CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: Your piece “Ineditability” is about cannibalism, which is rather heavy subject matter. What compelled you to write about this side of appetite?
B.J. Hollars: I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that this is actually my second piece about cannibalism. The first—“Leningrad”—is a nonfiction short-short about starvation as a tactic of war in the Siege of Leningrad. But perhaps my fascination with this subject seems a little less weird once I clue you into the fact that both “Leningrad” and “Ineditability” were born out of the same failed essay; one I tried writing several years back without much success. The essay was called “In Defense of the Donner Party,” and despite countless hours spent tinkering and reworking, I never could quite get that essay to do what I’d hoped it might. But all of the research I did for that piece actually proved quite useful for these later essays, so I suppose it wasn’t a complete failure.
To answer your question more directly, I think I was compelled to write about starvation because I figured it was one facet of “appetite” rarely covered. Given this issue’s theme, I imagined most people would write about food or appetite as it relates to food. I suppose I wanted to subvert that a bit. Maybe make people lose their appetite a bit…
RR: Your essay covers a number of very different topics: Greek mythology, the Donner party, and the Ukrainian famine, to name a few. How did you figure out a way to weave all of these things together?
BH: Well, I’m not sure it’s a perfect weave (in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not), though I certainly appreciate you noticing the attempt. I think my effort to combine these tangentially related topics is directly related to my research process. Sometimes I like to consider my themes broadly, sort of riff off all the ways in which one might view the theme. And so when it came to “appetite” (or, for me, cannibalism) I turned first to my previous research from my failed Donner Party essay. Then I went back to Leningrad, which led me to Ukraine, and somehow—after all of this meandering—I wound up spending some time with the Greeks. It’s an associative essay of sorts, a reflection of the research-process, but a reflection of my thinking process as well.
I’ll add also that early in the drafting process it became clear to me that this couldn’t be a conventional essay with a conventional chronology. And so, I allowed minor linkages to emerge to try to tie the piece together. Aside from the research, the transitions were the most difficult part. It’s difficult to suture something together that doesn’t fit naturally.
RR: What’s your favorite way to conduct research? Do you prefer books, the Internet, a more hands-on approach, or a mix of all three?
BH: All of the above. But first and foremost, the type of research I rely upon depends on the type of piece I’m trying to write. For instance, if I’m working on a book-length project, I’ll likely do dozens of hours of interviews in addition to archival research, Internet-based research, etc. But in a shorter piece like this, sometimes books and the Internet can be enough.
For me, research is the reward for writing. It’s my opportunity to look beyond myself and find ways in which I—or my subject—might fit within the larger world. But I’ve often found that the best discoveries are often accidental. When I set out to find a single fact, I rarely find it, but the collateral research that comes as a result is usually invaluable. In 2008, when I first started my failed Donner Party essay, I had no way of knowing that the folder on my desktop labeled “Donner Party” would come back to be of great use to me so far down the road. But that’s how research works. I guess the lesson is: don’t throw anything away. And also, save everything.
RR: When you do research for an essay, how do you sift through all of the relevant information and decide what to keep and what to leave out? What’s the most difficult part of that process?
BH: I often describe this process in terms of ice sculpting (which, full disclosure, I’ve never done, but I imagine this is how it works). The way I understand it, an ice sculptor begins with a block of ice and then must whittle down to find the beauty buried beneath. The same holds true when researching an essay. My first drafts are always double the length of the final product. I start with the whole block of text and then whittle it down to its bare essentials. It’s never easy—in fact, most times it hurts—but it’s a necessary pain.
For my last nonfiction book, the press asked me to cut around 20,000 words. Suffice it to say, it was an excruciating process. But it was also the right call. My once-bloated book became slim and streamlined, and ultimately, made for a much better read. I was too close to the subject to see this for myself, but I was grateful for the insight of others.
RR: In what ways is “Ineditability” divergent from other pieces you’ve written?
BH: In some ways it’s vastly different and in other ways it’s actually quite similar. People often joke that it’s hard to pin down “B.J. Hollars writing.” I get what they mean. After all, subject-wise, I’m sort of all over the map. Sometimes I write about Bigfoot, other times I write about civil rights. Stylistically, I’m all over the place as well. Sometimes I write straight journalistic narratives, other times I shoot for genre-blurring hybrid texts.
If I had a marketer, this sort of wavering would probably drive him or her nuts. After all, it’s hard to make a “brand” for oneself when one’s work is so wildly varied. Thankfully, I have little interest in making a “brand” or creating a “product,” even. I’m in it to make art—or try to—and the “versatility” (which is how I spin it) of my subject and style at least ensures that I never get bored. It keeps the work fresh, it keeps me fresh, and it allows me to see my world and my writing as inextricable to one another. I like that. It gives me the opportunity to strike where the iron is hot…even if where the “iron is hot” happens to be cannibalism…
B.J. Hollars’ work in Issue 1.4:
B.J. Hollars is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, and a collection of stories, Sightings. His latest work, a hybrid text entitled Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction, is forthcoming in the fall of 2014. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.