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.