B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, he’ll release Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, the founder of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
His essay, "Spotted," appeared in Issue Eight-Four of The Collagist.
Here, B.J. Hollars talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, close reading, and writing about family.
What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “Spotted”? What sparked the initial idea that caused you to start writing the first draft?
It started with the phone call from my father. When he told me about finding the impaled deer, I simply found myself unable to shake myself from the image. I knew it made for a powerful moment, but I also didn’t know how to give that moment a deeper context until weeks later, when I realized that our phone call corresponded with my parents’ anniversary. Only then did I begin to see the loose thematic connections emerge.
This entire essay is only a little over 500 words, yet it contains so much—the story of the dead fawn combined with family history and your father’s “fish out of water” feelings. How do you achieve this economy of language? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to write with such brevity?
Most of my essays start out as drafts twice as long as the final product. I think that’s just part of it. I often tell my students that writing an essay—or writing anything, really—is like carving an ice sculpture (full disclosure: I have no experience carving ice sculptures). That is, they start with the big block of ice and then you pare it back to the bare essentials, to the hidden beauty beneath.
I think often of a phrase I first read in Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer: Put every word on trial. When writing a short piece, in particular, it’s crucial that the writer puts every word on trial. In this way, the writer will always have a clear sense of each word’s function. And if a word isn’t pulling its weight, you got to let it go.
Do you ever have any qualms about using a family member’s stories in your writing? Does your father get to read an essay like this before you publish it, for example? How do you navigate the tricky situation that many nonfiction writers face of writing about family while not wanting to alienate them?
Beth Kephart has some really great ethical guidelines when it comes to memoir writing. Specifically, she gives five rules for what memoir isn’t, including the notion that memoir isn’t “an accusation, a retaliation, a bit of take that! in type.” When writing about family, I always try very hard to remember Kephart’s rules.
But to get more specifically to the question: yes, when my family and friends make an appearance in my work, I often share my work in advance. You’ve got to consider Thanksgiving dinner, after all, and the awkward situation a writer can easily create ‘round the cranberry dressing when it’s revealed that the writer spilled the family’s secrets to the world. For me, memoir writing is never about “spilling beans”; it’s about considering the significance of moments after the fact. It’s about making sense of the mysteries.
Yet beyond sharing my work with family and friends in advance, I often share my work with others who play a role, too. More often than not, people appreciate having the chance to read the work in advance, and I can only think of a handful of times in which someone reacted negatively. Mostly, people appreciate your efforts to tell a story honestly—at least from your perspective. And giving a little advance notice can be a useful courtesy in the world of creative nonfiction.
A few years back I proposed at AWP panel titled “How To Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones” which addressed this very issue. And by panel’s end, I’d broken down most of my ethical concerns into a single question, one that I still use to test my work today: In writing this essay, are you trying to document something or exploit someone? For me, documentation vs. exploitation is at the heart of most of this.
With so much focus on your father’s experience and relatively little use of the first person, this essay reads much like a short story. You are the author of both fiction and nonfiction work. What lessons from one genre have you been able to apply to the other?
Lee Gutkind has written often of the many tools available to writers in the world of creative nonfiction. And what he says, mostly, is that creative nonfiction is simply the genre in which writers use fictional tools to write about something that occurred. To this end, I employ many of the same tools I use in fiction: scene-building, character-building, dialogue, narrative arc, etc. For me, nonfiction allows me a little more variety in terms of organizational structure, but everything else—the scenes, the characters, the use of dialogue—are all techniques I first honed with my fiction writing.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I just completed a book titled Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds due out next fall. That was quite an adventure, let me tell you. In short, I attempted to track down several extinct birds (as well as a few “thought-to-be-extinct birds.”). Spoiler alert: I didn’t find any live ones. But I did stumble upon some glimpses into their world, as well as gaining some unique insight into what we might learn from the birds we’ve lost and keep losing.
Additionally, I’m currently powering through a new nonfiction book on the Freedom Riders. I’m so moved by stories from the civil rights movement, and I’m doing my best to share these stories with as many folks as I can.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
I spend so much time critiquing others work that I admit I don’t read nearly as much published work as I should. But I did just reread the Francine Prose book I referenced previously, Reading Like A Writer. I’m a sucker for a book on close readings, those that really zoom in tight on a single paragraph and dissect it word for word. Writers can learn so much under those conditions.
Another thing that’s been keeping me from reading more is a new artist residency I’ve been working with this summer. Take a look! And then, maybe apply yourself for next summer…