He wore a nice white shirt open just one extra button. He’s into clothes. Not in a fashion-forward way, more of an old-school, deep-quality way. His seamstress mother taught him about fabrics, what they signaled to the world. When Antrim learned last year that he’d won a $625,000 MacArthur “genius award,” his longtime friend and supporter Jonathan Franzen sent him a note saying, Finally you can afford some of the clothes you love. Meaning not that he could finally buy them — he’d been buying them — but that he could now afford them.
About a month ago, editors from this magazine, which employs me, and from which I am therefore loath to turn down assignments even when they are horrifying, assigned me to get a series of massages and other body treatments here in the coastal town where I live, Wilmington, southeastern N.C., Port City of Progress and Pleasure. There was a semi-legitimate journalistic impulse behind it, but it was also billed as an act of mercy. I’d been traveling and writing a lot for them, spending a lot of time in middle seats on international flights, and my body had reached new levels of vileness. The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micropebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee. My calves had developed a vague thrombotic throb. It was the kind of premature aging where you think, I’ll come back from this but not all the way.
Leslie Jamison’s New York Times-bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams drew comparisons to the work of Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and John Jeremiah Sullivan, quickly rooting her as a visionary nonfiction writer of our time. She’s also a novelist (The Gin Closet), a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, and—drumroll, please—this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York.
Earlier this month, Leslie spent one night at Ace, penning a letter to an imagined audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when her letter will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Leslie to talk disruption, the associative logic of the essay and feeling lucky.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
LESLIE JAMISON: How to choose? I love letters. I’ll say the first answer that comes to mind. Recently, I’ve been rereading Zora Neal Hurston’s Of Mules and Men—an account of gathering folklore from her childhood home in Florida, as well as an exploration of voodoo culture in New Orleans—and would love to have corresponded with her as she wrote it; to hear the fuller version of her fraught feelings about being an ethnographer in her own hometown.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
There’s always some kind of plan and there’s always a disruption of the plan. It’s so different with every project, and my pieces range from personal essays to critical pieces to longform narrative journalism, but the work always surprises me somehow: the essay about an ultra-runner in prison in West Virginia also ends up becoming a piece about the West Virginia prison industry; the piece about past-life memories also becomes an interrogation of what journalists owe their subjects, the essay about my obsession with Kevin Durant also becomes an account of the week Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died. There’s something about the associative logic of the essay itself that invites surprise, and certain something about the act of reporting that seems to demand a level of openness to it: How can you know what you will discover, before you discover it?
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I loved writing for anonymous strangers staying in various hotel rooms, largely because whenever I stay in hotel rooms, I always think about strangers—specifically, the other strangers who have stayed in that same room, and what happened to them while they were staying there. I never pretend to imagine what other people will make of my work, so I find it hard to write “for” an audience in any way—it seems like a necessary species of humility to confess: I have no idea what you will think, or how you will respond! But I do love hearing from people who are drawn to my work, and am often surprised by the people I hear from: One of the first people who ever wrote to me about an essay I wrote about (among other things) an abortion was an elderly man writing from his nursing home, saying how much the piece had spoken to his experience. There are dangers to universalizing—to pretending we can all share experiences, or common ground—but also dangers to precluding certain kinds of resonance across predictable category boundaries.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
I recently read and loved Kathleen Collins’ posthumous collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? It’s a stylistically jagged and provocative collection. Some of the pieces read like one-act plays, a lot of them left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on someone from the inside of her kitchen cupboards. They were raw and penetrating: about creativity, passion, race, being young, trying to be young with other people who are young. She never takes herself too seriously; there’s something witty and tonic about every move.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
My main “ritual” involves writing whenever I am not teaching, commuting on the subway, paying bills, or caring for an eight-year-old. Which is not to say that life or writing is drudgery—my writing is the sacred clearing I try so hard to clear room for, because I love it and feel grateful whenever I am able to inhabit it, and I genuinely believe that the various parts of life, logistical and creative, are not forces in opposition but can speak to each other in weirdly generative ways—but that I write whatever I can, whenever I can, and feel fucking lucky whenever I get to do it. I’m not precious about it.
Dear Reader is a collaboration with Ace Hotel New York and Tin House. See this interview and other great things over at their website.
He told me another L.A. story, about the time Axl picked up Slash’s beloved albino boa constrictor and it shat all over Axl. And Axl had on some expensive clothes. He got so mad he wanted to hurt the snake. He was cussing at it. But Slash picked up his guitar—here Dana imitated a tree-chopping backswing pose—and said, “Don’t. Hurt. My. Snake.” Axl backed off.
Dana Gregory, one of Axl’s old friends from Lafayette on the book Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Sign up to see GQ contrib and Pulphead author John Jeremiah Sullivan in conversation with the band Caveman on Tuesday, November 8 at the inaugural event of the GQ/FSG Original Series. Space is limited.
Critics have been going nuts for Sullivan’s book, out last week. The Times Sunday Book Review called Pulphead “the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since [David Foster] Wallace’s ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and described Sullivan’s writing as “a bizarrely coherent, novel, and generous pastiche of the biblical, the demotic, the regionally gusty and the erudite.” Time said Sullivan “may be the best essayist of his generation.”
If you still need convincing, here’s a taste, from his piece “Upon This Rock” about a Christian Rock festival in rural Pennsylvania:
Seven miles from Mount Union, a sign read CREATION AHEAD. The sun was setting; it floated above the valley like a fiery gold balloon. I fell in with a long line of cars and trucks and vans—not many RVs. Here they were, all about me: the born again. On my right was a pickup truck, its bed full of teenage girls in matching powder blue T-shirts; they were screaming at a Mohawked kid who was walking beside the road. I took care not to meet their eyes—who knew but they weren’t the same fillies I had solicited days before? Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.
Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.
You can hear Karen discuss the creation of her novel with another immensely talented author, Wells Tower, during her visit to the Library last March at an event hosted by the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. (Wells Tower will be appearing at the Library with John Jeremiah Sullivan on December 15 - check that out too!)
2011 was full of ups (great stuff, great publications, good work) and downs (many, many, many different flavors of rejection. All of them draining), and I want 2012 to be super great. Here’s some semi-public resolutions.
1) Write something that gets mentioned on Long Reads. Or, to be more succinct, write a story about something that I’m obsessed with, to the point of mania. I’ve been happy with what I’ve written but there’s a bit of a difference between obsession and practice, let’s say. When I was in a class last spring, what I got most was, “okay, this is well written, but do you even care about the guy? I can’t tell what you’re thinking.” Things like that sometimes feel a little… telling, I guess. Work in 2012 is going to be wrenching and full of feelings. But not unprofessionally so!
1A) The problem with reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead is that you then, instinctively, want to go on the most JJS-friendly adventure possible just so you can write about it with a modicum of his charm and skill. Sadly, two events that were loaded with potential passed me by since Thanksgiving, but that’s been because I’ve been off-and-on sick since then - and when I haven’t been sick, my guy has been either sick or in the hospital on Christmas Night with a stomach flu! - so I’m just tired.
1B) Hitting the limits of writing things under my name, to a degree. It may be freeing to go anonymous.
2) Work on a nonfiction book proposal. Hopefully in February.
3) Finish project X, sell it: that’s the current job. (Get at me, agents and editors. For real.) One thing that’s funny is that, well, the title of my project is definitely inspired by a Pulp song, so it’s really awesome that Pulp is hitting America in April.
4) Be more selfish. I have a mother who is wonderful, but as the mother of five children, she is fantastic at putting other people’s happiness before her own. And I think I’ve learned, somewhat, from her example and have become a people pleaser. That’s a fine skill, but I need to make sure to do things that are good for me as well.
5) Read well. I read voraciously, but not always well. I had an Elin Hildebrand period this summer. I love pulp books by Iowa writers slumming. But I just want to read good things - I burned through The Diary of a Part-Time Indian yesterday, and while the plotting was episodic, overall, the careful choice in words was just so refreshing and good to read. Moby Dick’s next. This is a year of autodidactism.
6) Get a hobby. Self-explanatory.
7) Break a bad habit. In this case, I think I may lay off the movie blogs from now until… after the Oscars, I suppose. I have a weakness for grumpy old men of the internet (why do I read Hollywood Elsewhere, when it’s obvious Jeffrey Wells is not a very nice person? Because he’s clearly a believer in the transcendental power of a good film, underneath the crankiness? Not a good enough reason! And while I have a soft spot for Armond White, I don’t really need to know what he thinks about a film. I can usually guess it. And why read The Playlist and Deadline? For once, it would be pretty great to see a movie without knowing anything about it. It would be really nice). So, yeah, lay off movie blogs. Except for maybe reviews of Joachim Trier’s new movie when it plays Sundance. But that’s it.
8) Move. Also self-explanatory. I want to move to a different city and to get an apartment that I can nest in and outfit to my delight. My current location is no good for me - it’s one of those places with limited opportunity, a limited amount of people, and when you’re in a place like that, just not getting depressed is a genuine accomplishment. Which stinks! So I will move to someplace vibrant and pretty this year. Someplace with a lot of sun. I am working on making that happen sooner rather than later. I hope it works!
I was under the tragic spell of the South, which you’ve either felt or haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a faint nowhereness in my life. Others wouldn’t have sensed it, wouldn’t have minded. I felt it as a physical ache. Finally I was somewhere, there. The South … I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can. Merely to hear the word ‘Faulkner’ at night brought gusty emotions.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” from Pulphead
A Yankee child of Southern lineage, I also lay (more dubious than JJS) claim to this feeling. Also so far Pulphead is so great! So great.
All anybody talks about with Axl anymore is his strange new appearance, but it is hard to get past the unusual impression he makes. To me he looks like he’s wearing an Axl Rose mask. He looks like a man I saw eating by himself at a truck stop in Monteagle, Tennessee, at two o’clock in the morning about twelve years ago. He looks increasingly like the albino reggae legend Yellowman. His mane evokes a gathering of strawberry-red intricately braided hempen fibers, the sharply twisted ends of which have been punched, individually, a half inch into his scalp. His chest hair is the color of a new penny. With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet. When he first came onto the scene, he often looked, in photographs, like a beautiful, slender, redheaded twenty-year-old girl. Now he has thickened through the middle—muscly thickness, not the lard-ass thickness of some years back. He grabs his package tightly, and his package is huge. Only reporting. Now he plants his feet apart. “You know where you are?” he asks, and we bellow that we do, we do know, but he tells us anyway. “You’re in the jungle, baby,” he says, and then he tells us that we are going to die.
John Jeremiah Sullivan
I’m tearing through JJS’s essay collection Pulphead. His bigger ideas seem to lack the grandiosity of DFW’s (even if their relatively lower level of ostentation makes them relatable) and his descriptive firepower is still the Russia to Well Tower’s USA. But he strings together these essays and paragraphs that are so effortlessly synthetic. You always get the impression Sullivan has had a much more interesting and closely observed life than you have.
It seemed on one level like the kind of life phase your friends go through where you say things like, “Is it making them happy? ’Cause that’s all I care about.” But over time it grew clear that something deeper was going on. My wife had a student once, in North Carolina, who went off one spring break to intern on a movie set, and in the midst of it the whole department got a very short e-mail from him that read, “Found my passion y’all.” That’s what had happened.
With this passion there developed another, quasi-ideological, near-survivalist side to Kevin’s interest in that old prerefrigerated world. I have one e-mail from him in which he describes the home-preserving culture he’d grown up with as “a template for how to survive in the post-oil/post-global/post-Apocalypse future…”
John Jeremiah Sullivan | Lucky Peach
All I want is to find my ‘prerefrigerated world’ and write an email to everybody saying 'Found my passion y'all’.