CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: “Meme 12” details events occurring in 2004. Now, a decade later, how has time affected the perception of themes discussed in this piece?
Dave Madden: I don’t like writing about myself. That act of self-scrutiny that lies behind nonfictive characterization, it’s painful. Also, I’ve got this problem I’m working on where I avoid really knowing myself by routinely dismissing the younger guy I’ve been as a foolish idiot. I should ease up a little, but here in this piece is a kid who thinks taste and some kind of lazily won cosmopolitanism makes him stronger than brave men looking for meaningful connections. Coming to know more gay men has led me to see myself at this time as a timid animal. I think I felt like a timid animal at the time, too, but I let myself understand that timidity as innocent whereas aggressive’s what it really was.
RR: In memoir, there’s always a certain amount of risk a writer takes in recounting scenes from their past. What role does vulnerability play in nonfiction? Have you ever felt overexposed writing particular narratives?
DM: These Meme pieces form a series of misdirected memoirs, where I start with a first-person pronoun and then never let myself use one again. There’s a sentence-level risk going on I guess, asking readers as I do to navigate a bunch of passive-voice constructions, but it’s clear how this formal constraint spares me from having to risk much of myself. That said, I’m critical of this notion that recounting the past opens the writer to “a certain amount of risk.” Readers of personal narrative expect vulnerability and overexposure, and they reward writers who create it through word choice. I don’t see the risk to me as a writer. If I wrote more about family and loved ones I suppose I might bear some risk as a person, a guy with relationships to maintain, but if I can’t talk with those people about my concerns face-to-face I have no business writing about them for strangers so as to make myself look more thoughtful and sensitive.
RR: Your book The Authentic Animal explores the practice of taxidermy, an art of preserving the dead in such a way that life is apparently restored. In what ways does nonfiction resemble taxidermy?
DM: Characterization in nonfiction is a taxidermic practice. You have only the skin of the specimen and you do all kinds of hocus pocus under the surface to make the thing seem alive. It’s an unfair, unjust practice, but then again it’s the only way we have—save from going door to door—of getting to know any living person.
RR: You’re not only a writer, but also a professor at the University of San Francisco and a co-editor of The Cupboard. How do you divide your time between writing, teaching, and editing? In what ways do these three inform each other?
DM: I’m lucky in that I get to teach in a program that holds all its classes in the evening, when normally I’m watching TV. So I write in the morning and then I prepare for classes after lunch, and in the afternoons I don’t have a class coming up I can get Cupboard work done. I don’t know that these activities inform each other so much as keep me busy and connected to other writers.
RR: We’d love to hear more about your new book on stand-up comedy and pain.
DM: Glad to hear the standup book’s drawing interest. Here’s one thing I can try to risk: any notion of ability or professionalism. Right now I’m working on the fourth proposal for the book. The first three failed to engage either my agent or the publishers who got a look. I’ve spent two years researching and writing this book, and what I have to show for it is a hundred or so pages that don’t work. If I have talents it’s not for turning ideas into shapely books. The lesson here is an old one: writing doesn’t get easier the better you think you are at it.
Dave Madden’s work in Issue 1.4:
Dave Madden is the author of The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. His shorter work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, DIAGRAM, The Normal School, 1966, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and co-edits The Cupboard, a quarterly pamphlet.