JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVANTHE BOOKEVENTS

PULPHEAD NOTES

Sentences from John Jeremiah Sullivan's book Pulphead. Photography from the book tour.
  • April 3, 2012 4:17 pm

    An ASME Nomination

    Congrats to John Jeremiah Sullivan from all of us here at FSG: his New York Times Magazine piece “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!" has just been named a finalist for the 2012 National Magazine Awards (Feature Writing). Read the full list of finalists here.

  • March 20, 2012 10:51 am

    John Jeremiah Sullivan and Geoff Dyer in Conversation

    (A little bit of the two writers’ exchange at 192 Books in New York a couple weeks ago. Read the rest here.)

    Dyer: I was talking to someone last night, and I said about these essays of yours that there’s no telling what you’re going to say next. And that carries at the level of the paragraph—you’ve got no idea of what’s going to happen next, and so it’s got that weird version of suspense—then within the larger structure of the thing, that turnaround in the opening story when you talk about your teenage years as an evangelical Christian, and within the paragraphs, each sentence can be followed by something you’re utterly unprepared for. And that’s exciting.

    Sullivan: I’m glad you think so. I think it sometimes has to do with changing substances in the middle of a piece, moving from coffee to a cocktail or something. [Laughter] And then there will be a random-seeming, very abrupt change.

    Dyer: The key thing is—and this is something we have in common—with these abrupt reversals or changes, the tone can accommodate that, so there’s this overriding kind of cogency.

    Sullivan: I agree. I was wondering about that in the context of your career as a whole because it seems that very early on, you decided that the form of your work—that would give it a coherence across the different genres you’ve worked in and the different approaches you’ve tried—would be your voice and also just the circle of your interests. That’s the thing that has become the real signature quality of your work—that confidence that the shape of your own thoughts will be enough to give a formal structure to your books. How early on in your writing did you begin to feel this way, and what gave you the confidence to do it?

    Dyer: It’s funny. I think that so often, what can give one the confidence, weirdly, is a kind of despair. Despairing of being able to do anything else. Or maybe that’s hyperbole. Maybe it’s more like resignation, really. Of just arriving at a particular style, which is what you default to given all the other things that you can’t do.

    For me, I’ve always found that I was so susceptible to influence but so unable to sound like the person I was being influenced by. So it always ended up sounding like me, even when I was under the impression that I was writing this beautiful, Anglicized version of Barthesian French. It was still just this—weirdly—Gloucestershire English. I’ve said this before, but it’s so true. I think it’s been so determining for me, this absolute inability to tell a story, or to think of stories and plots.

    And sometimes, as can happen with any critic, I’ll then go too far, and I’ll take my own inadequacy and use that as a rod to start beating other writers over the head. I’ll say, “Oh, I just don’t like X’s books, or it’s too story-driven.” And then that becomes some weirdly inappropriate thing. But if you can’t think of stories, then what are you left with? Well, you’re left with structure and voice.

    And what about you? Do you feel that the style you’ve arrived at is some sort of compensatory thing? Did you start out to be a straight-down-the-line novelist?

    Sullivan: No, I never did. And I really relate to what you said about helplessness. Because you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests, even when they don’t go the way you’d want them to, out of a kind of politeness. I’m often sheepish about forcing my obsessions on the reader, but I know that when I indulge that, I write better. So that became the guiding thing in my work is that I kept indulging that.

    Dyer: That’s something we have in common. Too often, self-indulgence is used in the pejorative sense.

    Sullivan: Let’s reclaim it! [Laughter]

  • March 6, 2012 12:00 pm

    "I write about non-fiction alternate histories, moments of possibility that got squashed. That’s what my next book is about. It’s about a guy who showed up in South Carolina in 1735 and basically looked around and said, “You know this thing you’re doing, of decimating the Indians and enslaving Africans on a mass scale while alienating a poor-white underclass? It’s a terrible idea!”"

    — John Jeremiah Sullivan, in an interview with Critical Mob

  • March 6, 2012 9:09 am
  • March 2, 2012 9:41 am
  • March 1, 2012 11:51 am

    Reality TV and The Novel

    Q. Nabokov describes the term “reality” as “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.” In “Getting Down to What Is Really Real,” you seem as much appalled by “Reality TV” as you are fascinated by it. Can you talk about its complicated allure? Why do you think it’s become so popular?

    John Jeremiah Sullivan: Seven or the eight years ago, the genre started expanding—to the point where now you’d be hard-pressed to find an aspect of American life it hasn’t touched—and there came a point when you started to feel that for some people, in some people’s minds, it was actually messing with reality. The boundaries were mingling. This was years before you had a spectacle like, a recent Republican VP candidate getting her own reality show, but you could feel that coming. It’s the feeling I was interested in and tried to write about. Genres can do this thing sometimes of giving us frames to shape our lives in, to make sense of them. The novel did that for a couple of hundred years. These shows are doing it now for a lot of Americans. That’s probably not good.

    (Read the rest of the interview at Critical Mob.)

  • February 28, 2012 12:10 pm

    An Event with Geoff Dyer in New York

    On Friday March 9th, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Geoff Dyer will be in conversation at 192 Books. Here’s Dyer from a recent interview in Bookforum:

    Failure is quite interesting, and it’s something I have a certain amount of experience with. I wasn’t a failure in the way lots of people are failures—I could always get published, that was pretty straightforward. Literary failure is funny because it’s not like you get this massive slap in the face and become a figure of ridicule. It’s more that you do this thing, you write this book, and then this big thing is poised to happen on publication. And nothing happens. It’s just a weird non-event. The literary Richter scale doesn’t register any kind of tremor. That was happening to me for a very long while, and then I managed to persuade myself that these serial failures were perhaps a kind of liberation in that it meant I was free from any kind of pressure from publishers. The stakes were so low that it didn’t really make any kind of difference to anybody that I went from writing a novel to writing a book about the First World War.

    You can RSVP to the event by calling (212) 255-4022

  • February 23, 2012 10:30 am
    Samuel Pepys, proto-blogger, was born today in 1633. If you’ve ever sat through a British Literature or History seminar on the Restoration, you can thank this man for recording the events of the age. View high resolution

    Samuel Pepys, proto-blogger, was born today in 1633. If you’ve ever sat through a British Literature or History seminar on the Restoration, you can thank this man for recording the events of the age.

  • February 14, 2012 7:27 am

    "That’s just a story we’re telling ourselves because we’re rich and bored from the Irish point of view, and that’s exactly how I would feel if I were Irish. At the same time do you really want to foreclose on the possibility that cultures might be transmitted across generations and that there might be something in tapping into that? I’ve been a passionate reader of Irish literature over my life, and I’d like to think that I read it more intensely because I felt as if I had some stock in it."

    A Brief Q&A with John Jeremiah Sullivan by the New York Times 6th Floor Blog

  • February 10, 2012 3:54 pm

    My Debt to Ireland

    Ireland starts for me with the end of “The Dead,” which my father read to me from his desk in his basement office in New Albany, Ind. I don’t remember what age I was — feels like it could have happened anytime between the 6th and 11th birthdays — but I picture the scene with a strange, time-slurred clarity of detail. His offices were always in the basement, because that’s where he could smoke his endless, extra-long menthols, exhaling nasally over the red mustache. I can smell it in his sweat when he bends down to kiss me goodbye, and I smell it in this room. I also note cat urine, because our vicious, lonely old calico, Skipper, tends to relieve herself on the dark green chair in the corner when stressed, and the scent has soaked into the stuffing, and my father won’t throw away the chair, because it belonged to his father. The mottled surface of the desk where he writes is dark green, almost black, and glowing green are the little letters on the screen of the primitive Tandy word processor the newspaper has given him, and an excellent forest green is the cover of “The Portable James Joyce,” my mother’s Penguin paperback from college. He’s holding it close to his face. He was blind in one eye and couldn’t see especially well out of the other, wore dark-framed, vaguely government-issue glasses, but they’re lowered, he’s turning his head and squinting over the top of them. He reads me the famous last paragraph, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward… .” Nothing of the actual language remained with me, except, years later, reading the story at school, there was something like déjà vu at the part where Joyce first says the snow was “falling faintly,” then four words later says it was, “faintly falling.” The slight overconspicuousness of that had stuck, as I suppose he intended.

    Read on at the New York Times Magazine

  • February 10, 2012 10:27 am

    An Interview in the L.A. Review of Books

    Q. 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.

    Read On

  • January 30, 2012 11:37 am
    lifeserial:

Now reading.

The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.

This description of an RV appears on page 8. I’m not much further than that in the book because I just got it this afternoon, but yeah. I have a feeling I’m going to love these essays. It’s only a sentence, yet it warns that John Jeremiah Sullivan is an exciting, adventurous writer.
The book feels good in my hands, like an indispensable map. I’m conscious of being so drawn to essays lately. (Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is another recent example.) Maybe I’m on a creative honesty kick. I might argue that the best stories—even in fiction—are the ones carefully drawn from real life. Make it real.
Anyhow, I’ve only just begun to read this. Fingers crossed.

Read slow, friend. Read slow. View high resolution

    lifeserial:

    Now reading.

    The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.

    This description of an RV appears on page 8. I’m not much further than that in the book because I just got it this afternoon, but yeah. I have a feeling I’m going to love these essays. It’s only a sentence, yet it warns that John Jeremiah Sullivan is an exciting, adventurous writer.

    The book feels good in my hands, like an indispensable map. I’m conscious of being so drawn to essays lately. (Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is another recent example.) Maybe I’m on a creative honesty kick. I might argue that the best stories—even in fiction—are the ones carefully drawn from real life. Make it real.

    Anyhow, I’ve only just begun to read this. Fingers crossed.

    Read slow, friend. Read slow.

  • January 26, 2012 3:18 pm
    This photo doubles as the center of the venn diagram between Pulphead and the show “Dexter,” courtesy of a tweet from actress Jennifer Carpenter. View high resolution

    This photo doubles as the center of the venn diagram between Pulphead and the show “Dexter,” courtesy of a tweet from actress Jennifer Carpenter.

  • January 21, 2012 7:51 pm
  • January 20, 2012 10:57 am

    The Music of Right Now

    Traffic was thick now. Llewis turned up the crappy radio in the van as we moved toward the hotel. The DJ played a song called “Slow Motion” by Vybz Kartel, probably the hottest dancehall singer in Jamaica right now. At that moment, Vybz was in jail, suspected (in the vaguest terms) of having gotten involved in Dudus-related violence. “But we’re hoping he’ll get out soon,” said Llewis as he drove. “Maybe this Friday.” This was the music Llewis loved best, not the old stuff (which he knew and respected). If the Wailers were playing now, this is what they’d be into. A young couple in a car next to us grinned and bobbed their heads to it as we rolled by. I’d never been wild about dancehall, but now I the last wailer realized it was because I’d never really heard dancehall. You can’t just “listen” to dancehall. It happens; you have to be there for it. The DJ was mixing together three or four different songs. Kartel’s hypnotic voice floated over the top of beats that would suddenly vanish, leaving only spacey bass-throbs, as the words kept running. “So this is now?” I asked. “Right?” “This is right now,” Llewis said, stabbing his finger at the radio. “This is Right. Now.”

    At the hotel, I downloaded “Slow Motion.” It was somewhat limp, in this version. It sounded like a karaoke mix of what we’d heard in the car. Vybz did not live on the computer. He was in the air over Kingston.

    -“The Last Wailer”