Ask the Author | Drew Bratcher

In this week’s Ask the Author, Drew Bratcher, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, discusses his debut book, “Bub: Essays from Just North of Nashville” ahead of a Dec. 1 reading at Prairie Lights.


Contributed photo from Drew Batcher.

Charlotte McManus, Arts Reporter

Drew Bratcher is an author from the Nashville area. He earned a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2005 and a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2016, where he focused on nonfiction writing. His first book: “Bub: Essays from Just North of Nashville” released on Nov. 2. To celebrate the release, Bratcher will give a reading at Prairie Lights on Dec. 1.

 DI: What is “Bub?”

Bratcher: I would call the book an essay collection. Although it is diffuse and complex in some ways. I’d say it’s an essay collection about growing up under the influence of stories and songs outside of Nashville. So, there’s a lot of music criticism in there. But there’s also quite a bit of memoir in there, and in many ways, the project of this book was to try to bring those two things together.

Another way of saying it is that it’s really a book about how the things that we’re given early on — culturally in my case, growing up in Music City, it was country music — by and large — but those things that we’re given are frames of reference. They become the things that we use to make sense of our lives for the rest of our lives. And sometimes we find them lacking. But sometimes we find them strangely helpful.

DI: “Bub” is also the name of your grandfather. What compelled you to write a tribute to him?

Bratcher: The long title essay — which I initially proposed as being the whole book — and it had a lot of white space, and it had photographs, and it was going to be one of those sort of short performative pieces that you read slowly but maybe in a single sitting. But that essay is about my grandfather, and you’re not supposed to write about your grandparents. It’s like the No. 1 rule, right? How do you write about that in an unstereotypical, unsentimental way? How do you say anything surprising about that? Because grandparents are by nature old, and it’s no surprise that they’re going to pass. And so, it’s something that creative writing teachers will often dissuade their students from writing about.

But when my grandfather died — which was during the pandemic, but not of COVID — but because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to mourn him. His funeral was so unsatisfactory. It was like 20 people in the funeral home, everybody had masks on, and I was the only one from my immediate family that was even able to come. But because of that, I just felt like I have got to write about him before I forget about all these memories and all these stories, and I started to think about doing that. But the question is, how do you do it in a way that’s not sentimental?

As an essayist, one of the things that’s really generative for me — and not every writer is like this — some writers start with an abstract [idea] and then are able to make that palpable. For me, it’s always been, I’ve got to have something palpable, and I’ll start describing that. And from there, maybe if I’m lucky, the writing will take flight.

DI: How do you see the knowledge you gained at the Writer’s Workshop in “Bub?”

Bratcher: One of the things that I think MFA programs do, in the short term, is that they totally mess you up. They just explode your conceptions of what’s possible, your assumptions about what writing should do, and in the short term, that has the effect of producing a lot of bad writing because you’re back at square one in so many ways. And you have so many voices in your head. You have, in front of you, writing by amazing authors. And then you also have around you the writing of your brilliant classmates, and you have the very loud — some louder than others — voices of your teachers. How in the world are you supposed to get still enough and quiet enough and focused enough in an environment like that to actually find your own voice again?

So I would say that “Bub” is definitely influenced by my experience in Iowa City. It’s sort of second-generation. I would say the first iterations of a lot of these pieces that were written either while I was there, or shortly thereafter, were colossal failures, because I was trying to impersonate this writer or that writer, or I would hear my instructors in my head saying, “Don’t do that, never do that, don’t risk that,” all of which is really good, but it took some time for those voices to quiet, for the critical questioning apparatus of the workshop to settle into my own internal process. So that I could actually write with abandon again, trusting the material and my own voice.

But it would definitely be a lesser book. Frankly, the form of writing an essay that combines aspects of journalism, music, criticism, or art criticism, and also memoir — the personal essay — the fact that you could do all of that in one piece was revolutionary to me. It might not be revolutionary to you, but I was coming from a pure journalism background, and so that form, and finding writers who were doing something comparable, was revolutionary.

DI: What about leaving Nashville motivated you to write about it?

Bratcher: There’s a great Tennessee writer named Peter Taylor. Nobody reads him anymore, but he won the Pulitzer Prize. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he had a short story in the New Yorker it seemed like every other week. I mean — He was doing it! And he’s from Tennessee, and that was of interest to me, but one of the things that he said in an interview was that you’re not really from anywhere until you leave. You’re not really from a place until you leave it, and what he means by that, of course, is that until you get a little distance from things, ‘til you get your head above the water, you can’t really see them, much less make sense of them. And some people can be distant from a place, even while they’re in it. For other people — famously, James Joyce and famously, James Baldwin — they need to go thousands and thousands of miles away in order to get an accurate appraisal of that place, and that’s been true for me.

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I think that it’s taken years and a lot of distance from me to get far enough away from the music and from the people, and from the place, to be able to describe them, to make sense of them. And frankly, I never thought that it would be okay to write about these things. Like, writing about country music? Who’s the audience for that? Does anybody find that interesting, writing about artists and photographers from places where I was?

And discovering that there were artists and writers, and from places where I was from, was mind-blowing to me. I remember when I moved up to Washington, D.C. for the first time. Really homesick, I went into the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and there on the walls, all around, were these photographs of old barns, old church houses, things like gourd trees. In rural places, you’ll sometimes see on posts hollowed-out gourds with holes in them, and those are homemade birdhouses. But pictures of things like this, things that I was very familiar with growing up in the south, outside of Nashville. And I just remember thinking: How is this on the walls of the museum in the Smithsonian? I’ve been trying to get away from these things my whole life. Somebody thinks this is art, and I didn’t understand it. But I was tantalized by it — that this stuff I’ve been trying to get out of because I wanted a wider perspective possesses a kind of complicated beauty. So, I’d say my writing over time has been able to place some of those cultural artifacts from Tennessee and the Nashville area in my literary crosshairs. And this book is an attempt for me to try to praise those things and to lift them up, but also to interrogate them.