John Jeremiah Sullivan comes to Notre Dame
Allie Tollaksen | Tuesday, January 21, 2014
John Jeremiah Sullivan, one of the country’s preeminent literary journalists, arrived on Notre Dame’s campus yesterday, Jan. 20, to meet with students both inside and outside the classroom. A contributor to the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine and GQ, southern editor of The Paris Review and contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, Sullivan has won two National Magazine Awards and established himself as one of the most accomplished non-fiction writers working today.
Fortunately for us, he took the time to visit Notre Dame classes and speak to students about his work. After visiting with an Irish Studies class yesterday afternoon, Sullivan kindly sat down with me to speak about his current project, advice for college writers and what to expect for the talk he’ll be giving this evening, open for all students at the Hesburgh Center Auditorium.
Born in Louisville, Ky, Sullivan spent most of his early life in New Albany, Ind. While he has moved many times since, living everywhere from Peru to Tennessee, his opinions about Indiana have changed over time.
“Only now that I’m a little older, I’m starting to get really interested in Indiana,” he said. “I’m realizing what a fascinating place it is. It’s exotic in a weird way — so normal, it becomes exotic.”
Indiana, however exotic you may find it, makes its way into a few essays in “Pulphead,” Sullivan’s critically acclaimed second book. Released in 2011, “Pulphead” is a collection of essays from the journalist’s work at GQ, New York Times Magazine and Oxford American over the last 15 years. Spanning in topic from hidden caves to Michael Jackson to Hurricane Katrina, the 14 essays in “Pulphead” perfectly showcase Sullivan’s unique journalistic voice as well as his ability to write about anything. Sullivan said, as he sat down for an interview yesterday, that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“One of the things I love about this job is that it’s a graduate education that kind of never stops,” he said about the variety of stories he writes. “You have to inform yourself about things in order to write about them.”
Not only does Sullivan inform himself with an array of topics in his writing, preparing often times with months or even years of careful research, he also does a remarkable job of connecting with the people in each of his stories. Even when writing about those with whom he shares little in common, he manages to describe these individuals with touching intimacy and understanding. It’s almost as if the people he describes are fictional, created to allow the readers to peek into the psyche of whatever phenomenon, trend or celebrity he may be covering. The truly amazing part is that all of these characters, as Sullivan calls them, are real people.
“The trick of interviewing is getting to meaning. It’s easy to get people to talk. It’s even easy to get people to cough up secrets,” he said about what makes a good interview. “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.”
There is no doubt that Sullivan has this talent for getting interview subjects to open up and engage in meaningful conversation, giving his stories great depth.
It also is his ability to artfully describe the people he speaks with and gets to know that makes Sullivan’s work so captivating. Critics often use the word “empathy” to describe Sullivan’s style when telling another’s story, giving insight into the backgrounds and motivations of others. But Sullivan doesn’t necessarily see what he writes as empathic. Instead, he says, he gets to know people, trying to “understand their psychology, to break into their worldview” in order to best tell a story.
That we often empathize with the people in his essays is not due to some applied empathic tone on Sullivan’s part, but instead is a testament to the writer’s first-rate storytelling. He is able to make us understand subjects in his essays in ways we never have before by taking the time to understand and relate to them himself.
Though Sullivan is known for his conversational, first-person journalism and focus on current events ranging from music to reality television to politics, he also has a noticeable knack for American history. In many of his essays in “Pulphead,” Sullivan masterfully incorporates this extensive knowledge of U.S. history, and he now has a new historical nonfiction book on the way. Focused on a “blind spot in American history,” the early 18th century in the South, his book is a change from literary journalism, but is a topic he has been researching for almost 15 years.
“It’s this very strange and obscure wormhole in American history,” he said. “The material is incredible.”
In the meantime, Sullivan continues to contribute stories to New York Times Magazine, expanding the breadth of his work while intelligently writing on various topics, ranging from athletes to a thoroughly entertaining “massage-a-thon” while living in Wilmington, N.C. with his wife and two daughters. When asked what advice he had for aspiring writers in college he replied candidly.
“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,” Sullivan said. “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.”
John Jeremiah Sullivan will be speaking tonight at the Hesburgh Center Auditorium at 7 p.m. His talk will involve the origins of the blues, its surprising connection to our very own Indiana and, of course, a chance to hear one of the best literary journalists working today. And it’s certainly a rare opportunity not to miss.
Contact Allie Tollaksen at [email protected]