Main Image

An Interview With J.D. Daniels

J.D. Daniels’ writing has provoked a response that only a unique talent could. In both praise and criticism of Daniels’ recently published first collection, The Correspondence, there exists a common tone: a sort of what the hell is this? It’s a confusion that fresh style demands – a confrontation with the sheen of the new.

Daniels manages to marry registers that might sound contradictory, but, in his hands, appear natural: bravura and vulnerability, academic erudition and folk wisdom, humor and frankness. And this wealth of material somehow finds the space to rattle around in a tightly bound, rhythmic prose. His essays take the liberty to chase ideas and often become something that they once weren’t in the span of just a sentence. It’s a thrilling agility. To read him can be like watching a brain at work. His writing bears the markings of an exciting new voice in American nonfiction.

On a rainy April morning, Nica Franklin and I met Daniels at The Advocate in between commitments. He had just returned home to Cambridge following a trip to New York for the Paris Review Revel and was on the way to London to promote the UK publication of The Correspondence. The following interview comes from our conversation that morning, condensed and edited for clarity.

I found Daniels to be unmistakably the writer of his own work, which is to say his personality mirrors many of its charms. He’s gracious, self-effacing, full of energy, and bursting with ideas. The Advocate thanks him for his time and good spirit.

-- Matthew Browne

MB: How was this Paris Review party?

JD: The New York guys all know each other. But I can’t pretend that I’m a hick any more. I feel sorry for myself for ten minutes and pretend I don’t know anybody, but then I say, “Oh, hey, Dan! — Hey, Bobby!” — My make-believe act has worn out.

MB: When you talk about pretending to be a hick, is that playing up being from Kentucky?

JD: To them, Boston is the back woods. A city with training wheels.

I’m in New York and I’m sitting next to Todd Solondz. I don’t know who this guy is. He makes movies. He wears clothes that alert you to the fact that he’s an artist. But he was swell and he asked me about Kentucky. He said he’d driven through Kentucky. He said, “We stopped and we got out at a gas station and my friend and I just started laughing. We started laughing.” He said it was because the accent is so beautiful.

MB: Do you find that everyone wants to talk to you about Kentucky?

JD: No one wants to talk to me about anything. There is no “everyone wants to talk to me.”

MB: When you’re at a big literary party in New York and say that you’re from Kentucky, are people fascinated by it?

JD: My literary New York never gets as far as, “Where are you from?” You open your mouth, and they see somebody more important than you over your shoulder, and they split. New York is a difficult place for them to live. Their social lives become instrumentalized. Nobody can just chill and exchange emotions. They got shit they have to do.

People get nervous at these parties. It’s a giant room. I’m walking around, and I walked into the corner, and I was looking at everybody. I told myself, “The real writer stands in the corner.” And then I thought, “John, that’s a defense you can use in many other places in your life, but at the Paris Review Revel, you are not the only writer in the room.” And as if someone had lifted the blinds, I look around, and what do I see? I see forty-two writers standing in different corners.

MB: There’s not enough corner space for everyone.

JD: That’s right. There needs to be, like, a dodecagon.

MB: One reason I keep asking you about Kentucky is I’m interested in how you play with American idiom in the book. At least in my reading of it, you take idiom from a pretty slant angle, where you’ll kind of move into it, be making fun of it, playing around with it, using these sort of borrowed folk terms. In this way, or others, has the color of the language in Kentucky painted your writing?

JD: My mother was one of seven children born to a tenant farmer. They didn’t own the land. They were itinerant. Dirt floor, dress made out of a potato sack. But my mother worked hard to send me to a glitzy private school for five years. Then we couldn’t afford it any more, and I went to school in the Jackson Street housing projects. And next to a nice high school, a magnet school for math and science.

What might make somebody alert to language would be always moving in and out of non-overlapping language circles. Not trying to pass, exactly. I would say insisting on not passing. I can talk the appropriate language, but I want to talk the wrong language depending on where I am, which is just a species of pride: “I don’t belong here, I’m special.” And that’s crazy. Nobody’s that special.

MB: Are you thinking about this a lot or is that just something I’m imposing on you – this thing about moving through different language spheres and feeling cognizant of place because of them?

JD: Somewhere Borges says: You don’t have to do anything to be contemporary, you are your own contemporary. You don’t have to try to be up-to-date, whatever you do is up-to-date. This is my Kentucky accent, even if it doesn’t match with whatever Todd Solondz thinks it ought to be.

I don’t think other people care about it. I’m the one who cares about it. I’m self-conscious. I’m trying to hold myself together and not shatter. You guys are in the writing business. You know that you have to be able to take in emotional information, which can be overwhelming. And then you have to be able to block out emotional information, without slamming down a bunch of portcullises. The ideal would be a flexible, semi-permeable membrane, but that’s not what it’s like. It’s more like being a skinned knee, and the air stings.

MB: What kind of stuff do you think you have to block out?

JD: You have to block out the stuff that’s loud enough and bright enough that it makes you want to scream in pain. Everybody’s in pain. It’s not special. If I think a sound is loud and it bothers me, and then I scream in pain, isn’t the sound of my scream itself loud enough that it will bother somebody else? I don’t want to play emotional freeze-tag with my distress: “Oh, this hurts me — here, you take it.” But at the same time, I can’t lie down on my emotions like a martyr on a grenade: “All right, the buck stops here — everybody else can feel great, but I’m going to feel like a dog turd all the time.” That won’t help.

MB: It sounds like you’re saying that it’s a question of craft. Do you block out certain stuff because it’s better writing or do you block out certain stuff because it feels like there’s a personal emotional imperative?

JD: You can do more with less, but you can’t do anything with nothing. Did you ever read one of these books where the guy missed? He wanted to think that less was more, but he left everything out. He omitted the body of the letter. I want writing to be compressed. I try to value other people’s time. It’s a balancing act.

On one end, you have someone who seems merely to be vomiting. Great whopping doorstopper books. There may be value in them, but it’s distributed thinly through a huge diluted soup. Vomit soup!

But on the other end, you have aphorists like Cioran or La Rochefoucauld where it’s painfully dense. You want to say to the guy, “Hey, relax. How about some sentences like: I opened the door.” It can’t all be diamond-hard poetry. It’s too intense. It makes people feel tense to read it. You ever see a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Doesn’t he say, about his friend Cameron, that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass he would shit a diamond? Have you ever read a book that felt like that?

On the one hand, you have Vollmann. An impressive guy, but it’s verbal diarrhea. He didn’t take any trouble. Here are the ingredients, now you make the dinner. Diarrhea for dinner! That is not courteous.

On the other hand, you have writers who are clenched up too tight, and it’s communicated to the reader. It’s emotionally contagious.

But when I look at the world, I mainly see my own brain circuitry. These are my problems, as a writer and as a man: prolixity or aphorism, overwhelming or withholding.

MB: I like that. It’s interesting to think of it in a matter of manners, that the reader is engaged in a relationship of time with you and that requires hospitality. You don’t want to be rude to them, in a way.

JD: You don’t want to be rude to them, and you don’t want to pretend they don’t exist. There are all kinds of people, and there are all kinds of relationships. People like to get peed on, and it’s fine. But I don’t like to get peed on, and I don’t want to pee on other people. I want to be cognizant that someone else is reading this, that someone else is doing half the work. We’re doing it together. It’s a relationship. Even in the most abusive relationship, the abuser needs someone else. You don’t do it alone. Maybe other people don’t think reading and writing is a relationship. But that’s what I think it is.

MB: You conceive of the book as a collection of letters. It’s called The Correspondence. You have the Burroughs epigraph (“Maybe the real novel is letters to you.”) It makes sense to me why you would want to think of an essay as a letter if you’re thinking about writing as a relationship. Why do you think it’s important to call them letters and what do you think the function of conceiving an essay as a letter is?

JD: I love this word “conceiving” that you’re spontaneously saying, because that’s the precise distinction I want to draw.

If I say I don’t like big, loose, shitty books, that’s not a casual way of cursing. Hanna Segal says there can be an immature creative relationship to your own art, which is: I made this by myself. What can I make by myself? If I look at my body and the rules for consciousness in mammals, what I can make by myself is: a piece of shit. That’s what I can make. But it’s a piece of shit. It’s not alive.

If I want my art to be alive — like Young Frankenstein: “Give my creation life!” — what’s my biological model for that in my body? It’s a relationship, a sexual relationship. Or, as you say, “conceive.” Something that is alive, that will outlive us both, that’s a result of our relationship. Not just me, sitting there alone and pooping.

As far as calling them letters, this is what happened. The first one is called “Letter from Cambridge.” The Paris Review has a tradition of letters from abroad, and Lorin thought it would be a surprising title. First, it’s not from abroad. Second, when people think of Cambridge, Massachusetts, I don’t think they think of me rolling around on the ground with a bunch of sweaty bricklayers, getting elbowed in the face. It was this fun system of expectation and surprise, and they could close the magazine with it, which is a flattering point of emphasis. Didn’t Richard Pryor say that? He said: I only remember two times I had sex, the first time and the last time. It’s great to be the last piece in the magazine. That was “Letter from Cambridge.”

“Letter from Majorca” had many titles. Lorin said: We should call it “Letter from Majorca.”

“Letter from Level Four” was published as “Empathy” in the magazine, but I changed it when we re-wrote it for the book, because I was starting to have an idea that the book would be called The Correspondence.

Likewise, “Letter from Devils Tower” was called “Close Encounters,” I think, in the magazine.

And “Letter from the Primal Horde” was “The Selected Correspondence of Charles Masterson.” I was really far out when I started that one, but soon it became clear what I had to call it.

I love to read books of people’s letters, even from writers that I can’t stand, like William Gaddis, whom I admire but can’t stand. But I read his letters, and those were marvelous. It’s a way to get through my envy, and my hate, and all the things that block my appreciation. I think, “Oh, I can’t read this novel.” And then I think, “I don’t know, it can’t be that bad. Everybody else is wrong and I’m right? That’s unlikely.” How can I have a relationship with this important American writer? I know: I’ll read something more intimate.

NF: Going back to this idea of the relationship between the text and the reader, the author and the reader, I was really taken by the idiomatic language that you’re using. It seems like an idiom is a way that you can forge a bond between you and who’s reading the book by making something accessible in a way that other things can’t because it’s like a private language that, if you both know it, you can both enter a space.

JD: Right.

NF: I don’t know if you think this has any intentional connection to the idea of a letter being from somewhere. It has an origination. And if you and the reader can both go to the place where it’s from, through these Kentuckian idioms, these Cambridge/Boston idioms, you can bring someone inside almost.

JD: Listen. There was an article in the New Yorker last week. Emily Nussbaum was writing about a show called Riverdale. My girlfriend read a paragraph aloud and said, “I don’t understand anything in this paragraph.” But what confused her didn’t seem to me that obscure. It was “they roofie a football player” and “cosplay.” She said, “What is cosplay?” I said, “If you don’t know, guess. They’re dressed up. What do you think it is?” Then it was “tart-tongued bestie.” She said, “What is a bestie?” I said, “What do you think it is?” She said, “It must be her best friend.” I said, “If you understand it, then what are you mad about? You’re mad that this girl isn’t talking to you.”

It’s what you just said about idiom and how it makes a shared space, if it does. I think what was upsetting my girlfriend was: Nussbaum is right in front of her, writing ostensibly to her — you know, if you have a subscription to the magazine, it’s for you — and yet Nussbaum is obviously not talking to her. The writer has made this language-world that, as you say, can either bring us in or shut us out.

NF: I think that’s something interesting that you’re doing in this book. Often there are these idioms that will bring me in and it’s a language that I understand, but there are also times where there are things that I don’t understand. Sometimes you use the “you” or the “your” in a way that makes me feel implicated even when I have almost no idea, like it’s another language. For example, in Letter From Kentucky, you say, “I lost a lot of money shooting nine-ball in that bar. Listen to your uncle Tim-Tom and never play pool for money against a man called Doc.” And I don’t know what it is about this sentence, maybe it’s the “you,” which is somehow a “me” but also a reader.

JD: “You” is the most interesting pronoun.

MB: You mention having this window into thinking about yourself and your own writing through psychoanalysis. How do you see that playing out in your writing?

JD: I used to be a different person. I’ve taken a lot of drugs and it can ramp up certain kinds of awareness while … Listen, did you ever go to a loud rock concert? You know it can give you hearing damage? You are privy to an intense experience that informs you … but at the same time, it damages your ability to hear anything else for the rest of your life. Hallucinogenic drugs can be like that.

Somewhere Robert Fripp says about Jimi Hendrix — I am neither Robert Fripp nor Jimi Hendrix — but Fripp says an electrical analogy is exact. If you’re gonna drive X number of volts through this device, you need a circuit-breaker. Fripp’s argument is, there can be guys like, say, Charlie Parker — and I’m not Charlie Parker, either — who are capable of receiving more data than they can process, or even endure.

Part of what interpretation is in psychoanalysis is: excluding data. If you bring in everything, it’s impossible to make a meaningful statement. It’s like what we said about compression in writing. It’s about sacrifice. You can’t say it all.

That’s what interpretation is about. It’s clarification for the other person. I say, “ABCDEFG,” and the other person says, “D.” He’s not instructing me. He’s helping me follow lines and narrow things down. It’s about leaving things out.

MB: I think Freud has been so important to writers for almost 100 years now because the tools of psychoanalysis have so many valences with what writing is and what narrative and storytelling is: being engaged in a conversation, exposing, like you say, “data” about your life and your story and trying to find out which story you want to draw out of it. How you want to understand yourself, how you want to understand the events of your past that lead you to be a certain way.

JD: Or the plain fact that you don’t want to understand. Like O’Connor’s Misfit says to the Grandmother, “It would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.” — Or, as the Shepherd says in Oedipus Rex, “Oh, God, what for? What more do you want to know? … In God’s name, master, don’t ask any more questions.”

I read less and less Freud and more Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Melanie Klein, Hanna Segal, Karen Horney. This guy named Fred Alford, who isn’t even a psychoanalyst but just appears to be a natural, he writes about politics and government at some university in Maryland, I think he is a world-beating genius. Pierre Bayard, who’s an interesting cat but readers don’t take him seriously because he’s funny. But that is exactly what makes him serious: truth is a grace that flees from solemn effort. Solemnity is not seriousness. We were talking about aphorism earlier. Bayard is not an aphorist like Schopenhauer, bringing the hammer down. It seems like nothing is happening, but later it sinks in.

The last thing I want to say about this is that it’s impossible to talk about analysis and not make a fool out of myself, because psychoanalysis is a discipline of listening, not talking.

MB: The thing you mention about seriousness not being solemnity – that people are wont not to take a person seriously because he’s funny – makes me think of your writing. I wanted to ask you about the role of humor in your writing. It reminds me a lot of Zizek, actually, like when he explains a philosophical concept through a Marx Brothers’ joke. He thinks that humor does this thing of truth revealing that best explains a complicated, dialectic issue. It seems to me that humor functions like this in your writing. I don’t want to say too much because I feel like I’m already talking words around this, but the idea of not wanting to punish the reader connects to this as well. In thinking about writing as a letter, to be funny is to bring the reader in closer to you, to offer something.

JD: I think part of the reason I’m cognizant of “not wanting to punish the reader” is because I do want to punish the reader. Everybody’s got problems and, if we have a relationship, our problems are going to intersect. I want to punish the reader, but I must not do that. That’s a treat I’m not going to give myself. I didn’t enjoy being treated like that, and I’m not going to treat someone else like that. Humor can be a mode of aggression. That’s why it’s called a punch line. It’s a way to transform a wish to punish the reader into something else.

MB: I’m thinking of certain jokes that I remember from the book. For example, in the beginning of that Letter From Cambridge essay, there’s that bit: “A couple of years ago I joined one of those clubs where they teach you how to knock the shit out of other people. The first lesson is how to get the shit knocked out of yourself. The first lesson is all there is. It lasts between eighty and a hundred years, depending on your initial shit content.” Having heard what you just said, I think it’s a joke, but it doesn’t strike me to work the way that a joke often does. It’s funny to me because it seems quite true. It seems now like truth telling. But you intend to be funny, right? You intend to be telling jokes?

JD: Not all the time.

“Letter from Cambridge” was originally about Kafka. This guy Dave, a cop from Somerville, said to me, “Do you really teach literature?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I never was good at literature in school. What is that thing literature is about again?” I said, “What?” He said, “You know like in Don Quijote, or in Kafka. What is that thing literature is about, again?” This is what Dave said to me while he was knocking the shit out of me. You don’t think a cop can fight? He knows all these compliance holds, and he gets a lot of practice. I wrote this thing about Dave and Kafka, then I went back and left the Kafka out. I didn’t tell a joke on purpose. When you and I look back on it today, we’re trying to dignify it with some sort of theoretical underpinning. You know, you can surprise yourself. You don’t know what you’ll say. Other things you plan.

“Letter from Cambridge” is not really about fighting, and how could it be? I’m no expert. I started when I was in my thirties. Writing is something you can get better at as you get older, but fighting is not like that. I dove in just in time, and I had ten exciting years. I was a below-average fighter. That’s where average comes from: some people are above average, and other people are below average. I was below average. If I had worked a lot harder, I could have gotten a little better. But one day you look up and say, “I’m fighting a guy twenty years younger than I am. What am I doing?”

MB: Have you come up with an answer to when you stepped back and asked yourself why you were fighting these guys 20 years younger than you – well, I guess you say the piece isn’t about fighting – but have you come up with a satisfying answer about why you wanted to be fighting in this organized manner?

JD: I love my life here, but it’s more high-toned than what I was used to. I’ve been living with the same woman for more than ten years. My girlfriend’s father used to work in the White House. He was at Harvard. He was at MIT. — Sport-fighting was a doorway back into what my life used to be like. It was rougher. I was wrestling that guy from twenty years ago.

And fighting was also a relief from language. I read an article by an analyst in California named Randall Sokoloff who wrote about my “Letter From Majorca.” Sokoloff pointed to this part in my essay, about the incomprehensible: “I was free from the obligation to apprehend and interpret. If I don’t understand what you want from me, I don’t have to try to do it, I can’t. The sea is incomprehensible and uncomprehending, the sea doesn’t care, which is terrific, depending on what kind of care you are accustomed to receiving … If anyone wanted something from me on that boat, he said my name. If no one said my name, I was not wanted. And I was not wanted, I floated for a month in a sea of unmeaning noise, I was free from the horror of being deformed by another person’s needs and desires.”

What Sokoloff said — although now I’m quoting Christopher Bollas, who himself was quoting Winnicott — is that you can build a hyper-adapted language-self for doing business with other people, but is that really you? Language is a tool for adapting to the reality of other people. But you have another self that isn’t comprehensible, that hasn’t adapted to other people, that doesn’t make the sacrifices that adapting to other people requires. Or it does, but it resents them and it’s deformed, or it lets go with nine fingers but it holds on with one finger. — Bion wrote a novel called Memoirs from the Future and it’s totally incomprehensible. And, at the end, he says “I know that this book is incomprehensible, but since I have spent my entire professional life trying to comprehend other people and make myself comprehensible to them, please indulge me in a brief respite from making sense — my own moment of being incomprehensible.”

MB: I obviously already see then the connections between how we’ve been talking about writing this whole time as this sort of relationship. Fighting is a relationship of a different sort too. And it seems like it actually has kind of the opposite effect, in a way, of what we were talking about writing having. One the goal is to punish another person and the other, in your understanding, the goal is to connect, not punish. I think you even recognize this at one point within the piece where you say that – I forget the exact quote, but you say something about how every fight is a story. It’s also one that escapes from language in a way that seems to be satisfying to you. You’re so used to being caught up in these words. The way that you tell stories through words, or the way that you connect to people, form relationships, is through words. This is a relationship not built on words. This is a relationship not built on responsibilities towards equitable treatment of other people. It’s a relationship in the way that you seem to conceive of relationships in your writing, but it eschews all these other standards of propriety.

JD: Coach Costa told me, “David, we’re all here to fight. You are here to fight. The other guy is here to fight. You’re not doing anybody any favors by holding back.” I’m not doing myself any favors by training myself to be reticent. Part of what I’m doing is protecting myself from the knowledge that even my best effort might not be effective. I’m trying to tell myself, “Oh, don’t hurt the other person. Be decent.” But I’m living in a fantasy world where, if I tried, I could hurt the other person, which ain’t necessarily so.

This business about how to get the shit knocked out of yourself, to say I wanted to beat the shit out of somebody or else I wanted the shit beaten out of me, it’s an infantile creative metaphor. I want to make the shit come out. Why won’t it come out? It seems to me, in the light of what we’ve been saying to each other today, that the reason this model of creativity doesn’t work is because that’s not how it works. Instead, it’s a relationship. There’s always going to be an infantile trace of solo shitting-as-creativity. It’s fundamental. It’s permanent. But it’s not complete or accurate.

The most meaningful criticism I got on this book so far came from when it was published in the UK. The guy said it’s smart, it’s interesting, it’s very very male. I thought, “That’s great, because I am a boy.” But then he said, “If I say that it’s exhaustingly male, maybe you’ll understand what I mean.” I thought, “That is a good criticism.” Just like you don’t have to try to be contemporary, I don’t have to try to be male. It’s a sign of a lack of security. A volleyball, you have to keep hitting it up in the air, because it keeps falling. A bird, you don’t have to keep throwing it in the air. It can fly.

MB: Why does identifying a masculine bent in your writing strike you as such a powerful criticism?

JD: My first thought was: if he thinks it’s exhausting, he’s only reading a book, which is a voluntary action. He should try to be me. I’m exhausted. I am exhausted by my own behavior.

My mother was an English teacher and my father was a cornpone hard-ass. And my father’s language was rich and beautiful, and he was such a genius storyteller that, if they had ever had a kid, it would have been me. It’s perfect. When I was still teaching, I felt tense and self-conscious about having taken my mother’s profession, rather than my father’s. But I worked with my father down at the factory, down at the plant, and he didn’t enjoy his job, and I didn’t enjoy his job. No one could enjoy that job. What I enjoyed was the pleasure of being like my father, which is a fundamental dream for a certain kind of little boy to have. But it contained this paradox: he didn’t want that job, so for me to have it meant not wanting to have it, which is very push-me-pull-you. The last time I went to visit my father in Florida, there was this parade of people coming by to kiss the ring. My dad is the Godfather. He had done something for them, or they wanted to ask him to do something for them. He is an amazing man. But it’s exhausting to know that man and to love him, and it’s exhausting to want to grow up to be him. So I felt like that English reviewer had my number.

MB: Did you ever have a response for Dave the cop when he asked you what is that thing literature was about?

JD: I think he was just fucking with me.

MB: Yeah. You said you were teaching creative writing?

JD: I taught comp, here you call it expository writing. And I taught literature and creative writing, too, at the University of Louisville, and at Boston University, and at a school here called Lesley.

MB: I suppose you must have at least some sort of pedagogical perspective from that. When you teach, do you have any sense of something that you want to impart? What do you think the point of it is then?

JD: The reason I had to quit teaching is: it gave me the habit of believing I had a captive audience, which is an extremely unattractive characteristic. If you get paid to lecture people, soon you will build a habit of lecturing people, which is not suitable for peer-to-peer relationships in the rest of your life. I thought, “I am becoming a deformed, disgusting person. I must take some small steps to remedy that.” The structural problem with teaching is: who becomes a teacher? A good student. But the qualities that make a good student are not the qualities that make a good teacher. Not at all. Being a good teacher is about letting the students be good students. Not about the teacher standing at a podium, being provey and try-hard.

MB: You say that in the “Letter From Cambridge” essay also. You used to think writing was about something else, then you met enough writers and found out it was about pontificating. I see a reticence to not be that way across the spectrum.

JD: I know a great man named Francis Bator. Francis is a distinguished old man, and he has said many times, “I wish in every school of journalism they would teach a class. It would meet every day for an hour, and they would practice looking in a mirror and saying, ‘I am not qualified to hold an opinion on that subject.’” Life is noisy. Like most writers, I love the sound of my own voice. I’m drunk on my own blood — but oh my God, man, I got to leave some space for other people. I don’t even know that much about the subjects that I care about, and I’ve been studying them for my whole life. What about all the topics I don’t know anything about? If I had known what writing was, I would have made other decisions. But it’s too late now. Maybe I have an exalted idea of the sort of authority you need to say something about the EPA. I wouldn’t feel qualified to talk about that. There must be a thousand people who know more about the environment than I do. They should talk about it.

Dwight Garner said my book is so short. But my father used to say, “Don’t tell them everything you know, Johnny. You aren’t going to like how little time it takes you.”