. But I thought that’s where I was headed at first, one and then the other, as you say. I think more than anything, I’ve grown aware of how we remake ourselves, especially when we’re young; how we define who we are in sudden jerks—that’s something I tried to catch with many of these characters. I traveled with my friend Jason (who’s also a writer) and his ex-wife selling shirts at county fairs and such, way back at the turn of the millennium, but even before that I was a very itinerant person. After leaving my tiny hometown for Oklahoma City, I proceeded to move away in short bursts for years, always looking for something better. As a young child my family moved a lot, too. We were poor. There was always another job. I feel like a defining quality of my life is that itch to move on, and that definitely falls in line with my characters, as haunted by the past as they may be.
AS: We receive the full picture of the pivotal events at Eden Gardens through the vignettes of nine characters—a beautiful and unique element to your book. Some of these characters are more involved in those events than others. Why did you choose to include the peripheral characters that you did, and why did you choose to skip the first-hand accounts of some of the most involved characters?
BC: On the one hand it’s political. I feel like we tell history by its overarching plot. Here’s this war and that president and etc. But life is a thing we live in private, in our minds, as one of the countless individuals caught in that narrative of history. I went into the project trusting that readers know the basic cult story and about the violent repression of Americans who fought and are still fighting for equality and civil rights. So I put that material into the background of the painting, and in each section put instead these observers, hangers-on, and victims front and center.
On the other hand, the vignettes and the choice of which characters to include in them allowed me to create a much bigger novel out of fewer pages. I’m not going to tell anyone to go out and read The Great Gatsby—they likely have, and either liked it or didn’t—but there’s a key lesson to be learned from that book that I think we forget at our peril as writers: that we’ve got tools for creating efficient narratives that still tell very big stories. For me that’s what’s so great about that book, or others like Play It As It Lays or Cane or The Story of My Teeth—the participation. I’m hoping that’s the effect for the reader, that we’re collaborating on the whole story. Anyway I feel this model gives them more freedom as they read.
AS: The most dominant undercurrent to your book is the tussle between the ideal and the reactionary, truly a story about America’s political culture. Although idealism does not win the day, the final chapters of the novel leave reasons to be optimistic that progress does grind on, if only after too much tragedy. Did you want to leave the reader hopeful about American politics, or does the fact that a story about mid-century America sounds so familiar to today’s political environment suggest an unending reactionary cycle? Perhaps the two are not exclusive?
BC: This is such a good question. More than leaving the reader hopeful or cynical, I was hoping to leave them thinking about these issues, that we’ve been here before, that the forces at work right now are things we’ve been living with for a very long time. One of the effects of the last presidential election for a lot of people—and especially white people—was the realization that maybe progress doesn’t grind on, or at least that it doesn’t stay in place, ready for more progress. From the beginning of the American project there’s been this force at work which is about white identity and white power. A lot of us like to look away from that and only see the rosy picture of progress, but often the bad guys win, and looked at from a wide angle they win often, and then redefine what equality means. What we really need is more clarity, less patriotic haze, and a far better sense of everyone’s humanity. This is an easy thing for a white writer to say, relaxing in his privilege, when his worst fears are Twitter trolls. But I’m a Chekhovian deep in the blood now. I feel like literature can do this, can show us what we share, can leave the reader feeling like they know themselves and others better, can break through propaganda.
AS: The Seekers were the subject of When Prophecy Fails, the pioneering study that developed the theory of cognitive dissonance. Was there an intention in your book to raise the question of cognitive dissonance in America’s political ideologies and, perhaps, how each of us approaches our own politics?
BC: I hadn’t thought of it that way, at least consciously. I definitely borrowed wholesale from the original Seekers, at least as far as being that first saucer cult. Long ago, I was working on a book much more focused on the cult aspect of this story. Here the facts are only a touchstone, a plausible background for this quite different group. I was interested then in the classic snake-oil salesman quality of that early movement. When the snake-oil salesman became so elevated in power and stature in our culture, I lost interest and began to imagine a positive vision for my version of the Seekers.
This isn’t to say that the characters in the book don’t often live in a state of cognitive dissonance—they certainly do. And in our current time, our politics are loaded with cognitive dissonance. I mean our slip is showing there, for sure.
AS: Your book was inspired by the first modern UFO sighting in America, yet neither that sighting nor the Seekers, the cult it galvanizes, features prominently for most of the story. Please tell us a little bit about how you developed both the plot and narrative organization of Nine Shiny Objects. What led you to take the real-life Seekers as a subject and extend their story, when historically the group came to an end circa 1954/1955 after the failed prophecy that a UFO would come to rapture them?
BC: I was interested in their movement as this sign of oddball American paranoia, how their belief in flying saucers that their leader, Marion Keech, said would come and take them away dovetails with the 1950s fear of nuclear apocalypse. I was a kid in the ’80s and there was a kind of second wave of that. Years ago, back in grad school, I started thinking about what would happen if that group hadn’t disbanded, but rather moved ahead with new plans. So I worked for a while on a book project that was all about them settling a town on Long Island. In that version, an insidious character led them. After school I drifted away from that whole idea. Here, it’s all part of that background—the events we hear about obliquely, mostly.
This particular design let me build a much bigger book out of less space, as I said. It also serves a thematic purpose, in that these characters are caught in the pulsing wave of history. No one of them knows the whole story they’re part of. In fact some of them don’t see the connections at all. But they are part of it. And it’s the reader that is allowed to bring them together and see them from that privileged position of observer. I guess this makes it all sound cold and mathematical, but I aimed in each section to get very close, emotionally, to the characters. So I hope it’s working on both of those levels: a satisfying structural experience, but also a human one. We’ll see.
AS: We’d also love to hear about your own journey to author-dom. In past lives you’ve been a cook, shoe salesman, carnie (please tell us more about this, particularly!), and for the last ten years, a professor. How did you come to this untraditional path and what inspired you to return to college after dropping out? Are there any digressions in your journey that you particularly appreciate or regret?
BC: Oh yes, absolutely. The carnie job was the same as that of selling shirts—working for my friend Jason. That was a lucky job. We saw a lot of the country. And we had the ridiculous experience of meeting Beyoncé on that job. At the Texas State Fair back in 2001 or thereabouts, Destiny’s Child was a headline act. We were all punk kids with almost no knowledge of what was happening in popular culture. When a golden beam of light appeared before us and said she wanted one of each of Jason’s designs with the phrase “Houston Girl” in cursive on them, we shrugged and moved on with our lives. Twenty minutes later a man in a suit returned to say that “Miss Beyoncé” really did want those shirts. We had no idea who she was, but Jason made the shirts, and there are pictures out there of her wearing them. Aside from that wild story it was all about traveling, reading books, staying up late into the night talking politics. Carnie people are an amazingly diverse group, some of them on the skids, others running lucrative businesses.
Most of the jobs I’ve had have been about surviving, taking whatever job I could to pay rent and keep eating food. I dropped out of college before finishing a single semester. Drugs sort of ruled my life for a few years. By the time that was behind me, I knew I wanted to be a writer. At the same time, I thought I wanted to be an art historian. I actually returned to college to study art. But I was lucky to run into professors who drew me to literature and writing and I realized there was so much to learn about writing fiction—from the craft and the literary studies sides of things—or that there were even grad programs in writing. When I went back to school—here’s how dumb I was—I was surprised to find out Toni Morrison taught in an English department. I had no idea what writers or English professors did for a living! I think I figured a person like Morrison just lived in a tall house with a window facing crashing waves or something, being inspired.
As for regrets, I’m full up with them. But also things I appreciate. I’m middle-aged now, I’m here, I can do what I want when it comes down to it—at least as a writer.
AS: Does visual art still retain any influence in your life?
BC: Visual art definitely still has an influence on my work. I draw a lot of inspiration from it, and a lot of my thinking has been shaped by philosophy, particularly Wittgenstein and Foucault, whom I first learned about while studying art. Maybe more than anything, visual art feeds into my interest in opening up cultures of the past, not just to understand one object, but the context around it, why people in its time would have liked or disliked it, who those people were. In this particular book, art is used to connect several of the characters’ narratives. One such example is an interest in Renaissance painting, first with Claudette and later with Joan Halford. They see these paintings in different ways (in books for Claudette, in person for Joan) and connect them with different emotions (desire for Claudette and disappointment for Joan). But both understand themselves through their interaction with art. In between is the story of Marlene Ranagan and her painting, her new life at the center of the New York heyday for abstraction. Personally, I feel like it’s really helpful for writers to get saturated in other genres, whether that’s poetry or theater or painting or whatever—there’s always more to learn.
AS: As you know, Bloom celebrates and showcases authors who publish their debut work after the age of 40. What advantages have you seen to being a “late bloomer”?
BC: Experience. They tell you that when you’re younger and you say, “Okay, old man.” But really it’s just experience. You’ve lived more and read more and know with greater clarity what you really want. I’ve had plenty of younger students ready to move ahead with their writing careers; it happens. Flannery O’Connor said you’ve only got to live to be 14 or something to have something to write about. In the end, these ages or periods in life don’t matter as much as the work itself. I can say that I’ve given myself a lot of time to make mistakes and learn from them, both in writing and in life, and at this point I’m swimming in a surplus of material.
AS: If you were the leader of a cult, how would you design your utopia and where would you build it?
BC: Oh boy. I’m afraid we’d be listening to a lot of Talking Heads and reading a lot of books. I’m very partial to mountains. I’d say somewhere around Lexington, Virginia, or Mt. Shasta in California. Vermont sounds nice. I guess everyone would show their loyalty to me by bringing me pizza.
But honestly, I’ve never given up on the utopian cause. People want to like each other and want to work together. We’re lying to ourselves when we say otherwise. A turning point in my understanding of what this book was about was when I no longer really thought of my Seekers as a cult—as in a secretive group led by someone with ulterior motives—but as a straightforward group of people wanting to make a representative America, free from the more cultish attitudes that maintain white supremacy. Max’s group in the 1970s, that is more of a cult, in all of the word’s negative connotations.
AS: Finally, can you tell us what projects you will be working on next?
BC: I’ve got a story collection I’m trying to mesh together, surreal pieces with a little autobiography, but I’m mainly working on a novel set in the 1920s, in New York, Berlin, and Los Angeles, about silent film and sexuality and the pursuit of freedom at the expense of others. I always turn to history to try to understand our current time, so that’s what I’m up to.
Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.
Author photo courtesy of Marriya Schwarz.