Aaron Burch's perspective-shifting “Year of the Buffalo” tells the tale of a road trip to reconciliation
Aaron Burch captures the spirit of a road trip in his novel, Year of the Buffalo. The long drive sets the stage for bonding, observations, and memories shared between brothers Ernie and Scott as they travel from Washington state toward Detroit.
In this third-person novel, the focus shifts from character to character. On the road, Ernie reflects:
They were doing it. He’d agreed to the trip not because of any desire to return to Michigan but just because. Because he had no reason not to, because it seemed like Scott wanted him to go, because why not? But wasn’t this what roadtrips were supposed to be? Revelatory and epiphanic and life-changing and life-answering and everything else about life that he was searching for, everything he thought the farm might be able to be and now believing a cross country roadtrip was definitely going to be. There was a simplicity to the moment—two guys driving, taking their time, without consequence.
Travel by car—or SUV for Ernie and Scott—may be all those things, but the journey also emphasizes the tension and strong need for reconciliation between the two siblings.
The road trip takes on a life if its own as the two men discover secrets about each other. Scott, once a professional wrestler, grapples with the distinction between his persona and self, as does Ernie. The wrestling persona of Mr. Bison must come to life again since the brothers are on their way to promote Scott’s new video game. One of their many interactions reveals the pressure that comes from its reappearance:
Both brothers turned to look at someone neither had seen approaching.
“Sorry,” the guy not-quite stammered. “Scott? Scott Isaacson? Mr. Bison?”
Scott gave a little wave, like here, like it wasn’t obvious which of the two men was Mr. Bison.
“Mr. Burch at Grantland was asking if he could have a few minutes. For an interview?”
Scott shot his brother a quick look, then turned to the guy. “Sure,” Mr. Bison answered, all smile, no hint of Scott’s frustration, barely any hint of Scott at all.
Scott vacillates between the two roles. As Scott tells Ernie about convincing people, “You gotta believe it yourself, and most everyone else will too.” Scott has embodied this figure, yet along the way, both brothers start to see the unhealthy facades that they have each created to cope with life.
Burch lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan. Year of the Buffalo is his first novel, which follows the literary analysis/memoir Stephen King’s The Body and the short-story collection Backswing. I interviewed Burch about his new book.
Q: How did you come to live and work in Ann Arbor?
A: I moved here in… 2004 or 2005? Moved here for a relationship and over time it just kinda became home. I left for grad school in Illinois in 2008 and then came back, and now have been teaching writing at University of Michigan for the last 10 years.
Q: What was it like to have your book be the first one published by American Buffalo Books, an indie press affiliated with Kansas State University?
A: It was really exciting! There are pros and cons to being a first book—the excitement of being first, helping set tone, the attention it gets, and more, but you’re also a little bit of a guinea pig. Systems aren’t really in place yet, wrinkles haven’t always been ironed out. I understood most of that going in and have a history with indie presses, both having published previous books with them and having been behind the scenes of one myself, and so I got to bring some of my experience to them and the whole thing was often largely collaborative in ways that were pretty great.
Q: One of the aspects of Year of the Buffalo that stood out is how close to the characters it is possible to feel as a reader with the third-person narration. How did you switch between the characters' perspectives so fluidly?
A: Thank you! A lot of that definitely happened in revision.
I think interiority is one of my strengths as a writer, and a very, very early version of this project started in first person, leaning into a lot of the narrator’s thoughts and memories and way of seeing the world. I actually can’t remember what happened first, it changing to third person or it expanding to include multiple characters POV—with the latter, it’s of course possible for novels to have rotating first-person POVs, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. But I did put a lot of work into trying to get that “close third” POV feeling right and natural. In early drafts, I think all three characters probably often sounded and felt interchangeably the same, but by the time I had a full draft, I’d spent enough time with all the characters that I felt like I had a pretty good idea of who each was, how they thought and looked at the world, and all that, so revision meant trying to pull each of their chapters more and more toward themselves and away from that more uniform narration.
Q: Toward the end of the novel, Scott gains “one more new persona.” How do you approach writing a character with multiple personas?
A: I think to a degree that feels related to the above, and just spending time with and getting to know the characters, and so then you start to think about and understand how they might act or speak differently, depending on the scenario or who they’re with.
Q: Scott tells Ernie, “The body can take more than you think it can … until it doesn’t.” In many ways, this truth about wrestling turns out to be a truth about the brothers’ lives. Why did you choose to incorporate wrestling into this novel?
A: In a kind of weirdly roundabout way, to be honest. Early in the drafting, I knew I wanted there to be some windfall of money. I wanted it to kind of come out of nowhere but also I didn’t want it to be an inheritance or winning the lottery. Through that, I got to this idea of likeness rights. Like Ernie in the novel, my understanding of these is limited and mostly just something I’d heard about in passing with regard to athletes and video games. Wrestling felt like it added a fun element to play with and something I hadn’t seen too much in novels, and then it also ended up opening up all these really great themes to think about and play with—a literalization of a “persona” as mentioned in the last question, and all these ideas of identity and sport and acting and storytelling. I don’t actually have too much interest in video games or wrestling at this point in my life, but they were so present—both in my personal life and in the culture in the '80s—and so they were fun to revisit and play with, and also opened up this theme of nostalgia, which is one of my go-to writing themes anyway, so it ended up being a kind of perfect vessel for everything else I was thinking about and wanted to write about.
Q: As the road trip unfolds, Ernie and Scott share secrets that they did not know about each other. Ernie learns why Scott left wrestling. Scott riffs, “All boring jobs are alike; all fun jobs are each fun in their own way.” What was your writing process like to construct their road trip? Did you write linearly?
A: I did write it linearly, which is basically how a road trip itself works, so that was another nice echo. The brothers go on a road trip for a handful of reasons: I wasn’t totally sure what else to do with them on this farm where the first third of the novel takes place; I wanted to make the novel feel more active; I wanted to put them in a more confined space and have to spend time together to make them deal with all this shit that they weren’t really dealing with; and also plot just admittedly isn’t one of my biggest strengths, so a road trip encouraged this kind of episodic storytelling where just, OK, have them drive a handful of hours together, arrive at a new destination, and then something happens there… repeat.
Q: Holly, Scott’s wife, receives a significant role in the novel even though she is not traveling with the two brothers. Instead, she stays at home and keeps a notebook of lists, such as “How to Forget” and “How to Build a Character.” What inspired you to include her lists throughout the novel?
A: I started writing those before I even knew that they were hers, that she was writing them. I really like the voice of these short, second-person, directive “how to” pieces; I think they’re really fun to write, and I just started writing one here, one there, thinking they might be a fun addition to the book. These little interstitial chapters mixed up the voice and added a different ingredient to the whole. But I didn’t really know why they were there or their actual function. It wasn’t one of these “How To” chapters, but at one point I had one that was “Notes About Buffalo” that was really just an opportunity to share all this fun little buffalo trivia I’d come across while doing research for the book but that I didn’t really have a place for in the narrative. At some point, I realized that maybe Holly was taking these notes, as she was learning how to care for Billy the Buffalo, and then figuring out that she was taking these notes and keeping these notebooks really opened up another whole dimension to the book!
Q: You teach writing at the University of Michigan. What do you enjoy about teaching?
A: I love most aspects of it! I really love getting to think and talk about writing—with friends, colleagues, students. I love getting to work with students, helping them write something that they’re as proud of as possible. This has been one of the driving factors behind my experiences working as a literary journal editor as well, and that moment of a student surprising themselves and lighting up about a piece of writing never gets old.
Q: What are you reading and recommending?
A: I just read and blurbed new story collections by DT Robbins and Kyle Seibel, both of which are really great, and super fun. A couple of my favorite novels I read last year were Kevin Wilson’s Now Is Not the Time to Panic and Kevin Maloney’s The Red-Headed Pilgrim, which is out this month, I believe. And then sitting here on my table waiting for me are Jeff Chon’s Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun and Marisa Crane’s I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, both of which I’m super excited to get to.
Q: We are entering a new year. What is coming up for you?
A: I’m teaching and working on a few projects. I almost always work on one project at a time, but I’m not always great about finishing it, so right now I’m in somewhere in the long middle of an in-progress novel, short-story collection, and essay collection. I hope to finish one this year. And then I have a short collection of personal essays, A Kind of In-Between, that is mostly flash pieces with a couple longer pieces filling it out, that is coming out from Autofocus Books in the summer that I’m super excited about.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.