B.J. Hollars: Interview

Monday, March 11, 2013

As an editor of two hybrid anthologies that engage the boundaries of nonfiction, I am enthralled by works that distill the genre to a compelling concentration, such as Dinty W. Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction (Rose Metal, 2012), David Lazar’s Truth in Nonfiction: Essays (University of Iowa, 2008), and Margot Singer and Nicole Walker’s Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury, 2013). My current fascination is Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska, 2013), edited by B.J. Hollars, who writes in his introduction: 

“I should warn you: no two essays are the same here . . . . the writers’ unique stylistic approaches provide vastly different reading experiences. Despite the varied approaches exhibited in the work, each writer undertook the boundary-stretching challenge with a shared purpose—to take nonfiction to new and innovative places.”

Hollars has not only collected what he calls “unboundable” essays, each essay is also “accompanied by a behind-the-scenes look at the writer’s reflections on his or her piece,” something I like to call metawriting. Yet there’s more: the end of the book includes a series of writing exercises, each one “specifically designed to correspond with each essay.”

The result is a smart, engaging, inspiring collection that not only offers new perspectives on the essay but insists that we must, according to contributor Ryan Van Meter, “push against convention in the pursuit of our hardest questions.”

B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America—the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Authors Adult Nonfiction Award—and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, forthcoming in 2013. His short story collection Sightings is newly released from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. You can read one of his latest essays in the January issue of Brevity.

JT: Who or what inspired this anthology and its three-part format?

BJH: Blurring the Boundaries was inspired by my own frustration with facts. I’d recently completed my first book of long-form journalism and after years of research and dozens of interviews and countless hours hunched over microfilm, I still questioned whether the story I told was the right one. Or, to put it another way: if the version of the story I told was the most accurate version.

After a while, I decided to turn my frustration into something useful and as a result, Blurring the Boundaries was born. This project was an opportunity for me to ask twenty writers I greatly admired to help me come to terms with the limits of facts, and by extension, help me redefine the limits of the nonfiction form as well. It was thrilling to see the way these writers fiddled with form, fragmentation, structure, sequence, and a wide variety of other techniques in order to put pressure on the genre. My frustration with “facts” soon gave way to my excitement about these new forms. Simply put, I’m thrilled to do my part to shatter all the preconceived notions of what an essay “should” be.

As to the three-part structure, I chose to dovetail the essays alongside the craft essays (and later, the pedagogically practical writing exercises) in order to give readers a one-stop shop for all matters pertaining to this subgenre. This combination of essay+craft essay+writing exercise is actually something I tried in a previous anthology, You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story. This anthology—which focuses on the literary coming-of-age story—allowed teachers, students, and writers, generally, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s choices. Given the boundary blurring taking place with these essays, I felt it was doubly important for readers to have some sense of the logic behind the craft. I thought to myself, “Writing is such a mysterious process, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a conversation with the author whose work you’ve just read?” And so, I asked the writers to indulge me, and they did. The writing exercises take readers one step further by encouraging them to engage with these newly learned techniques in their own work.  

JT: Shattering all the preconceived notions of what an essay “should” be reminds me of a line from Marcia Aldrich’s essay, “The Structure of Trouble” (an essay of structural play): “I, too, am susceptible to the gap between promise and outcome, between how things should be and how things are,” which speaks to what each of the writers in this anthology is doing—exploring those gaps, those spaces in order to open up genre expectations. You write in your introduction, “The boundaries of genre remain unique for each writer.” And Ashley Butler, in her craft essay, insists, “Those who demand static and unchanging parameters are, perhaps, doing a disservice to the genre.” Finally, Steven Church, in his craft essay, notes, “There are [no boundaries] but those the writer creates for himself or that the essay chooses for itself.” So to me, this anthology not only blurs the boundaries of nonfiction, it gives writers permission to obliterate them. (It’s as if nonfiction is in its abstract expressionist phase.) Do you agree—not necessarily about abstract expressionism—but about the obliteration of boundaries?

BJH: You know, it’s a great question. I must’ve line-edited the book half a dozen times, but I was never able to fully see the resonance among all of the aforementioned lines until you situated them before me. So thanks! It’s nice to see the forest from the trees every once in a while. 

While I’d never be so bold as to take credit for giving nonfiction writers “permission” to obliterate these boundaries (no one needs my permission for anything), I certainly hope this anthology serves as further proof that any and all genre-related boundaries are in need of an updated cartography. Of course, this isn’t to imply that all of this boundary blurring hasn’t long been at work. I think it has been. For instance, I was recently perusing the library book sale when I came across an anthology entitled Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser and published in 1987. “How interesting,” I thought as I read the title and plopped the book atop my stack, “apparently we’ve been inventing truth for a couple of decades at least.” Now, this fact on its own probably isn’t earth-shattering for most people, but it was nice to take a step back and see how nonfiction writers of the late eighties came down on these types of boundary-related subjects. 

Yet perhaps most interesting of all was the book’s back copy, in which the writer noted the “hazards” inherent in writing truthfully about the past, mainly because memory, while powerful, is also “unreliable.” Considering these words a quarter century later, I’d argue that the so-called “hazards” of writing about the past are hardly as hazardous as they once seemed. Likewise, while memory continues to be “unreliable” there seems to be a greater willingness on the part of writers to take advantage of this unreliability. Ultimately, I think the nonfiction writer’s willingness to transform these so-called weaknesses of the genre into strengths has done wonders for the modern essay. We’ve embraced rather than repelled. I’m not arguing that the modern essayist is any less truthful; rather, we’re simply reaching toward a different kind of truth, one that is less sure of itself but powerful in its own recognition of these “hazards.”

Which, of course, is the long way of saying: I’m not sure there were ever fixed boundary lines for nonfiction, but if there were (or are), I hope we can continue to expand the genre by wandering deeper into the unexplored terrain. 

JT: Ah, 1987. I was seventeen, inventing truths for every missed curfew or kissed boy or every beer I was “just holding for a friend.” Hazards indeed.

This concept of embracing memory’s fallibility can be found in Kim Dana Kupperman’s essay when she writes: “So much depends on the fallacy of memory, the wreckage of truth we conceal, the lies we do not tell.” And later, Dinty W. Moore refers to “honest memories,” and I really dig that idea because the grids and coordinates of memory are invariably charted by our psychological geographies (picking up your cartography thread here).

“The wreckage . . . we conceal” is something I see many of the writers in this anthology (and beyond) doing in their essays via fragmentation, segmentation, omission; in fact, what writers do is blur the wreckage with structural devices that allow for gaps, white spaces, to emerge (on the page and in the prose). Example: Ander Monson, in his essay that’s in the form of a Harvard outline, wonders, “i. so maybe the outline is a kind of architecture I am trying to erect ii. to protect myself.” Joining him in alternative structures: Aldrich, Biss, Kimbell, Kupperman, Maliszewski, and Moore, who each employ non-literary structures (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s “hermit crab” concept) in order to write “around” a difficult memory. In that way, the memory is not fallible, but side-swiped like the cars in Moore’s essay: “skimming metal against metal.” 

BJH: Yes! Exactly. I’m always rambling about the power of the “side-swiping” essay (just ask my students). One of my favorite examples of the side-swipe (which is perhaps less of a side-swipe than a well-angled curvature) is Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome.” The essay begins by discussing the history of telephone poles, yet somehow—almost without the reader’s knowledge—we’re suddenly talking about lynchings. When I reread the essay, I always ask myself, “How did we get here? Weren’t we just talking about telephone poles?” The subject matter side-swipes us (or at least sneaks up on us) and the result, I think, is that that the reader is left vulnerable to a pretty powerful emotional wallop. When reading this type of essay, we’re often left feeling as if we’ve just been given wrong directions for our destination, but of course, it was never our destination to begin with. The writer was always the one in control of the car. We were just the lowly backseat drivers. 

I, too, appreciate these non-linear experiments with structure. I once wrote an essay titled “In Defense of Sasquatch” in which I sort of cheekily try to “prove” the existence of Bigfoot by structuring the essay as a faux-scientific report. Naomi Kimbell employs a similar structure in her essay “Whistling in the Dark”—an essay that explores mental illness. And ultimately, I think we [both] stumbled upon the structures that allowed us to frame our arguments in the most constructive manner. Kimbell notes that her essay’s subject matter was ripe for structural experimentation, and thus, she employed a “tone and structure easily found in scientific journals…” in order to provide a commentary about mental illness. She managed to co-opt the mental health profession’s own medium to tell her story. Brilliant. 

Though the subject matter is wildly different, my own case to “prove” Bigfoot’s existence within the confines of a faux-science report attempted a similar co-opting of form. The structure allowed my argument to “appear” credible on the surface, even if the argument itself was a bit … iffy. By essay’s end, I too try a side-swipe. On the final page, I try to make clear that we’re no longer talking about Bigfoot, but rather the ramifications of a world that refuses to believe in the possibility of Bigfoot. I’m trying to spur a discussion on the death of the imagination. However, whether or not I accomplished this aim is about as unclear as Bigfoot’s existence. (That is, very unclear).

But enough about me. What I mean to say is this: Just as there is no wrong way to eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup, there’s no wrong way to recount a narrative. Sure, there may be better ways, but probably no wrong way. While Ralph Waldo may not embody innovative non-linear structures, nonetheless, he seems to encourage thinking outside the box. For the past few mornings, I’ve woken early to read Emerson’s essays, and this morning, while reading “The American Scholar,” I came across this: “The human mind shall not be enshrined in a person who shall set a barrier on any one side to this unbounded, unboundable empire.” Now, the great thing about Emerson, of course, is that readers can lift pretty much any line and find resonance in their own lives. In the aforementioned quotation, I don’t think Emerson is speaking about the essay form, but I love imagining that he is. I love to imagine Emerson telling us to “unbound the unboundable empire” that is the essay. “No problem, Ralph Waldo,” I want to say to him. “Let the unbounding begin … ”

JT: I have a postcard on my refrigerator—a photo of a man on the back of a train with a sign that reads, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Goin' But I'm On My Way.” That postcard has been on refrigerators in several cities I’ve lived in over past years, so it’s apropos of my penchant for wandering, but it’s also a reminder to me every time I sit down to write (I write in my kitchen) to allow myself to wander on the page and follow the essay where it might lead. It’s one of the elements I most enjoy about what I call the “pure” essay, or perhaps the Montaignean essay—one that follows what Lopate describes as “an intuitive, groping path.”

What I found most compelling about these “unbounding” essays were the imaginings, and how these writers take imagining to complex and significant levels in the essay.  Ryan Van Meter “[tries] on different ways of looking and being looked at, [takes] on different identities.” Steven Church “[re-creates] the reality of the experience” by “inventing, adding, and embellishing.” And Ryan Boudinot offers a two-parter entitled “An Essay and a Story about Motley Crüe.” These writers are, as Van Meter describes, “pushing against convention in the pursuit of our hardest questions.”

And then, and then. Wendy Rawlings’ essay about the world of General Hospital and the world of Facebook “explores . . . [how online communities making invented worlds seem more real and real worlds seem more abstract]” might affect “how we make and consume art.” Do you see the blurring of genre boundaries—particularly the conflation of “real” and “imagined” in essays—as a reaction to what David Shields calls “our cultural moment,” or something else entirely? 

BJH: Now that’s a brain buster. My first instinct is to try to dodge it completely rather than sound like a fool. But since I’ve already given away my turn-tail-and-run strategy, I suppose I’ll have to try to confront it directly and embrace my inner fool.

First, as to the postcard: what a wonderful reminder of your task. I wonder how many other writers surround themselves with similar talismans. I know I do. My desk is littered with all kinds of unnecessary memorabilia (though, of course, each seems necessary to me, from my Joe Namath bobblehead to my monster-faced mug to my beloved brick that only sometimes doubles as a paperweight). While their messages aren’t nearly as clear as the message on your postcard, these objects remind me of the nebulousness of my pursuit, that none of us (writer, bobblehead, mug, or brick) possesses the right answers. (Though I’ll admit that on more than one occasion, I’ve left a writerly decision to the bobble of my all-knowing Bobblehead Joe). I kid. (Sort of …)

As to the question of “imaginings,” and more specifically, how the nonfiction writer’s imaginings may affect our cultural moment … well … I just don’t know. Nor do I know the long-term effect of nonfiction works that continues to stretch beyond the conventional limits of the form. Generally, I’m an optimist when it comes to innovation, and in the classroom, I regularly encourage my students to try something new. They’ve all heard my speech before: how on the day I saw an advertisement for the children’s movie The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars I knew, with certainty, that all the stories had been written.  “If we’ve reached the point where we’re now sending kitchen appliances into outer space,” I reasoned, “then the writer’s well must really have run dry.” As I was coming to terms with my kitchen-appliance-induced existential crisis, it occurred to me that even if all the stories had been told, they hadn’t all been told uniquely. I took some comfort in that. But how do we tell them uniquely? 

While I still love and admire and relish the traditional essay form, I also love the experiments often inspired as a result of these traditional forms. While I’m no chemist (why do I feel like I’m always qualifying things with this statement?), I often wonder if we might compare the wide range of essay forms to the periodic table of elements. That is, while each element is unique and valuable on its own, sometimes, when mixed in the proper portions, something equally wondrous can emerge. Like water! Like table salt! Like … geez, I don’t know, but I can feel my high school chemistry teacher slapping an open palm to his forehead as we speak. Suffice it to say, individual elements are great, but so are the compounds created when introducing these elements to one another. Or to put it another way, the essay form thrives when we combine the old with the new, when we nurture the symbiotic relationships between the time-tested forms and those that may be considered more innovative. Imagination is simply one pathway toward this innovation. I’m the first to admit that we need not reinvent any wheels here, but what’s the harm in readjusting, realigning, and recalibrating?    

JT: The act of introducing elements to one another to create a compound is a process both of us seem drawn to as editors of anthologies. The act of readjusting, realigning, and recalibrating the form via the combination of selected essays and stories (as well as commentary, interview, and exercises) offers a re-imagining of individual elements as we place them on our own periodic table in order to yield an entirely new element. You’ve edited two other anthologies, Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings and You Must Be This Tall to Ride. You also have a project, the Creative Writer’s Collaborative. Will you describe that a bit and discuss why you are compelled to invest in discussions of genre (fiction and nonfiction) beyond your own writing and teaching? 

BJH: Initially, I think my desire to pair stories/essays alongside these “behind-the-scenes” commentary pieces was an attempt to add something new to the anthology market. (Of course, this isn’t altogether new—your anthology, Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, includes incredible interviews, as you know). But you’re right—it is interesting that we’ve both sought out ways to publish information beyond the work itself. Purist writers generally hate this sort of thing, and I can understand why. After all, what good is a magic trick if one knows how the trick is performed? But since anthologies (at least ours) are aimed toward readers with an interest in writing, it seems as if these “behind-the-scenes” viewpoints might serve pedagogically practical purposes. 

In the classroom, we can analyze a published piece of creative writing until the cows come home (I’m in Wisconsin, which means sometimes you can literally see the cows coming home) but ultimately, all our conversations will yield few confirmable conclusions about authorial intent. When an anthology provides the reader the published work alongside the author’s own commentary on the work, then the work itself seems a little less mysterious. Now, this lack of mystery can be a good thing or a bad thing, but for young writers, I think it’s generally good. In science class (here we go again with the science metaphors), students are often asked to dissect all kinds of critters to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the critter in question. Why shouldn’t we give young writers the same opportunity to understand something from the inside out? 

In many ways, the Creative Writers Collaborative is quite similar to these “behind-the-scenes” viewpoints. In short, it’s a budding project of mine that aims to serve as an interactive resource for teachers, writers, and students of writing. Upon talking with students and colleagues, it occurred to me that there was so much great work taking place inside the creative writing classroom, but we didn’t have an infrastructure to share our ideas. And so, I’ve set up a website to try to encourage a bit more pedagogical sharing. This can be a place where teachers can offer their finest lessons, but also where students can go for a little independent study as well. 

Let me give you a little background: Last fall, upon teaching poetry for the first time, I found myself stricken with an acute bout of “how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-teach-poetry?”  I posted a cry for help on Facebook—“How do I do this?”—and within minutes [it had] generated dozens of responses. I wanted to keep these ideas, but I also wanted to open the conversation up to others as well. In short, I wanted to create a virtual space where teachers such as myself could continue revising our own pedagogy. So that’s my plug, folks! Sure, buy Blurring the Boundaries if you like, but definitely, definitely send me your finest craft lessons! We’ll all thank you. 



Read "Goodbye, Tuscaloosa," an essay that B.J. Hollars published in TQ.

Photo of Hollars courtesy of his website.