The literary side of Northside’s Thunder-Sky Gallery

The gallery welcomes author Bill Broun Sunday to read and discuss his debut novel, "Night of the Animals," with gallery co-founder Keith Banner.

Jul 27, 2016 at 12:45 pm
'Night of the Animals' author Bill Broun - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
'Night of the Animals' author Bill Broun

It isn’t unheard of for an art gallery to host activities other than exhibitions. Because they encourage concentration, galleries also make nice locales for concerts, literary readings, film screenings, yoga, meditation and more.

But Thunder-Sky, Inc., the nonprofit Northside gallery established in 2009 to honor Cincinnati’s late outsider artist Raymond Thunder-Sky and further interest in similar then-overlooked art, nevertheless has accomplished quite a coup by getting novelist Bill Broun to appear there. He speaks at 6 p.m. Sunday for a public reading and discussion with the gallery’s co-founder, Keith Banner.

Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals, published this month by Ecco, seems poised to be a literary sensation. And that would be sweet as he spent 14 years writing it. It has already received feature coverage in The Guardian and Wall Street Journal. New York has labeled it “highbrow brilliant” in a column. And novelist Mary Gaitskill has said it’s “the most beautiful, strange new novel I have read in years.”

In a future dystopian Britain, a post-Brexit one where a suicide cult awaits the world’s end, a lower-class and mentally troubled elderly man named Cuthbert Handley sets out to free the animals in the London Zoo. He believes he is able to talk to them and he also partly believes this action might return his long-deceased older brother to him.

So how did Broun, who teaches writing at Pennsylvania’s East Stroudsburg University, get booked at Thunder-Sky? It has to do with his longtime friendship with Banner.

With Thunder-Sky and, before that, Visionaries + Voices, Banner (with partner Bill Ross) has become a chief catalyst for the city’s outsider-art movement. But he also has a lesser-known career as a creative writer. And both of those interests played a role in Broun coming to Thunder-Sky.

He and Banner graduated with master’s degrees from Miami University’s creative writing program in the early 1990s. While their paths have never physically crossed since then, they have stayed in touch. 

Broun, son of a British-born father and American mother, was born in Los Angeles but raised in northern Ohio. As a Miami undergraduate spending his junior year in Britain, he developed alcoholism that affected his early attempts at a journalism career. After getting sober and going to Miami’s graduate program, he then got an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, became a resident fellow at Yale University and got his current academic position.

Banner, too, has kept writing. Alfred A. Knopf published his 1999 novel, The Life I Lead; Carnegie Mellon issued a book of short stories, The Smallest People Alive, in 2004; and his 2014 book of stories Next to Nothing was short-listed for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction.  

From afar, Broun admired the work in Cincinnati championing outsider art. So he thought of Banner’s gallery when he was booked to do an appearance at a Columbus bookstore. Broun also plans to spend extra time in Ohio. 

“He approached us,” Banner says. “He pointed out the fact that the main character in his book is an outsider, so it made sense for him to come to our gallery. I think he sees outsider art as the championing of people otherwise called not worth our attention. That probably is what fuels his aesthetic impulse. He was like that at Miami, too.

“At Miami, I always thought he was a genius — the stories he wrote were mesmerizing,” he continues. “So we’ve stayed in touch.” 

Broun, during a telephone interview from his Hellertown, Penn., home, says the sentiment is mutual. “I never met someone who was such an incredible writer but also wrote about ordinary people and working-class lives,” he says of Banner. “He was such a huge magnetic force and his writing is incredible. In a lot of ways, I felt like I emulated him — especially his devotion to writing.”

He also finds Banner’s and Ross’ devotion to outsider art meaningful. He says, “To me, it’s captivating because that art broadens our understanding of what it means to be human in a way that mainstream art doesn’t.”

For more information on Sunday’s event, visit Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s Facebook page.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]