James Brotherton ('97), Laurie London ('86) and Harley Tat ('91)
"The Metaphysics of Metaphor" by James Brotherton
Red brick is comprised of sand, clay, lime, and iron oxide. A mixture of these raw ingredients is forced into steel molds with a hydraulic press before being dried and eventually fired at a temperature of around 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. As a point of reference, lead melts at 621 degrees; gold, 1,945 degrees. This is the process by which the bucolic and charming brick that is so pervasive across Western’s campus originates.
Before this narrative attempts to pull you down the rabbit hole, you should know this: Writers who are interested in creating works that explore the complexities of the human condition, works we regard as art, tend to their metaphors more than their gardens. While slugs decimate the lettuce and the calla lilies, the writer stares at the horizon – well beyond the stack of nimbus clouds – and sees only the prominent images or themes of her work as she waits for meaning to reveal itself. I suspect that part of the reason we take metaphors so seriously is because we know they are not simply rhetorical figures of speech. They are more than this. With the proper lens, you see them everywhere. They are a part of life, perhaps just as much as the Higgs boson “God” particle.
If you sit alone for an absurd number of hours examining your life and the lives of the people you know eventually you see theme, irony, and metaphor swirling about you. Your life begins to look like a story, even as you live it, and metaphors are hanging out on the train platform waiting for you to notice them. You eventually believe that when Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage/All the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances,” he wasn’t simply constructing a nifty metaphor for his audience. He was making a philosophical statement about the metaphysics of our existence. In other words, life is a story and you can see all of the aspects of story if you simply step offstage for a moment and observe it…reflect a bit.
I see this metaphysics at work when I remember an evening during the spring quarter of 1997. I gave a public reading in Miller Hall from my Master’s thesis, a collection of short stories titled "Spontaneous Combustion." Walking across campus after the reading, my shoes sending up a faint clop on that red brick, my thesis adviser congratulated me on a good reading and said, nonchalantly, “The title story of that collection would make an interesting novel.”
If you adopt this metaphysics, uncanny things begin to happen. If you have a big, unanswered question about something in your life, then the book that will help you explore that question arrives on your doorstep in the hands of a friend who, for some reason, thought you might enjoy that particular book. If you remember a friend or an acquaintance from bygone days for no apparent reason, that friend will very likely find you on Facebook. And likewise, when you’re ready for the next big challenge, the professor that you admire or the colleague that you feel connected to or perhaps someone standing in line at the movie theater will say something that opens the door for your next challenge.
The first draft of my novel was nearly 600 pages. Over the course of 12 years, I changed the narrator’s point-of-view, twice (which essentially meant rewriting the book). I changed the setting from Seattle to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa (which again meant rewriting the book). I added characters and deleted others. I added scenes and deleted chapters wholesale. I let the book sit untouched for two years because it felt like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster in that it had been poorly stitched together and I hoped it would rise off the table, walk, and show me where it needed to go. I cannot accurately guess how many drafts it took to “finish” "Reclaiming the Dead," but I can tell you this: In its final draft, "Reclaiming the Dead" is 200 pages and every page has been read and re-written multiple times.
The underlying process to complete everything I described in the previous paragraph goes like this: Throw a bunch of raw ingredients (memories, fears, beliefs, questions) into an extruder and apply pressure (a notebook or a word-processing application and the humbling, often brutal goal to create something beautiful and original), churn out brick after brick (individual words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters), and then arrange it all neatly in an esthetically pleasing way with great economy to create something that will take the pedestrian somewhere (the reader is moved, the reader feels something and sees the world differently because of the experience). From where I sit now, it seems remarkably fitting that my professor suggested the idea of a novel as we stood on a gorgeous pathway of brick that so perfectly exemplified the challenges ahead of me.
Learn more about Brotherton ('97, M.A., English) and "Reclaiming the Dead" at jamesbrotherton.com
Laurie London (’86, Business Administration) chose Red Square as the setting for a vampire attack in her book “Embraced by Blood.”
London's books include The Sweetblood series published by HQN Books, including “Seduced by Blood” (2012), and the Iron Portal Series published by Amazon Digital Services, including “Assassin’s Touch” (2012).
Learn more about London at laurielondonbooks.com
"The center of Western is a flurry of activity," writes Harley Tat ('91, Broadcast Media Studies), who set his first novel, "The New Boy," at a university that is based on Western.
"For freshmen, Red Square represents all that is exciting about college life: the people, the energy, and the possibility to rid yourself of your past, or reinvent yourself into the person you hope to be."
An excerpt from "The New Boy":
When Andy got to Red Square, the hub of Western University, he marveled at the broad plaza where the many brick thoroughfares intersected, and at the towering water fountain that almost seemed to kiss the low-hanging rain clouds. He stopped to watch all the students, many of whom, like him, were embarking on a new phase of life—college life. Andy was thrilled to be enrolled at Western; he felt like he’d somehow managed to escape his past, and welcomed the opportunity for a fresh start.
Read more about Harley Tat and "The New Boy" at newboy.com.