JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN SEEMS DISCONCERTED when asked who's most influenced his writing. There's a long, pained pause. It's an impressive silence — followed by a sigh, followed by an "I don't know," which, I realize, is probably an accurate answer. How could anyone know? Identifying one's influences is speculative at best — more often an exercise in wishful thinking than careful self-assessment. Then again, that doesn't keep most who are asked from tossing an interviewer the bone of a few well-worn names. Ultimately Sullivan withholds any decisive answer, neither fully accepting nor eschewing the exalted bunch critics have chosen for him: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, among others.
The comparisons to Wallace are unavoidable. We likely haven't seen a bricolage of reportorial essays like Pulphead since A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and there's no doubt Sullivan, like most journalists of his generation, has swiped a few stylistic flourishes from Wallace, tapping that dynamic space between high and low, between rambling cerebral voice and pithy, clarifying magazine sentence. His essays engage such disparate subjects as Christian rock, Axl Rose, Tennessean cave art, MTV's The Real World, and 19th century botanist Constantine Rafinesque. They're outlandish, enlivening, and adroit; even so, they'd feel haphazard and disconnected if Sullivan weren't able to meet each subject with the same essential curiosity and measured non-judgment.
In the interview below, conducted before his reading at Skylight Books this past November, Sullivan discusses much of his personal and professional history at times alluded to in Pulphead. He talks about growing up in the South and cultivating a passion for pop music, about living in New York around 9/11 and about his uncanny kinship with fellow Southern writer Wells Tower; he touches on the time he rocked out with James Wood in Bryant Park and about taming the unwieldy "I" — and, at one point, he just sits gravely, racked by the trouble of pinning down his influences.
Many critics have commented on the surprising interconnectedness between pieces that, on the outset, seem completely unrelated. What do you think unites these pieces?
I'm glad that the interconnectedness of the pieces comes across. I worked really hard on that, not just when it came to choosing the pieces for the book but while writing the pieces, I was working out an interconnected set of concerns; they all felt like part of some project. I didn't know what the project was. Now I see that it was the book. And to help make a united whole, I chose pieces that spoke to each other and spoke out of what I saw as my deepest fixations.
Like what? Your own obsession with each subject does seem to be a uniting theme.
Well, the South is all over the place. Pop music is all over the place. History. It's all the shit I'm into, but when I try to go deeper than that, it becomes muddy and that feels important...