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Q&A: IAN FRAZIER
Highlights from Issue 25: The Documentary Issue
Ian Frazier / Illustration by Kevin Christy
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
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What follows is the transcript of Nathan Kosub's conversation with author Ian Frazier for the piece "Of No Fixed Accord," which ran in Issue 25: The Documentary Issue.
OF NO FIXED ACCORD (UNABRIDGED)
An interview with author Ian Frazier
By Nathan Kosub
Ian Frazier is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he began his career over 30 years ago. In April 2005, he revisited the legacies of Baghdad's historical invaders. ?It seems that so much of the foolish and horrible things that people do come from being adrift in the world,? Frazier told me. Against that, a book is ?an efficient way to record something? ? to situate a person or an era. Frazier's non-fiction includes chronicles of family, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the Great Plains. He lives in New Jersey, and is currently at work on a book about Siberia.
Stop Smiling: There's an article in your recent collection about walking in New York in a place where a violent crime occurred. Over time, the memorials and the record of what happened there become less and less. Does it seem that that happens all too quickly? That it's forgotten and becomes just a place again? Or is that a necessary reaction?
Ian Frazier: You end up with so much ? the weight of the past is so huge ? that sometimes you want to forget it. America was founded on that ? the idea that, well, we're not going to worry about the stuff that happened before we got here. A lot of the country is a place where, especially out West, you're beginning anew. Nobody cares who you were in Philadelphia. You're in Wyoming now, and whoever you are is who you're going to be. Not who you were before.
There's a parallel phenomenon that I noticed when I was doing the book about my family. The people who know their ancestry usually have children who want to marry somebody who doesn't know his or her ancestry. You get so fed up that you want to marry someone who says, ?Yeah, I know who my grandfather was, but before that, I don't.?
That, I think, is a natural phenomenon that naturally limits the amount of information that you have. If both sides of your family save everything and know everything, as a kid you get that and you're buried under it. Physically. It's such a huge amount of stuff. The amount of stuff that physically I took from my parents' apartment when they died is a lot. If you imagine that piling up over generations, pretty soon someone's going to have a house that's full of nothing but handwritten genealogies.
SS: Is there a point where familiarity with a place or subject becomes a burden on how you're able to write it? I'm thinking specifically of your family, but also of a place like New York, where, over time, it's only going to be more things that have taken place at every street corner and every subway stop.
IF: That's where leaving it is of great use. The last piece in the book ? about my leaving Ohio ? as I wrote the piece, I was trying not to be sentimental about the place. I realized that I couldn't just write about being in the place. I had to write about leaving it, because I didn't see what was around me until I left it. Places look so completely different from far away, or from a different country.
I was in Siberia on September 11. I watched the coverage on Russian television. It was just dizzying it was so different from American coverage. Not that it was in any way propaganda or hostile. It was just that the people that were looking at these things ? the cameramen that were taking pictures ? saw them so differently that I would have to look five times to see, that's not Chechnya the guy's photographing. That's Manhattan. Downtown New York City.
It looked so different. The way the Russians looked at it just looked so different. In America, whenever there's a big event, you get the same footage. They just run it over and over and over again. Just like in New Orleans, you had the same footage over and over and over. This footage ? whatever it was, whoever took it ? was none of that coverage that you later saw. None of those picture you got horribly familiar with after the event. These were such weird images of what happened. It's hard to define why they were different. You get very comfortable in a place you live. It's a natural thing people do. You sort of nest in it, and wind your own paths through. After awhile, you don't see where you are. When you move, for example, and you take all of your furniture out and look at the house, you see your house for the first time.
SS: Your research seems to involve a lot of time on the road. What are the differences between living in a place and spending time there?
IF: You don't know a place until you have been really deeply bored there ? the kind of boredom that you have in a Midwestern small town when you say, ?I'll kill myself, it's so boring.? When you're in Ohio in a small town and you're thinking, ?I'm leaving this town,? somehow, to me, that's the authentic experience for being in that place. For many people, getting really bored in it and vowing to leave is sort of a key experience. But there are places that are so heavily influenced by passing through that passing through itself is the experience of that place. New York is an obvious example, but I'm doing this book on Siberia, and I've passed through it a number of times and read many books by people who have passed through it, and it now strikes me that that's really what Siberia is about. There's a level of Siberia where that's all it is ? just an area of transit people pass through.
Russian friends have told me, ?You should write this Siberia book right off the top of your head. First impressions only.? Now, lots and lots of journalism is done by people just helicoptering in, getting their impressions and leaving. It occurred to me the other day that we really don't need any more books by people who don't know anything. We don't need any more articles by someone who doesn't have a clue what they're writing about. We've already got plenty of them. I've tried to imagine something like the travels of Marco Polo, had he been able to go home whenever he wanted. It changes the entire way you look at things. In the past, if you went on a long journey, that was the narrative. Because there was no way, once you got to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a ship, that you could be home the next afternoon. But now you literally can. In the most widely flung travels, you're never that far from changing your mind and being back where you started.
SS: Is it possible to write about a physical location without writing about the people who live there, or the people who used to?
IF: One thing that I noticed when I traveled the country is that places look the way people who see them feel. If you go to Reno, it looks like somebody who's gotten a quickie divorce. What goes on in the place just affects it. The Pine Ridge Reservation, you know ? people are bummed out. What you're seeing is an external expression of their frame of mind ? the frame of mind of the people. You can go to a monastery or a religious site of faith that you have no affinity with, or any understanding of, or you don't share, but still you can see that an intangible, indefinable religious frame of mind is being expressed in this place. That it looks like people pray here. Where I get off the bus ? the Port Authority bus ? it looks the way you feel in your brain when you have just gotten up in the morning and you're on your morning commute. There's a mundane tiredness to the Port Authority bus terminal that is exactly the mundane tiredness of the commuter internally. So in that sense every place is completely connected, not just physically to the people ? to how they conduct their lives ? but to what is in their minds. How they look at something every day.
SS: I think that's something nice about living in cities. It's easier to change one's perspective on a day-to-day basis.
IF: That's the thing about a place like New York: the incredible multiplicity of it. You can be on a corner where somebody was shot and killed, and yet something else has happened there, too. So much has happened at this place. There are a million facets to this one corner. You look from one direction, you see it from one point of view, and it's one thing. You see it from another, and it's almost unspeakably awful. You could never look at it again.
I really like going to places where really only one thing ever happened there. There are a lot of battlefields like that. They're just remote places. I'd be interested to see the place in Pennsylvania where the hijacked plane crashed, because nothing else ever happened there. And it's unlikely that much else will happen there in the next millennium. So that you can look at a place and this one moment in time ? this one instant ? is here forever. This one event and these lives that ended here. There's no overlay. Just that one feeling. One moment.
SS: In Family, you include a photograph in one of the inserts of a page from your notebook on the road. There's a sketch of a particular steeple and notes on smells and sights. How important is the process of learning how other writers work in shaping your own style?
IF: I think it's the kind of thing you think about all the time if you're a writer. Years ago I had lunch with John McPhee, and he told me that when he's done all his research, and he has his notebooks, and he's sitting down to write, he rearranges pages from the notebooks. I said, ?What do you mean, rearrange the pages?? He takes the notebooks apart. He physically cuts the wire of the spiral notebook and disassembles his notebook. That is radical and exciting ? it's just breathtaking to me.
SS: Especially when the end result is something as enormous as Annals of the Former World.
IF: I don't know if it's something he does routinely, but it's something he has done. You have this kind of taboo against injuring a book ? even a notebook. That you would take wire cutters and cut your notebook apart and then rearrange the pages ? it blew me away so much that I started ? I couldn't make myself do that, but I started doing notes on loose sheets of typing paper. Instead of a notebook, I'll have a stack of notes on typing paper. I'll photocopy it and I can rearrange the notes that way. I couldn't bring myself to cut the book apart, so this involves shuffling paper.
But I started out writing by watching other people write. Really good New Yorker writers like George Trow and Tony Hiss. Rick Hertzberg. Watching how they took notes, how they interviewed people, how they sat at the typewriter. How they put typewriter paper in the typewriter. Back then we all had typewriters.
SS: Do you write on a typewriter today?
SS: After reading your work, the world is made larger in my eyes. Does the process of your work reward you with that same comfort?
IF: I can't say that when I've done this I've had a good time, necessarily. It's satisfying, but the advantage of being solitary is that your companion is the reader. You don't have other companions to distract you. There are times where you'll read a story ? it's very common in sporting magazines, in hunting and fishing magazines ? where what's being described is a group of people going somewhere. There's actually a name in the trade for it: Joe and Me stories. ?Joe and I were down there.? When I read a book like that, at times I feel excluded. I think, Well, they're having a good time, but where am I ? the reader ? in all of this?
You want the experience to be so that what you're doing is providing a kit, and the reader ? with a small amount of attention ? can assemble this in his mind, or her mind, and have the impression that this moment gives you. There's nothing else there but your imagination and the reader's imagination. In practical terms, it's hard to maintain that kind of purity. You get out there and you're really worried about specific things that have to do with just you. You're constantly faced with the uncertainty of whether you're doing enough, which is an uncomfortable feeling. Have I seen enough? Do I have what I need? You have to decide that yourself a lot of times. Did I get enough? At that point, it's hard not to say, ?Listen, reader, I've done my best. I'm going home.? Then you later realize you were too indulgent of yourself. You have to be the judge of how hard you work.
It's interesting. I just read The Emigrants, by Sebald. And there's Speak, Memory, by Nabokov. I think it might even be the best book Nabokov wrote. But it's completely non-fiction. A memoir. The Emigrants is so influenced by Nabokov, it's really amazing. He even has Nabokov in The Emigrants as a boy running by with a butterfly net. Then he mentions Speak, Memory, I think, in the first chapter. Or perhaps the introduction. It's as if Sebald took the form and the mood of Speak, Memory and used it to apply, in sort of a larger sense, to the Holocaust. Whereas Nabokov is just talking about how he left Russia in 1917 and could never go back. The event in The Emigrants is the Holocaust rather than the Russian Revolution.
SS: How does a longer article or book take shape for you?
IF: You decide you're going to do a book on a subject, and that's a gamble in that you can't always predict what you will stay interested in. You can say, will I be interested in the Pine Ridge Reservation five years from now, because that's how long this is going to take. That's the first thing ? you have to be honest about what your own interest is.
How it takes shape is you imagine big parts of it that seem like they would be really cool. With the book about Pine Ridge, I could imagine describing the Wounded Knee takeover, which was such a strange event. And describing it from the point of view of my friend Le, who participated in it. And describing it historically. And then seeing that that could be a part of it.
When I'm reading about Siberia ? the worst place in the history of mankind, along with Auschwitz, is Magadan. Which is where the prisoners were sent to be dispatched to various slave labor camps to mine gold, mostly. Millions of people who passed through Magadan, which is on the Sea of Okhotsk on the easternmost part of Siberia ? millions of people passed through there to their deaths. It's like Auschwitz.
Well, Anchorage, Alaska, is closer to Magadan than it is to San Francisco. When people describe the bulldozers used to bury the dead, they were lend-leased bulldozers ? Caterpillar bulldozers ? made in Illinois. When people talk about the handcuffs the KGB used, the best, top-level handcuffs were American-made handcuffs.
Now we're participating in things beyond our conception. How do you keep the ideals ? and all these things that do mean a lot to all of us ? how do you keep that, when you're suddenly in this world, almost like a lamb among the wolves of the world sometimes. How do you keep yourself? How do you conduct yourself?
That's really what has fascinated me in the last ? it was before September 11 when this started. Within the last maybe fifteen years. Great Plains came out in 1989, and after it came out, I guess that view of things ? the American exceptionalism I had followed ? just sort of left me. I don't believe it anymore, I guess. Or I believe that it's changed a lot, and I'm trying to make sense of it.
SS: One of the pleasures of reading your work is the specificity with which you relate the meals you eat on the road. Breakfasts, especially. How you talk about diners. Eating pie. Is there such a thing as the ideal breakfast when you're out doing research?
IF: A lot of times when I'm out doing research it will be the one meal I eat, so I'll have a huge breakfast. When Great Plains came out, I had traveled a lot out there, and someone asked me about that ? it was in People magazine, as a matter of fact ? and I said that there's this white stuff they put on pancakes. It's like some kind of whipped ? it's not whipped cream. It's something in Kansas that you get, and I said it was put out by the opposite of whatever the Heart Society puts out. The Heart Attack Encouragement Board. Just the most cholesterol-filled, horrible stuff.
One breakfast that was really delicious, and horrible for me ? there's one dish the Ogalala make, and other tribes, too, called fry bread. It's essentially a glazed donut with less sugar and more grease. It's fried in Crisco. It's fried in fat, and it's just this big piece of fat fry bread. Fat runs down your wrists as you pick it up. But it's just this delicious golden-brown piece of fried bread. It's like a glazed donut without the hole, but bigger and fluffier.
That plus really strong black Indian coffee is a very good breakfast. And it'll have you jumping right out of your skin. Good in the sense that it tastes good, and it's an exciting breakfast to eat. Other than that, it's not good. It ruins your day.
SS: I'd think in Siberia especially you'd need a hearty meal early on.
IF: There it's just a roll of the dice against food poisoning. Every meal you sit and think, did I get food poisoning? I collected, as part of my research, stories from the Internet about Siberian food poisoning. Sometimes there are three or four stories in the paper. Each thing you look at, you think, is this the thing that's going to put me in the hospital?
I did get food poisoning, but not it Siberia. I got it in St. Petersburg. I have never been so sick in my life. I truly thought I was going to die, and I went to the hospital. But that wasn't breakfast. In Siberia the best food that I've had was where I saw the food made. Reindeer was excellent. Really excellent. Some of the best meat I ever had. A good breakfast was boiled reindeer meat, homemade bread, and very strong, hot tea with a huge amount of sugar in it. It was really great.
I felt good, too, afterwards. I wasn't climbing the walls. Reindeer meat was excellent. That was a very good meal in Siberia.
SS: Are there any experiences from your time at the Harvard Lampoon that you'd like to share?
IF: The great hall up there ? the second floor ? is a beautiful piece of architecture. Sort of a cathedral ceiling. Arched. It's my favorite building, probably in the whole world. It was some of the most fun I ever had in my life.
I was from Ohio and everybody was football-crazed. Probably still is. I said I would rather have been on the Lampoon than play for Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. As something to do in college, it was really fun.
There's a little window in the back ? a tiny window high up. Somebody once put a pipe out that window and, using ? I don't know ? cherry bombs or something, fired all the billiard balls out it. I don't know the truth to that, but this was a thing people said.
One thing we did do was hang a cabbage right in the middle of the great hall. We used a big, high ladder and hung it from one of the beams. Right in the middle of the great hall. We cut a hole in it and put a cherry bomb in it on a cigarette fuse. We watched it as the cigarette burned down. Just stood there watching it for however long a cigarette takes to burn. Eight minutes or something.
We sat watching it and all you saw for eight minutes was smoke from the cigarette coming out the hole. You watched and watched, and then all of a sudden it blew up. To watch something, and concentrate on it, and see it blow up like that ? it was like coleslaw. The most thorough explosion. And to see it one second a cabbage and the next second just totally exploded in every direction, was ? well, that was the kind of thing I spent college doing.
SS: I'd like to quote a line of yours: ?Now, when I have trouble getting to sleep, I sometimes imagine that my bed is on the back of a flatbed pickup truck driving across the Great Plains.? It says a great deal about what you write, I think, because it is not the sort of thing you say to the person next to you when the lights are turned out. Instead it's a thought, unspoken even on the page and in the end very much your own. Do you see much melancholy in your work? Or does it simply sometimes read that way?
IF: I have a melancholy view of life, I suppose. To me, that line and that part of the book are elegiac and sad, and there's an idea of the plains as having been plundered and betrayed and left behind and abandoned. The plains as ruin. Everything you do ? all of human aspiration ? ends in some kind of ruin. I'm not the first person to notice that. But I don't find melancholy uncongenial.
I think now, in America, you really can't be bummed out. You can't. If you go up to people and say, oh God, I just feel horrible, they'll say, well, take Paxil. Take Zoloft. If you tell a doctor, he'll say, I can get you a prescription for that. Like there's a pill for feeling bad, and if you're not taking your medication, it's your own problem.
I did a piece once for The Atlantic ? a very short piece ? about being depressed. I went to Nome, Alaska, one time, and was waiting for a flight to go see an island in the middle of the Bering Strait. The weather was bad and I couldn't go.
I had to wait in the hotel room for the weather to clear ? the motel room ? and I described what it was like lying almost at the Arctic Circle in this motel, staring at the ceiling while it rained constantly in August. I was able to be really depressed, and just go on and on and on with it. Rather than have it irritatingly interrupted, the way it is in usual life.
You're depressed, and people say snap out of it. I was able to luxuriate in it, and came home wonderfully refreshed. It was really pleasant to fall into that frame of mind. Now depression is something that you've got to cure, but in the past, melancholy was an artistic way to be. You would drift around in the melancholy sense and see the world.