A Democracy of Ghosts: An Interview with John Griswold


By Erika Dreifus

If you visit my Practicing Writing blog, you know that I’m a longtime fan of John Griswold (also known in the writing world as “Oronte Churm”). So I was thrilled when John announced that his first novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, was to be published by Wordcraft of Oregon. And I was equally delighted when John agreed to answer some questions for all of us.

John’s writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Natural Bridge, and in the anthologies The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 3 (W.W. Norton) and Mountain Man Dance Moves (McSweeney’s Books). A nonfiction book will be out in 2010 from The History Press. He also writes as Oronte Churm for Inside Higher Ed and McSweeney’s. John lives with his wife and two sons in Urbana, Ill., where he teaches at the University of Illinois. Read more at www.JohnGriswold.net.

(This interview originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Practicing Writer)

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): John, your novel is a work of historical fiction in multiple respects. The central action is indeed something that is part of American history. But this is also a work of family history: William J. Sneed, your maternal grandfather, is the model for the book’s protagonist Bill Sneed. What did you find to be the most significant challenge in writing historical fiction that is also, in a way, family history?

JOHN GRISWOLD (JG): The challenge was to find a plausible fictional answer to my real-life question: How could the people of a region I know so well have been involved in this thing called the Herrin Massacre, in which 20 nonunion workers from outside the community were tortured and killed in a mine riot in 1922? Where does anger on that scale come from? Fiction is particularly suited to answering that at the level of the individual.

My grandfather was not in town the day of the Massacre, he was at the state Constitutional Convention, but an earlier exchange of telegrams he had with labor leader John L. Lewis is often seen as one of the precipitating events. In life my mother idolized her father, whom I never knew, as a compassionate and perhaps even brilliant politician and labor leader. My challenge was to imagine one possible way all this could co-exist.

ED: What would you like readers, who may be encountering an account of the Herrin Massacre for the first time, to take away from your novel as far as their awareness of the event is concerned? What lessons, or unresolved questions, should we be thinking about?

JG: Unresolved is a good way to look at it. One reason I chose this event as a backdrop is that it seems to me there was no way out for those involved, in an almost classical sense of tragedy. The miners in Southern Illinois were in a system beyond their control, as we all are to varying degrees. Yet despite our limited understanding of situations we also have hope, ambition, and the desire to change things for the better.

Coal mining has always been hard, dangerous work, and at the end of the Gilded Age, miners’ pay was low and benefits nonexistent. From 1884 to 1912 a staggering 42,898 miners were killed on the job in the U.S. The union came along just before the turn of the century and started to change that. My hometown, Herrin, was seen as the heart of the most radical (and successful) UMWA district in the country.

This was also the era of a kind of class warfare in this country. John D. Rockefeller’s private mine guards and the Colorado National Guard had attacked a tent colony of 1,200 miners and their families in 1914 with machine-gun and rifle fire, then burned and looted it. Twenty-five died, including two women and ten children who suffocated in a pit under a tent where they’d gone to hide. A small civil war was fought over these issues in 1921 at the Battle of Bair Mountain in West Virginia; the U.S. Army sent planes down to bomb the miners. It was serious business on both sides of the conflict, and in the end there was no good way out. But a novel doesn’t need to offer up solutions. It just needs to portray people struggling in a concrete, sensory world.

ED: What surprised you most as you worked on this book?

JG: Sometimes after I’d used the process of writing fiction to understand how a character would react to something or what she’d say, my research would confirm it as historically accurate. Fiction and historical fact don’t have to go together, but it was pleasant validation.

ED: How did the novel find its home at Wordcraft of Oregon?

JG: My colleague Steve Davenport said I should read the novelist Duff Brenna, whom he’d gotten to know online. I did and liked his work, and Steve made a virtual introduction. Duff later published me in Perigree, where he’s the fiction editor, then told me I should submit something to Wordcraft, where he’s got a book. Publisher David Memmott kindly took my novel.

My next book, by the way, will be with The History Press, which I found through a listing at your site. It’s good to know people. (Erika’s note: I am delighted to have played a small role in the publication of John’s next book!)

ED: It appears that you needed to secure permission to reprint letter excerpts, an excerpt from a newspaper article, and some lines from Emily Dickinson. Please tell us about the permissions process.

JG: It’s easy get permissions to use text or even photographs (as with the nonfiction book I’m finishing), if you can find the holders of the rights. Sometimes authors, their heirs, and the publishing companies are all long gone, despite copyright still being in effect. Other times (as with Dickinson), you wouldn’t think copyright still holds, but it does. The most frustrating part of rights licensing is how wildly policies vary. Some give permission in exchange for a mere credit line, while others charge exorbitant fees, in my opinion. But the problem is widespread now in this our digital age: What’s intellectual property worth, and who should have access to it?

ED: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

JG: Thanks, Erika, for having me! The NPR station at the University of Illinois will do an interview with me on October 26, 2009, at 10 a.m., and I hope readers will tune in and call the toll-free line to continue the discussion.

ED: Thank you so much, John!

(c) 2009 Erika Dreifus.