An Interview with Dave Madden

Oct 1, 2010 | Archive, Interviews

Interview by ERIC PARKER

Black Warrior Review: Let me ask the obvious question first, the one you’re probably tired of being asked: you wrote a collection of short stories for your Ph.D. dissertation, If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There and Other Stories, so how did you get interested enough in taxidermy to write your forthcoming nonfiction book, The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy?

Dave Madden: Well, technically the title of the diss[ertation] was The ‘I’ of My Story, which is one of the worst titles I could come up with, and the story behind that story is too long and too uninteresting to drop into this interview.

I didn’t want to write a whole book on taxidermy, not at first. I only wanted to write an essay about habitat dioramas, which I’ve always been fascinated by ever since growing up in the D.C. suburbs and busing to the Smithsonian on field trips to the National Museum of Natural History. I liked the fakeness of them, and I thought dioramas themselves were interesting pieces of nature writing. (I was in a Nature Writing course at Nebraska at the time.) I had in mind an essay about the narratives of dioramas, the families they tend to favor, the placement of families in artificial habitats. When I started looking into the history and craft of the diorama, I discovered taxidermy. All those animals have been taxidermized. Naïvely, this never occurred to me. I thought the animals contained were as artificial as the plants and rocks they stood on. In trying to find a history or cultural analysis of taxidermy, I came up empty. There were many how-to books out there, but I was looking for more of a how-come. How come we do this to animals? In writing an answer to that question, I suddenly had a whole book on my hands.

BWR: You open the book with this wonderful 19th century novelistic scene with a young Carl Akeley, the “Father of Modern Taxidermy”; why did you decide to begin your book there and how does that function as far as leading the reader into the information that follows?

DM: The hardest part of writing nonfiction for me is structure. Researching taxidermy’s history, interviewing taxidermists, I knew that multiple stories had to be told, and those stories had to complement discursive, essayistic material. There was nothing to tie it all together, until I saw Akeley as a kind of guide. He has that title you mention, though not without controversy, and the story of his development as a taxidermist had enough breadth that I found a way to connect it to the topics I wanted to investigate. For instance, the first animal Carl ever mounted (so goes the mythology) was a pet canary for his neighbor, Irene Glidden. He was twelve years old. It’s as good a beginning as any, so this gave me a chapter to both tell that story and investigate pet taxidermy. People get their pets mounted or freeze-dried. It was, to me, early on in the process, utterly fascinating. So here was a place for it in the overall book. Later, Carl goes to Africa on a series of collecting expeditions. That’s where I’m able to look at the hunting trophy, and the idea of animals as collectible. So Carl’s life and career served for me as a kind of sorting bin, I guess. A way to keep the material from falling all over the place.

BWR: What was your original story idea, and what interesting or unexpected stories/angles did you encounter through your research that changed your project?

DM: I think I can best answer your question by trying to transliterate the progression of my attitude toward taxidermy as I worked on the book, in like a numbered list perhaps:

  1. Taxidermy is so weird and funny!
  2. Taxidermy is the closest I can get to getting close to certain animals. It’s all about access, encounter, discovery.
  3. Taxidermy is an act of animal love, and the contradiction behind this is what’s interesting. (Book’s original title = The Mounting of Desire.)
  4. Taxidermy is not animals. Taxidermy is artifice and illusion.

All of those sentiments are in the book somewhere, but what’s surprising to me was how soon (after just a couple months) I became disinterested in looking at taxidermy the way other writers tend to look at subcultures and quirky topics in popular nonfiction. I didn’t want to just report back on what I found. Whatever quirkiness taxidermy has ceased being interesting to me very early on. Ditto its ethics, weirdly.

BWR: Considering such works as Susan Orlean’s “Lifelike” and Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, why do you think people (I almost said Americans, but you write about Egyptians and the Tring Museum in England) are so fascinated with the art and practice of preserving animals?

DM: Well, and the Swedes, who in the Linnaean tradition led the way in habitat dioramas for much of Europe. But to answer your question, I have no idea. There are scads of theories about all this. One recent writer out there―in trying to explain the sudden increased use of taxidermy and animal parts in fashion and design that happened just around the end of Bush II’s first administration―connected it to a desire for authenticity and naturalness. That animals are more natural than we are, and thus more real. It’s yet another myth we tell about animals. So often (too often, probably) humans are read as animals and vice versa. We like to think of packs of men the way we do packs of wolves. We like the idea of alphas (see below). We like to hear that symmetry works in sexual selection among birds and humans. I’m not an ethologist or zoologist. I’m not trying to discount any science here, but I don’t take comfort in zoological reductions of human behavior. I find it very useful to see a divide between humans and animals. It’s not a dominion, mind. Just a separation. Taxidermy both proves this separation (bears can’t mount us in their dens) and seeks optimistically to diminish it.

BWR: You recently received a position as an assistant professor in the MFA in creative writing program at the University of Alabama (congratulations!), and one of your MFA graduate students said you are “an engaging educator, with whom . . . students quickly connect”; what is your philosophy when it comes to teaching creative writing?

DM: Trust the manuscript. This is how I’ve grown to read books: any weirdness or error I find I trust will become something else later as the book instructs me on how it wants to get read. There’s, sure, a logical problem in treating manuscripts (so often first drafts) this way. Books have been revised and edited; their effects have been developed over time. But I’ve found that when you trust the manuscript, definite errors and weirdnesses that the writer would happily stand up in the workshop and avow as such can become moments of sudden opportunity. What, say, does an accidental switch to the present tense reveal about this scene? Maybe nothing, most of the time. But for me to mark “keep in past tense” and move on means some possibility’s being wasted.

Oh, and thrice now since I’ve moved to Alabama at the age of 32 I’ve been mistaken by strangers for an undergraduate. Here’s perhaps a reason why students might quickly connect.

BWR: We’re always hearing about writers finding their voice. You have an incredibly conversational and engaging voice––which sounds almost exactly how you speak when we’re at the Alcove having a beer––on the page. How did you “find” that voice?

DM: Oh, I dug it out of the discount bin years ago. It was hiding under something decidedly more Spartan.

I never know how to answer this question, and when those words come up in my classes I’m impelled to bend my first and middle fingers in the air [making a quotation sign]. You did it, too, see? It’s a terrible concept we’d all do well to disrespect as universally as we do the use of irregardless.

All I can say here is that I’ve read a lot but not as much as I should, I had a solid seven or eight years where Strunk & White and prescriptive grammar were what I thought made the world go round (a sentiment, most importantly, I willfully abandoned), and I trust the power and strength of the periodic sentence. To me it’s always been more important not to find my voice, but to find ways to capture any old voice that comes along. I’m still looking.

BWR: Are you flipping me off [with that middle finger]? I guess what I meant was that my friend, the author Steven Church, says that he doesn’t trust his voice of reflection―it sounds like a stuffy guy wearing a fancy smoking jacket and smoking a pipe―so he tends to avoid that voice. We’re all made up of multiple internal and external voices, and I’m wondering how you choose which to use and which to avoid?

DM: I’m comfortable posing when I write fiction. I like finding a voice that becomes a character who begets some problems. But I’m not comfortable posing when I write nonfiction. I know it is a pose. I know that writing of any kind―this interview particularly―is a pose one takes. I know that the nonfiction author and the nonfiction narrator are separate entities, but it helps as I write to conflate them. And so using the voice that comes to me is a way to keep myself honest. That you can hear this voice when we’re talking at a bar makes me feel either great that I’m successful or terrible that I’m conversationally such a blowhard.

BWR: I recently subscribed to the Cupboard, the quarterly pamphlet you co-edit with Adam Peterson, and I received this cool little quirky pocket book called Catalpa by Amanda Goldblatt (Cupboard volume seven). Since your trials and tribulations of founding the Cupboard and deciding on its single author long-format prose piece per issue was covered in your htmlgiant.com interview (http://htmlgiant.com/presses/interview-with-the-cupboard/), I’ll ask you another question: underneath the title of Catalpa are the words “this is not true,” and the piece reads as a lyrical essay with an emerging narrative where I don’t find myself wondering if it’s fiction or nonfiction. Since the Cupboard calls for “creative prose submissions,” do you make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction and where do you personally stand on the whole controversy of “truth in nonfiction”?

DM: I think Is this true? is the boringest question one can ask of a piece of nonfiction. I try my damnedest to be accurate to the facts as I can know them when I write nonfiction, but I never read it hoping for the truth, or for what’s called “a true story.” Most of the authors I like write in both genres without much fussing, and I read their fiction eager for narrative and I read their nonfiction eager for analysis. Robert Atwan once wrote that essays show a mind at work. (This could have been Philip Lopate. One of those essay guys.) It’s another idea I buy wholesale. Old Northrop Frye looked not to truth in his differentiation so much as direction of intent. For him, “literary” works (i.e., fiction and poetry) gained credibility through their selfward associations, whereas “assertive” (i.e., nonfiction and also, alas, nonliterary) works drew credibility through their relation to the world outside the text. I prefer both of these modes of thinking about the difference between fiction and nonfiction because they more accurately get at the choices I seem to make whenever I go to each genre.

BWR: The writer Steve Yarbrough, who lives part-time in Poland, says they don’t make a distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Polish bookstores, that there is prose and poetry, but Americans seem to find some comfort in those words preceding some movies and works of nonfiction―based on a true story―and many nonfiction books contain disclaimers about changes in names, compression of time, etc., which some readers demand. What’s wrong (or not wrong) with us Americans that we, to quote the title of David Shield’s book, have Reality Hunger?

DM: That’s awesome about bookstores in Poland, and it’s an attitude that attracted me to the program here at the University of Alabama, where one is asked to apply and focus in poetry or prose. But I guess I’m going to have to flip you off again here. How can I begin to address whatever might be wrong with Americans? Here instead is a paraphrased joke from tonight’s Season Five premiere of 30 Rock, from alpha-conservative Jack Donaghy worrying about losing that alpha status in his new relationship with fellow alpha-conservative Avery Jessup: “She’ll make me wear jeans and read fiction.” It’s something lesser. Nonfiction is real and thus tough. (All this in voice-finding fingerquotes.) And if you buy the idea that people read less than they did back when there were fewer entertainment outlets around then maybe it follows that readers want this diminished time to be spent wisely―reading something either true or informative. Something that gives something back. Somehow nonfiction has erroneously claimed ownership of reality and big-T Truth the way the Republican party has erroneously claimed ownership of the family, and there’s something very sad in this. I haven’t read Shields’s book but his inability to engage in novels these days is his problem, not the problem of novelists. Shields has lost something. Great novels live on. Let people read what they like.