Thursday, July 14, 2011

5 (or so) Questions with BJ Hollars

It seems to be the summer of the cryptid or maybe mysterious creatures seem to be everywhere simply because BJ Hollars' excellent essay, "In Defense of Sasquatch" from the current issue (vol. 8, no. 1) has me thinking about such things as the Loch Ness Monster, yetis, etc. Anyways, I was excited to have the chance to speak to BJ Hollars via email about Bigfoot and the importance of imagination for this edition of 5 (or so) Questions. Enjoy!

9L: With all the other mysteries out there, what drew you to write an essay about Bigfoot?

BJ Hollars: I've got a bit of a Bigfoot obsession (though perhaps that's putting it mildly). A few years back I actually attended a Bigfoot conference just outside of Pittsburgh, in which 500 or so "Squatchers" gathered to report on the latest findings and debate where the Big Guy was hiding (a note to the reader: we concluded that he likely wasn't hiding in Pittsburgh).

Throughout the conference, I assured myself that I was there only as an outside observer, but I soon became utterly charmed by the community of Bigfoot researchers--many of whom were actually far more skeptical than I would have imagined.

Then a few years later, I found myself teaching rhetoric to a class of freshmen, all of whom were growing tired of my insistence that they argue a wide variety of positions. And so I agreed to employ my own rhetorical skill to argue a position too. "Pick the most difficult argument you can dream up," I dared, "and I'll defend it."

They selected Sasquatch. This essay was my best effort.

9L: One of my favorite sentences and ideas from the essay is when you say, "At what age did I give logic permission to supersede imagination?" Why do you think there's an uneasiness about imagining when it comes to things that might be considered supernatural or other things, like Sasquatch, that cannot be explained?

BJH: We seem to care far too much about what other people think. That was sort of the beauty of the Bigfoot Conference--people felt free to believe or not believe without fear of any kind of persecution.

Given my somewhat bizarre interest, many of my friends and colleagues have pegged me as "the bigfoot guy," but everyone assumes I just write about him (by which I mean Bigfoot) in an ironic sense. Very rarely do I get asked if I actually believe in him (and to be honest, I'm not sure what I'd tell them if I was asked). All I know is that I have very distinct memories of spending the summers of my youth tromping the neighborhood solving crimes that never occurred and seeking monsters that never existed. Then one day I woke up and it was as if there were suddenly no more crimes worth solving, no more monsters worth tracking in the woods. I traded in my magnifying glass (used to solve crimes, of course) and my butterfly net (my primary Bigfoot-capturing tool) for a baseball glove, and suddenly scoreboards and batting averages felt a whole lot more important than Bigfoot.

It's difficult to pinpoint when that day arrived--the day I started caring more about what others thought than what I wanted to believe.

9L: Other than trying to meet your students' challenge was there an advantage to tackling this subject matter as an essay instead of a story? Has Bigfoot shown up in any of your fiction? Any worries about being labeled the Bigfoot writer guy after this essay?

BJH: I think there is certainly a special challenge in approaching a beast like Bigfoot in a nonfiction form. Fiction seems the likely genre for a cryptid such as Bigfoot, but that's exactly why I wanted to try it from a different angle. In the end, my attempt to "defend" the possible existence of Sasquatch is only one of two arguments I'm setting forth. The underlying argument (and the one pointed out in your previous question) is: "What happened to our ability to believe even in what we don't see?"

And you bet I've written about Bigfoot in my fiction. One story, "Sightings," was published in The Southeast Review a few years back. It's basically a Bigfoot-love story. Our man falls in love with a high school girl, joins the basketball team (a la Teen Wolf), takes the girl to prom, only to get slighted, drink Boone's Farm in the school parking lot and vanish into the wilderness once more, heart-broken. I think of it as a comedic story, but in the end, it's just another story of unrequited love (only this character has bigger feet than most).

I doubt I'm actually labeled "the Bigfoot writer guy," though I'd certainly wear it as a badge of honor if I was. What I like about Bigfoot is that he represents a subject that requires us to move beyond our boundaries of believability. He gives us the opportunity to forget all about sub-prime mortgages and wars and stock quotes and just deal in a whole different kind of currency.

And an addendum to being labeled "the Bigfoot writer guy": My first book, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America is forthcoming in a few months, so it's probably more likely I'll soon be better known as "the guy who writes about lynching" rather than "the Bigfoot writer guy." I have very varied interests, obviously.

9L: Well, obviously. You also edited an anthology of coming of age stories, You Must Be This Tall To Ride. Can you talk a little about what inspired the project and what it was like to put the anthology together? Any unexpected challenges?

BJH: I've always been interested in coming-of-age stories--from The Catcher in the Rye to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. I think coming-of-age stories give us one thing we all have in common; that is, growing up. It's a struggle we all face, and we're bonded together in that way. However, I believe these coming-of-age tales often get a bad rap (mainly because so many of them are terribly cliche), but there's more to coming-of-age stories than Gossip Girl and Dawson's Creek and I put You Must Be This Tall To Ride together in an effort to prove that. However, putting together an anthology has its challenges. As an editor, you spend a lot of time not only selecting the work, but you spend a lot more time obtaining the rights to that work. Thankfully, I had a pretty good experience working with the writers themselves, which makes that process easier. I've got two more anthologies in the works: The Borderlands: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction and Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings. Yes, Bigfoot is likely to make an appearance in the latter.

9L: Speaking of Bigfoot, and here is my last question: if you could have definitive proof of Bigfoot, would you want it or is the mystery more important?

BJH: Ahh, the best question of all. I suppose I prefer the mystery over the proof, which is a funny answer, but the one that best fits my greater interest in keep imagination alive. I'm one of those guys who isn't 100% convinced a dodo bird might not come strolling out of his backyard, and to have definitive proof of Bigfoot would seem to undercut the dreamer in me. If Bigfoot is real, and we toss him in the zoo, then you take a wonderful legend and turn him into a common gorilla.

There's a show on Animal Planet called "Finding Bigfoot" and it's pretty hilarious, because you got this team of Bigfoot hunters, many of whom are convinced every snapped twig is a Bigfoot--no questions asked. And it's pretty obvious the director's doing everything he possibly can to make a TV show in which nothing ever really happens. It's not like they're going to uncover Bigfoot in the season finale. Which is just fine by me.

Thank you very much to BJ Hollars for taking the time to speak to me. It was a pleasure. To read "In Defense of Sasquatch," pick up a copy of vol. 8, no. 1 in our webstore. And don't forget our July subscription special is still going on. If you sign up for a 1-year subscription, you get vol. 8, no. 1 for free!

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