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Fanfare for the broken man: a Q & A with Brad Zellar

“House Of Coates,” a collaboration with Alec Soth, is the story of one broken man, the reclusive Lester B. Morrison.

“House Of Coates” is the story of one broken man, the reclusive Lester B. Morrison.

Broken men are everywhere in these tough economic times, but as Brad Zellar so vividly illustrates in his new limited-edition collaboration with photographer Alec Soth“House Of Coates,” broken men have always been with us, haunting us, providing a mirror. Society may label them bums, homeless, or pariahs, but Zellar’s empathetic writing allows the reader to get inside one broken man, and therefore all.

For upwards of 20 years, Zellar has made a career out of ferreting out some of the most fascinating characters that Minnesota’s margins has to offer. His 2008 book “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” (Minnesota Historical Society) collected the long-lost collection of an amateur Bloomington shutterbug, and his journalism for City Pages routinely went straight to the heart of the human condition in all its vagaries.

“House Of Coates” is the story of one broken man, the reclusive Lester B. Morrison, whom Zellar toasts at the outset:

“Here’s to the prisoners of disenchantment, the lost, broken men bullied and inoculated against hope as children and eventually immunized against all notice or attention. To the lost boys and invisible men. To those who have been carved small by the glaciers of time and memory. To the fundamentally amnesiac, nurturers of the selective oblivion of the neglected. To the men who keep secrets even from themselves. To the ceaselessly retreating armies of the lonely. To the men who play hide and seek. Here’s to Lester B. Morrison.”

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Saturday (3-5 p.m.) at the Midwest Hotel in St. Paul, Zellar and Soth will do a signing and reading to celebrate the release of “House Of Coates.” Zellar took time out from his travels to speak with MinnPost via email:

MinnPost: As you write in the book, a character like Lester is writ large upon us from childhood. I remember going to my uncle’s apartment in downtown Minneapolis with my dad once. I knew he’d had a tough time. He was making a steak in the broiler, and his hat was resting on a little bed. The loneliness stuck with me. Growing up in Austin, Minnesota, did you see things like that that might have set you on a path toward championing the world’s so-called losers?

Brad Zellar:  From a very early age I was aware of those people all around me. The people in the margins of even a small town. The people who lived alone and kept to themselves. The solitary men who hung out at the library and read newspapers and magazines. There used to be this sort of flophouse over on the eastside near the railroad yard – The Ace Hotel – and it was a place where a lot of these characters lived. It eventually burned down, of course (these are the kinds of men who smoke in bed), but I would often ride my bike over there and marvel at the cast of characters.

I think it’s Michael Ventura who has this great novel title, “The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God,” and the Ace Hotel was a version of that zoo. You could look at those guys and know that something had happened, something was missing, something was just not right, and what those somethings were was always of great interest to me, as were the people who carried around those questions and holes. I think I realized even as a kid that it would be very easy to become one of those missing people. Despite growing up in a very active and loving family, and being a pretty social kid, I was also lonely. Ours was a crowded house, and I longed for privacy and solitude. You didn’t have to walk very far to get out of town, to be alone out on the gravel roads surrounded by fields, and I loved to make that walk and have that feeling, that realization that it wasn’t hard at all to disappear in this huge country; I still see invisible people on the sidewalks of this city, and feel the powerful furtive shield they’ve put up around themselves, and recognize that there are all sorts of people who are performing disappearing acts before our very eyes.

MP: Lester’s story takes place in the Minnesota winter of 2011, one of the most brutal on record. The frozen claustrophobia and the unrelenting cold and darkness of it all make for a fairly bleak backdrop. In terms of how environs can affect writing, have you considered how “House Of Coates” might have turned out had you been writing it this winter?

BZ: I’m pretty sure that last winter was the time for me to write “House of Coates,” but that territory is always there, and it always has the feel of an emotional gulag to me. And the psychic territory is something that I can access pretty easily, appalling as that is. That said, I was there last winter, and Lester was there, and though I can’t speak for Lester anymore, I was in an entirely different and better place at the same time this year. And the reason for that is pretty simple: I feel connected to the world. There are people I love who depend on me.

MP: You said that to you, this project was about balancing loneliness and longing for connection with a desire to escape. Let’s talk about that. I think it’s a common condition: We want to be alone for the peace and quiet of it, but we also want to live and thrive within a community. It’s the recluse versus the citizen of the world, and I think that’s an inner tug-of-war that a lot of people can relate to in these days of ubercommunication and connection.

BZ: Well, in truth this project is more specific in nature. It’s a sort of collaboration between a man (Lester) who has, in fact, tried repeatedly to make a break from the world, and me, another man who has tried on a number of occasions to escape. Turns out there’s probably a lot of common ground, and similar psychological factors in play, but Lester has never been what I guess I’ll call for lack of a better term a “solid citizen.” I’ve tried repeatedly, and failed. I think I’m probably in possession of some more developed social instincts – although plenty of people would perhaps argue with that – but I think I’ve developed some basic understanding of what makes characters like Lester tick.

Because the Lesters of the world tend to be largely inaccessible and tremendously unreliable characters, I had to make my own version of his story. I had plenty of raw materials to work with, and access to his orbit and some of his communiques during the time the story takes place, but I was also free to imagine what he was up to and where he was going. The starting point was that Lester, by his own admission, was caught in a place between states of longing; he could go further out and away, effectively disappearing in the process, or he could find something in the world to cling to that would allow him to stick around and take another crack at the whole human thing.

MP: And how ‘bout you?

BZ: I felt like I’d been in that position on any number of times. I’ve gone away and spent large stretches of time alone and isolated, sometimes right in the middle of the city in my apartment, but also in genuinely remote places. It’s a desire that doesn’t go away. It’s easy to feel frustrated by your perceived invisibility and inability to connect in a big city, but when you’re actually in the woods, or the middle of nowhere, there’s no longer any fooling yourself.

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If signals and connections are a metaphor, it’s fair to say that there are places where you just have no hope of finding any, so in time you relax, settle into decent routines (reading, writing, mucking around with wood or planting a garden, all those corny, stereotypical things that go back to people like Thoreau, and, of course, a lot further back than that). It can be good and productive and healthy on some levels, but you run the risk of getting feral. Whatever social skills you have start to atrophy, and you start talking to you dog, and then to yourself. Hygiene gets a little dodgy, and eventually, if you’re at all wired to be social or have something you want to communicate, or if you discover that you’re not in fact as emotionally self-sufficient as you might like to believe, you start craving human companionship again.

So, in my case at least, that means I pack up my stuff and come back to Minneapolis, and then very quickly find myself sitting in front of a computer and trying to connect with people via the Internet. The sense of community you can find there can be validating, but there’s no getting around the fact that by its very nature it’s ersatz. I’ve gone away from Facebook, for instance, on a number of occasions, but I go back, and each time I go back I discover once again that the people I really seem to “connect” with are mostly people I only know through Facebook.

It’s strange, and when it’s unsatisfying (which is often) is can be very lonely-making. When you don’t get a response, it can feel disproportionately crushing, and you can quickly start feeling like an invisible man again. And when you start feeling like an invisible man – when, for instance, you go for a long walk with your dog and not meet the eyes of a single person – it’s very easy to start fantasizing again about escape. I mean, connection implies being plugged in, and when you feel like you’re literally plugged in and can’t get a connection, the temptation is always to just get unplugged.

MP: Lester’s story is about a man who unplugs almost completely.

BZ: This stuff, this wrestling match, is all stuff that a guy like Lester has been dealing with from a very early age, and it naturally involves a lot of questions and soul-searching. I got to try to get in Lester’s head, and live in his skin, and this was during the worst winter of my life (for all sorts of reasons, but chiefly from a climatologically standpoint) so it wasn’t a pretty place to be. The result, really, is a kind of scary mind-meld. It took me a long time to get out from under Lester and his fantasies.

I should point out that I don’t have a family of my own, no children, and so it’s easier for me to dream and scheme about these things. I’ve also been writing for most of my adult life, and this is a tough place to get anyone to acknowledge you as a writer, so there’s also this constant battle with frustration and bitterness and envy, and so the idea of a very real and enforced obscurity is attractive; if there’s literally no one reading what you write, you don’t have to conclude that it’s necessarily bad.

MP: You’ve spent a lot of time on your own, both as a person and writer. You’ve gone long stretches of time with no or little contact with people. What are some of the benefits of going off the grid?

BZ: The obvious answer is that it’s hugely productive. When you’re someplace where there are literally no social options or obligations and no real place to go, you eventually just hunker down and do your work. It’s also, at least in my case, very active. The inevitably restlessness and boredom had one outlet: Go outside and monkey around. Go for a walk. Move some rocks around. Clear some brush. Build something. It always takes a week or so to get the city and the expectation that you should be doing something out of your system, but once you get it flushed, it’s very relaxed. There are no expectations but your own. This is never realistic – and probably isn’t healthy – but it’s the mindset you get yourself into. You’re out of touch. Somewhere out there in America the people you know and love are going on with their lives without you, and it’s dangerously easy to convince yourself that you are a painless subtraction, and unnecessary to anyone. I think that’s the Lester mindset, in a nutshell.

MP: You’ve spent a couple years considering the idea of “recluse” – a phrase you hear more and more people use to describe their social status or mood, but what we’re talking about is a self-contained shut-in and, therefore, outsider. What are some things you’ve learned about the lives of great recluses, like, say, J.D. Salinger or Greta Garbo, and is the recluse a uniquely American idea?

BZ: Alec and I have both probably spent too much time thinking about this business. The idea of retreat is intoxicating to people who maybe feel socially awkward, or who feel like they have too many responsibilities and obligations, or who think the world of people and relationships is sometimes just too harrowing and complicated. There’s also just the issue of wanting to get some space, some distance, some silence to clear your head. To get away from all the forms of traffic and noise. It’s a contextual thing.

There’s something to me infinitely more satisfying about reading Don Quixote or Emerson or whatever in a cabin in the woods or on a lonely stretch of beach, and all the music I love sounds different as well. Blasting the Minutemen or Count Basie while you’re digging an outhouse hole is somehow a more ecstatic experience than playing them in my apartment at muted volume so as not to disturb the neighbors.

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People obviously retreat from the world for wildly different reasons, and in different ways. It’s certainly different for a celebrity, or someone who’s spent a lot of time in the limelight or in positions of public pressure, to want to shuck that scrutiny and all the myths that can build up around such personae. It’s hard to maintain a persona when you’re truly alone. There are also people who escape for spiritual reasons, who go off to contemplate, meditate, or whatever. And then there are those that are just running, the broken people, who are running from themselves as much as the world.

I think Lester is one of those types, but I also think he’s always looking for something, and trying to find a way to communicate whatever it is that’s happened to him and what he’s avoiding. I got to spend a lot of time thinking about that while writing this book, and I think we had a real understanding. I think it was important to him that he find some moment of grace, no matter how transient or ambiguous, and I desperately wanted to give that to him.