An Interview with Joel Peckham. Part II: The Writing

Part II: The writing

QUESTION 8: The first word of the first essay is “But.” Your first sentence starts “But there are stories that don’t have beginnings …” This is directly opposite to the way a more well-known book — The Bible — begins, namely with “In the beginning …” which does seem a more traditional way to start. Tell me about this sentence and why you started this way.

It’s hard to remember clearly but I think I was attempting to leap into the middle at that point because I couldn’t think of how to begin and I wasn’t even sure where the beginning was.  What better way to begin in the middle of things than to start with But?

It felt to me as if I were starting the essay in the middle of a conversation. Almost in the middle of answering a question.  The entire book feels to me an attempt to catch the mind working though impossible questions, impossible problems. It wasn’t as if I wrote two pages and then cut them.  The first sentence I wrote down was the one in my head in that moment.  And that felt right. I’m sure there was a part of me that was reacting to that wonderful beginning to the bible.

The word, “But” is the first word to every rebellion. I imagine that it was the first word on the lips of Job after God’s angry retort.  I think it is the word that makes us most human most free and also, the horrible little pests that we can often be. It also makes us beautiful.  Without that word, that questioning, that contradiction, we can’t grow, we can’t change.  It’s very powerful little word.  I was also teaching Freytag’s triangle in a literature class and something in me was kind of irked by that way of looking at stories.  What true stories are actually shaped like that?  Sure, it seems to work, seems to fit. . . But.

Question 9: This feels related to your earlier point about having written in self-defense; to survive. The “But” feels like a response to an accusation that hadn’t actually been made yet except … I suppose … by you.

Yes.  That’s true enough.  I think feelings of guilt and desire for redemption motivate much of the interior dialogue in the book.  I felt responsible for not only the deaths of my wife and son and the state of my marriage before the accident.

I felt frustrated by my almost instinctive need to start justifying my actions and feelings.  I was also angry at Susie for disappearing before we could resolve anything.  I also felt guilty for having these irrational feelings.  Looking back, I was probably deliberately provoking a response.  When I finally did have a few people openly angry with me, my response was a mixture of outrage and relief.

Question 10: I’ve been to Jordan and many other countries in the region, and your descriptions — of the towns, of the land, of the feeling of being in the cities — not only struck me as good descriptions but in many cases beautiful and poetic ones. Can you explain your thoughts on the use of beauty in this book, especially considering this is non-fiction and about something horrible?

I wonder if something can truly be beautiful, be appreciated as beautiful without the possibility of loss, terror, danger.  Beauty always contains the terror of its loss and of the pain it could potentially inflict.  At the same time, an appreciation for it might be redemptive.  I think of a passage from Victor Frankl’s MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING:

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”

This is observed from inside the horror of a concentration camp. Whatever is valuable about humanity might be found in this short paragraph.  Beauty reminds us of life’s value. Our ability to appreciate it, which is our ability to love each other and our world, give us purpose.

Question 11: Speaking of Frankl, you began your book with two quotes, one of them from Man’s Search for Meaning.The quote is:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he tales up is cross, gives him ample opportunity —even under the most difficult curcumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. (Victor Frankl)

Had you read Frankl before the accident or did you come to him afterwards?

I think Man’s Search for Meaning might be the most important book I’ve ever read. I’d had the book on my shelf for years, carried with me from Vermont to Texas to Nebraska to Michigan to New Hampshire.  I think it might have been loaned to me by a friend at Middlebury college when I was an undergraduate.  So technically it’s not even my book.  That friend is a rabbi in Colorado now.  I think he’d forgive me for taking it.

I’m sure I glanced at it once or twice.  There must have been a reason I held onto it.  Must have been a reason it made it through each haphazard selection process that moving required.  The holocaust had held a dark fascination for me since I’d been exposed to it in social studies as an adolescent in Sharon Massachusetts, a small, mostly jewish community on the border of Rhode Island.  Learning about it within that community gave the experience more immediacy and I think, a certain surreality. I was horrified and awestruck by how inhuman people could become, how evil.

I’m still stunned by man’s incredible capacity for hate and cruelty but that’s not what made the book important to me when I finally began reading it in the fall of 2004.  It was a few months after the accident and I was in a dark, lonely place.  In pain, on lots of medication, trying to father a child, feeling overwhelmed and cursed by God.  Then I started reading Frankl and what moved me was the strength–the almost unconscious, instinctive, WILL to live that I uncovered there.  I would never compare my experience to the catastrophic loss, degradation, and cruelty suffered by the people in those camps, but I was stunned that even there, in those, terrible circumstances, so much determination to hang on to one’s humanity.  In particular, his insistence on love, moved me beyond description

I could have used 20 quotes from that book.  Here’s another:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Question 12: Let’s pull back from your book of essays for the moment and broaden the conversation to your writing more generally. How do you know whether you’re improving the material or simply changing it?

I don’t know that any of us know until we know.

I’m working on an essay right now on chronic pain called “The Shattering”.  I can’t stop tinkering with it. In it I’m trying to get at the reasons for why it is so difficult to communicate the experience of pain and how that difficulty to express it creates problems– in treatment, in finding adequate psychological support, in interacting with people on a daily basis.  The work is comprised of an interlocking series of memories that serve as launching points for an exploration of the psychological, emotional, and social experience of pain.  It’s very non-linear and the order is dependent on the progression of ideas, not a narrative arc.  And since there is more than one question at play here, it is not only difficult to cling to a controlling idea, it is difficult to keep an eye on a destination for the essay.

When there are many answers, there is no answer. So it’s a little like building a puzzle.  You create these puzzle pieces and you have to make choices about which ones fit together and why.  And when you have pieces that don’t fit–do you reshape them to fit? do you exclude them? do you change the position of the piece and make another piece that can connect it to the body of the entire picture?  Do you just make a new piece that fits better? Do you change the picture to fit the piece? All of these choices are valid approaches and there is little to guide you either than your writing instincts and a little trial and error.

I’m pretty dogged in pursuing a project until I think I’ve completed it to my satisfaction.  And I’ll sometimes revise a piece for several years before I’m happy with it.  In the end I want to create something that I would want to read.  It needs to be coherent, artful, and moving.  So I mostly rely on that ideal reader to keep (me) in check.  And the ideal reader is basically me at my most lazy and distracted.  It’s the me that doesn’t have much time to read and maybe even resents the effort.  The me that sits back and says to the author–“O.K.  Show me something.”  If I can get that guy to pay attention, I’ve got something.

But sometimes I lose sight of him.  Sometimes all the revision leads to a bunch of equally unsatisfying versions of the same project.  That’s when I look for help.  I’m not a big believer in showing my work to a bunch of people until I’m done with it, but I’m very lucky to have two excellent readers in my home: my wife, Rachael, who is a fantastic writer and teacher of writing, and my son, Darius, 13 but already showing signs of great talent and skill as a reader and writer.

Having a reader who knows your work and will hold you to the standards of your best writing is a real blessing. When I’ve gotten myself truly good and lost, they provide a compass and can sketch me a map in the dirt to help me find my way out.  Most of the time, I know when I’ve got something that’s good.  When I don’t know for sure, if I have doubts, I know it isn’t good enough.

Question 13: There are many ways to approach the formation of a story: a character, an idea, a political anger, a passion. In your case, it started with events that you wanted to turn into words; emotions to contend with; and a philosophy of — for want of a better term — survival. All of this needed to land someplace and ultimately take the form of a story. Let’s discuss the process of starting from such a place and creating something that a total stranger might come to understand.

Since I was the main character–or at least one of the main characters–a significant part of the decision-making process was already decided.  I had a main character I knew and cared about. And I had a vague idea of (a) premise–what if a man who lost his wife and son in a car accident were to try to tell the truth about his grief?  What if that grief was bound up in guilt over a failing marriage? What compelled me about this story was that the antagonist in such a scenario was so complex and variant.  Anything that got in the way of my leading a healthy–relatively happy–life with my son was antagonistic to the goal of survival and perhaps even healing.

That was a long list–my in-laws, who wanted so badly to stay in the past and were adamant in their desire to grieve forever, those who seemed to need for me to remain in a constant state of grief as a means of holding onto their memory of Susie, my own fears of how my version of the truth might be received, etc.

That premise, and that main character, though, caused problems.  For one, I didn’t like that character very much at that point and I worried about how a reader might respond to an honest portrayal. Also, I think that, structurally, my decision to continually tell the story from different moments of insight was a barrier.  By choosing a non-linear storytelling approach, I worried that I might be pushing the reader away.  But the story I was telling was never just the accident.  It was the aftermath. I  wanted to tell the story of how that memory, that event, was processed in my life. How I came to terms with it and came to understand what that event meant for me.

I was also struck by how a true story about grief might not be what anyone wanted to hear and I worried about how to overcome that barrier. I think the main thing for me was being very careful to construct myself as a character, to explore my back story, my character development, the sources of conflict, my very human–and sometimes embarrassing failures.  What I wanted to do was humanize the bereaved, to make the reader really see themselves in that position by having that reader confront the narrator’s entire experience, to implicate the reader so thoroughly that it would be nearly impossible to separate him or herself from the story.  That meant really concentrating on constructing vivid and compelling scenes that place the reader in the middle of the experience.  And I think it meant continually examining the truthfulness of my own interior monologue as it landed on the page.  I needed to explore how I was reacting to those moments–in the moment and in the re-experiencing them through the telling.

Question 14: The way you describe this process sounds a lot like the kind of process that could have leant itself to a memoir or book — not a collection of essays. Given the clarity of purpose here, and your approach, and the obvious wealth of material, did it ever occur to you to pull back from essays as forms and instead look at them all as though they might form a single story? 

Well,  I didn’t begin writing this with the intent of writing a book.  When I wrote Satellites(the first essay and first chapter in the book), I didn’t have any plan at all.  I was just trying to get something on the page to get it out of my head.  To say the things  that were building up at the back of my brain.  I was half afraid if I didn’t, I’d stand up in church one day and shout it as testimony like some crazed Old Testament prophet.  I thought I’d write one short nonfiction piece and be done with it.  It just didn’t work out that way.

I also couldn’t see an arc to it at that point. Straight memoir, or an autobiographical novel, is I think, one of the most difficult genres to write well because you are trying to apply the rules and strategies of fiction to characters that can’t really be controlled. They are out there, in the world, making free choices of their own free will. There’s no beginning, middle or end.  It’s just middle.

I love Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life but I don’t think I could have written that kind of book then.  Maybe in retrospect.  Maybe years from now when I can look back on it and have a better understanding of how things shook out and why.  But even then, I fear that I might simplify things just to tell a clean story, that I might superimpose a journey motif on it and make myself into some kind of archetypal hero. I’m no hero. Just a man struggling to get from point A to point C, falling back to point B and starting over again.

Also, I’m a born talker, but not great storyteller.  My thoughts run in all directions at once–as focused as a golden retriever chasing squirrels. That associative leaping works a little better in a collection of essays than in a traditional narrative.

I do think about telling this story another way sometimes, though.  Turning it into a novel or a play or screenplay.  But right now, that kind of writing feels like something done by people from another dimension.  I write what have to write in the way that I have to write it.  It’s the best I can do.

Question 15: Writing all this must have been exhausting under the best of circumstances. But you were also dealing with a job, with your own grief, that of others, a relationship with a woman, parenting your son, and your physical recovery from the accident which was physically painful. As a novelist myself, this seems almost supernatural or stubborn belief. One writer to another: How did you pull it off? 

Writing isn’t exhausting.  Living is exhausting.

I actually have more trouble writing now at a time when things in my life are very good.  I’m remarried. Darius is doing wonderfully.  I was just offered a new job as an Assistant Professor of Regional Literature and Creative Writing at Marshall University in the same department with my wife, Rachael–who is a fantastic writer herself. I’m a happy man. One would think that the words would just come. But there are so many distractions.

I could have approached what happened to me, not only as a tragedy but as a massive distraction and disruption of my creative life. And if I had tried to avoid it or write about other things, I might have stopped writing altogether.  But once I decided to engage with it, to make the only thing I could think about the subject of my art, the writing became a means of managing, of compartmentalizing.  That two hours a day (usually in the middle of the night or the earliest hours of the morning) were completely mine.

And devoting that time to writing about the accident and its aftermath allowed me to be better focused on the parenting and teaching and physical therapy. I tell my students that writer’s block is not the result of laziness or fear but avoidance. What you are writing about and what you are thinking about most of the time need to be in sync with one another. If you are trying to write about one thing while preoccupied with another, you will never get anything worthwhile on the page.  In a sense I was always writing–nearly every second of the day.  It was an incredibly fruitful period artistically.

I want to say one more thing about this.  I’m not superhuman or supernatural or super-anything.  I did what I had to do to live and I was determined that if I was going to live, I was going to try to live well. That meant taking care of my son, allowing myself to fall in love and to pursue love.  It meant getting myself walking and swimming and running again.  And it meant writing.

If you had asked me before the accident what would happen to me if my wife and one of my children were to die in an accident, I would have told you that I would have spent the rest of my life in the corner of a padded cell.  But I didn’t.  I’m grateful for that.  We look about us and we see people overcoming unbelievable things every day.  It’s almost terrifying how resilient a species we are.  And it’s beautiful. And lucky.

BEFORE GOING ONTO PART III, A FEW QUESTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN ON MY MIND:

Q: Most overrated rock band?

Coldplay

Q. What one movie do you love that no one else seems to?

How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole

Q. What do kids get away with these days that you never could?

They actually get away with much less than I did. Most parents these days are better at espionage than the CIA.

Q. If you could be one fictional pet, who would it be?

Scooby Doo.

Q. A funny book you want people to read?

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff

Q. What is the most useless thing, as a college teacher, you are required to do?

Attend full faculty meetings before earning tenure.

Q. What is the most undervalued skill of a literature professor?

Using literature to help people to develop and nurture an inner-life.

Q. Why, in this day and age, should anyone bother to read a novel?

Nothing moves you, stays with you, haunts you, like a good story told well.

Part III: Afterwards, is still coming up …