Bookforum talks to John Jeremiah Sullivan

Whether there’s any doubt about whether John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead was one of the best books of 2011 (which, for my money, there shouldn’t be), it was certainly one of the most highly praised. The debut essay collection received soaring reviews in the national media (the New York Times gave it one in the Book Review and another in the paper); it was the subject of a four-page essay by James Wood in the New Yorker, and, in Bookforum, it prompted J. C. Gabel to describe Sullivan as “among the best of his generation’s essayists.” A contributing editor to GQ, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine and the Paris Review (the latter of which recently earned a National Magazine Award for Sullivan’s knockout essay “Mr. Lytle”), Sullivan is the author of one previous book, Blood Horses—a memoir about his father, a longtime sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrapped into a cultural history of the horse. A wide-ranging and endlessly inquisitive writer, Sullivan most recently wrote about Ireland’s housing bubble for the New York Times Magazine. He sat down with Bookforum to talk about Jamaican music, the decline of the American republic, and what he says is “without exaggeration, the busiest time of my life.”

Bookforum: How did you end up writing about Ireland’s lost generation? Was it because of Ireland, or have you always wanted to write a debt crisis story?

JJS: I’ve always wanted to write about Ireland. I lived there when I was nineteen, and my family is from there. In a way, growing up Southern was kind of an abstraction and, in my case, an affectation, but the Irish-American thing was real. My dad had literally grown up at a table with eight other kids, and they all heard potato famine stories when they wouldn’t finish their dinner. So it just means a lot to me as a place, for sentimental reasons, and part of what I was trying to do with this story was to figure out what’s actually going on and what it’s like to be young and Irish right now.

Bookforum: Why do you call being Southern an affectation?

JJS: In a way I’m being unfair to myself. I’ve never called myself a Southern writer, I’ve never claimed to be a Southern writer. I guess on a couple of occasions, I’ve allowed other people to do it when I could have protested. I’m not being defensive, that was just a prelude to saying that the South is interesting to me precisely because I did grow up at the margins and with a sort of illegitimate claim on it. And so it existed for me from very early on as a thing, before I started getting interested in it and started trying to figure out what it’s made of. Because, after all, it doesn’t really exist. I mean, south of what? The historical stuff that I study and write about mostly takes place in the early eighteenth century in the Carolinas, and at that time the South was a Northern projection of the West Indian world.

Bookforum: Your dad was a sports writer. Did you suspect that you would become a professional writer when you grew up?

JJS: Yeah, honestly. I’m one of those weird creatures. I never thought about doing anything else seriously in my life except maybe being an archaeologist or commando when I was five. I imagined myself as a mercenary commando. But I started writing when I was really young. My mom would include my little Christmas poems in the Christmas card every year, which was probably pretty obnoxious. And during college, I fell into internships at different magazines because by that point it was the only thing I was good at.

Bookforum: Were you interested in horse racing before Blood Horses, or was that book intended mainly as a way of writing about your dad?

JJS: The truth is that—I don’t even know if it’s the truth—but the truest answer is that it happened coincidentally, and in a natural way, because Lewis Lapham assigned me to go down to Louisville and write about the Derby. We were at Harper’s trying to figure out what to cover, and the Derby was coming. Lewis said, “Ah, you’re from Louisville. Why don’t you go do it?” So I started messing around with that assignment. You know, my dad covered the Derby for fifteen years for the Courier-Journal in Louisville. Everybody who worked for the sports department tended to write about it. In a conversation we had before he died, he told me this beautiful story about seeing Secretariat win the Derby in ’73, and it was the last great talk we had. So taking all of that into consideration, the Derby was leading me to write about him, and was he was leading me to write about horses. I was just taking notes on it, putting things together and pushing them before the reader, saying, “All of this stuff is connected. I put it together in this box.” I’m not sure I would ever want to do it that way again.

Bookforum: You’ve written a little about TV. Do you watch much TV?

JJS: Not anymore. My wife gets mad at me because that was a thing we used to do together, but it’s harder for me to deal with it now.

Bookforum: What do you mean?

JJS: It’s gotten so ugly. The reality stuff isn’t as fun as it used to be. It all feels very Roman to me now, you know.

Bookforum: Roman?

JJS: Yeah, the Republic is disintegrating. [Laughter.] I mean, there’s just no way that a society that projects that morality on a nightly basis can keep it together much longer.

Bookforum: Speaking of which, have you been following the Republican presidential race?

JJS: Only from a distance. I really like to read everything that Kevin Baker writes about politics. He’s better known as a writer of historical novels, but he has this blog, The Ice House Gang, so I’ve followed it a little bit through that. But I’ve been waiting to hear a voice that didn’t seem to be emanating from inside the crop circle of insanity that has become the right wing of the Republican party. If I could hear somebody who actually seemed to be speaking from outside of that, and in a countervailing way, I would probably not end up voting for them, but I would certainly listen.

Bookforum: How has all the research you’ve done on American history figured into your thinking about the Tea Party?

JJS: Well, it’s been kind of a candy store because I’m really into questions about where on the spectrum of eighteenth century thinking and Enlightenment thinking does the American Revolution really lie as a political experiment—what are the ideals at the center of it, and are we just paying them lip service at this point? I mean, these are not sophisticated questions—they’re the kinds of questions you ask your history teacher in high school—but they’re still the ones that preoccupy me, and so the whole Tea Party movement is fun in that way because they are, of course, really into the Revolution and dressing up like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin and manipulating those symbols.

So far it seems like underestimating them has been a mistake, and in my Tea Party piece, I wanted more than anything to try to capture that ambivalence, the feeling of that historical moment when nobody was totally sure if the Tea Party was the kind of joke that was going to be ephemeral, or if it was an actual force. Seems like you’d have to go with the latter view now, at least insofar as the Republican Party has been smart about using it as a prong to get things done.

Bookforum: Are you working on any historically-oriented projects at the moment?

JJS: I’m working on a book now about a German lawyer, an obscure jurist from Upper Saxony who came to the New World, to South Carolina, in the 1730s. He tried to establish an enlightened republic among Cherokee Indians beyond the frontier, and he wrote a book, a kind of utopian manifesto that, based on what we know about it, was a century or more ahead of its time philosophically. It was destroyed when the English arrested him in the 1740s and it became a sort of a famous lost book. In my book, I’m making the case that I’ve identified it, that it exists. I’m very curious about what happens to the Enlightenment when it arrives in the South.

I’m actually doing a thing for the Paris Review that’s going to be the first chunk of the book to see light. It’s another attempt to write history in a way that borrows a lot of fictional techniques, but in a heavily foot-notable, fact-checkable way. Like, trying to figure out how much projection and assumption can you squeeze out of the narrative and still have something like a dramatic effect left over. But it would read in a harder, almost algebraic, sort of way. I haven’t figured it out yet—it’s just an idea in my head right now about how to write it.

Bookforum: Who are you reading to figure out what that voice will sound like?

JJS: Jonathan Spence is this non-fiction writer who’s been super inspirational and who never gets mentioned in conversations about creative non-fiction just because his stuff is so respectable academically. He’s a Sinologist, but he wrote this one book called The Question of Hu, that my friend Dana Sachs, who’s a writer here in Wilmington, turned me on to. It’s a wonderful, small, perfect case study from the 1720s of a Chinese man who was brought to France by some Jesuits and appeared to go mad. The book asks whether he really did go mad or whether it was just a thing that happened as a kind of cultural imprisonment. It’s vivid, it’s dramatic, it uses narrative tools to move you along, but you never have to stop and wonder whether you can trust Spence about the details—he keeps you completely taken care of by admitting ambiguities before you can even figure them out, and by wielding his conditionals in a really artful way. I want that too, I want the reader to have the feeling that this is a writer who would be bothered by the thought that he wasn’t being as accurate as he could be about something. Once you’ve established that, you can do a lot.

Bookforum: I’ll have to read it.

JJS: Yeah, it’s really cool, The Question of Hu. Although my students never like it, so maybe my fixation on the first half of the eighteenth century has biased me somewhat. I don’t think so, though, I think it’s really good.

Bookforum: So who did you grow up reading?

JJS: The first book that meant a ton to me was The Swiss Family Robinson. I don’t know who translated it, so I don’t even know who to credit as the writer, but it had these beautiful Andrew Wyeth watercolor illustrations in it, and I read it many times in my top bunk. I would finish the last page and just start the first one over again. And my brother has this story about opening the closet in my room one day and finding me reading Gorky Park. But I don’t think I really knew what the words meant. It was a performative sort of thing, which was weird because I was doing it by myself in the closet. But I knew that this was what you were supposed to do; I’d seen adults doing it, just turning the pages and looking at the words. And then the first writer who signified for me was Mark Twain, because my dad was really a prosthelytizer for Twain, and he would wear a white suit and do the whole bit. So there was always a volume of Twain for me under the tree for me at Christmas—luckily not quite enough to blot it out for me as an influence. That was a thing that I ended up sharing with my dad.

Now, I read everything. I like David Grann a lot—what he does is bedrock.

Bookforum: I want to ask you about music. You’ve written on Southern music, Axl Rose, Michael Jackson... could you talk about that?

JJS: Music means more to me than almost anything. I remember maybe ten years ago when Bob Dylan gave an interview—I think it was in Time magazine—and he said that all his life he had been searching for religion, and he thought that songs were something you used to get at the truth of religion, but then, at a certain point, he realized that the music was his religion. And I remember really resonating with that statement and feeling like it wasn’t a pretentious sort of pronouncement—it was a really good technical description of something. Early blues recordings, prewar blues, or Jamaican music in general, deeply spiritual things happen in that music. I feel like one of the only places in my life where I still use the word spiritual and don’t feel like a total dweeb is when talking about that music. It’s just in contact with something.

Bookforum: What was being in Jamaica and writing the Bunny Wailer essay like?

JJS: Getting to meet him was just pure fantasy fulfillment. And then the fun of having such a clear-cut assignment in front of you. Not journalistically speaking, but in an argumentative sense. There was this thing to explain: what is it about Jamaican music? You listen to certain things over the years, and a lot of stuff fades away, but there’s other stuff that actually grows in depth and grows in interest. That’s what happened for me with the Jamaican stuff, and I wanted to know why. Pieces always start like that for me. I think about a question and go, "Oh yeah, it’s kind of because this, it’s kind of because that," and then I call bullshit on myself. One of the things that I did figure out, or at least one of the things that came to seem relevant to me when I was over there trying to find Bunny, was that the whole spiritual music/Devil’s music thing that was so important in American pop happened in a totally different way in Jamaica. Instead, Rastafarianism sort of seized the pop record industry as it started taking off in Jamaica in the 1950s. So you have this religious movement seizing pop, and using it to define itself, to pray, to bring people together, and that’s a totally different set of conditions than what you had in the States. It led to a pop style that has a kind of gospel expansiveness to it, and melodically speaking, has the boldness of its own simplicity and clarity. That’s just really hard to get to if you’re a secular songwriter in the U.S. Now there might be some bullshit in that, but I think there’s also something true in it, and I wanted to poke at it a little. Bunny was the person to shed light on it.

Bookforum: It sounds like you’re finding certain American themes, or themes that are deeply resonant within America, abroad. Is that a fair statement?

JJS: It’s totally fair, and it’s nowhere is it more relevant than in the case of that piece, where one of things I had to do in order to write about Bunny was to write about the political and cultural situation in Kingston right now, and that has a lot to do with garrisonism, this bizarre political system they have in Jamaica. I needed to learn the history of that; I needed to read as much as I could about the experience of living under that system and, the more I learned about it, the more it starting slapping me upside the head as an obvious and meaningful analogy for what was happening in the States, and the ramping up of mindless dualism in American culture.

Bookforum: What do you mean by that?

JJS: Well, the notion that we don’t like the people on the other side of some line. As opposed to the idea of every individual being an unparaphrasable complexity of political opinions and influences, instead they're just red or blue. Red/blue is just garrisonism, and the way it’s used to suppress actual, intelligent discussion about what’s happening and where we ought to be headed is classic garrisonism. So, you know, you’re halfway into writing and reporting a piece like that, and you realize that there is this metaphorical thing going on, and you haven’t insisted on it, you haven’t forced it: it bubbled up out of the material. That’s when you can trust it, I think, and go with it. That’s what I mean when I say that when I stick with what I’m helpless not to write, the writing gets better. Better being a relative term in this case, of course.

Bookforum: Do you think there’s poetry or a novel in your future?

JJS: When I try to answer that question for myself—and I have tried—it’s just static. I do have this sense of nascent fiction, like this thing that’s lurking in the corner of the room, but I don’t even know how to talk about it. So I don’t know, I just keep my focus completely on what I’m working on right now, and definitely for the next few years it’s going to be all non-fiction stuff having to do with this historical research that I’ve been working on forever and pieces for the Times. There’s going to be no time for anything else.