Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Five Questions with John Griswold

John Griswold is the author of Pirates You Don't Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life: Collected Essays, (University of Georgia Press, 2014). He's also the author of the nonfiction book Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City (2010) and the novel A Democracy of Ghosts (2010) which was named ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year in 2010. He writes as Oronte Churm for his blog on Inside Higher Ed, The Education of Oronte Churm. A former colleague of our at the University of Illinois as well as a 9L contributor, he's currently an assistant professor of English at McNeese State University. 

Steve Davenport recently exchanged emails discussing the Churm identity and the process of writing in various genres. We're excited to share their conversation here.





SD: Talk to me about the genesis of Oronte Churm and how he ended up with a book. I know he drew his first breath at McSweeney's and then got his swagger on at Inside Higher Ed
JG: I visited Vietnam in 1995 with my old friend Frenchy, who's in this book a lot and to whom it's dedicated. As we traveled from Saigon to Hanoi and back, I taped some of our conversations and his memories of two tours in the war. Transcribing hours of those tapes and typing up my journal pages helped me hear speech rhythms, the mechanisms of humor, the way stories got told and ideas reasoned out. The book-length travel manuscript I wrote was never published, but I learned a lot.

A few years later I was waiting for someone to please publish a novel I’d written. I scribbled a silly satire and searched online for comedy mags. The editor at some place called McSweeney's Internet Tendency didn't want it—actually, he never rejected it; it’s only been nine years, so I hold out hope—but he asked if I wanted to write dispatches about being an adjunct lecturer at a Big 10 university. I decided to use a pen name that was a combination of names from a short story called “The Real Thing,” which questions what’s authentic in life, society, and art. My third dispatch was about Vietnam, and after it posted a friend said, “You’re on your horse.” He didn’t mean high horse. (I asked.) He meant something had cohered.

After a year at McSweeney’s I was hired by editors Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed to be their first blogger; they have 26 now, I think. I didn’t want to waste an excellent platform—IHE now has 1.25 million subscribers—so I wrote profile pieces, book reviews, essays, did interviews, and generally tried to make posts interesting. My first contract was for alternating weeks of three and two posts, so I wrote a lot. After half-a-dozen years and maybe a half-million words, I thought there might be a memoirish collection there. To my delight, University of Georgia Press agreed.  


SD:  You have long been, for me anyway, a master of the concrete reference, effortlessly naming this and that thing or place. How much homework do you do before you begin drafting a Churm essay? Do you make lists of things/places beforehand?

JG:  Thanks. When I was young and being taught to work properly for the first time—by Frenchy in army diving, e.g.—I had to learn the names of tools, processes, and places. Things matter in the world; words matter in the mind. When your ship comes in, you'd best know your cleat from your bollard.
Naming words make a concrete poetry, even as the natural world gives us metaphors. The word "bluff," e.g., which people where you and I are from use as naturally as Twain did, can mean a steep bank, or to be good-naturedly direct, or to be rough and blunt, or to try to intimidate and deceive. If you catch a glimmer of how the phrases connect through the physical thing, the overlaid meanings can help create structure and point the way to revision. (A student just today showed me a draft of a story about a dying mother attended by her daughter; the writer had used the word “ledger” a couple of times in different and slightly odd ways. The tic became interesting for its connotations: Accounting [itself a metaphor for sums of hurt in a human relationship], angling [for what, emotional dominance?], and a meaning I didn’t know until I had looked it up—“a slab of stone laid flat over a grave.” How’d “ledger,” which works on about four levels, get chosen unconsciously? It’s why Mailer calls writing “the spooky art.”)

Aren’t words fun? For years I collected books such as Opus Maledictorum: A Book of Bad Words ("braising" as sexual intercourse); Words, by Paul Dickson ("benthos," the flora and fauna of the sea bottom); Forgotten English ("eye-servant," a covetous domestic); Comfortable Words ("mare's nest," a cliche from Swift's time that meant a thing very important to its finder but which was nonexistent). Words for things, actions, and concepts help us understand relationships. I like old books on etiquette for the same reason. You and I grew up sitting below the salt, Steve, and if that’s ever gonna change we first need to know how it means.

SD: My first experience with your writing was the short story Natural Bridge published and nominated for a Pushcart.  Speak, if you will, to your use of fiction techniques in your essays.  I’m particularly interested in your creation of recurring characters, Churm and his family, of course, but also Frenchy, who becomes over time a double for the father Churm looks for and finally finds.  Then there are the sidekicks or comic foils, Crazy Larry, who may be at his funniest in “Geedunk and Geegaws,” and Rory the Cowboy Poet, who I must say is one handsome sumbitch.
JG: “Techniques” are easy to cover if you mean dialogue, concrete sensory details, scenes, exposition, interior monologue, etc. As you know well from your own work, nonfiction uses them as readily as fiction does.
People recur in my book because they pop up regularly in my life to say colorful things, and I’m a guy with a pen in every pocket. Having said that, I’m interested in what David Foster Wallace says about how fiction comes from the void (indicating invention) and nonfiction comes from the chaos and welter of life (indicating selection, framing, organization). I find it interesting when people say and do things, so maybe I tend to write and edit in their direction.
What I was afraid you were about to ask was for some definition of nonfiction versus fiction, which is something I’ve thought about a long time. After all, some essays (MFK Fisher’s come to mind) could easily be read as short stories, and some fictions are meditations or extended metaphors or philosophical dramatizations. I do believe nonfiction should make every attempt to verify, use what can be known as a formal stricture, or else signal otherwise—as with the intensely lyrical—but mostly I leave the issue to the marketers and go have a Diet Coke.
Rory is indeed a handsome sumbitch, and I anticipate he’ll age into someone with the admirable skull of Patrick Stewart at his most angular. More importantly I’m grateful to you, Steve-Rory, for making yourself interesting, especially when you’ve had a few Diet Cokes.

SD: I would never drink a Diet Coke. The University of Georgia Press made a beautiful book of your Churm work. Describe the production process, your interactions with the press, decisions about essay selection and ordering, and selection of the title (a good one).
JG:  It all started with UGA Press Director Lisa Bayer, who’s long been a supporter of my writing. (Actually it started when Rory texted from his bubble bath to insist I query Lisa.) Peer reviewers for the press, as well as a former schoolmate, a former editor, an old friend, a colleague, and my grad assistant, gave invaluable suggestions on selection. From May through August I did little else but go over pieces countless times, put them in different combinations to tease out meaning and coherence, and write new material. There at the end, when my family went back north to visit friends, I spent two weeks of 15-hour days with it, going a little whacko, albeit productively. It was surprising to me that the project could absorb that much more time and work, since most of the pieces had been revised endlessly before they were published individually. It was a relief to finish and deliver the book to editor Daniel Simon, who was sensitive and insightful when we worked together in the fall.
The press was extraordinarily generous with my role in cover design. (I’ve had great good luck that way; I was allowed to choose the cover of my novel too.) I had a bunch of ideas, but some were expensive and others jokey. The one you see is illustrated by the amazing Tim Foley. The only downside is everyone thinks it’s me holding one of my sons, when really it’s my dad holding me in Saigon, but that serves the motif of fatherhood in the book too.
Until I wrote the first essay (which I wrote last), the title was to be Killing Pirates, and there was a dead guy on the cover. I realized only in the process of putting the book together how much death, absence, and loss there is in it, but it’s of the deeply-felt ordinary kind—father, mother, and childhood stuff, not swashbuckling or even historical pirates—and I wanted something more resonant. The gentler, more positive title and cover hint at connection, hope, and small mercies (with maybe a whiff of sulfurous irony).
Designer Tim Peters pulled it all together somehow, magician he is. Even at the very last, production staff were thinking about little details such as typography for section breaks. We looked at dingbats that might be thematic, such as skulls and crossbones. I suggested little waves instead, and they kindly agreed. I am very pleased with the result.

SD:  For the record, that’s one part bubble bath to two parts whiskey tub. So far, you have three books under your belt: a novel, Democracy of Ghosts, and two works of nonfiction, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City, and Pirates You Don’t Know. What’s next? Collection of short stories? Craft book? Cookbook?
JG:   A novel that’s been in the works a long time, meant to pay a debt I owe the sea. I’m doing my best to go whacko on it this summer, though I am going to the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July, and I’m stopping off at Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s estates south of Moscow. It would be nice to get material for another collection of essays, about what we know secondhand versus firsthand about other people....
Thanks, Steve!

SD: Back at you, John, and back to work. Summer’s upon us.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

2014 Literary Award Winners

Ninth Letter is pleased to announce the winners of our second annual Literary Awards competition!
Rachel Goldman is the winner in Fiction for her story "Steps."
Anders Carlson-Wee is the winner in Poetry for his poems "Dynamite" and "The Low Passions."
Nick Neely is the winner in Creative Nonfiction for his essay "The Book of Agate."
Ian Haight is the winner in Translation for his translation of "Poem Given to a Nun While Staying in a Taoist Monastery," by the 16th-century Korean poet Nansorhon.
The winning works will be published in our Fall/Winter 2014-15 issue, forthcoming in December.
Our judges also accorded some other honors. In fiction, Sean Pessin's story "Holy Basil" was selected as runner-up; Emily Cole's poem "10 Years Later, the Cowardly Lion Surveys his Territory" was selected as runner-up in poetry; and two runners-up were named in creative nonfiction: Mary Kudenov's essay "Memory of Light" and Elizabeth Hoover's essay "Smudge."
Congratulations to all our winners and runners-up!
Many thanks to all who entered, and thanks to our judges Matt Bell, Traci Brimhall, Ander Monson, and G. J. Racz.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Featured Writer: PatrĂ­cia Portela

New at ninthletter.com--excerpts from PatrĂ­cia Portela's novel Going up not North! 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An Interview with Peggy Shinner

This spring, 9L staffer Steve Davenport talked via email with Chicago-based writer Peggy Shinner about her recent book, You Feel So Mortal/Essays on the Body, discussing the process and craft involved in putting together a collection of essays. We're pleased to share this interview with our readers here.






SD: I love and admire these essays, Peggy.  You move unapologetically and intelligently through so much history that is at once cultural, generational, familial, and personal that I’m moved to say it should be required reading in high school, in undergraduate programs, in MFA Creative Nonfiction workshops, in community centers and religious centers of every stripe and creed, in retirement villages.  Yes, required.  Please temper my enthusiasm or agree with me by talking a bit about the reasons you wrote these essays, how body became the organizing principle, and the readers you wrote them for.


PS: Thanks so much for your generous comments, Steve.  The first essay I wrote for the book was “The Knife.”  I had been a practicing martial artist for many years and in my training we were learning to use a knife.  It was a practice knife, wooden or rubber, not a real knife with a sharpened blade.  The purpose of training with a knife was to learn to defend against it, but of course, in order to learn defense, we had to learn offense.  And I found it disconcerting to aim a knife at someone and stab or slash them.  I thought I might have something to say about this.  At the time I experienced this not so much as an idea but a weighted pressure.  This pressure would yield something.  The next essay was about autopsies.  My father had had one, at my authorization, and I had long been uneasy about it.  What did it mean to cut the body open?  So then I had knives and autopsies and it didn’t take much to see a connection between the two:  the vulnerability of the body.  The body under duress.  It was at that point I understood that I was writing a book about the body, that the essays would largely fall under that rubric.




SD:  In the back of the book, the acknowledgments, you thank Rosellen Brown and Nora Dvosin for helping you with the ordering of the essays.  Would you talk about that process from your initial ideas about ordering through their efforts to the final line-up of essays?  What did you learn?


PS: Well right off I wanted to create a dialogue between my personal experience, which for me was only a starting point, and the larger world.  The body is intimate, yes, we all live uniquely in it, but it’s cultural and historical too.  For better or worse, history has weighed in on our bodies and we carry those determinations with us.  “Family Feet” seemed like a good place to begin that dialogue.  I have flat feet.  My father had flat feet.  What does that mean?  Jews, it turns out, have long been thought to have flat feet.  Like many racialized constructs, this one may have started out with a kernel of truth and then the truth gets distorted.  Jews make poor soldiers, bad athletes.  Some unknown person identified and then taunted my mother and I as Jews on an escalator.  How?  Why?   That was the conversation I was interested in having: looking at the place of collision between the personal and the global.  It’s a very fertile place.  And from there, with encouragement and input from trusted readers, I considered rhythm and trajectory.  The cadence between the essays.  This is like a snowball going down a hill, if you will, building momentum.  So the question became: how to best build that momentum, how to have the themes accrue meaning and weight.  The essays seem to fall into two broad categories: my body, female, Jewish, martial artist, daughter, lesbian; and the bodies I came from, parents, lineage, cultural forebears; and I tried to use those two constructs as broad organizing principles.

 

SD: When I read a contemporary’s work, I want to pick up a trick or two.  One trick I’ve picked up from you is the condensed historical or cultural list.  They appear at different points in the book.  “Berenice’s Hair” opens strongly with such a list and in fact is a quartet of lists.  Each sentence of the first list signals a different people’s reverence and rules about a woman’s hair.  I like the writerly dismount at the end of that paragraph when you give two sentences to one example and switch the emphasis from the culture (Egyptian) to a particular woman (Berenice).  I like also that after the paragraph break, you go right back to the list and the same patterning, this time ending on two particular, more recent examples, Yoko One and Princess Diana.  Would you talk about your use of the list, how you came to the practice, when you employ it, why, and the research that goes into the construction of a list?


PS: Someone recently called You Feel So Mortal an “anatomical memoir,” and although the book is not a memoir, there’s something about the phrase that resonates.  It is, in a way, a catalogue of the body, an anatomy, albeit an incomplete one—feet, noses, breasts, hair, posture, the mind itself—and very much a list in and of itself. 

I like the lushness of lists, I like to combine the exuberant and the spare.  To pull out the thread as far as I can.  Lists have no end, you can go on forever; on the other hand, you can’t go on forever because every element has to do its job, strike a new or slightly altered note.  “Berenice’s Hair,” a condensed history of women and hair, is the ultimate list.  It’s divided into sections and each section has a loose theme: hair as a force of creation and destruction; hair as a lifecycle marker; the mandate to cover and the consequences of cutting one’s hair; hair and standards of beauty.  The list as a way of making the unruly ruly.  It connects the seemingly disparate.



SD: For this reader, if the focus of the seven essays that compose Part One is the body (feet, posture, breasts, nose job, etc.), the focus of the five essays that compose Part Two is love filtered through understanding and forgiveness.   And there’s much, it seems, to forgive: your mother, your father, your great-aunt, your partner Ann, Jewish culture with its many laws and allowances, yourself.  Is that an accurate reading of the cumulative effect of the essays.

PS: Love filtered through understanding and forgiveness?  Yes, I think it is.  With the emphasis on understanding.  Forgiveness comes after that.  The key for me is asking questions, identifying the right ones to ask.  Why was I uneasy about my father’s autopsy, for instance?  Because early on I understood that I had been asking the wrong question.  I wanted to know why he died.  Well, he had a stroke on the Dan Ryan expressway and he died four weeks later.  There was no medical mystery.  What I really wanted to know was: why did he have to die?  Why does anyone have to die?  And because, in my confusion, I asked the wrong question, I directed it to the wrong source.  I directed it to the gods of medicine rather than to the gods of fate.  It was an existential question, not a medical one.  Once I understood that, I could let go of some my uneasiness about his autopsy. 



SD: What question did I not ask that you expected or that I should have asked?  


PS: This isn’t a question as much as a declaration.  I love working in the essay form.  It’s capacious, elastic; it holds so much.  I think of Virginia Woolf, her fiction actually, although she was a great essayist too.  Her work was so layered; any given moment contained multiple moments, multiple threads.  Exteriority and interiority bound together.  She eschewed linearity because linearity didn’t capture her sense of reality.  We are not linear individuals.  We are not discrete.  History is not discrete.  One person, one action, one moment is linked to another.  What are the connections?  That’s what I try and do in the essay.  See what each thought holds, what it contains.  Push the boundaries of the container, stretch it as much as possible.  Honor digression, which is the recognition that each thing has the potential to contain another thing.

___

Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal / Essays on the Body (April 2014, University of Chicago Press). Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, Daedalus, TriQuarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, and Bloom, and been anthologized in The Oldest We’ve Ever Been: Seven True Stories of Midlife Transitions (University of Arizona Press, 2008) and Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters (Beacon Press, 1995). She has been awarded two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships, residencies at the Ucross and Ragdale Foundations, and a fellowship at Ausable Press. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern University. As a trained martial artist, she taught Seido karate for seventeen years. A life-long Chicagoan, she lives there with her partner, designer and book artist Ann Tyler