I’m a passionate believer in revision, and a lot of my writing gets done during revision process. It isn’t just tweaking: I tend to break it apart and remake it every time I do a new draft. John Jeremiah Sullivan
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.
The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.
This description of an RV appears on page 8. I’m not much further than that in the book because I just got it this afternoon, but yeah. I have a feeling I’m going to love these essays. It’s only a sentence, yet it warns that John Jeremiah Sullivan is an exciting, adventurous writer.
The book feels good in my hands, like an indispensable map. I’m conscious of being so drawn to essays lately. (Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is another recent example.) Maybe I’m on a creative honesty kick. I might argue that the best stories—even in fiction—are the ones carefully drawn from real life. Make it real.
Anyhow, I’ve only just begun to read this. Fingers crossed.
Some of the finest storytellers around–Tobias Wolff, David Simon, John Waters, Roy Blount Jr., Karen Russell, Patton Oswalt–on the works that truly slayed them. Our favorite entry, by GQ’s John Jeremiah Sullivan on the biography of Jim Morrison, is below. Click here for the rest.
You can’t ask writers to name the most important books of their youth. They cannot hear the question—it passes through a region in the left temporal lobe that changes it into a different question: What would you like us to think were the most important books of your youth? How many authors have racked 300 words recounting the Jove-like descent of Hemingway’s Michigan stories into their adolescent world, when what they should have said is Choose Your Own Adventure 91: You Are a Superstar.
I undertook, as an experiment, to suppress that part of the brain responsible for this distortion, and yesterday began to receive the first stray images. Flame-bright reds and oranges. A Jesus-like man, standing: his lithe and shirtless torso draped down the cover. His left areola—flat, dark, and hard, like an old Spanish coin—seems somehow disturbingly prominent.
Rows of tall black capital letters appear: NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE. Little white ones: The Biography of Jim Morrison. I don’t need to see the authors’ names. Hail, Hopkins and Sugerman, unacknowledged legislators.
In my memory there’s a group of us, the world’s most unintentionally humorous gang, who carried this book through the hallways in the eighth grade, always with cover out, like a badge. Signifying what? That we were skaters and people in bands. The strange tale of James Douglas Morrison, a Florida-born military brat who wanted with every cell in his body to be a great English poet but had been so culturally malformed by post-World War II America that he emerged a drug-gobbling sex shaman, canting such verses as
Ride the snake Ride the snake To the lake The ancient lake, baby The snake is long Seven miles Ride the snake
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!)
“These thoughts begin, for most of us, typically, in childhood, when we are making eye contact with a pet or wild animal. I go back to our first family dog, a preternaturally intelligent-seeming Labrador mix, the kind of dog who herds playing children away from the street at birthday parties, an animal who could sense if you were down and would nuzzle against you for hours, as if actually sharing your pain. I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart she was. “Smarter than some people I know!” But when you looked into her eyes—mahogany discs set back in the grizzled black of her face—what was there? I remember the question forming in my mind: can she think? The way my own brain felt to me, the sensation of existing inside a consciousness, was it like that in there?”
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.
I think empathy is a guy who punches you in the face at a bus station, and you’re somehow able to look at that him and know enough about what situation he was in to know that he had to do that and not to hit back. That’s empathy, and nothing ever happens in writing that has that kind of moral heroism about it.
“That something is in part what draws travelers to the Aran Islands: it takes an independent character to live perversely on three spits of barren limestone in the north Atlantic, the way they do, in a place where you couldn’t even grow spuds unless you created your own sad scrum soil with a kind of layered-kelp composting. If they were to suddenly offer to braid your hair or be smilingly hustling you onto group tours, it would spoil the effect. You go to the Aran Islands expecting to keep a certain distance from the population.”
My mother lived in Ireland for two years, and during that time, I visited the Aran Islands thrice. The place is enchanting, but also haunting and savage. The final blip of land before the expanding Atlantic, a land as frozen as it is rocky, where fishermen don’t learn to swim because the water’s too cold anyway. These are some of the pictures I took on Dún Aonghasa. [Nick]
John Jeremiah Sullivan on living on the set of One Tree Hill:
My wife was eight months pregnant, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, the converted ground floor of an antebellum house, on a noisy street downtown, with an eccentric upstairs neighbor, Keef, from Leland, who told me that I was a rich man—that’s how he put it, “Y'er a rich man, ain’t ye?"—who told us that he was going to shoot his daughter’s boyfriend with an ultra-accurate sniper rifle he owned, for filling his daughter full of drugs, "shoot him below the knee,” he said, “that way they cain’t get you with intent to kill.” Keef had been a low-level white supremacist and still bore a few unfortunate tattoos but told us he’d lost his racism when, on a cruise in the Bahamas, he’d saved a drowning black boy’s life, in the on-ship pool, and by this conversion experience “came to love some blacks.” He later fell off a two-story painting ladder and broke all his bones. A fascinating man, but not the sort I wanted my daughter having unlimited exposure to in her formative years. Not my angel. We entered nesting panic. We wanted big and solid. We wanted Greatest Generation, but their parents, even greater. We found it. It had a sleeping porch, and a shiplike attic where I in my dotage would pull objects from a trunk and tell their histories to little ones. We asked for the money, and in some office somebody’s boss came forward with the Stamp.