Monday, August 11, 2014

Like Fact and Water: A Conversation with B.J. Hollars

Reading B.J. Hollars's new book Dispatches From The Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction is, much like trying to pluck a fish from a river, a slippery and tantalizing experience. That's precisely how Hollars intends it. After Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars collects over forty photographs by Charles Van Schaick, who in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created portraits using citizens of the town posed against rural backdrops. Hollars pairs many of the strange, stagey photographs with actual newspaper accounts of contemporaneous drownings in nearby Eau Claire, Wisconsin (where Hollars lives and teaches). The pairings are random—none of the people in Van Schaick's photographs drowned, not least in Eau Claire—yet evocative; as Hollars notes in his Author's Note, it is inevitable that a reader will link the images with the stories. (I certainly did.)

The gap between fact and fiction thus exposed, Hollars, who last year edited Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, intersperses among the seventy-five nonfiction drowning reports twenty-five of his own fictionalized accounts. With an ear to fidelity, Hollars mimics the other-century casual, folkloric tone of the newspaper accounts—but the reader doesn't know which ones are "fakes." Plus: Hollars admits that he rewrote the newspaper accounts after having read and absorbed them, a further muddying of the waters. Hollars's intent here is to shed light on that destabilized place between facts and the imagination by creating a hybrid text, part journalism, part fantasy. Hollars reminds us that a century ago many reporters relied uneasily on their own memory, faulty witnesses, and narrative skills in reporting on drownings. In what ways were their own attempts at objective reporting subverted (or complemented) by subjective factors such as faulty memory, personal temperament, and perhaps—Hollars never raises this; I'm speculating—the reporter's relationship with the victim and/or his or her family?

Hollars locates the gray area where fact and fiction, detail and myth, and objective reporting and subjective dread meet. It's a fascinating, absorbing book. Here's the trailer:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Hollars to discuss Dispatches From The Drownings, memory, and the uneasy blend of fact versus myth.


B.J. Hollars
In the Author's Note, you describe yourself as less an author or writer than as a curator. Could you talk a bit about that?

It probably goes without saying that this was the strangest writing experience of my life. Rather than sit down and create something entirely new—as one does in fiction—or craft a true account—as one does in nonfiction—I attempted to replicate stories previously told. That is, I sat down with one drowning report after another and tried to re-write them from memory. Not word for word, of course, but in terms of factuality. And as I soon found, my memory was terribly faulty. There were simply too many details to keep track of, too many names and circumstances and hypotheses. When doing my own writing, I first returned to the original drowning reports again and again, but no matter how often I returned to them, there was always something omitted. To put it another way: I always omitted something. In short, I found myself unwittingly making the same decisions all writers must make: deciding what stays and what goes and forever altering the stories based on these decisions.

I should probably note that I only performed the aforementioned process for 75 of the 100 total drowning reports. As I note in my introduction, only 75 of the 100 included reports are true. The other 25 are completely fabricated. For reasons related to my own disconcerting feelings toward genre, I make no effort to distinguish. And so, if I am a curator—by which I mean a keeper of artifacts, or, if we go back to the word’s early usage, a “guardian” of sorts—then I am, indeed, a faulty one. I don’t keep or guard these drowning reports all that well. In fact, I intentionally and unintentionally muddy their veracity. The point, I suppose, is that even when we writers attempt to “protect” true stories, all we’re really doing is protecting one version of the story—the one we’ve manufactured, the one we’ve deemed most true.

How long did Dispatches From The Drownings take to complete?

I always struggle to trace the beginning and end points of a book. I suppose my first encounter with drowning took place in July of 2011. The morning after my first night in Eau Claire, I went for an early morning jog and spotted a rescue team searching for a drowning victim in the river directly behind our new home. I spotted a dripping young man lean into a nearby car and whisper of the tragedy to a friend.

I soon learned that drownings were common here; that when you live in a town overflowing with rivers, on occasion, people will drown.

I began consciously working on this project in the summer of 2012. My son had just been born, and since he wasn’t sleeping much, in the night hours when it was my turn to stay up with him, I’d take him upstairs, place him on my lap, and begin researching historical drowning reports. We lived just a stone’s throw from the river, and perhaps my research was my attempt to safeguard him from that future fate. Or maybe my research was driven by my own personal fears. By August I’d moved beyond the drowning reports and began using the nighttime hours to scan the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archives for photos by Charles Van Schaick. I’d first become familiar with Van Schaick’s work in Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, and it soon became clear to me that I, too, was engaged in my own Wisconsin death trip of sorts, only in my book, all the deaths occurred via drowning.

I suppose this is the long way of saying the book probably took two years from start to finish, though the majority of the work occurred during those sleepless nights (though the work itself always left me even more sleepless…).
You rewrote the true drowning reports after having read them. Why not quote verbatim?

First, allow me to clarify: on a few rare occasions I did. Though I rewrote 99% of the original reports, as I note in the introduction, “When I could not—when the linguistic nuances of the time period allowed for a lexicon I simply could not re-create—I employed direct quotations from the original work.” Simply put, sometimes the language of the original reports was so startling and baffling that it was a disservice for me to try to “improve” upon the original design. Though, of course, it was never my intent to “improve” the reports. Rather, I rewrote them to test my own memory. I didn’t want this book to read as a condemnation of journalists of the past. Rather, I wanted to own up to my own shortcomings as a nonfiction writer. I wanted to prove just how hard it is to get the story straight, even when the story seems simple.

And when it came to the subject of drowning, I assumed the stories would always be simple: people entered a body of water, then drowned. But as I soon learned, the stories of drownings are never so simple, and every fact in every report always raises new questions. 

Where do you place Dispatches From The Drownings among Michael Lesy's book and James Marsh's 1999 docudrama? Does Dispatches subvert or complement those works in any way?

That’s a great question. I suppose I’ll leave that up to readers to decide. But in an attempt not to dodge the question entirely, I’ll note that I view my work as an homage to Lesy’s book. Wisconsin Death Trip fundamentally changed the way I thought about narrative. My book, much like his, relies on newspaper reports to craft a narrative. But more than that, it relies on photographs as well. Taken together, the juxtaposition of words and pictures creates an odd dissonance, at least when it comes to subject matters such as Lesy’s and my own. And it’s a productive dissonance, I think; one that demands we study our world a bit more critically. People often think of pictures as “proof” and words as “proof” but they’re both quite vulnerable to manipulation. Wilson Hicks, the former picture editor for LIFE magazine spoke of “the principle of the third effect” which argues that context matters. Simply put, when we interpret in image, we take into account the image we saw before. Thus, we can never fully examine an image—or a text for that matter—without lugging some previous knowledge along with us.

My book is certainly the result of what I saw before—Lesy’s work, and to a lesser extent, Marsh’s docudrama. And I hope it will spur others to consider the interplay between text and image, between fact and fiction, too. 

Charles Van Schaick's photographs are remarkable. You write, "By pairing these drowning reports with Van Schaick's photographs, I hope to illuminate the aesthetical aberrations inherent in both." Can you talk a bit about this?

Both the drowning reports and Van Schaick’s photographs forced me to find beauty in unexpected places. While there is nothing beautiful about the act of drowning (don’t let Shakespeare’s Ophelia fool you), I discovered beauty in the reports. On occasion the language verged on the poetic, and the narratives, too, vacillated on a wondrously wide spectrum between the tragic and the heroic.

Van Schaick’s photographs are—as you noted—indeed remarkable. But aside from the images’ apparent beauty, I also fell in love with the story of Van Schaick’s life-long pursuit to capture these images. Here was a man who spent the majority of his adult life in a small Wisconsin town, walking up the same stairs to his studio day after day. And day after day he would take these photographs, forever memorializing a time, a place, and a people. He posed his subjects, picked his angles, and prepared his own visual narrative of their lives, preserving them in a way nobody else ever bothered to.

I used the phrase “aesthetical aberrations” because there is horror here as well. The drowning reports are horrifying, and many of Van Schaick’s photographs are equally disturbing, particularly when placed alongside the reports. I’m not saying these photos evoke “horror” on their own, but that we viewers bring our disconcerting feelings along with us. The dispatches create the conditions for us to feel fear upon looking into the eyes of people now gone—not necessarily as a result of drowning, but simply due to normal lifespan considerations.

In Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy showcases many of Van Schaick’s more popular post-mortem photographs—including photos of dead children—but I chose not to include them. My use of Van Schaick’s photographs are meant to provide a spark of life, to remind readers that the people I’m writing about were once as alive as you or me (exempting the fictional dispatches, of course). 

Did you find that Van Schaick images influenced the writing of your fictional drowning reports in any way?

They surely must have, though I’m hesitant to try to decipher specific ways in which these photos influenced the work. More than anything the original drowning reports influenced the work, but I’m sure the photographs added a tint of darkness to the already dark subject. 

In the Afterword you confess to not remembering which of the reports you created. If it's OK with you, I'm a little skeptical of this! Did you not keep notes? Did you purposefully neglect to mark the fictionalized version early on? If so, why?

I appreciate your skepticism! (And you’re right to be skeptical). Allow me to clarify: it’s not that I don’t know which reports are fictional. I do. I have a master list saved as “Fictional Drowning Reports” that serves as my so-called answer key. But when called upon to reveal what’s true and what’s false, I stumble. I truly cannot rattle off what’s what. I think I did this intentionally, metaphorically submerging myself with so many details and so many versions that somewhere along the way I lost track of the truth. And this, too, is troubling. How could I—the guy writing the book—fail to distinguish fact from fiction? My misremembering of the status of the reports is troubling on a macro level, but on a micro level, I’m also troubled by the minor uncertainties even in the reports deemed true. For instance, if an original report mentioned that fear “gripped” the victim, I couldn’t help but wonder how the reporter could have had insight into the victim’s perspective. Surely that seems like a logical conclusion, but how could the reporter know that interior detail for sure? Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, though perhaps it’s emblematic of larger issues of sensationalizing the truth in the media. 

Can you theorize about the spot or the moment when fact become myth?

It’s tough, mainly because everyone has his or her own definition of what constitutes a fact. But I think we all know how a truth begins to unravel. One person observes an event, reports the event to someone else, who then re-reports the event to someone else. Along the way biases intercede, details are added and subtracted, and the final version of the event (that is, if there is ever a “final” version of an event) is far different than how that event was originally observed.

But when we cement that event with words—when we report it in a newspaper, for instance—then the many versions of truth all begin narrowing to a single, unified version, which is then repeated by everyone who reads it. And so, the uncritical reader reinforces the “truth” by assuming the written version is true, thereby muting alternative versions.

This is my way long-winded way of saying no, I don’t think I can properly theorize about the specific moment in which a fact becomes a fiction. But I think as members of the 21st century—an era glutted with “facts”—it’s imperative that we begin to ask ourselves how we test what we deem to be truth. 

What do you think is the cultural value of nostalgia? 

I’ve thought about this quite often. In particular, how I personally utilize nostalgia as a means to finding my way through a project. When I think about nostalgia, I think about home, and when I think about home, I think about why I do anything. We do many things, I think, as a way to clear a path that might lead us home. Nostalgia, for me, is the false remembrance of a time and place we can never go back to. Yet to its credit, it offers us a taste of that return, even if the place we feel nostalgic for only exists in our minds.

As for the value of cultural nostalgia—which is where your true question lies—that’s trickier still. I guess I’ll just say that I didn’t write this book for nostalgia’s sake. If nostalgia is linked to personal connection, then I’ll readily (and thankfully) admit that I have very little personal connection with the subject of drowning. Nevertheless, I think there is great value in remembering these people.

These days, when I walk along the rivers, I have a sense of the people who once died there. I know many of their names. Everyone in town can speak vaguely of the dangers of the rivers, but I can say, “Yes, and their names were Judd Wells and Emery Brown and Rupert Sweet…”

Maybe their lives no longer matter to those of us in the present, but I like to think they do. I like to think that there is always value in remembering the past, even if that value isn’t always apparent. If nothing else, these drowning victims have reminded me to be weary of facts. And to be weary also of the rivers.


How has your relationship to rivers—and for that matter, to death—been affected by writing this book?

I think this is the very question that I’ve tried hard not to face. The short answer is that my relationship with both death and rivers has changed. On the river front, I’ll simply mention that we recently moved farther away from the river. Last year at this time we were within a stone’s throw of the Chippewa River. These days, we live on a hill high above it.

As for death, I’m no more comfortable with it than I was before, that’s for sure. Probably, I’m just as anxious as ever. Recounting these drowning deaths reminded me how quickly death can strike, how one wrong step along a riverbank can change everything. But it also made me realize that one wrong step even far from a riverbank can lead to similar results. And even if we take every step right throughout our lives, still death will always find us.

In short, I wish I could tell you that escaping death—for me— was as simple as moving to the top of a hill. But even from my new height, I’ll never stop knowing that the river flows just below me, and that it cares very little for my life.

Photo of Hollars by Brian Hollars
Charles Van Schaick photos via "Miss Magnolia Thunderpussy's photos with the Charles van Schaick (photographer)" @ ipernity

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