Monday, September 18, 2017

It Starts with Curiosity: a Conversation with David LeGault and Edward McPherson

Early summer saw the publication of two new essay collections—One Million Maniacs, by David LeGault, and The History of the Future, by Edward McPherson. Each essay collection is, of course, very different from the other. David’s essays explore the nature of collection, gently reminding the world that there is value in not only people’s cast-offs and refuse, but also weird cast-off television shows and movies as well. These are woven together with a thread of an essay about collecting 100 copies of the CD 10,000 Maniacs: Unplugged—a thread that occasionally shows David’s discomfort with his obsession with collection as well as a determination to see his 1 million Maniacs goal through to the end, through job loss and the diagnosis of his baby daughter with Type 1 diabetes.
     Edward’s essays dwell upon geographic locations and the human experience that spins out from them—with a not-insignificant focus on the consequences of human calamity in the form of nuclear threat, climate change and racism. The range from the more personal, spending time in Edward’s family home in Gettysburg, to the journalistic, with our fearless leader exploring the gas boomtowns of the Dakota plains and excavating dinosaur bones nearby. There’s also a focus on the quirky: Edward seeks out a man who builds concrete bunkers, and inhabits the body of a World Fair attendee. As different as they are, both collections share a similarity: the authors explore, in Edward’s words, “questions you just can’t let go.”
     Because we all know each other—the three of us as students in the University of Minnesota MFA program, and David and I further back, as Ander’s students in the undergraduate writing program at Grand Valley State University—I had the good fortune of pestering them about their work. —Morgan Sherburne


Morgan Sherburne: To start, I'll ask maybe a super boring question writers get over and over and over—but can you both talk a little bit about the impetus for these essays/books? Edward, your essays are about many different subjects, but with the common theme of environment/home(s)/future. What sparks the essay? And what do those moments look and feel like? David, you cover many different subjects, but with the common theme of collection/obsession/ collection/obsession. So many of these essays are about small moments. What's the moment look like in which you realize you want to write about a given subject—pogs, the killdozer, the collection of found tools?

Edward McPherson: 
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you mention obsession. It seems to me essays usually sprout from questions you just can’t let go—some sort of compulsion and/or confusion (intellectual, behavioral, emotional, what have you) that’s pushing you to circle around a topic.

     In the case of this book, I started out baby-stepping my way through it, essay by essay. I thought I wanted to write about the history of American places, and I wanted to mix the personal with a more journalistic view. So I first wrote about Dallas, where I grew up, because I hadn’t written much about it, and I had a friend who was writing for the relaunched tv soap, Dallas, right as we were nearing the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and there were all these intersections (or so it seemed to me) between who shot JFK and who shot J.R. So I did a bunch of research and made a trip to town, where I toured the sites and spent a few days on the set of the show, and an essay came out of that.
     But I didn’t have a road map for that essay and certainly not one for the book. In the beginning, I think I was hoping (and I know my agent was hoping!) that one of the essays might turn into a single-subject book, because doing months and months of research and spending time and money on travel—all for maybe 35 pages (on average) of prose—is a deeply inefficient way to write a book.
     Sadly, it’s the only way I know how. In each of these essays I’m either coming home (to a place I know well) or posing as a tourist (traveling to a place that holds a mystery, something I feel a need to see). For the North Dakota essay, for instance, I just kept reading about the Bakken oil boom and I got fixated on those nighttime videos from space in which you could see the blazing lights of the rigs and flares (where there had been nothing visible just years before). I also kept reading about the bone rush, how they kept finding important dinosaur fossils. And, sure, the two topics are superficially related—things being pulled out of the ground that are enriching the state—but it wasn’t until I was there touring the oil fields and digging for bones in the Badlands that I realized the essay was really about extinction. (Fossil fuels, fossils, climate change, the view from space or the other end of eternity.) It all seems so damn obvious now! But, truly, I had to go there to figure that out.
     And not every subject I tried panned out. For instance, for the past 15 years or so (ever since reading a brilliant piece by David Grann in the New Yorker), I have been obsessed with the century-old water tunnels of New York that run downhill for miles from upstate into the city. I mean, everything about these tunnels amazes me. So I got a bunch of long books with stunning architectural diagrams and happily pored over them before bed (no doubt to the detriment of anyone who engaged me in conversation during those months). But when I sat down to try to write something about these tunnels, there was just nothing there, no real question—only wonder. I was just awestruck, aesthetically. That’s as far as it went. So I had to ditch the water tunnels (and those months of research) and keep digging into New York. Moving sideways, I started reading about subway tunnels, and it just happens that I spent most of the morning of 9-11 stuck in a subway tunnel, and that got me thinking about my early days in New York when I was working at a magazine and about Joan Didion and essays about leaving New York and nostalgia and trauma…and at last I was going somewhere that felt both engaging and confusing.
     So that’s how I kept adding essays one at a time to the book, and I wasn’t sure right up until the very end that they would cohere. But I’m a big believer in a quote from Ben Greenman that I've tacked up over my desk: “A book of essays can be a constellation. Individual pieces shine like stars, but to see the whole project as a unified thing requires a mythology. You need faith to make out a shape around all those dots of light, to believe in the bear or the swan.”
     David, I imagine you’re under the sway of a similar kind of faith? Your essays—while circling a theme—certainly don’t feel proscribed or easy to anticipate, in a very lovely way...

David LeGault: I don't think there was a conscious choice to write about obsession, rather, I think I came to realize that all of the essays I was writing were pretty obsessive in their own way. I think so much of putting all the shorter stuff together into a book had to do with figuring out what it had in common, especially considering that so many of these essays vary in subject and even format—there's a 30-page essay about a VHS-based gaming system and an essay on people falling through ice and an essay that was originally published as a video of sounds I recorded in the dark. People would ask me what I was writing about and I wouldn't even know how to describe it, and any attempt at describing it made me (and still makes me) sound insane. I think when trying to organize it, it seemed like weird objects/ideas people hold onto seemed like a good fit, and then the Maniacs idea (which was an ongoing joke at my job) became a good idea for a narrative thread I could weave through...the Maniacs sections in the book were the only chunks actually written for the book, where everything else was just written on my own weird interests, and I had to try to justify it later.
     As far as the moment goes, I do think it goes back to the idea you mentioned of small moments. It really starts with curiosity—an interesting article, some research I stumbled across, or (while working at a used bookstore) when some bizarre book or piece of ephemera was brought to me directly. Or, like the found tools essay you mentioned, while out on a run and picking up the garbage I find on the ground. I try and learn as much as I can about the thing, and once I get enough information together I look for a pattern or a shape or an idea that I can write around. This usually leads to more research and more threads. I think this brings me back to the idea of writing about collections as well: just like a curator in a museum, I think it's the writer's job to take the collected information they have and put it into an order that directs a reader toward the bigger meaning. Different arrangements lead to different ideas—which is why I can watch the movie Air Bud and direct it towards child abuse and missed family connection, when it could just as easily have been about basketball playing dogs (which in retrospect may have been the better idea anyway).

Morgan: I’m always interested in how writers structure essays into a book. I noticed, David, of course, the construction of your Maniacs thread. I thought the thread worked very well and naturally. Edward, “Three Minutes to Midnight” felt very final and a very good cap for these essays, many of which have this nervousness about natural disasters/manmade disasters.

Edward: “Three Minutes to Midnight” was written last and meant to be something of a finale, or resting place. (It ends the vaguely western movement of the essays—we run into the ocean. It also encompasses some of the themes that were there from the beginning (such as conspiracy theories) but amps up the sense of apocalypse.) If the book is centered on places where the past is erupting into the present in unexpected (often uncomfortable) ways, then this is the essay which boomerangs most forcefully into the future. Where is this all headed? Doomsday and the apocalyptic imagination come into play, since that’s just another oversimplified narrative we cling to in order to duck responsibility and/or sleep soundly at night.

David: Really, for me it was a way for me to better highlight the passage of time, particularly as it related to the whole idea of collecting. I had no children when I started collecting these albums, and by the time I was finished I had two! One of them spent a week in intensive care and to this day she involves around-the-clock care. During that time I had flown to both the east and west coasts for job interviews for jobs I did not receive, instead going back to this retail job I strongly resented, but could not leave because of the health insurance my family desperately needed. In short, all the real-world “adult” stuff in my life was getting really serious, but everyday I would go to work and it would be the same, somewhat mindless reprieve from that as I'd sit in the basement of this store and price/listen to CD's for several hours a day. The idea of the Maniacs collection was becoming more ridiculous, but after two years and 70 CD’s out of 100, how can you stop? I think it helped as a structure for the book because it had a linear progression (zero to a million!) but also to show the significance the project took on: to have twenty copies of the same CD felt crazy, but once I got to 100 after several years, it felt important.

Morgan: David, research is clearly central to your essays, but the weaving together of the research and the personal is so effortless. When you're learning about a thing, what does that learning look like? Edward, can you talk about the difference between writing these essays and pure journalism?

Edward: Before getting an MFA (in fiction) I worked in magazines and newspapers and wrote two nonfiction books. So my early training was in journalism. But the pieces in this book feel very different to me than magazine features. They’re essays—i.e., containers for uncertainty and doubt. And, yes, the essays are a bit journalistic in that there’s an external subject (i.e. not me) that’s under consideration, and I use many of the tools of journalism (the interview, the reporting trip, and so on), and the ethics of journalism might come into play (in terms of how I handle facts, how I treat the people I come across), but I think these essays are also very personal, and they certainly don’t pretend to any sort of pure objectivity. All the information has been filtered through a very present me. So I imagine them floating in the middle of the spectrum, somewhere between the poles of so-called “literary journalism” and memoir.
     And like David, I love research. A recent review noted my reliance on catalogs—how I’m always trying to cram more into an essay. Again and again in the book—whether it’s with the 1904 World’s Fair or our attempts to nuke the moon—wonder and good intentions invariably go awry, often due to a kind of forgetting, an amnesia for the past. That forgetting bothers me, and I like the idea that these essays are my pitiful attempts to combat what Tennessee Williams called the “monosyllable of the clock”: loss, loss, loss. But not through nostalgia—since that’s just a way of sanitizing the past—or embalmment (that is, getting too precious with the historical detailing). Maybe I’m really just hoping to combat inattention, the perpetual distraction that seems to be our current way of being in the world. I mean, there is a bit of aggression in an 80-page essay. I’m trying to slow things down. Hopefully I’m not just the guy saying, “Enjoy a second helping of raw kale, kids!”—I’m always trying to move and entertain—but I am also trying to shift close attention onto the world (what is and what has come before).

David: I think my goal in writing an essay is to make as many connections as possible between seemingly disparate subjects, and I think research is the tool that best allows me to do that. In terms of how it works, it's very unstructured: like you say, a lot of Googling, or watching movies, or going through ephemera. Basically I continue to do it until some pattern emerges. I'm paraphrasing, but there was a really good David Foster Wallace quote about the difference between fiction and nonfiction: fiction starting with nothing and building it into a story, and nonfiction starting with everything and having to remove facts and details. Research helps me see which details to remove in order to shape the thing, especially when it shows us the strange or unexpected. I think Edward's response to the research question works for me as well. I think I am very present in a lot of these essays, even when the focus is on outside research. I think the arrangement and ordering of facts (As well as seeing which one the writer chooses to include) make it personal. Despite my use of facts, I really have no sense of how this would work with more typical journalistic impulses (and I really resist wanting to include citations), but I think my research approaches the same ends while taking a very different path.

Morgan: David, I loved one of the final pieces in this book—a very long (comparatively) essay wherein you slip into being the main actor in various video games. Can you talk a little bit about constructing that essay, especially its almost fiction-like forays into these other games? I'm also curious about your character's experience in the essay alongside your difficulties in real life—the illness of your daughter, Winnie, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at such a young age, and your job search. 
     Edward, all of these essays are so wide-ranging. How do you decide how far to let an essay range? Once you've drafted an essay, what's your process by which you corral it?

Edward: There’s always a tension between finding an ever-expanding terrain and letting an essay sprawl, which often signifies laziness (it means I haven’t figured out what exact questions I’m circling).
     In the early drafts, I let myself go anywhere—knowing that I will have to rein it in during editing. (Luckily, my wife is a particularly ruthless first reader of my work! She knows all my tics.) Starting out, I just cross my fingers that my ongoing aesthetic/artistic/moral/intellectual/ political preoccupations will somehow bind the thing and create some friction. Then I take a hard look at what I’ve got. Ultimately I’m going for something revealing but not didactic. I have to save room for surprise, uncertainty, ambivalence, and so on. The reader should be taken on an investigation that spirals outward and doesn’t end easily (if it ends at all). Then the next move is theirs to make.
     The St. Louis essay in particular mimics the delights and dangers of working this way, in that the essay models a kind of research process allowed to go unchecked. In other words, I'm guilty of the same wishful thinking as the organizers of the World’s Fair—the idea that you can, indeed, cram it all in, capture the whole world in a fair or reveal an entire city in an essay. There are real problems in these dreams that pretend to a kind of completeness—you’re always leaving someone/something out (see all the fair's racism, Eurocentrism, etc.). Thus there’s a moment in the essay when I go on a breathless rant about all the stuff that I have forgotten and/or left out. Turns out I’m a no-good tourist, too. And here I’m doing something I tell my students all the time: I’m trying to make a problem of my essay a problem in my essay.

David: This essay did come about in a different way than a lot of the other essays in the book. Although it certainly fit into the bookstore narrative—several of the VHS tapes of this game did come into work and I did pull them out of a dumpster—the essay was originally a pitch for the Boss Fight Books Series (an awesome publishing project that I highly recommend). I wrote a proposal on the game that wasn’t exactly the right fit, but digging into the game, I was reminded how much imaginative energy I spent as a child pretending to be in this really odd world that no one else cares about, and how badly I wanted other people to care about it (especially The Rescue of Pops Ghostly, which I’m linking here because it really is surreal and worth watching). As an adult, I don’t really get to play video games anymore, but I think they are a compelling subject to write about because they do place the audience in the role of the main character, giving you a chance to change the outcome or (in newer, bigger games) change the story entirely. It also feels like cheating in that I get to write nonfiction that includes ghosts and robots and fantastical elements while still sticking to the essay form. These games give you all the illusions of playing a game like this without any of the payoff, which felt particularly apt when talking about the aforementioned illness and job search stuff.
     In any case, it gets back to the accumulation aspect of my writing: this project was envisioned as an entirely different thing, but eventually I realized that all my essays were more or less getting at the same ideas whether I intended it or not, so the piece was a natural fit for the collection at a certain point.

Morgan: And, finally, from whom do you draw inspiration as writers? Do you have an essayist or poet or novelist who makes you think, “I need to go to work now.” Edward, who do you admire in the journalistic essay genre?

I always have such a hard time with this (what should be a softball) question: I do think it just goes back to obsession in the more general sense. I love to see people get excited or angry or frustrated about something that only they care about. And I think it comes from high-brow and low-brow sources. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands out because it starts in a pretty journalistic way and gets progressively more intense as Agee tries (and fails) to capture what he's trying to capture; his frustration is what makes that book so important to me. Of course, I get equally excited about stuff like this because of how batshit crazy it is to spend hundreds of hours trying to find ways to beat Super Mario faster, to learn how to re-write the code of the game by jumping on shells. With that said, I think the correct formula needs more than obsession (it's why I wouldn't call that video interesting in itself, even though the material of it would make a great essay). Maybe it needs the writer's self awareness (or in my case shame or embarrassment), or maybe a more confident writer than I doesn't have to justify their obsession and can simply move on to finding its deeper meaning without also arguing for its existence in the first place.

Edward: There are so many free-ranging journalistic essayists (let’s just call them writers) to whom I owe a debt: Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Kolbert, Teju Cole, Valeria Luiselli, Lillian Ross, John McPhee, Hilton Als, Svetlana Alexievich, Robert Sullivan, Jo Ann Beard, Susan Orlean, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Eula Biss, Denis Johnson, Jamaica Kincaid, D.J. Waldie, James Baldwin, and on and on. All these people really nail characters and/or a sense of place (or sometimes place as character).
     But when I was off wandering the Badlands or oil boomtowns or the atomic desert or the streets of Dallas/Brooklyn/LA/etc., the books I most often carried with me were the Joan Didion classics from the ’60s and ’70s (Slouching…, The White Album).
     Why her, other than the fact that I fell in love with those books years ago in college (and obsessively read her leaving New York essay—like everyone else—when I was working my first Manhattan magazine job)?
     As the book grew darker, something about her paranoia, her relentlessly apocalyptic imagination felt right—it seemed like a certain disastrous amnesia had leeched out across the land. Craftwise, I love her jumps in time and space (offering a kind of angsty cubist view), how she walks the intersection between personal and cultural breakdowns, and all those killer details she fixates on (that act as tuning forks picking up whatever eerie background music is going unheard by the major players in the scene). She’s never really at home; she always claims to know and not know a place, which is why she takes the temperature of every room she enters. Most of all, I like how she arranges all these collisions—within a sentence, within a paragraph—of things that can’t neatly coexist (the personal and the public, our past and present selves, history and the future, an insider and an outsider point of view, etc.)—for me, that’s what makes these places come alive. I’d follow a writer anywhere if the landscape is finely textured and populated with complex creatures and feelings.


Morgan Sherburne has an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an MS in science writing from MIT. She's a science writer on the University of Michigan News team.

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