Monday, May 9, 2016

An Interview with William Bradley by Jill Talbot

“We are made of cells—the building blocks of life. These tiny fractals contain the information that makes us us. On a microscopic level, we’re all quite similar to each other indeed.” —“Self-Similar,” from Fractals

If William Bradley were to get a tattoo, he tells us in his debut essay collection, Fractals, it would be this quote from E. B. White’s “The Ring of Time”: “I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost."

In his essay, Bradley imagines unbuttoning his shirt and baring his chest at the bar during a future academic conference to show off his tribute. And while I like to envision a table set up at the next AWP Book Fair or NonfictioNow Conference with a donation box labeled, “William Bradley’s E.B. White Tattoo Fund,” it’s clear that William Bradley has already imprinted the influence of E.B. White’s “safekeeping” through his own essays, engaging with “worldly and unworldly enchantment,” including, but not limited to:

David Bowie
Frederic Nietzsche
Joan Didion
The Flash #125 (1961)
Funny Men of the Adirondacks
Wonder Woman
Andre Dubus
A Nightmare on Elm Street
All Star Family Feud on DVD
Charles Lamb
Flannery O’Connor
Friday the 13th
General Hospital

“To write, and to write about stuff that mattered to me [motivates me] even if it strikes some as silly or lowbrow. The world changes fast,” Bradley reminds us, “and life as we know it changes before we have time to register.” Bradley knows this firsthand. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1998 and again in 2000, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments as well as an autologous bone marrow transplant. At the age of twenty-two, Bradley’s doctor told him he had a 40% chance of living to be twenty-seven. That was over fifteen years ago, and most of those years he’s been married to his wife, Emily, who made him promise when they were dating that he would never write about her. Spoiler alert: he writes about her. A lot, but beautifully and poignantly, I might add.

William Bradley and I exchanged e-mails over the course of a week or so, thinking about empathy, essaying, his preoccupation with memory, the flash form, and the light of his work.

I’d like to begin with a feature you wrote that appeared in the Utne Reader in 2013, “Acquiring Empathy Through Essays,” in which you point out:

It’s impossible for us to live the lives of others, of course, but essays give us a record of someone else’s consciousness—the act of reading these essays and interacting with these minds on the page is the closest thing we have to telepathy in the real world.

You also note, “I do think we’d be better off if we heeded the essayist’s reminder that we can find common ground with other people.” I’m wondering if you are conscious of establishing this “common ground” for your readers and if so, what foundation you work from in these essays?

Do you think the essayist should be concerned with creating this common ground, with keeping that “Dear Reader” in mind?

When I wrote that essay, I was thinking primarily of the value of reading essays. I hadn’t given much thought to my process when writing an essayat least, not in those terms. But yes, I do think it’s useful for the essayist to keep the “dear reader” in mind. I think that is maybe what separates essay writing from keeping a journalthat expectation of an audience. So as such, I think that my persona as an essayist is perhaps a bit different from my persona as, say, a Facebook user.

Scott Russell Sanders has this great line in "The Singular First Person" where he writes, "I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass." I liked that idea of the essay as a mode of connection, much like I appreciate the idea of self-similarity in fractal geometry, which I write about a bit in the book. You don't necessarily have to have had the experience of feeling regret over picking on your younger brother when you were kids, as I write about in one of the early essays in the book, just as you don't need to be in love with my wife to understand what I'm writing about. I think most of us have experienced regret, and probably most of us have experienced love, too. I think that's common enough ground for us to understand each other. Or at least, I hope so.

That Sanders essay knocks me out every time I read (teach) it. I have underlined and commented so extensively in the margins I need a new copy of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye.

You write the regret of picking on your brother in “And Never Show Thy Head By Day Nor Light,” the second essay in the collection, which was originally published in Burlesque Press. I love to teach that essay—to discuss the significance of your opening line “It must have been spring or summer, but the seasons didn’t really have too much meaning back then,” (the uncertainty of memory) as well as point out how you use one childhood experience to stand as the testament to your guilt, your regret. When I teach it, I use it as a model for how we can use one moment to represent an entire relationship. Wonderful.

You perform this uncertainty-of-memory strategy in another essay my students always connect with, “Cathode,” which originally appeared in Sweet. The regret in that essay haunts them, and me, because we all carry a regrettable moment like that from our childhoods, when we turned someone away or were turned away. In the essay, you interject phrases like “I don’t know,” “Maybe,” “All I’ve got is that image” throughout to perform your hesitancy, your memory that’s “like an old television set, turned on after the show has started.”

What role does memory play in your thinking, in how you work through a memory, or pieces of a memory, on the page?

"Cathode," as I recall, was written in response to either a prompt or call for submissions specifically about memory, and I was struck by the way that some of my memories of very specific moments are incredibly vivid, even as the events and moments that surround them seem fuzzy—like the way a television image would come into focus or fade out as an old television set was turned on and off. I was also self-consciously thinking of Nabokov describing his memories being projected onto a screen with him as the sole audience member in the theater. I like that idea of our memories being like a show for us, you know? Also, I really liked that Nabokov description and wanted to try to do something like that without completely plagiarizing him.

But you know, I'm awfully preoccupied with memory, because my own is so bad, but I'm pretty sure it used to be really sharp. I tend to blame the chemotherapy. It's kind of a joke in my house that I don't remember things very well, that my wife has to remind me of people I've met or conversations we've had. When I was a kid, I was acutely aware of when other people forgot or mis-remembered things, and I feel like I had a better memory than most people right up until around the bone marrow transplant and aggressive chemotherapy treatments. This is the sort of thing that really bothers me.

Of course, I still have all the words to the Mr. Belvedere theme song tucked away, so who knows what's going on in my brain?

You know, I take the idea of telling the truth as one remembers it pretty seriously in essay writing. I mean, I like to mess around with form—my wife does not, in fact, have the same origin as Wonder Woman—but I also like to signpost when I'm veering off into speculative or unreliable territory—as in "Nana," the essay about the grandmother I didn't know very much about. So I use those phrases you point out, as well as things like "I imagine" or "I suspect," in order to signal to the reader that I'm being honest, but I'm not necessarily being correct. This is honestly what the inside of my head looks like, but I make no assurances regarding the content that's up there, you know?

“Nana” is one of my favorites in the book because of this unreliable territory, which allows you to tell the reader, “So I haven’t written an essay about my grandmother.”

“I’m being honest, but I’m not necessarily being correct.” So true. I was talking to my students yesterday about how I distinguish reality (what happened) to what I consider psychological reality (what it seemed like to me) by showing them a segment of one of my essays and telling them everything I left out of it. So I like your distinction—I’ll definitely borrow that (and give due credit).

Your work has a we’re-sitting-down-at-a-bar (or at a corner table in a coffee shop) and I’m telling you what I’ve been thinking lately quality. For readers here at Essay Daily who don’t know, you and I have sat at a bar next to each other talking and thinking, and we often noted how most of those conversations were about essaying, essayists, even ideas for our next essay. But I don’t think I ever asked how you came to be an essayist.

I love these lines about writing finding a writer from Pablo Neruda’s “Poetry”: 

And it was at that age . . . poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, not silence,
but from a street it called me,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among raging fires
or returning alone,
there it was, without a face,
and it touched me.

How (or when or where or why) did the Essay find you?
I suppose I first encountered the essay during a creative nonfiction workshop the fall semester of my senior year in college, shortly before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and had to take some time off from school. That classtaught by our mutual friend Natalia Rachel Singerintroduced me to the work of Joan Didion, which in hindsight was a pivotal moment in my development as a writer. Prior to that, I was mostly interested in fiction and screenwriting.

I wouldn't say I really got interested in the essay then, thoughmuch of that class (and subsequent classes taken in grad school) focused more on memoirs and a little literary journalism. But I would say that my early experiences with the essay coincided with the experience of getting very, very sick when I was quite young. I'm not one for support groups or "survivor's walks" at the Relay for Life or anything like that, but the thing about going through chemotherapy in a roomful of other people who are also getting chemotherapy at the same time is that it reminds you that you are connected to other human beings just by virtue of living and eventually dying. We share a lot of the same concerns and anxieties. The differences we perceive among ourselves aren't as great as we think. I have an essay in Fractals that sort of explores how I found myself finding an unlikely connection with a rather nasty, racist old man in that chemotherapy room, precisely because I knew we both shared the fear that the cancer was going to kill us.

I found those moments of connections in the essays I was reading at roughly the same time. I'm not saying I "related" to what I was reading—I find the idea of "relating" to a work of art overrated—but there were these moments of recognition, regardless.

I was largely self-taught when it came to essay writing—as I said before, most of my classes tended to focus on literary journalism and memoir—though I did get some valuable suggestions from people like Natalia Rachel Singer, Bob Cowser, Paul Lehmberg, Maureen Stanton, and Doug Hunt (great teachers, all of them). And reading Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay from cover to cover was an education as well. In the late 90s and early years of the current century, people talked about creative nonfiction as an "emerging genre," something new and different. It was useful to read Lopate's anthology—and, later, John D'Agata's anthologies—in order to realize that, in fact, this was not the case. The essay has existed, in one form or another, for probably as long as language as existed, really. It's just that a lot of people didn't realize this.

And honestly, I liked knowing that I realized this even when others didn't. I felt like a hipster, appreciating a band that most people have never even heard of. Clever, and probably way too smug.

I feel that way as well. I consider myself a self-taught essayist because I only took one creative nonfiction workshop at the end of my graduate studies, and I’m still studying. Every time I read an essay, an essay collection, a memoir, I move beyond reading to studying. In fact, this summer I plan to attend the University of D’Agata (I have all three of his anthologies waiting for me in a stack in my living room).

You’ve been consistently publishing essays since 2005, and your essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and listed as Notable in Best American Essays. In the past four years, a version of Fractals was named a finalist in contests run by two presses.

After ten years of writing and publishing essays, why did you consider this the time to collect them into a book? And why these particular essays?

I suppose it goes back to my education, really. Looking back, I was probably always more attracted to essays than other forms of creative nonfiction writing, but it also seemed to me that "successful" creative nonfiction writers were writing memoirs. I liked reading essays in Brevity or The Missouri Review, and I certainly enjoyed essay collections like The White Album and One Man's Meat, but it seemed to me that to publish a book, I would need to write a book like This Boy's Life or A Heartbreaking Word of Staggering Genius. I didn't really see the essay collection as being something viable.

So I tried to write a memoir about the cancer experience. Some of it was okay, but it seemed like those were the "chapters" that also stood on their own as essays, while the chapters that functioned as "connective tissue," turning these essays into one book-length story, were quite bad. And you don't have to take my word for it—I had plenty of agents and potential publishers reject it over the years. It was sloppy and amateurish because, well, I was a sloppy amateur, but also because I was fighting against my own instincts as a writer. By that point, I was reading essays a lot more frequently than I was reading memoirs. I was much more excited by works by people like Joan Didion and E.B. White (to think of more famous, creative nonfiction "classics") and contemporaries like Steven Church, Eula Biss, and, eventually, you. But it took me way too long to realize I didn't actually want to write a memoir after all.

Of course, once I realized I wanted to write an essay collection, it took me a little while to figure out what essays I'd already written should be included, and what else I still wanted to write about. For a time, I put the book idea on the back burner and just published essays—I was teaching at a place that didn't expect a book for tenure, so I had the luxury of just doing what I wanted, essay-wise, without thought to a collection. Of course, then I left that job and felt a new pressure to publish a book if I wanted to stay in academia. I didn't wind up staying in academia (or at least, I'm not an academic at the moment), but that pressure turned out to be a good motivator. I had my most productive years, in terms of writing and publishing, between 2012 and 2015, when I was a visiting assistant professor. And it certainly helped that I met and lived next door to you, having a friend to talk to about this work, to share drafts with each other. And my good friend Michael Piafsky was just absolutely indispensable as I was finishing the manuscript after you moved away. The original version of the book had two additional essays in it, and had been rejected by a couple of places after a really long time, which suggested to me that they had been read and carefully considered. I finally had Michael read the book, then I told him I suspected these two essays weren't working, and he said, "That's absolutely right. Take them out." And that's how I came to publish a 35 page book.

Well, it's longer than that. But it's slim. But I prefer to think of it as lean—I cut the fat from it, and as a result I think it's a pretty tight 150 pages.

Part of the leanness of your book is in the abundance of flash essays. To my count, of the twenty-eight essays in the book, seventeen of them are within the 500-1000 word range. In fact, the longest essay in Fractals comes in a bit over 2,000.

I consider you one of the masters of the flash form, William. You were part of Creative Nonfiction’s roundtable discussion, “The Square Root of True,” in which you noted, “We don’t expect something told in such a short form to knock us over with truth or beauty. So when it happens, we’re sort of left breathless.” I feel this way every time I finish one of your shorter essays—why do you think you tend toward brevity as an essayist? And how much work goes into composing within such a compressed frame?

It's funny that you should point out my tendency towards brevity, because for the past couple of months, I've actually been working on this really long, book-length essay—almost the opposite of what I did in Fractals. But at the same time, this long essay is segmented into these shorter component parts (with the shortest segment being seven words long), so maybe I am still focused on flash prose in some ways.

Also, I think some of my essays are considerably longer. The stuff I've published in The Normal School, Sequart, and The Mary Sue, for example. Those are essays that are largely focused on popular culturesuperhero comic books in particular. They're different from the essays in Fractals. In some ways, they're kind of cultural studies by way of the personal essay, I suppose.

But I think my best work probably does tend to be brief—or, in the case of the new project, broken up into brief sections or vignettes. I think works under a thousand words or so demand a careful attention to language— I'm not sure my longer essays are as interesting at the sentence-level as the shorter work. I mean, we tell creative writing students that every word needs to count, but I'm not sure we go back and question every word choice in a 3500 word essay the way we do in a 600 word essay. Or at least, I don't. I shouldn't presume to speak for anyone else.

I'll complete a first draft of a short essay in one sitting, maybe spending a few hours sitting at the computer, editing and second-guessing myself as I write, deleting words or phrases or rearranging paragraphs as I go along and discover what it is I'm actually writing about. Then I'll usually give it a couple of days, then come back and say, "Okay, how do I make this shorter?" I got into this habit when I was in grad school, dreaming of the day that I would write something good enough for Brevity. I think it was a good habit to develop. Usually, the first step is to go through and start eliminating adverbs. 99 percent of the time, they're not doing anything to make the essay better—they're just fat. It's like throwing an entire stick of butter on your baked potato. You think it's going to help, but you're actually ruining it.

I also have to be on the lookout for certain words and phrases I rely on too much. "Honestly" is a big one. So is "It seemed to me." And "Clearly." These are the tics that drive me crazy in my own writing.

I also horribly overuse em-dashes in first drafts—I think because I'm never quite sure where any given sentence is going to end, so I keep going, and it all becomes a jumbled mess. So I have to go back and simplify my sentences, frequently.

And look. I just used an em-dash right there, as I was explaining my addiction to them. I'm going to keep it there though. I think it works okay.

Sometimes, an essay is ready to be sent out in a matter of days. My most recent acceptance, about listening to Prince's "1999" on New Year's Eve 1998-99, a few days after being released from the hospital after the bone marrow transplant, was like that. Drafted it Wednesday, revised and sent it out on Thursday, got the acceptance Saturday morning. But that's pretty rare. It usually takes considerably longer. My essay "Brick," which is forthcoming in Pine Hills Review, is short but took a year and a half, maybe two years to get right.

This whole discussion reminds me of the time that I visited your class when we were both teaching at St. Lawrence. I think you had just taught "Julio at Large." You asked me when I made the shift towards the lyric essay, and I think I responded, "Is that what I do?" As soon as you pointed it out, I could see it, but I hadn't realized it before. I hadn't thought about my own work like that, until a smart reader and fellow writer asked me about my process and why I make some of the choices I make (even the ones I'm not always aware I'm making).

One moment I recall vividly about that time at St. Lawrence is when you texted me after reading one of my essays and wrote something like, “You’re not afraid to go to the dark places.” I was lying on my couch reading, and I sat up and asked the empty room, “Dark places?” I like when readers point to aspects or elements of the writing that writers didn’t consciously do—happens all the time.

But our work differs vastly in this regard of darkness. If my essays had a dimmer switch, that dimmer spins all the way toward dark, where there are only shadows and thin silhouettes, whereas as you, my friend, may enter a dark room but it’s always back-lit with quirkiness and humor and wit, such light.

You write, often, how you desire to be a better person, that “the knowledge that we don’t have much time is an admonishment not to waste any.” This is another distinct characteristic of your essaying—the tendency to uplift, to point to the days ahead with wonder and gratitude. Do you recognize (or conscientiously work toward) this element in your essays?

I remember sending that textit was shortly after we met, when you published "What I Learned in Homemaking" in The Rumpus. Such a powerful essay. I've subsequently written about sometimes feeling the need to "walk off" a certain type of Jill Talbot essay, they can be so emotionally intense. That was, I think, the first time I experienced that type of power in your writing, and I felt like I needed to tell you right away that your essay had elicited such a strong reaction.

I wouldn't say I'm self-conscious about uplift or gratitude—it's probably just something that is built into my personality. I'm very much aware that as a white, heterosexual American man, I benefit from all sorts of unearned privilege. And I'm very much aware that I have been very lucky in my life—18 years ago, I was told that I probably wouldn't live for another five years, my cancer was so pernicious. So the fact that I spent last night sitting on the couch watching television with the wife and two cats who love me is pretty amazing. I try not to lose sight of that, and when I'm reflecting carefully—as I do in my essays—I inevitably return to the truth that I'm incredibly fortunate. I'd have to be a really miserable, solipsistic son of a bitch to reach any other conclusion.

Having said that, the new project is definitely dark—it's largely focused on this experience I had last summer, when I was once again hospitalized and very nearly died due to some cardiac problems that were probably related to all of the chemotherapy I received when I was in my early twenties. If my cancer essays are fundamentally about being grateful to have survived, then this essay is about coming to terms with the knowledge that any survival is, by definition, temporary. I will die someday. Odds are, I will die younger than most of my contemporaries. What does it mean to understand that, to really understand that and live with it? It seems unfair, but paradoxically I also know that I have been luckier than any person could have reasonably expected. And can a man who has experienced so much happiness and love in his life really complain about something as common as mortality?

In some ways, I'm constrained by my material. My work is not consistently dark because I don't have a whole hell of a lot to complain about. I mean, I'm not rich, and I'm still trying to get my professional life straightened out, but all the stuff that matters to me is going well. My marriage is strong. My parents are healthy. My best friends in the world still love me. I'm afraid of getting sick again. I'm afraid of dying. But that doesn't make me unique. It's not as noteworthy, I think, as the fact that my wife knows me well enough to know that the All-Star Family Feud DVD set was the best birthday present she could have bought for me.

In the video for David Bowie's song "The Stars Are Out Tonight," Bowie and Tilda Swinton play this kind of boring married couple whose lives are upended when a suspiciously-familiar looking, gender-blurring couple move in next door. But before all of the transgressive sexuality begins, there's a scene in a grocery store where Swinton's character says to Bowie's character, "We have a nice life," and Bowie repeats the line, as if the idea had never occurred to him, "We have a nice life." In the context of the video, that line is understood to be ironic. But Emily and I have sort of appropriated it in a more sincere way. Every so often, one of us will turn to the other, and marvel, "We have a nice life." Because we love Bowie, but also because it's absolutely true.

As a coda to our conversation, I’d like to include a line from the final essay in Fractals, one that points to the intersection where all essayists connect:

“While it’s dangerous to live in the past, to give in to nostalgia’s deceptive pull, I think we’re well-served by making an effort to remember the world as it existed, as we perceived it at the time. Holding onto what was real keeps us rooted to who we have been, and reminds us of the world—or perhaps, more accurately, worlds—we have lived in.”


William Bradley is the author of Fractals, an essay collection recently published by Lavender Ink. His work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, and Utne Reader. He can be found online at and under the Twitter handle William_Bradley. He can be found in person in North Central Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two cats.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, and The Pinch.

1 comment: