John D’Agata is an American writer who, like an unexpected firecracker, continuously makes the established literati hop in surprise. With his debut essay collection, Halls of Fame (2001), D’Agata— and his lyric prose as poem as essay as…— burst onto the scene, questioning the traditional view of essay writing and, with the anthology that soon followed, The Next American Essay (2002), offering an alternative. As Annie Dillard had it, “D’Agata is redefining the modern American essay.” But he also wanted to do some reclaiming, which he did with the sweeping anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009). His most recent work is the book-length essay About a Mountain (2010), an investigation and meditation on the Yucca Mountain Project, the federal government’s plan to store nuclear waste in a range near Las Vegas.
D’Agata was a 2001 finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction with Halls of Fame, and was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007. Born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he received his BA from Hobart College and two MFAs, in nonfiction and poetry, from the University of Iowa, where he now teaches writing. He is also an associate editor of the Seneca Review and founded The Essay Prize in 2006 “in response to literary awards that champion subject matter in nonfiction, rather than art.”
In the words of another great innovator, David Foster Wallace: “John D’Agata is one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.”
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Johnny Carson. I used to put on a variety show as a kid every summer during a family reunion that my mom hosted at our home on Cape Cod. Family from all over New England and DC and Florida and even sometimes Northern California would come for the weekend to cook and sail and camp out together, and the finale was always this “show” that I’d put on that featured me sometimes playing the piano horribly, sometimes singing, which I can’t do, telling jokes, doing a puppet show, etc. As I grew older and more aware of the limitations of my talent, I realized the impracticalness of wanting to be Johnny Carson and so I decided to become an actor. In hindsight, however, that was even more preposterous an idea than wanting to be Johnny Carson because I am arguably the world’s most bashful person. And I also happen to really suck at acting. So then at some point in high school I turned to directing, and while the most recent play that I’ve directed remains a children’s production of Peter Pan that featured a nine-year-old gymnast in the title role who hopped around on mini trampolines in lieu of actually flying, I still feel that the influence of my stint in the theater is clearly noticeable in what I’m doing today.
When did you first realize that writing was something you wanted to pursue? Was there some sort of “aha” moment?
At a pretty young age I started seeing a tutor in Latin. Then in high school I picked up Greek, and so my major in college was inevitably Classics. But for various reasons, at the very tail end of my time in school, I kind of dramatically decided that I wanted nothing to do with Classics anymore, and so I started trying to pick up an English major. I took as many courses as I could in English, including some electives like creative writing. However, as it happened, when I went to look for a creative writing class, the fiction workshop was full, and the poetry workshop was full, but the nonfiction workshop was wide open— which is usually how it goes for nonfiction. So I took the nonfiction class, not really knowing what the heck “nonfiction” actually meant, and almost immediately fell in love with the form. I felt at home. I felt a kinship with these texts that we were reading and that I was trying to write myself, and I realized in hindsight, years later, that the majority of what I particularly loved to read in Latin and Greek was prose, and that the majority of prose in Latin and Greek is in fact essay. So I’d actually been reading this stuff for almost a decade before I knew what it was or tried writing it myself. But they’re essays. And they were in my blood. And I think that’s when I knew I had found a home.
How did your parents feel about your decision to pursue a life as a writer?
Mom was giddy, because she’s a librarian. And Dad, who’s a business guy, was nothing but supportive, although he’s a little less keen on the constant wandering that my research requires. I bought a house last year to help him calm down, because he was starting to get antsy about my ceaseless traveling. But the traveling still hasn’t really ceased.
How did you go about pursuing your early career as a writer?
I’m a little hesitant to refer to my writing life as a “career.” I definitely have a teaching career, and I have no qualms thinking about it as such. But I’m not particularly successful as a writer, and so I guess I have difficulty thinking about it as a career. So by that measure, to suggest that I “pursued” this “career” would be doubly misleading. I basically fell into it. I didn’t really take myself seriously as a writer for a long time; I just enjoyed the playfulness of what I was writing and didn’t think much more about it beyond that. And in fact, since that playfulness primarily took the shape of some very weird essays, not too many people around me took what I was doing seriously either. There just wasn’t a world for that kind of stuff; the essay in the late 90s, which was when I was in school, was pretty much the domain of the personal essay and memoir and nothing else.
I also was never considered the “it” writer in any of my classes. At times, I was actually quite clearly the opposite of the “it” writer. I remember one guy in class announcing before the discussion of one of my essays that he wasn’t going to be participating in my workshop because he didn’t think I was a real writer. And another guy once brought a Burger King bag into class and proceeded to loudly eat his way through a chicken sandwich during my workshop. I also had one teacher ask me if I was a bullshit artist, and another tell me I had no passion. So, not to pile up the woe-is-me tales, but by the time I left school I wasn’t really thinking that I would pursue writing as a career. I didn’t think I was talented. I still loved writing, and still found it fun, but the world of nonfiction wasn’t itself exciting to me at that time.
So when I finished graduate school I started doing the only thing that I thought my degree accredited me to do: teach. Luckily I got a job right out of school at a tiny snowy campus in the middle of Maine and started teaching four courses a semester without much concern for the meager time that that kind of schedule left me to write. I ended up resigning from that job after the first year, however, not because I missed writing though, but rather because the guy who ran the program I taught in decided that he didn’t like me and basically tried to get me fired. That same spring, before I found myself officially unemployed, I went to the AWP [The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference] with a friend who ran a small press at the time. While strolling through the book fair—which at that time was far more manageable and indeed “stroll-able”—we stopped at the Graywolf booth. Now, I have to be honest, at that point in my life I was so far away from thinking of myself as a writer that I hadn’t ever heard of Graywolf. But, there I was, standing with my friend in front of Fiona McCrae, the publisher of Graywolf, and being introduced as an “experimental essayist.” Fiona held out her hand and said—and I swear this is what really happened—“No kidding? I’m actually looking for a book of experimental essays.” And by that summer I had a contract with Graywolf.
I tell this story to my students sometimes and I can feel in the room their minds all silently conspiring to throw me out the window, because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen these days. I lucked out; I know that. But this is all to say that I didn’t really pursue writing. Instead, it found me, I guess. And I can only thank Fiona McCrae for having the oddball notion that “experimental essays” could be published and read. And I also have to thank very deeply that guy in Maine for hating me enough to force me out of that job.
When was the first time you were published? Do you remember what it felt like?
Well, I wrote a lot for my high school newspaper, and I always found it exciting to see kids on campus reading something that I’d written. But I suppose my first national publication was in an anthology that Norton published called In Short. It was basically a collection of very short essays. I had something in there about visiting Death Valley and falling in love with the image of a desiccated man. Or something like that. It was a little over the top, and I’m not really that fond of the essay these days. But it was my first real publication, and I was very young when it came out, so it made me feel good. The day I got my copy of the book, a friend took me to see Martin Scorsese’s Casino to celebrate. I fell asleep during the movie and she yelled at me. And then the next day in class someone made fun of my essay that had appeared in that anthology. You can tell that I had a solidly enjoyable time in grad school.
When did you first identify yourself as a writer?
When I got my contract with Graywolf I started calling myself a writer. Because before then, as I’ve said, I had only really listened to the people around me who were discouraging, rather than the friends and the few instructors who were in fact very supportive but whom for some reason I just couldn’t hear. But also I first started thinking of myself as a writer after receiving that contract because I really had no other job at that point, so writing was indeed my job.
But I should also say that I’m a bit unromantic when it comes to writing. I don’t believe in the bullshitty notion of a “writing life.” I think there’s no such thing. I think the only time we are living a so-called “writer’s life” is when we are actually writing. When we are sitting down and pounding our heads in hopes of jiggling out of them the conclusion of a sentence. When I’m at the gym I’m not thinking “I am so less vain than all of these other people because I live the life of a writer.” Or when I’m eating a great meal I don’t think that my experience of it is any better than Joe Schmoe’s experience of it just because I’ve read MFK Fisher or know a few more clever words that could be used to describe what we’re eating. Or if I get irresponsibly drunk some night, I don’t justify it by listing the endless array of lushes who also happened to be writers. It’s true that I see the world differently from how some other people see the world, and that I process my observations of that world differently too. But I don’t do that because I’ve been mystically gifted with the spirit of a writer; I’m a writer, instead, because of how I see the world. Because it’s the outlet that works best for me. We’re writers when we’re writing, and convincing ourselves of anything else is just justifying our procrastination.
What kinds of jobs did you have before you were able to support yourself on your writing?
I worked in a condom shop. Not a sex shop, just a condom shop that also sold a few cheesy sex-gags and maybe some nonthreatening “toys” down near the back of the store that no one ever bought. This was also long before I’d ever had sex myself, so explaining the benefits of various kinds of condoms was kind of amusing for me. I also delivered balloons as a clown, barbacked, and for a brief summer I worked in a bagel shop. They wouldn’t let me actually make bagels, however, so I eventually quit that job because I didn’t like toasting and smearing things for other people. I don’t think I have a problem with serving people, but spreading stuff on toasted bread for another person is kind of humiliating.
What was the living like for you during your “salad days?”
To begin with, the “salad days,” as you put it, were vegetable-less. I spent the harshest of them in my car, a white Chevrolet Caprice Classic with red velour interior that I inherited from my grandfather—who happened to be Sicilian, if the car didn’t give it away. After I quit my first teaching job, I spent a year hopping from art colony to art colony around the United States. I think I did a total of seven of them in one year. But during those periods when I wasn’t at an art colony I slept in my car. That sounds awful, but I actually enjoyed it. I used to park outside Denny’s restaurants, figuring that they’d be safe because they’re open 24-hours and people were always coming and going. Then during the day I went to public libraries and wrote. I was extremely shy at that time—although I actually remain so now too—and so this was a perfect existence for me. I really only had to interact with the occasional cop who knocked on my car window to tell me to move along in the middle of the night.
Is there anything you would like to tell John D’Agata of that earlier era?
John should be more humble. And he should also try to relax more. And I wish he were smart enough to understand that the race that he thinks he’s in doesn’t really exist. There’s no finish line, and no other runners. It’s just him and his work.
What kind of writerly challenges did you face early on? Rejections?
This question presupposes that I no longer experience rejection. Rejection is a part of writing, at least if we’re writing with conviction. Being a writer who’s truly worth reading—by which I mean, a writer whom people feel genuinely compelled to read rather than a writer whom people feel persuaded to read because of some massive marketing campaign that’s manipulating them to buy a book—means being a writer who’s going to appeal to some readers and not appeal to many many more. My last book, About a Mountain, was under contract with a publisher whom most writers I suspect would love the chance to publish with. But when I handed in my final manuscript to my editor the book was ultimately rejected and our contract was dissolved.
So rejection happens. But I think it’s often a good sign when it happens. I’m one of the least optimistic souls around, but I think that when we find ourselves as artists bumping up against “no,” that is a pretty good indication that we’re doing our job, that we’re challenging ourselves, and possibly challenging our readers too. Not alienating them, but simply asking them to do things as readers that they might not normally be asked to do in the hopes that something during that experience will be inspiring or exciting. Of course, not everything that we produce while we’re challenging ourselves is going to be very good. But the point isn’t to keep churning out the same old polished story or essay or poem to the same old audience that’s eagerly awaiting with the same old applause. If that were the point of art I think we’d have to call ourselves something other than artists. I think we’d have to call ourselves manufacturers, or possibly whores. Doing something real and something new and something that is genuinely consequential requires taking risks, and when you take risks you flirt with rejection.
Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up on writing?
What about some early triumphs, writerly or otherwise?
Writing is a triumph. I mean that. For me, figuring out how to complete a sentence equals triumph. The majority of the sentences that I start never get completed. So if I can find my way to the end of a sentence and still like that sentence by the time I’m done, I’m kicking ass. I’m ecstatic. Writing is a triumph.
You have one MFA in poetry and one in nonfiction. That’s a lot of grad school!
Well I did both simultaneously, so it was really just the same-sized helping of grad school that everyone else gets. I just spent my time doing a bit more work than everyone else because I had a few more requirements. But I didn’t do the two different programs because I wanted two different degrees. I just wanted the two experiences. As I mentioned, when I was in grad school nonfiction was being interpreted a lot more narrowly than it is today. So joining a poetry program helped me find ways of applying some formal strategies to my essays that just weren’t being discussed in my nonfiction classes. And to be honest, many of those formal strategies are still not discussed in a lot of nonfiction classes, but at least these days we’re aware of the possibility that the essay can do more than tell the story about the day our grandmother died. We just have to take the next step and start doing those other things.
The poet in you is certainly present in your nonfiction. Do you identify more as one or the other?
I identify as an essayist, and so by that measure I don’t see a distinction between essay and poetry. The sensibilities of both genres are fundamentally the same, in my opinion. They might occasionally use different strategies, but at their core they’re both efforts at clarity that are compelled by curiosity. Neither has much concern for story, and neither demands resolution. They are foremost judged—and judge themselves—by the quality of the mind that’s at work in the text. Obviously, some hard-line “nonfiction” writers would scoff at that idea, and say that nonfiction is about telling “true tales,” which I believe is the popular term that’s used these days, but frankly I think that anyone who still identifies themself as a “nonfiction” writer isn’t really someone I would take seriously. And alternately, there are bound to be some poets who still think that they possess an inherently “poetic” soul and who therefore would object to the idea that they are engaged in the same kind of activity as an essayist. But those are silly poets, the ones who are probably more concerned with the title “poet” than they are with the real activity of poetry.
Writing isn’t a stable career choice by any means, did that or does that ever scare you? Did you ever seriously consider any other professions?
Again, I question your use of the term “profession,” as I have yet to make a profit from my writing. But, yes, if I could afford it, I would start a landscaping company in south Florida. But I would also miss teaching too much. Plus, south Florida is also going to be the state to start regularly experiencing long-term droughts, so my company wouldn’t do well. The other thing I would do if my current “profession” fell through is start an entirely new passenger rail line in the U.S. That would take a bit more investment than the landscaping company, however, so I guess landscaping is really my only fallback profession.
You teach now as well as write. How does combining the two work for you—do they feed off one another in a positive way, or does the teaching eat too much into your writing?
I made a deal with myself a number of years ago that I wouldn’t attempt to write while I was teaching, and that when I wasn’t teaching I would do nothing but write. And that has worked out very well so far. During the school year therefore I am entirely my students’. They are at my house regularly for dinner, I conference with them privately for multiple hours outside of class, and I’m generally as devoted to them as I felt my best teachers were to me. But when June arrives I disappear. I cut off all communication. I even leave the town that I live in so that I can feel that separation as thoroughly as possible. And it works. I focus extremely well during the summer and accomplish enough to feel re-energized when I return to school.
Do you find the actual act of writing enjoyable?
Yes. Well . . . I find the challenge of writing enjoyable. I like figuring out problems, and sentences often feel like problems that need solving. And I feel the same way about the task of structuring an essay so that it feels organically inquisitive to a reader. But what I’m really head-over-heels in love with is research, despite the fact that some critics think that I’m a woefully sloppy researcher. In reality, I’m a meticulous researcher. I spent nine years on my last book, and the bulk of that time was spent researching. I just have a liberal sense of what we can and cannot do with that research once we’ve gathered it, and that’s what’s gotten some critics all abluster with me.
In The Next American Essay, you write, “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” Can you tell me a little bit more about your view on truth and nonfiction— that endless debate.
It’s certainly an issue for people. But I think it’s only an issue because a number of readers insist on calling this genre “nonfiction,” which I think strips the form of its chance to be art. “Nonfiction” essentially means “not art,” since the word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which itself means “to form, to shape, to arrange”—a pretty fundamental activity in art. So by calling something “non-fiction” you are saddling the genre with a label that means it’s incapable of doing what art is fundamentally supposed to do, and this of course sets up expectations in readers’ minds for what should and should not be expected from such a text. It makes sense then that readers would demand from “nonfiction” the same kind of factual accuracy that they experience in journalism, because after you’ve said that the genre is not allowed to “arrange” or “form” or “shape,” reporting is pretty much all that’s available to it. I am not a reporter, however, and I have no interest in being one. I think there are far more interesting activities and challenges in this genre than getting one’s facts right. I don’t think that facts should be altered willy nilly, of course, but I also don’t want to be defined by or judged as an artist based on my allegiance to facts. That’s just not interesting work to me.
What are your work habits like now? What were they like before— have they changed?
I used to stay up until about 4 in the morning writing and eating Swedish Fish. Now I’m in bed by 9 o’clock, and the Fish are off limits. But otherwise my habits are the same. I write for about five to seven hours at a stretch and take intermittent walks to work through the kinks of a project. I also don’t write at home. I have various private places in which I write, but it’s never at home.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
Yes: Fail. Spend your time in school exploring as many different forms and voices as possible. You will fall on your face a lot more times than you’ll succeed, but you will slowly discover who you are as a writer by forcing yourself to stretch and to destabilize your understanding of who you think you are. And this will help you grow. And if you repeat the process enough times you’ll grow some more. But it will be frustrating, and painful, and you will be surrounded by people who’ll claim to have already discovered their “signature style,” and they’ll keep producing slightly different versions of the same beautiful poem or story or essay, but no one will really notice this because that poem or story or essay will be so fucking beautiful. And these will probably be the students who get praised a lot by your teachers, and maybe they’ll be the ones who first publish really well, and win contests, and get jobs. But in a few years—after a first book or maybe two books—those writers will disappear, the market for that one poem or story or essay will dry up, and those writers still won’t have learned how to evolve, how to push themselves beyond what they already know how to do, how to make what they have to say matter . . . most especially to themselves. And then the world will start noticing you.
Or, the other possibility is that these folks will become the most famous writers in America, and you’ll just have to live with that.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Margaret Stratton