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.

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