An Interview with Steven Church
Steven Church's Ultrasonic: Essays opens with "Auscultation," an essay chosen by Edwidge Danticat for Best American Essays 2011. In it, Church explores the connection between listening for miners trapped beneath the surface of the earth and the moment he first heard the "whoosh-whoosh" of his daughter's heartbeat. These connections, these juxtapositions, resound through Church's collection, expanding and contracting, diving down into the fathoms and thump-thump-thumping through the text as one essay sends a signal through the depths until it emerges, bouncing back in another. Church listens, closely, for the "color of noise," "the true tremble," and "the knock at the door." His essays linger in the lag time between the "flash of a Kansas lightning bolt and the crack before the roll and peel of thunder"; they imagine "the pop and the pong" of Elvis Presley's last racquetball game; they loiter around the high pitches of a deterring device, and they bang with the clear rhythm of his daughter's spoon on her highchair as he cranks the claps of Lyrics Born's "Callin' Out" in his kitchen.
In his author's note, Church explains, "Essays become sounding lines, explorations, probes and tests, each one a map of what lies below the surface." Here in Ultrasonic, Church acts as cartographer, as an essayist in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne. He's a writer whose mind travels the page to contemplate the quotidian, to find "mystery in the mundane," and to dwell in "the pause between cause and effect." Like radar, Church's essays survey the depths of etymology, of memory and mystery, of his own "humming grief," and his imagination. In every essay, he lingers at the ledge -- of a leaving or a window or a river -- "fishing for ghosts -- these spectral ideas about life and death that hover just at the edge of our consciousness or just beneath the surface of our waking life." Simply put, Ultrasonic is a collection of essays about sound, but as Church points out, "Sound is more than metaphor and form. Sound has body and weight. Sound is practical. It's a tool and a lens." And through that lens, each essay in this varied collection vibrates with the reminder of the ways we're all "sending out a signal of sorts, listening to what bounces back."
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst. His work has been published in River Teeth, Passages North, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, Salon.com, Fourth Genre, and many others. He is a founding editor and nonfiction editor for The Normal School. He teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State. I interviewed him via e-mail.
In the final essay of your book, you explain (in a footnote) that while you were finishing your memoir, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, you started down "these rabbit holes of research, these side trips in the meaning of music as both therapy and torture" [an allusion to your discovery that the heavy metal music you blasted during revisions was the same music used in prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo].
You describe how you "chased sound and morality, noise and transcendence, ears and music, not knowing it would lead to another book." And now you have that book, a collection of essays that "[navigates] in the dark by means of echolocation, bouncing from one idea to another, searching and seeing through sound."
What is the role of research in your essays? Is it "navigating in the dark" or is it searching below the terrain of your consciousness or your memory for echoes?
Many or most of these essays all spawned from my curiosity about a word (dither, fathom) or a line or a sentence discovered during research, and from my confusion when faced with things I didn't automatically know. I suppose they're all, in some ways, navigating in the dark beneath the surface of my consciousness, searching for echoes. Most good nonfiction writing, I believe, is born of confusion and curiosity; and what drives an essay is often the unrequited desire for clarity or resolution. Research then, for me, is not something that is separate from the process of writing. It is the process of writing, that uncovering or unfolding of thought on the page, thought informed by facts, of course, but perhaps even more by the unique voice, style, or tension that you can uncover through research into other texts. If an essay is interested in the narrative of thought, then research (or more abstractly, "confusion + curiosity + desire") seems fundamental to what any essay wants to achieve.
More concretely, two of the first three essays in the book, "Ultrasonic," and "All of a Dither," and then later, "The King's Last Game," all spawned from research for an essay I was trying to write about racquetball. Not only did I discover Elvis Presley's love of racquetball, a sport I'd started playing again in my late 30s, and the odd fact of his playing the game shortly before he died, but I also found a sentence that totally captivated and confused me. Curious specifically about the sound of racquetball, I'd done an internet search for "colored noise," knowing of course already about "white noise," and I discovered that, in the field of sound engineering, there are many different colors of noise (white, black, pink, orange, red, and blue); and from a textbook on sound engineering, I stumbled across the sentence that would become a source: "Blue noise makes a good dither." I had no idea what this sentence meant, but I loved the way it sounded. It was like a puzzle. I was confused and curious. And from there, it was a matter of following the rabbit of my thinking down different holes, chasing etymologies, history and metaphor, until I had a bunch of material focused on sound and language and fatherhood.
I find that looking away from the emotional center of an essay and letting curiosity guide my thinking about it often leads me to deeper, more resonant territory. So research becomes a way to construct meaning and to construct the self on the page, as well as a way to create new windows, new ways of looking my past and present.
Yes, I underlined the phrase, "the color of noise," in my copy -- such an evocative phrase that I stopped reading for a moment and thought about all of its richness.
Fatherhood resounds tenderly and profoundly in these essays -- from your son's laughter "ringing off the marble" in Madrid's El Parque del Buen Retrio to your memory of your father's racquetball games "rattling the walls" to the "wish wish wish" of your daughter's heartbeat in utero. In "All of a Dither," you quote your father's explanation for the effect of childbirth on your life: "It'll reset all of your meters." And then you admit, "I don't know if he means the act or the effect, the fact or the love that pins the needle into the red zone."
It sounds like a cliché to say that parenthood changes everything because of course it changes everything. But I guess what I like about the way my dad puts it, is the idea that fatherhood doesn't just change the physical realities of your life or just logistics, but it can change the way you think and write and interact with the world. I mean, parenthood isn't the only thing that has this power; it just happened to be at the forefront of much of my thinking while I was working on these essays. Parenthood can reset all your meters and alter the way you measure things like pain or sadness, fear or happiness. It rattles your gauges (and continues to do so as they grow up). As I say in, "All of a Dither," a child is a kind of "dither" to your life, a smack upside the head when you need it, keeping you authentic and real. A child can change the way you construct your identity in reality and on the page, and that is powerful stuff if you're not afraid of looking closely at it... and it strikes me now as I'm writing this that a death, a loss of a loved one, is also a kind of "dither" as well, something that shakes up everything you think you know about yourself and the world; so perhaps writing is an act of chasing down those dithers on the page.
I feel like I'm a pretty good father. I work hard at it and I spend a lot of time with my children, but I'm far from perfect, and I often feel as if fatherhood, no matter how hard I work at it, is the one thing in life that I'm probably fucking up in some really significant way. And I suppose some of my confusion and insecurity around fatherhood, combined with the access to "wonder" that being around a child provides, often leads to curiosity and a desire to understand or explore the possibilities. Because I think my kids are at the emotional core of much of what I write, I sort of always know they're there, hiding beneath the surface, and one of the things I love the most is when some stray idea or word or thought leads me to research and back again to my children and to essaying fatherhood.
Many of these essays began when my daughter was just an infant and a toddler, just a couple of years after we moved to Fresno. Before that, we'd bounced between houses and jobs and states, my son living in three states and six different houses in his first five years; and I think that some of this writing was born of a strangely exhilarating and simultaneously alienating sense of displacement I felt while trying to make Fresno my "home."
You mention "death, a loss of a loved one." In "Crown and Shoulder" you write about your brother's death on the shoulder of a road in Indianapolis in 1992. And in that essay, you explain, "Some days I understand that everything I write is in some way about my brother and his death." Such a profound recognition -- and one I think all readers can identify with -- something or someone in our past can set us "atremble for a lifetime."
One thing I've learned in writing Ultrasonic (which I suppose should seem self-evident), is that the meaning of a loss changes over time, but it's always there, like a secret engine humming beneath the hood. You don't even have to look at it sometimes to know the engine is still cranking. But then other times it's like you hear a new noise, a different hum or rhythm or banging sound, and you open the hood and realize to your surprise it's the same old engine, the same old grief. Closure is a myth for those who've never lost anything or anyone, for those who've never experienced trauma, pain, or suffering; and I find more and more that I'm not writing toward closure, toward a cranking down of the meaning, or even toward any kind of catharsis, but instead toward an expansion and inflation of that loss. "Crown and Shoulder" surprised me and I think that's why I like it so much. It was a new window into the loss of my brother. You'd think I would have seen it coming, that I'd planned all along for the essay to be about his death, but that's not where it was going at first. And then one day I just realized that I was avoiding the inevitable engine.
I was a terrible fiction writer in part because I never had that experience where a character takes on a life of his own and starts walking, talking, speaking, and behaving seemingly independent of the author's intentions, where the character surprises the author in some way. But I do experience that feeling of surprise now with the ideas at the center of my essays. It's my ideas that wake me up in the middle of the night and they begin to grow and take on a life of their own. They become what I like to call, "sticky," and suddenly everything I see or read or recollect seems connected, however tangentially, to that idea. "Seven Fathoms Down" was also that sort of essay, where an investigation into a silly idiomatic phrase, "warms my cockles," turned into another exploration of the meaning of the drowning I witnessed in 1998. Like my brother's death, this is a subject or experience about which I've written and published more than one essay; but for me, each time, it's a different essay, another attempt at exploring the ineffable elements of life and death; and it's exciting for me to be surprised at how these experiences surface again and again, expanding their reach with each iteration.
Closure like Gatsby's green light -- always out of reach -- and grief like (sound) waves. I understand. Here's a story: a student was in my office yesterday, and she was worrying about writing her father, again and again, so I showed her your line from "Crown and Shoulder": "Some days I understand that everything I write is in some way about my brother and his death." And you know what she said? "Damn it. The rest of my life."
You mention being a terrible fiction writer, yet one of my favorite essays in Ultrasonic is an imagined essay. "The King's Last Game" begins, "Imagine this." And so we get to stand outside Elvis's racquetball court that he had built at Graceland. It's August 16, 1977, the night he died, and we're there, listening to the sounds of the "the voice," "the pop," "the twang of a blue rubber ball." Imagined essays fascinate me -- because we imagine (like a fiction writer), yet we're still confined by the strictures of fact, of what (really) happened. Elvis died that night, but before he did, he played racquetball. Imagine that game. Listen to its sounds.
"It Begins With A Knock on the Door" is another one of my favorites, and for a similar reason. It's an essay in which you write about helping your neighbor and coming back home to tell your wife the story then sitting down at your desk, "wondering what to do with the story [you'd] been given." And so you begin: "A knock at the door. A call for help... and as I began, I saw myself from my own writer-mind, saw myself as a character standing there in my neighbor's living room."
You grapple with being a writer who "see[s] the world not as it is but as raw material for an essay." Incidentally, "Knock on the Door," I note, was originally published as "Confessions of a Parasite."
My MFA degree is in fiction writing and, while I'm not terribly good at character driven or plot driven narrative, I have made an effort in much of my work to use "fiction" (loosely defined) as a way to essay an idea. My first book alternates between imagined essays on "characters" from The Guinness Book of World Records; my second book throws fiction and nonfiction together under the same cover, with little apology; and my third uses fictionalized scenes and a composite character to explore the personal, cultural, and historical meaning of apocalypse through the lens of the 1983 made-for-TV movie, The Day After. I did all of this in part because I do believe that what we imagine, what we speculate or invent, says as much or more about us as living, breathing, thinking beings as anything we claim to "know."
So "The King's Last Game," is a kind of holdover from those earlier books, where the fiction (or really the imagined scenes where I'm a character/narrator) are created to explore the experience more fully and to get at the big ideas. Elvis's last racquetball game (as well as his love for the sport) is a little known aside from the more salacious stories of the night he died, one that is usually forgotten in the list of drugs he took, the book he was reading, the toilet, etc., and there isn't a whole lot written about that game. I suppose I'm hoping that, through such imagined experiences on the page, I am approaching something like Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth," one that isn't fixed, but is more alive, more real and dynamic than the factual truth of the moment. It was also just kind of fun to write -- just to imagine Elvis Presley, the King, playing racquetball at two a.m. And that's one of the things I enjoy most about writing, that ability to time travel, the transcendence of the page, that life of the mind that seems both entwined and independent of the physical body and external world.
I was a sickly child who suffered from nearly constant sinus infections and strep throat, and I ran high fevers that gave me febrile seizures and terrifyingly real hallucinations. This is not that unusual, of course. A great many writers experienced serious childhood illness, seizures, injury, or other bodily troubles; but I believe my own issues tuned me in acutely to the tension between the mental and the physical, between the life of the mind and the life of one's body.
But this life of the mind isn't easy. As I'm exploring in "It Begins with a Knock at the Door" (or "Confessions of a Parasite"), and other essays in the book, the writer-mind is a funny, unruly thing, unpredictable and erratic. And in order to write these essays, I had to learn to both trust my mind's unruly nature and to question it, to let it ramble on for pages, knowing it would eventually find a path, while at the same time prodding it into certain directions and constraints, nudging it toward a gathering, where the threads are not tied off neatly in knot but seem to come together in a braid.
My graduate students probably hate to hear me say this, especially when they have an essay due every few weeks, but many of these essays took 2-3 years of stops and starts before they found their way out of the woods into something like an actual essay. The "Kings Last Game" was certainly that way. It started out as a failed attempt to write something for Men's Health and was originally tangled up with the other racquetball essay, "Ultrasonic," before, after a couple of years of fumbling around on the page, the essay found it's own shape and momentum, probably thanks in part to the imagined scenes that I use to frame it.
I truly believe writing makes me a better person. I feel physically better if I've written something that day or at least had time to think about one of my writing projects, maybe even just making a few line edits or small revisions. I'm less stressed, less easily frustrated, and just generally happier. I also want to believe the writer-mind makes me more empathetic, less selfish, and attentive to the needs of others, but I'm not sure if that's true. As I'm experiencing something, I'm often already processing the experience, trying to think about how I'll reconstruct it later. This is weird, right? Sort of pathological? It's a kind of active disengagement, or passive engagement, that might be crucial, especially for an essayist, but sometimes I think it means I'm not that much fun to be around.
After I've worked quietly at home for a few hours, I like to go my local pub, where I'm surrounded by people, servers, bad music, lights, and kitschy decorations, and I set up my laptop, pull out a book or essays to read, plug in my headphones and turn up the music (often metal, sometimes alt country or blues, often quite loud). I like to disappear in public, awash in noise and external stimulation. I go to bars to not talk to people, and I find myself generally annoyed when people invade my space as I'm trying to read or write. This isn't normal is it? I don't know. All I know is this kind of active disengagement helps me quiet my mind sometimes and focus, to lose myself in the page; and when I emerge from this kind of fugue state, I'm more curious and friendly, and better able to engage with other people and the world around me.