Brian Allen Carr

On Transience, Seeking the Real, Literary Hierarchies, and His Novel ‘Bad Foundations’

Cover of Brian Allen Carr: On Transience, Seeking the Real, Literary Hierarchies, and His Novel ‘Bad Foundations’

What do you get when you mash-up Punch Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, and Inside Llywen Davis? Well, funny you should ask, imagination Mary Louise Kelly. You get: Bad Foundations (CLASH, 2024). If you live in a big city like New York or Los Angeles, or even Nashville to be honest, it can be easy to forget that most of the country isn’t going to brunch and taking the afternoon off for self-care.  

Most of America is crawling into dark spaces underneath houses (both literally and metaphorically, I suppose). In the case of Bad Foundations, a middle-aged dad battling with sobriety and keeping on good terms with the law traverses the Midwest and the South and ventures through Indiana, Ohio, and Texas. These are states that are more representative of the human experience than what we in mostly liberal places have come to know in 2024.  Indiana’s slogan is “Crossroads of America,” Ohio’s is “The Heart of It All,” and I couldn’t tell if this one was a joke or not, but Texas’s is “Don’t Mess with Texas.”

While I don’t know Brian Allen Carr personally, reading his novel made me feel like I could get in a car with him and talk about anything.  The many text threads in the book along with the hilarious and poignant dialogue put me right there among this misfit team. I feel empathetic toward the protagonist, simply known as Cook, as he wonders how much of life is happening to him versus how much he has any control over. Cook spends his days inspecting crawl spaces and contemplating a looming curse, one he decides to actively work against in order to shift his energy.  

I thought email would be a safer route than a cross-country drive with Carr, so, off we go:


Brittany Ackerman: Have you seen Inside Llywen Davis?  It feels like it should be required viewing alongside your book. Anyway, what makes me feel they are akin is the, what Gen Z would call “trauma loop,” that both protagonists face on their respective journeys. While Llywen Davis is seeking success in music, Cook is seeking, essentially, how to become a better version of himself.  And in true frame tale fashion, he ends up back where he begins. He starts in the car and ends on the road. But now he’s moving forward, and I want to ask if you feel like a character has to be aiming high in order to warrant their existence in a story? Can being be enough?

Brian Allen Carr: I have seen it. It’s a great movie, and while I wasn’t thinking of that movie while working on the book, I can see some parallels with both that and Jarmusch’s Paterson. Each plays with loops and symbolic echoes. When I think of narratives like that, I generally think of Candide, which works like this: the main character leaves to learn that maybe they shouldn’t have left. They just see the same thing over and over again the whole of the journey. But the repetition makes them question their beliefs: their minds and souls grow. So, yeah, I don’t think characters have to aim high. And I’m not sure that they need to change. But I do think they need to journey. 

BA: In my first fiction workshop, some asshole asked me, “What does your character want?” Throughout the novel, Cook’s wants change constantly.  He wants to make more money; he wants to not fuck-up in front of his family; he wants to stay sober (minus Delta-8); he wants to not go to Ohio; he wants to be left alone; he wants to help people; he wants to change his energy; he wants to go home.  

There’s a line that’s said about the character, Harvey, “He seemed lost a moment in thought—yearning toward infinity”. That phrase struck me because I think Cook is also yearning for some kind of infinite—past, present, future—and hence looking for ghosts with lasers.  Can you talk about how these transient moments in the book serve as a driving force for Cook?

BAC: I suppose all life is transience. Our perception of time is linear. But as we follow time’s arrow, there are infinite moments to be examined. It’s Zeno’s Paradox, basically: infinite halfway points between all things. A runner can never fully catch a turtle (what’s even crazier is that the runner can never even run in the same direction as the turtle, cuz there are infinite halfway points between angles, too). But the trick of consciousness is that we can create singular moments to remember. And I think most of life is applying memories to the present. Wherever you are, you have your past in tow. You can’t touch it though. There’s just too many halfway points between you and it. 

BA: Since I went on and on about our country’s forgotten lands in the intro, let’s keep it going. I went to school in Bloomington, Indiana, and now I’m living in Nashville, Tennessee. Otherwise I’ve only lived in bigger cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boca Raton. I do have such fond memories of Indiana, though; I’m sure as you know Bloomington is situated about an hour away from Indianapolis and the IU campus was all brick buildings and gorgeous foliage and such. But I’d like to know about your Indiana, and why you chose to set most of the book there.

BAC: I currently live in Indiana, so that’s the main reason I set the book here. I grew up in Texas. I sort of lived all over that state—in some big cities, in some small towns. I go to Bloomington a lot, and, yeah, if you drive 10 minutes from campus you’re basically in bumfuck. I will only write about places I am deeply familiar with. I don’t know that I could, morally, set a book in a place I haven’t lived. It feels like appropriation. It feels heinous to me. I guess that limits my creative scope, but I’m a huge fan of limitations. OULIPO me up, bruh. 

BA: I couldn’t help but see an archetypal structure to the story, as Cook literally has to go under houses (aka down into the Underworld), to hell and back. He feels he is cursed, and each descent is perhaps an attempt to enter another world, battle some demons, and then return a changed man—reborn.  

There’s also this same feeling with the hotel in Ohio working as an elsewhere, a special part of the hero’s journey (or anti-hero’s journey) that Cook must travel to and face a challenge in order to change his energy. This next leg of the journey allows the hero/anti-hero to return with a gift.  What do you think Cook’s gift is (during this part of the book or all throughout)?

BAC: What a great question. I think the gift he receives is the gift of optimism. He receives the skill of moving forward when you’re lost. He doesn’t always get what he wants, but something always happens. The more something happens, the more life you live. The more you do, the more you’re a part of. The more you’re a part of, the more likely you are to be a part of something real, of something honest, of something good. His expectations are often subverted, but I love subversion. I love surprise. Not just in fiction, either. I like when the unexpected happens and you roll with it. 

BA: Let’s chat about the laser, because it’s badass. I love the idea of it symbolically,  but it’s also really cool to envision the object of the laser. All of the crawl space dude jargon was so refreshing to read. So many books these days sound the same; not like AI wrote them (yet) but more so like there’s no individuality or unique consciousness happening.  But Bad Foundations is packed with reality.

Of the laser, Cook says, “It’s self-leveling, the laser: it has to show an even, infinite line.  If it’s out of level—and it will spin itself cattywampus—the light turns off until the system reconfigures.”

Do you see Cook as self-leveling? Or whom/what does he need to level himself out? Is there something good or useful about a person not being or striving to become level?

BAC: I love the way you read this book!!! Absolutely. As much as we can, self-leveling is a thing most people have to do. To that end, a lot of people spiral like lasers. I think there is always a risk of becoming boring, so we have to spin a bit.  And we always have to perform. At least for those we love. And at least for our gods. If we are good people, other people should count on us to be steady. If they are good people, they should know we can’t stay level all the time. Life is performance, I guess. 

BA: As a new parent (I’ve got a nine month old!) I was really drawn to the relationship between Cook and his eldest daughter. I especially liked how the daughter wasn’t a totally unbearable Gen Z girlie whose soul purpose in the book was to demean her, but rather she was dimensional and insightful, and hilarious, and also so, so non judgemental of her dad. I loved the scenes where they were constantly giving and taking ideas from each other.  

What different generations learn from each other? And I ask this parent-to-parent? We can’t throw away all the old stories, right? So what should we toss and what should we be open to from the youngins?

BAC: I think it depends on the kid and the dynamic between the child and the parents, and I think it also depends on a lot of things that can’t really be controlled. I taught higher ed for the first 9 years of my oldest daughter’s life. She would come with me to whatever university or college I was at, and we would go to the library, and my schedule was such that I could read to her every night. 

For most of my younger daughter’s life, I have worked in sales. So she used to come with me some to the car dealership or to inspect a house, and my schedule these days fluctuates wildly, and I wasn’t able to read to her nearly as much. So my older daughter and I have a relationship more based on conversation and my younger daughter and I have a relationship based more on experiences. In my last book, Opioid, Indiana, I included a shadow puppet named Remote. Remote was something my youngest daughter and I always did. She named him. And I’d tell her silly little stories about the shadow puppet as we laid in her bed.

With this book, I wanted to pay more homage to my older daughter. But both of my children are intimately aware of three stories: (1)The Princess and the Frog, as it was told by the Brothers Grimm—where the frog gets pegged against the wall and not kissed, (2)Winnie the Pooh, (3)The Little Prince. My wife has a little prince tattoo on her side. She thinks of my youngest daughter as the fox, and she thinks of my oldest daughter as the rose. I think she thinks of herself as the Prince. And quite often, it seems to me, she thinks of me as a Boabab. 

I think there just need to be enough common stories in a family so that there can be a discussion of right or wrong. But I don’t think right and wrong is as universal as we think. To me, being a parent is my main joy. There are more rewards in it than anything else I can think of. 

BA:  At Write or Die, we’ve got a huge excel sheet of all the books that are coming out and we all sort of scramble to write our names down and claim what books we’d like to cover. When I saw Bad Foundations and read the synopsis, I slapped my name right on the coverage board as soon as I could.

To be honest, the only fiction I read written by men last year were The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis and The Pat Hobby Stories written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now, that’s obviously my fault for not picking more stories written by men.  I’ve definitely gotten sucked into the nauseating blur of bookclubish books that are all written by the same kind of person from the same kind of background telling the same kind of story.

In a literary world where most agents are looking for “upmarket fiction” that’s super plot heavy and appeals to the masses, how do you stay true to yourself and find ways to break free of these constraints?  

BAC: Well, on this one, we pretty much knew that I had an uphill battle, but I always wanted to write this kind of book, and I wanted to write a book that hadn’t been written. I do that a lot. I want to be different. I went to a startup MFA program. I resigned from a full-time college job to take a case study writing job. I’ll put out books with smaller presses. In fact, with this one, we submitted out to big presses, but we only gave them like two weeks to read and respond, because I knew the main thing was to work with a press that was super excited about the book, and I knew that CLASH loved BF and understood it. I guess the thing is: big presses can’t promise me they can give me what I want. That can’t make you rich, and they can’t guarantee you more readers. You can sell just as many books and make just as much money off a small press as a big one. It might not be as easy, but, truth be told, nothing in publishing is easy. Plenty of big press publications fail to get noticed. A $10,000 advance spread out in three payments over two years isn’t going to affect my life substantively. So what’s the upside, exactly? Pride? Ego? Plus, the whole big press world and literati community is crazy.  These people will look you dead in the face, tell you they are against hierarchies, and then ask you where you went to school or who you studied with or who your agent is. Haha. Okay, kiddos. Take out some more student loans and buy yourselves dictionaries. No hate, but some crowns aren’t worth the weight. Some crowns are really just expensive, glittery, dunce caps. And I might be stupid, but I’m not stupid enough to sit in a corner to make other people happy. Fuck, I’d rather huff, and puff, and blow the schoolhouse down.




Brian Allen Carr is the author of Bad Foundations, Opioid, Indiana, and Motherfucking Sharks. He is an Aspen Words Finalist, a two-time Wonderland Book Award Winner, and the recipient of a Texas Observer Story Prize.

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