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Interview: John Jeremiah Sullivan

| Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Renowned nonfiction writer John Jeremiah Sullivan spoke to Notre Dame students yesterday evening on behalf of the Department of American Studies, the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts’ Henkels Lecture Series. On Monday, he sat down for an interview with Scene’s associate editor, Allie Tollaksen, who wrote a profile on Sullivan, which you can read here.

The full transcript of Allie’s interview with Mr. Sullivan is below:


Allie Tollaksen: I took comfort in doing this interview with something you wrote in “Unknown Bards,” about someone who was “a deceptively good interviewer … coming at a person in this ‘Rain Man’ style that would leave anyone feeling the less awkward person in the room.” I’m not sure yet, but that may be my style. I guess we’ll find out.

John Jeremiah Sullivan: [Laughs]

AT: As an interviewer, how to you feel about being interviewed?

JJS: It’s kind of fun while it’s happening, but afterwards there’s always a regret. As I start thinking about the things I said, I immediately start thinking, “That’s not exactly what you meant,” and I start picking it apart. But I’m not cynical about it, I guess, because I do it. Because I know there are cases when people ask you questions and they really want to know what you think. It’s not a surface exchange that’s happening. So I try to give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt, that that’s what’s going on, and work to be honest—honest is too strong a word—to be accurate.

AT: How do you feel your interviewing style has evolved or improved over time?

JJS: I talk a lot less. I used to feel like I really had to keep dancing along somehow. And I realized that almost every word you say in an interview is shutting down some word that the other person could have said that you could have used. I’ve gotten quieter and something I never would have done when starting out is to let silences hang. You know?  But now I realize that that’s essential a lot of times to a good interview, to give the person the luxury of being silent if they want to, while thinking things out.

The trick of interviewing, I think, is getting to meaning. It’s easy to get people to talk. It’s even easy to get people to cough up secrets. But in order to get a person to say what they really mean, you have to create a kind of comfort and trust. A mutual seriousness. It’s only then that people will start to draw their answers from a little deeper down.

AT: I love your description of Indiana as the “nowhere” state in “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose.” You were born in Kentucky but grew up in Indiana. Do you still identify with this state in any way? Is it interesting returning here?

JJS: I’m starting to, yeah. It took me a little growing up to start identifying with it. Growing up, I had this family from Kentucky and family from Indiana, and we lived right on the river. And my Kentucky family was not into Indiana at all, so there was stigma from earlier on, stigma associated with being from Indiana. That probably had to do with the fact that my imagination when I started writing went elsewhere. It wanted to go elsewhere.

Only now that I’m a little older and sort of more okay with who I am, I feel like I have less of a chip on my shoulder. I’m starting to get really interested in Indiana. I’m realizing what a fascinating place it is, and I’m starting to write about it again. So yeah, it’s changed definitely. Indiana’s exotic.

AT: Exotic?

JJS: Well, in it’s own weird way. It’s reverse-exoticism, I guess. So normal it becomes exotic.

AT: So what were your thoughts on Notre Dame growing up in Indiana? It’s a pretty polarizing place.

JJS: I actually wasn’t polar on it. I always had this idea of it being a really good school. I always knew it as a good school. I had professors at Sewanee who went here and used to talk about it all the time. And football. Those are the two things. When someone said “Notre Dame,” it was, “Good school and football.” I suppose if I had gone a little further down the path, I would have thought of Catholicism or right wing politics, but I’m innocent—I have the innocence of my ignorance.

AT: Now you live in Wilmington, North Carolina, but you’ve moved around quite a bit between now and living in Indiana. How do you feel that geography, where you live now or where you’ve lived in the past, affects your writing?

JJS: Really, if anything, the whole regional question, for me, has put me in touch with how absurd the whole thing is. It’s really a kind of costume drama. It’s like cosplay, and always has been. This whole thing of claiming regional identity is … being a Southerner when it’s advantageous to be a Southerner and not when it’s not. Everybody’s doing that all the time and it’s slipstream, not a hard-fast.

It’s funny to me because most of the people I run into in situations like this, or even in my daily life, people think of me as a Southerner, right? Because I’m born in Kentucky, went to the University of the South, now I live in North Carolina, of course I must be the most Southern guy who ever lived. But you’re meeting me and you know I’m like an Indiana boy, and I know that is there somewhere. The [Southern] thing is real in some way too. It’s just what you choose to put on, and for a writer that becomes significant because it’s part of what you are as an artist.

Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island, but in identifying with the South in the way he did, there was power. I think that’s what it comes down to—where you find power, where you find sources of energy as a writer. For some people that’ll be the metropol, that’ll be New York, it’ll be Paris. But for other people, it’ll appear to their temperaments to be from the outside, to be resistant. That kind of juggernaut—that was my style.

AT: What does it mean to identify with the South today?

JJS: I don’t know what you’d say about it now. Certainly are moments when I’m in Kentucky with my family or I’m in Tennessee with old friends and I think, “We’re different. This wouldn’t happen somewhere else. We [wouldn’t] be talking this way [if] we were somewhere else.”

So, It’s possible to perceive it when you’re in the middle of it, but very hard when you get outside of it to say what was going on there.

AT: I kind of sense that in “American Grotesque,” that language, that interaction.

JJS: Code switching

AT: Yes! 

JJS: Lorin Stein, one of my closest friends who I happened to work with at the Paris Review. We go way back. We were talking on the phone about a piece a couple weeks ago, and guy came into my house, a carpenter, who was working on this library downstairs. And I said “Give me a minute,” and I put the phone down and I went to the staircase. This guy and I we’re yelling back and forth. I got back on the phone and Lorin said, “I’ve never heard you code-switch before. That was so weird!” I hadn’t known I was doing it. So much of it is unconscious and has, at the end of the day, very little to do with where you’re from and a lot to do with where you are and what you need from your past.

The moment I found out the regional stuff was kind of crap, it became very interesting to me, which is weird. When it had seemed like a monolithic thing, a real thing, it had seemed kind of tiresome, like something I just wanted to stop talking about. But when I realized that it was some sort of weird play that we’re all acting in here, then it got interesting.

AT: In essays like “American Grotesque,” when talking about your family or “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose” when you discuss your childhood friends, you’re often described as an empathetic writer, but you also include things about the people you know best that I imagine could anger them as well. I’m thinking of the last line in “American Grotesque,” for example. Do you have your subjects’ reactions in mind when writing a piece?

JJS:  My family has pretty much made me swear to never write about them anymore. They were nice about it, but they were kind of like, “This is enough.” And I had to respect that. Friends don’t seem to mind it as much, because it’s fun.

I don’t know. Empathy is a word that bothers me when it’s applied to writing. I don’t mind the way you’re using it and I use it the same way, but I never know quite what to say about the whole thing. It’s like, what is it when I say empathy? I think empathy is a guy who punches you in the face at a bus station, and you’re somehow able to look at that him and know enough about what situation he was in to know that he had to do that and not to hit back. That’s empathy, and nothing ever happens in writing that has that kind of moral heroism about it.

It’s funny to me, there are paragraphs or pieces that I’ve seen critics apply the word “empathy” to, but I know for a fact that when I was writing what was really going on was very self-serving. I needed them as characters. I was turning real people into characters, that’s what I was doing with this kind of writing, and how are you going to do that if you don’t get into their psychology, break into their worldview? So I’m not quite shameless enough to call it empathy.

AT: So do you think this “empathy” we talk about in your writing is just a side effect of learning more about anyone, about your characters? I think of that with “American Grotesque,” because though I never found myself agreeing with the people you described, I think understood them more and empathized in a way.

Maybe, because I do empathize with them. I know these people. I grew up with some of these people and they weren’t always fascist crackpots. So, something else is going on here. Why do they feel so disenfranchised? Why do they feel so disconnected from the political process, so disrespected? That’s all very real. Maybe there is something with the word, because I didn’t sympathize with them. But I empathized with them, because I can see how this could come to seem rational to a human being.

AT: I really enjoy your pieces on music. You have quite a few early on in your career. Would you say you started as a music writer?

JJS: Maybe in a very accidental way. I wanted to write about 300 different things, and I wanted to write about anything that anybody would let me write about. That was the first thing that people wanted, I guess. Maybe when I was 20 or however old I was when I started publishing stuff, it was one of the only things I could really write about and not sound like a complete idiot because I’d been studying it obsessively since I was a small child and I grew up in a house full of musicians. Which isn’t to say that I knew a whole lot but at least I could talk about it and think that maybe I’d have something to add.

But I’ve never thought of myself that way. I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of writer. That would just be so depressing to me. It would immediately make me want to write about everything but that subject, which is ungrateful, in a way. A person ought to be thankful they have a niche, but my brain doesn’t work that way.

One of the things I love about this job is in a way it’s kind of a graduate education that never stops. You just constantly have to inform yourself about things in order to write about them. You’re getting obsessed with certain subjects for nine months, writing about nothing else, and then you have to kick them out of your brain to make room for the next thing. And I must be wired that way, on some level. It’s professional dilettantism, in a way, but you have to go a little farther than that, on some weird marginal zone between the dilettante and the expert.

AT: One of the things you’ve talked about studying for years is your work on a historical non-fiction book. How is that coming along?

JJS: Yeah I’ve been working on it since I’ve been in college. It’s this very strange, obscure little wormhole in American history—the Southern frontier in the first half of the 18th century. What they call “the forgotten half century,” this little blind spot in American history when a lot of important things happened, but we have no national memory of it at all.

AT: This story, about a German lawyer setting up a utopian community in the American south, then being driven out, sounds so interesting. Is it made more interesting because it’s not talked about?

JJS: It is an amazing story apart from what I may bring to it or not bring to it. The material is incredible, and it’s kept me fascinated for 15 years. This man, he really represented the height of the enlightenment at the time. He had studied at Leipzig, one of the best universities in Europe at the time, if not the best. He was a linguist, a lawyer, trained philosophically. But he came to the Carolinas, which is really—it’s a backwater now, it was something else then, a really dangerous place to go. He wanted to establish a city, really. We call it a utopia now, because we think of it that way. He thought of it as a new political entity that he created, and called it “Paradise.”

It was multiracial, and there was equality between the sexes there, there was total sexual freedom, there was no private property, this whole socialistic view centuries ahead of it’s time philosophically. Here he is, in 1735: Jefferson hasn’t been born yet, Rousseau hasn’t published anything yet. You’re not supposed to be doing this kind of thing, but he did, and he was hunted for many years by the English and finally captured and died in prison. He had a book on him when he died that of become this kind of lost manuscript of American history, this enlightenment manifesto a full generation before the Declaration of Independence. But it was a declaration of independence. He was a fascinating guy.

AT: I didn’t know this until a few days ago, but in reading “Violence of the Lambs,” I was almost more surprised to find out that you wrote the “editor’s note” at the end than I was to read the note the first time.

JJS: To me, that was the perfection of the joke! It wouldn’t be a hoax if everybody got it. It helps that science is kind of bored out by totally insane theses—it doesn’t sound as crazy as it used to.

AT: Where do you feel these hoaxes and satire belong in journalism? How do you feel in others doing it, even when they don’t put in that “editor’s note”?

JJS: I don’t think you can get away from it—they’re intrinsic. If you go back to the beginning of the 18th century with Swift perpetrating hoaxes, the Isaac Bickerstaff hoax. He predicted the death of this famous astrologer and then pretended he actually had died. If you read about the Bickerstaff hoax, it’s hilarious. It’s like something “Saturday Night Live” would do today.

And then that makes the crossing. The first thing to say is that English journalism begins with the hoax, in a way, and we could have a long conversation about the extent to which that has modified the language and the style and just the discourse of that early magazine journalism, that it started out with a wink.

Then it comes over to America, and you have Ben Franklin’s older brother, James, picking up the Isaac Bickerstaff thing. Poor Robin turns into Poor Richard, and it’s messy but there’s a unity to it in as well. And there’s a funny way that periodical journalism is a hoax. It’s all a grand hoax in the sense that it speaks with a certain kind of irony that’s become so familiar to us that it’s almost invisible. It’s the irony that we don’t really know enough the truth to be talking about it as comprehensively as we are, but we do so anyway. The trick, I think, as a writer, is to know that. If you don’t, that leads you into some confused places.

AT: What was your thought process in including that note? What’s the difference in letting the reader in on the joke, so to speak?

JJS: I didn’t want it to just be a joke. Writing it, I didn’t know what it was. Was it some psychotic drug experience? Was I onto something? I wanted the reader to have that same kind of experience, to not have that tidy solution at the end, but instead chaos.

AT: As a writer, do you read  other journalism pieces coming out now or is it kind of like musicians, who often don’t want to hear their contemporaries to be sure that they’re not influenced in some way by them?

JJS: I can’t really avoid new stuff in a way, because I’m writing too, and that’s the milieu. And I like that, I like being able to keep up reading without really making the effort. Things are getting emailed to you, you’re looking in the issues your things are coming out in, seeing the other pieces. That’s kind of fun. It’s a lifeline, for me, to like contemporary stuff.

But it has also provoked the opposite reaction, when I’m reading-reading—reading to fall asleep—I like the old stuff. I like dead writers. There’s less static with dead writers. You don’t have the distortion that comes from occupying the earth at the same time.

AT: As a college newspaper writer, I feel like I have to end with this question: What advice do you have for college writers?

JJS: I think just try to ask yourself in as naked a fashion as possible, whether you have to be doing it, whether it’s something you need or want to do, or whether you’re doing it out of a lack of other avenues, because it’s not an easy life. If you can be somewhere else happily, you might want to think about it, but I think there’s a tribe of us who really can’t be happy anywhere else.

The only teacher I had in college that ever gave us writers good advice said, “Run five miles every day and take aspirin.” The logic being that you’re going to be in your 40s by the time you have anything worthwhile to say, and to just be alive by the time that comes. And that turned out to be very solid advice that I never followed. Solid as a rock.  

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About Allie Tollaksen

Scene Editor. Senior studying Psychology and dabbling in everything else.

Contact Allie