Hamish Downie’s Five Questions With Bryan Cebulski
Editor Note: Hamish has another in his series of Five Questions With…
Hamish came up with this idea because he was accumulating too much material for his Famous News Sushi column and asked if he could do these mini-interviews. Why would we say no?
Thank you Hamish for being such a trooper for us. We really appreciate all for your hard work.
Let us know what you think of these interviews in the comments below.
Editor Note: This interview contains themes about suicide.
TGG: Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
BC: So, my name is Bryan Cebulski, and I’m a Midwesterner about to enter his thirties. I like movies, coffee, emotionally volatile music, point-and-click adventure games, and finding ways to experience moments of profound serenity.
I went to school at Lawrence University in Wisconsin to study history. I focused on the intersection of popular culture, gender, and American politics in the mid to late 20th century, culminating in a thesis called “’Waking Up Without My Penis is My Worst Nightmare’: Masculinity in the Post-Reagan Parody Film.”
I’m currently living in a tiny house my partner and I built in the woods on the coast of rural Northern California. I’ve lived and traveled all over, working all sorts of odd jobs throughout my twenties including lighthouse docent, butterfly zoo clerk, and Buddhist university landscaper. As a result, I have experienced numerous OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] violations firsthand.
I’m a writer by trade and as a hobby. My fiction tends to be low-key, queer, and character-driven. I write both speculative and contemporary-set literary fiction. I’m also a reporter and editor for a small newspaper. Very occasional, I pursue work as a freelancer—mostly personal essays and media analysis.
TGG: Could you tell us about your debut novel, “It Helps with the Blues”?
BC: It Helps with the Blues is a short novel about queer teens in a near-rural Midwestern suburb as they reel in the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide.
An unnamed narrator, the heir to a small chain of bars and restaurants, has his tidy life thrown into disarray after a night spent drinking with his crush—the flighty, ebullient Jules—and an uninvited freshman named Dennis, who kills himself the next day.
From there, Jules drops out of school and vanishes. The narrator’s best friend (occasionally with benefits) Gabriel struggles with rage as he sits in the death’s shadow. And in his hazy, booze-fueled wanderings, the narrator keeps meeting other teens as they struggle to pick up what shards of hope they can as they stumble toward their own versions of a life worth living.
The novel deals with heavy topics like suicide, self-harm, addiction, bullying and depression, but my approach is much more mundane and slice-of-life than that laundry list may suggest. And it balances the heaviness with honest and lighthearted depictions of Midwestern teen life.
Blues is about young adults, although I’m not certain I would call it YA—I wrote it for a teenage audience, but not necessarily a YA audience, you know? It’s most comparable to a really wonderful novel called We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra.
TGG: What was the biggest thing you learned while writing your debut novel?
BC: That things take time! I discuss this in the Afterward — the road to writing Blues began over ten years ago. I wasn’t writing that entire time, of course, but it was necessary to take breaks during the process to give myself the proper distance from the experiences that inspired it. That way, I could nail down what I wanted to accomplish more clearly. So I wrote, shelved, rewrote, finished, queried, reshelved, revised, and queried again a number of times. It was originally about half the length the first time I thought I’d finished it.
Another thing I learned is never be afraid to reach out! After going through dozens of rejected queries, consistently getting told by agents that Blues was impressive but unlikely to find a home, I decided I would just self-published Blues. In that process, I reached out to authors I admire and asked for blurbs. Some, like authors Kevin Craig and Tucker Lieberman, were extraordinarily gracious to read the book and write lovely blurbs—but Ryszard I. Merey, the author of the Stonewall Book Award-winning graphic novel A + E 4ever, went a step further and offered to publish the whole thing through his micropress, tRaum Books. I was not expecting that!
TGG: I can imagine that will be very inspirational to our readers, who include many independent creators such as yourself. So, what’s next for you?
BC: Hah, I talked about how long Blues took, but then my second novel only took about a year to complete! So I’m querying that right now. It’s a solarpunk coming-of-age novel called Wilt and Bloom, about a young boy growing up on a pagan commune in a quasi-utopian future. It’s very slice-of-life, but it incorporates a number of speculative elements that I’ve been playing around with a lot over the past few years—many dealing with ideas for how to restructure society more equitably and less wastefully. It features a cabaret run by a sex worker hive mind, forest monks who believe self-isolation is the highest form of virtue, and a media-addled green smart city.
Otherwise, I’m working on two projects right: First, a short solarpunk neo-noir novel about an anarchist collective that takes over a resort community on the coast of Northern California. I’m really satisfied with how the opening pages of this novel are shaping up, but I’m also finding myself wanting to return to the low-stakes, low-key queer contemporary style of Blues, which led me recently to start work on a second project: A short story about working class disaster queers—one who’s neurotically clean, another who’s letting his world fall into decay—inspired by the films of Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
TGG: Finally, the question I ask everyone. How can we best support you?
BC: Definitely follow me on:
where I’m most active, and:
I have a blog that I sparingly update and includes links to most of my work, which can be found at: https://bryancebulski.wordpress.com/
I also have a film newsletter called Calm, which I update about once a month, where I discuss meditative, beautiful, and/or low-stakes films. This can be found at https://calmbc.substack.com/.
The best way to support It Helps with the Blues is to request it from your local bookstore or your local library. The second best way is Amazon, where you can pick up digital or physical versions of the book for $5 and $8 respectively. The Amazon link can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09V9GMDK3
My publisher, tRaum Books, can be found here: https://traumbooks.com/
NB: If this interview has brought up issues for you, please don’t hesitate to contact one of these hotlines: https://pflag.org/hotlines
The Trevor Project
Trans Life Line