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 somehow. I’m still writing about those things; I’m still tapping those things so I’m not ready to codify them yet. That’s what the writing is. It’s an attempt to put those obsessions in some sort of order.
How do you approach the research on a subject? One article described you as “magnetized”: crazy stuff seems to come to you instead of you going to it. Do you attribute that to luck or your approach?
There’s definitely some luck involved. But it’s also true that if you keep hurling yourself at the wall, eventually a crack will open and it’s also true that there are fourteen pieces in the book, but in the period covered by the book I probably wrote 45 pieces and I was naturally picking out the ones where more interesting things were happening to me, so that skews the specimen sample a little bit.
How did you revise the essays for the book?
Well, during the time I was writing the pieces, I was often trying to have fun with pop culture references that were only of real meaning at the moment. That’s one of the fun things you can do with magazine writing: talk back to the machine a little bit. So, I cut some of those references out. And, you know, certain sentences that had sounded right in the magazines didn’t sound right in the book; different formal pressures condition your reading of sentences in different ways. I couldn’t plan for that, but now I see that there are some sentences that I fucked up because I was trying to smooth them out a little too much.
Do you have a sentence in mind?
There was a sentence in the Christian rock piece that was, “It wasn’t long at all before the little fuckers rounded on me.” That was from GQ. That was a good English sentence but something about it — the cussing in that piece always sounded a little forced, so I changed “little fuckers” to “children,” and I think I weakened the sentence. It’s weird: even in editing yourself, you’re still not seeing it all. You’re still falling into little traps.
You were an editor for about ten years before you started writing professionally. Do you feel being an editor has generally helped or hindered your writing process?
It helps up to a certain point. As an editor, you’re learning the whole time: learning tricks, acquiring tools. You’re getting to watch writers that are much better than you work on their pieces at the workshop level. So you could ask, “Why did you take out that comma?” “Why did you cut that page?” “I don’t just want to know that you did it; I want to know why you did it. What was influencing the mechanism at the moment that caused you to think that this thing wasn’t working or that it needed to be better?” That was my education.
But there does come a point where you have to make this mental decision to shut off the editing instinct; otherwise, you can’t exist as a writer; the writer is a little antagonistic with that voice. You go to write one sentence and can instantly think of five good reasons why it shouldn’t be like that, but that’s not the way writing works; you’re saying something because you have to say it. A good writer is not necessarily best buddies with the editor: that’s your playing partner, you’re trying to beat that person. It took me a while to figure that out. I’m still not sure I’ve totally figured it out.
To get a bit of your pre-professional history: You grew up in Louisville, Kentucky?
I was born there, but I grew up mostly across the river in Southern Indiana.
And your first book Blood Horses is part memoir about your father who was also a writer. Are there a fair amount of writers in the family pedigree?
Oh, yeah. My father was a sports writer, and my mother was an English teacher, so there was never any hope for me. I mean, in our house, if you could use language well then you had some power. I can’t remember who it is, but there’s a writer who pointed out that it’s often the case with writers: they grew up in houses like that, which makes so much sense.
You moved to New York in the late nineties only to move back South several years later. What was your experience as a writer in New York like?
In some sense I don’t feel like I have a right to have an opinion about it because some of my friends are still there. They’ve become New Yorkers and I know much less about it than they do, but I will say that it was an interesting time, if you were to pick seven years to spend there, to have them straddle 9/11 very neatly like that, was something else. I was just coming to know and love the city as it was before and felt that I belonged there for the first time. Then there was that day, and everything after that was totally different. It’s just hard to overstate the extent to which it changed the city at every level.
Did you feel it was harder to write and live there after that? Was that part of the impetus to move back to the South?
I don’t think so. That was a different thing. That was just personal shit that goes with being in the city. No, if anything, 9/11 made me want to stay, because you wanted to see how it played out. But I didn’t feel like I could survive there as a writer anymore. If you can’t breathe, you’ll punch out a window. I wasn’t even really there yet as a writer; I hadn’t figured much out. That was the problem: I needed to figure that shit out. I couldn’t get in touch with my own voice at its quietest in order to find whatever it was I needed to say. I didn’t feel like I was getting there. I needed time, I needed… solitude, I guess.
Much of your writing focuses on music. In one interview, you pointed to an early interest in music writing as the locus of your desire to “figure out” good writing.
Yeah. Actually, my brother was a big influence here. He was the first person I ever heard talk about a piece of art in a deeply critical way – critical not in the negative, but in the analytical sense. He was just a student of pop music from an early age. I don’t know what tripped that in him, but it was his thing. We would sit down and go through Beatles chord books together. It wasn’t just a case of rocking back and forth in front of the speaker and saying, “Isn’t this brilliant.” It was saying, “Look at this fucking bridge, look at what they did here. That’s why this is so much better”: the mechanics of it. And he and I would argue a lot. He was an early opponent. So, yes, I definitely think I was delving into and parsing music before writing, at least on a conscious level.
Were you in any bands yourself?
Yes. Many a high school band [laughs]. I’m sort of in this band called Fayaway now, in Rollington, North Carolina. But it’s more of a concept thing.
I heard about this gig that you and Fayaway played at Bryant Park with James Wood.
Yeah, that was fun and weird. James Wood is a great drummer. The guy is a monster drummer. I mean, with us he was just doing a sort of skittery bongos thing, but he’s actually a studio-level drummer. I think that was his thing for years. When he was younger, he was really serious about it. As you can imagine, he’s really serious about everything he does.
How familiar are you with Wells Tower and his debut Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned?
You know, it’s funny. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been into his work ever since he first started getting published, and I remember hearing his name from Roger Hodge at Harper’s before he got known and see him as sort of a comrade. I’m going to meet him in New York in a few weeks for the first time, which I’m looking forward to.
There are definite similarities between his and your writing, despite him writing in fiction and you in nonfiction. It seems like you guys are kindred spirits in a way.
Yes, and he and I have confirmed that since — that we had been reading each other all that time. I don’t know why we never met, because we have lots of mutual friends, but maybe exactly for that reason, maybe it was a healthy distance. I’m anxious to see what he has to say at this thing in New York. It’s rare to have a conversation in front of an audience where it’s actually a real conversation. I have all these things I want to talk about with him. It’ll be neat.
So your first conversation in person will be in front of an audience?
Yeah [laughs]. 2011, man.
Jonathan Franzen and several other authors made a list of the ten things they’ve learned in writing fiction for The Guardian a year or so ago, and he suggested reserving use of the first person only for an “irresistible” or “distinctive” voice. You’ve made ample use of the first person pronoun in your pieces, and have been praised for your skillful use of it. How do you manage it?
Well, it’s something that has taken me a long time to get to. It certainly wasn’t like that in the beginning. I sort of had to tame the first person I guess. It’s a process of training your ear. You know when you listen to your own voice on a tape it sounds strange? You can’t really hear it the way other people hear it. You’re trying to do the exact same thing with the first person. You want to hear it the way a disembodied third person observer would hear it. What does it sound like in the larger scrum of human communication? You’re trying to tune in to that and it takes time.
Also, I think Franzen there is registering the power of the first person to sink a piece, and I share that; I’m hyper-sensitive to that. Sometimes it’s one of those things where you think you’re vigilant about it, but you can have a deafness to your own first person, even though the first person of another person shrieks at you. I try to stay on guard toward the first person wanting to be there for it’s own sake. It’s one of those things. It’s good for your writing to have a healthy skepticism of the first person and to want to make it work for its pay. It’s like, okay, if you’re going to come in here and start talking in the middle of my piece, saying “I” and pretending to be me, then you better be working, you better be taking me somewhere the piece couldn’t go. So when I use it in my pieces, it’s usually when I feel something in my experience is going to give the reader access to the subject. For example, in the Christian Rock piece, I get into my high school evangelical phase because I feel like this is an experience I shared with these kids. I don’t have to pretend sympathy with them. I was there. And, for instance, in the Axl piece, writing about growing up in rural, white-trash, Southern Indiana suddenly became quite relevant to understanding Axl Rose.
How important has reading been to your development as a writer?
Indispensible. By using other books, mining other books, you’re adding to your palette. If you look at my first book Blood Horses, it used pastiche to a certain extent: incorporating whole swatches of other text without dicing them up. I’ve buried that a little bit in my work ever since, but it’s still the way my brain works. My pieces almost always begin with me in dialogue with something. They don’t begin ad ovo, you know, sitting at the blank white page and trying to think of a sentence. Something is already happening by the time I start writing; something I’ve read has set me off, an image I’ve seen has set me off. So, the more of that you can expose yourself to, the more pistons are going to be firing. That’s how I’m wired anyway. I know there are other writers who claim never to read anything, where they’re just transcribing something running in their heads but it’s not like that for me.
What authors have had the biggest influence on you?
[Pause] I don’t know [pause]. I feel like I’ve stolen from and reacted against almost every book I’ve ever read. The people I read with greatest pleasure would be… again it makes sense to be almost random. A book will come into my life and my experience of it will totally obliterate any sense I have of a personal canon.
Do you know the philosopher Slavoj Žižek? He has this thing about love, the evil of love, and he says: I really don’t like love, because what love says is, I pick you out from everything, and I’m going to give you special attention, meaning that everything else is denigrated, and he says there’s something a little evil in that, and in the same way I think that there is something a little philistine about lists.
How do you feel about the comparisons to David Foster Wallace?
David Foster Wallace died, and in the conversation about his death a certain sort of book got elevated, got enshrined. That book was the literary essay collection that has a reportorial narrative flow to it, and my book was the first one that came along and sort of fit that neatly and so people go to that. It’s natural. And it’s also true that I stole a lot of shit from him, as well as from all the other people I read, and I will continue to do so. But it doesn’t penetrate too far when I hear that stuff.
[Pause] Man, your influences are weird; I always wonder how authors are so confident when they talk about their influences, like how are you so conscious of that? Because when I look at my own case, at my own past and memories of writing certain things, it’s never very conscious; your influences often get at you by tangent and subterfuge. It’s not always the books that you would like to have influenced you that do.
And I’ll tell you something that I just realized in the street outside that I might mention. When I was in college, Mark Richard wrote this piece about Tom Waits, this unbelievable profile for Esquire – best thing ever written about Tom Waits if you can ever find it, and I read that when I was 19 or 20, when I was in a hero-worshipped thrall, and I’m sure that had a massive influence on me and, I mean, look at what I ended up doing. But, bottom line, I’ve never thought about it because I don’t want to; your influences are a problem.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Tolstoy’s stories translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, this husband and wife team who are retranslating all of Russian literature. They’re sort of the next great translators after Constance Garnett, and these stories are just fucking revelatory, my god. This story “Hadji Murat” you have to read. I bet they have the book here.