Brad Zellar didn’t really sleep last night. And it’s not because he’s so excited about the imminent debut of his first novel, Till the Wheels Fall Off, a coming-of-age novel about an insomniac searching for a father figure set in a lightly fictionalized small-town Minnesota roller rink in the 1980s. And it’s not entirely because it was so hot and sticky last night in his Dwell-worthy writing shed in the backyard of the Merriam Park house he shares with his wife, Kate. It’s because Zellar never really sleeps.
“I hate the heat because it fucks with my sleep even more,” he says. “Nights like last night bring back bad memories of shitty apartments and childhood insomnia.”
Because of this lingering condition, Zellar keeps “Hong Kong hours,” meaning after tossing and turning right through the dawn, he’s usually ready to hang by late afternoon. So, we’re sitting out in his writing shed, surrounded by industrial-strength shelves supporting his elegantly organized collection of vinyl records and art books and Alec Soth prints and vintage baseball mitts and watercolors of his dog.
At 60, there are some streaks of silver in Zellar’s salad, but he still favors the tees and jeans of his youth, like the yellow Dock Ellis T-shirt (the Pittsburgh Pirate who threw a no-hitter on LSD back in 1970) he’s pairing with his taupe Carhartts today. Last year’s excellent Pharoah Sanders/Floating Points album is softly spinning on the turntable, and it’s pleasantly warm in the shed, with just an oscillating fan to alleviate the height of a St. Paul midsummer afternoon. The space was designed, or at least expertly drawn up on the back of an envelope, by Michael McGuire, Zellar’s 93-year-old architect father-in-law to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And it’s working perfectly today—full of that comfortably moody, indirect, chiaroscuro-ready Rembrandt light. It’s the ideal creative space, full of art and literature and music that he’s spent his entire life restlessly searching for. But even this optimal environment hasn’t provided him with any, you know, rest.
Zellar has been afflicted with a severe sleep disorder for as long as he can remember, and his obsession with memory is one of the most potent side effects of his condition. His sleep doctors have told him he keeps lingering in the hypnagogic phase of sleep, what he’s come to understand as sleep’s foothills.
According to Zellar, the average person spends five to ten minutes climbing those foothills, hopefully settling into a pattern, their mind beginning to freely associate, not fully sleeping, not fully conscious, just starting to become untethered, and then their balloon goes off. Zellar’s balloon never goes off.
“So, I would just sit there all night—I still do—and all the shit would flow by: You hear voices, fragments from the day, snippets of songs, and dog tags jingling in the next room and cars going by. It’s like this stream of basically concrete music, like this endless turning of the radio dial, going up and down, all night.” He sighs. “That’s my brain at night. I can find a million metaphors for it because you can find them everywhere when you live with it.”
He’s tried everything—uppers, downers, screamers, and laughers, prescribed and self-prescribed, weaned off, and on, and off again—ever since he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a teenager, growing up as one of two middle sons in his family of six in Austin, Minnesota.
“I’m not somebody who’s anxious,” he says. “The biggest curse of my combination of being tired all the time and having ADD—which I’m sure is the product of being tired all the time—is just not being able to focus. So, you’re bored all the time because you can’t really pay attention to anything.”
That might explain why it took him until 60 to drop his debut novel. Not that he hasn’t been busy. Before spending the better part of a decade making beautiful art books and indie newspapers with the great photographer Alec Soth, he spent a decade kicking out the jams on a popular blog for City Pages and The Rake (“Open All Night” at CP and “Yo, Ivanhoe!” at The Rake).
For years, Zellar has spent his Hong Kong office hours at his Brother manual typewriter (he can’t write on his computer because it’s connected to the insomniac’s worst nightmare: the internet), recording everything he can think of in a sort of sleep-deprived diary. He’ll record an annotated version of the day’s events, or lists of the books read or the records listened to.
“At some point, because I’m OCD, I decided that I’m going to do this thing every night,” he says. “It’s going to be like Scheherazade: I’m going to tell stories to keep myself alive.”
So, he wrote longhand, in a Moleskine notebook, and if it was any good, he would transfer it to loose-leaf via his typewriter.
“This was my way of paying attention and feeling like I was creating a record or a document,” he says. “Like I was somehow important, or my life was interesting, because I spent so much of my life feeling insignificant.”
Zellar is one of those writers who knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of 5. This was a somewhat audacious dream in Austin, Minnesota, in the 1970s. His father owned and ran a tire shop, Zellar Tire, in nearby Hollandale, and his mother was a talented, inventive, funny stay-at-home mom, quick with an impression or an imagined-on-the-spot character.
“She was constantly casting us in one-act plays,” he says.
Things were great until a string of health problems put his father in a Rochester hospital for 269 straight days—it was the first of seven open-heart surgeries. “He was basically in and out of hospitals from the age of 30 until his death at 69,” he says.
The trauma of his father’s long illness deprived him of his playful and creative mom, and maybe something stalled out in Zellar, as well. He was always a voracious reader, but somehow his dream of becoming a writer kept getting deferred: first by a rebellious incident that got him banned from the school newspaper, and then by his own decision to blow off college, to just move up to Minneapolis and begin working a series of self-described “shit jobs.” He worked the third shift at Control Data on Washington Avenue, he worked in a warehouse loading shipping containers, and he worked as an overnight parking lot attendant. “I was resigned to being a grunt for the rest of my life,” he says.
Zellar always wondered why people in the novels he read never worked a real job—they were always doctors or lawyers or some other manifestation of their plot utility—so maybe this string of menial jobs was Zellar’s self-flagellating way of keeping it real. Regardless, he realized that keeping it real totally sucked, but maybe he could make it entertaining, so he began publishing a zine called Scread.
“You know,” he says, as he notices my blank expression. “Like screed plus read?”
The zine got noticed by an editor at City Pages, and all of a sudden, in his early 30s, Zellar was offered the first in a parade of writing jobs that he never applied for.
He used this opportunity and every one that followed to pursue a beat that he understood all too well: obsessing over the overlooked, but in no way insignificant, figures living out their lives of quiet desperation, or vibrant eccentricity, oftentimes in the wee hours of the morning. For years, he interviewed subjects like the denizens of an all-night Ping-Pong parlor on Lake Street, or the retired Shriners dining at the Red Fez Grill in the Shriners mansion by the Swedish Institute, or a well-respected proprietor of a cavernous magic shop in the shadow of the Metrodome. He tracked down countless derelicts, outsiders, and weirdos, people that had the most unlikely but interesting stories to tell. He had a knack for finding these figures and capturing the hookiest aspects of their spirit, probably because he was a fellow traveler.
And then, just as the world of alternative weeklies was becoming another dour corporate media relic, it was this knack that helped Zellar land the most magical, serendipitous assignment of them all, a freelance writing gig with Mr. Sleeping by the Mississippi himself, one of the great image hunters of weirdo Americans that America has ever seen: Alec Soth.
Soth took Zellar on the most unlikely ride of his life: traveling around to seven different regions of the United States, each time returning home to put together a special-edition newspaper called The LBM Dispatch.
“There’s a William Maxwell quote that I love that’s motivated me my whole life,” he says. “All these people who spend their lives looking for the hole in the net but never find it. I was always like, ‘I’m going to find the hole in the net.’ And when I met Alec, he was looking for the hole in the net. And then we realized we were both looking for the same thing.”
Over six years, they produced some of the most poetically idiosyncratic collections of images and text ever created: seven editions of The LBM Dispatch, a chapbook called Conductors of the Moving World, and an illustrated “method-acted” picture novel by the wholly invented author Lester Morrison entitled House of Coates. That’s not to mention the time he was the subject of Soth’s set-in-the-desert fashion shoot for Russian Esquire.
“Somebody said, ‘Be careful, those are $2,000 shoes,’” he says, “and I remember thinking, Who buys $2,000 shoes?”
In 2015, their partnership culminated with one last Dispatch in conjunction with The New York Times Magazine and a joint visiting-artist residency at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They both sort of simultaneously realized that their too-good-to-be-true partnership couldn’t last forever. Soth was better off making photographs he could sell through his gallery, and Zellar met his future wife, Kate, at a House of Coates book launch, married her, moved to St. Paul, and was finally forced to think about what he was going to do with 28 years’ worth of nocturnal record keeping. He had been exercising this spiritual practice for so long, and had accumulated so much material, that he knew he had a book in him. “I had seven or eight book-length projects in here,” he says. He realized his biggest problem, to bastardize a Lewis Carroll idea, was deciding: Which book did he want to write?
Zellar says he’s always been fascinated by guys who wrote memoirs that were busted for being a pack of lies—so what if he wrote a novel that was essentially true? So that’s what he’s given us with Till the Wheels Fall Off. It is a product of his sui generis production cycle: Moleskine to typewriter to loose-leaf, then scanned in by an enterprising husband-wife team of agents and given a prodigious line edit conducted by some genius at Knopf, even though it went on to be published by Coffee House Press. And it concerns an area of the country—southern Minnesota—that in his estimation has been ignored by the greats. And it’s about a small-town kid with a sleeping disorder who never knew a father who was killed in Vietnam, ending up with a traumatized mother before lucking into a stepfather who was the proprietor of a magical roller rink with an insane record collection.
Basically, it’s all based on a true story: Zellar’s life, just poetically novelized through his dusky, neurodivergent process. It almost feels counterintuitive that the book is so imbued with a quixotic, fanciful, straight-up Capra-esque It’s a Wonderful Life quality. But Zellar says this was the only truly honest move. He’s honest with himself about how good he’s had it, about how even his biggest curse has helped him become the writer he is. Zellar realizes that even without the ability to approach the dreamwork the way the rest of us have, his dreams have come true.