A-Sides, B-Sides, and Upsides: A Conversation with Joe Oestreich by Barrett Bowlin
I first met Joe Oestreich through his writing, in an Esquire feature on the best bars in America. Out of two dozen or so places mentioned, the write-up on a Columbus, Ohio, watering hole with a tree growing out of the middle of it stood out. And then I met him proper-like, in person at a bar in Daytona, Florida, in 2008, just a few years before his rock memoir, Hitless Wonder, came out, which was followed shortly by a book centered on an infamous, South Carolina high school football game: Lines of Scrimmage (which he co-wrote with Scott Pleasant). Recently, Black Lawrence Press published Oestreich's first nonfiction collection, Partisans, which starts off with an essay on love, murder, and family pets.
Barrett Bowlin: Let's talk a wee bit about "The Mercy Kill." You published it with The Normal School back in 2012, and I was curious what the impetus was for you to write that piece in that particular period. If you can remember, when did you start work on it, and what made it an essential piece to write around that time?
Joe Oestreich: Back then, there were so many bestsellers about dogs. Dog books were everywhere, man. So I consciously set out to write a dog essay—as a challenge. There was this voice in my head like the one from the film Barton Fink that says, "A wrestling picture!" But my voice kept saying, "A dog essay!" The trouble was, my best dog story wasn't the fluffy kind that appeals to dog people. Mine has more of an Old Yeller kind of ending. Still: A dog essay!
BB: And I love how your dog from that period became kind of the side item in the narrative. Tangentially, when did you know you were going to place John Parsons as the central figure?
JO: I found out pretty quickly that I couldn't write about the dog—an old female mutt named Rex—without writing about the man that did her the kindness of putting her out of her misery. And the guy who did that merciful thing—a neighbor named John Parsons—was the same guy who'd been charged with murder. He’d later be convicted, and my parents would testify on his behalf during the sentencing phase of the trial. He's a complicated man, which makes him a compelling character.
BB: What was behind the decision to include "The Mercy Kill" first in the collection? If we're thinking of the essay collection as an album, it's the opening track. Highly coveted space there, dude.
JO: It was a practical decision, rather than, say, a thematic one. At minimum, the first essay has got to make the reader want to stick around to read the second one. I guess I figured if a reader gets to the end of "The Mercy Kill," says "meh," and puts the book down, then there was nothing I could have done to keep him. If that first essay is not for you, no problem. Don't waste your time with the rest of the book. Maybe go rake the leaves or something.
BB: Don't sell yourself short on it, though. Seriously, it's got murder, euthanasia, the story of your father leaving your mother for another woman. What's not to love?
JO: The dog getting shot in the head. That's what's not to love.
BB: True. But the essay works in that essential—and I'm going to call it essential, damn it!—Old Yeller cultural moment. Why do you think of the essay as more of a threshold than an invitation?
JO: It would be great if "The Mercy Kill" worked as both an invitation and a threshold. With that essay, I'm trying to invite the reader into my—I don't know—sensibility, I guess I'd call it. And then, after that first piece, I'm hoping they want to hang around for a while.
BB: Touching on that, too, much like it served as the central subject matter in your first book, Hitless Wonder, music figures into Partisans as an essential component: as a question of what it means to 'rock' (in "This Essay Doesn't Rock," for example); as an exploration into mood and music theory; as part of the larger narrative of your band, Watershed, and so on. When you were assembling the essays for the collection, did musicality figure into the order? If so, how?
JO: You nailed it earlier, when you compared an essay collection to a record album. I was really thinking of Partisans of having an A-side and B-side. In this collection, the A-side essays are largely memoir and travel writing. They concern stuff I did and stuff that happened to me. The B-side essays deal much more in cultural criticism, stuff I notice rather than do. I was born in 1969, so I come from the era of vinyl records. From my perspective, when you flip that record over to the B-side, you’re preparing yourself for a change in mood rather than a rehash of what you heard on Side A. I'm thinking here of a record like Abbey Road.
Wait. I don’t want to compare myself to the Beatles. Maybe I should have said Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick. Better yet, Van Halen's Diver Down.
BB: In terms of the collection's content, you really do manage to cover a huge amount of real estate. Regarding geography (the U.S., Mexico, France, Turkey) and subject matter (murders, escaping time-share presentations, marriage, the death of animals, tattoos, migrant workers, etc.) and time (1969 to the present), Partisans gets into a fair amount of disparate material. What made you think the essays could function together in a single collection?
JO: That's a tricky one. Maybe they don't. But the way I see it, there are two types of essay collections. In the first type, the essays have an obvious topical or thematic link. Fifteen essays about waterfalls, say. Or thirteen essays about Montana. In the second type, the essays are linked by the voice and (here's that word again) sensibility of the writer. I'm thinking here of books like Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem, George Saunders' The Braindead Megaphone, and the Davis Foster Wallace essay collections. I tend to prefer the second type—the wide-ranging type—over the first. I like variety. I also like to fall in love a little bit with the narrator and then have him or her act as my tour guide through a bunch of different places and ideas.
The complication is that unless the author is already famous, it's hard to get that second type published. A wandering, disparate collection by a famous writer like George Saunders is going to be a bestseller. But what if the author isn't famous? Then it’s hard for agents and publishers to identify a clear audience for a wandering, disparate essay collection. Fifteen Essays about Waterfalls might not sell a million, but at least the audience is clear. And in the book proposal, the agent can bullet-point it:
· Couples looking for moist, outdoorsy places to kiss;
· Shampoo marketers;
· Daredevils/barrel makers.
My feeling is that super-cohesive essay collections are easier to sell but not as much fun to read.
BB: I'm curious, then: what was the place or subject matter where you felt most excited about taking the reader to in the collection? Similarly, what was the place you were most worried about taking them?
JO: I always get excited by taking seriously a trivial subject, like, for instance, trying to define what rocks and what doesn't or what it's like to have somebody else rifle through your CD collection. Plus the “CD collection” essay—called "Barreling into Uncool"—gave me a legitimate reason to reference not just one but both of Judas Priest's guitar players. Any essayist can name check KK Downing. It takes real skill to work in Glenn Tipton.
I’m always worried about taking readers into my life. The more memoir-y stuff. The worry isn't that I'm scared to reveal intimate details; the worry is that they'll get bored reading about me. But that's the leap all writers of memoir and personal essay must make. You have to hope that, in writing about yourself, you've transcended the personal and stumbled upon something that resonates with everybody, something universal. I worry about failing at that, about navel gazing.
BB: In my literary hopes and dreams, I envision you with a brushed-nickel frame you've purchased from Target and which you've nailed up above your office door, one that reads: "Don't fucking navel gaze!"
JO: Shouted in the same voice that said, "A dog essay!"
BB: Okay, one last question about the selection process: which subject matters have you written about that didn't make the cut for Partisans? Do you see that material coming together for a future collection?
JO: I left pieces out of the collection not due to subject matter but due to form. Many of the essays I rejected were overly fragmented and lyrical in a way that seemed cutting edge when I was in grad school but seems kind of gimmick-for-gimmick's sake now. I dig lyrical and fragmented essays, just not the ones I wrote.
BB: Dude, I, too, love that you play with a variety of structures for the essays in the book, e.g., braided essays like "The Get Down" and "In Any August," segmented essays like "Two Haircuts" and "This Machine No Longer Kills Fascists (Did It Ever?)," and so on. For someone who works so prominently in creative nonfiction, what goes into the decision-making process for you in terms of structure? When do you figure out what the architecture of a book or a short piece is going to look like?
JO: This sounds trite and obvious, but the goal is try to find the form that's organic to the material. That's hard to do, of course. When beginning a new essay, I experiment a little—with voice, with form. But at some point, you have to stop experimenting and commit to a structure, just to get something down on the page. Then, once it's done, you can step back, take stock, and try to assess if the form you chose worked. I'm never totally confident that I've made the right choice. Could a given essay have been better if I’d tried a different structure? Sure, maybe. But look at the structure I did choose—it actually exists. I sometimes tell my students, "Try not to fall victim to the tyranny of the thing that exists. That initial version of your (essay, story, poem) is a freaking bully. It wants not to be changed."
And I do revise a lot. But I will admit that once I have a completed essay with a given structure, I usually don't radically alter the form in revision. If the first draft of the essay is a solid, split-level suburban home, I try to hone it into an even nicer split-level suburban. I don't change it into an igloo. Or a yurt.
BB: There's a line in the essay "This Machine No Longer Kills Fascists (Did It Ever?):" "I want to believe music makes a difference. I really do. But I'm not so sure."
I love the honesty of this jumping-off point in the essay. That said, if music is having—let's call it 'difficulty'—influencing politics and social change, particularly now, let's focus on music itself. What have you been listening to as of late that's helped to change your perspective on music (if at all)? Or like you did when listening to older, less hipster-approved records in "Barreling into Uncool," what music from your past have you re-examined recently and found something new (and hopefully promising) in?
JO: First of all, there's a shit-ton of great new music out there. I just don't know about it. Yet. As a music fan, I'm always about five years behind. This is by design, kind of. New music gets produced and distributed so quickly that it overwhelms me. It's hard to filter out the white noise to get to the good stuff. Luckily, I have friends whose taste I trust. They tell me everything I need to hear. And then, five years later, I get around to it. So for me, bands like Hacienda and Japandroids are new.
Lots of music fans like to go wide; they listen to everything. I like to go deep. I’d rather listen to one thing. Over and over. Like The Weight is a Gift by Nada Surf. I'll listen to that record for two weeks straight, and I'll hear all kinds of nuance during week two that I missed during week one. This repetition is what it was like when I was a kid and I only owned three albums. And I’m sure I will never love and be inspired by music as much as I was then, when I was going deep out of necessity. All of that said, there's a relatively new singer/songwriter named Aaron Lee Tasjan who’s great. Don’t wait five years on him. One other thing: The older I get, the less I care about what's cool. I concentrate more on what's good. Which is why I can say with 100% certainty that history will be kind to Billy Squier.
BB: I am so going to trust you on that. (Also, thanks incredibly for getting "The Stroke" stuck in my head, you bastard.) Quick follow-up, then: I'm curious what CNF you've come back to in a deep dive recently. What's an example of a solidly good work that you've found again that has way more nuance than what you initially assumed?
JO: You know who the Billy Squier of CNF is? Steve Almond. And I think he might appreciate why I say so. It's because, just as Squier does with a catchy pop song, Almond makes writing catchy essays look easy. And because he's so funny, it's easy to overlook the smarts and thoughtfulness. Almond could probably even bust out the dance moves Squier did in the "Rock Me Tonight" video.
Joe Oestreich is the author of Partisans, Lines of Scrimmage (with Scott Pleasant), and Hitless Wonder. His work has appeared in The Normal School, Esquire, Creative Nonfiction, and many other journals and magazines. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Barrett Bowlin is director of the Writing Center at Binghamton University, where he moonlights as a contributing editor for Memorious. His essays and stories appear in places like Ninth Letter, Hobart, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Salt Hill, Mid-American Review, and Bayou, which awarded him the 2015 James Knudsen Prize in Fiction.