The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs

Brian Costello


When discussing the publication of his debut novel, The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs, Brian Costello sounds relieved: “After ten years I’m just excited to have it out of my head and in the world.” The major cause of the decadelong delay? “I had to learn how to write,” he says with a laugh.

Costello, who grew up in Florida and moved to Chicago in 1997, says early drafts of The Enchanters were little more than “rants about Orlando.” The decade of revisions turned the material from typical fanzine fodder into a charged satire of the two milieus that shaped him–the punk scene and the culturally bereft exurbs of central Florida. While the story will ring familiar to anyone whose raison d’etre has ever been a seven-inch collection, its real theme is inspiration and evolution: how we become who we are, and the terrible hairstyles we sport along the way. “It’s about the idea that through inspiration we can transform and invent new selves,” explains Costello. “In the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury they talk about how at early shows they would be playing to these kids with long 70s hair. And then the next time they came through the same kids would be there, but they had short spiky hair and were punks. I wanted to explore those concrete scenes of inspiration, what happens after a new world opens up to you.”

Now a fiction writing instructor at Columbia College and tutor of third through eleventh graders, Costello, 33, began Sprawlburg in his early 20s. His only previous writing experience had been as a columnist for the University of Central Florida newspaper, “writing opinion pieces–punk rants with ‘college humor’ about driving around delivering pizzas and listening to the Germs. You know, stuff that seemed important at the time,” he says. Nonetheless, the columns gained a following on campus, and Costello found that writing could pull him out of isolation: “UCF was a typical conservative state school, and I was just writing to make friends. Yelling out in hopes that someone would answer back.”

Entering the graduate creative fiction department at Columbia in 2000, however, made Costello completely rethink his writing. He was introduced to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Penn Warren, and Zora Neale Hurston, and realized stories could be about more than “people drinking a lot and acting like dickheads. Up until that point,” he says, “the main influences on my writing voice were late-80s fanzines and humorous columns in Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll. Typical stuff. But I didn’t just want to be reading Lester Bangs for the rest of my life.”

Though he continued working on his novel, Costello focused his attention on short stories and was soon reading at Quimby’s on a regular basis alongside local writers like Todd Dills and Joe Meno. Along the way he developed The Brian Costello Show With Brian Costello, a live talk show complete with a sidekick and house band; it returns to the Empty Bottle for its newest “season” on November 19. “I was working at the front desk at Columbia with Ken Kagawa, and he’s kind of an Ed McMahon type, with a booming laugh–that’s where the idea came from,” Costello says. In the four years since he’s featured everyone from WBEZ’s Steve Edwards (“He’s my favorite guest, because he’ll critique my interviewing style and give me pointers as I interview him”) to waiters from his favorite restaurants to local bands like the Ponys and the Tyrades.

The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs was finally completed in September 2004, and is due out this December. It’s also the debut for Costello’s publisher, Featherproof Books, run by Time Out Chicago books editor Jonathan Messinger. “Right after I finished it Jonathan asked to read it, and he told me he liked it. I assumed it would end there, but about six months later he called me and asked to put it out,” Costello explains.

While Costello insists that his novel is not autobiographical, he does draw from his own experience. The narrator is a drummer (Costello plays drums in the Functional Blackouts) who has just joined a falling-apart-at-the-seams band called the Enchanters. As the book opens, they’re on the porch of someone’s parents’ house about to play a show to an audience of 12 rabid teenagers. “When I walked through the clangy screen door, twelve jaws went slack, and twelve pairs of eyes stared in shock. It was a little awkward. I mean, I made my living as a Squid Cutting Technician for Cleveland Steamerz Good Time Bar and Grille World. I came from humble peasant stock. Just folks, really.”

The story unfurls to show how the experience impacts the kids in attendance, begetting another generation of ill-conceived haircuts and rebel riffage. It tugs at the author’s punk roots but ultimately Costello hopes the story will resonate with a wider audience. “Ultimately it’s about kids doing something inspiring, and the things that develop their desire. It’s about wanting something real in a world where most people are content with a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox.” He pauses, then adds laughing, “Though it’s not specifically about Orlando, people from there might certainly appreciate it.”