An essay is something that tracks the evolution of the human mind.
Over the past fifteen years, John D’Agata has championed the essay at the same time as he’s sought to radically redefine it—or rather, to loose it from the strictures imposed by terms like nonfiction. “Henceforth please do not consider these ‘nonfictions,’” he writes in the 2003 preface to The Next American Essay (A New History of the Essay), the original volume of his newly completed anthology, A New History of the Essay. “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.”
That book, along with the two that followed—The Lost Origins of the Essay (A New History of the Essay) in 2009 and The Making of the American Essay (A New History of the Essay), out next month—showcase D’Agata’s vision of the essay across a vast range of modes, forms, and subjects. In these volumes, the reader encounters a speech by Seneca, fragments of Heraclitus, a James Wright poem, an Artaud screenplay, excerpts from Moby Dick and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s experimental novel Dictee, lineated legal testimonies by documentary poet Charles Reznikoff, classics of literary journalism like Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” and a 93-point list entitled “Things to Do Today,” among others.
D’Agata is more often than not considered a writer’s writer: his debut essay collection, Halls of Fame: Essays (Graywolf, 2000), received significant critical acclaim; David Foster Wallace hailed him as “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years,” and Annie Dillard credited him with “redefining the modern American essay.” He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment of the Arts.
D’Agata achieved mainstream recognition—and drew widespread ire—with the 2012 publication of his book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Co-written with his fact-checker Jim Fingal, the book charts Fingal’s increasingly agitated attempts to vet a D’Agata essay, loosely concerning the suicide of a teenager who threw himself off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, for publication in the magazine The Believer. The essay had already been rejected from Harper’s for failing (or, more accurately, refusing) to meet that magazine’s standards of verifiable reportage. Lifespan dramatizes D’Agata’s argument that when considering the merits of an essay, artistry should be primary and facticity secondary, if facticity is a worthwhile consideration at all. (He tends to think not.)
When The Lifespan of a Fact came out, I was studying under D’Agata at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where he is now Director. I was surprised by the levels of public vitriol the book engendered. Received with curiosity, humor, interest by some, Lifespan so rankled other critics that they resorted to schoolyard name-calling. The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog described D’Agata as “a total jerk” and accused him of “abusing the reader.” The same New York Times that had crowed, a decade earlier on the publication of Halls of Fame, that “real art matters now…. A young nonfiction writer named John D’Agata is experimenting with essays that reconfigure dream, fact and reflection,” now decried his project as “hogwash” and “outrageous.”
While I don’t entirely subscribe to D’Agata’s position, I’ll gladly concede that memory is fallible, that the factual record can be fickle, that there are multiple ways of at arriving at knowledge and wisdom. Lost in the uproar was the fact that D’Agata’s basic argument—that essays should be read and appreciated as art rather than as a conveyance for information—had not changed since he’d articulated it in the celebrated first volume of his anthology nearly a decade earlier. Presently, at the completion of the project, which Vivian Gornick calls “a defining work of reference,” he’s marshalled over 4,000 years of literary history and 2,000 pages to build his case.
I met D’Agata at a coffee shop in New York City on a rainy night in November. He was in town as one of the judges for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, which had been awarded to Ta-Nehisi Coates for his bestselling memoir on structural racism in America, Between the World and Me, at the ceremony the previous night. We discussed the ontology of the essay, why D’Agata is more interested in formal radicalism than in radical subject matter, Plutarch’s questionable life choices, and A New History of the Essay.
—Ariel Lewiton for Guernica
Guernica: The Making of the American Essay, the last volume of your anthology series, is about to come out. It takes us from 1630 up to 1974, which is when the original volume of your anthologies [The Next American Essay] begins. Are the volumes now going to be rearranged?
John D’Agata: In my mind, they were always rearranged. That very first anthology, which is all contemporary American writing, is really the last one in my vision of the series. But we published it first because I was in my early twenties when I pitched the series to Graywolf. I was thinking, in that beautiful, cocky way that people do when they’re in their early 20s, that I would edit a thousand-plus page history of the essay that would start with the Sumerians and go up to contemporary America. Fiona McCrae, who runs Graywolf, very smartly said, “Okay…good idea. But you’re twenty-three, and while I have a lot of faith in you, it might be safer for us to try doing a volume of essays that are a little more contemporary, a little more familiar to readers. And if that does well, we can go back and do the other volumes.” And that was a good idea. So that’s what we did. The first one that came out is really the last one in the series, and the second one that came out [The Lost Origins of the Essay] is really the first in the series, and this one is the middle volume.
Guernica: Did Fiona McCrae acquire this anthology project at the same time as your first book, Halls of Fame?
John D’Agata: Pretty much every publisher I spoke with had no interest in Halls of Fame. I met Fiona at the AWP conference—back in the day when it was a very small affair, and bigwigs like Fiona were the folks who stood in those booths at the book fair—and someone introduced me to her. She said something like, “Hello, what do you write?” And I just dismissed her interest as politeness, because everyone else had already dismissed the book by then. So I said, “Eh, just some weird essays.” And she said, “Oh, it just so happens Graywolf is looking for some weird essay collections.” Which is insane, but I went with it, and lucky that I did because it turns out she really was looking for some weird essay collections. So then, in a burst of that cockiness that I seemed to possess in bucketfuls at the time, I also said, “Well you know, if you like these essays there’s, like, a whole world of this weird shit out there that would make a really cool anthology.” And that’s how the anthology project began.
Guernica: It seems like, with the exception of someone like Phillip Lopate [editor of the groundbreaking 1994 anthology The Art of the Personal Essay], you have been a singular champion of the essay—or one of a very small group.
John D’Agata: There are a few of us, but yeah, I guess.
Guernica: When did you discover essays as a literary form, particularly these weird sorts of essays?
John D’Agata: I started the project when I was in grad school, both in our program [the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program] as well as in the [Iowa Writers’] Workshop, where I did poetry. Even though I was in two different programs simultaneously, I didn’t feel comfortable in either. I’m not a poet, but I was in the poetry program. And I’m also not much of a nonfiction writer, at least not in the standard sense of nonfiction, nor especially in the way we were thinking about nonfiction back then, in the late 90s. Phillip Lopate had done an extraordinary thing with his anthology, but even so it was still a book that examined the essay through the lens of the personal, which is how the few writing programs that included nonfiction back then were also approaching the essay. So as a student at the time, I kind of felt like my only options as a nonfiction writer were to either jump on the personal essay bus or linger back at the station, hoping that some other heretofore unknown mode of transportation was going to magically show up to take me where I wanted to go.
I felt a little lost as a student. At Iowa, I felt as if I had gotten into this program that was going to save me, and so I moved myself across the country for grad school and yet still didn’t have a home. It was upsetting. And I know that’s a common feeling. As the director of our program now, I understand how distressing that can be; you move your life across the country and make a commitment to a place, and to a genre, and then you realize that neither the place nor the genre might be what you thought they were going to be, or that the world you thought you were going to find in school doesn’t actually exist. I get emails from students at programs all over the country who want to transfer to Iowa, and in most cases their frustrations have absolutely nothing to do with the programs they’re attending. They have to do with the growing pains that they’re undergoing as writers and with the growing pains that our own genre is constantly undergoing. What I didn’t realize when I was in school and what I suspect a lot of young writers today don’t get either is that you have to create the world that you want to exist in as an artist. You create your own audience, and your own community of peers, and in some ways you create your own forebears as well. That’s kind of what I did with this anthology series.
I went on a search for the kind of essay that I wanted to write and read. While I was in school, trying to figure out how to write an essay that could both satisfy my nonfiction workshops and still pass as something hybrid-y enough for my poetry workshops, I was looking for models, for forebears.
Guernica: A lot of early writers—even at grad school, where, theoretically, you’re not a total beginner—start out by imitating other writers. But you talk about writing these weird, hybrid essay things and then looking for forebears. Where in your own history as a reader and as a writer did it occur to you that you valued a form that you didn’t see represented?
John D’Agata: In college I studied essays with a poet, and so I think my interpretation of the genre was always going to be a little off-kilter. But as frustrating as my time in grad school felt, it also helped tremendously because it challenged me to figure out what it was I thought I wanted. Back in the day, a lot of our instructors in nonfiction were actually fiction scholars. So they would bring in stories as models for the essay. And in some ways that’s a good idea, because we can all learn from other genres. But I think it also made me realize that I literally didn’t have an essay model, and that if I wanted one I would have to find it.
The whole movement of an essay is propelled by a fundamentally human impulse to want to figure things out.
And Lopate’s anthology helped a lot too. It came out the same year I started grad school, and I remember the book’s publication feeling eventful and celebratory. It got a ton of attention for giving voice to this form that had sort of slipped between the cracks. That was exciting to see. But at the same time, when you’re a young writer and you look at people praising a big hefty anthology that has uncovered a long lost genre, it can be disorienting to look inside it and think, “But what it’s uncovered still isn’t me. What does this mean? Do I not belong in this genre, or is there more of the genre yet to find?”
And to be honest, initially I thought the former. I thought that I wasn’t an essayist because I just didn’t see myself in a lot of the essays that were popular at the time. That’s why I joined the poetry program in grad school. I feel ashamed to say it now, but for a while I just couldn’t imagine that there was a place for me in nonfiction. I looked around at what we were calling nonfiction and I thought, “Maybe you do have to go to poetry in order to do this other weird thing in nonfiction.” And the really sad thing is that this was 18 years ago, and yet there are some critics in the nonfiction world who still look at some of today’s stranger interpretations of the essay and say “You don’t belong here. That’s not how we do things.” I think that’s problematic.
Guernica: In the Foreword to the new anthology, James Wood asks, “Where and how did he find that text?” What is your reading, or researching, process? Where does it begin, where do you go for texts?
John D’Agata: Often I just ask people.
Guernica: Like who?
John D’Agata: I would ask the people who were generous toward my own work. After class one day a poetry professor said to me, “Hey, there’s this guy Basho you would find interesting,” and so I found Basho. A fiction teacher told me, “You ought to read Clarice Lispector if you’re interested in that sort of in-between stuff,” and then Lispector appeared. It’s not magic. You just keep your eyes open.
It’s also fun to just skim through piles of books in the stacks of a library. I mean, my process isn’t that arbitrary—you might start with certain writers you’re curious about, and sort of speed-read through their work. You’re often looking at writing from writers who, for the most part, are working in forms that traditionally fit into other genres. But sometimes, in the midst of their better-known stuff, there’s this wayward thing, and because it’s wayward it isn’t considered representative of their work, so it falls through the cracks. But if you look at their collected works, it’s right there; it’s just never been reprinted or celebrated because it doesn’t fit in with what we think of that writer as representing.
I look for the kind of text that doesn’t look like the writer I’m considering. Plutarch is a great example. I like Plutarch because I’ve read him forever, and I know that he’s incredibly funky, even though his mainstream image is as Mr. Unfunky. What we all probably know of him—if there’s anything we could say we collectively know about him—is that he’s a little long-winded, a little dull, a little too willing to give us his advice on issues about our private lives. But in reality, those essays were radical in their day, because the intimate and meditative form that Plutarch became known for was completely new in his day. Plutarch’s peers were writing “rhetorics,” which were these dry philosophical treatises that made really broad gestures about life and death and fate. Plutarch stepped out of the stream to create an essayistic form that relied on a digressive structure and down to earth anecdotes. People like to say that Plutarch’s is a really “personal” voice, but in truth Plutarch tells us very little about his life. His voice is personable but never personal. It feels intimate because he’s addressing the world as we experience it, at this level, a human level, rather than way up here where very few of us live. So sometimes what I’m looking for is the thing that will help renew people’s interest in a writer that they may have written off as not their kind of writer. Also, very modern translations help too.
Guernica: You introduced me to Charles Reznikoff, and I’ve since passed his work on to a number of my own students. But now that I’m skimming through the Table of Contents in your new anthology…Who is J. Hector St. John? Tell me about him.
I’m not worried about what part of their life they needed to massage in order to achieve something that I get to experience as transcendent. Because that’s the point of literature, I think: to connect.
John D’Agata: He came to my attention because a lot of his stuff is fabricated, or what the nonfiction police would call “fabricated.” St. John is an Americanized pseudonym for Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur. He was a French guy who wrote a book called Letters from an American Farmer, in which he pretends to be a lifelong farmer dispatching letters to a friend in France about his quiet life on a remote patch of land in Pennsylvania on the eve of the American Revolution. The truth is however that Crèvecoeur was a native of Normandy, farmed for only six years—and probably only did so in order to gather research for his book—and crafted American Farmer as an epistolary novel based on Charles Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, which we know Crèvecoeur had studied in college, where he went to study writing, not farming. If there’s a poster boy for the fact that all essays are written through personae, it’s Crèvecoeur.
Yet the most important thing about the book isn’t its fabrications. The reason why it’s remained so dear to American readers is that it’s beautiful. What draws us into the book and what keeps us enthralled are its gorgeous observations about what life was like for a lot of people at that point in the colonies before the Revolution. As Crèvecoeur sculpts it, the environment is as pastoral as it is terrifying. So, for example, in one moment Crèvecoeur might offer us a quirky meditation on hummingbirds, and in the next start telling us about his neighbors betraying him to the British, or his wife being killed in a raid, or his children being swept up and disappearing into the chaos of war. Now, whether his observations are based on his own authentic experiences or are just metaphors for a larger commentary about the myth of the American Dream I do not think matters. His “letters” are affecting. My point in including him in this anthology is to say, who cares? Look how beautiful this is, look at how he’s turned his brief time in America into something much bigger than his own experience. He’s converted a few scraps of experience into metaphor, into something that we can all connect to. If someone can do that, I’m not worried about what part of their life they needed to massage in order to achieve something that I get to experience as transcendent. Because that’s the point of literature, I think: to connect.
Guernica: Speaking of the point of literature, what should an essay do? Or to get really basic: what is an essay? When I was your student you asked me this on the first day of class, which was terrifying.
John D’Agata: How did you answer? Did I say you were wrong?
Guernica: No. But my post-grad revenge is that now I get to ask you the same question.
John D’Agata: You want a definition?
Guernica: Yes. What is an essay, to you?
John D’Agata: An essay is something that tracks the evolution of a human mind. It tracks the evolution of a single consciousness in order to give us an experience—an experience of looking for something and then finding ourselves in a different place by the time we’ve finished our journey. It doesn’t mean that the thing we went in search of has been found or that a problem has been solved; it doesn’t mean that the world has changed, or has been fixed. It means that our understanding of the initial question or subject is different. It’s clearer—or maybe muddier—but it’s at least different. And that experience that we’re allowed to share with the writer feels very pure because the whole movement of an essay is propelled by a fundamentally human impulse to want to figure things out. That’s the thing that moves an essay forward, that inquiry. It’s not narrative posturing or poetic costuming. It’s just thinking, and sharing the experience of thinking.
Is that too bullshitty? That might be too bullshitty.
Guernica: Well, I think that’s one response to the critics who would say to you, “Well, if you want to tell a story and make shit up, why not just say that you’re writing fiction?” Which is that the essay is propelled forward by a distinct set of imperatives that are not necessarily shared by the short story or novel.
An essay is something that tracks the evolution of a human mind.
John D’Agata: Yeah. Well, the other problem with that criticism is that I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tell fiction writers that the defining feature of their art form is that they make shit up. We’re all ultimately doing the same thing; there are just different vehicles for it.
Guernica: But then, you sometimes say that a short work of fiction or a poem might be so essayistic as to be considered an essay. And you’ve included works in your anthologies that have not traditionally been classified as essays.
John D’Agata: What was your definition, when you were in my class?
Guernica: I think it was something like, “an attempt to figure something out by thinking through it.” But I was disturbed; you’d encouraged us to be so radical in our definitions that I remember getting in an argument with someone who’d claimed that a football play or a baby blanket could reasonably be called an essay.
I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tell fiction writers that the defining feature of their art form is that they make shit up.
John D’Agata: There are two sides. Sometimes we want to say that these categories are bunk, they’re worthless, that nobody writes exclusively in one form. We want to say that of course essayists borrow strategies from fiction writers and poets, and poets from essayists and fiction writers, et cetera. But on the other hand, because this is so contentious an issue, in some ways we want definitions that can help protect our own interpretations of the genre.
I remember a student saying something really similar to that baby blanket statement. She said that if we define the essay loosely, and then push it even further so that it becomes even looser, we could reach a point at which everything is an essay and therefore nothing is an essay. Pedagogically, we need definitions and borders. They help us get our heads around what we’re talking about. Even if it’s a definition that feels oppressive to us, that oppression can be inspiring because it helps us push up against something while we’re writing. Or if it’s a definition that we want to defend and uphold, we are given a sense of the boundaries within which we can work.
Guernica: I’m curious about your selection process for this anthology. In your introduction, you refer to Plutarch as “a radical in disguise.” I get the sense—you may consider this unfair—that a lot of the radicalism of the essays has to do with mode and form, not content. I remember opening [the first of the anthologies] The Next American Essay, which begins with a “To the Reader” note where you say, “For your records, there are 19 men in here, 13 women. Twenty-nine are Americans; 1 is a Mexican, 1 is Canadian.” And so on. Kind of preempting pushback about not being adequately representative, which is a serious conversation right now both within and beyond the literary community. It seemed a little defensive.
John D’Agata: Well, kind of. Inclusiveness isn’t what I want to push back against. The obsession with facts is.
Guernica: Some people might look at the Table of Contents of your latest volume and think, “wow, there are a lot of white men here.” I think, when discussing an anthology that seems to have a pretty broad mandate—it’s called The Making of the American Essay—it’s worthwhile to ask about representation: whose voices are included, whose aren’t, and on what basis were those curatorial choices made? I’m particularly interested in posing this question to you because your project grew out of your feeling that you weren’t represented by what you were seeing anthologized. Do you have a particular kind of audience in mind, or is this a more personal endeavor—to create an anthology specifically that the younger you would’ve wanted to see?
John D’Agata: I should clarify that the “me” that I didn’t see in the anthologies that I read as a student wasn’t the queer me or the me who grew up really poor or the one who has trouble making friends as an adult. It wasn’t a reflection of my biography that I was looking for. It was a reflection of my aesthetic interests as an essayist. And the first volume in this series, The Next American Essay, makes that really clear in its introduction. In fact, it makes that clear right after the line that you quoted earlier: “I want you concerned with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” So my mandate, to use your term, was to try to fulfill my own formal interests and my own aesthetic concerns: I wanted to create an environment in which more than just personal essays could be represented, and in which stranger approaches to making essays could be celebrated.
Beyond that, I did my best to make this book and the two that preceded it diverse in other ways too, but they’re obviously not adequate. I stand by them, of course, because they’re a fulfillment of my vision, but they’re nowhere near complete, and I’d like to be able to keep building on them. But this raises an important point, because I don’t think we should treat this or any other anthology as the only anthology that can represent the world of essays. And we shouldn’t expect that my vision or Lopate’s vision or Robert Atwan’s vision can adequately represent everyone else’s vision of the essay. We’re just three people. And white, and guys…The essay community should have hundreds of anthologies from hundreds of different perspectives that are constantly introducing us to new writers, new work, and new visions for our genre. The whole spirit of these anthologies is that there should never be a last word in how essays are interpreted or what they can be.
Pedagogically, we need definitions and borders. They help us get our heads around what we’re talking about. Even if it’s a definition that feels oppressive to us, that oppression can be inspiring because it helps us push up against something while we’re writing.
Guernica: You also don’t have many essays that are explicitly political. Actually, you’ve selected, from writers like James Baldwin, for example, who is known for his political writing, an essay about sports. Same for Norman Mailer. I was curious to know whether that has to do with your own aesthetic preferences, whether you were intentionally avoiding political essays, whether you feel those essays have a certain kind of timestamp to them that wouldn’t have served the long-term goals of the anthology. Is it fair to say you’ve intentionally avoided political essays?
John D’Agata: To some extent it’s fair. But in a lot of ways it’s not. The Next American has a lot of essays that I would consider political, and The Lost Origins has even more. In fact, Lost Origins reprints an entire book-length political essay that might be one of my favorite texts in the series, [Kamau Brathwaite’s] “Trench Town Rock.”
But I hear your point. Generally speaking, as a reader I don’t tend to rush into the arms of political essays.
John D’Agata: It partly has to do with my own taste and it partly has to do with a sense of timeliness, of wanting to avoid having to explain the political contexts of essays. But most importantly it has to do with wanting to divorce the essay from being read exclusively as a form that’s tied to its subject matter, or that is propelled by its subject matter. I think that in a lot of readers’ minds the essay is a lot more utilitarian than it is art. And so one of the projects of this series has been to encourage us to pay more attention to form, as you put it, and to what’s technically happening on the page. Because I think if we can do that then readers might be more willing to think of these texts as purposefully constructed works of art.
Guernica: Do you believe politically or socially urgent subject matter would preclude a reader from seeing that essay as a “purposefully constructed work of art”? Do you see the two as mutually exclusive?
John D’Agata: No, they aren’t mutually exclusive. When you were in class with me, we read lots of political essays; we just didn’t focus on their political arguments because we were in class to study how the essays were constructed rather than what they were arguing about. So of course there are gorgeous and powerful political essays. In the modern era, Orwell, Woolf, Baldwin, Duras, and countless others have demonstrated how potently the political essay can affect us. And before them, Christine de Pizan in France was pioneering the form in the 14th century, in books like The Book of the City of Ladies. In China in the 5th century the essayist Tao Yuan-ming was working as a government official while railing poetically against the sordidness of the Chinese government. And the best stuff that Cicero wrote, in the first century in Rome, were the Philippics, a series of speeches that he delivered against Marc Antony, whom he thought was irreparably dismantling the Republic of Rome. Those speeches are powerful because they’re not only really pointed but they’re thrillingly beautiful—and that’s precisely what made them dangerous: the fact that people wanted to read them. In fact we could say that they were too beautiful, because they’re ultimately what got Cicero killed. So yes, of course it’s possible for political essays to be artful. I just want to call into question the dominance of content over form in the history of the essay. I want us to recognize that there’s art involved in making this stuff, because we still don’t approach the constructed nature of the essay with the same appreciation that we do poetry or fiction.
Guernica: You have a line in the preface: “What we owe history is risk.” What kind of risks feel like the really important ones, or the ones you most value in the essays you’ve selected?
John D’Agata: A risk is something that feels risky to the person who’s taking it.
So, for example, when I’m teaching, I’m not really doing my job if the student who’s always comfortable doing wacko stuff all over the page keeps getting gold stars from me for doing wacko stuff all over the page. A riskier assignment for that student, who might be used to hiding behind a lot of formal armor, would be to try to do something straightforward, traditionally, in which they are much more directly laid bare for the reader. Likewise, I have a lot of students at the moment who are doing literary journalism. So for them, the challenge seems to be to introduce a first-person pronoun into their work. And then, after that, to try full-blown personal essays.
The essay that you’re quoting from is about a trip I recently took to Greece, where I went to see an artifact that’s reputed to be Plutarch’s chair. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for me, and yet despite the build up to that moment, the essay ends with me cowardly choosing not to sit in Plutarch’s chair. This was in a monastery in Greece, and when I was there the woman who watches over the monastery left me alone with the chair in order to give me an opportunity to sit in it alone. And yet, despite the fact that I don’t believe that the chair ever belonged to Plutarch, when she left me alone to do the thing that I had gone there to do, I felt two overpowering things: one, that I didn’t have the right to sit in Plutarch’s chair; and two, that sitting in his chair would be disrespectful, as if taking a bath and then pulling the Shroud of Turin off a towel rack to dry yourself off. I know it sounds silly, but disrespecting a dead writer by sitting in a chair that probably never belonged to him still felt like a risk to me. So I chickened out.
But in a week I’m leaving for another trip to Greece in order to do some more Plutarch research, and I’m going to sit in his chair, and I’m going to take lots of pictures, and I’m going to tell Plutarch, I have the right to do this, because you would do the exact same thing. If Plutarch is the essayist I want to believe he is, he would want us all to sit in his chair.
Guernica: So is that your big risk? Sitting in Plutarch’s chair?
John D’Agata: No, the chair’s a metaphor! The big risk that I’m facing now is the realization that this book about Plutarch that I’m currently writing is as much about me as it is about him, and I’m not sure I’m ready for sitting myself down into that kind of a book, as it were. The book started out as just a tame collection of translations of Plutarch’s more interesting essays, but now it’s turning into just one translation of a very short essay, and…[long pause] I’m trying to figure out how much I want to reveal here. Well, the risk that I’m facing is whether I feel comfortable focusing on this one short essay by Plutarch and then surrounding it with a very personal meditation, which, in a nutshell, is about how I might not be capable of love. Admitting that is about as big a risk as I can think of right now.
Guernica: That’s a big risk. What is the essay of Plutarch’s?
John D’Agata: It’s actually a letter that he wrote to his wife when their two-year-old daughter died. I’m going to try to recreate his experience of learning about his daughter’s death, which happened when he was visiting a city about fifty miles from his hometown. I’ve arranged to take a horseback ride from his home to that city, because he would’ve traveled by horse. I’ve been training for this for a couple months.
Guernica: Horseback riding?
John D’Agata: Yeah, I don’t ride horses. And fifty miles is apparently long on horseback.
Guernica: You’ll be sore.
John D’Agata: The point is to relive his experience of getting there after five or seven hours of travel, and hearing his daughter was dead. And then I’ll ask the tough questions, like why he didn’t turn around, why he didn’t go back to console his wife in person but instead wrote her a letter. Since we’ve rediscovered this letter, it’s been a question that readers and critics have been asking for a few hundred years. Why does the letter even exist? Why did he choose to stay?
Guernica: What had he gone to do?
John D’Agata: He was giving a lecture. And the uncomfortable, but kind of important, question is: did he decide to avoid going home because he recognized the opportunity to tap into this really traumatic, emotional experience, and to create a devastatingly beautiful piece of art? In other words, did he intentionally avoid living in the moment—and responding to that moment the way we’d hope any human would—so that he could live forever, so that he could live for posterity? I’m willing to say that I know how I would answer that question, and I’m kind of frightened by my answer. But I hope, I have to believe, that I’m not the only writer who would…opportunistically want to use that kind of life experience.
Guernica: In the anthologies, you preface each essay with an introduction—but I’m not sure introduction is the right word. It seems more like a continuous line of thought, interrupted by the essay selections. I think I’ve heard critics suggest the anthology as a whole could be considered one very long-form essay. Is that how you see it?
John D’Agata: I see it that way. It’s not how they’re composed—at all, because they were written over the span of fifteen years—but yes, they’re at least continuous lines of thought. I think after the very first anthology a critic wrote that the introductions function as a kind of extended introduction to the idea of essays in general, and I like that idea, and so I just held onto it and kept doing it. But those introductions also came out of a necessity to personalize the project, because I started it when I was a kid. And even though at the time I had, whatever I called it earlier, cockiness—
John D’Agata: Chutzpah, okay. Even though I had the chutzpah to think I could take on a project like this, at the very least I had the modesty to acknowledge that I wasn’t really an authority, and that I probably should measure my selections with a reminder to the reader that the essays in each collection have not been handed down by God, that they’ve been selected by a person, and here’s who that person is. The introductions are a way of reminding readers that this is just one person’s version of a very big history. As I’ve said, I think we ought to have many more histories out there.
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