Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: As a society, we often use humor to cope with the inevitability of death. Can you talk about your personal philosophy of death and how humor fits into it? Was the humor just for this piece or is that the way you have always approached the subject?
Barry Herzog: Humor and death? They don’t call Him the Grim Reaper for nuthin’. I’m in my seventies and living on borrowed time. I can’t ignore reality—I will die—and my kids refuse to talk with me about my imminent demise. Given my lack of choices I choose to don the mantle of a mocker. Come ‘n get me, sucka. Just not right away, OK?
RR: Your take on death (or rather, the bureaucracy of death) is very grounded and practical. What led you to want to confront it in such a direct and fearless way?
BH: There was actually nothing direct and fearless about writing “Cremains.” My wife and I are careful with our money. We chose to price the cost of graves and burial-related expenses at the cemetery where her family lies (mine are planted elsewhere in a similar-priced locale). So we did, then asked ourselves, “Do we blow upward of fifty thousand bucks on some tiny slab of real estate, a couple wooden boxes and some flowers? We are not rich and have better ways to spend our money. Also, we both like the idea of sprinkling our ashes over some ocean far from here. Right now we’re leaning toward Hawaii; that way our kids and grandkids can stop by for a visit and work some on their tans, maybe a couple of mai tais. Better than a freeway view for us.
RR: We’re interested in the tone of the piece. Can you tell us a little about how you developed the tone and voice as you wrote it?
BH: The tone came with the aftereffects of the cemetery visit. I started writing about the experience the same day as our visit to the cemetery. Like most ‘tones’ of things I write it is not and never has been pre-planned. I sit down in front of the computer screen, collect myself, rest my fingers on the keyboard, close my eyes, try not to think too much and let it all come out. I’m usually surprised by what my fingers have to say, although I sit quietly at a distance as they work the keys, and I figure if it turns out that I just don’t like it I can always hit ‘delete,’ although I haven’t done that yet in the forty odd years since I started writing.
RR: We understand that you’re a lawyer, now retired. Can you discuss how your experience in law ties into your creative work?
BH: Pure escape from the linear drudgery of legal writing (Introduction; Point One; Point Two; Conclusion) and the intense, daily conflict of trial work. It was either write or start poisoning gophers.
RR: What are some of the writers that have influenced your work?
BH: My main shtick is short stories (i.e., disguised memoir) so Isaac Bashevis Singer. Raymond Carver. Amos Oz. Junot Diaz. Tim O’Brien for a few. Poetry? Louis Jenkins. Coleman Banks, Al Walton. Memoir pieces? I stand in awe at the eloquence of the seniors that I meet in memoir writing workshops, most of whom insist they have little of value to say in describing their supposed mundane lives.
Barry Horzog’s work in Issue 5.3: