Floodmarkers hits the right notes for Greensboro rocker turned author

by Keith Barber

On Sep. 22, 1989, Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 storm, made landfall in South Carolina. It is a day forever etched in the memory of Greensboro author Nic Brown. “I was 12 at the time and that’s when everything seems heavy and important,” Brown said. “Hugo wasn’t a big deal in Greensboro, but it was the only time we got out of school for a hurricane.”

Memories of jumping on a trampoline all day at a friend’s house the day of the hurricane became one of the chapters in Brown’s debut novel, Floodmarkers. In fact, each chapter of the book is basically a short story. But all the stories take place in the same fictional town of Lystra, North Carolina on Sept. 22, 1989. “The book is a traditional short-story collection but since they all take place the same day in the same town, I was able to create a hybrid between a short-story collection and a traditional narrative,” Brown said.

Brown wrote the manuscript for Floodmarkers during his fellowship with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a two-year residency program at the University of Iowa. Prior to the workshop, Brown attended Columbia University, where he studied English and creative writing. Brown enrolled at Columbia while a senior at Greensboro Day School, but fate had other plans. Right after high school, Brown’s band, Athenaeum, signed with Atlantic records and began touring. The band put out two records and had a Top 10 hit in 1998 with “What I Didn’t Know.”

Years later, Brown found himself in New York City working steadily as a studio drummer with acts like Australian rocker Ben Lee and the indie rock band, Longwave. But Brown’s destiny was not to be a rock star, but a writer.After five years of playing and touring, Brown picked up the phone and called Columbia to ask how to reapply. An administrator told Brown he was still enrolled.

“That was the best news I’ve ever gotten,” Brown said.

Columbia gave Brown a strong foundation, but it was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he became a “real writer,” he said.“It’s an amazing program,” Brown said. “I learned more from my fellow writers than from my teachers. My classmates were such a huge influence on me — what I should be reading, what I should be writing.”

Brown described the workshop as a “writers’ summer camp,” where he found the inspiration for his first novel.“The characters are based on bits and pieces of stories from friends told to me over the years,” Brown said.

For example, one of Brown’s friends told him about working the graveyard shift at a hotdog factory. This germ of an idea led to the chapter entitled “Libertee Meats.” Another friend told Brown about this tanning salon that would open up after the bars closed and throw wild parties where everyone got naked. Brown used that story as the inspiration for the chapter entitled “Dice.”

The book’s 12 chapters are ordered into stages of the storm as Hugo bears down on the town of Lystra, which Brown describes as “a combination of Chapel Hill and Greensboro — a place that’s small enough where I thought I could control everything.”

Brown interweaves stories with memorable characters like Cliff, who comes to Lystra for his cousin’s wedding; high school friends Grier and Fletcher and Fletcher’s brother, Mike; and Pat Doublehead, a Cherokee veterinarian.

The simplicity of each story is its genius. It takes a highly creative individual to write a story about a bus driver who finds out too late school has been canceled. Since he’s already picked up a few school children, he has to have a conversation with them as he navigates through torrential downpours. That’s the premise of the chapter entitled “Quickening.”Brown said writing the book as a series of vignettes came as a direct result of his musical career.

“I just envisioned it as an album,” he said. “When I thought, ‘How do I make this happen?’ I didn’t know how. But then I thought, ‘Each story is song. There are 12 songs on a record. If I can get 12 chapters, I’ll have a book.”A great deal of credit for Floodmarkers should go to the Writers’ Workshop, Brown said.

“It was the first major boost to my confidence as a writer,” Brown said. “This was something I could try to make happen. It comes back to the idea of having enough confidence in what I was doing that it might be good enough for someone else to read and enjoy.”

Brown moved to Chapel Hill with his wife, Abby, in 2006. He is currently working on his second novel, Doubles, about a team of retired doubles tennis players who decide to get back in the game. Every now and then, Brown gets the chance to jam with area musicians. He said it reminds him of the connection between his music and his writing.

“In my mind there is a lot of aesthetic overlap,” he said. “My prose is minimal — the same thing applies to my musical arrangements. My arrangements that allow for a lot of sonic space.”

In Floodmarkers, Brown’s prose opens up the reader to the infinite space of their own imaginations while instilling immense respect for the author’s natural storytelling talent.