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.