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.

From My Bookshelf: German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons, by Norah Labiner

Last week, the fall issue of Jewish Book World arrived in my mailbox, and I was delighted to see that it included my first review for that publication. Jewish Book World packs in a LOT of reviews each quarter, so most of the pieces are relatively short. Here’s my take, in its entirety, on Norah Labiner’s German for Travelers: A Novel in 95 Lessons (Coffee House Press, 2009):

In ninety-five brief chapters, this novel acquaints us with an extended family and its secrets, past and present. In 2005, a letter from a woman claiming to be their great-aunt prompts Jewish-American cousins Eliza Berlin and Louisa ‘Lemon’ Leopold to travel to Germany. There, at the beginning of the previous centruy, their great-grandfather, Dr. Jozef Apfel, was a prominent psychoanalyst. The novel reveals secrets and traumas within the lives of the cousins as well as the truth behind their great-grandfather’s most mysterious case, that of ‘Elsa Z.’ At various times, the reader will notice what seems to be the sparest of expository prose (the body of one chapter consists of a single twelve-word sentence); occasionally, there is a page-length paragraph; some sections particularly impress with their use of dialogue or detail. Although some readers may initially find it difficult to track all the characters, overall, the novel is extremely engaging, shifting in time and place with artful connections and literary grace. Chronology [included].

Fearless Confessions: An Interview with Sue William Silverman

Remember when I told you I’d read Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir while I was on vacation? Well, that reading helped me frame interview questions for the book’s author, Sue William Silverman, who joins us on the blog today for some Q&A.

Sue is a faculty advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and the associate editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Her first book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, received the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the author of Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (made into a Lifetime TV movie), and Hieroglyphics in Neon, a collection of poems.

Please welcome Sue William Silverman.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): In this book, you offer what may be most appropriately described as a “fearless” defense of memoir, taking on several of the criticisms that have been leveled at the genre in recent years. Which criticism distresses you most, and why? Which do you think may, in fact, hold at least some validity for memoir writers to consider as they craft their work?

SUE WILLIAM SILVERMAN (SWS): What most distresses me is when memoirs, especially those written by women, are labeled “confessional.” In effect, these critics are implying that women’s memoirs are nothing more than navel gazing, that they have no literary merit. I deliberately use the word “confessional” in my title, however, in order to redeem it from the media’s disparaging use of it. Women’s memoirs are just as important from a literary standpoint as memoirs written by men…and are as worthwhile as any other literary form for that matter, such as poetry and fiction.

In other words, when I write about recovering from incest or sexual addiction, I’m also writing about loss, alienation, identity. Aren’t these universal themes to which most anyone can relate? Aren’t these also social issues, part of what society struggles with on a daily basis—so not navel gazing at all. By casting light on my story, I’m hopefully helping others better understand their own.

But, is there some validity to this attack, you ask? Well, granted, if a memoir isn’t artistically crafted, isn’t metaphoric, yes, the book might not be universal. So that’s why Fearless Confessions focuses on how to craft your life narrative into art!

ED: In the book’s first appendix, you provide a terrific overview of subgenres of creative nonfiction: biography, autobiography, immersion, memoir, personal essay, meditative essay, and lyric essay. When I was an MFA student (in fiction), it seemed that virtually all the creative nonfiction students in my program were concentrating on memoir and personal essay. Why do you think creative nonfiction courses and programs tend to be dominated by these subgenres rather than others? As a teacher, how do you ensure that creative nonfiction students attend to multiple forms of the genre in their writing (and reading)?

SWS: I’m pleased you found that article, “The Meandering River,” helpful. Thank you.

I agree that most writing programs focus on memoir and personal essay. Why? Perhaps because the faculty itself feels more comfortable with those forms.

At Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program, we recently hired a terrific writer, Robert Vivian, who published an amazing collection of meditative essays, Cold Snap as Yearning. So now we have a faculty member well equipped to teach the less narrative-driven—more image-drive—form of creative nonfiction. In short, when seeking out a writing program, it helps to look for one that has an aesthetically diverse faculty, one able to teach a range of creative nonfiction.

I also assign my students books that are representative of the various subgenres. Fearless Confessions, by the way, has a long creative nonfiction reading list. This list is also available on my Web site.

ED: Writing exercises appear often in this book. Please tell us about any other resources–books, Web sites, etc.–that you would recommend specifically for the exercises they offer memoir writers.

SWS: Sure, some Web sites that I think are particularly helpful are writingitreal.com; absolutewrite.com; writedirections.com; writersdigest.com; writing-world.com; writermag.com; bylinemag.com (ed. note: according to a note on its Web site, ByLine is ceasing publication). Another book that I find helpful is Tell it Slant, by Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller.

ED: Your book takes the perspective that everyone has a story to tell. But we all know that publishing one’s told story can prove to be challenging. Your chapter on “Marketing Your Memoir” provides some wonderful overall advice and resources for those seeking publication. But you must also have some very specific insights grounded in your editorial responsibilities for the journal Fourth Genre. Could you please share with us a bit about how work is ultimately chosen for publication in Fourth Genre?

SWS: What I specifically like about Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction is the wide range of voices that we publish. We like to publish all the subgenres of creative nonfiction (mentioned above), and include as many different voices as possible.

But before you send out your work, be sure it’s really finished. Ask yourself: does every sentence sing? Is every sentence as beautifully written as possible? Have I developed my work metaphorically? Am I doing more than “merely” telling the story of what happened to me; am I also reflecting upon the past, so that, as a writer, I am now seeing the past in a new light? Proofread, of course, before submitting, and be sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. It is difficult to get published. That’s why you want to submit your best possible work, a piece that has undergone multiple revisions.

But if you get rejected, keep trying! Don’t get discouraged. I still get rejection letters. Art is incredibly subjective. I’ve had an essay rejected by one journal, only to have it win a contest in another one! So never stop trying! Believe in yourself as a writer, as an artist.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?

SWS: I teach, as I mentioned, at the low-residency MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). In addition to this two-year writing program, every summer, VCFA has a Postgraduate Writers’ Conference that lasts five days—and it’s five days of very intensive study in all the genres: creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and young adult literature. Just something to keep in mind. The conference is also a lot of fun! I wish all of you the very best as you pursue the writing of your own life narrative. Remember: all our voices are important!

For more information about Fearless Confessions, please visit the author’s Web site and/or view the video book trailer.

From My Bookshelf: Bookkeeping Basics for Freelance Writers

Whether you are just launching a freelance writing business or you want to make sure your established business is operating correctly, you are likely to appreciate Brigitte Thompson’s handy and well-organized Bookkeeping Basics for Freelance Writers. I’m certainly going to be keeping my review copy within reach for reminders and resources (my thanks to the author for sending me the copy). You can learn more about Brigitte Thompson and her book here.