Writer/Gamer Q&A: Justin Brouckaert

Justin Brouckaert is up next in our contributor Q&A series—he’s the man behind “When my dad & I played Tecmo Super Bowl,” a wonderful poem about sons and fathers and, of course, Tecmo Super Bowl!

Justin is a James Dickey Fellow at the University of South Carolina, where he serves as fiction editor of Yemassee. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The RumpusPassages North and Gigantic Sequins, among others.

A talented one, Justin. We’re lucky to have him.

Cartridge Lit: What was your first video game system? Did you love it or hate it or feel something completely different about it?

Brouckaert: My first video game system was the NES. That’s probably a bit strange—I was born in 1990, so there were definitely newer systems on the market by the time I was old enough to have my own. But my parents already had an NES, which my dad still liked playing, so that’s what I played, too. I never got into Super Nintendo or Sega, Panasonic or Dreamcast, any of those systems. I’d see my friend playing Sonic or Mortal Kombat and I’d be like, “What the hell is that?” I had no idea. Eventually my parents bought me and sister a PlayStation, but for a good chunk of my childhood I was happy playing games other kids had forgotten long ago.

And I loved it, of course. I don’t think it’s really possible to hate the NES, is it? It frustrated me at times, I’m sure, but there’s something special about those games. If you put me in front of an NES now with Tecmo locked and loaded, you’d still have a difficult time prying me away.

Cartridge LitMost nostalgia-laden memory/memories from your video game history?

Brouckaert: Playing Tecmo with my dad, firing up the Playstation Saturday mornings while everyone else was still in bed, playing Pokemon Yellow with my best friend for so long I couldn’t sleep at night with the music was still ringing in my ears. I could go on and on about playing NCAA football with my roommate my freshman year of college, but we’ve all got those stories. The memories that stick are all just stupid little ones, but I can’t think of those times without missing them, if only just a little.

Cartridge LitHow has your writing life interacted with your gamer life? Has one inspired or influenced the other?

Brouckaert: I don’t actually play video games anymore, but in college I played a lot of sports games on XBox 360 with my roommate. I worked hard and put a lot of pressure on myself while I was in school, but every once in a while we’d pick up a case and run NBA 2K or Madden for hours, playing and replaying all the rivalries and mythologies we’d created over the years.

It often felt like slacking off, but I think slacking off is important for a writer. I really don’t have a lot of vices or distractions that interfere with my writing. I don’t watch a lot of movies, and I don’t have cable. I get out every now and then, but I’m not tremendously social. This is a good thing and a bad thing. As much as I love writing, I start to go a little crazy if I don’t do something other than write for days at a time. I get too tightly wound and serious and grumpy as hell. I work myself too hard, get too caught up in the grind, and I don’t leave enough room for relaxation, for not thinking about writing, which is, I think, an essential part of writing. So, especially when I was first starting out, when I was really getting into the idea of living a writer’s life, taking a night off to play video games was actually a really restorative thing. I got to relax, to put my stories on the backburner while I let my mind drift to sports narratives, to myth and legend, shit-talking and fun. I let myself be bad at something instead of striving for perfection all the time, and that was important for me. I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t have cracked during stressful periods of my college days if I hadn’t had video games with my friend to help me along.

Now that I’ve recognized the role that video games played in my life, I know I can get this sort of relief in different ways, too. I get it from playing sports, even though my body’s breaking down much too quickly for me to be any good anymore. I watch too much professional football and basketball, play with my dog, go for walks with my girlfriend. These are important parts of my life, of course, and not just distractions. But when I’m really caught in a writing binge, I will deny myself even these simple pleasures, and that’s no way to live.

 Of course, whenever my old roommate is in town, I’ll allow myself a Madden binge for a day or two, and it’s in those times that I remember how much I miss having video games in my life. It’s not something I’m hugely interested in these days, but every once in a while I get a strong temptation to go back.

Cartridge LitIf someone made a game about your life, what genre would it be? How would it play?

Brouckaert: It would be very boring. Probably it would be a sports game, a mix between The Sims and NBA Street. You would start out with a pretty decent player and then slowly the computer would reduce your skill points. First goes the speed and agility, then the athleticism. Strength was never there. Finally you’re just a scrawny grad student with a mediocre mid-range jumper, getting blown out on the B-court every other week. It would be a sad game. You could play for as long as you wanted but you’d only get worse and worse, and then after a while you’d get the option to quit playing and go write a story about anteaters instead.