Q: How do you define creative nonfiction? Have you ever been uncomfortable calling any of your work “nonfiction”? How much artistic liberty do you give yourself? (See also question 4 under “All that Glows.”)
A: I define creative nonfiction as the kind of imaginative (which is to say, artful) prose that engages the human condition by taking what is actual, truthful, or remembered/forgotten, or that which is misunderstood or ignored/marginalized, and then rendering it artfully on the page. It is more akin to poetry than fiction what with its preoccupation with musicality, image, cadence, and movement. As a writer of nonfiction, it is my job to pay close attention to the things everyone else is overlooking. I have to fill in gaps, make connections between otherwise disparate ideas as a way of creating a kind of space where new meaning can be created.
No, I’ve never been uncomfortable with any of my work being called nonfiction.
I don’t take any artistic liberty in my writing. This is something that is very important to me, something I work very hard at: getting it right. As for question 4 (All That Glows), yes, it was a Tie-die T-shirt, and it was my biology teacher (we only had one). His name is Charles Kator (look him up on Facebook; message him. Ask him if he remembers the fake bomb, and then ask if he ever wore tie-die and if he taught biology, and if he always had a Styrofoam cup with coffee. Yeah, it’s all absolutely true.)
Q: If creative nonfiction was a beer, what kind of beer would it be?
A: It would be a Martini. John Updike called the essay, “a black tie affair.”
“Wrestling Gene Simmons and Other Demons”:
Q: Do you look up to anyone now as you did to Gene Simmons when you were younger?
A: Oh, sure. I always have heroes. Who doesn’t? I look up to writers, obviously, like Susan Orlean, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jim Harrison, Gabrielle Hamilton, but other people too, like Anthony Bourdain, Eddie Izzard, Louis C.K., Russell Brand (really), and my kids. Oh, and Metallica.
Q: Did you write this essay specifically to submit to the Tin House “Demon” issue? If so, how might the essay be different had you not been writing it to fit a specific theme? If you already had the essay written, did it change when you decided to submit it? If so, how?
A: Yes, they put a call out for essays, stories, or poems on the subject of “Evil.” So I spent a week or so just pushing ideas around in my vacuous head, and then it just kind of clicked. And actuallyit was a LOT different than what got published. It was a full 14 pages longer with 26 additional footnotes. So what you read was a radically attenuated/butchered version of the original.
Q: How did you come up with the structure for “Works Cited”?
A: It was on a lark. I was walking to my graduate seminar where I had been teaching experimental forms, and I knew about essays/books written in index forms, and a book written in tweets, another written as Contributor’s Notes, and then I thought, what about that really annoying sheet you have to staple at the end of boring research papers? How could I subvert that apparatus and actually make it fun and informative? It started like that.
Q: Can you describe what it was like to turn the essay into a book-length memoir?
A: It was like if someone had ripped my leg off and then beat me with it. Repeatedly. It was probably the most difficult thing I had faced at that point, writing-wise. Luckily, I was at a swanky writer’s colony in New York where I had all day and all night to do nothing but face the page and figure it out. I knew chronology would be sacrificed, so there had to be a clear narrative thread moving through the book and advancing the story forward. That was difficult.
“Eleven Ways to Consider Air”:
Q: This essay has a very persuasive element towards the end. If you were going to make a call to action—aside from reexamining the myth—what would it be? What can be done to stop environmental pollution?
A: Shit, that’s a tough one. A call to action? Short of burning Monsanto to the ground and incarcerating their CEOs, I think educating people about what is really happening with their environment and their food, and probably especially the latter (and of course the two—environment and food—are inextricably linked). I will never climb a tree and change my name toWillow Butterfly-Man, but I can write, and I can engage. And I can read, and I do, a lot.
Q: What is your favorite way to consider air?
A: Hard to say. I had the most fun in that essay researching the air-pump. Because I am just that lame.
“The Bone Road”:
Q: Did you ever get in touch with your father’s family?
A: Yes, I have been in touch with my one brother and my sister. My brother spent a week with my family a couple of years ago. He’s a good guy. We’re radically different, but similar in small ways.
“All That Glows”:
Q: In “All that Glows,” you seem to suggest we are products of our environment. What, then, do you think of our individualism? Are we actual individuals if we really can’t control how we are influenced?
A: Well, I don’t think you can be an individual in a vacuum. You have to be an individual somewhere, right? But you can invert that question, too: our environment is a product of individuals living in a global community. In other words, I don’t think looking at individuality and the environment has to be a mutually exclusive inquiry. But I also think we CAN and have controlled how we are influenced. Banning DDT was a start. Legislation that seeks to curtail emissions is a start. I mean there is a long history of this. We just need to continue it.
Q: What came of the fake bomb incident? Did you and your friends get in trouble?
A: I recall a stern “talking-to” with Mr. Jolley (yes, his real name), our principal. I was dating his granddaughter, Tiffany, who was a cheerleader, and I was Student Body VP, so it sort of went away. But remember, and this is key: this was pre-Oklahoma City, much less-pre-911. Today, a stunt like that would have the kid expelled and incarcerated.
Q: How do you see “All that Glows” fitting into the discussion of Columbine and other school shootings?
A: I sort of addressed this above. We’re through the looking glass. It’s a different time, a different era. Growing up, I was isolated in very real ways. No internet, no social networking, no iphones, no anything. We had television, magazines, radio, books, newspapers. That’s about it. Word didn’t travel like it does now: instantaneously. I guess we were more innocent then. It reminds me of a conversation that occurred in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. Someone said, “We’ll never laugh again,” to which came this reply: “We’ll laugh again, but we will never be young again.” After Columbine, and especially after the more recent Sandy Hook, I felt like that. Like I had been robbed of something unnameable.
Q: Was it really a biology teacher who you saw drop his coffee in the hallway? Did he really have a styrofoam cup? Do you see those details has having symbolic significance in this essay?
A: See above. No, I really don’t see any significance about those details. I mean, now that you posed those questions, I guess I can see the irony of Charlie Kator wearing tie-die and sporting that kind of cup. But here’s the context: in rural Idaho circa 1990, you bought your coffee from the gas station or one of three restaurants (one of which my family owned) and there was nothing BUT styrofoam. No one in rural conservative Idaho circa 1989/1990 was sitting around discussing non-renewable drink containers. Mr. Kator didn’t and doesn’t fit the hippie stereotype. He loved the Greatful Dead, though, and Hendrix and he grew up in the sixties (and attended BYU—he’s since lapsed from that faith), and he hunts and is actually fairly conservative in certain ways. I got into a facebook argument with him regarding genetically modified foods. He thought they were fine to eat. I thought otherwise. So, yeah.
Q: In demythologizing various aspects of Western culture and landscape, a grim picture gets painted. What about the culture and landscape do you consider positive?
A: Oh, there is a lot that is positive about western culture and the landscape. There’s a kind of total quiet in places like the high-line in Montana or in the Sawtooth mountains or on the Snake River Plain that is kind of stunning. The culture is complex, in a good way. You have cowboy conservatives living by off-the-gridders. Hippies and ranchers showing up at the same anti-development rallies. I like that kind of crazy frenetic variety. It also drives me crazy, but that’s a good thing. It keeps me alive and present. And let’s be frank: it’s beautiful out here.
Q: How does your work, which works towards constructing new myths and narratives, fit into the tradition of American Western Literature?
A: I guess my work along these lines is akin to work by writers such as Rick Bass, Bill Kittredge, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Clearman Blew and others who are writing about place in complicated ways. I guess I’d like to see my work help to construct a more inclusive and aware narrative, a narrative that isn’t the monolithic Marlboro Man narrative. But one that allows room for the kind of diversity that is inherent in the American West. This is what Annie Proulx was doing with Brokeback Mountain, for instance.
“The Writing Life”:
Q: What got you into writing? In your essays about youth, you don’t seem to have been an avid writer at those times. When did you start writing?
A; I was always writing little stories. I still have one from the third grade called “The Lava Monster” whose protagonist was Professor Neil W. Brown. Dr. Brown invented a time machine that took him and President Jimmy Carter back in time when, evidently, lava monsters roamed the earth. But in all seriousness, it was in college that I really started writing. I was the Arts Editor for the college paper, and later wrote a weekly column. I was poetry editor for our literary journal, and I started my own underground newspaper that I ran for four years under the pseudonym, “D.W. Hunt.”
Q: What is your favorite part about writing essays? Do you ever get writers block? What inspires you?
A: My favorite part about writing essays is discovering surprising connections between ideas along the way. For instance, in the KISS essay, I was writing about KISS fans, and then I started looking into fanatic and what a fanatic really meant, and then I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that fanatic was related to “demon,” etymologically. That was such a great little discovery. I love when that kind of resonance occurs in the writing of an essay.
Q: How long does it typically take you to write an essay?
A: Anywhere from four or five months to a year. Just depends on the essay, how crazy my life is at the time, and/or if I’m also working on a book. In the latter instance, the essays usually get drawered for a while. Then when I need a break from the book, I’ll pull them out again and tinker with them.
Q: In a lot of your essays, you are looking for your identity. Do you feel as if you learn more about yourself through writing?
A: Yeah, I suppose I do learn more about myself. But I also want to learn more about the world and the culture I happen to be a part of. Writing essays has been the best education I could receive. Writing an essay is a way of learning about the world. We tend to forget that essays find their roots not in literature, but in philosophy with writers like Plutarch, Theophrastes, Heraclitus, Seneca and others. They were asking the same fundamental questions that we are still asking. What does it all mean? That sort of thing. Part of it is about stalking your own identity, but it’s mostly about discovering the world we live in and what it means to be human.
Q: Is it ever emotionally difficult and/or rewarding to write about the past?
A: Yeah, it can be difficult. There are things I’m simply not ready to write about, because they’re too emotionally fraught or emotionally charged, and that would be corrosive to the writing process. But time and distance will help with that. And sure, there are rewards, too. Writing about the past is an act of reclamation. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion one wrote. And the stories of the past—stories of redemption, narrow escapes, triumphs, failures, fortune, misfortune—always seem to be pointing toward the future. They can be cautionary tales, right? “Don’t do this, because I’ll tell you why. Once, when I was a teenager, we… etc, etc,” Make sense?
Q: What is your favorite color, author, and word?
A: Favorite color is blue, no green, no, blue! Green! Favorite author: Depends on the day, or my mood, or what I’m eating or drinking. I don’t think I can settle on one. Too much pressure. I start to feel all oogey. Favorite word: shuttlecock