An Interview with Brian Birnbaum

How has your experience as a child of deaf adults (CODA) shaped your life?

I didn’t really acknowledge this until I began psychoanalysis, roughly four years ago. Until then I’d always minimized its impact. Now, I understand that it plays a central role in my perception of communication. For one, having Deaf parents allowed, at a very young age, me to understand how different people can be, and how important it is to make room for these differences – in effect, instilling empathy. On the other hand, my frustration with alternating between American Sign Language and English, which is by far my stronger dialect, instilled a sense of futility that I’m still dealing with to this day, yet which has enriched my experience in ways tantamount to anyone born of a bilingual family.

How has it shaped your writing career?

First and foremost, being a CODA introduced me to struggle. Whether juggling linguistics or witnessing the difficulties my parents endure, I was exposed early and often to what it means to suffer and cope with that suffering. Literature is an art steeped in drama, drama can’t exist without conflict, and conflict imposes choice, which I’ve always struggled to reconcile – even when confronted with a diner menu. The choice of whether to sign or speak, whether to attempt to communicate my struggles to those close to me – et al, these choices of how to confront struggle dominate my drive to write.

What initially drew you to writing? After the dead ends that you faced in querying Emerald City, what kept you going?

It was my passion, and I thought I was good at it. I didn’t realize how bad I was until I discovered a semblance of decency in my writing. Erstwhile, books like Cloud Atlas, A Naked Singularity, and The Flamethrowers revealed to me the limitlessness of this craft, and nothing draws me more than that which knows no bounds.

It’s impossible to say exactly what kept me going because there were so many times that I committed to quitting – only to relapse on perseverance. It’s a paradox: finding an agent kept me going until that agent left the industry and welched on his promise to pass me along to another agent; completing the revisions I’d discussed with said agent kept me going until a hundred queries with an improved novel paradoxically failed to deliver me another agent; and now, of course, Animal Riot Press has kept me going, which is far more sustainable because of its promise to publish my novel, along with a hitherto unforeseen opportunity to publish other deserving novels that paradoxically can’t find a home.

Has your background in psychology played a role in your writing?

The better question might be, how hasn’t it played a role in my writing? We are our psychology, and understanding psychology is the espousal of empathy and self-awareness, without which it would be impossible to write anything aside from an instruction manual. I owe a great deal to my time in psychoanalysis, despite its flaws, and to my innate drive to inexorably dig deeper into myself, paired with the humility to understand that we will only know so little.

How has the failure and physical trauma of your sports career in high school and college impacted your writing?

This harkens back to my early exposure to struggle and suffering. Injuries might’ve marked the beginning of the end of my sports career, but its psychological sequela – the anxiety that metastasized into a complicated web of performance pathologies – marked the end of the end. This experience also marked the transition from my pensive yet contented childhood to what would become my depressive and anxiogenic adulthood. There’s never a day when I don’t regret what happened to my relationship with sports, and yet there’s never a day that I don’t have gratitude for where it’s brought me. And being that existential paradoxes are one of the pillars of literature, I’d say that physical trauma and its psychological sequelae were absolutely crucial to the formative years of my writing.

What is Video Relay Service fraud? How did it influence your perspective or your novel?

Video Relay Service (VRS) is a videoconferencing interpretation service for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. Deaf/HH folks videophone a VRS interpreter, who then dials the number that the D/HH individual is trying to reach. Each minute of every call is remunerated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Back in the early aughts, VRS companies would ‘run minutes’ – i.e. hire Deaf individuals to make calls through their VRS service. Such calls were speciously unnecessary, made only to accumulate income for the VRS agencies.

I’ve always been as interested in organized crime as I am immersed in Deaf culture. Since stories need plots, I saw in the unlikely link between these two phenomena of which I’m deeply familiar a novel (so to speak) synthesis.

Emerald City touches on so many issues, from high collar crime, to drug addiction, to sexual abuse, that are prevelant in our culture. What are you hoping readers take away from the story?

For the sake of answering the question, I’ll defer my Death of the Author take on this. My epigraph, pulled from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, is essentially a referendum on American culture’s lack of deep, critical thought, particularly our pervasive inability to understand that belief in something shouldn’t come at the cost of belief in other things. Religion is a good example: the idea that only one God exists turns the world’s numerous monotheisms into pure folly, for how can we know whose God is real? In reality, God is a metaphor for many things, behaves in many different ways across many different lives, and the vehement rejection of one God over another’s has caused countless, senseless wars.

This idea can be suffused across much any subject. The take-home message is akin to Fitzgerald’s definition of genius: the ability to hold two contradicting truths in one’s head. The world lacks this ability because we don’t teach this ability – we don’t teach dialectics, we don’t teach critical thinking, instead, we teach people ‘facts’ and ‘figures’ rather than how to think. There’s the old adage about giving a man a fish for dinner or teaching him to fish – that applies here.

Other than that, I just hope people come away fulfilled. That they enjoy the story and feel nourished by the language, ideas, and experience.

What can we look out for next, from you and Animal Riot Press?

In a few words, our next books. After Emerald City, we’re printing David Hollander’s long-awaited follow-up to his debut novel. I’ve had the pleasure of reading and editing Anthropica, and it’s safe to say that it’s a masterpiece-in-the-making. He’s one of the most talented prose-writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and his forthcoming novel will not disappoint.

After that we’ve got DR co-founder Katie Rainey’s novel, Sunny, which I’ve also had the pleasure of editing. Though in earlier stages than David’s, it’s already evident how great this book is going to be. As we hope for all our titles, Sunny captures an era (early aughts) and a region (Little Rock, AR) in a way never seen before, and her prose is just as fresh. With an unrelenting parataxis akin to Cormac McCarthy, yet infused with the ethereal style of John Hawkes, Katie reframes entirely what it means to write a Southern novel.

Last but not least, we’re working on a collection of essays by the wunderkind Annie Krabbenschmidt. Her collection will cover her experience with coming to discover her sexuality, and all the tragicomedy that proceeds. I met Annie at an Animal Riot Press reading – a fairytale story as it pertains to our vision of building a community – and after she read, I was impelled to invite her onto the podcast, which was a subterfuge toward convincing her to write a book for us.

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