Po Bronson may write inside a dark closet he says it helps his concentration but he's as far from reclusive as an author gets.
In researching his last two books, he's corresponded with more than 1,600 people about a couple of life's biggest questions.
2002's What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List and earned him comparisons to Studs Terkel, as well as a seat on Oprah's couch. His latest, Why Do I Love These People? Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families, is winning more glowing reviews.
In Why Do I ..., Bronson tells the stories of 19 "fractured people who've made mistakes." There's Anne Jacobsen, who asked for and received permission from her brokenhearted husband to have an affair; Doug Haynes, who, at 19 years old, couldn't commit to fathering his son; Jarralynne Agee, who has struggled all her life with a mother stricken by mental illness.
Enjoying a short break from his current book tour, Bronson recently spoke with the Independent from his San Francisco home.
Indy: A reader of What Should I Do With My Life? wrote, "Your book made me feel what I believe people who are adopted feel when they finally meet their birth parents." What impact does something like that have on you?
Bronson: Most writers, myself included, just want to tell good stories. And yet, stories do have transcendent power, and it makes me agonize and think a lot about the way I should write a story that helps people. ... It reorients how you think about success.
Indy: You've commented that telling stories without irony isn't "fashionable," and that "fashionistas" shape our thoughts on family. Have you felt that your straightforward writing style has gone against the grain?
Bronson: If you try to write about big, tough philosophical questions ... you wade into the province of self-help and spiritual writers. It's sort of like this taboo, that serious writers aren't supposed to do that. I think that's terrible. Writers are supposed to tackle big, hard, complicated questions, and tackling them straight on there's nothing wrong with that.
Indy: You write that you often have to remind the people you interview that you're not a counselor or therapist.
Bronson: There was a time [in researching Why Do I ...] where a woman had been raped by her boyfriend, and I made her file a police report ... There were times I told people, "You go see a lawyer, you go see the cops, you go see a mediator or an arbitrator." Or, "You go see a professional psychiatrist this is very important." That was the extent of my advice.
Indy: Did what you find about familial instability through history surprise you?
Bronson: I was 90 percent of the belief that today, we have a whole new set of problems we never had before. I believed I was one of these kids raised in these broken homes, and that this was a new phenomenon of the last 35 years ...
So when I came across statistic after statistic [from the past], I was shocked ... I've got documents as far back as 1822, when newspaper after newspaper was saying, "Family's falling apart; it's not what it used to be."
Indy: How do you feel when you hear the phrase "family values" used in public discourse?
Bronson: I think it's good to make pro-family type statements in our society. I just think we [shouldn't be] focused and obsessed with same-sex parenting or something like that, but about things like resilience, having realistic or appropriate expectations for family life, the reality that trouble finds every family.
Indy: As a storyteller who cherishes people's honesty, what was your reaction to James Frey's disclosure that not everything in A Million Little Pieces was true?
Bronson: I had loved the book ... but I had met [Frey] and he had told me at that point after I had read it that he had been thinking about whether it was a novel or a memoir. And in his own mind, he wanted to call it fiction in the way Hemingway had called his books fiction, but he had really lived that stuff.
So I heard that, and I was like, "Oh, that explains why you, the Jim Frey character, got into that crackhouse ... and right then, your girlfriend's dropping down and sucking some guy's cock." That just doesn't happen, so perfectly timed that way.
But here's what I really think: It's about how we conceive writers in our society ... We want our writers to have been forged and come out of a crack in the wall or the ground, or to have had some brutally searing experience that makes them a writer ... I think that's really dangerous, and just plain wrong and self-indulgent. Writers can be like anybody. capsule
Po Bronson reading and signing
Cherry Creek Tattered Cover, 2955 E. First Ave., Denver
Friday, Feb. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Free; call 303/322-7727 for more.