2015 Contest: An Interview with Nonfiction Winner Will McGrath
Will McGrath won the 2014 Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction and the 2015 SER Narrative Nonfiction Prize. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs and has been translated into Chinese and Hungarian. He is currently working on a book of nonfiction about the southern African nation of Lesotho.
Interview by SHAELYN SMITH
Black Warrior Review: I was listening to an interview with Mary Karr recently, where she talks about sacred carnality, and she says: “A haunting sense of place should ripple off any good memoir once the cover’s closed, and you may reopen the front again as you would a gate to another land.” Do you agree with this? Would you call your writing memoir, or something else? This essay is so physically located in its landscape–can you muse on how the relationship between place and memory affects your writing?
Will McGrath: I think you could classify my writing as “memoir” (although the m-word always carries a whiff of tawdriness to it, despite the amazing work that people like Leslie Jamison are doing). In my head I think of the nonfiction writing I do as “fake journalism”, since the focus of my writing is usually on other people and the external world, where memoir seems to be fundamentally interested the self. You need the “fake” modifier though, since I deviate from real journalism in not pretending toward any kind of objectivity.
What I aim for is writing that is as outward-facing as possible, telling true stories about real people in the world – but I’m happy to admit that it comes filtered through my highly-subjective “I”: an “I” with opinions and biases, an “I” that has ordered the facts in a specific way, an “I” that has left some true parts in and some true parts out, and an “I” where emotion often overrides rationality. When I explain it like that, it almost sounds like what an attorney does. I generally bridle at the concept of “journalistic objectivity”, although this may be a personal failing. Maybe it’s the admission of that highly subjective “I” that brings me closest to memoir, but I’m sticking with “fake journalist”, at least until I come up with something better.
As for the Mary Karr line, I fully agree with the need for that sense of place in memoir-ish writing. We are all defined (at least in part) by our physical places, by our environment (my anthropologist wife is in the background yelling “Habitus!”). I personally find it hard to engage with writing that is too abstract, with writing that floats in the void. Maybe I’ve just outed myself as some kind of traditionalist, which I hadn’t considered before, but I think rootedness-in-place is essential to crafting a good character on the page – whether that character is real or fictional. I need something that brings the character into the world of physical embodiment if I’m going to buy into whatever truth is being told.
The physical landscape in “Huron River Drive” is especially import to me, since Ann Arbor’s urban / rural mash-up allows for so much hiddenness. This hiddenness is one of the defining features of Willie’s story, whether the literal hiddenness of my “clients” in the homeless community, people living out in the woods or under train bridges, or the metaphorical way that homelessness becomes hidden in plain sight – those people we tend to blur at the margins of our vision. Even the fact that Willie was living with a terminal diagnosis but doing so in a very closed-off and internal way creates a kind of hiddenness, a sense of being apart from society. So for me, locating the story in a physical environment and having tangible settings (like Willie’s dingy flophouse room, like the wooded Huron River Drive itself) were necessary for me to get at this sense of hiddenness that is so present in my memories of Willie.
BWR: Your essay begins “When I was 25 I took a job…”–why did you make this choice? How much, consciously or subconsciously, does age factor into this essay? And why?
WM: The reference to age in the opening line is deliberate. To begin with, Willie was more than twice my age – in a parallel universe he could have been my boss; or, from a different angle, this could almost read as a father-son story. But the truth of our relationship is that I was in a position of significant and totally unearned power – something that ranged from societal advantage to physical strength to literal matters of life and death. So for me there is a tension that runs through the story due to this inversion of the natural order. I’m not sure I was fully aware of it at 25, but I certainly am now, and I wanted to address it in some way.
But age manifests in another way too. I had been thinking about how to tell Willie’s story for nearly a decade before I actually sat down to the task, and even then this was mainly at the encouragement of a dear friend who also knew Willie intimately during his last days. I don’t know what might have come out if I had attempted to write this story at 25. I suspect it would have been very different – certainly much worse – and I’m glad I waited. (If I have one virtue as a writer, it’s probably extreme patience.)
Then again, who knows what might have come out if I had waited another decade? This, for me, is one of the most fascinating aspects of memoir-ish writing – the decision of when you choose to sit down and tell the story fundamentally affects the final product. The heat of any given fire dims over time, and this is both good and bad. To tell the story well you have to find the right balance: the further out from the event, the more perspective you have, the more life experience, the more actual practice at being a writer – but the further you go there’s also less immediacy, less urgency, less specificity of detail. I have no idea whether I waited long enough, or too long, to tell Willie’s story – and I never will. I’m sure the most powerful memoir writing involves a great deal of luck in finding that fulcrum, that precisely right moment to fix the memory to the page. Because that’s what happens once it’s on the page – it’s fixed, and any ambiguity or haziness takes on solidity and certainty. It’s strange alchemy.
BWR: Whose story would you say this is? Why does it need to be told?
WM: In my mind this is definitely Willie’s story. I am present, clearly, but hopefully in an unobtrusive way. You mentioned before – and I’m probably mangling your words a bit – that the narrative “I” in the story is somewhat translucent, that it works as something for the reader to embody and breathe through. I wish I could take full and conscious credit for doing this, but I’m glad at least it worked out this way. The “I” is certainly heavier up front, setting the scene and establishing tone, but hopefully becomes less prominent as the story goes on. My goal is to be present in this story only as far as needed to: a) provide relevant context for the reader, b) serve as a foil and sounding board for Willie, and c) operate like a camera lens (although an admittedly subjective, biased, and occasionally editorializing camera lens).
I suppose this is why I’m sticking with the (somewhat ridiculous) “fake journalism” tag – I think what happened to Willie is important news. I think this information needs to be out in the public eye – to move away from the hiddenness that defines so much of homeless life. And I think the end-of-life issues in this story are especially important. We have some strange attitudes in our country about the “appropriate” way to die. I still get angry thinking about the paternalistic and – honestly, racist – attitudes that Willie encountered in the medical system. Why would a poor black man get any say in how his life ends? Doctor knows best.
BWR: What’s the best lesson or advice you’ve ever learned, from someone else or through your own practice, about writing (especially writing nonfiction)?
WM: There was a great article in The New Yorker not long ago, by John McPhee, about the art of cutting. I am a disciple of his method, and a fervent proselytizer about the necessity for ruthlessness while editing one’s own work. The first draft of this essay came in at 8,100 words. Over the course of several months I was able to cut almost a third of that, and it could probably stand to go further. I think the main way to do this is simply to give it time – so much of what I eventually cut seemed essential when I first wrote it. Several months later it looked significantly less essential. I’m not sure there’s any way to rush this process.
BWR: Who are your influences? In this particular essay, what were you reading and thinking about and listening to?
WM: I don’t know if this is unusual for people like me, who write exclusively nonfiction, but I read almost entirely book-length fiction. I’m sure I could benefit by expanding my horizons, but there is something about the immersive experience of reading a novel, of living in that alternate world for a little while, that I find immensely satisfying. My reading habits lead directly to the kind of writing I do, in that my aim is to tell true stories about real people while stealing as much technique from fiction-writing as I can, whether that means ideas about structure or mood or characterization or whatever.
When I look back at what I was reading while I wrote “Huron River Drive”, though, I can’t pick out anything specific that I might have swiped. I read Old Filth, by the British novelist Jane Gardam, which I absolutely loved, and Respected Sir, a short novel by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, as well as Henry Miller’s incredibly bad Tropic of Cancer. (In my memory the book reads like this: “The world is a cancer—” <narrator drags existentially on a Gauloises> “—and all women are whores.” Although it is slightly possible that I’m misrepresenting Miller’s artistic vision.)
In addition to my constant novel-consumption, I do have a routine where I listen to the same song every time I sit down to work on a specific piece. I think it has something to do with muscle memory, with stepping into a familiar rhythm. For whatever reason, while writing “Huron River Drive” I listened to the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” about 500 times. There is just something about that song that makes me want to work – its strange jaunty desperation, maybe, or its cracked optimism in the face of disaster? I have no idea. Maybe I just like a solid accordion riff.
BWR: Who are some contemporary writers you feel the most excited about at the moment? Was the best thing you’ve read recently?
WM: I’m just finishing Valeria Luiselli’s novel The Story of My Teeth, which is totally weird and delightful. It’s the story of Mexico’s self-anointed best auctioneer, who’s had Marilyn Monroe’s teeth implanted in his mouth. Trying to describe it any further would result in gibberish. It’s very funny. It’s out from Coffee House Press, in Minneapolis (where I live), which is home to a bunch of fantastic presses (Milkweed Editions and Graywolf also spring to mind).
Earlier this year I read Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan book, My Brilliant Friend – another amazing novel, poignant and brutally detached in equal measures. I’m big on John Brandon too, who’s done several books for McSweeney’s, Citrus County being my personal favorite. And I will read – always and forever, uncritically, and with rampant starry-eyed fanboyism – anything by Haruki Murakami.
As for older books, I’ll grab anything published by NYRB Classics. There are so many wonderful semi-lost gems out in the world – I stumbled upon A High Wind in Jamaica (Richard Hughes) and Speedboat (Renata Adler) this way, both of which live in my personal pantheon.
BWR: What are you working on these days?
WM: I’ve probably got too many projects in the works right now, although this is the best kind of problem you can have. I’m finalizing work on a book of nonfiction about the southern African nation of Lesotho. I’ve got some magazine pieces in various stages of development. I’m at the very initial stages of collaborating on an art book with a South African photographer, Thom Pierce, who has been doing amazing work documenting abuses in the mining industry there. And I’m working on a book with my wife, which should either be excellent or totally disastrous – it’s a hybrid of hard scholarship and creative nonfiction (can’t fail, right?). I thought that if everything goes up in flames I’d better take my loved ones with me.