Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is.
Thank you to Ned Stuckey-French for his appraisal not only of Siberian Exile (2017) but also of Epistolophilia (2012), and my work in general. His review essay, called “A Mind Thinking” (Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Spring 2018, p. 209-220) concludes like this:
As I was reading Siberian Exile, I began to think about what its predecessor [Epistolophilia] mean to the field of creative nonfiction. We talk often about the essay renaissance that has flowered in the United States since the 1980s. What Julija Šukys’s work reminds me is that this renaissance is, has been, and can be global in its reach. A Canadian who now writes and teaches in the United States but who was born into a family that was cast into the Lithuanian diaspora, Šukys is especially equipped to take the North American essay out into the world, and vice versa. The range of her work is stunning. It stretches across three continents, thousands of miles of travel, scores of interviews in multiple languages, and decades of history — extending from World War II through the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union to the present — but she also stops and looks at moments, boring deep into an exchange on a train or the night of a massacre. Her work is horizontal and vertical. It is historical and personal. She reveals the history of the last century through the lives of individuals, often as they faced the most dramatic moments of their lives, and she tells us the story of her own mind thinking about the history, the moments, and the people she has encountered.
You can also check out Curtis Woodstock’s review of a recent Siberian Exile event here. He calls Siberian Exile “wonderfully written, emotional, and real.”
David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include the just published I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms from the University of Nebraska Press, Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Eight of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. Lazar received the first PhD in the United States in nonfiction writing, in 1989. He then created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its seventeenth year, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.
About I’ll Be Your Mirror: In his third book of essays, David Lazar blends personal meditations on sex and death with considerations of popular music and coping with anxiety through singing, bowling, and other distractions. He sets his work apart as both in the essay and of the essay by throwing himself into the form’s past—interviewing or speaking to past masters and turning over rocks to find lost gems of the essay form.
I’ll Be Your Mirror further expands the dimensions of contemporary nonfiction writing by concluding with a series of aphorisms. Surreal, comical, and urban moments of being, they are part Cioran, part Kafka, and part Lenny Bruce. These are accompanied by Heather Frise’s illustrations, whose looking-glass visions of motherhood—funny and grotesque—meet the vision of the aphorist in this most unusual nonfiction book.
Julija Šukys: David, congratulations on your new book. It’s a finely wrought collection of formally diverse texts. In it we find longish, textured, memory-based personal essays (like “When I’m Awfully Low”), interviews both real and imagined, as well as fragmented and poetic hybrids. Themes the reader encounters include musical theater, bowling, sex, gender conformity, and nonconformity. Certain figures return again and again: your lover who committed suicide, your mother, and your son. The tone of the collection is both melancholy (“Ann: Death and the Maiden”) and kind of punchy, as in your conversation with Mary Cappello. For me, that conversation was a highlight of the book. I immensely enjoyed your disagreements with Mary about digressions and whether the term is a productive one for the essayist, your comparing of notes, and your challenging of one another’s ideas of what makes and what should make or unmake our nonfiction literary canon.
You produce three conversations here: two imagined (with Michel de Montaigne and Robert Burton) and one real (the one with Mary Cappello). I’ve always loved the interview as a form and have long thought of the essay as a conversation with a reader. Can you talk about the place of the interview or conversation in your work as an essayist?
David Lazar: What better place to talk about the interview than in an interview, Julija! Thank you! I first became formally interested in the interview about twenty-five years ago when I was doing long interviews with M.F.K. Fisher and gathering the historical interview selections that became the basis of Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. I noticed immediately in the historical interviews how manifold the forms of published interviews were: some were formal, others informal; some were interviews broken up and interspersed into feature articles. Some interviews effaced the questioner, while others were obviously more dialogic. And when I began my own conversations with Fisher, what began as formal calls and responses, devolved delightfully into digressive (that word!) interplays, with certain questions recurring and receding, our senses of each other emerging as we circled each other, sometimes warily, sometimes fondly. I remember amusedly an editor writing to tell me that Fisher was a well-known essayist and I was not, so clearly the reader wouldn’t be interested in hearing so much of me. In addition to finding the response boorish, I thought it wrong. But in any case, that started me thinking of the interview as another cognate of the essay, both in the way one voice, the interrogated, can wander through, around, and back to certain ideas in essayistic ways, but also, again, dialogically, in the play of two voices. Solo, or duo, it’s still explorations of voice.
As I write in the MFK Fisher book, if I may be permitted to quote myself:
Etymologically, interview derives from ‘entrevue,’ a form of entrevoir, to have a glimpse of, as well as “s’entrevoir,” to see each other. We can see early, unnamed versions of the interview in the Socratic dialogues, the conversations of Satan with God in the first chapters of Job, the imaginary interview of Margery Kemp, but in its semantic infancy, the interview referred to a metting of great moment, between great personages, prince to prince, king to king, a ceremonial occasiona, before it degreaded to person to person. By 1626, Bacon can say, in New Atlantis, that is has been “ordained that none doe intermarry, or contract, until on Moneth be past from their first inter-view” . . . . The seminal Q & A:
Johnson: Why do you write down my sayings?
Boswell: I write them down when they are good.
My interview with Mary Cappello was a delight for me because I trust her so completely as both a writer and a friend. I don’t think there are many nonfiction writers working at her level right now. Plus I know I can be as silly or serious as I want or need to be in the moment with her. It’s extraordinarily liberating. Ultimately, we both hoped, as I hope here, that our sayings were good.
The imaginary interviews (which are harder than they might look!) are great fun and also serve a purpose: to engage in a living dialogue with writers who can still speak vividly, as though sitting at the table, though long gone. Burton, a favorite of mine, and the interview with Montaigne that Pat Madden and I performed, are ways of saying, “Hey, this guy can still carry a conversation.” Finding questions and responses that are spirited takes a lot of re-reading and choreography, but I enjoy it.
You’re the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, a journal that declares: “Work with a quirky, unconventional edge—either in form or content—is often favored by our editors.” In founding the journal, you created a context for the kind of work you love, respect, and produce (or, at least that’s what I surmise). I imagine this decision grew in part out of the experience of placing your first book, The Body of Brooklyn for publication. In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that it took ten years for the book to find a press and describe it as follows:
My essays were all different kinds of juggling acts, with different forms and excessive digressions, photographs, vaudeville versions of the self. [. . .] It was some kind of Hydra – but think of those heads from 1963 as more like obscure objects of my own desire to construct an essay persona.” (103)
To what extent does this description of your past work still hold true of what you write today? How true is it of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” for example?
Let’s see: about Hotel Amerika—creating the journal itself was actually quite separate from my own work. I had been the Associate Editor of Ohio Review for years at Ohio University. When that folded (long story) I was asked by the university to create a new journal. It may seem unthinkable now, but I said I would with certain terms. They were these: that I be given complete editorial control and independence; that I be given a paid managing editor; that I have a budget that allowed me to pay at least nominally for work; and that I be given a course reduction equivalent to that of the past editor of the Ohio Review. They said yes! Boy, talk about paradise lost. In creating the magazine it was important to me to put out a magazine that looked lovely, was photographic in its covers, was pleasant to hold, and was a place where one would find work that both respected generic conventions, especially in the essay, and completed denied, which led to our TransGenre issue, and our use of the transgenre category for ever issue. We wanted to have issues that, yes, and here is the connection to my work, had a lot of different stuff going on—images, and fractured essays, prose poetry and literary criticism, translations, etc. Behind it all we tended to value work with a playful ear and a playful sensibility that still was willing to embrace the most serious questions. And you’ll probably find the figure of the flâneur and the flâneuse in more of our works than most magazines. So, yes, you’re quite right, there’s a connection to my work. But I’ve always felt that an interesting magazine has to have a sensibility (part of me is unregenerate Jamesian, and the word sensibility rings importantly) and that sensibility comes from editors steering the magazine’s vision over time.
About I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, yes, I think it, too, covers all kinds of ground in terms of different kinds of essay, and then the poetic aphorisms in the back. The aphorisms were actually a separate book, and it was Alicia Christiansen, my editor at Nebraska, who so cleverly suggested merging the two. I loved the idea. So the book is a two-fer! But I think it works together because the connection between the voice of the aphorisms and the voice of the essays is so clear. And because I think the aphorism is such an important part of the essay. I talk to my students about the aphorism and have them write them all the time. And I did a special issue on the aphorism in Hotel Amerika some years ago. So there go—it’s full circle. That issue actually started my own writing of aphorisms. And I posted each of them on Twitter, for about a year and a half. Twitter is only really interesting as an aphorism space.
To answer your question directly: that description of my essay writing still holds true. My essay voice is very performative and quirky, and the vaudeville description is apt. I’d like to think it’s a kind of Beckettian vaudeville, though: as Winnie says, in Happy Days, “sorrow keeps breaks in. . . . “
Can you tell me a little about how form works for you? And about the decision (if it was a conscious decision) to bring these different essay shapes together into the same text?
I almost never lead with form—it’s not the way my mind works. I start with whatever I’m thinking about and see what kind of trouble I can get into. Before you try to find a way understand what it is you’re trying to defuse, I think it helps to toss in as many monkey wrenches as possible, write the most complicated version of your dilemma, your set of ideas, your confessional conundrum, whatever version of essaying you’re doing. After those feverish early drafts, that’s when form kicks in for me, as a way of creating order, cutting extraneous material, finding the heart of matter. I let the material suggest form sometimes, as in, “oh, there are really two voices working here, so why not write it in two voices.” Or, how could these ideas sit with each other if I pushed them towards each other without overt transitions. Sometimes forms take wilder shape, the sequence of self-deconstructive photo prose poems in Body of Brooklyn, for example, where I wanted to comment on the nature of self-commentary itself. But form is functional, and I never say, for example, “I think I’ll write a braided essay,” or some such thing, and I teach that way, too. I don’t even like the term, “braided essay,” for that matter. Isn’t one just alternating parallel subjects. Must it have a poeticized name? I fear I’m sounding cranky.
Not cranky! In fact, you’ve introduced my next question. Let’s talk about the essay, its past and its present. You describe in “Hydra” how you switched paths from poetry to essay, “which at the time felt like changing sports, rather than leagues” (103). Ultimately, you earned the first PhD in nonfiction writing “as though I were some kind of generic freedom writer” (103) (I love that), and for this reason in addition to many others, you are perhaps better placed than most to take a long view, both forward and back, of the essay as form.
Of the eternal problem of what to call this thing we write, you offer: “Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre” (103). Its defining characteristic appears to be hybridity: “To an extent almost all nonfiction offers some form of hybridity, biographies straying into history, essays digressing into informational riffs, autobiographies becoming necessarily biographical, etc.” (104). You appear to be arguing for a more expansive understanding of the essay. No more personal vs. classical vs. spiritual vs. lyric essay. Let’s be done with the braided and fractured and meditative essay. Rather than looking for new genres (I think I hear you say), let’s expand our sense of the essay, our beloved form and genre that continues to morph into shapes that surprise us. Have I understood your position? Is there something here you want to push back on or dig into? I’d love to hear/witness you riff on all of this.
Well, Julija, you did indeed anticipate the answer I gave above! Yes, at times I feel I’m misunderstood as an essay classicist (which is funny to me considering how experimental some of my work has been and much of the work I’ve published) because I’ve tended to emphasize a few points, fairly basic that are rather important to me: the history of the essay is extraordinarily delightful and various, and I can’t imagine why someone would make it their vocation without exploring that rich field. Especially mining the writers who were early and formative practitioners. And all essays represent a desire: to explore, to confess, to untangle, to express, and to interrogate the nature of that desire. The formal distinctions you mention are, yes, like carpenter’s tools. The important thing to remember is that we’re talking about a house with many rooms, and that house is the essay. However, neither white space, nor reverse chronology, nor braids can build that house. Only desire can. One can call it whatever one wants, but I like the simplicity of: essay.
You subtitled this book “Essays & Aphorisms.” Which of these texts are essays and which are aphorisms? What’s the difference? Can an aphorism be an essay, or vice versa?
I think of an aphorism as a short, self-enclosed form, usually one line, pithy, witty. But as with the prose poem, there are variations. Some are philosophical, some are arch. Some urbane, others lyrical. Some aphorisms are political, direct, whereas others are closer to one line poems. But aphorisms, as the special issue I did for Hotel Amerika showed, come in more forms that I thought. What do we call the two or three sentence aphorism? The string of related aphorisms? Well, we might sometimes call it a short essay, or a prose poem, or . . . a string of related aphorisms. We don’t really have answers for some of these questions, which makes writing them fun. I think that’s true, at least for me, for the essay as well. Every essay I write is just an essay. It’s not a lyrical essay or mosaic essay or segmented essay, although one might (or might not) use these words to describe it. I see some of the new formal categories as limiting, rather than liberating. So I like to see where different forms or subgenres intersect and talk about it: hey, that’s something like a short essay or maybe a densely aphoristic paragraph or, or, or.
But aphorisms are central to the essay, and I can’t imagine the essay without the aphorism. Think of the essays you love, and immediately aphorisms come to mind as the dramatic moments of thought in those works.
I read this book out of order in part because I couldn’t resist skipping ahead to the last piece (an aphorism, a series of aphorisms), “Mothers, Etc.” I read it late one night in bed. I couldn’t help myself. Tell me how this gorgeous collaboration with illustrator Heather Frise came about, both practically speaking and artistically-philosophically.
I’m absolutely delighted that you skipped around. And particularly to the aphorisms section and Heather Frise’s work, which I think is so extraordinary. The Mothers section of the aphorisms popped up as an idea when Heather and I went to the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago some years ago. When we came out, we saw a huge neo sign that just said, “Mothers,” by Martin Creed. We both thought it was wonderful and immediately decided to collaborate on some kind of piece about mothers. I had seen many of Heather’s drawings and thought they were just fantastic: grotesque and beautiful, disturbing alternative worlds. They were . . . fierce. I had been writing aphorisms, many of which were a bit strange, and thought this would be a good match, so I asked Heather to just start sending me pictures and I started sending her aphorisms, and we mixed and matched. I go back to those pictures all the time. They’re my favorite part of the book.
On the “Mothers, Etc.” front: I’m interested to hear how you think about line breaks and white space. How do you know if a text needs a visual vocabulary as well as a linguistic one?
That’s a wonderful question. I felt I need to create some kind of thematic, but asymmetrical pacing that made the reading of the aphorisms pleasurable and meaningful. The thing about reading aphorisms is that, hopefully, they make you think, they stop you for a while. So, at very least, I wanted some space to give the reader a way to keep reading, to think, white space as cogitation. It’s miraculous to me that Nebraska, again, Alicia Christenson, completely understood this. To have simply listed aphorism after aphorism, fifteen on the page, would have exhausted and bored the reader. As for where I created the breaks, how large they were, how many on a page—part of this was through creating thought groupings, and part of it was intuitive, and favoring, on occasion, ones I wanted to give more emphasis to.
Tell me about where you come down on the term lyric essay. I get the sense that you reject it because all essays, one way or another, are lyric (are they? ugh…I can’t tell anymore). Anyway, this term has rooted itself our CNF/essay reading and teaching culture so firmly. It’s become shorthand for a certain kind of text: the fragmented, the poetic, the enigmatic. Do you think the term lyric essay has earned its place? Have you made peace with it? Or should we just say essay and leave it at that?
To extend a bit, I tend, yes, to favor essay because essays have always been lyrical, and essays have always been enigmatic, poetic, fragmented. There’s a difference between the adjectival—that essay is lyrical, and the noun form, that’s a lyric essay, which isn’t that useful to me. Many works that are called lyrical essays don’t seem to me to think or move like essays at all. Perhaps we should call them prose poems, or . . . strings of aphorisms. Or something else entirely.
How has the landscape for essayists changed since you published that first Hydra collection, The Body of Brooklyn? Do you feel hopeful about the essayistic literary context and community? Are we indeed in a golden moment for nonfiction and the essay in particular?
Oh, dear, it’s so much better now. The standard line when I was trying to publish Body of Brooklyn was that essay books were verboten. Even when I did finally get it taken by Iowa, they tagged it as memoir on the back! And you couldn’t even think of using “essay” in your title. I can’t tell you how it’s delighted me that Nebraska, to its everlasting credit, has included “essays” in the subtitles of my last two books. Of course there were some essays books being published. People like Hoagland, Didion, Baldwin, Epstein, Fisher, but many of these writers came to publishing books of essays through other genres or disciplines, and there were almost no younger essayists around until Phillip Lopate and Richard Rodriguez and a few others broke through.
Are we in a golden age? I’d rather tone it down to a vibrant age. I think there is a lot of interesting experimental writing going on, a lot of hybrid stuff, and as is the case with anything, much of it is not very interesting, and some of it is wonderful. I think in terms of the essay proper, I’m able to find some very fine practitioners out there, some of whom Pat Madden and I are lucky to be able to publish in our book series, 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State. Kristen Rowley, the editor in chief at Ohio State, who moved over after created the wonderful nonfiction list at Nebraska, has just been a great advocate for literary nonfiction. I’m giving her my golden Oz medal for meritorious service. But I while I think there are some very fine essayists out there now, I don’t there are many great ones, at least that I see in the US. And you need great practitioners for a golden age. What I’d like to see more of in younger essayists, before they start hybridizing the form, is seeing how far they can drive on gasoline. Since we’re talking about words, the environment can take it.
But there’s excitement about nonfiction writing, and that’s a good thing.
Thank you, David! I’m so happy to have had this conversation.
Thank you, Julija for your superb questions. I can’t imagine a better probing questioner.
[Photographs courtesy of David Lazar]
“Interweaving coincidences and reversals with historical precision in a narrative that layers, folds, zags and spikes, Julija Šukys wanders the ghost-filled streets of the present, mingling with kin, real and imagined, and corresponding with multiple unspeakable pasts. I can’t recall the last time I read so gripping and so delicate a documentary of atrocity, complicity, dispossession and survival. Siberian Exile is remarkable, daunting, and disarmingly real.” — Mary Cappello, author of Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack
“All families harbor secrets. What if, in blithe innocence, you set out to research your family history, only to discover that your grandfather was guilty of the most heinous of crimes? Šukys pursues her tragic family memoir with courage and self-examination, often propelled to her painful discoveries by what she believes is a bizarre synchronicity. This is not a book written at a safe distance.”—Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
“Riveting. . . . Beyond the historical and familial narrative, Julija Šukys ponders her own exile and her own complicity, allowing readers to do the same, comparing versions of selves and asking which version is truest, an impossible question, but one readers will find as enthralling as these pages.”—Patrick Madden, author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana
About the Book
When Julija Šukys was a child, her paternal grandfather, Anthony, rarely smiled, and her grandmother, Ona, spoke only in her native Lithuanian. But they still taught Šukys her family’s story: that of a proud people forced from their homeland when the soldiers came. In mid-June 1941, three Red Army soldiers arrested Ona, forced her onto a cattle car, and sent her east to Siberia, where she spent seventeen years separated from her children and husband, working on a collective farm. The family story maintained that it was all a mistake. Anthony, whose name was on Stalin’s list of enemies of the people, was accused of being a known and decorated anti-Bolshevik and Lithuanian nationalist.
Some seventy years after these events, Šukys sat down to write about her grandparents and their survival of a twenty-five-year forced separation and subsequent reunion. Piecing the story together from letters, oral histories, audio recordings, and KGB documents, her research soon revealed a Holocaust-era secret—a family connection to the killing of seven hundred Jews in a small Lithuanian border town. According to KGB documents, the man in charge when those massacres took place was Anthony, Ona’s husband.
In Siberian Exile Šukys weaves together the two narratives: the story of Ona, noble exile and innocent victim, and that of Anthony, accused war criminal. She examines the stories that communities tell themselves and considers what happens when the stories we’ve been told all our lives suddenly and irrevocably change, and how forgiveness or grace operate across generations and across the barriers of life and death.
Mary Cappello is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, on NPR, in guest author blogs for Powells Books, and on six separate occasions as Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island.
About Life Breaks In: Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.
This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.
What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.
“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.
“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”
— The Brothers Quay
“Mood is alpha and omega, it is everything and nothing” – Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In
Julija Šukys: Mary, first of all, congratulations on your book. Life Breaks In is learned, rigorous, and, at times, intimate and devastating. On the one hand, the text is incredibly wide-ranging: you take the reader through subjects as varied as Joni Mitchell’s music, mood rings, your father’s darkness, your friend’s death from cancer, taxidermy, and the weird queer history of children’s books. But on the other hand, your book is impressively focused and disciplined as it continually loops back to thinking about mood as sound, as space, as reading, as color. It does so in an almost oblique way and manages to look closely at something that is otherwise almost invisible.
You have written that the challenge of the book was “not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood – but to notice it – often enough, to listen for it – and do something like it without killing it in the process” (15). It seems like mood is something that you can only see through the prism of something else, like those ghosts in children’s cartoons that become visible in the dust beaten out of a chalkboard brush. Can you say a little bit about how you came to your subject? And can you talk a bit about the title, Life Breaks In, and the role that rupture plays in a meditation on mood?
Mary Cappello: This question of how we come to our subjects is perpetually intriguing to me. Some subjects for me have been urgent givens (for example, cancer); others, I’ve arrived at through intricately circuitous routes even though, once there, they greeted me with a kind of “ah-ha” or “but-of-course” feeling (e.g., awkwardness); still others were the result of an accidental encounter, what Barthes might call a “lucky find,” almost like a punctum in photography (e.g., the Chevalier Jackson foreign body collection). Mood happened for me in yet another way—in its own way—and it was as though it was always hovering. The subject has played around the edges of my consciousness for many years, and, by the time I brought the book to completion, it felt as though it was the work toward which all of my work had been tending.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, and I’ll find marginalia that I wrote in it dating back twenty years relative to mood. I guess I’m trying to say that mood felt to me like the thing I’ve been writing about all along but that had never announced itself as such—which makes me wonder if this is a sort of experience relevant to all writers. Unlike my other ostensible “subjects,” mood seemed to be following me rather than vice versa.
The title is a phrase lent to me by Virginia Woolf who wrote these wonderfully suggestive lines in one of her diary entries: “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.”
I’m really interested in the time/space that mood exists in—I mean, moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Are moods co-terminus with the thing we call “life” or “living”? Does life interrupt mood or do moods interrupt life? This is related to the aesthetic problem that you refer to in your question—I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.
I hope that readers take pleasure in the unexpected ways in which breaks enter in to the book, and I’d hardly exhaust those ways if I mentioned just a few, like day break and breaks in clouds; breakthroughs and heartbreaks; the breaking of a silence and the breaking into song.
As you know, I read this book very slowly, in fits and starts. At first, my pace embarrassed me (confession: I’m a slow reader at the best of times), but the deeper into the book I got and the more I thought about what you were doing in it, the more I made peace with my meandering methods.
You’ve subtitled the book “A Mood Almanack” and elucidate it like this: “the almanack is a revelatory book and a book of secrets. A book whose tidings we look out for and consult from time to time…. A book to wander in a desert with…. A book whose only requirement is that we float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.” (16) It occurs to me now that this is a book that values the slow reveal and invites a reader to go off, wander around, and return according to her inclinations (or, indeed, mood).
Can you say a little more about your notion of the book as almanack? (By the way, my autocorrect keeps trying to remove the k at the end of that word!)
All that I can say about the slow reveal is: yes, yes, yes. Meandering methods, both in writing and in reading, yes. I’m so glad that this is how you experienced the book, Julija. I seem to have found my ideal reader!
Mood called for what I describe as “cloud-writing,” which asked for an aesthetic of hover and drift. Like my second book, Awkward: A Detour, this book can be dipped into, read front to back, or not. For the reader interested in moving front to back, the book is structured to allow for various more and more voluble returns (as you note in your opening lines here), and a frame tale relative to voice and mood (most especially, the role of the voices of our earliest caretakers, how we may have come to receive those voices and, if we grew up to be writers, how we later constructed voice-imbued atmospheres in the form of writing).
I had a lot of reasons for calling the book an “almanack,” and with that older spelling, too. I wanted to nod in the direction of those early autobiographical experiments of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also the less well-known book by Djuna Barnes, her Ladies Almanack (1928) and its wonderful sub-title, “showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion.”
Formally, though, the “almanack” appealed to me for its generic specificity and range: an almanack (especially a “farmer’s alamanack”) shares a kinship with mood-writing because it’s a place we turn to for chartings of weather patterns and cloud movements, the prospect of a good harvest or a drought, and it’s a space where different types of knowledge on a subject can intermingle, where folk wisdom meets philosophy, aphorism and recipes coincide—more to the point, where a kind of non-knowledge or useless knowledge (à la Gertrude Stein) prevails. I didn’t structure the book like an almanack—this would have felt artificial to me—but when I learned more about the etymology of the word, I couldn’t believe how fitting it was for a mood-book: from classical Arabic, munaāk, it refers to a place where a camel kneels, a station on a journey or the halt at the end of a day’s travel. Simultaneously, it derives from cognate Arabic words for “calendar,” and “climate.” This blew my mind because it seemed to bring together so many mood-relatives: temporality, charts and unchartability, atmosphere, rest and pause. There is also a warmth to the Farmer’s Almanack that I was hoping to invoke.
The University of New Orleans Press Publishing Lab is looking for full-length, nonfiction manuscripts for their annual prize. The winner will receive a $1000 advance on royalties and their book will be the subject of a publishing class directed by our publisher wherein students and UNO Press staff will work to bring attention to an emerging voice.
We are open to memoir, essays, or a compendium of online writings in their many forms. We have a history of publishing a wide variety of nonfiction writings; what we are primarily interested in is a fresh, intriguing voice.
Deadline: August 15, 2016
Submission Link: https://unopress.submittable.com/submit
Contest Page: http://unopress.org/lab.aspx
Submission Fee: $18
Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick (2016) and Quotidiana (2010), winner of Foreword Reviews and Independent Publisher book of the year awards, and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His personal essays, nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and noted in the Best American Essays six times, have been published widely in such journals as Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, the Normal School, River Teeth, and Southwest Review, and have been anthologized in the Best Creative Nonfiction and the Best American Spiritual Writing. With David Lazar, he co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and now co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press. A two-time Fulbright fellow to Uruguay, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he curates an online anthology and essay resource at www.quotidiana.org.
About Sublime Physick: A follow-up to Patrick Madden’s award-winning debut, this introspective and exuberant collection of essays is wide-ranging and wild, following bifurcating paths of thought to surprising connections. In Sublime Physick, Madden seeks what is common and ennobling among seemingly disparate, even divisive, subjects, ruminating on midlife, time, family, forgiveness, loss, originality, a Canadian rock band, and much more, discerning the ways in which the natural world (fisica) transcends and joins the realm of ideas (sublime) through the application of a meditative mind.
In twelve essays that straddle the classical and the contemporary, Madden transmutes the ruder world into a finer one, articulating with subtle humor and playfulness how science and experience abut and intersect with spirituality and everyday life.
Watch the book trailer for Sublime Physick here…in which Montaigne and Sebald get drunk together.
For teachers who’d like to adopt this book for their classes, Madden has provided a number of helpful teaching resources, including a 40-minute lecture on his writing process and writing prompts for each of the book’s essays. You can find those here.
Julija Šukys: First of all, Pat, thank you for this wonderful book. It’s a beautiful, melancholic text, penned, or at least published, at mid-life. We’re almost the same age, you and I, so I connected to the simultaneous gaze backward to childhood, forward to aging and death, and downward to the children at our feet. Tell me a bit about the organizing principle of this book. You write that the “essays all derive, in some way, from the physical world, and all reach, always insufficiently, toward the sublime.” Can you say a little bit more about this?
Patrick Madden: Thanks, Julija. I’m really glad you liked the book. I think that the middle of life (whether “midlife” or not) is a long period of relative stasis (I know I’m oversimplifying), so I hope that these essays can speak to lots of people, in the middle of life. As for the organizing principle of the book: I wanted to collect essays under a general characteristic that holds true not only for my own essays but for essays generally, and I discovered that phrase, sublime physick, while researching Amedeo Avogadro, the 19th-century Italian chemist who theorized that equal volumes of gas contained equal numbers of molecules, no matter the gases. We’ve since named Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023, the number of molecules in one mole) after him. Aaanyway, I learned that he held the chair of fisica sublime at the University of Turin. I thought it was a lovely oxymoronic term, because it suggests both the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the sublime. While I realize that this department was the equivalent of our modern-day “theoretical physics” (thinking about the science of the natural world), I played with all sorts of definitions and combinations that give insight into what essays tend to do. So this book collects many essays that have science themes and metaphors (I did my bachelor’s degree in physics), and they all make connections between the world of lived experiences (the concrete) and the world of ideas (the abstract), sometimes with a reach toward the spiritual (or sublime).
As you know, I had a group of students read your essay, “Spit,” and the endeavor was wildly successful – my students are still talking about you. In many ways, “Spit” is a classic essay: it combines scene, research and reflection flawlessly. It’s conversational and intimate yet deeply, deeply intellectual, and it vacillates in the most surprising ways between the big and the small. It appears to be about one thing (saliva!) and turns out to be about something else entirely (redemption, forgiveness, self-forgiveness). Tell me about the writing process of this essay.
I am smiling. They were a great bunch to talk with, and I’m glad the essay had a good effect on them. I hope one thing they can take from that essay is that they can write about anything, even frivolous or unappealing things, and they can write without knowing from the start where they’re going or what it all means. One night as I was putting my daughters to bed. I realized that one of them was learning to whistle, another was learning to snap her fingers, and the third was learning to ride a bike, and I had a flash of memory to when I learned how to spit. I thought this was an odd thing to remember, especially because I don’t usually have a good memory. So I began to write an essay about spit. It was all very superficial at first: I gathered all the memories and associations I could make with the literal act of expectorating. Of course, I knew that this would never work as an essay. I needed something significant, an idea to explore. I soon remembered what is probably the essay’s climactic moment, when I returned home for a weekend during my freshman year of college and I discovered that one of my friends was now hanging out with a different crowd, doing as they did. I got upset, we argued, and in the escalation of emotions, I spat at him. Because my friend had since died, very young, I began thinking about forgiveness. Beyond that, as I was trying to get some DNA research done on my ancestry (by sending a cheek swab for analysis), I met, through email and phone, a distant relative who’d never known anybody he was genetically related to. Even though our common ancestor lived centuries ago, he was pleased to get to know me. As we shared our experiences, I learned that he’d recently gotten into some legal trouble, so that the life he’d worked so hard to build was falling apart. I began to see him as a tragic hero, undone by his fatal flaw and events beyond his control. This was a challenge to the dear notion that people can repent and change. So I wrote toward this uncomfortable question: What is repentance? How can we forgive? And so forth. I felt that this was a substantial idea at the end of an initially inane essay.
Some time ago, I was introduced at a reading as “an essayist,” and immediately felt a sort of revolt inside me that said “No! I’m not an essayist…” A few seconds later, I reversed this and thought, “Hang on, maybe I am an essayist…” It’s been a long road, but for what it’s worth, I increasingly define myself as such. By contrast, you seem to have understood early on exactly what kind of writer you were. In “On Being Recognized,” you quote Arthur Christopher Benson: “The point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality” (117). What is the point of the essay for you, Pat? Can you talk a little about your journey to the essay? Did you flirt with other genres before you settled on this one? Do you ever (as I did recently) get accused of fetishizing the essay?
“Fetishizing the essay”! I like that phrase. I’ve never been accused of that, but only (I suppose) because it’s so obvious that I do it. People feel it’s unnecessary to even make the statement about me. Of course, I deny the premise, as “fetishizing” assumes that the obsession is “excessive or irrational,” and this is obviously false. In any case, I never really had any other literary goals, and though I like reading other genres, I’ve never seriously tried writing in them. Joseph Epstein says that essayists are all failed at other literary and artistic pursuits (e.g., Lamb the failed playwright and poet; Hazlitt the failed painter), but this is not the case for me. Unless I’m a failed physicist, I guess. Yes, maybe that’s it. I came to the essay because it promised a great freedom. I had a physics degree, but already before I had graduated I felt the narrowing constraints of lifelong expertise in a very small subject area. In physics, this smallness is doubly true: each physicist’s field is metaphorically small, but also a cutting-edge physicist will probably be working with subatomic particles, invisible even to microscopes, and the work tends to involve colliding accelerated particles then sifting through the computer data for years in order to get a read on what flashed into and out of existence during a nanosecond of interesting results. Aaanyway, I felt claustrophobic at the prospect of dedicating my life to this. Meanwhile, in the two years after graduation, I served a Mormon mission to Uruguay, which gave me a lot of time to think about my future. Gradually I realized that I loved to think wildly, without restraint, flitting from one subject of interest to the next as the spirit moved me. And eventually I discovered or decided that writing essays could be a way to keep my life open and free, to study what subjects inspired me for as long as they inspired me, and then move on. So I came to the essay knowingly, intentionally, and with great hopes. I think now that I was naïve, but also very lucky, so that my life has worked out to be what I had hoped for.
By the way, I don’t know who introduced you as an essayist, but I feel that the title is a great compliment. Most people who would use it to describe you would do so knowingly, meaning that you’re an experimenter and explorer. Continue reading “CNF Conversations: An Interview with Patrick Madden”
Look what the postal carrier brought today! I’m so happy to have received Patrick Madden’s new book, Sublime Physick.
Here’s what the great writer Brian Doyle has to day about it: “It’s like Montaigne and Sebald got drunk and wrote a book together.”
I’m digging in and we’ll have a new interview up for you soon!
The Essay Review is now accepting submissions for its 2016 issue.
The Essay Review is a yearly online journal run out of the University of Iowa dedicated to providing lively criticism of the essay as an object of scholarly and aesthetic reflection. By approaching nonfiction with similar critical techniques as used in the analysis of fiction, poetry, and drama, we investigate the methods and poetics of the essay as well as explore the realities, confusions, and identities within this fluid genre. We encourage discussion that considers the definition of the essay and that addresses the nebulous divide between fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry.
Deadline: February 19, 2016
Submit to firstname.lastname@example.org
[Photo: Michelle Robinson]