Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2011
: What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O'Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother's near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem (see Axl Rose). Put another way: if Tom Waits wrote essays, they might sound like Pulphead
. --Neal ThompsonExclusive Amazon.com Interview:
Though his stories have appeared for a decade in Harper's
, and other magazines, John Jeremiah Sullivan wasn’t a recognizable name until Pulphead
started landing on year-end best-books lists, including Time
, the New York Times
, and Amazon's Best Books of 2011. The New Yorker’s
James Wood compares him to Raymond Carver - "with hints of Emerson and Thoreau." Elsewhere, Sullivan has been called the new Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, or some combination of all three.
I prefer to think of him more as the Tom Waits of long-form journalism.
Sullivan’s sportswriter father was an early and lasting influence. "The stuff he wrote was so weird, when I go back and look at it. It would almost have to be classified as creative non-fiction," Sullivan told me.
I asked Sullivan if his father encouraged him to become a writer.
"He did the smartest and best thing he could have done for me, which was to take a very coolly distant but encouraging attitude,” he said. “I think he could tell early on that it's what I was going to do, that I wasn't really suited for much else.
After college and a brief “lost period” in Ireland, Sullivan got an internship at The Oxford American magazine and spent a month in Mississippi, living in a brown-carpeted room at the Ole Miss hotel, with hookers conducting their business nearby.
One night, Sullivan told his editor, Marc Smirnoff, about his musician brother’s near-death electrocution from a microphone. Smirnoff suggested he write a story about it, giving Sullivan his first professional byline.
"It was just one of those things where somebody opens the door and steps aside and says, 'Don't f**k it up'," Sullivan said. "And that piece made a lot of cool things happen for me."
Cool things like bylines in Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine.
Over the next decade he honed his reporting skills, his unique voice (personal not cynical, thoughtful not intellectual), and a particular interest in outliers. I asked: do you look for oddballs, or do they find you? "It probably betrays a weakness for grotesques," he said. "And grotesques give you little angles of insight into human nature. There are things they can't help exposing.
"Sometimes I take pleasure in writing about people who make it hard for you to see their basic humanity. It gives me a very clear task as a writer to insist on it."
Pulphead is filled with hunks of other people’s sometimes misshapen humanity.
"The things that can happen to people... it just blows your mind."
Four more questions for Sullivan:
- Where do you work? "I used to be one of those people who could write anywhere but for the first time I've become real attached to this corner office in our house that’s become sort of a cocoon. I keep it real disgusting so nobody will ever want to come in here. My daughter will show it to friends, almost like you'd show somebody the dungeon."
- Who are you reading? "It’s more about staying in constant contact with writing, always being into some writer. That keeps me inspired and it keeps me feeling like, when I sit down to write, it's part of a preexisting and ongoing conversation. It's not the scary void that people talk about of the white page. I do everything I can to cancel out that feeling."
- You’re a fan of bourbon – can you write drunk? - "Drinking and smoking for me are useful for getting over humps. For cracking things open. But if I try to do it in a sustained way, it gets kind of sloppy and pudding-headed. So I have to introduce it into the process at the right moments … (Bourbon) gives you a little bit of that what-the-f**k feeling."
- Do you think of yourself as a southern writer? "I'm not an authentic southerner by anyone's definition, and I don't self-identify as a southern writer … I'm interested in regionalism. The fact that I sort of grew up back and forth between the Midwest and the South, it sensitized me to the differences early on … Mainly I’m interested in the psycho-geography of regionalism, and how it gives shape to people's personalities.”