By Gilliann Hensley
Gillian Hensley: Your essay "Apocalypse Garage: A Scenario for Not Going It Alone" looks at the (allegedly less-than-remarkable) life of Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven's Gate cult. Could you tell me a bit about how this essay came about?
Nora Almeida: I'm interested in the essay as a vehicle to explore an idea--in this case the idea that disappointment can be overcome through subscription to an alternative reality. In this essay, I was also interested in exploring the relationship between ritualization and indoctrination and the mythology of apocalypse, which finds its way into most religions.
That said, I usually start an essay with something simple like an image or a phrase, which often comes out of something I've read or a conversation I've had. I also keep a (digital) notebook that I write in almost every day and a lot of my ideas come out of that writing practice. I find garbage writing gives me analytic space to think about some of the things I hear and encounter out in the world. For example, I'm currently working on an essay about Rhode Island (where I grew up) as a metaphor for a big-small thing (ie. an iceberg the size of Rhode Island) because I was helping a student do research about Yosemite National Park at the library where I work and all of these different articles kept conceptualizing the size of Yosemite Valley in terms of Rhode Island.
In the case of Apocalypse Garage, I thought of the title first and then that lead me down an apocalypse cult internet wormhole (which I definitely recommend, by the way). Once I have a point of entry into an essay, I typically latch onto something specific like a person or an event to build a piece around. In this case it ended up being Applewhite; I was fascinated by the longevity of the Heaven's Gate Cult--that it was sustained for so long. I also thought that Applewhite was somewhat sympathetic because he wasn't just a con-man. He bought into his own crazy, invented ideology.
GH: In telling us this story of Applewhite and the rise and fall of Heaven's Gate, you weave together various strands--moments from his life, lists of "signs" of the end of times, the metaphor of the shantytown, an H.P. Lovecraft story, and so forth. I was curious about the structural choices that you made. What led to those particular choices, and what did you want to achieve with that particular structure?
NA: As a poet, I often think about writing in structural terms. And when you essay (as a verb it means "to put to the proof" per the OED) there are a lot of structural possibilities. I think about juxtaposition in my writing a lot and often use more than one rhetorical mode. I do a lot of intentional research but I also take forever to write prose and so some of the amalgamation that happens is a result of stumbling across different rhetorical angles that might interestingly be absorbed into the essay I'm writing. It's kind of like when you have a word of the day calendar, you keep seeing the word of the day everywhere.
In this essay, I thought it would be interesting to play a little with reliability and interweave a lot of disparate points of view, some of which are more credible and empathetic than others. I also hoped to achieve some kind of plausible dimensionality. I was also going for a kind of mock-journalistic thing and tonally, I was trying to invoke Joan Didion's California. So the 'signs' and the biblical references and the song are in some ways atmospheric.
GH: Throughout the essay you as us to do a lot of imagining--to imagine what Applewhite may have been thinking or feeling, to imagine being one of Applewhite's followers. And in doing so you do a lot of imagining, yourself, on the page, blending the factual (in the form of actual details from Applewhite's life, as well as actual events with the cult, for example) and the fictional ("The Joy of Living" B-Side, the book about Heaven's Gate). What was your intention as a writer in making the choice to include these fictional elements?
NA: I often include a lot of fictional or fictionalized elements in essays that I would still call creative nonfiction. This isn't a stance of some kind towards or against objectivity; blending fact and fiction is just part of the way that I think through an idea. In Apocalypse Garage, I was interested in capturing (as opposed to just considering) multiple perspectives and there's no other way to really do this than to pretend, whether explicitly on the page or otherwise, that I am Applewhite or one of his followers or a Texas policeman or an academic studying Heaven's Gate and cultism.
Of course, I spent a lot of time with research too: the Heaven's Gate websites are still around; I read a lot of Daniel from the King James; and I delved into a lot of academic stuff too (monographs and back issues of obscure journals like Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions). I always spend a lot of time in ProQuest Historical looking at old newspapers and getting lost in Wikipedia black-holes. I like the research part (more than writing in some ways) because it is inexhaustible, there are always more threads to pick apart.
And this essay is essentially about a guy who takes a bunch of sources (the bible, science texts, fiction) and tangles them all together, who is a kind of internet virtuoso and master of deception, who is legitimately deluded, and who manages to cobble together something that people, lots of people, believe so much that his ideas supplant their former worldviews and belief systems. So if I'm reflecting that in some ways, all the better.
This essay aside, I think you can make a lot of things up and still capture a phenomenon or event or person. Perhaps it wouldn't be possible to say this some years ago and perhaps it's controversial to say this now. One of my favorite pieces of writing in this vein is Barthelme's Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning. Even though it is a fictional story, it's the most accurate and moving description of RFK I've ever read.
GH: I noted that, online, you largely refer to yourself as a poet, and I've had the pleasure of running across some of your poems online. When reading "Apocalypse Garage...," I noticed that it is quite associative and image-driven. How did your background as a poet influence your prose in the case of this essay?
NA: My background as a poet influences the way that I read and write anything. I've always read a ton of prose but didn't seriously start writing prose until I spent a few years in a stuck place struggling to write poetry. So now I write prose, but because I'm a poet, I write it really really slowly. It's funny that people always talk about image as though it belonged to poetry. I suppose my prose isn't very discursive, but that's because I'm interested in creating an atmosphere more than I'm interested in narrative or linearity. My favorite thing about reading a novel is the atmosphere it creates, and the way that you can live in a kind of alternate atmosphere for however long the book lasts.
Gilliann Hensley is a second year Creative Writing student with a focus on Nonfiction and also holds an MA in Composition Theory with a focus on digital literacies. She is a passionate outdoors-woman, and when she isn't teaching or tutoring, spends her time hiking as many trails as possible in order to capture the American wilderness in prose. Her life-goal is to visit all 59 national parks in the U.S.
Slider Photo by Philipp Salzgeber (http://salzgeber.at/astro/pics/9703293.html) [CC BY-SA 2.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/at/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.