A 'Paris Review'-Style Interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan

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When I called John Jeremiah Sullivan midway through the week at 9:30 in the morning, I was addled from too much coffee and more than a little bit jumpy. I have been a fan of his work since reading his 2006 essay on Axl Rose’s comeback for GQ and was excited to ask him about his new book. (If you have any doubts about his skills, just read his latest essay for The New York Times on Disney World.) I spoke to the big-hearted southern editor at The Paris Review for over an hour. We talked about his book of essays, titled Pulphead , which comes out on November 1st, as well as his various obsessions — which are many. Also, I’d like to note that I did not include a potentially mortifying video of his Moby Dick-inspired band playing live in Bryant Park, but could have. Consider it a favor, Mr. Sullivan. So read on, dear readers, and let us know what you think about this alarmingly intelligent Southern gent in the comments section below.

Can you tell me how Fayaway (your band) got started?

I guess it’s more of a project than a band. We never really played live; we never really play at all. My friend Nick who lives down the street, we sometimes get together in the middle of the night and do weird musical recordings. He’s a person who can make his own gear.

He’s making Theremins?

Synthesizers, yeah. So we mess around and then we did this really fun thing. Peter Terzian was having a reading in Bryant Park and I think the organizers said, let’s do something more than a reading, let’s get some entertainment sideshow act, so we got together with James Wood, who is a studio-level drummer on top of being one of the best lit critics in the world. James played bongos. So we did this thing in the park that probably ended up being more like a performance art piece than a show.

Were there mimes?

Yeah, we hadn’t even told them we were going to be there, it just happened. That was pretty much the existence of Fayaway up until this point.

Do you guys still tool around?

We only talk about it. The experiment has become even more pure.

It’s just a concept.

Barely.

Were you ever in any bands in high school?

Oh yeah. My first band, Prisoners of Conscience, was great. POC. We had our own symbol and everything. I remember we all wore jean jackets of varying hues. They were pretty disgusting at practice; we would order pizzas and they would lick the pieces to claim their piece. It was just gross.

How old were you at this time?

Thirteen, I guess.

What did you play?

Guitar. I was taking lessons from a born-again Christian named Rex in the back room of Sweet River Music. He would witness to me and teach me at the same time. We figured out all the “Chronic Town” chords together.

Rhythm or lead?

Very good question. I’d have to listen to the recordings. I know there was some three-note soloing going on. I got started early because my brother is a pretty serious musician; my mom also is a wonderful guitar player. She can play all kinds of folk songs, so it was always around. These days the guitar I play is her 1963 Guild classical, the one she played in her dorm in college. It’s like playing a stick of butter. My brother is scheming even not to get it back.

Is that why you started as a music writer?

Oh definitely. Definitely. My interest has always been technical from the beginning because I was interested in songwriting, sort of the math of it. I’ve never been all that good at it but I like it in a hobbyist way. That was one of the amazing things about doing music writing professionally is that I was getting access to these people who really knew something about the science of that and how it worked; I got to ask them a lot of questions—not all of which I ended up being able to use in the articles. That included genius songwriters whose stuff I’ve always loved like Bunny Wailer, but also included people like Simon Cowell who were maybe taking more of a cynical stance on it but had also thought about it in a systematic way.

Or that moment in the book where you talk to John Fahey about blues. In a lot of ways, it seems like an obsession, as if it’s a puzzle to solve.

That really ended up being a guiding principle in picking out which pieces would end up in the book; they all are chronicles of some obsession or some subject I couldn’t get out of my head. The piece about Andrew Lytle, for instance—an experience that needed to be purged.

John McPhee said something to the effect that all the things he had written about where things he was interested in when he was young. Do you feel the same way?

Yes, I really do. I’m disturbed sometimes by the consistency of the different fixations. It would suggest pathology to any objective bystander.

Is it a coincidence that your wife’s initials are the same as Michael Jackson’s?

I could pay somebody to help me figure that out, or I could just move on from it. I did have a fish called MJ that was my first pet and he was named very explicitly after Michael Jackson.

What happened to him?

He died in that way that goldfish do where it’s just a mystery. He just decided to die. I’m sure we had a crappy small bowl where you didn’t get the stuff you were supposed to get, filters and water chemicals.

Mine committed suicide by jumping out of the bowl and I found it under my bed.

It was trying to signal you.

So, what’s your new book about?

I’m writing a book about Native Americans in the Southeast in the early 18th century. It’s a nonfiction book. The cave art essay in Pulphead—there was a time when I thought of it as part of this book, as sort of a room of this book, but it ended up getting extruded. Only after I wrote it did I realize that it had been just an undercurrent or a sub-frequency of the main project.

[JJS takes a call]

So what were we talking about?

Your nonfiction book.

Oh yeah. So it’s about this guy named Christian Prieber. He was from Upper Saxony. He was a lawyer, and he came over to the South in the first half of the 18th Century and tried to establish a Utopia, an Enlightenment republic among the Cherokee Indians in the South, in what is now Southeastern Tennessee. He wrote this book while he was there, an amazing book that almost shouldn’t exist at that particular point in history. It was a kind of Constitution for a new society that would be multiracial, sexually liberated, socialistic. He was pursued for years by the English, finally arrested, and died in prison. His book was lost. That’s what’s assumed, anyway. My book is about what happened to his book. It’s a non-fiction adventure tale with footnotes.

How did you find him?

I had a wonderful professor in college named Bates who’d done some work on the Paradise story at one time, and he infected me with it. It’s a big, blobular thing that has been messing with my life for fifteen years, and it’s taken a lot of shapes, but has ended up being something fairly straightforward. I had to collect enough information to make that possible. And still it took a lot of people’s help. I had to let go of some visualizations of my book that now seem downright egomaniacal, when I look at them. They were also cowardly in a weird way, because they envisioned a book that couldn’t be written. Not by me. It would have required 300 years to work. I had to accept defeat and say, okay, sometimes the right thing is to write, “Three hundred years ago, there was a war.” Put down a board and build forward from there.

When do you expect it to come out?

I think I can finish it by the end of next year, by the end of 2012. I want to get it in by the world’s end.

In Pulphead, it was interesting how you used “us” and “we” as a strategy in the Tea Party piece when you described their march on Washington. Why did you write it this way?

Yeah, why did that happen? It wasn’t written that way originally… somehow it felt less dishonest because I had marched with them. I hadn’t shouted them down, which is probably what a truly honorable person would’ve done, you know, to try to seize the megaphones and just shout down what was happening. I hadn’t done that. I just marched along and watched. Part of that too was seeing so many people around me who were surprisingly like me, just in crude demographic terms. I say “surprisingly” because all the media talk or at least the idea you absorbed from the media was that these were all old people, but the crowd was much younger than I expected, and that made it seem more powerful for one thing, and less dismissible, as it has proven to be.

I saw one terrible thing happen that I don’t think I wrote about. On the way out of the march, three older white guys from the Midwest, they look like they could’ve been WWII veterans or just a little bit younger than that… they had run into this Italian guy. They had some outrageous stuff written on their signs and he was trying to question them and being pretty civic-spirited, and it’s getting more and more heated; I’m standing there watching and making notes, and then finally they push the button, they go there, and they’re saying, “Why don’t you just go back to your country! Why don’t you just leave this country and go back to where you came from!” and it was this terrible moment like being at a family reunion and somebody you’re related to does something really ghastly and you yourself are diminished by what happened. I know I felt like that and the few people around me did, or at least I hope so. The Italian guy is waving his hands and saying, “No, no, no, you mustn’t say that, do you know how bad that is? Do you understand how bad that is?” and these guys are just waving their hands at him, like they were trying to make him go away. Atavism. We’re watching it happen.

And then you met up with your cousin, who is a “government-affairs executive” at the end of the article…

It almost felt fake, the setup was so perfect that I actually walked from the Tea Party rally to have drinks with my cousin, who at the time was a lobbyist for the insurance industry (he’s moved on), but he was the person I would’ve visited, even if I were in town to go to the Smithsonian or wherever. We’re fairly close. So that was also part of the “we” thing, maybe. I had benefited all my life from the largesse of the industry that was providing ideological fuel for the people at that rally, you know. Had I ever spoken out against it?

Maybe POC did (your high school band).

Oh we did, believe me. We worshiped a local punk band called Infants of Sin and covered one of their songs. “Gotta find an escape / from such a fucking WASTE!” I would fling my long bang when I said Waste!

But why is there so much history in that piece, which was a reported piece? Why do you choose that mode? Some readers will say, just tell me what’s happening.

I don’t think anybody in the weeks after that piece came out, or since for that matter, said a word about the Ben Franklin stuff. Maybe I overestimate how interesting it was, because of my eighteenth century weakness, but—how much ink have we spent, how many hours of cable news have been devoted to the question of what the founding fathers would have done? I’m rewinding a bit to the health care debate, and the strange meteor’s death of the public option. But I remember that question taking on an urgency: is this in the program, are we supposed to do this? Is it in the nature of the country as a political experiment to attempt this? And it so happens that in our history we have an almost perfect laboratory-level example of a founding father taking on this question, and not just a founding father but the founding father of the founding fathers, Ben Franklin. His friend comes to him with a project to create a hospital that will give free health care to the poor (including immigrants and people in rural areas who don’t have good hospitals), and Franklin wants the colonial assembly to pay for it. They say, “We don’t have to.” Now, what was Franklin’s solution? He tricked them into doing it, through force of personality and will. So that doesn’t really help us. But the conditions of his problem matched ours to an almost uncanny degree, and we know what he thought about it. We can say, “Founding Father, what do you think?” and Franklin’s says, You have to do it. Actually he has this beautiful phrase: “As far as our power reaches.” That’s what he says. We have to take care of our people, if they can’t care for themselves, as far as our power reaches. I thought, damn, that’s solid ground to stand on. You could put that into a speech.

Any advice to give young writers and journalists?

Focus on what you can control, which is your own work–your writing, getting better at it, writing better sentences, being less full of shit. Don’t think you’re a genius. That’s death. If you feel like you could fairly happily not write, strongly consider it. Don’t listen to chicken-little stuff about publishing and the death of reading and whatnot. The forms and modes just change. Style endures. Force of attention endures. You can’t fake it.

Most of all never completely trust advice from older writers. It’s all cryptically self-serving in some way.

Think about this: in the future, the breaking news will be that Justin Bieber is older.

That’s going to be a very hard hairdo to fake. Have you thought about that—the weight of those implants? The plugs will need to be anchored deep. My six-year-old recently had a mild case of Bieber fever. She could do one of his dances. Around the same time she wrote a Bieber-like song that went, “You’ll be coming back to me, yeah / You’ll be coming back to me.” Fleetwood Mac-y. I don’t know what she’s going to be, but something interesting.

Thank you for that.

Thank you.