Monday, April 25, 2016

Those Old-Timey Essays: A Conversation with Patrick Madden

Jacob Eckrich, Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School, talks with essayist Patrick Madden about his new collection Sublime Physick, humor, Montaigne, and the activity we call essaying.
Jacob Eckrich: One of the things that I noticed about the collection was that you have a really strong emphasis on the Classics. The essays seem to be a bridge of sorts between classical thought and art and contemporary life. So I’m curious as to where this interest and focus on classical humanities came from.

Patrick Madden: I do consciously try to write something that honors the tradition of the essay and participates in it. I’m in love with these old dead essayists largely because they kind of taught me how to write. A lot of people…I don’t know about you…how’d you get into creative nonfiction? Contemporary writers?

JE: It was actually mostly through humorists.

PM: Right. Like Ian Frazier, I know you like…

JE: Yeah, absolutely Ian Frazier, but more than anyone it was Woody Allen. So I actually came into—I hesitate to call what I write personally “creative nonfiction” as much as I just call them essays, because that line between fiction and nonfiction, particularly with humor and satire, is often fuzzy, and irrelevant in some cases.

PM: True.

JE: So I came in through humorists, and now, through the program, much more traditional nonfiction essayists. Definitely contemporary. It was a couple years before I read Montaigne or some of the older ones, but it was definitely through Ian Frazier, yourself, Ander Monson, and such.

PM: Me too. I didn’t have a really wide base, but I really liked certain essayists that I found in Best American Essays, all living essayists. But once I started in classes—I did a master’s degree at BYU and then a Ph.D. at Ohio—I started to read some of the older stuff, especially with The Art of the Personal Essay, and then I took classes from David Lazar, and we read tons and tons of these essayists. Primarily we read Montaigne, Hazlitt, and Lamb, but also a broad group of essayists that you don’t find much in the anthologies. I feel like that’s how I learned to write. I could do the basics before I ever read those writers, but my writing became a lot more interesting, at least to me, and I feel that it improved a lot, and that was the key for me. A lot of literary nonfiction is narrative based, it’s memoir—and there’re some great memoirs, works that are influential, and I appreciate them a lot—but I love thinking. I come to the essay wanting to have an intellectual experience as well as an aesthetic or emotional experience. If you read these old essayists, that’s what they’re all about. They do share some of their own lives, but their main focus isn’t to tell you something that happened. Like I said, my life is pretty mundane—though I do have six kids, which makes for some interesting experiences—but I didn’t have a troubled childhood that I overcame, I haven’t done anything extraordinary, so I really liked finding these essayists who likewise were just writing about regular life. Another key was discovering Scott Russell Sanders, who was doing a bunch of essays in the late 1990s and early 2000s that were just like the old essays: they had a one word titles, like “Beauty,” “Stillness,” “Silence,” “Fidelity,” etc. They were basically the same thing that the great dead had been doing. I said, “Oh, cool. You can still do that now.” So that’s when I started going full steam ahead trying to write thematic essays.

JE: That’s something that I really enjoy about your writing. Like you, that is why I really enjoy the essay, whether it’s a personal essay or more humorous/satirical essay, or whatever, but it’s idea-driven and less focused on narrative. With that said, as you mentioned, you do have narrative elements from your life in most of these essays, if not all of them. I’m curious, when you’re approaching a new essay is it a thematic idea first that you then scaffold and attach the narrative to, or do you begin with the narrative?

PM: It goes both ways. For instance, the essay “Entering and Breaking,” which is about my sons going missing for a couple of hours, that was certainly driven by an event that I wanted to write about. But I didn’t want to just write the “what happened.” I wanted to think from it. So I tried to do that and I overlaid some ideas from physics like wave/particle duality and quantum entanglement. I thought about how, in a way, I’m entangled with my children. But in other essays, the ideas take the lead. “Independent Redundancy” is an essay about originality, and that’s a question I’ve had for a very long time: what is originality? Or, why do we oversimplify the idea of originality to the point of creating a false concept? So it can go either way. If I do write something thematic, I look for experiences that speak to that theme, and even if I’m beginning from a particular event in my life, I try to add to it, so that the essay is not just a recounting from beginning to end.

JE: Right. One of the Montaignean aspects of both of your books is that you stray away from the “what happened” over and over again within a single essay.

PM: Intentionally.

JE: I love it. I remember when I read “Spit,” I got to the point where I stopped and thought, “Wait, what is the title of this essay again? Oh yeah, ‘Spit,’” and I kept going. It comes back around and moves, and your work does that a lot, which I absolutely love.

PM: Thanks. I don’t know if everybody does. Montaigne was jumping all over the place, too. For instance, “Of Cripples” doesn’t mention cripples until about nine-tenths of the way in. “Of Cruelty” doesn’t really get to speaking about cruelty until seven-eighths of the way through the essay.

JE: Yeah, well, that in itself can be considered cruel.

PM: Right? Maybe he’s demonstrating cruelty. So it could be a little bit frustrating, but once you get used to it and expect it, then it’s really pleasing. In “Of Vanity” he says, “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.” So he throws the blame back on the reader, humorously. I think he understood that he was a wanderer.

JE: Yes, absolutely. I’m trying to expand this train of thought. I feel that your work definitely has a strong foothold in a very classical tradition of essaying, and this book is a stark contrast to other essay collections being published recently. Yours seem very classical in form as well as content. I think you reference Montaigne and Pascal and Johnson—a lot of older writers and painters. I was thinking about D’Agata’s anthology trilogy, too. A lot of contemporary essayists are leaping off of the work in The Next American Essay. But I feel that yours would fit very much in The Lost Origins of the Essay. So I was wondering, where do you see your work fitting in today’s literary essayistic landscape?

PM: I really like a lot of contemporary essayists, and I think there’s a broad range in what people are doing, and I’m really glad that people are willing to call themselves essayists. There’s no longer really a stigma attached to it, and that’s been a change even since I was in graduate school. I remember essay collections that, whether because of the author or the publisher, wouldn’t announce that they were essays. They’d hide the fact, probably for marketing reasons. Now you can see the word essays on book covers, even on the front. I like a lot of essayists who aren’t pulling in quotes from the great dead authors, but I think they are still consciously participating in the long tradition, and they know somewhat of the past. It always feels good to me when an author acknowledges where we all come from and the debt we owe, to Montaigne especially, but to the others as well. I think I would definitely fit on the revivalist side. It’s not just me, but the authors who are trying to be a little bit anachronistic in terms of phrasings, from the sentence level to the essay level. You don’t even have to read my essays to notice this; you can just flip open the book and it looks different from what many other writers are doing, because you just see the block quotes throughout. It looks like what the old essayists were doing. I get invited to universities or conferences I think in large part because I’m doing something slightly different from a lot of others and people trust that I have, in addition to my own writing, a kind of historical and theoretical knowledge that I can teach from or speak from when I’m talking to students or other writers.

JE: Absolutely. I imagine a lot of people who might be reading this interview may have not read the book yet. So I wanted to give you the opportunity to give a condensed version of your “not official/official” introduction to the book. What is it about the sublime physical? What does that mean?

PM: Well, first of all, it’s always difficult for me to describe what my books are. I just came from the Tucson Festival of Books. This is a gigantic gathering and all sorts of writers are there, from Terry Brooks, who did The Sword of Shannara, and Jared Diamond who did Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Maureen Corrigan, the book reviewer from NPR’s Fresh Air, and there were a lot of mystery writers. Anyway, over 100,000 people came through, and there I was. So a lot of people asked what my book was about. Other essayists or people who are aware of creative nonfiction can get what I’m doing and they can decide whether they want to read it or not, but for the general audience, I find it very difficult to describe. So I’m glad to be speaking to you, going to Essay Daily because the people who read Essay Daily know what we’re talking about, which is good. In any case, to tell this story, let me go back to my first book, Quotidiana. I was researching Amedeo Avogadro, the Italian chemist from the early 19th century who’s best known for his molecular theory—he figured out that you could determine the number of molecules in a certain volume of gas—it was a constant no matter the gas—and this allowed chemists to determine atomic weights in ways that they never could before. So later chemists named Avogadro’s Number after him. That’s the 6.02 x 10^23 that most of us remember. I learned that Avogadro was appointed by the Pope to be chair of the department of Fisica Sublime at the University of Turin in Italy. I read that phrase, fisica sublime, and I thought, “What a strange oxymoronic term!” I loved it. Those words seem to be opposed because sublime is that which is beyond the realm of the real world, the abstracted, the idea, the spiritual, whereas fisica is the physical world, things that you can touch. So “fisica sublime” is kind of like a concrete abstraction. As with a lot of oxymorons, it’s not just that the words oppose and obliterate each other; they oppose and create a friction that can then give you new ideas that you may not have thought of before. I started thinking about how essays perform that oxymoronic function, they take the physical world, whether things or experiences, stuff that you’ve lived, stuff that you’ve touched, and the essay, by processing experience through the mind, sublimates or gets to the relevant idea, abstraction, spirit. So in the introduction in the book, I started thinking about all of the different ways that essays can be described by that oxymoron. I’m hoping that my essays are doing that very thing. Another particularity is that I studied physics as an undergrad, I got a degree, and I’m still very interested in the implications of physics even if I don’t do the lab experiments. I use some physics concepts in the book metaphorically as a different take on my experiences.

JE: I feel that your essays are in a way your lab experiments.

PM: That’s a good way of thinking of it.

JE: On the page you are testing these theories with personal experience, I guess you could say. Another question I had: because you present a lot of physics theory as well as some philosophy, there’s that line that’s hard to tread for a lot of essayists of how much into a complex theory or philosophy can you go and still effectively contextualize and explore what you’re wanting to without getting too heady and losing the reader. I guess what I’m asking is, when you’re composing these essays, do you find yourself adding more theory or do you find yourself weeding a lot of stuff out in the revision process?

PM: I don’t know if I’ve really found the sweet spot on that because—well, when we say “the reader” of course there are a lot of different readers and the vast majority of readers in the world will never pick up this book. That’s fine, but I want to speak to a nonexpert educated reader, someone who’s interested in a philosophy of ideas but also likes art made from language and is willing to work a little bit. In my first book I had passages of equations and things, and I got some feedback that people just skipped over those. They saw equations and their brain went to a different mode and jumped to a place where they could find some words again. In this new book there are no equations at least, so maybe I’ve learned a thing or two. And sometimes I figure that you don’t need to catch the theory all of the way to feel what it’s trying to do within the essay. I’ve been thinking about this with “Moment, Momentous, Momentum.” It’s a short essay about my daughter getting hit in the head with a swing, and in it I’m thinking about my brother-in-law who pulled a pot of boiling water on himself when he was a toddler. These were the two experiences at its core, and my great fear in the essay is that you can’t protect your children from everything, and I think that people can get that whether or not they have their own children. I’ve also overlaid on it questions of momentum and of weight versus mass. The last paragraph says, basically, that you can get along in this world with a basic knowledge of physics that you attain through your sensory experience. You can ride a bike without understanding the equations of gyroscopic motion that allow you to balance on two wheels; you can do it by feel. But people often confuse mass, which is measured in kilograms, with weight, which we measure in pounds, because our everyday experience is inextricable from gravity. Behind all this, I’m considering a story I read about exit interviews with college students who’ve taken a physics class, but they’re still confused about some basic physics concepts, like conservation of energy or the uniform acceleration of gravity. Even though they’ve learned the correct principles, they revert to an Aristotelian sensory understanding of the way the world works. But that’s not essential to the essay. I think you can still understand the way that I try to use the word gravity in its double sense: not just the force the Earth exerts on our bodies or the way any two masses exert force on each other, but the emotional gravity of a situation, which is what the essay is about. So, in general, I think I’ve scaled back a little bit and I’m not so heavy on those kinds of concepts. I’m trying to allow them to work as metaphor. Can I ask your experience reading those parts? Do you have a science background?
JE: I have my general education and I took advanced science classes in high school, and I enjoy the essays. I don’t know if it’s just me as an individual or me as the kind of lay educated reader that you mentioned, but I found them very accessible and enjoyable.

PM: I’m glad to hear it, because I do worry about that. I don’t worry about that enough to completely obliterate that aspect of my writing or to hide it, but I try to find a balance so that someone whose background isn’t quite my own can get what I’m saying, at least sufficiently.

JE: Something else that I feel separates your essays from most other contemporary essays is that in both of your books you include a lot of images, photos or diagrams, and I was wondering—well, in a very simplified way of asking—why? In certain essays I could make a direct connection between the images and the text. With some images, I had to think a little bit more. I was just curious as to why you choose to purposefully include not just images, but a catalog—you have the references and the source material for each image—so everything is accounted for.

PM: I have a rather uncomplicated reason that I could complicate a little bit, but the straightforward answer is that I love W. G. Sebald’s books. Are you familiar with his work?

JE: I am not.

PM: Well, then you have a treat awaiting you, because I think he’s one of the most interesting writers I’ve ever read. His books are highly essayistic but maybe not utterly nonfictional. You were talking about how you want to call your work essays because in humor there’s a kind of tall-tale exaggerative effect that fictionalizes, if you have to name it. Well Sebald is not telling tall tales, but he’s accommodating reality, I think. In any case, his books are peppered with these images that are sometimes illustrative, like when a picture shows what he’s been writing about, and sometimes they’re more enigmatic, so they create a counterpoint to the text or even challenge what the text is saying. Other times it’s not entirely clear why the image is there, what the purpose is behind it. His images are like mine—they’re black and white, there’re many photographs or clippings or things like that—and they’re just printed in line with the text. Another author who has influenced me similarly, but in a slightly different way, is Eduardo Galeano, especially The Book of Embraces, which is illustrated. He took old-timey etchings and drawings and he cut them together into strange combinations like an octopus-headed schoolboy or a gun firing a bird, things like that. I’m not doing that, though. I’m doing more the Sebaldian style. And I want the images to be counterpoints to the text the same way that the block quotes are. The block quotes are in conversation with the text; they’re not really supporting my points or anything—at least I hope they’re not. Sometimes I want them to be a challenge. For instance, there’s a picture of Gleek, the space monkey from The Wonder Twins, and on the page right around it I say something like “I’m not going to go look this up.” I have this image in my mind of an eagle carrying Gleek carrying a bucket of water but I’m not going to go check because I’m just not keen on The Wonder Twins anymore now that I’m grown up. But then there’s this picture of the exact thing I said I was not going to look up, so I hope for some readers that’s going to be like, “What a minute, what’s that doing here?” It’s intended somewhat facetiously to undermine me a little bit. There’s another where I quote from an Aries zodiac sign bookmark that I had as a kid, and then there’s a picture of that bookmark, and if you pay attention, what I quoted is not exactly what it says on the bookmark. So there again I have undermined my credibility a little bit. The fact is that I wrote it as I remembered it, and then later I found the actual bookmark. Great! So I decided I was going to put that in there but noticed that the bookmark didn’t say exactly what I had remembered, and I thought, “Well, I’ll leave this little Easter egg for readers who have time on their hands and nothing better to do. They might enjoy this.” Or now they’ll read this interview and know that it’s there. I’m always trying to be a little bit playful, trying to rub against the essays with a different mode. The thing that I would love to do that I can’t do in a book like this, but I might try to do something online, is to provide music, sound files, YouTube clips, for an essay like “Independent Redundancy,” which relies heavily on musical examples. If I get the energy I’ll get that online someday.

JE: I’m sure Ander Monson would love to help you with that.

PM: Maybe I’ll ask him for some help.

JE: I have one simple question to follow up: When you buy books or browse books on Amazon, it always gives a recommendation like, “If you like this book you might like these other books.” So if you could be Amazon and somebody is loving your work, what would books would you recommend?

PM: You know, Amazon does a pretty good job with this by tracking what people actually buy together or what they look for together. We were talking before about essayists who are directly plugged into the classical form of the essay, and of course David Lazar, whom I studied with, influenced me a ton, and he writes in a similar way. Unsurprisingly, his mentor, Phillip Lopate, too. I really love Mary Cappello, who does book-length essays on interesting topics. She’s got a book coming out this fall on moods called Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack (you can see that we share an affinity for archaic –ck spellings). I remember when I first encountered her work, about a decade ago, her website said she’d been working on a book on moods, and I remember thinking, “I can’t wait for that book!” It’s taken this long (though she published two other books in the meantime), so it’s one of the books that I’m anticipating probably more than any book ever. I’ve heard her read from it, and it’s tremendous. Chris Arthur, an Irish essayist, and I come from different backgrounds and are slightly off in generations, but we’ve kind of reached a similar place where we both love these classical-style essays. I’ve already mentioned W. G. Sebald and Eduardo Galeano, whom I love. Some essayists who aren’t so much like my writing but who I really appreciate: Elena Passarello, Joni Tevis, and Amy Leach. They’re all beautiful lyrical stylists. I mentioned Ander Monson, who’s a quirky, very cool essayist. Your own friend and advisor, Stephen Church, is doing a lot of essayistic essays, too. Essays that don’t just telling you what happened but think about it overtly. Kim Dana Kupperman and Matthew Gavin Frank, too. I love essayists who are a little weird and have a distinct personality. You could pick up a new essay and if you knew their other work, you’d recognize them based on just the writing style. As we’ve been talking about, I want to see somebody thinking on the page, and all of these writers do that. There are other writers as well. I’m certainly forgetting somebody important who I owe a great debt to, but those are a bunch there. Who are some of your favorites?

JE: Let’s see, obviously Ian Frazier, as we’ve already mentioned. Have you read Veronica Geng?

PM: No.

JE: She’s somebody you might be interested in. She was a contributor and an editor for The New Yorker for a long time. She was Philip Roth’s favorite editor. She wrote essays, though at the time, in the late ’80s and ’90s, they were called stories. She was a good friend and mentor to Ian Frazier.

PM: Oh, cool.

JE: Also, George W. S. Trow. He’s most famous for Within the Context of No Context, and My Pilgrim’s Progress. Those are both book-length cultural studies essays about the media, but he also has a collection that’s out of print, but you can get it online, titled Bullies, and again it’s one of those ones that’s called a collection of stories, but I think if it were published today it would probably be called essays. I love Dinty Moore, Elena as well. I love Elena to death. And John D’Agata.

PM: I think he’s brilliant.

JE: In one of Steven Church’s classes, he had us read Halls of Fame and I enjoyed it, but it was also very challenging. It challenged a lot of my understandings of what the essay is. On Looking by Lia Purpura did the same thing for me in terms of challenging the notions that I had of what an essay is and what it should be.

PM: Yeah. Lia Purpura’s doing these rich, poetic, lyric essays, but you feel like she’s also participating in the tradition of the essay.

JE: So many writers are essaying now, either as full-time essayists, or poets, fiction writers, and playwrights taking up the essay to explore what the mode can do. I’d be interested in your view on current the trend of essaying and the diversity of work being done with the essay. What is exciting to you about the state of the essay today?

PM: As I’ve mentioned, I’m very happy that the term essay seems now to be a badge of honor, something to shout from the rooftops instead of to hide or to hide from. Now there seem to be enough savvy readers who really know and like and purchase essay collections. I’m also very happy that more people are trying their hand at essaying, even those working primarily in other fields. I’m a little protective of the term, though, and I wish that we’d never used it to describe the five-paragraphy assignment that teachers use to test their students’ knowledge and rhetoric, and likewise I wish we’d call stories stories and essays essays, whether they’re fictional or nonfictional. In other words, if a writer tells a true autobiographical story, narratively, with no reflection or association, I don’t think that’s an essay. If it doesn’t essay anything, then it’s not an essay. I feel we owe this to the spirit of Montaigne. Still, I’m excited that writers are trying essays, and that they’re borrowing forms and experimenting with styles, pushing the genre in ways that Montaigne himself never tried, but that I imagine he’d be proud of.

Patrick Madden is the author of two books, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, both essay collections. He also co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and co-translated the Selected Poems of Eduardo Milán. He teaches at Brigham Young University

Jacob Eckrich is an MFA candidate at Fresno State. He currently serves Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School. The manuscript for his first book, (A)musings: Essays, will be finished soon-ish.

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