Excerpted from Goat by Brad Land. Copyright © 2004 by Brad Land. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A TALK WITH BRAD LAND
To you, what is GOAT really about? Is it an indictment of the fraternity system? Or is it a story of survival? Or is it a look at the way young men come of age?
I suppose GOAT is about all of those things and each aspect is somewhat interesting to me. But GOAT is a story, first and foremost, one I tried to tell in a true and different way. I never set out to write a polemic, but I do hope people might read it and think a little more about the ways we hurt each other. Violence, in any form, is something each of us deals with-sanctioned, random, public, personal–they’re all expressions of the same base thing.
What is it about the need to belong that makes people go to such extremes to be a part of something?
I think there’s a great deal of pressure to belong, to feel that you are doing the right thing with your life, in your own eyes, in the eyes of your parents and the people in your town. Go to college, be well adjusted, get a job, sell something, make money, join the country club. I knew lots of people who thought about which sorority or fraternity they'd join while they were still in high school. It'’s a dangerous sort of pressure, I think, and it doesn't just come from friends; it’s teachers, parents, neighbors.
How do you feel now about Clemson and the members of that fraternity?
Clemson occupies an important place for me. My father went there. His father went there. I still love going to football games there, the pageantry of it all, the excitement. That's never really changed for me. It excited me as a child and a young man. It excites me now.
I don’t really feel good or bad about members of the fraternity. I don’t know any of them any more on any significant level. Maybe they’ll read the book and connect with it.
Have recent hazing stories in the press affected you?
They always affect me. Hazing is about humiliation and power, someone being in a position to degrade someone else, and any time that happens, any way humiliation is expressed, it’s damaging, and one of the cruelest ways we interact.
Have the events in GOAT shaped your relationship with your brother, Brett, and with the rest of your family?
Very much so. It’s colored everything since it happened. But my family is, and always has been, my center. Brett and I have always been close, and what happened made us understand one another better, it helped us know the other in a way we hadn't before. I’ve had people read the book and ask me questions like “why did Brett do that do you?” But I never felt the book presented that sort of relationship; it feels to me, rather, that we did things to each other, good and bad. Brett and I both went through those things, but we experienced them in different ways. We both made the choices we felt we had to make.
How have the events depicted in GOAT affected you in the intervening years? How have they affected your writing?
I’ve always been a generally nervous person. What happened heightened that tendency. It’s something I deal with every day, really, but I'm at a pretty good place with what happened now.
As far as the writing goes, I tried to fictionalize the events in the first part of the book but it always felt false, like I didn’t have the perspective to write about it in any way at all. And a few years after that, during a summer when I was living in Charleston, I just started writing the second half of the book. I’d spent a year in graduate school writing a little bit and reading all the memoirs I could get my hands on. Now it seems like what I was doing was preparation, figuring out where the story fit and how to tell it.
Was writing GOAT cathartic for you?
The word cathartic has always been attached to memoir, I think, because of its personal nature, but really, all writing, any act of creation, for me, would have that side. But it's a part of the process, not something I think writing is really about.
I don’t think art is about solving one's own psychology-if that happens along the way, good-but I’ve never approached writing with catharsis at my primary concern. That’s self-help, not art.
The memoir is just a form, and like other forms, it carries certain constraints and expectations. My goal was always to make a book that does something different with form, with language, with tone. A book that makes people rethink those expectations and constraints.
Clearly, readers are reacting as much to the writing as to the story.
Yes, the story is something people respond to. It’s hard and scary. But so far people have commented equally on the voice, the way the story is told. As a writer, that's what I hope people latch onto-the language, the style, the experimentation. But I'm not a fan of experimentation simply for its own sake, to be cool or new. I think successful experimental writing comes from knowing the rules, knowing the body of nonfiction, knowing how other writers (poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction) have done things, and why, reading everything and anything with a critical eye, and always bringing those things to the craft of writing.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a few things–some essay-type things. I don’t really know what to call them, these short nonfiction prose pieces. Maybe call it experimental journalism. I’m also working on a novel that has punk rock bands in it. And pop songs. The state of Colorado is also in the book, which I like, because I think Colorado is a good state. There’s an airplane. And cars. A commune. Lots of trees and snow.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Goat is a memoir teeming with violence. Did you find yourself more shocked by the random violence in the book than by other, sanctioned types of violence? If so, why?
2. Throughout Land’s memoir, many characters grapple with the difficulty of fitting in with their peers. What sorts of pressures do you feel are placed on young men and women? Where does this stress come from? What could be done to combat it?
3. In your opinion, is the Greek system in the United States a viable outlet for young men and women? Given the long, public history of hazing and abuses committed by some fraternities and sororities, do you feel the Greek system should be abolished? If not, how could conditions be improved?
4. The narrator is involved in different kinds of violence: violence is committed against him and he participates, in some ways, in violence toward others. Identify some places in the text where the author falls into that violence himself, where he becomes part of it.
5. Is Land’s character sympathetic in his passivity, and in the detached way he sees the world? Or does this passivity make him less sympathetic?
6. In your opinion, is Land making a claim about the nature of the relationship between different forms of violence in society, like that of violent crimes and fraternity hazing? Or is he simply telling a story and allowing the reader to formulate his or her own opinion about this relationship? If so, what is the relationship?
7. Brad’s relationship with his younger brother, Brett, is integral to the narrative. What is it about their relationship the author find so compelling, so powerful, that he constantly moves toward him and seeks his approval in one way or another? Could Brett have done anything differently to protect Brad from his own self-destruction? What could Brad have done differently to change what happened to him? What is your reaction to the close, almost suffocating nature of the sibling relationship between Brad and Brett?
8. Goat is greatly concerned with guilt and forgiveness. In what ways do the violent acts committed against the narrator cause one to think about forgiveness? In what way does Brett’s guilt and his apparent inability to deal with the things that happen to Brad cause him to feel unable to ask for forgiveness?
9. There are many scenes in the book in which Brad is participating in an act of hazing or some fraternity ritual and Brett is off to the sides, in a corner, unable to watch or participate. How does this apparent refusal to help, to give recognition, implicate Brett ethically? Furthermore, how does this affect our beliefs about third parties and forgiveness? Are third parties who choose not to intervene when violence is taking place implicated in those violent acts, and, if so, to what extent?
10. Considering the guilt felt by Brett for not being present at his brother’s time of need, how is the relationship between Brad and Brett mirrored by Brad’s relationship with Will Fitch? What is it about this relationship that is so compelling, and how does it compel Brad to recollect about his relationship with his brother?
11. How is this memoir different in form, structure, and tone, from other memoirs you’ve read? Which styles do you feel are more compelling than others?
12. Realizing the inherent difficulty of writing a memoir of this sort, do you consider the voice Land cultivates authentic? In order to remain completely honest with regard to the narrative, the author of any memoir must tell the story as it unfolded — but in doing so, the author always runs the risk of sounding too vulnerable or emotionally inhibited. Given the inherent difficulty of exposing oneself in a radical way, do you think Land was successful?
13. Authors of memoirs portray other people’s actions from their own perspective, often without asking their permission. Does this compromise the author ethically?
14. Early in the book Land has a conversation with a fox. How can one really have a conversation with a fox? What does the inclusion of a scene in a memoir that is at first glace presumably untrue imply about the nature of truth-telling?
15. Is there such a thing as an objective claim about the past? How would any author really retrieve the past as it happened, without having to rely solely on memory? If an author uses interviews, for example, does the presence of a tape recorder or microphone, or the very recognition of the fact that the author is listening intently, always compromise the objectivity of what interviewees have to say? Is complete objectivity even possible?