Brian Broome is an award-winning writer, poet, and screenwriter, and K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and instructor in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is pursuing an MFA. He has been a finalist in The Moth storytelling competition and won the grand prize in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Writing Awards. He lives in Pittsburgh.
In this post, Broome explains how a Gwendolyn Brooks poem inspired him to write his memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods and much more!
Name: Brian Broome
Literary agent: Danielle Chiotti
Book title: Punch Me Up to the Gods
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: May 18, 2021
Genre: Memoir, LGBTQ+
Elevator pitch for the book: Punch Me Up to the Gods is a memoir from Brian Broome, whose early years growing up in Ohio as a dark-skinned, queer Black boy propel this gorgeous, aching, and unforgettable debut. Cleverly framed around Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool,” the iconic ode to Black boyhood, Punch Me Up to the Gods brims with swagger and sensitivity, bringing a fresh voice to ongoing conversations about Blackness in America.
What prompted you to write this book?
I started writing this book while in a drug and alcohol rehab facility in Washington, Pa. I had a roommate who snored very loudly, which kept me up most nights when the rest of the facility was deathly quiet. Those overnight hours were the first time I had put pen to paper in a very long time. I was writing to try to figure out how I got there. I wrote down the experiences that I believed had left a mark on my life. At the time, I didn’t know that what I was writing would become a book. That all happened months later after I met my agent Danielle Chiotti. I like to think that what prompted the book’s writing was that snoring roommate. I hope he’s alright. I wish I could remember his name.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
Danielle and I worked together on connecting the pieces I was writing into a manuscript, starting in February of 2018. In the beginning, it was just a collection of autobiographical stories. But then I thought about the Gwendolyn Brooks poem and realized that the poem fit perfectly with the themes emerging in my writing. As soon as I added the poem as an organizing element, things started to become clearer for me with the whole book. Danielle sent it out on submission in October of 2019. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought it in November of that year. None of the ideas in my book ever changed. I knew I wanted to write about my experiences with race, sexuality, poverty, and shame. I knew I wanted people who had gone through similar experiences as me to feel seen. Or for people to see themselves in me when they didn’t expect to. What did change, once I was introduced to my editor Rakia Clark, is that the manuscript evolved from a collection of essays about my life into more of a literary memoir. And the interludes on the bus, where the adult me observes a boy and his father interacting—that became a more prominent structural element. More interludes allowed me to be reflective without disrupting the main memoir. So none of my ideas changed, but some of the execution did.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Everything was a learning moment. From editing to the way books are bought and sold to marketing and publicity and design. Everything has been a learning experience. I really had no idea that so much went into it. In the beginning, I actually thought that you write a certain number of pages, and then someone makes it into a book. I did not understand how that happened. It’s a much longer and more detailed process than I’d ever imagined. The editing process is very meticulous. I didn’t know what a “blurb” was until last year. Mostly I’m surprised by the number of people involved. Did you know there’s a book that comes out before the book? It’s called a galley or an ARC. I had no idea. Somebody has to work to make that. I’ve met many people in the past year who are exceptionally good at their jobs. I think that, like most people, I just thought books appeared and then you read them. This is not the case. A lot of hard work goes into delivering a book into the world.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I was surprised by how much I could remember from what I believe to be watershed moments in my life. They are indelible. And when I closed my eyes to remember them, so much of the detail came back. I was also surprised to find out that the people involved in those moments don’t remember them at all. Those moments were only monumental for me. Everyone has these moments in their lives that loom large but that no one else remembers. I find it comforting that there are moments in this life that are for you and you only. No one else has access to them. The thought makes me feel alone in the universe, but in a good way.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I really hope that it adds to the discussion of how people are expected to perform in the bodies they’re given. Mostly I hope that it helps Black boys realize that there is no role we have to play out in order to make others more comfortable. I have felt “less than” for most of my life and that feeling caused me to hurt myself and others with my addictions and selfishness. I hope it will help others who have been hurt by people like the person I was, to gain a bit of understanding. Not necessarily forgiveness; but understanding.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Just keep writing even when you think it’s crap. Keep writing when other people tell you it’s crap. You have to find a way to do it just for yourself. This is a notion that is, at once, counterintuitive and cliché. But you have to find a way to love it. I, of course, don’t follow this advice. I’m still hoping to get to that place myself.