Blue Mesa Review: What book or books made you realize you wanted to write?
Justin St. Germain: I don’t think I ever had a specific moment in which I realized I wanted to write. As a kid, I read a lot of those boy books about detectives and cowboys and elite paramilitary units, and I would imagine what it would be like to have written them. I think I always wanted to have written a book. But actually writing one always seemed impossible, like something other, smarter, worldlier people did.
But when I was in my early twenties, I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and that book gave me permission to write. My mother had recently died and I was in a graduate program for fiction, reading lots of traditional short stories with clear narrative arcs and a vivid, continuous dream and all that, and I was writing all this bullshit sentimental fiction about characters who were essentially me dealing with conflicts that were essentially mine – dead mothers, anger, an inability to find their place. Then I read AHWOSG and saw how it mocked the very notion of a writing convention, and yet was so much truer to the experience of being young and orphaned and full of rage than anything I’d read (or anything I’ve read since), so much more alive. I remember thinking: I didn’t know you could do that.
I’m glad that book found me when it did, and said to me: somebody else has been here, somebody understands. It demolished my whole idea of what I wanted to write. I still go back and reread it every couple of years; in fact, when I couldn’t figure out how to start my memoir, I shoplifted parts of its structure.
BMR: What trends in contemporary fiction/poetry/creative nonfiction do you see that you enjoy or admire?
JSG: It seems like the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are being reevaluated. That’s often a difficult process, practically – for us as writers and teachers and thinkers working right now – but it seems to me like fundamentally a good thing, at least in the sense that I hope we’re interrogating (and dismantling) the ridiculous idea that a prose narrative could be true in any objective sense.
BMR: What trends do you see that are problematic?
JSG: The adoption of the term “creative nonfiction,” which is awful on so many levels – discordant, grandiloquent, absurd – that I’m ashamed to say it out loud. That and the reflexive use of first person to tell true stories that don’t signify beyond the author’s experience. I read a lot of essays in which the author seems to have never considered the question of why the reader should care, and if they have, the answer was: because this happened to me. That’s not enough.
BMR: What craft element do you pay the most attention to when you read a book/story/poem/essay?
JSG: Right now, I’m teaching a graduate class on nonfiction structure, so probably that. Even in my civilian reading life, if I’m reading nonfiction, I’m usually concentrating a lot on structure, because I think it’s the particular challenge of writing a truth-based story, and I’m always curious to see how authors address it. Even in other genres, I probably focus most on structural elements: in fiction it’s plot, because that’s what I’m worst at, and in poetry I pay a lot of attention to the logic of the lines and breaks.
BMR: Name a few criminally under-appreciated authors you think should be on everyone’s reading list?
JSG: Evan S. Connell, whom we recently lost. He has criminally underappreciated books in two genres: Mrs. Bridge, one of the great American novels of the 20th century, and Son of the Morning Star, his nonfiction book on General Custer. That book is transcendent: it’s about so much more than Custer.
I don’t have a great sense of how appreciated they are or aren’t – it’s a hard thing to quantify with contemporary books – but two recent story collections everybody should read are Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, which is just unreasonably good, and Jim Gavin’s Middle Men, which comes out this month, and is the best thing you’ll ever read about industrial plumbing sales, high school basketball, and Del Taco.
Justin St. Germain is the author of Son of a Gun, a memoir, forthcoming from Random House in August.