Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“I hated Descartes’ idea that animals are mechanical clockworks. I still despise the notion. It has led to a lot of needless suffering. It bolstered man’s superior attitude about a Chain of Being with himself just beneath the angels. Anyone who knows history knows that that idea is a bloody lie. So Descartes has been on my shit list ever since.”

—Duff Brenna, interviewed by Derek Alger

About Duff

From juvenile desperado to dairy farmer,
from car-thief to crane operator,
from paratrooper to poet,
from hobo to homeowner,
from ruffian to respected writer,
from social miscreant to award-winning scholar—

Duff Brenna’s life exemplifies the theme of  transformation through repeatedly banging one’s head up against the universal Why Not? And what he’s learned about the human heart as he transformed himself painfully from delinquent to artist brilliantly colors his work.

Brenna is a freelance writer and Professor Emeritus of English literature and creative writing at California State University, San Marcos. He is the author of six published novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. His books have been translated into Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Hebrew, and Japanese. (Brenna’s books are listed below by order of publication.)

  • The Book of Mamie, winner of the prestigious AWP The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Best Novel

  • The Holy Book of the Beard, called “an underground classic” by The New York Times

  • Too Cool, a NY Times Noteworthy Book

  • The Altar of the Body, winner of a San Diego Writers Prize in 2002, and the Editors Prize Favorite Book of the Year awarded by the South Florida Sun Sentinel

  • The Willow Man, called “another work of indelible genius” by Irish Edition

  • The Law of Falling Bodies, called “a bravura performance by one of America’s best talents” by Michael Lee, Literary Editor of The Cape Cod Voice and a member of the National Book Critics Circle

  • Minnesota Memoirs, stories which Steve Davenport says “will stay with you because they’re shaped by the best of the best,” and winner of Short Story category in 2013 Indie Book Awards

  • Murdering the Mom, described by Wordcraft of Oregon as “...a heart-rending memoir that exceeds the expectations one normally has of a memoir, that is, it reads like a captivating novel.”


Duff reads from his work at Grossmont College
Photo of Duff Brenna reading at Grossmont College in April, 2006

In an interview conducted by Derek Alger, Brenna explains why the connections between art and literature and writing resonate so deeply for him:

I learned early on that the only thing I could believe in is art, in whatever form it might take. But especially in the form of great literature. Art is the way to go in past the barriers of custom and culture and a way to get control of your afflicted past. Art is very often a way to find meaning for the pain that all human beings suffer. Art is also a way to renew your spirit and connect to others. I try to create art every time I sit down to write.

And Brenna succeeds, in a spectacular way. In addition to the praise rightfully lavished on his novels, he has received several awards and honors for his writing and teaching, including:

  • 2013 Indie Book Award: Winner, Short Story category, for Minnesota Memoirs

  • a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts

  • a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention for publication of a chapter from The Altar of the Body

  • Milwaukee Magazine’s Best Short Story of the Year award for “Cristobell”

  • three Outstanding Faculty awards from San Diego State University

  • 2002 President’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activity from Cal-State, San Marcos

In 1984 Borealis Press published Brenna’s book, Waking in Wisconsin, a collection of poems written during the three years he struggled to keep his dairy farm running. Brenna’s poems, as well as short stories and nonfiction, also appear in numerous literary journals and magazines, including:

  • Agni
  • Cream City Review
  • Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art
  • The Literary Review
  • The Madison Review
  • The Nebraska Review
  • The Northern Review
  • RondeDance
  • Story Quarterly
  • Sou’wester
  • The South Carolina Review
  • Web del Sol

Late in his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter:

What little I’ve accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back — but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: I’ve found my line — from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty — without this I am nothing.

Brenna says, “I’ve based my own approach to writing on Fitzgerald’s quote.”

Duff Brenna with friend and best-selling novelist, Robert Gover,
at the AWP conference in Atlanta, Georgia
Photo of Duff Brenna and Robert Gover at AWP Conference, Atlanta, GA

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