Chicagoan Brian Costello is perhaps best known for his recurring live talk show, The Brian Costello Show With Brian Costello, which he hosts at the Empty Bottle. But Costello makes his living teaching fiction at Columbia College, and this month Featherproof Books is releasing his first novel, The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlburg Springs. The book follows the ascent of a punk-rock band in a stifling, fictitious suburb, which Costello based on his hometown of Orlando, Florida. Even though the book’s narrator, Shaquille Callahan, is a drummer, and Costello plays drums in The Functional Blackouts, he says the book is not autobiographical. He recently talked about that, and growing up amid a sea of futility, with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: What is it about this particular subject that inspired you?
Brian Costello: Well, it’s been something I’ve been working on for 10 years on and off. I grew up in Orlando, so a lot of it’s inspired by that. Some of the early drafts were just a little more than me yelling a lot—“I hate this, I hate that,” you know. [Laughs] As it evolved, and as I actually learned to write and kind of find the story, amidst all the yelling, the story that kind of emerged was this band. I just like the idea these really highly influential bands that nothing becomes of them while they’re bands, but they start all these other things. Or even in the case of like bands that never record, like The Enchanters.
AVC: How much of the book comes from your own experience?
BC: A lot of it’s really the spirit of it. All the band stuff is really inspired indirectly from being in a band in Chicago for the past four or five years, this scene that developed from that, these very fun times that happened. That’s kind of why I didn’t make it Orlando specifically, just because the more I wrote and the longer that I lived in Chicago, the more Chicago seeped into it. I didn’t think I could really say, “Okay this is Orlando” because people could go, “Why isn’t DisneyWorld in there? Why is this in there? Why isn’t that in there?” I just wanted to give it its own place, something with parallels to a lot of other places in America. At the same time people that have been to Orlando or grew up there, there’s little things in there they can appreciate. But even people who have never been to Orlando can see parallels in that if they have lived in places similar to that.
AVC: You play drums in The Functional Blackouts, and Shaquille’s a drummer. Do those experiences inform the book pretty heavily?
BC: Yeah, I hate having, not you obviously, but people in general outside asking, “What’s the book about?” “Well, it’s about this drummer in this kind of Orlando place, but it’s not me, and it’s not Orlando.” People are just kind of, “Yeah, whatever dude.” I guess it’s not a thinly veiled autobiography that most first novels seem to be.
AVC: The book is also pretty straightforward story, but peppered throughout it are this sort of Zucker brothers-esque slapstick comedy, like the names of places and things. There’s the Cleveland Steamerz, and every store has “World” in its name. Did you have a limit for balancing the parody with the non-ironic, sentimental parts of the book?
BC: It was a tricky balance, because I didn’t want it to be an all knowing post-modernist, “look at me” [book]. I wanted to be satirical and funny, but I didn’t want the jokes to overwhelm the story. That was part of it. It keeps everybody entertained, but I didn’t want it to be a comedy act. That’s for the story, for sure. Being in Orlando or plenty of other places, especially if you’re a really creative person and trying to figure it out, you don’t have a lot of ideas to bounce off of. There’s that sense of frustration, surrounded by futility, like you know, “Am I the only one who sees this? What the fuck?” And you have your small little group of friends that see that too, but outside of that it’s just this hole.
AVC: You mentioned that it was basically a 10-year project, so were you actually writing all that time, or did you just have the idea?
BC: It had gone through about four beginning-to-end drafts before this fifth and final one. I’d worked on that steadily for a year, a year and a half, leave it alone for a while or try to get it published, and then realize it wasn’t working and go back to it later. In that 10 years there are probably about two to three where it was put on a back burner, and I tried to do something else, but it was still very much still on my mind.
AVC: You’ve been doing The Brian Costello Show for a few years now. How has it changed since you started?
BC: I’m much better at interviewing people now. Keeping within time limits—I’ve never had a producer to do the arm-wave to cut. [WBEZ 848 host] Steve Edwards was a guest, and he critiques me a lot, like, “Don’t ask three questions at once.” I do that a lot, a really long question that has three questions, where the person would go, “Ah yes…Cleveland, 2002, and steak.”
AVC: Would you ever want to expand it, actually do it on TV?
BC: Yeah, I’ve said that I want to be on at 3:30 in the morning. Then people that come home from bars could watch it, like transients and night watchmen. Also I felt like I could do whatever the hell I wanted, and it wouldn’t matter because the ratings would always be low at 3:30 in the morning.