The South Worries About Itself: An interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan

John Jeremiah Sullivan read as part of the final installment of the fall season of the Room 220 Live Prose at the Antenna Gallery reading series on Monday, November 21, 2011. He was joined by author Nathaniel Rich. Sullivan and Rich also read the following evening at Octavia Books.

By Nathan C. Martin

John Jeremiah Sullivan was perturbed that reviews of Pulphead, his new book of essays, had failed to reach anything resembling a consensus in terms of ranking the individual works. “All of the reviews have been nice so far, but the same essays that are called the best in some pieces are called the worst in others,” he said. “It’s strange. It’s hard to locate a pattern.”

I spoke with Sullivan on the phone last week moments after he arrived home in North Carolina from a string of events in New York to promote Pulphead. “I haven’t slept in a really long time,” he told me at the outset. He was—and is, at the time of this writing—immersed in a grand publicity campaign for the book. He said he wants to get a t-shirt made for the tour. But, of course, it’s all on a budget. “I’m not getting the Tom Wolfe treatment,” he said.

Though I didn’t ask, this reference to Tom Wolfe could have been in relation to a recent review in Time Magazine that asserted that he is, in fact, the new Tom Wolfe. Others have compared Pulphead to David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and yet another reviewer places him among the top 10 or 15 young nonfiction writers in English. But Sullivan, even as he’s being actively crammed into the canon of American literary journalism, still wonders: Which is really the best essay?

This betrays his neuroticism more than anything. He’s disarmingly cool and casual to talk to, but one senses a level of engagement with the writing process so utterly unabated that it’s easy to imagine him—between stints in Kingston to interview Bunny Wailer and in Spain on tour with Guns ‘n’ Roses—alone in a dusty archive somewhere, surrounded by tall stacks of books, laughing in nearly maniacal surprise at some discovery about an obscure 18th-century Saxon who tried to build a Utopia in the American South. In fact, that pretty well sums up much of what he’s been doing for the past 15 years, if it doesn’t downplay how vastly disparate the subjects he writes about are.

I suggested that the disagreement among critics about which of his essays are best is precisely because of his wild array of topics. In Pulphead alone there’s a rumination on Michael Jackson, a first-person account of marching with the Tea Party, a personal essay about the time he spent living with the last surviving Southern Agrarian, and a historical profile of an 18th-century French naturalist. When he describes his essay about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as “hieroglyphic” in our interview, understand that, in researching his essay “Unnamed Caves,” he’s someone who’s spent more time than most thinking about premodern art etched in stone walls. Some readers will be drawn to some essays instead of others simply out of personal interest, but a common voice binds them all together. And that voice is sometimes staggering.

Sullivan can blend his voice with the vernacular of his subject matter—he ends an ode to a former Real World participant with a simple imperative: “Bless him, bros”—but more often he writes easygoing, unpretentious sentences tinged with a Southern sensibility. They’re fluid and musical, effortlessly everyday in their dialect, and never announce when they’re about to drop a bomb of profundity. It’s also clear that Sullivan simply cannot help being darkly, darkly funny, even in the most inappropriate contexts. Did he really need to describe a man in a shelter after Katrina as “an old, long-bearded white guy with no shirt on and sagging hairy man-breasts [who] was coughing, a terrible hacking cough. ‘There’s a pill stuck sideways in my throat!’ he croaked.” No, Sullivan did not need to describe that man in that way, but he did, and the essay is better for it.

Pulphead is a collection of Sullivan’s best magazine writing over the past dozen years, pieces he culled and expanded upon from GQ, The Oxford American, Harper’s, and The Paris Review, where he’s the “Southern Editor.” He also contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine and other places, and he’s the author of the book Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.

Midway through our interview, we hung up so Sullivan could pay the babysitter who was watching his one-year-old daughter. From that point forth I could hear “The Meatball,” as he refers to her (he also called her “a ham” at one point), alternately giggling on his lap and banging things around in the background. “She hasn’t seen me in a while so she’s being really clingy,” he said. Then he sang her a bar from “Old MacDonald had a Farm.”

Sullivan reads at the Antenna Gallery; cover art for Pulphead

Room 220: I started to follow your work after the first time I noticed you were the Southern editor of The Paris Review. I just thought that kicked ass. How did that position come about?

John Jeremiah Sullivan: I’m glad you thought so. I was proud to have it conferred upon me. I was somewhat confused at first. Lorin [Stein, the editor of The Paris Review] had been my editor at FSG, and it was his idea. He knew that the stuff I’m doing separate from my magazine work all has to do with the South in the 18th century. It’s something I’ve been working on forever. So he knew that that was going to be generating pieces, sort of extruding boulders. And it’s just turned into this cool blobular thing where I’m writing pieces with Southern themes for Lorin on a semi-regular basis. And it’s also supposed to allow me to be a conduit for Southern writers. We haven’t done that much yet, but that’s part of the idea. We did just buy an essay by a guy named David Searcy, who lives in Texas. That guy’s writing is really extraordinary, sort of crystalline and colloquial at the same time. He doesn’t write like anybody else. Ben Fountain, another writer who lives in Texas, sent me Searcy’s pieces just because of that “Southern editor” thing on the masthead.

Rm220: My friend Anne said that the Katrina essay you have in the book was one of the only things she’s read about Katrina that she didn’t hate. She said it’s because it didn’t succumb to “maudlin navel-gazing” so much Katrina writing did. How did that piece come about?

JJS: Thanks for telling me that. That’s very generous. I haven’t thought that much about that piece since I wrote it, but I remember it came out in a slab. GQ had sent four different writers to four different places right after the storm. I remember kind of being in shock, and as a result, I wasn’t really forming many opinions in the moment about what was happening. Like everybody else in the country at the time I had kind of a generalized outrage, and that settled in more when I got home. But at the time I felt very … like the kind of really close attention you pay when an accident is about to happen. War reporters probably get that all the time, but for me, that was one of the first times I’d come up against it. The human scenes that you were seeing were so vivid that they were almost hieroglyphic. That’s how I think that piece is. There’s a weird kind of hieroglyphic quality to it.

Rm220: You wrote in “Mr. Lytle” that when you were growing up in Indiana you were “under the tragic spell of the South,” but at the same time you felt you would forever be outside of it. How did the South look to you growing up, and how does it appear now as someone who feels like an outsider but who is very much invested in it?

JJS: Well, in a way, those pieces in the book were my attempt to answer the question you’re asking. My biography is very marginal. I grew up in Kentucky—which is a state people argue over whether to put in the South or the Midwest—and then we weren’t really in Kentucky, we were across the river in Indiana. Louisville is a river town. My mother comes from a very established Southern family in a lot of ways—they had the silver that had been hidden under the boards of the stairs when Sherman came through—but even though they were very loving and welcoming toward us, we always existed at a level of remove. That stuff just affects you when you’re a child. You’re always hyper-aware if you don’t quite belong somewhere.

Rm220: I wonder if that removed perspective broadens the lens through which you see the South—instead of having been completely immersed in it your entire life.

JJS: I hope you’re right. I kind of think that my interest in the South is something that I’m writing my way out of. So in a way I can’t claim it. And it’s in that sense that the whole idea of thinking of myself as a Southern writer—if I was to do that—it would just be bogus and sort of silly. Because, you know, a person who’s a true geographic, inescapable Southerner has that foisted upon them in a way I’m kind of grateful to be able to get out from under, even if this Southern editor thing makes that harder.

Rm220: I’m sure it will. Amy Hempel said that the first time she met Barry Hannah she asked him, “Do you like to be called a Southern writer?” and he answered, “You like to be called a woman writer?” The whole distinction is pretty dubious to begin with.

JJS: It’s what you do with it as a subject, and it’s what you’re able to get out of the special intensity that the South places on language—some parts of it, anyway. And the fact that—I don’t think this is a bullshit claim; you tell me if it is—a greater number of people are sensitized to the surrounding culture in the South than in other parts of the country.

Rm220: I think that’s accurate. I grew up in the Rocky Mountain West, which does have its own culture, but not in any pronounced way that anyone pays attention to.

JJS: Right, right. The place has a culture every bit as deep and valid as the South does, but the South has a kind of self-consciousness, at the end of the day. The South worries about itself.

Bunny Wailer and Michael Jackson are among the subjects Sullivan nerds out on in Pulphead

Rm220: There’s something in some of your essays that seems to go beyond the strong sense of curiosity and—as Gay Talese put it, “sense of wonderment”—that drives most good literary journalism. In the profiles, especially—the Michael Jackson piece, the Axl Rose piece, the Real World piece, and the blues essay, too—it seems almost as if you’re writing not only out of curiosity and wonderment, but of fandom. You’re writing from the point of view of a fan. Would you agree?

JJS: I see what you’re saying, and I think there’s a level on which it’s true, but I do make a distinction to this extent: Fandom implies a kind of ecstasy of approval and a suspension of critical faculties. But I don’t think that’s what we owe to the artists we really love, or what we give to them. What we give to them is our interest. They’re always failing and fucking up—and then, one hopes, having periods of success. But, yeah, those pieces were about subjects that have been of really passionate interest to me for a while.

Rm220: I’d say that being aware of your critical faculties would almost elevate your fandom and make it more complex and sophisticated, but it wouldn’t necessarily differentiate it from pure, uncritical fandom. It’s almost like bringing it to this higher state where you appreciate artists not only for their greatness, but for their flaws as well. Instead of their flaws being inconsequential because you’re uncritical, they’re inconsequential—at least in a negative sense—because they just make the people these more complete entities.

JJS: Yeah, that seems pretty on to me.

Rm220: It’s refreshing to read, because when you’re writing first-person journalism about celebrities there’s this danger of looking like this sort of groping sycophant. So there’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to go in the other direction and play it a little too cool, which lots of writers do.

JJS: And it made sense to me, because these people are among the gods of the cultural sphere that we grew up in. How many tens of thousands of hours did we spend in that chamber with them? In a way, there was something liberating in looking at them as human beings as intensely as possible. It’s like trying to get something back out of that screen.

Rm220: That comes out in the Real World essay, when you’re writing about how the performative elements of these people’s personalities get ingrained in their actual personalities.

JJS: I have a hard time knowing what to make of the Real World piece. It’s probably the one I was most ambivalent about having in the book. But it did go to a pretty crazy place. Thinking back, I wrote that piece right around the time reality TV really sort of supersaturated the culture—the beginning of the process that led to a former vice presidential candidate having her own reality TV show. Just a point of no return, beyond which you just couldn’t really say that it wasn’t important, it wasn’t clearly one of the central means by which our culture was examining itself. And it’s fairly hideous.

Rm220: Just from clues I gleaned for your essays, I gather that you were married fairly young for a person in these modern times. I was wondering if you felt like young married life, or young family life, was amenable to a writer’s life.

JJS: Well, the clues are a little bit deceptive that way. My wife and I didn’t actually get married until 2004, but we started dating when we were really young. She was 19 and I was 20 when we met. So, you know there are little outflashings of my life with her throughout my work, but the full-tilt, mortgage and kids thing is still a relatively recent eruption in my life. Everybody told me it would be the hardest and most interesting thing I would ever do, and that turned out to be true. Also the funniest. The whole hotbox of domestic life. For me, it had the effect of making everything more interesting, more real. I know that sounds completely drum circle, but other people became more real to me, their emotional lives, the consequences of things became more apparent. And I think for that reason it made me a better writer. I think you could probably watch my style change around the time our girls came along into something that’s more abrupt and less full of it.

Rm220: A friend of mine came to the conclusion—he was doing a project that had him interacting with a bunch of older artist types who never had kids because they wanted to have their artistic freedoms—and he said he thought that having kids is pretty much the only chance anyone has at becoming an unselfish person.

JJS: Hmm. I have some friends that would really piss off. [laughs]