The Nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: It seems as though after Matt’s death you become very aware of your own health, watching what you eat and the condition of your body. How has this sense of awareness affected your writing?
Jonathan Harper: That’s a difficult question to answer. Matt was not the first friend I’d lost, but he was the first friend to lose to cancer. One of the downsides of long life is watching people die. And you’re still alive, trying to have adventures and maintain other relationships while being reminded about your mortality. It was hard to write this essay because I could remember these very beautiful moments between my husband and I while exploring this new place, and at the same time there was this harsh reality waiting for us back at home. Originally, the essay was twice as long to include more of Matt and our friends back home. During the editing process, I realized the heart of this essay was in Norway. Matt and his illness influenced how we experienced this trip, but it wasn’t the focus. So, it made sense to include these little moments where I zoned in on what I’m eating or worrying about a swollen lymph node. That’s where these two separate stories overlapped.
RR: This essay clearly draws from your own experience. What is it like mining your life for stories? How do you know when you will write about something you experienced?
JH: Well, I’m primarily a fiction writer, which is wonderful because I can borrow from my own life without any pressure to accurately portray myself. I love that phrase, “mining your life for stories,” because it’s just like that. No matter what the writing project is, I’m constantly mining – taking personal experiences and reshaping them to fit into a unique story. No one needs to know what’s true and what’s made up because it’s fiction. For an essay, I think there has to be a sense of ownership and a commitment to the truth. I knew right away that this was a unique time in my life, and it couldn’t be written as fiction.
RR: What other experiences have you had with travel writing? What draws you to this genre?
JH: Travel writing is new territory for me. “Black Market Fish” took me three years of writing and rewriting and hitting my head against the wall. When it comes to this genre, I’m more of a reader. I was fortunate to take a writing workshop with the magnificent EJ Levy many years ago and then found her essay “Home is Where the Heart Aches” in a copy of the Missouri Review. I must have read that three or four times before I actually committed to my own piece. This past summer, we finally took a long-awaited trip to Japan, and it was such an amazing experience. One night, we were in a small sake bar when an earthquake hit! It was terrifying and exhilarating and probably made a spectacle of myself to all the other bar patrons. So, I’d love to write about it, but I’m still having trouble finding a narrative that feels meaningful. Knowing me, it’ll probably take three years before I do.
RR: What’s it like transition into and out of a region with 24 hours of sunlight?
JH: It’s surreal. My first night in Batsfjord, I ran outside at midnight to get a picture of me in the midnight sun. The whole world felt different there. It was nothing for me to step outside at three in the morning, see an empty neighborhood void of life, and feel like it was three in the afternoon. Coming home, it took me a while to readjust. When it got dark out, my body instantly shut down as if it was telling me, “Ok – it’s finally night. Time to sleep, buddy!”
RR: What are you currently working on?
JH: I’m in the beginning stages of a novel. I read Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook and I was spellbound by it. So, I’m currently drafting a story around a queer man who gets stranded in a Midwestern resort town. I’ve also been drafting some essays about being a queer gamer and other nerdy stuff.
Jonathan Harper’s work in Issue 4.1: