An Interview with John D’Agata

by Weston Cutter

(John D’Agata’s writing is one of the reasons why being alive in the present moment is fun and exciting. If you need a more thorough explanation of why that last sentence is true, you’re likely without two of the best anthologies ever, and/or you’re likely without two of the best pieces of literature in the last decade or so. Should you own his “About a Mountain” and “Halls of Fame“? Of course you should. Should you own “Lost Origins of the Essay” and “Next American Essay“? Obviously. We’ll run a review of his “About a Mountain” soon, but, until then, here’s an interview with the man).

Has writing always been something you’ve been drawn toward, or did you end up writing because snowboarding didn’t work out (or something like that)? And did you ever spend time working toward/in poetry and/or fiction? What ended up being the big draw for nonfiction–and, especially, the experimental sort of nonfiction you’re involved with?

It was Latin and Greek not “working out” that led me eventually into writing.  I’d been studying Classics for a long time as a kid (because my mom is funky and was always a little overly ambitious for me).  And in college I was still studying Classics—pretty much only Classics—until after I returned from a year abroad in Rome where I had been spending every day attempting to do translations.  And I actually like translating, but what I didn’t enjoy was the realization that these languages that I’d been studying privately for years with tutors were part of a world I really didn’t want to be a part of.  What I loved about Latin and Greek as a kid was that none of my friends were studying these languages, so all of the writers that I was exploring at the time—very rudimentarily, of course—felt like imaginary friends, and their texts truly did feel like a secret language.  Living in Rome for a year kind of ruined that immature fantasy for me.  So, immaturely or not, I basically abandoned Classics and started an English major.  And while trying to fulfill some electives, I bumped into creative writing, particularly essays.  It was then that I realized that essays were what I’d been reading and enjoying all along as a kid.  So it was destiny.

What/who are some of your literary and/or stylistic influences? Was there some specific book or author who pushed you into writing, and specifically into nonfiction?

Didion.  Not that I resemble her in any way as a writer, but I recall being astonished by the level of control she wielded over her essays.  And while she’s changed a lot over the past ten to twelve years as an essayist, I’m still in awe of her work.  I would say even more so perhaps, because it’s even more confident these days.

Regarding About a Mountain, did you set out to write the book that you ended up writing? If not, what was the book you were aiming to write? Or was the book initially about just the politics of putting spent nuclear fuel inside a mountain?

I set out to write a funny book, actually.  All I knew about Yucca when I started researching the mountain was that an obscure government panel had been formed about a decade earlier to investigate how to mark Yucca’s site with a warning sign whose message and medium could remain intact and coherent for 10,000 years.  I thought that that was going to be entertaining enough to carry me for a few years.  And my only real objective was to write amusingly about it.  But in the midst of researching Yucca my mom moved to Las Vegas, which is just south of the mountain.  And that suddenly changed everything.  In the book it’s suggested that it was my mom who introduced me to Yucca, but in reality I had been poking around the subject for a few years thanks to a friend who was working as a subcontractor on the project.  With my mom’s arrival in Vegas however, my attitude toward both the place and the project dramatically changed.  Because now this nuclear waste that would be headed for Yucca Mountain was going to be traveling within a dozen or so miles of my mom’s new home, and so of course the book became more political for me.  It became personal, and far less funny.  Of course, it’s still absurd, but it’s tragically so.

In terms of craft and your own writing, what’s the process like for creating/discovering the structures that you end up using?

I tend to need a form to work out of before I can begin really working on a project, but I also try to resist imposing form on subjects.  I tried forcing a pre-conceived idea of a form on this new book, for example, and it backfired.  That’s one of the reasons why it took me nine years to write About a Mountain, because I had to start over from scratch about five years after starting it.  I was trying to jam the book into a form that it simply wasn’t meant to take.  So my process is a lot of trial and error.  For me form isn’t just an affectation; it’s part of the experience of a text.  It needs to work in tandem with an essay’s argument.  Otherwise it’s just a gimmick, a distraction.

The book is fundamentally about communication, and at book’s end you seem to close on settling on an idea of Las Vegas as a place which induces this feeling of despair/void…yet you marched in a parade for the city (and ate its birthday cake), and seem to like it quite a bit. Was Vegas itself what you wanted to write about, the draw and repel of it? Is any of the above accurate–do you actually not like it at all, and is the book not actually about communication?

I like Vegas a lot.  My first book actually featured a few Las Vegas subjects as well.  And I marched in the city’s parade because I found out that I share a birthday with the city, which I honestly found exciting.  So while that “despair” that’s felt at the book’s conclusion is real, so is my love for Vegas.  The Las Vegas that is criticized in the book is a Vegas that, for me, is emblematic of America.  Certainly, most of America doesn’t look or feel or function like Las Vegas, which is why Las Vegas is special.  But, on the other hand, most of Las Vegas doesn’t look or feel or function like Las Vegas, which is a point that the book makes.  Las Vegas is mostly an idea, it’s a conceptual tourist destination.  I mean, it’s a real place that people visit of course, but it’s the idea of the place that people bring with them to Vegas that really makes the city what it is.  Otherwise, Las Vegas is just a town with a big amusement park at its center.  It’s not like the families that live there or the politicians that run the place have a looser sense of morality than the rest of the country.  It’s not there are no laws there.  I grew up in an adorable little seaside town of 5,000 people on Cape Cod and I can tell you without a speck of hesitation that the politics and the people of that place are a hell of a lot nastier than anything I’ve encountered in Vegas.   So I like Vegas.  It’s what we as a nation have decided to allow Vegas to represent in our culture that I find problematic.  Because what it’s representing is inside all of us.  We really do not leave it there when our vacations are over, no matter what the city’s advertisements like to tell us.  We bring that shit with us and it follows us home.

On the issue of “communication”: sure.  I think the book’s about information, personally.  But information is a form of communication, so I think that works.

Just out of curiosity, what was the initial tug for compiling the essay collections? Simply their lack, and that you had the urge to see them realized? And did you know/sense from the start that you’d end up with three massive volumes? And how unbelievably tough is the compiling/editing process involved?

I first started thinking about the anthologies in grad school.  I was in school during the late 90s, right smack in the middle of the burgeoning memoir thing.  So my interest in putting together a history of “this kind” of essaying was, admittedly, reactionary at first.  I want to demonstrate that there was more to the genre than how we seemed to be interpreting the genre at the time—and, to some extent, more to how we are still interpreting it.  So yes, it was in response to a lack.  But not just of anthologies.  There was a lack of conversation happening in the genre about our heritage as writers, or even about of our place in contemporary literature.  I was far more cocky when I started the anthologies than I am now, and I thank the gods for that.  Because I don’t think that I’d have the guts today to demand from readers what I demanded from them in that first anthology.  Although, oddly enough, I think the second anthology—which is the newest one—is the one that’s gotten more people upset.

In editing the anthologies, you said the impulse was somewhat reactionary at first.  How has the guiding principle or impulse changed since then, if at all? Do you think (in general, in publishing) there’s less an emphasis on the monumentally first-person-based stuff of a decade/decade-and-a-half ago?

No, I think the publishing world would still like nonfiction to be history, commentary, or personal writing—easily marketable categories.  It’s still uncomfortable with the more meditative stuff that has primarily comprised work in this genre throughout history.  And that’s probably one of the reasons why the book industry shifted from using “essay” as a term to describe what goes on in this genre, and started embracing “nonfiction.”  So my guiding principle hasn’t changed since I first started the anthologies.  I’m working on the last one now, and I still feel the same need to remember that there’s a lot more to this genre than the achingly boring confessional stuff that’s been overwhelming us since the 90s.

What is experimental nonfiction? Further, does a distinction like that matter that much to begin with?

The distinction doesn’t matter.  You can call this work whatever you want.  Just don’t call it “nonfiction.”

What’s the view out your window?

Hmm.  Something witty, I wish.

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