Novelists find attention a mixed blessing

February 15, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

It's hard to imagine two first novelists more different than John Gregory Brown and Brooke Stevens.

Both writers, recent alumni of the Hopkins Writing Seminars, will read tonight at Johns Hopkins University in 323 Gilman Hall at 8 p.m. Mr. Brown, who graduated in 1989, is the author of "Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery," and Mr. Stevens, a '91 graduate, is author of "The Circus of the Earth and the Air."

Mr. Brown, 33, looks to the Southern tradition of William Faulkner and Walker Percy, Mr. Stevens to the surrealism of Federico Fellini and Franz Kafka.

They've both found the attention their first novels have received to be enchanting and offputting.

"Every writer wants to be noticed, wants some measure of attention," says Mr. Brown, who lives in Columbia. "Even though I pursue this alone, in my basement, I want people to read what I've written." But it wasn't always this way. His writing began as "an escape from the inevitable noise and confusion of a large family," says Mr. Brown, who grew up in New Orleans with seven siblings.

His book explores the breakup of an old New Orleans family in a tangle of racism and regret. "Decorations" won the 1993 Lyndhurst Prize, an award that allowed him to write full time.

Mr. Brown says he's glad for the attention and accolades. "In another way I'm eager for the little attention I have gotten to pass, so I can just become the anonymous writer sitting in his basement trying to write."

While Mr. Brown's writing comes from his affinity for Southern fiction, Mr. Stevens' work stems from a love affair with European film and surrealist painting -- and the year he spent traveling as a circus performer after graduating from high school.

Mr. Stevens saw his first Fellini film accidentally, while touring with the circus. "I'd never seen a foreign movie before, I'd never seen subtitles before, and it turned out to be 'La Strada.' I just kind of came into the middle," he says.

"I walked back to the circus, and I couldn't believe that people at the circus were not self-consciously acting out a part in a Fellini film."

In his novel, the protaganist struggles to find his lost wife, who has disappeared after a circus vanishing act.

Mr. Stevens, 36, who now lives in Hoboken, N.J., says his spare, Hemingway-like style causes readers to treat his book as literal realism. These people look for answers to questions he would rather leave unanswered. "I take my dreams as seriously as take reality," he says. "And I wanted the reader not to be able to tell the difference."

Mr. Stevens says he feels the same kind if ambivalence to the attention that Mr. Brown described. "I'm split," he says. "It's like if you were a monk who had fasted for 40 days, and then you went around trying to make yourself famous for it."

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