Vis­iting Writer John Jeremiah Sul­livan came to Hillsdale College Feb. 11 and 12 to share his work with stu­dents. He is the author of “Pulphead: Essays” and “Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.” 


How did you get started writing? 


I got my start from my mom and my dad. My dad, obvi­ously, was a sports­writer and my mom was an English teacher.There was no hope for me. It was the kind of house where, if you didn’t become a writer, they were going to send you to a ther­apist to find out why not.


With your story on the Christian Rock fes­tival, for example, where did you go when you got your idea? 


It’s a hard question for me to answer because I was sort of on the inside of the mag­azine for a while. I had been an editor for years by the time all of that hap­pened. The people who were editing me most of the time were people I knew and the story ideas tended to emerge out of con­ver­sa­tions with them. It’s still that way. It can be hard to pin­point the genesis of one par­ticular thing. You’re always talking. Half the time you’re talking about what you’re going to do next. Most of them get rejected instantly. It’s the one’s that sneak through that end up getting pub­lished.

To give a more mean­ingful answer, the pieces that turned out for me tended to be the ones that linked up in some way with a pre­ex­isting obsession or interest of mine. The Christian rock piece, for instance, opened a little window for me to tell some stories I had wanted to tell, write about people I had wanted to write about.


You often make yourself a char­acter in your pieces with your use of first person. Why?


You say I make myself a char­acter as much as others. That’s lit­erally true. It’s a little creature I’m making, dressing up so that he can go though the piece and say things I want him to say and report on the things I observe. It’s very rare I feel like I’m speaking in a trans­parent “earnest” way, which isn’t to say that I don’t want the piece at the end to say some­thing that’s mean­ingful to me. It isn’t as simple as, “Now I’m writing what I really think.” I think it makes the worst writing when that zero impulse to speak isn’t refracted through some kind of formal lens and sub­jected to some kind of pressure.

In the same way that you make a kind of formal movement when you move from first person to the third person, you make a similar one when you move from the zero person — your actual self — to the first person — which is a speaker. It’s going to have a lot of things in common with you, in the same way a third person char­acter might, but is not beholden to you as a faithful rep­re­sen­tative. I learned very early on to hide from the fact-checking, to emphasize aspects of sto­ry­telling that the fact checkers couldn’t really get to. That begins with the interior life.


People call you a Southern author. Thoughts?


The Southern thing is some­thing I just try not to think about. I can’t make any sense of it. It’s some­thing that was put on me. I have never once in my life iden­tified as a Southern writer but it would be almost be ungrateful to com­plain about it. At the same time, it can be a little bit of a straight-jacket, espe­cially in it’s most annoying forms. There’s part of me that’s probably a little bit proud of that and that my immersion in that lit­erary culture did produce some­thing. It’s really com­pli­cated.


You’re working on a non-fiction book right now. Can you tell me about that?


It’s about a German named Priber. He was a Utopian thinker and a radical reformer who came to South Car­olina in the 1730s before Jef­ferson was born, before Rousseau had written a word.

He lived with the Cherokee indians for about six years to create a kind of enlight­enment city that was going to be social­istic and pan-racial. There would be com­plete equality between men and woman and total sexual freedom. It was a century ahead, or more, ahead of it’s time philo­soph­i­cally. In some ways, it’s still ahead of it’s time. He actually has some success with it, enough to scare the English. They spent a lot of time and man­power trying to capture him. He died in prison. There’s a lost book — a sort of con­sti­tution — that’s asso­ciated with him.


Who are your favorite authors? 


It changes every day. I’ve been thinking lately as to why this question bothers me. It doesn’t match the way the brain of a reader actually works. You’re not putting together a dream team of favorite writers. You’re exploring in the world of books. There are people who are important to you as guides that you go back to. I’m not just trying to be con­trarian but to talk about your favorite writers seems anti­thetical to what it means to be a reader.

That said, I can name the people who’ve been haunting me the last few years: [Daniel] Defoe being the main one. I feel a necessity to under­stand the mind of Defoe better. To do so is to under­stand modernity better. He’s one of the people that mid­wifed modernity. Donal Antrum is probably the con­tem­porary writer that’s most inter­ested me cur­rently. He’s able to be cerebral and funny at the same time.