Going All the Way with John Jeremiah Sullivan: An Interview

by Weston Cutter

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s got a modest, measured voice, a thing that I can’t help but thinking of as having sounded sturdy. His voice sort of reminds me of someone’s, though I can’t think of who that person is.

In my eight or so years of interviewing people I’ve yet to comment on anyone’s voice though Sullivan seems worthy to be the exception—his voice, on the page, has been among the most fantastic and gorgeous of the last decade or so. Tempted though I am, I will not here mention at length how Sullivan’s voice is among the very best going in contemporary nonfiction, and I will absolutely not go to lengths about how, for those of us who will never be able to get enough Wallace, Sullivan is who we should now be tracking (reasons for not going to lengths on that: seemingly everyone everywhere puts Sullivan and Wallace together).

What I will say is that Pulphead is among the year’s best books, and any time Sullivan’s got new work in any magazine anywhere is reason for celebration, and also this: there is a difference between Sullivan and Wallace, a significant and real difference. Though both writers will, if you’re reading them correctly, make you a better person, and will make you see the world bigger and with more color and strangeness and also more love, Sullivan’s work ultimately seems to be asking for or providing something different from Wallace’s, a less whiz-bangy burst of stuff and more a deep thrum—ultimately the feel is a matter of connection in Sullivan, whereas for Wallace it felt more about recognition. At the end of Sullivan’s best stuff (the piece about his brother’s near death is up there), the reader feels less like something’s been revealed but that something’s been awakened, some deep part of himself made aware.

Sullivan awesomely spent almost an hour on the phone answering these questions on a Wednesday and Friday morning. There were tributaries that’ve been compressed or cut for clarity, but this is fairly accurate.

How’s it going? (ed note: Sullivan had to call back like a quarter hour after the first call, saying there was a plumber situation going on). What’s this plumber thing?

There’s this candlelight tour through historic homes in our area, and we’ve used the opportunity to attend to some home maintenance we’d been meaning to get to. I’ve also been reading ships logs from 1722. I’ve been working on this book for many years set in the first half of the 18th century, and the plan was to have a chapter about that done and excerpted in the Paris Review by the end of the year, but the plan is shrinking.

What’s the book?

It has to do with two tattooed Native American warriors, who were taken to Europe and toured around.

Nonfiction?

It is nonfiction, but it’s meticulously researched nonfiction, more academic and scholarly than what I’m used to, and so I’m appropriately nervous to be wading into that.

I ask this of all writers I know who’ve felt some pull or influence from DFWallace. The interesting part about him is that there are so many different possible things to take from him. So I’m curious if you can talk about Wallace at all, and what you’ve taken from him, or what he means to you, or whatever.

(long, long pause)

What do you say about your influences? They’re necessarily opaque. I know that he…encountering him changed me as a writer and a thinker, partly in himself, and how he led to other writers and ways to understand what was happening to English prose in the 90’s.

But talking about him as an influence is very, very hard. It requires taking him out of context to see him like that. For me he was—he didn’t dominate my writing; there were so many competing voices. But during the Harper’s years, when I was there and he was still writing for them, when his copy came in, there was a radioactive quality to it. At any given time, there are only a limited number of writers who are operating at that level, who are sustaining that much weight in their prose, and we can argue if we like what they did or not till the end of time, but it’s a Gulliver’s Travels situation—we’re crawling around on a giant.

Stylistically, in my own work there are things stolen from him, reactions against him—but in describing him this way, it’s only to place him on a shelf with other writers, and in the end…in the end it doesn’t matter how you rank writers. The rankings of writers for their own contemporaries, once they get beyond the most obvious crude distinctions, it becomes almost meaningless. There’s this distortion of the present. Talking about influences at all is complicated, and has more to do with those one encounters than those one’d put on a favorite list.

That makes sense. But so I guess then I’m curious—are there any other writers going at present with whom you feel something like an alignment or kinship—writers who are doing stuff you look at and see something moving in ways you’d like to see your own work move?

I’m really excited about Ben Metcalf—his sensiblity instructed mine. He was trying to figure out what a pure English prose would sound like right now. What would it look like right now, what would it look like on the page, but also with this Attic quality.

That’s interesting—just in that your writing features this pretty wide swath of styles—I’m thinking specifically of the Real World piece, in which you deploy all these bros, and putting that up next to something like “Mr Lytle” seems real striking. In talking about Wallace and Metcalf, you’ve mentioned in each aspects of style, of how English can/could/should sound at present. Can you talk about that at all?

For me, it’s all—it’s just all—these things are all just prose experiments. I get to show up somewhere, and I don’t care where I’m doing it, and they’re paying me to do it. Ridiculous! I feel like—this may be pretentous—do you know the book Giacometti Portrait by James Lord?

No.

It’s an amazing book. Lord sat for Giacometti for two weeks and each day he’d write an account of his time there, and Giacometti’s like a moth in the studio—he moves from painting to sculpture, and is there for a bit, and then from sculpture to writing, and scribbles for a bit. I’m not saying that’s me, but that willingness—stylistically—has some aspect of how I think about things. Just in terms of style itself, specifically, piece by piece: the places in which these were published had very different formal requirements, which has something to do with things reading as they do.

I get what you’re saying but there’s—even given all those as background, you still have to admit some level of agenda in how you write this stuff, right? Anybody could’ve written about Axl Rose, but you wrote about the Indiana aspect of him, the nowhereness of being from Lafayette.

But to answer that, I have to admit that some of it stems from the randomness of the process of putting together an anthology like this. You almost talk yourself into seeing this unity that maybe isn’t there. The truth is, the process of putting this together was about: what is the best stuff, what’s the stuff that people could stand re-reading. But I also included pieces that felt real in some way—I know that sounds silly in the context of a piece about the Real World—but if they failed, they failed in an attempt to get somewhere. You know, just the fact that that Real World piece wasn’t a complete joke in the end, that in and of itself called me back to it.

And it’s partly the wounded song of a person who’s in search of some kind of self-actualization. These are the works of someone who had vast swaths of his childhood worked on and deformed by this thing [MTV]. Isn’t a big part of being American to realize our own barbarianism? That was the ore I was groping toward in that RW piece and the Axl piece.

You should know at the outset that I’m a massive fan of your work, and I teach “Upon This Rock” each semester, and love that piece like I love few other pieces of prose in existence, like a top-5 type thing.

I feel quite differently about that one and what I was doing in it now. It leads to a strange, uncanny feeling now when I read it aloud. A lot of the things I wrote and felt about Christianity then were less informed, not necessarily from a religious point of view. My empathy had some intellectual weakness in it. If you really subscribe to the enlightnment, which I’d like to think I do, there’s something patronizing about the piece. I feel like it’s ultimately a snapshot of a mind that was trying to crawl out of some stuff.

I love it. I hear what you’re saying, but I fucking love that piece. I want to talk about place more, too: you were born in southern Indiana and grew up in Louisville?

Other way around—born in Louisville, grew up in southern Indiana, just across the border.

This I’m curious about. I’m from the midwest, and I’m living and teaching in Fort Wayne, and I’m real curious about what you think of as regional writing. In some interview you mentioned how you’re interested in both southern-ness and in music (saying in the PW interview that the book’s theme could be identified as “The South’s history and music”). Can you talk more about that at all?

(There’s a brief discussion about Fort Wayne, about the nowhereness of certain places in Indiana a la Lafayette [read the Axl Rose piece], during which Sullivan points out that the Panther Pipe—“among the most beautiful of Native American art”—comes from NE Indiana.)

That part of the world is unified in some ways, and it’s concretely different from what’s farther west. It’s really the first west. It features a kind of rawness that you don’t find when you get farther west when it gets emptier. When I’ve written about that, I’ve tried to dig into that in-between-ness.

I’m not a southern writer—I’ve never said that, and I won’t. But I’m interested in American psychogeography. And specifically, that carstick landscape—Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee—that’s like—I feel most at ease there physically, and I have a huge sentimental attachment to the place. In terms of the subjects, that’s been a laboratory in which to let that stuff play out.

Are you asking how do I pick them, how do I come to them in terms of writing about them?

Not necessarily—just that there’s a way in which your work seems to circle somehow back to some of these things, certain geographies. I don’t know if that makes sense.

When I started working for magazines regularly, I realized I’d been given this wonderful little box in which to prosecute different questions that interested me as a writer. You can either try to do their thing, and write things you know the mag you work for may need in order to stay employed, which is a totally honorable thing to do, but you can also sort of hijack their thing in order to do your thing. So I looked for ideas that gave vent to the stuff you’re talking about—the obsessions.

Can you talk about those obsessions? That essay on Fahey + old spooky blues in Harper’s was great for lots of reasons, not least that it announced in the bio note that you were working on a book about American music—which, for the record, please write that book. But can you talk more about this stuff? There’s a sense, in reading your stuff, of this almost Harry Smith aspect—someone combing through stuff to find a secret history. Does that hold for you at all? Is that something that feels somewhat close?

I still have hopes to write more on music, absolutely. There’s a book called Beneath the American Renaissance by David Reynolds. He’s looking at the period of the American renaissance, the age of Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, but culturally he’s widening the lens, he’s consciously suppressing some high/low distinctions we almost instinctively make and was looking at the whole culturescape that was happening in those decades.

And the arguments he makes are totally illuminating. The writers we praise and admire now were paying very close if not conscious attention to the lower stuff going on—Melville loving sea romances, for instance. I read it for the first time in 2000 and definitely started wondering why you couldn’t do that in the present tense. So some of the pieces are experiments following out from it.

That experimental feel in your work is one of the best aspects, I think. Not that the work’s experimental, but that you’re allowing yourself along this path, willing to be surprised by things—like your work can actually sort of package surprise.

You can actually capture the experience of it. An essay, among the many other things it is, can be a window through which you can watch the writer’s consciousness follow itself.

Which is this other fantastic aspect of your work: on finishing one of your essays, the reader’s rarely offered some pat closure, or some ah-hah. It’s almost as if you write toward some hum, if that makes sense—like your writing’s moving toward some frequency.

I think that makes sense, that’s a good way to talk about it. As you write you’re trying to make it vibrate in the way you’d make an instrument vibrate, and there are sounds in the way, and you’ve got to write until all that other sound is out of the way. The things I write are products of a very urgently felt need to understand the world in a way that’s livable. And it would be strange if that didn’t infuse some of them with a kind of energy. That’s the real unifying thing: in a way, it’s not anything more than saying you’re another writer.

That makes all sorts of sense. I want to ask one last thing before finishing up: are you interested in writing fiction? Is that something you can see yourself doing?

(long pause) I can feel myself moving toward it tectonically. Nonfiction will impose necessary limitations, if only in that you don’t want to make everyone you know hate you. If you’re at all interested in human relationships, fiction feels pretty necessarily where you have to go if you want to go all the way.