An Interview with Joel Peckham. Part I: The Approach

Joel hugging Darius, and his wife Susan hugging Cyrus the morning of the accident that took the lives of Susan and Cyrus
Joel hugging Darius, and his wife Susan hugging Cyrus the morning of the accident that took the lives of Susan and Cyrus

An Interview with Joel Peckham.
Part I: The Approach

May 3, 2014

In 2004, Joel Peckham — father, husband, scholar, poet and writer — was in Jordan with his family on a Fulbright scholarship. They traveled to Aqaba in the south and were on the way back up north in the van of someone they didn’t know well. It was dark and late. The driver did not notice the sand truck in the middle of the road and the van crashed into it killing Joel’s young son, Cyrus, and his wife Susan. He and his youngest son, Darius, survived.

The book, Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery, is a product of Joel’s relationship with this tragedy and the effort of writing about in the years that followed. It is structured as a series of essays that each look into that experience independently — and before it, and after it — but it is also a collection that works together as a whole to create something of distinct value and coherence. 

I was deeply moved by the book, by the exquisite writing that I found there, and by the tragedy that was the origin of it. It is a book to be held close as part of a permanent collection for those of us who wonder what is real in the world and how it might be expressed in words. It is a book of powerful honesty, pain, and integrity. It is rare that people who experience suffering this deeply have both the skills and willingness to express that pain in writing and to a general public. This is a book that is not philosophically aloof but richly descriptive, lyrical, and humane. Its lessons, if any, come from genuine reflection and their expression not from the appropriation of existing answers and their imposition to circumstance. It is a book we need.

It was completely by chance that I came across it. After publishing my first novel an old friend from summer camp (we’re going back a solid 30 years ago or more) got in touch. He said he’d read my book and then we corresponded for a while. He mentioned that he was in touch with another fellow camper who had also written a book and do I remember Joel Peckham? Vaguely, I said. I sort of remember throwing a pencil at him and feeling bad about it when I was ten.

I bought the book and read it. I did not read it in one sitting. It is the antithesis of a book that is “unputdownable” (which is not a word). It is a book that must be put down to be appreciated as with anything rich and subtle. When I was finished, I decided I wanted to contact Joel for an interview.

The desire to reach out to him, though, was mixed with some trepidation. Perhaps if the book had received a wider readership and been as well known as it deserves to be I might not have written him. I would have been self-conscious of chasing a fawning crowd which is not something I like doing. Also, if more years had passed from the time of publication I might also have begged off the contact. I wondered if he might have already relegated the essays to the past. Sometimes we need to say things but we don’t need to hear them echoed back. Maybe a conversation would only open a wound. So I was on the fence about sending a letter. 

In trying to create some grounding on which to make a decision, the boy’s camp connection faded to nothing. Thirty years wasn’t simply “a long time,” it was all time. It was a universe that could not be traversed and possibly more than one. There was no obvious reason to write or not write other than the fundamental fact that I wanted to. 

A few facts affected my decision. I learned that the book is not well known. As of today it is number 1,602,303 and dropping on Amazon’s best seller list: The bump from the single copy I bought now starting to fade. Also, the time that had passed since publication was not too long if I am any judge. Two years after publication is nothing for a writer: our relationship to our creations is more appropriately measured in geologic time. Also, I became angry enough at the book’s obscurity that I was willing to risk any personal rejection I might receive from Joel.

So … I did. I wrote him. And as it happened I was not rejected by Joel. He insisted — and continues to insist — he is glad I wrote him.

Sometimes (read: often), when a novelist comes across someone who writes better than he does there is a dash of envy (if envy is served in dashes). In this case, though, I felt relief. I was reminded of a scene from the movie Contact based on a story by Carl Sagan. Jody Foster’s character, who is a scientist and then astronaut, becomes the first human to look out the window and see sights no one else has ever seen. She cries as she speaks into her recorder and says, “No words. No words. They should have sent a poet.”

This time they did.

This interview is divided into three parts. I call them The Approach, The Writing, and The Release. Part I was conducted by correspondence over several weeks in April, 2014. The questions were not known to Joel in advance. The answers have been edited into the form presented here. My thanks to him for the conversation and for being the first author interviewed by me at The Interview Spot. 

Apparently, it is my destiny to throw pencils at Joel Peckham.

Derek B. Miller


QUESTION 1: There was a period of time between the death of your wife and your son and your first efforts to begin writing about those events (and those that preceded them). Could you help me understand something of that journey from event to written expression of that event? For the moment, I want to understand the choice or impulse to even want to, let alone try. 

There was a time after the accident when I couldn’t write at all.  Part of that was that I was on a lot of narcotics and in a great deal of pain from nerve damage and from a very lengthy operation to reconstruct my hip.  That was distracting enough.  I was also overwhelmed with grief and guilt.  I felt responsible for the accident and for the state of my marriage before the accident.  It tortured me that Susie died unhappy.  We were struggling, and it was a home full of anger and resentment.

Of course, nearly everyone I had ever known was calling me with condolences–and in nearly every conversation, I’d listen with gritted teeth as people told me what a perfect couple Susie and I had been, how tragic it was that the world had been robbed of such a great mind and beautiful spirit.  I didn’t know what to say. I felt trapped in the silence, forced to listen as people tried to comfort me while unintentionally rooting around in open wounds.

It also angered me that many of these people–who really didn’t know much about me or my marriage–seemed to forget to even mention Cyrus in their condolences.  Susie was a great writer, a wonderful teacher, and an important presence in the lives of those who knew her, even a little bit.  And their grief was centered on her, not my son.  That brings up feelings of anger, even now–even though I’ve come to understand it better.  That anger made writing difficult as well.  I’ve always tried to suppress anger and had never written from that place.

There was also an issue of genre.  I had always been a poet–which wouldn’t be a problem if my approach to that genre was confessional.  My approach to the truth was always “slant” as Emily Dickinson would have said.  I don’t write difficult poems, but the connection between the speaker and the subject was once removed.  The point of view was that of the observer and what you learned about me in a poem, if anything, was through what I chose to examine and how. As a poet, I imagine my approach is not dissimilar to that  of a novelist that way.  I did try to write a few poems, lying in bed propped up with pillows and  a new laptop my father had purchased for me, resting on my lap, but I just couldn’t  get my mind to focus on anything intently enough.  Every line seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere at once.  I couldn’t get the riot in my head to quiet down.  I couldn’t select what was most important and I couldn’t get my thoughts to tighten and crystalize they way they usually did.  So I started writing prose, more as a way of just writing it out–knocking it out of my system so that I could move on.  I also thought it was good way to overcome and deal with the anger and frustration I felt from the silence that seemed to surround me.

I didn’t plan to publish.  I was writing in self-defense, somehow.  Writing to survive.  I thought I’d just clean out my system by writing one angry, defiant essay and leave it at that.  But one essay lead to another and I found that my own psychology was more complex than I thought.  It became interesting to me (I’d never considered myself a compelling subject until then) and then I started to recognize that I had some insight, that I might actually have something to say that might matter, that might be important.  I also found that prose came much more easily to me than I had anticipated.  Sending the essays out and letting them appear in journals was risky but I felt that at the very least, being honest about my life and my grief would draw a line in the sand.  “Read this,” I thought “and if you still want to call me afterwards, be my guest.”

And the first essay, “Satellites,” appeared in a place well-established enough in the literary world that it was certain to garner the attention of other writers who knew me and my family.  Even after acceptance, I had to restrain myself for many months, from pulling the essay from the journal.  And not just because I worried about what I had said.  My feelings were so chaotic and were constantly changing.  So that essay and that chapter is really a snapshot of a moment in time.  As such, I worried that it wasn’t fair, or truthful.  I wanted to fix it, revise it.  Make it kinder and gentler.  I resisted those impulses, partially because I didn’t want to revisit the work–it was painful–and partially because I wanted the essay raw–a true reflection of that moment.  When it appeared, I held my breath, waiting for the angry emails and phone-calls.  There were a few.  I lost a few friends who felt that I had betrayed Susan’s memory by exposing our private lives.  But most people seemed supportive. Some, even grateful.  And over the next couple of years, I found that I had more to say.  Instead of writing an essay and revising it when my feelings changed, I worked though the changes I experienced through writing.  Instead of a revision, I’d start again.  From that new beginning.  I never set out to write a book, I just eventually realized that I had finished one.

That’s an extremely long answer.  Obviously I’ve had some time to think about it and have come up with a million justifications for writing and publishing a book that I sometimes worry has hurt as many people as it might have helped.  But here’s a simpler answer that is also true:

If you are a writer, you write.  If you try to write about something other than what your mind is constantly chewing on, you will fall into profound writer’s block.  The deaths of Cyrus and Susan were all I could think about, so I had to write about what happened or stop being a writer. I wasn’t ready–am still not ready–to stop.

Question 2: One of this book’s defining and essential aspects is your confessional approach. I’d like to further understand how you came to a consistent and measured voice in expressing yourself. By consistent I mean that your essays don’t only follow one another but they share commonalities in voice the way chapters in a novel need to maintain a voice; If the chapters don’t maintain this voice the book lacks integrity. And by measured I mean you seem to reveal or explore your thoughts and feelings to a consistent extent throughout the book. No one piece seems disproportional to the others, or somehow set apart. That is a lot of “craft” to achieve in “one angry thought.” 

To answer with absolute honesty–I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Having been exposed to very little creative nonfiction before trying to write it myself, I was flying blind.  I’d read E.B. White and Joan Didion.  I’d read Tobias Wolfe.  But I had zero training in the personal essay or memoir as a discipline and had yet to be exposed to fantastic authors like Eula Biss or Rebecca Skloot.  I really only had a small toolbox at my disposal, so decisions about form were simplified.

And I learned to use those tools well. I actually tried to write each essay completely differently from the one that preceded it and was very concerned with trying to tell the story without repeating it each time.  I had this idea of a kind of cubist representation, showing a different side of the subject each time.  As for voice,  I’m sort of blessed to have a strong one in this genre.  I come from a family of talkers.  My father, in particular had this presence about him and I think much of it came from the way he was able to convey a sense of absolute authority that derived from a ferocious honesty.  You always believed that he believed what he was saying.  And he had a strong cadence, a rhythm.  It’s always in my head when I write.  And my mother was a ballet dancer, so I learned to appreciate not only music, but a sense of how it can be embodied.

As for balance I question myself more than my father–and leave room for that on the page.  The result, I think, is that my confusion, my frustration, my effort to try to get to a place of conviction, comes off as genuine.  From a technical standpoint, a structural standpoint, pace and rhythm come down to a need to make sure my thinking on the page derives from a solid place–a scene–so that the reader feels as if he or she is contemplating the same landscape that I am.  I don’t want the reader overhearing my thoughts or simply passively listening to them.  I want the reader thinking with me, processing with me–at times agreeing, at times coming to his or her own conclusions.  Meanwhile, I try to maintain a sense of forward movement by never getting too far away from the underlying question the piece is trying to answer or the thrust of the narrative which is really the psychological development and progress of the speaker through experience.  So the analysis, the commentary, the exposition–is its own kind of story and has its own kind of thrust.

QUESTION 3: You said “comes off as genuine,” but when reading your reply I was almost certain you were going to use the word “sincere.” Because it was sincerity — with yourself, with your subject matter, and I think with the reader — that came across powerfully to me. It reminds me of a nice point by Oscar Wilde who said that “all bad poetry is sincere”. There is a sincerity, I think, that comes from diving in and flying blind which can make for powerful reading. And yes, I know I mixed my metaphor but I’m keeping it anyway. 

Wilde is right of course.  And wrong.

I avoided using the word “sincere” for some of the same reasons he suggests.  Sincerity can have a self-congratulatory quality about it and an unintellectual one.  I think Wilde distrusts the idea that a complex mind can be a sincere one.  For him, sincerity reflects a purity of purpose and complexity is always impure.  So is the truth.  But a genuine or authentic, even brave, pursuit of a truth–especially one’s own, can have a sincerity to it–as long as it is unflinching. And as long as that pursuit never trumps the need to create something artful. Wilde can be guilty of falling into the moral ambivalence of pure aesthetics.  A beautifully made object has its value, but I prefer to be engaged with the struggle at the heart of artistic expression.  Faulkner said once that all good writing is about the human heart struggling.  Wilde forgets that sometimes.  And that’s a limitation I never want to risk.  I’d rather risk sincerity–damn the consequences.

I think what we’re talking about has a lot to do with balance.

I feel the same way about sentiment.  Good writing should be imbued with sentiment.  But it shouldn’t ever be sentimental.  It should engage us emotionally and even morally but never push to MAKE us more emotional or moral.  It should engage us in the struggle.

Question 4:  Even if you didn’t know much about the essay form before you chose it, you weren’t ignorant of it, and you’re deep in its traditions in terms of form and structure. Once you finished Satellites — the first essay — you stuck with it. Why? What was working?

The form of the essay is attractive to me.  But I do think it took me a while to find it.  Most forms of writing follow a show don’t tell aesthetic value.  Its the most basic and useful of the dictums given young writers in the classroom. For me, the essay form allows the author room for scene and for extensive commentary.  There is more room to think on the page.  I didn’t have the luxury or the curse of certitude.  I still don’t.  I wrote each essay as I was experiencing it, quite literally in the middle of things with all the confusion and bafflement that this implies.  I needed to think my way through the experience.  Often, when writing, I assumed that this expository material would end up being cut in the final revisions.  But when I went to do so, I found that this thinking was essential, was part of the story.  I liked it.  I also like the word essay or essai essayez–to try, to attempt.  That was all I was doing, trying to write something impossible to write.  I thought of it as a worthy attempt but I had no pretension that it would be anything more than that–an attempt to understand what was happening to me.

Question 5: Part of the intimacy experienced for me, in reading your book, was being witness to that evolving understanding that you were achieving apropos the events and your relationship to them. I am very glad you kept that material because I think it’s the center of what you created. I say events rather than refer only to the accident because you introduce us to many events. To events in your marriage; events in your relationship with your in-laws; to your surviving son Darius; to other mourners; to those who looked to you to mourn for them; to support groups that did not work for you, and more. In the attempt to express and understand these events, there was clearly a moment when you became aware of an audience outside yourself for what you were writing. The writing moved from being exploratory and therapeutic (however painful it was) to also being a performance in front of others. Tell me about that transformation and what it did to you and — if you know — the writing.

I think the first couple of chapters in the book are relatively insular.  They are intimate in the way that a punch in the face is intimate. I was writing from a place of defiance.  Writing as an act of self-preservation.  A few events made me more conscious of an audience.

I started getting a great deal of unsought feedback after the essay, “Satellites” was published.  People responded to it very emotionally.  There was anger, sorrow, and a good deal of gratitude.  I’d get phone calls and emails from people who had tracked me down simply to yell at me or cry with me or thank me.  I wanted no part of any of it.  I got to the point where I didn’t answer my phone unless I recognized the number.  I also had started attending group therapy for parents who had lost children and found that even they seemed to be listening closely, watching closely.  And I started teaching again at a boarding school in New Hampshire.  So I was back up in front of a classroom, leaning on canes or crutches, sweating from pain and narcotics, with twenty very curious teenagers staring up at me.  It may be that I imagined this attention or that I’m a narcissist, but I definitely felt the gaze.  So I became acutely aware of the performative aspect of, not only the writing, but every aspect of a life that felt increasingly public.  It could be confusing at times and I often resented it. That audience awareness definitely changed something in the writing.

I think the first piece of writing I did that was truly audience-aware in an intimate way was “The Neverland.” Somewhere near the end of that essay, my relationship to the reader changes. I felt myself truly engaging with a sympathetic listener, feeling a bond with and a responsibility to that listener.  My son, Darius is very much the center of that essay and as my attention was drawn to him, I felt the defensiveness and anger ebb.  My emotional position started to shift toward tenderness.  The last few pages of that piece contain some of the best writing I’ve ever done.  It manages to be raw and honest and vulnerable.  And I think I reach a lyrical place there that I’m always trying to get back to now.  It is a key moment in the book. In that moment, my son became a representation of my audience.  That was scary and beautiful.

Question 6: I’m glad you mentioned Neverland. It was after reading that piece that I knew I wanted to get in touch with you. Most people reading this interview will not have read your book yet. Would you mind describing that piece to us, please? I’m not asking you to parse it apart, but simply give us an overview and induction to what you did. In my view, for whatever it’s worth, it deserves a place in the Best American Essays series.

That piece is a little hard to describe.  Basically it’s an examination of the cultural expectations that we have for the aggrieved and what responsibilities they seem to have to those around them.  The occasion for the essay was an email sent by an old friend who was not happy about many of the decisions I was making regarding how I was safeguarding my wife’s legacy, how I was bringing up our child, and how I was treating my in-laws.  I snapped, told the friend to never bother me again and blocked her email.  It was an angry, petulant response and it was one I couldn’t take back.  In survival mode, you don’t really worry about the collateral damage that can be caused by an impulsive or instinctive reaction.

Most of the essay is an exploration of that anger–its source in my frustration that simply trying to live and bring up my son in a healthy environment more focused on the future than the past was an offense to some people.  I was also pretty sensitive because I was already in a new relationship and was dealing with my own feelings of guilt about that.  Structurally, the essay uses J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as a reference point.  My son and I would listen to that book on cds as we drove down from New Hampshire to visit his maternal grandparents in New Jersey.  Barrie’s Peter Pan is dark and sometimes frightening, but it is very wise about the psychology of children.

As the essay progresses, it weaves his insights in with my own and gradually, the essay moves in tone from anger, to regret to a kind of peace with my life and my decisions.  It also changes focus and, as I mentioned, audience.  It stops being about my friend and ultimately becomes a meditation on parenting–on what we can do for children and what they do for us in our shared sorrow. It’s about how protecting his childhood and moving forward while never ignoring or forgetting what’s happened to us can bring us to a place of joy.  Thanks for the kind comment.  I’m very proud of that work–as much for how it is written as for what it manages to say.  May you someday judge all literary contests

QUESTION  7: Is there a difference between candor and honesty?

For me, candor implies a kind of frankness that comes with security.  Someone shows candor because he or she either has nothing to hide or nothing to lose by telling the truth.  I think it also requires a great deal of confidence that what one is saying IS true and that one won’t be hurt by it.

Honesty is more connected to the dangers and elusive qualities of Truth and comes from a much more vulnerable and complex place.  Nonfiction writers struggle to be truthful because that is part of the contract with the reader–I will tell the truth to the best of my ability and I will relentlessly seek that truth out for both of us.

But there are so many barriers to someone who seeks to be honest.

First of all, there is the problem of memory.  Every nonfiction writer must struggle with its unreliability. One can be completely convinced that something happened in a certain way and be completely wrong.  In that case there is no intent to lie–one is being “honest” about one’s misperceptions. But it still breaks the contract.

We can also be very dishonest with ourselves, convincing ourselves of a misperception through both conscious and unconscious acts of projection, avoidance, and suppression.  The result is an honest dishonesty.

Often the truth is complicated and multifaceted.  So we end up simplifying it an attempt to communicate.  This is inherently dishonest, but also somewhat necessary to artistic expression.

Which leads us to the problem of art which is always an act of deciding what gets left in or left out of the frame.  Good writers make choices, deciding what to include and exclude.  For a nonfiction writer, this is an ethical act because any act of exclusion is a lie of omission.  At the same time, you simply can’t and shouldn’t ever put everything you remember in a piece of writing.  So you select.  But the process of selection can skew the facts, the tone, and the reception of the material.  One can also lie by misleading.

There are also the limits of maturity and even skill. Sometimes I have encountered the problem that I just can’t seem to write about a particular memory very well.  I get caught up in justifying my actions, or give in to sentimentality or rage or a desire to protect those I love.  Like many writers, I have my limits.  I’d like to be able to write humor better and I’ve never written very well about sex. It’s not just about telling the truth.  It’s about creating something artful–that might matter, might last.

Finally there are all the very human failings that prevent all of us from telling the entire truth.  Most of these have to do with fear–a fear that we will not be understood, that we might tell the heart’s truth only to be rejected, ridiculed, abandoned and abused.  The truth may set you free, but rarely in the world.  More often we are punished when we reveal ourselves too completely.

So honesty is a risk.  And it has consequences.  No one should try to write nonfiction without first coming to terms with that.

For me, I try to be honest with my reader when there is a place I can’t go or when I’m unsure of what I remember.  I try to be frank about my limitations.  And I continue to work to overcome them. That has to be enough.

This ends Part I of our interview. You will find Part II: The Writing here at The Interview Spot in the next few weeks.

One thought on “An Interview with Joel Peckham. Part I: The Approach”

  1. Reblogged this on BookRambler and commented:
    Great new writer interview site from Derek B. Miller (yes, he of the terrific Norwegian by Night) AND superb interview with Joel Peckham that offers detailed insight into the writing process and craft – Pt 1

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