Interview: BJ Hollars, Author of Dispatches from the Drownings
BJ Hollars’ latest book, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), is unlike anything else you will read this year. Part archival deep-dive, part photography book, part flash fiction collection, part historical ethnography, and part literary homage (most notably to Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology), Dispatches from the Drownings erases the lines between fiction and nonfiction, causing a reader to think critically about what it means for writing to be “true.” While we live in a more cynical and diverse media era than generations past, our expectations of reporting and nonfiction still rest upon the idea that the author isn’t distorting the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and whys. Hollars’ project challenges our sense of this as it rewrites “true” stories of sorrow, madness, and mystery along a small stretch of river in Wisconsin. This thoroughly local tale has global implications, as the reader must consider the fact that all writing, all narrative transmission, is both “true” and somehow less than “true” at the same time.
BJ Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His previous books include Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, both from the University of Alabama Press. He is a frequent contributor to the Book Review section here at The Los Angeles Review. Our interview was conducted via email, and we thank him for his candor and generosity.
-Dan Pecchenino, Assistant Book Review Editor
- Your previous works of nonfiction have been fairly traditional narratives, but Dispatches from the Drownings is more experimental. When/How did you decide you were going to do something that both blurred the line between fact and fiction and asked readers to piece together (or not) a fragmented narrative?
I’m not sure I ever made a conscious choice that it was time for me to start writing weird. In truth, I think there’s a time and place for all forms of writing, and while my past books centered on the subject of civil rights—and thus, demanded a scholarly, journalistic tone—I felt my current subject demanded something different.
While Dispatches from the Drownings is, as the title implies, about drowning, it’s also about the limits of factuality and reportage (hence, the subtitle: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction). And in order to draw attention to these issues, I felt I needed to subvert our preconceived notions about what we deem as truth. If I’d simply written a book that interrogated the idea of “truth” in a straightforward manner, than the reader would have no choice but to either read the book or throw it across the room. Rather than risk the latter, I worked hard to offer my readers an experience. By doing so, I hoped they would also experience the disconcerting feelings associated with not knowing, precisely, what was true.
Of course, this rather unconventional approach didn’t just spring from thin air. In 2013 I edited an anthology entitled Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, which included 20 essays, many of which attempted their own unique experiments. Having the opportunity to edit this book forever changed my understanding of nonfiction. It was an education, to say the least, but it also inspired me to take my own risks, to test my own limits, and to see what more nonfiction could do.
- Were there any texts aside from the original newspaper accounts that inspired you to write this book?
Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip played a huge influence throughout the writing of this book. Lesy’s book, much like my own, pairs newspaper reports alongside photographs. The only difference is that Lesy’s news reports are, without exception, true, while I have a few exceptions. In fact, as I mention in the Author’s Note, only 75 of my 100 included dispatches are true; the others are entirely fabricated. My unwillingness to distinguish between fact and fiction is meant to provide a commentary on the limits of reportage.
Nevertheless, both my book and Lesy’s share some common terrain; in fact, they even share a photographer. After stumbling upon Charles Van Schaick’s photographs in Wisconsin Death Trip I became interested in his lesser-known works. And as I was astonished to find, many of Van Schaick’s portraits bore astonishing similarities with the people described in the drowning reports. Upon pairing them together, I began to grow curious about the interplay between text and image, specifically, on the effect of juxtaposing a photo alongside a news report. I began to wonder if readers might unconsciously deem the news report true simply because they deemed the photo authentic. To put it differently, I wondered if a photo was all the proof readers required; if an image had the power to counteract any doubts raised by the writing.
- How much time did you spend doing research for this book, and what did your research process entail?
As you might guess, this book was far different than any I’ve ever written. While my other nonfiction books often require months (and sometimes years) of extensive interviews and archival research, this book required little more than a newspaper database, an image database, and a willingness to stare death in the face night after night after night…
The research process went something like this: my 6-month-old son would wake in the middle of the night, I’d place him on my lap, then reach for my computer and read about historical drowning reports until dawn. Then, we’d get up and do it all over the next night.
Given the subject matter, I suppose it makes sense that most of this book was written under cover of darkness. What made it even more macabre was that most of the drownings I was reading about occurred in the river directly behind my home. I could literally walk us to the back deck, stare out into the night, and see the river glint off the moonlight.
Once I discovered the drowning reports that seemed most apt for the book, I rewrote them (which I’ll discuss in more depth later), then paired them with the photos, then fact-checked the parts of the work that I could.
Finally—and this was the hardest part—I wrote an extensive Author’s Note that tried to make sense of the experiment. Long story short, it was easier said than done. Throughout most of it, I felt like I was laying down the ground rules for a game with no winners. Still, I wanted readers to know what they were in for. I wanted them to be always on the lookout for my lies.
- Why did you decide to rewrite all the original articles yourself? Did you ever consider leaving the articles in their original forms and trying to make your “fictional” articles sound like them? How would that have made the book different?
I considered maintaining the original reports as Lesy had done, but ultimately, I felt doing so would be a disservice to my experiment. After all, I wanted to put my own reporting on trial as well—not just judge others. And so, one after another, I read the original report and then attempted to rewrite that report from memory. Then, I’d re-read the original, realize just how much I failed to capture, and I’d rewrite it again. I did this for 75 different drownings.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that even when I had the so-called “answer key” before me, I still struggled to keep the story straight. There were always so many variables, so many nuances, and so many ways to misinterpret or reinterpret the truth. Even something as minor as punctuation could have a profound impact, and often did.
Through it all, I tried to remain faithful to the original text, though by taking readers one-step further away from the original reports, I likely only increased the static.
- Building off of that last question, how much did you rewrite the original pieces? Did you add details? Crib phrases or words? How did you make all of the one hundred stories yours?
To answer your question (or rather, dodge it entirely), it’s really hard to say. Much like a game of Telephone, as the message gets passed along, the message always changes. But as I noted above, I tried to remain faithful to the original reports. To that end, I don’t believe I consciously added any details—though I suppose this would depend on your definition of “details.” Perhaps there was an instance or two when I described the water as “cold,” which I figured was an educated guess on what water feels like in January.
As for cribbing phrases, yes, there is some of that. I probably rewrote 99% of the reports, though as I note in the Author’s Note, “when the linguistic nuances of the time period allowed for a lexicon I simply could not re-create…I employed direct quotations from the original work.” To put it differently, when the language from the original reports was so surprising and unexpected that it could not be recreated, then I didn’t do the work the disservice of trying to meddle too much. But again, this occurred very, very rarely.
- Did you ever find yourself thinking that some of the original articles themselves were mostly made up? What did you do with articles like that? How did it complicate your rewriting process, if at all?
I admit there were a few reports that seemed a bit sensationalized, but who am I to judge? In anticipation for this question, I returned to a word file I’d labeled “outtakes” which reminded me of a few of the more peculiar tales that didn’t make the final cut. Though I chose not to include these reports it had nothing to do with their being too sensational. Rather, they didn’t have a close enough link to drowning. One, for instance, was about a hunter fending off a bear attack; another was about a legislative attempt to bar the display of “misshapen human beings.” Interesting in their own right, but they weren’t a good fit for this project.
As for how I handled sensationalized drowning reports, well, I suppose I simply tried to maintain the original tone. I didn’t intentionally tone them down or amp them up. I kept with the tone I was given.
- As much as it might surprise some readers to hear, there are parts of the book that are pretty darkly humorous. How much of that humor came from the original articles? Did reading all of this material give you new insights into how people dealt with death over one hundred years ago?
One of the strangest parts of compiling this book was coming to terms with how different reporters handled the subject of death. Most maintained their usual, neutral tone, but on occasion the reports got a bit…shall we say, cheeky? I admit there is an instance or two in the fictional dispatches when I, too, get a bit cheeky. But never with the true reports—at least I hope not.
Equally interesting was how the newspapers handled the subject of death as it pertained to animals. For instance, this book includes the near drowning of a pig, the drowning of a dog, and information pertaining to the drowning of camels. The fact that these events got news space at all is revealing.
While my book might indeed offer some insight on how death was handled at the turn of the 20th century, Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip offers an even clearer picture. Case and point: his book includes several of Van Schaick’s post-mortem photographs. To the modern viewer, the idea of posing a dead person (often a dead child) and photographing the body seems rather shocking. But during that time period, it was merely a way to preserve a tangible memory of the dead.
In both our books, it’s important to remember that context is key. What seems strange to the modern reader might have seemed perfectly normal to readers of the past.
- At what point in the process did you decide that the Charles Van Schaick photographs needed to be paired with the stories? What do you hope they add to what you’re trying to say about the malleability of “facts?”
Early in the research phase it was clear to me that a book of news reports on drownings would likely leave readers feeling unsatisfied. For me, the dispatches alone simply lacked texture. They didn’t really pass the “So what?” test.
When I paired the reports with Van Schaick’s work, the book really began to come together. As I mentioned previously, in many cases the photographs fit incredibly well with the drowning reports, by which I meant their physical characteristics synced. I’d look at a photo and know exactly which dispatch it should be paired with.
But the photographs are meant to do far more than simply bolster the book’s marketing potential. Rather, it’s an opportunity to explore the interplay between text and image. As I discuss in the Author’s Note, Wilson Hicks—the former picture editor for LIFE magazine—often spoke of his “principle of the third effect.” In sum, he argues that when we interpret an image, we can’t help but consider the images that come before and after. Thus, when we examine a text, we are examining it through a very particular lens. By including the images, I tried to propose a potential reading experience. But of course the author has no control over how a book is read once the book is out of his hands. Readers choose what they want to read and in what order. They choose what they want to see, too.
- What, if anything, did writing this book teach you about workaday journalism that you hadn’t fully appreciated before?
Journalists have a tough gig, but I didn’t need to write this book to learn that. As a nonfiction writer, I, too, struggle with facts, though reporters, I think, are often held to a higher set of standards. This is not to say we should exclude nonfiction writers from the basic ethical rules of the genre; however, I think most nonfiction writers would concede that we have a bit more wiggle room. At the very least, our audiences are often different.
Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly concerned by the number of author’s notes at the start of memoirs that readily admit to “combining characters” and “altering timelines” allegedly “for the sake of the narrative.” I can’t imagine a journalist would ever dare try such a stunt. Now, before I’m bucked off my high horse, let me be clear: I, too, am meddling with facts. Guilty as charged. One difference, however, is that I’m not doing it in order to write a semi-true account which can then be marketed as a memoir. To this end, I never use disclaimers to try to make my books sexier. In fact, I’m not sure anyone would ever accuse this particular book of being too sexy. I mean we’re talking about drownings here. There are no love interests, no vampires, not even much of a narrative arc. Rather, I seek out truth where I can, even if the only truth I find has to do with our propensity to lie.
All of this is to say yes, it’s true—journalists have a tough gig. But I don’t think we need to stop the presses for that one.
- Finally, I’d love to hear a little bit about the processes of pitching this book to publishers and actually making it come into being. What were some of the reactions you got from presses?
Reactions from presses generally ranged from “We hate it!” to “We hate it a lot!”
I kid, of course, but you’re right to ask the question. After all, this is, indeed, an unconventional text. (Not to mention probably a marketing nightmare…). The trouble with this book is that it’s hard to boil down into an elevator pitch. It’s already taken me over 2000 words just to get us this far.
Surprisingly, when I reflect on my past publishing experiences, this one probably got picked up the easiest. I only sent it to two presses, and while I never heard back from one (I’m assuming they hated it a lot), the other—the University of New Mexico Press—accepted it soon after. In fact, the press’s director even called me on the phone to tell me how excited he was about the idea. I was so shocked that I nearly responded: “Are you sure you read the right proposal?” But I knew he had. After all, I’d pinpointed the University of New Mexico Press for one simple reason: in 1973 they’d been bold enough to publish Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip.
They were willing to get weird once, I figured, and I hoped that meant that they were willing to get weird again.