(Photo: Kirsten O'Regan)

Brando Skyhorse at home. (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

If you’re always complaining about your messed-up childhood and your wacko family, then you might want to read Brando Skyhorse’s memoir, Take this Manfor some perspective. Skyhorse, whose novel The Madonnas of Echo Park earned him the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award, grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Although entirely Mexican-American by descent, he was raised by his compulsively colorful mother (assisted by his grandmother and five successive eccentric stepfathers) to believe that he was a Native American.

Accompanying the precocious Skyhorse (birth name: Brando Kelly Ulloa) through this mercurial world of shifting identities and half-truths is a surreal and often heartbreaking experience involving near death at the hands of his mother, her fledgling career as a telephone sex operator, and the pain and confusion of watching his various ex-con and conman “fathers” enter and exit his life. The memoir paints such an emotionally stark environment that when I chat with the now-grown Skyhorse in his Bushwick home, I’m surprised to find him remarkably well adjusted.

Read the B+B Q+A and then hear Skyhorse read from the book tonight at The Half King or this Thursday at KGB Bar.

BB_Q(1) It’s weird to be talking to you after reading the book.

BB_A(1) I fully concede that it’s really kind of an incredible story, but I have to give full credit and full responsibility to my mother and grandmother, and I mean that in both the best and worst sense. I mean: they’d be both slightly horrified by all of this, but also really proud at the same time, which I think is just completely befitting their personalities. My mom would be like, “Yeah, he made it out of Echo Park, that’s great!” without accounting for the fact that she was one of the big obstacles that almost didn’t let me get out of Echo Park.

BB_Q(1) One of your mother’s catchphrases was, “At least it’s never boring.” Is that any consolation now?

BB_A(1) I think I’ve had several relationships with that phrase growing up. First, I felt proud, and then I felt disillusioned, angry. So finally now, I feel grateful that I was able to not be destroyed by this or consumed by it, and was able to do something useful and constructive and artistic with it. But at the same time I feel a little wistful, because it was my mom’s way of saying, “At least I’m never boring.” And you know she never was, but she never needed all of this fantastic invention. I wish I could go back in time and give this book to her and say, “Look, you’ve had a pretty amazing life. You can stop now. You can acknowledge your background, you can acknowledge your ancestry, and nobody’s going to hate you.”

BB_Q(1) Your memoir outlines a bizarre childhood. How did you go from being this damaged kid to being a published writer?

BB_A(1) Well, I’m probably more of a slightly damaged adult at this stage. I think that I had this idea—and I don’t know where it came from per se, it could have come from television, it could’ve come from books—that education is a route out of an unpleasant economic situation. So I always thought I’d go to college, I’d move out, and I’d start my real life. I just had to get through a whole lot of very bad business before I got there. That was instilled in me from a very early age, and I don’t think I got it from anyone because my mom didn’t go to college, really, and my grandmother never went to college, and the various stepfathers that lived with us—education wasn’t important to them, or my education wasn’t. So I think pop culture in a strange way saved my life in more ways than one and encouraged me to follow a path out of this complicated situation.

BB_Q(1) Madonnas of Echo Park was a novel, but drew on many of your early experiences. Why choose to write Take this Man as memoir? What was it like grappling with the messiness of non-fiction?

BB_A(1) The thing is, I’d always written fiction. When I went to the MFA program at UCI [University of California, Irvine, which Skyhorse attended after Stanford] in ‘95, I wrote fiction. But it was always kind of semi-autobiographical and drawn heavily from my own experiences. My wonderful instructor Geoffrey Wolff said, “There are two boxes: the stuff that you want to write, that you have complete control over—make that fiction. The stuff that you can’t control at all—that has to be non-fiction.”

Given my desire for order, that made a lot of sense to me. So with Madonnas, fiction made sense for that universe. Whereas here, it made so much more sense to try to find a place where I could order the personal material and structure it and get as much information about it as I possibly could.

That was really important to me: I’ve been trying to write versions of this book for about 18 years and it has evolved over time as I found out more information. I realized the only way I was going to do this right was by doing the due diligence research-wise. And it was challenging, because my mom and grandmother, who could’ve shed light on this, had both passed away. But I know that if I’d interviewed them, my mom would’ve told me one story one day and lied right to my face the next, and then told me something completely different on a third day. So in a sense, it was probably helpful that I didn’t have them handy.

BB_Q(1) Did writing this feel therapeutic in a way?

BB_A(1) It did. I think I took from my mother this idea that writing can be a place of solace and gratitude, because she always hoped to be a published writer. Going through the pages of her memoir and editing it in order to include an extract—there was something really therapeutic about that. It was a way of communing with her, and getting her side of the story. You know, I get the argument that the truth is subjective blah blah blah. But for me, it was so crucial that I have the truth. Because that’s the one thing I was looking for. The fact I did not have the truth was what made life kind of a bitch. I really needed that information for some reason: so I could have some sense of who I was, and where I came from.

BB_Q(1) In the book, you wrote, “I write to understand what I don’t know.” What do you feel that you’ve come to understand now, that you didn’t before?

BB_A(1) I realize now that a life falls apart not in one grand gesture, but through a series of really small and interconnected gestures. I know that sounds really weird and literary. But I felt growing up that the universe was conspiring against us. And when I say to people that I had five stepfathers and was raised to believe I was American Indian, that’s all they hear because that’s the selling point—that’s the sizzle. But it didn’t happen in one fell swoop, it was a deterioration that took a lot of time. If there’s one thing I can learn, it’s that there are so many moments in this book when something could’ve intervened and gotten us off this track. And the way to live a more emotionally healthy life is not to make one grand declaration, but to make a series of small specific gestures.

BB_Q(1) What are you hoping other people can get out of the memoir?

BB_A(1) The book has been out literally a few days, and I’ve already gotten emails from people saying “Wow, me too.” Literally! There was one email that was like, “Yeah, my mom pretended that she was an Indian.” And I was like, Really, this is a thing? [Laughs.] When I was growing up, books were how I found my way out. And this was the book I was looking for, so I could tell myself I wasn’t crazy. Even as a young child I knew what was happening to me was wrong, I just didn’t have the language to say that. And I want to give anyone going through a situation like this the language to say: “Oh, me too.”