Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me, Theoretical Killings, and most recently The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published widely and his piece, “Auscultation” was selected for the forthcoming 2011 Best American Essays.
His latest work of memoir/criticism/personal essay (we’ll get to the issue of genre in the interview), The Day After The Day After, delves deeply into Kansas culture, Cold War paranoia, and Church’s own psyche, primarily using the mostly-forgotten Eighties scare-flick The Day After, which was filmed in our shared hometown, Lawrence, Kansas.
We went to the same high school in Kansas – I was a sophomore when Church was a senior – but didn’t know each other. I later met Church through his writing when Patrick Madden introduced me to his work. I’d written my own piece that mentioned my own memories of The Day After, and Madden must have wondered what kind of hold this film had on an entire generation of Kansans.
The movie’s effects on the youth of Lawrence at the time were intense and twofold. First, anyone who remembers seeing the film will remember the sheer dread of watching the fictional town of Lawrence blown to smithereens and permanently irradiated in the movie. But second, the reality of the movie’s filming left a permanent impression on an entire generation of Lawrencians, as the entire town was involved. Children were dressed up as radiation victims, the downtown was temporarily “demolished,” and a college town that considers itself a shining light of progressive values in the nation’s most conservative state was asked by the film crew to act as downhome and traditional as possible to fit the fiction of the movie’s narrative.
The Day After The Day After is a meditation on this confluence of fiction and nonfiction, giving fictional characters from the film an almost mythical significance in his own understanding of the world. I began my interview with Church with this thin line between fiction and nonfiction in mind.
– John Proctor
The Day After the Memoir: An Interview with Steven Church
By John Proctor
JP – One paragraph from The Day After The Day After in particular gave me a deeper understanding of my relationship to Kansas and my relationship to my own work as a nonfiction writer:
“The Kansas I know is like a long novel I finished years ago, a novel of which I remember every word. It was a great story, filled with wonderful characters and compelling plotlines, but it was epic and psychologically cumbersome and, in many ways, mostly fiction.” (180)
SC – Glad you liked that. It took me a while to reach that understanding of home. I think those lines came pretty late in the writing/revision process. It probably took writing the book to realize what I wanted to say about Kansas. Some people in Lawrence didn’t appreciate my “negative” view of home, even questioning whether I’d made up stuff about the Days of Rage, firebombings, etc. Thing is, I don’t see it as negative, just honest. Lawrence has an underbelly and if it’s going to be a character in my book, I have to make it a well-rounded character, have to expose that belly.
JP – To me, at least if we’re speaking of the book on a macro level, Danny Dahlberg seems a logical starting point, as his ghost permeates all four parts of the book, most notably in the “Dahlberg Variations” that serve as interludes from the main narrative and allow you to do some things outside the limitations of your own point of view and story. Perhaps I’ll allow you to describe who Danny Dahlberg is, and how you used him in the text.
SC – Interestingly enough those were some of the first sections I wrote for the book, long ago, mostly just playing around. He is, obviously, a significant character in the film, if only because of the metaphorical significance of his being blinded by the blast [Which can be seen at the 1:10 mark of the nuclear attack scene below – JP]. And he becomes for me both a kind of blind oracle, a Tiresias figure, and an alternate self. I used him initially as a kind of experiment, a fictional device designed to allow me to explore the extreme edges of one’s reactions to the film. And I guess that’s a big part of my process, at least in my first three books, that use of fiction to essay or explore certain ideas. Probably some of that comes from my training in fiction writing.
JP –That idea of writing nonfiction with the techniques of a fiction writer seems, to me, one of the central elements of creative nonfiction.
SC – Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think the “techniques of fiction” that are most important to an essayist are the basic elements of good writing: detail, description, scene, voice, etc. – for me at least, creating a fictional character in an essay or a memoir is always in service of some larger investigation, some bigger idea or constellation of ideas.
JP – You mention Danny Dahlberg as a “Blind Tiresias” fictional/mythical character. Are there any others you use in The Day After The Day After or other work of yours? How do they function, and perhaps more importantly how do you think that affects the credibility of nonfiction?
SC – In The Day After The Day After, I also create “off screen” scenes and character sketches, pretending that characters in the film are actual people living and interacting with my hometown. I do this primarily because I wanted the form of the book to mimic the form and meaning of the film. The film itself tries to blur the lines between fiction and reality. It was marketed and promoted as something called, “faction.” But this blurring of lines between fiction and nonfiction is something that I just can’t seem to avoid. In my first book, I create imagined lives for Guinness World Record holders as a way of exploring my relationship with my brother, my dad, and with my own body as a child. My second book intentionally thumbs its nose at genre classifications, throwing fiction and nonfiction together in a stew of essayistic examinations. The title piece, “Theoretical Killings,” employs fictionalized letters, actual quotes from academic papers on ethical theory, reflection, and even script forms as a way of exploring ideas about morality and narrative.
JP – Perhaps we should open up the conception of creative nonfiction to include also the tools of the poet. Many essays – Albert Goldbarth’s “Griffin,” John McPhee’s “Oranges,” and William Gass’s “On Being Blue” come immediately to mind – meditate quite poetically on just one single image, or metaphor.
SC – I steal forms and ideas from poets all the time. Most recently in my writing, I’m trying to use juxtaposition and collage-type movements on the page. More specifically I’m interested in creating echoes, like pings for echolocation, to bounce the reader from one idea to another. I’m interested less and less in lyricism as musical or poetic language; but in lyricism as a kind of logic or thought on the page and perhaps a different sort of relationship with the reader. And in terms of definition, I actually believe that all nonfiction writers share a collective burden or job of constantly defining and redefining what it is exactly that we’re all doing. I kind of loved all the attention and controversy David Shields faced for his book Reality Hunger, a book that articulated a perhaps narrow but also elevated, philosophical definition of nonfiction.
JP – Reality Hunger is an interesting book, and its reception has invoked myriad heated conversations about the place of nonfiction in our contemporary culture, especially in relation to the novel. How would you summarize Shields’ definition of nonfiction, and how do you see it fitting into the longer tradition of nonfiction?
SC – Shields is a proponent of the lyric essay and the collage form in particular because he feels these modes best represent how human consciousness works. He goes to pains to distinguish these modes from the artifice of realistic narrative, forcefully articulating his case for the primacy of a certain kind of nonfiction writing and just generally pissing off a lot of fiction writers. I like that he got people riled up about nonfiction, and he did it with an intellectually challenging, artistically complex book, a book where form is meaning.
JP – There are many things I loved about Shields’ book, but I think what I found most exemplary for a writer was how it pretty much shuns all definitions of what nonfiction writing can be.
SC – Yeah, it’s a really smart book. But then so are all of David’s books. I love Black Planet. Amazing book about the solipsism of race and other big ideas. I was just happy to see a book like Reality Hunger bring attention to compelling issues of form, technique, and theory in nonfiction, rather than some craptastic pop-memoir by a James Frey wannabe. D’Agata’s About a Mountain
is similarly brilliant and somewhat controversial.
JP – Now, just to clarify – by “James Frey wannabe” are you referring to the fakeness, the pop-sordid subject matter, and/or Frey’s almost instantaneous notoriety?
SC – Well, to connect back to our earlier discussions over the use of fictional elements and the shared project of definition, I believe that what Frey and other writers are guilty of is not understanding the job of a nonfiction writer, not understanding that nonfiction is a conversation with your audience and, as such, is bound by certain conventions and forms, bound by your job as a writer to teach your reader how to read your book, to define the genre together. In other words, such writers are guilty not of fiction but of failing to make it clear what the project of the book is, guilty of violating some element of the contract with the reader. You can do anything in nonfiction, if you let your reader in on the project. Frey and others have been motivated by money and desperation, not by art; and the resulting sensationalism sucks just as bad as, if not worse than, sentimentality. Books written because the story is just “too good,” “too crazy,” or “too dramatic,” are rarely interesting to me.
People like John D’Agata and Ander Monson, others too, have lately been rejecting the term nonfiction altogether in favor of the “essay as mode.”
JP – “Essay as mode.” Mode of expression?
SC – Mode of investigation, exploration, expression. There is no genre, only “modes.” Which sounds nice – but as I often tell my students, genre is fundamentally arbitrary and meaningless and the most important thing. Entire MFA programs, bookstores, and the publishing industry are built on a collective “understanding” of genre.
JP – Genre seems to me a tricky thing as well. On the one hand, Walter Benjamin, writing about Proust in 1929, said, “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” But on the other, it seems perhaps a little dismissive to throw out certain genres that have been with us for centuries. And of course there is, as you’ve said, genre as marketing determinant for the publishing industry. All this makes me wonder 1) How thinking in terms of “modes” instead of genres changes the game, 2) How the question of genre comes up comparatively between your work as a writer and your work as editor for The Normal School.
It’s easy for me to say I don’t believe genre matters and that what I’m mostly interested in is essaying as a mode of thinking on the page (true). But does that move us forward in our understanding of what exactly nonfiction is? I’m interested in exploration and digression. But does this escape the breakdown into sub-genres or sub-modes? Probably not. We still are left then trying to understand the difference between, for example, “lyrical,” “journalistic,” or “imaginative” modes of essaying, still encamping ourselves in one mode versus another, still just trading the term, genre, for another. We’re still conscripted into the shared project of definition.
In terms of my own writing, my first three books all employ fictional modes in an effort to essay about larger issues or ideas. I create imagined scenes, fictional characters, multiple voices, and artificial drama. Some of this comes from my training and background in fiction writing. My MFA is in fiction. But some of it also comes from belief that the imagination is an often underutilized asset in nonfiction writing. I spend my life imagining possibilities and these imaginings say a lot about me and my investment in things of the world. Why shouldn’t they be on the page?
One of my favorite essays that we published in The Normal School is called “Starburst,” by Marilyn Abildskov, and it’s a piece that includes a nonfiction “frame,” within which exists the entirely imagined and fabricated life of someone the author doesn’t know. It’s a beautiful piece. But when we published it, we didn’t identify the genre of our prose pieces, reinforcing an aesthetic that encouraged people to not read for genre but just for good writing. The problem came later when people would compliment me on the great “story,” thinking that the essay was actually a work of fiction. The problem here is that people read the piece differently, had different expectations, and enjoyed it more when they realized it was actually an essay. This happened enough that we’ve now begun to identify genre in our Reader’s Guide, but we still feel that most of the time it either doesn’t matter or the piece defines itself for the reader. We still hope people will read all the poetry and prose in our magazine and not just read for a specific genre, but we understand that’s not always how it works. Many readers depend on the traditional genre classifications to orient themselves within a particular text.