Interview with Joshua Braff

How much of The Daddy Diaries is based on your own life and your family’s recent temporary relocation from California to Florida?

My family moved to Florida from Oakland when my wife took a job in St. Petersburg, near Tampa. She’d go off to work, I’d take the kids to school and go to Starbucks to write bits of prose about being a dad, alone, in this foreign and very warm land. In time these entries would form into well-oiled chapters. I’d see them over and over, day in, day out, building my interest in the words and characters each time I visited them. As they began to stack, a story formed. The characters grew in dimension. The things they say to each other help form a trail of a story, and at any time I can veer left or right in the name of weaving a good tale. Finding that control in the process allows me to turn the volume up or down on drama, humor, pathos and pace.

What are the challenges of drawing from real life for your fiction? Have family members and friends thought they’ve recognized themselves in your pages?

I take my own truth and mix it with fiction whenever it serves the story. I draw from things friends and acquaintances say about their children and their experiences in child rearing to create successfully realized characters. Where it might be easy to believe that the son in the story is my son, there are many things about the character that are very unlike my boy. My characters are amalgamations of my observations. My family members have recognized themselves in my work. It can be a blessing and a curse. The character of Abram Green in The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green is a fully realized character, but my father thought the world would see him as the character. I used truth and non-truth in creating him. My father has come to love the book. Lucky me.

In the book, Jay has a contentious relationship with his arrogant and narcissistic older brother Cam. Were you concerned at all about how this character might be interpreted by your own brother Zach?

I never thought about that. Cam came from a person who had an almost parental hold on Alex. Zach wouldn’t fit this requirement. Zach and I are close friends, we laugh about stuff like this. We are similar and a bit weird, right? We make up characters and give them things to say all day long.

Why do you suppose the stay-at-home dad, who has become so ubiquitous in real life, is so under-represented in fiction and popular culture?

As an artist I was the stay-at-home dad in 2000. It would take ten years before I started to see dads in Tide ads and on TV shows in Baby Bjorns. Now being a house husband is spoken about on the news and in magazines and the country appears filled with dads in this nurturing role. I remember thinking it would be timely to write a book about the kind of dad I was so fortunate to become. I met my wife in the 7th grade so it’s hard to say I married a woman for her ability to bring home the bacon. We fell into our roles as we discovered who we were as adults and I feel so lucky that my path involved the inclusion of my children and their early growth in life. I see a wave of the Daddy role growing way more interesting in America and it’s been building steadily for about five years. Moms rule. But Dad’s role as listener and nurturer matters.

What are some of the most common misperceptions you face about your role as househusband? How do you deal with them?

In the beginning it was that I’d found a loophole in life. I could keep my bathrobe on until 2pm, who’d know? The job was so tiring and filled with obligation that I was glancing at the couch, praying for a nap each day. I never slept as solidly as I did when I was taking care of babies, toddlers. The phases of parenting change constantly. My role now is to lay low and wear beige when it comes to my teenager. My role with my eleven year old girl is to listen to everything she has running around in her head. There’s a lot. Parenting is a vast and never-ending job. Those who see child rearing as easy work are the people who will never find themselves tasked with it. Those who expect dinner ready when they pull in from a day at the office need a solid two weeks at home with the young ones. Not a good job for people with short attention spans, or those who struggle with empathy. If there are any misconceptions it’s from people like this.

Do you know many other stay-at-home dads in your circle of friends or from your kids’ schools? What or who has helped guide you in your role as a father?

Two close friends. One is able to leave his office to pick his kids up and he brings them back to his office. No colleagues. My teachers were my mother-in-law and my mother. My mother-in-law is a very cool lady and lived with us for three weeks after we brought my son home. It was baby college for sure. Amongst the many lessons I absorbed was learning to cook well.

In the book, Jay maintains close bonds with childhood friends. Do you have a posse similar to Jay’s? What have your male friendships meant to you as a father and a writer over the years?

I have a posse like this. Five of us, been close since the days of Little League. There were times in my childhood where I needed certain members of the clique more than family members. I love knowing I’ll have these gentlemen in my corner for my whole life. We text every day. They are the demographic for my writing so their opinions matter a lot.

You write so well about the hard work and heartbreak of parenting teenagers. What words of advice do you have for parents who have this stage yet to look forward to?

It all depends on the person but expect a lot of the opposite behavior he/she had when they were nine, ten, eleven. Read about the chemical nature of the teenage brain. Google it. There are millions of articles with pictures. Your empathy for what is happening physically to his/her head is crucial. You’d have sensitivity to an elderly person if they fell from a weak hip. But teenagers are harder to like because they turn on you, look at you like you have shit on your eyebrow. You want to say, I loved you and cared for you so well when you were my Boo Boo Bear.

“Don’t EVER call me that again!!”

Just recently I was able to stop wearing beige all day with my teen. He’s realizing that I’m not that dull at all.

What are the challenges of writing with kids at home and while running a household?

I’ve been writing with the intention of publishing since 1993. I learned very early on that my job as a parent could never overlap with my job as a writer. When my kids were young, the second I began to think like a writer, one of them would need me in a desperate way, clinging, weeping, “Daddy!” I had a moment when I said to myself – there will be writing time and parenting time and they will never, ever overlap. My kids are 14 and 11 now so there are many times I can wear the writer hat while they’re still in the room. However briefly. I work when they are off to school and finish, normally, well before I pick them up. So it’s a 9AM to 2PM job. Then I put on the Daddy hat.

You’ve now lived and worked on both coasts. How has where you’re living—and how much at home you feel there—effected your creativity, inspiration, and writing habits?

I’ve found that a quiet room and even not so quiet (Starbucks) is a good enough space to create. I can disappear in it while Lattes are being made and various conversations linger. I wrote my first two novels, (The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green and Peep Show) in the San Francisco Bay Area. The amount of artists and people engaged in writing, movies, painting, music etc. in this part of the world may be unprecedented. Technology too. But art and where it meets technology is in the air here. I wrote The Daddy Diaries in St. Petersburg, Florida, an area that is becoming a tiny taste of artistic heaven, right there in the Deep South. I loved this little train that can and will. All I did in this city for three years was write and paint. Back in the SF Bay Area now and I have a strong feeling of belonging. It’s easier to create where you belong. I have no plans of ever permanently leaving this part of the country.

You have now written three novels and have also published essays and short stories. How does your process differ depending on format?

I find fiction to be the most freeing of all the forms. Non-fiction must be true, of course, and there’s a fine line where authors take liberties to remember every smidgen of dialogue as it was said. Bending the rules here is not a crime unless you get on Oprah, but it’s good to stay in the guidelines for your readers’ sake. Screenwriting is limited to 100 pages or so, one page per minute of screen time. The economy of your language becomes crucial and most of your deep editing work will be in the throes of cutting. Short stories are no longer than 15 pages normally, mine were about nine. They are a different animal than the novel, beginning and ending with an entirely different energy. Novels can be any length as long as they work. So when it’s time for a blank page and a new idea, I love that both my memory and my creativity are mine to pick from freely. Essays are my friend. They don’t take two years to write and they’re often funny and make me feel very fulfilled as a writer.

Your previous two novels were published by a mainstream publishing house. Why did you make the move to self-publishing for The Daddy Diaries? What has this process taught you?

I’m a Dad and was making 10% off each book I sold. It’s not a balanced business model. Publishing is going through a transition that will leave the industry different than it’s ever been. My attempt is to try to make a living at the job I’ve been committed to since I was in my mid-twenties. My wife has been in the publishing space for 20 years. She formed her own publishing house, Prince Street Press, and luckily my third novel will be printed by them. My first novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, first published by Algonquin Books, will now be a Prince Street Press book as well.

Any words of advice for aspiring writers?

Dig deep. Don’t be afraid to write about your parents before they die. Carry a notebook around with you. Make it a friend and add to it constantly. Be sloppy with it. Don’t expect to write well every time you sit down. Take a minute before you start to write and breathe. Keep your feet flat on the floor and concentrate on finding what it is that you expect of yourself today. Don’t expect too much. Age, feel pain when it comes your way. Learn from your friends and family. You are connected to billions of stories through them. When you have a piece of writing you love, give it to someone you think reads a lot. Give them no stipulations on how to read it. Listen well when it’s time to discuss your work.

What’s next for Josh Braff?

Another novel. The new publishing house makes me more excited to write than any other time in my career. I’m excited by the blank page.