Set in Seattle, Emerald City follows Benison Behrenreich, the hearing son of Deaf royalty. His father, CEO of a multimillion-dollar Deaf access agency, has bribed Myriadal College officials for Benison’s spot on their powerhouse basketball team, where he struggles to prove himself and compensate for his father’s sins.
Julia Paolantonio has recently lost her father to a drug relapse. Her mother ships her off to live with her estranged granddad, Johnny Raciti, during the summer before her freshman year at Myriadal. Johnny offers her a deal: bring him Peter Fosch – tormented college dropout and the best drug runner west of the Cascades – and he’ll give Julia’s freshly widowed mother a board seat on his mobbed-up securities firm.
When Benison’s father is arrested for defrauding government subsidies for the Deaf, the Behrenreichs are left vulnerable to his company’s ruthless backers – namely Johnny Raciti – forcing Julia and Peter to navigate the minefield left in the aftermath.
Brian Birnbaum received his MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2015. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, The Smart Set, Potluck Magazine, LUMINA, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, Anti-Heroin Chic, and more. His debut novel, Emerald City, is forthcoming in 2019 with Dead Rabbits, whose NYC reading series is spinning off into a literary press funded by a former Amazon dev manager. He also hosts the Dead Rabbits Podcast. Brian is an only Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), and works in development for his father’s deaf access company. Visit him at https://www.briansbirnbaum.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I’m originally from Maryland – Ellicott City to be precise. I’m an only child of Deaf adults (CODA), but I grew up with a group of guys who are the brothers I always wanted. I do think being a CODA sparked my interest in language and the ability to communicate with other humans, which is probably why I’m a writer now. Over the years, I’ve lived in Maryland, Seattle, and now New York City, where I live with my partner – writer M.K. Rainey – and our sweet 13-year-old corgi/lab mix, Rosetta. For my day job, I work in the family sign language business: Birnbaum Interpreting Services. But for my other second job, I’m the Executive Editor of Dead Rabbits Books, which just so happens to be putting my book out in September. That’s me in a nutshell. I also host the Dead Rabbits Podcast and work very closely with all our authors.
Before I started working on Emerald City, I’d written a couple of other novels that got some bites from agents, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere. I think it’s, in the end, because they weren’t good enough. I hadn’t yet found what I was really passionate about and I hadn’t yet gone to Sarah Lawrence for grad school, which is where I really fine-tuned my craft. And it’s where I started the kernels of what Emerald City would become, something that I’m really proud of now. The book definitely follows themes that make up my life.
My parents being Deaf, I am very interested in writing about that and, as I said, humans’ ability to communicate and understand each other. So there is a lot of that in the book. There are also some more plot-driven things in the book that come from the Deaf Community. There’s a story my father told me about a Deaf business owner (for interpreting services too) who defrauded the US Government by running minutes on Video Relay Services, which is how Deaf people call/communicate within the hearing world. I’m definitely interested in corporate fraud on this level, so that is in the novel.
And lastly, I majored in psychology as an undergraduate with a special focus on addiction. I’m really interested in talking about addiction and exploring what leads people to become addicts. So there’s a lot around drugs in the novel, particularly in one character – Peter Fosch. Additionally, there are themes of failure that circle around my main character, Benison, particularly how he relates to failure and success through athletics. So there’s a lot going on in Emerald City, but after working on it for the last six years and rewriting and rewriting, I’m really proud of the book it has become.
How do you create your characters?
The characters really form themselves out of the themes I’m interested. There are three main characters the novel explores: Benison Behrenreich, Julia Paolantonio and Peter Fosch. Benison came to fruition out of my writing about Judaism, college sports, Deafness, and failure. Benison struggles with a lot of the things I did as a kid, being a CODA. Peter definitely sprang forth from me writing about drugs and addiction. Julia is really the interesting character in how she was formed. I don’t really have an answer for her. She kind of formed herself and I just fell in love with her. She’s probably the character I feel closest to in the novel and the one I felt most free to write. All of the characters are wrapped up in organized crime in some way – that’s a prevalent theme in the novel. And how they each respond to it is very different, which I think makes for interesting writing.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
I didn’t start writing seriously until later in life – after my sports career ended and I went to college. I first played guitar in college, thinking I’d make music with my life, even though I was a psychology major. I guess, though, there was always something in me that knew I wanted to write. Towards the end of college, I started to play around with writing and after graduating I moved to Seattle to spend months writing, which turned into two years. During that time, I wrote a few novels that I think I just needed to get out of my system and learn from. The seeds of EC were started in Seattle as well. It was my experience at Sarah Lawrence with my teachers and peers that really transformed my writing and who I am as a writer. Going to school provided me with the community that I have now and the platform to eventually publish my book.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
No, I don’t really require anything special. Just coffee and quiet, occasionally some Theolonius Monk. I really am a machine when I write. I’ve learned that I don’t struggle with staying in my seat and doing the work like other writers do. Honestly, I wish I didn’t have to work and that I could just write all day. I’d spend 8+ hours writing everyday if I could.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
For me, I have to be interested in a subject to write about it. I don’t mean some small spark of interest though. I throw myself into research. Right now, I’m immersed in books on addiction because that’s my next work. Hopefully I’ll be writing a creative nonfiction book about addiction, but I’m not quite sure what it’ll be yet. It could change drastically. Right now I’m just enjoying the research phase and reading all I can and taking notes. I believe that to write anything that other people will be interested in means you have to be incredibly passionate about it and pour your whole self into the work. If you’re not interested in it at that level, then how can you expect your readers to be?
What do you like to read?
Man, I think the better question for me is what I don’t like to read. Because honestly I read everything I can. I read a lot, but I’m a slow reader. I take my time with books and try to pull as much as I can from them. So as long as it’s interesting, I’m hooked. On the Dead Rabbits website, I keep a running list of books I love and recommendations I have for our community. I highly recommend any readers checking out some of the books on that list.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
The biggest piece of advice I have isn’t anything your readers probably haven’t heard already. My biggest piece of advice is to do it all the time and to really build writing into your life. Write as much as you can every day for as long as you can. Another thing would be to not be afraid to ask people to read your work. Get others to read it and don’t take criticism personally. Any feedback you can get is only going to make your work better and make you a better writer. So write all the time and share your work. That’s my advice.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I think, besides my book and the press we’ve built, the other big thing that I’m proud of is the Dead Rabbits Podcast, which I’m the host of. When we started podcasting, I didn’t know how it would go and if I’d be any good as a host. But since then, we’ve recorded nearly 30 episodes and release them weekly. I’m really proud of the way we highlight other writers and literary folks in our community. Every time I sit down with someone, I get excited to hear about what they do and their experiences with writing. I think we have interesting and insightful conversations. I hope your readers will t