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"The Bizzare, the Self-Righteous, the Mundane": An Interview with Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos is the author of the poetry chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO, 2014). His poems, stories, and essays have appeared or will appear in places such as Ploughshares, New England Review, The Seattle Review, McSweeney's, and The Best American Short Stories 2015. He co-edits Waxwing and teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

His essay, "Door to Door," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist. 

Here, Justin Bigos talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about bafflement, Jehovah's Witness literature, and turning weaknesses into strengths.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay, “Door to Door.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I think the spark was the memory of the event—or events—of repeatedly breaking into my friend’s house. Over twenty-five years later, it still seems stupid. Who would do something like that? It’s criminal and silly at the same time, but under the surface I started to sense some darker stuff happening. As I moved deeper into the essay, as I remembered that time and shaped it into scenes and reflection, the essay began to explore loneliness and neglect, especially as connected between children and adults. So, the spark of memory and bafflement at memory led, I hope, to some kind of understanding.

Scattered throughout your essay are eight excerpts from articles originally published in a magazine called AWAKE! How did you choose which excerpts you would include in the essay? What kind of emotions did you intend for these excerpts to evoke in the reader?

I found the entire 1988 set of AWAKE! magazines on eBay, and I read almost all of them. I dog-eared sections that stood out, but also ones that did not. I wanted a combination of the bizarre, the self-righteous, the mundane—a range that shows the reader what this Jehovah’s Witness literature is like. I also chose some that felt particular to the late 1980s, such as the homophobic views toward HIV and AIDS. As far as an emotional reaction in the reader, I guess it depends on the excerpt and its placement in the essay. And, honestly, in general I don’t have specific aims for emotional response in my readers. That’s too tricky a thing to wish for. I do hope the excerpts deepened and layered the narrative and reflection in the essay.

The first section of your essay feels very different from what follows. It’s mysterious because we do not yet know your relationship to the man in the taxi, the speaker does not assert himself with an “I” until the third paragraph, and past events are described with the present tense—unlike in the next section, following the first magazine excerpt, beginning with the phrase, “In the summer of 1988,” setting the tone for a more grounded, traditional narrative. What made you decide that the first section should be set apart in these ways, and what is the effect you hoped to achieve?

I had shared a draft of this essay with two writer friends last summer. One of them, Nicole Walker, felt that the essay needed an intro that set the stage by introducing the father somehow. The draft had begun the story with an AWAKE! excerpt, and after chatting with Nicole I agreed that the excerpt was too jarring an intro—not “mysterious,” as you say, but mystifying, confounding, which is not a good way to begin any kind of writing, I don’t think. I know I have a thing—a weakness, maybe—for beginning my stories and essays, maybe even some of my poems, in the realm of the too-mysterious. But, maybe what we call our weaknesses can, with attention, and revision, turn into our strengths.

You are also the co-founder and co-editor of the online journal Waxwing. What lessons have you learned in your role on the other side of the Submittable page that have influenced you when you are writing and submitting to literary magazines?

That’s a tough question. I’m tempted to say nothing. I don’t really connect my editing and writing in any clear way. There is just too much variety in the poetry I see coming into Waxwing, despite the whiny assholes out there who say that most poetry is uniform and dull. It’s not. But I write what I write. There are certainly poets who I’ve found in the slush who I now keep an eye out for—Wesley Rothman comes to mind—and poets who I’ve found in other journals who I then solicited because I loved their work so much—Ladan Osman comes to mind. But how have these two particular poets, for example, altered my writing? I really couldn’t say, except they’ve enlarged my sense of what poetry can be.

In terms of sending my work out, I’d say I’m even more careful about sending cover letters that are concise and lacking typos. Other than that, I send to the journals I think are doing good work and might be responsive to my work. I have much respect for journals and their editors.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing two books: Fingerprints, a collection of stories and narrative essays; and (what I’m currently calling) Prayer After Refusing to Pray, a full-length collection of poems. I am at the moment shifting from the prose back into poetry. I can’t write them at the same time.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

The Waves by Virginia Woolf. That’s a gorgeous book, six different perspectives all handled masterfully. Also, Steven Millhauser’s story collection Voices in the Night. I had read the title story in Best American Short Stories 2013, and it was my favorite story in the anthology. Reading it a second time, it’s one of my favorite stories ever. I’m currently diving back into Whitman, including the David Reynolds bio. High on my list for the rest of the summer: the novels A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins; and, later this year, the poetry collection Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis.

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