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An Interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a noted essayist and editor. His first book, released in 2004, is a memoir entitled Blood Horses: Notes of a Sports Writer's Son. In 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux released his debut collection, Pulphead, a collection of twelve essays published originally in Harper's, GQ, and Paris Review. The collection was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2011, with his individual essays receiving other highly warranted accolades. His essays have a characteristic amalgam of idiomatic style and academic diligence, mixing his conversational accessibility with a journalistic imperative. He will be appearing in New Orleans this weekend at the Tennessee Williams Festival this weekend on two panels: "The South: Literature of Exile, Refuge, and Return" and "Telling the Truth but Better: The Art of Creative Non-fiction." 

AS: Even though the essays in Pulphead are different in form, content, even voice, there’s something that runs through them, some sort of unifying force.  It wasn’t totally clear to me what that was.

JJS: The miscellaneous thing can be really energizing. I wouldn’t want to squash it. I sometimes really love miscellaneous collections because you open it up and there are twenty pieces. You maybe don't feel like reading nineteen of them, but that means there's still one thing that you feel like reading. I didn't want to try to shut the reader out from that. I didn't want to foreclose on that kind of openness. The truth is, we were talking about these pieces as interlinked and interrelated from early on. That just became the nature of the conversation. I don’t know how or why. It just made it more fun. It wasn’t even tied to the idea of doing them all as a book. If you’d asked me the likelihood of that happening, I would have been pretty pessimistic. That happened purely because of Sean McDonald at Farrar, Straus and Giroux calling me one day completely out of the blue.

AS: You use “we” and “they” in Pulphead, which can be both isolating and inclusive.

JJS: It’s something I like to play with. I think that the urge to do it came from an increasing sense I was getting as a media person, as a magazine person, over the course of 10 years, that there’s no escape from the kind of cyclone of voices and cultural forces that circulate through the media world as it has existed from the start of the 18th century. That so much of this is cyclical, that the inside and the outside are the same side, as Beckett said. These things move through use when we’re speaking and writing. I wanted to tack into that a little bit. Spinoza said, “I throw a stone and the stone believes that it is flying.” A lot of times that’s what’s happening when you’re writing. I was increasingly getting the feeling as the writer that if you wanted to transcend that, if you wanted to get back on top of it and say what you meant, then you had to accept it and try to channel it. I don’t know that I can trust that feeling. I don’t even know that it’s how I feel anymore as a writer, but it was kind of an animated feeling in a lot of those pieces. I wanted to make the reader feel the same thing and pay attention to how many of our ideas about this stuff are conditioned in a way we’re a little bit blind to.

AS: Do you write with an awareness of your audience, particularly when writing for magazines?

JJS: I was writing for a men’s magazine for the majority of the period represented in Pulphead. There was no way to stay sane if you didn’t try to fuck with that a little bit. I think that’s as true for the editors of the magazine as it was for us as writers. I had a woman ask me a question when I was in Norfolk, Virginia. She asked me about the use of “you,” that I seem to be addressing mostly people like myself, male heterosexual readers. I think she found it a bit bullying. It bothered me because I couldn’t bring myself to totally disagree with her. That had been a thing that made a lot more sense in the pages of a men’s magazine. I remember noticing things like that when the pieces were making transition to book form, and in some cases changing them, but in other cases thinking maybe the artifact was slightly more interesting than the more platonic thing I wanted to turn it into. It was a strange feeling. You’re often led into those moments when you’re editing a book like that. Am I trying to speak here, or am I documenting something that a version of myself, a totally different person ten years ago, thought to write? It’s not totally clear.

AS: You are currently the Southern Editor of Paris Review, but do not identify as a Southern writer.

JJS: It doesn’t make sense to me as a way of thinking about myself as a writer. I’m thinking about other Southern writers, too, the tradition of Southern writers in the 20th century. It seems as if the power of the work, the lastingness of the work, tended to wane the more it came close to a self conscious desire to speak on behalf of the region or embody the region somehow. When you look at someone like Eudora Welty, the South is one of many forces that are brewing through her work. To call somebody a Southern writer doesn’t offend me in any way, but it seems to come from a place very distance from the one where I actually do my writing and the idea of conceiving of yourself that way.

AS: How does that affect your editorial work?

JJS: I think of it in terms of Terry Southern. I think that’s what Lorin [Stein] sort of meant. He’s a hero to both of us. He’s one of the least known and least appreciated members of the founding Paris Review generation. I think it was also a sort of gesture of recognition that has given a kind of disproportionate amount to literary culture considering what it had to work with. It’s always had a sort of special status.

AS: It strikes me that there are so many versions and iterations of the South that using the term Southern in terms of categorization can be problematic.

JJS: Totally, and that’s usually what you experience in the South these days. It’s an experience of inward fracturing, and a lot of difference and new kinds of difference. But with that whole question of the South, it seems that every generation for several generations now has been drawn to the question of is there anything left? Does the word still mean anything? Are there actual unifying cultural forces in that region than are deeper than the ones that came into a historically arbitrarily existence with the Civil War? That hasn’t been totally clear for a long time, whether the whole idea of the South wasn’t a kind of self-mythologizing canard. But to me, the persistence of the question has its own special interest. That’s where I connect with the South, as basically an outsider.

AS: One thing I found in your writing is that you approach even personal narratives as a journalist. In your Disney piece, you incorporate a sort of academic history into the story.

JJS: I do try to subject my personal narratives to the same pressure as the rest of the pieces, and when they hold together, which isn’t all the time, that’s the consistency that holds them together. That’s something that I pick up in a writer like Richard Steele from the early 18th century, from the beginning of the periodic essay. He’s personalizing his journalism a little bit, and that’s the thing that is easiest to pick up on, but he’s also journalizing his personal material, bringing them into a kind of suspension. And I can look now and see pieces where I didn’t mix the chemicals quite right, pieces that are a little uncooked. But then I see other places where I think it happened.

AS: You said in an interview that you have to figure out what to do with your voice to try to get it through the editorial machinery more or less in tact. How does that affect how you write and edit?

JJS: I think that’s always the task for a writer. If you’re not doing it with a magazine, then you’re doing it with the expectations of the conventional forms. There’s always this sort of tension in place. It’s another one of those things that you can either embrace and try to wield, or you can be deformed by it. I grew up with a father who was a sports writer but had wanted to be a literary writer, and in some ways remained one of an eccentric, provincial kind. That was his battle when I was a kid. I was observing that battle of his trying to get his voice and his strange vocabulary and point of view into these sports stories, and a lot of times they let him. That’s the beauty of sports sections in newspapers. They’re more indulgent. I think it was there before I was even conscious and probably gave me an early interest in playing with the form, leading me into an earlier fascination with writers like Terry Southern and Gay Talese and Twain. This is the weird thing for me in hearing people talk about my work in connection with David Foster Wallace, whether they’re saying it in a flattering way or saying this guy is doing a pale imitation of Wallace or whatever they’re saying. I’d been reading these literary journalists for a few years before I had become aware of his nonfiction work. That didn’t make me devalue it. That didn’t diminish it in my mind at all. In fact, that was one of the exciting things about it for me. I immediately saw that he was picking up this vein in American writing and doing things with it. But my sensibility had already been worked on by some other people at that point.

AS: With the advent of new media and the changing nature of publishing, do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

JSS: I think Tennessee Williams gave the famous advice that if they’re meant to be writers, there’s nothing that will stop them. And it’s true. The best you can hope for with that kind of advice is to blow an encouraging puff of wind at a process that’s taking place regardless of what you think about it. In terms of the next generation of writers coming up, I would just encourage them to be inward about their writing and to believe in it as a space that is private and, to a certain extent, necessarily secret. They’re coming up at a time that the media web that first came into existent in Grub Street has finally kind of achieved its tell off. Its inner principle has become this inescapable maze with the internet. Everybody’s existing in this panopticon of scrutiny and diarization of stray, shapeless thoughts. They’re going to have a harder time fencing off that interior zone where real writing can happen, where it finds its life and soil. They’re up against challenges that would have seemed really freaky to previous generations. Challenges to their attention, to their ability to get their minds quiet enough. I would really wish them the courage of that, of finding that and insisting on it.

Anna Shults is associate editor of NolaVie.