Interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan

By Katie Booth

John Jeremiah Sullivan is the author of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, which Publisher’s Weekly called “as remarkable as the finest horses it documents.” He is the winner of a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and a Whiting Writers’ Award. His music writing has been collected in Best American Music Writing,The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, and Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives. Sullivan contributes regularly to Harper’s Magazine and is currently on contract with GQ. He teaches in the summer writing program at the Sewanee School of Letters.

In February, he came to the University of Pittsburgh to talk with students about the work and art of nonfiction writing. Hot Metal Bridge sat down with him afterwards.

Hot Metal Bridge: Simultaneous with becoming a professional writer, you entered the literary industry as an editor. How has your work as an editor helped or hindered your growth as a writer?

John Jeremiah Sullivan: These days I’m purely on the writing side of things. I miss editing a little. Apart from the fun of doing something collaborative, of not just, you know, being alone at your desk all the time, there was a degree to which it strengthened me as a writer. At least I thought it did. Every day you’re forcing yourself on a microscopic level to be unforgiving with other people’s prose, it can’t help but make you more exacting when it comes to your own stuff. And I tried to learn from the writers I edited, to note their moves, how they went about fixing problems. The danger, of course, is you go too far with that, and you can’t write, because the critical voice is just so powerful from the very beginning, it smothers what you want to say. You’re trying to light matches in a rainstorm of self-doubt. Writing has to believe in itself as it’s happening.

So, the challenge for me has been to keep hold of all that editing taught me, but at the same time insist on myself as a writer and not as somebody who’s working to please an editorial voice. The whole editor/writer relationship has to stay a bit antagonistic, if it’s to be healthy. Some people would say very antagonistic. But I’ve always been lucky to land with editors who became friends too.

HMB: You wrote a fascinating and well-researched piece about Michael Jackson shortly after his death, and as I understand it, you only had about three weeks to report and write it. Can you talk a little bit about getting that assignment and then working through it?

JJS: When Michael died, I had a really strong immediate feeling I wanted to write about him, and I had kind of always wanted to write something about him, but it would have been a non sequitur while he was alive, or gratuitous. His death created an occasion for saying what I’d wanted to say. Writing is often ghoulish like that. I’m from Indiana. We’re not exactly long on heroes there. I named my goldfish MJ, and tried to learn Michael’s dances like everyone. He was our Elvis.

Journalism-wise, there was a purity to the situation, because the magazine was coming to me saying: the cover fell through, we need a cover (which happens all the time in mag world), do you want to do Michael? Okay, cover piece, closes in three weeks. And we hung up. Assignments are rarely that clear, that intelligible, that easy to act on.

Every time I turned on the TV or the internet, he was what people were talking about, and it was a hurricane of horrible glibness and stock phrases being traded around, the same sort of passive aggressive judgmental reporting that characterized his treatment by the media in life. I just felt like: okay, I have to figure out a way to get out from underneath all of that and say something to honor him, I guess. I felt like, this historical American artist has died, and it has to be marked in a way that’s not crass. I’ll either succeed or fail at that.

I was living in the mountains teaching for the summer. I covered my office with MJ paraphernalia. I sent off for a stack of books and articles, in addition to what I had. I started calling people on the phone. I put together a playlist of pretty much every song he ever recorded and set it on shuffle. My daughter danced to Michael Jackson all summer long. She couldn’t understand if he was a boy or a girl. “Is he both? Maybe he’s both!” I wove myself into a little Michael cocoon and hoped something would happen there. I hoped to learn something about him, that could then be reported. This is always the hope, that I will learn something and be able to express it in a way that’s pleasing. Otherwise, what am I doing? Who cares what I think about Michael Jackson, right? I don’t.

HMB: In that piece as well as Blood Horses, and much of your other work, it seems like you immerse yourself in an incredible amount of research. What is your process for balancing research and writing?

JJS: I have a system I use that I stole/adapted from John McPhee, who lays it out very carefully in an interview that was published in a magazine called Writing on the Edge. Every non-fiction writer should read that interview. It’s hard to get. They asked him this same question, and he explained an elaborate system. He was an early computer user, and always working with so much data, and he started creating these “logs,” these vast records of his reporting notes, his interviewing, his note-taking, his reading, and everything is divided up into discrete items, a compendium of items. Sentences. These are then tagged and arranged and rearranged, until blobs of interrelated material start to emerge. The shape of the thing is inside there.

It’s Ezra Pound who talks about the rose in the steel dust. They liked to do these experiments back in the Man Ray days, where they’d have a surface covered with millions of tiny iron shavings, then take a magnet in the shape of something—a rose in this case—and lower it down over the table, and the dust would gather itself into that shape. Beautiful to see. We do that with our material, when we’re writing well and not forcing it, not pushing the piece to arbitrary places. The thing itself—the rose—is the piece, and the form. It knows you’ve got ten thousand pages of material, but regrettably it only wants to be twenty or thirty pages long, so it starts demanding you make decisions. Now you’re in dialogue with it. The magnet and the dust are approaching each other.

HMB: Right now you’re working on a book that tells a historical story. How have you worked to shape the story in the midst of that history?

JJS: It was a case of falling down a rabbit hole. A professor in college told me about this strange article that had been published in an obscure journal back in 1919. It was about an 18th-century figure, a German lawyer, who left a stable well-to-do existence behind and went into the North American forest, where he lived among Native American tribes and worked to unite them against colonialism. The English hunted him for years, until they finally imprisoned him, and he died there, in prison.

It was a great story, and more important something about it seemed unfinished, I was left with the feeling there had to be more. But I was five years into the research before I started finding things that hadn’t been seen before, documents, and I had this original instinct confirmed. He was, in fact, not a footnote, not a freak, but connected to some very significant things that were happening intellectually and politically. The story shifted beneath me. In that sense it was a lot like writing for a magazine.

I keep my bearings by remembering what I’m doing there in the first place. I’m there to make a book.

But mostly I don’t keep my bearings. Mostly I experience intimidation. Every day you’re brought fresh reminders of your total ignorance, reminders that if you were to spend the rest of your life studying, you’d still miss completely major things that are essential to a true picture—it’s hopeless, you know?

So, I say to myself, sometimes out loud, your task here is not to master the intellectual history of the early Enlightenment. No one can, and if there have been a few who could, you’re not one of them. You’re here to make a book. And no one else is going to make the book you’ll make, no one else cares as much. At that point I’m reinjected with the motivation of, let’s not allow it to be a piece of crap.

HMB: You were talking today about working on “Horseman, Pass By” a magazine piece for Harpers about the Kentucky Derby, and as you pursued that story, you were also developing what ultimately became Blood Horses, a book that stemmed out of the same project. You were simultaneously working both to cut massive amounts of material for Harper’s, and expand them for your book.

JJS: Yes, I wrote this mutant thing that was 40,000 words long, and the magazine wanted something that was 15,000 words long, and the publisher wanted something 80,000 words long. On the same day sometimes I was working in both directions. That was discombobulating.

HMB: Can you talk about that process? What was that like?

JJS: I mean, I’d like to say it was frustrating, because I’m always eager to complain, but more than anything that whole experience was one of discovering myself as a writer, figuring out what I was interested in doing as a writer. Having to work both ways at once forced me, in a Wax On, Wax Off kind of way, to be thoughtful about my own sentences in a way I hadn’t been—not to the same degree. It goes back to what we were talking about before, with the editor/writer business, and suggests maybe the lines aren’t as clear as I made it sound. Here for instance I was making editorial decisions: you know, cutting, structuring, reworking, all the stuff you do when you’re working on other people’s pieces. Ben Metcalf at Harper’s, who’s truly a magnificent editor, was guiding me through all that. But the whole time I wasn’t thinking like an editor, I was thinking as a writer.

Anyway, I remember feeling awakened; it was an awakening to how difficult writing was going to be, as a life’s pursuit, but also how worth it, maybe, if you dedicated yourself to form. But I should say, if we’re talking about Blood Horses, that’s a book I have complicated feelings about. There are places where I see I didn’t humble myself before the demands the book was created for. There are places where I hear myself writing out of obligation, because I believed something needed to be said, but the book didn’t need it, and didn’t want it. A book is a device that enables an interplay of tensions, pressures, all the things required to sustain somebody’s attention over 300 pages. I’m satisfied to be trying it again.

HMB: So as you’re working out these different pieces, especially with very different tones and registers, how do you go about considering and creating a persona for yourself as the narrator?

JJS: One aspect of coming out of the magazine world is that fact-checking is always there, hovering, waiting to take away your favorite sentences. But your “self” they don’t get to touch, they don’t get to mess with. That’s your fiefdom. So I like to take that as a liberty, and I try to run with it. That’s what you mean by persona.

I never feel like the “I” that’s speaking in a piece of mine has any real duty to sync up with whatever Me is on a given day, in terms of sensibility. If I can create an entity on the page, a being with a voice, who’s able to look at things in a way that gets me closer to what’s true about them, then I embrace him, even if he ends up saying things I don’t say. You can’t do it with other people, of course. If you didn’t actually say the heat was miserable when we were riding the bus together, I can’t quote you as saying that in my piece. But the creature who writes under my byline gets to feel hot and miserable and tell you about it, and the fact-checkers have no way to check it, except to verify that it was 98 degrees in El Paso that day.

I’m saying it’s one thing we get as nonfiction writers. You know, fiction writers get a lot. They can do anything. We can’t do that much, but we can play with masks, and they can’t take that away.

HMB: You’ve done some work writing book reviews that reveal your talents as a reader, your appreciation for other people’s writing, and how closely and carefully you read. What advice do you have to writers who want to be better readers?

JJS: I’m disturbed at how many people think you can write at all without first being a compulsive reader. Not that you can’t find examples in the literature of naive geniuses, but for most of us it’s like trying to paint without knowing how to mix colors: these are your models and your materials, these other books, this long conversation that writers have been having with one another for thousands of years. More practically speaking, if you don’t read widely and purposefully, you can’t have a clear sense of your own strengths and weaknesses. You’re liable to think you’re a genius, when really your stuff is pretty mediocre. Thinking you’re a genius is death.

That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.

You know the effect people refer to, the Baader-Meinhof Effect, where you learn a new word, and then you see that word three times over the course of the day. It seems like this amazing coincidence, but really what’s happened is that the word has entered your matrix of signification, shifting in the process from invisibility to visibility. Reading is like this, with books and writers instead of words. If you follow your interest, you’ll be adding to the store of things, examples, that make up your ideas. Read Plutarch because a list you read said he was important, and what if you get asked about him at a party, he’ll wash off. Read Plutarch because you’ve fallen in interest with him—because you’ve followed his successors back to him or his influences forward, or because you need him now to understand better some other writer whose work you love, however it happens, maybe a book of his falls open to a page and you’re fixed—in those ways he becomes part of your soul.

HMB: Last night you said, as advice to writers, to seek out subjects that flatter their obsessions. What obsession do you have that you haven’t written about yet, that you’re waiting for a moment to write about?

JJS: Something I’ve been trying to get my editors to let me write about for like six years now and they just will not say yes, is the new breed of pop-music producer. I like their invisible power. We watch these performers onstage, on television, and speak about them as artists in the old-school mode, but almost every single aesthetic decision related to their music has been made by some overweight guys in sports jerseys who live in the studio and smoke weed 24 a day. I want to hang out with those guys. Their approach is much more scientific, cynical, and there’s a man-behind-the-curtain aspect to it all. At the same time they’re passionate technicians and students of music. I think you’d end up looking at pop culture in a different way, if you could get access. But it doesn’t seem sexy. It’s more nerdy. My editors may be wise.

But my real obsession is the first half of the eighteenth century, and that’s all I work on, between deadlines, so mostly I’m pretty in touch with my obsessions. I don’t have to spend a lot of time seeking them out. The job I have at GQ is a beautifully flexible one, especially for this publishing day and age. It lets me roam. They’ll let me go from a serious or at least self-serious political piece to Michael Jackson or Axl Rose. And it’s gotten to a point now where I don’t think that’s even recognized as a conspicuous thing, that I have no niche as a magazine writer yet write tons of pieces. I try not to examine it very hard. It’s just what I do.