CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley


William Bradley, Fractals. Lavender Ink, 2015. 

William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.

About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.


Buy the book here. 

Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.

Thank you for talking to me about your book.

Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?

William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.

The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.

I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.

I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.

In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.

“Nana” starts out:

I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.

Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?

My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.

But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.

I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.

You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.

How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)

Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.

And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.

It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.

Why did you call this text “Cathode”?

I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).

Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.

Continue reading


A Street Named for Ona Šimaitė in Her Beloved City of Vilnius


I woke up this morning to the news that a street had been named for Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my second book, Epistolophilia. Šimaitė was a librarian, a feminist, a deep thinker, an obsessive letter writer, and a Holocaust rescuer. She loved Vilnius and its people, books, libraries, churches, theatres and markets. No doubt, the knowledge that one of its streets now bears her name would have moved her deeply. She didn’t believe in riches (she was a hardcore leftist who didn’t even believe in owning property!), but she loved words and had a deep reverence for humane gestures like this one. I think she would have approved.

I thank all those who have worked quietly (or not so quietly) to have her honored this way. I can’t wait to walk the street myself.

Photo courtesy of Defending History. You can read more about the naming ceremony via this link.


Radio On!


Many years ago, I spent two weeks in Vancouver at a sort of book publishing boot camp. I can still trace most of what I know about the business of writing back to that workshop.

Well, I’ve just come through a slightly shorter, though possibly more intensive radio experience. My friend Andrew Leland (check out The Organist, McSweeney’s podcast — he produces it) and I are in the process of founding The Missouri Audio Project. We want to tell true stories using sound; to play, think, and allow people we find fascinating to speak for themselves and tell their own tales, in their own words. In short, we want to make audio CNF (creative nonfiction).

We’ve just launched our audio hopes and dreams with a six-day summer radio intensive workshop, August 2-8, 2015, here at the U of Missouri.

The workshop served as an intensive introduction to long-form audio storytelling. It was taught by radio guru Rob Rosenthal,  currently the lead instructor of the Transom Story Workshop. Rob produces the HowSound podcast on audio storytelling for PRX (Public Radio Exchange). We hope to have him back and to open our workshop up to the public next summer! So, stay tuned.

Rob encouraged students to: focus on the story of one person; to look for action; to think about sound; and to think about what would compel listeners. He taught us the basics of recording, script-writing, and editing.

We also learned a thing or two about listening.

The workshop was life-changing: in a very short period of time, we learned a staggering amount. Rob is an amazing instructor: he inspires courage and confidence in his students. All of us (even the journalists amongst us) were working far outside our comfort zones and flying by the seat of our pants. All of us learned; all of us changed.

Over that crazy week of learning like I was 25 again, I produced my first radio piece. It’s about an extraordinary photographer named Shane Epping. You can listen to “Faye, in Pictures” here. It’s a sad, moving story told only through the human voice. Perhaps I’ll expand to other sounds soon, but this piece demanded simplicity.

I can’t wait to do more in sound. Radio on! (as Rob Rosenthal says…)

[Image: Maggie Boyd]




So, I’m about to start a major rewrite of my new book (again). I keep reminding myself that no one said this was supposed to be easy and that wanting a manuscript to be ready, no matter how hard you do so, doesn’t make it so.

But conditions for the start of the rewrite are in place: in two days, my husband, dog, son and I head north to an internet-free lake in Ontario. After a few days of visits with friends and family, my husband and I will be left alone on the lake with our work and few distractions. A sort of DIY writers’ retreat.

A couple months ago, I heard Michael Harris in discussion about his book, The End of Absence. It’s about technology and about how we are constantly “connected.” Never alone, never quiet. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I don’t carry a smartphone (we gave ours up as a family two years ago, mostly for economic reasons), so in this sense I’m far less connected than most. I thought it was funny to hear how Harris engineered an experiment in unconnectedness by duct-taping his smartphone to the kitchen counter. We still, quaintly, use a landline and our phone still sits on the kitchen counter, attached to the wall behind it. Though we have a cell phone, we rarely know where it is or if it’s charged.

All that said, I am very attached to my laptop, to email and to quick Internet searches. Possibly too attached. The laptop will come to the lake (along with the book drafts on it) but the internet connection will be left behind.

It’s not a stunt, this unplugging of ours. It just happens that the cottage we chose, perfect in every other way, is unconnected. Perhaps that too, in the end will turn out to be a perfect attribute. And though I’m not heading up to the lake to create the conditions for an essay about the internet-free life, I suspect I may have some thoughts about it when I return.

I’ll let you know what I come up with.

[Photo: AKATDOG]


Stay Tuned….


It’s been a while since I posted a CNF Conversation, but I’m thrilled to be working on a new one! I’ve just started an exchange with Cathy Ostlere, author of the memoir Lost. Ostlere and Dennis Garnhum collaborated in adapting the book into one-woman play by the same title. It was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards (Canada).

I have so many questions about adaptation. How do you move from the page to the stage? What is it like to watch yourself as a character in a play? How do you decide what to cut and what to leave?

Maybe you have questions too.

If so, drop me a line. I’m all ears.

[Photo: Kevin Dooley]


The Rumpus Wants YOU!


The Rumpus, along with the Freeman Family, and the Drake University Department of English, is proud to be a part of the second annual Payton James Freeman Essay Prize. Please take a look at the submission requirements below (no entry fee!) and send us your best work.

We invite you to submit outstanding unpublished non-fiction essays of up to 3500 words on the subject of “The Stupid Little Thing That Saved Me.” More here…

[Photo: Jack Lyons]


The Stepmother Tongue: A Report from the AWP


Last night I returned home from the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, an annual gathering of writers, teachers and professors of writing, as well as publishers, editors and printers. It’s three days of nonstop talking, listening, browsing of books, and (for some) overindulging in drink and food. I’m still at a stage in my career and thinking where I can’t pass up the chance to learn more about my field or to hear the writers whose work I love read and speak in person, so, for three days, I rushed from panel to panel from morning until early evening. (Thank goodness for the bag of snacks I carried!) The nonfiction selections at AWP tend to be particularly good, so I really immersed myself in my beloved genre.

The online journal Assay has been publishing reports on conference panels. Included amongst these is the panel I chaired, “The Stepmother Tongue: Crossing Languages in Creative Nonfiction.” Sophia Kouidou-Giles’ generous and nuanced take on what we discussed starts like this:

What challenges do authors that work in a second language, English being primary, face in the creative process? Panelists crossed linguistic and geographical borders, and transitioned into English from Lithuanian, Spanish, Cuban, Yiddish, Serb Croatian, and Greek. They discussed their experience in a rich, personal way, from the perspective of acquiring a second language (Julija Sukys,) or using an ancestral language (Ruth Behar, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jennifer Zoble, and Joanna Eleftheriou.) Continue reading…

The highlight of the thinking/listening part of the conference for me was a panel called “Everyday Oddities: Natural Fact and the Lyric Essay.” Panelists included: Colin Rafferty, Chelsea Biondolillo, Brian Oliu, Christopher Cokinos, Joni Tevis. You can read about it on Assay.

[Photo: J. Maughn]


It’s Edna Staebler Time Again…Submit!

Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest is on! You may submit essays of any length, on any topic, in which the writer’s personal engagement with the topic provides the frame or through-line. There is no restriction on essay length or subject matter, but the author must be a Canadian citizen or resident. $1,000 prize for the winning essay; all submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine. Entry fee: $40 per submission. Each submission includes a one-year Canadian subscription (or subscription extension) to The New Quarterly.

Details and submissions can be found here.


In Praise of True/False


The True/False film festival just wrapped up in Columbia, Missouri, where I now live and teach. It’s four days of back-to-back documentary films showing all over our city’s centre. There are buskers and parties and panel discussions, but the heart of the event is film. I managed to see 8 this year. The highlight for me was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which is a sort of follow up to The Act of Killing. Both films examine the perpetrators of massacres in Indonesia in the 1960s. The Look of Silence documents a series of encounters between victims’ families and perpetrators. It’s a thoughtful, quiet and quite excruciating meditation on forgiveness, inheritance, fear, power, confrontation, memory and forgetting. For me, the film was a great gift. I’ve been working on (struggling with) a book on similar themes, if from a different time and place. Oppenheimer has fed my thinking in unanticipated ways.

Other great films I saw included: Bitter Lake, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and (T)Error

If you’re a fan of doc films or creative nonfiction in any form, consider making the trip to the True/False Film Festival. I promise it will be worth your while.

[Photo: Glenn Rice]


Writing True: Master Class and CNF Conference

The annual Creative Nonfiction Collective conference is coming up in Victoria, British Columbia (April 23-26, 2015), and I’m thrilled to be giving a Master Class. Registration opened two days ago, and it seems there are only a handful of spots left, so if you want to take part, hurry hurry! (Details below.)


Master Class

Filling in the Gaps: Dealing with the Unknown and Unknowable in CNF

Any nonfictionist who tries to engage with the past – whether personal or public – quickly discovers that there are limits to what is and can be known. Papers disappear, memories morph and fade, eyewitnesses die. This is true of even the most well documented stories and lives. So what can a writer do when faced with gaps in knowledge and narrative? Should she fill these holes, write around them, or side-step them somehow? In this Master Class, we will explore solutions to the problem of the unknown and unknowable in CNF. We will examine and experiment with the roles of research, speculation, imagination, rhetoric, and writerly ethics in our genre. Participants are invited to bring a problematic gap in their work to discuss and to come prepared to talk and to write!

Julija Šukys is the award-winning author of two books of creative nonfiction: Epistolophilia and Silence is Death. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri where she leads both undergraduate and graduate workshops in creative nonfiction.

Date: Friday April 24th
Location: Inn at Laurel Point
Time: 1:30 – 4:00 pm
Cost: $25 for members; $40 for non-members