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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.


Q: Most overrated rock band?


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 …

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.