Brad Zellar Q&A

May 11, 2020
Brad Zellar writes haunting, beautiful books.

“When you’re still essentially 6 years old and slack-jawed by things like dogs, bubbles, waterfalls, jungle gyms, phonograph records, snowstorms, and hula hoops, it’s kind of hard to shake a sense of wonder.”

You’re a genius at writing narratives around photographs, as you did in Suburban World: The Norling PhotosWhat is it about photos that stimulates your writing?

I’ve always liked working with photos, especially when they’re unaccompanied by text or explanation. They’re a launching pad for me, a way to get writing. I always say that every interesting photo is a perfect sort of forensic workshop for exploring points of view and writing descriptions. You have all these potential sources of information — the subject or subjects of the photo, the photographer, the imagined people outside the frame, and all the background details that provide clues about who these people are and how they live. You can investigate those details, or you can invent them. I’ve always enjoyed doing both. The Norling photos were a pure mystery initially; I just stumbled across them, and had no idea what I was looking at, or even who had taken them. It took me a couple months of hunting around and piecing together the details, but once I discovered that Irwin Norling was still alive, and had a chance to speak to him and his family, the story took on a whole bunch of other dimensions. The story behind the photos (and the family) ended up being as interesting as the photos themselves.

How did your mobile newspaper project The LBM Dispatch with Alec Soth come about?

Alec ended up writing the introduction to the Norling book. That was pure serendipity. We hadn’t yet met, and when the person who was originally supposed to be writing the intro fell through, someone at the press called Alec. Anyway, we ended up hitting it off, and did a couple projects (Conductors of the Moving World and House of Coates), together combining photos and text. One day — it was Alec’s birthday, actually — he called and asked me to accompany him on an adventure. The original plan was to spend time trolling around in the exurban Twin Cities hunting down photos and stories in Norling fashion. We were going to do a little newspaper of an imaginary community and call it The Wintergarden Dispatch. We had so much fun that we decided to take the project on the road to other states. My goal was to do all 50 states, but that proved impossible. It took us three years just to do the seven issues that we managed to complete.

What commonalities about America did you find in each community?

Well, we were focused on America off the interstate highways, and older, pre-Internet notions of community — social organizations and activities, local government and news, and small-town characters. The goal was to investigate how real community life was faring in the age of ersatz Internet community. And we discovered that most of those old fraternal organizations, clubs, and community groups were still hanging on in small towns. Barely, in many cases, but they really did feel like a lifeline to all sorts of people outside the big cities. We’ve both talked about this often, but this was all pre-Trump, and we were trying not to be cynical, and it was an incredible experience. We had so many wonderful encounters with open-hearted people everywhere we went. They were so unguarded, and so willing to talk to us and welcome us into their lives. Many of these encounters were in what we now think of us Red State territory, or even enemy territory, but that wasn’t where our minds were then. In hindsight, I think we missed a lot of warning signs — I look at the work differently today, and would definitely have asked different questions — and I’m genuinely curious about how different it would be if we were to undertake those trips today.

The Dispatch got such rave reviews and coverage all over the world, from the NYT to the Believer to the New Yorker. Why do you think it resonated so deeply with people?

I think it was a throwback in a lot of ways — to older models like Life magazine or the WPA/FSA work of writers and photographers during the Depression — and that was very deliberate, but I think so many people now live in their bubbles and so maybe they are looking at it the way I used to look at National Geographic as a kid. I’m genuinely curious about what people were responding to but I’m pretty sure that most people’s lives don’t much intersect with the sorts of people we were talking to and the places we were exploring. Which is, I think, a big part of our current problem. These people and places maybe seem exotic or charming to people for whom most of the U.S. is as much a foreign and unexplored country as anyplace in Eastern Europe.

In House of Coates you managed to write about enigmatic recluse Lester Morrison without acknowledging that he even existed. It’s a haunting, beautiful meditation on loneliness and invisibility with a lovely air of mystery. Was that a book you had in your mind for a while or was it spurred by a sudden impulse?

I’ve been writing about people like Lester B. Morrison my whole life. I’m drawn to people on the peripheries, the invisible people who are around us every day. Alec had been working with Lester for a couple years, and he wanted to try, once and for all, to get to the bottom of him. It was an experiment, really. We’d each spend a couple weeks, separately, exploring that world out by the Pine Bend refinery, and we’d try to piece together the work we did out there. It was originally a commission for a festival in Krakow, but the whole thing sort of snowballed.

You’ve written more than a million words on your blog “Your Man For Fun In Rapidan.” It seems like you process your life through writing. Do you get anxious if you don’t write?

I have to write. I’ve written every single night since 1995, always in uniform black Moleskin notebooks. It’s the only thing I’ve ever discovered to focus my mind — I’ve had severe ADD since I was a kid — and force me to sit still. I pretty much always write late at night, when my mind slows down a bit and I enter a sort of hypnagogic territory — what I think of as the foothills of sleep. For a number of years I was required to blog for work, but I was never able to approach it as any kind of reportage or whatever. I just started dumping my quiet-hour words in there. There are now so many of my words lost in cyberspace that I’ve more or less stopped dumping stuff in that hole. But I still haven’t quite figured out what to do with them. I don’t know how you get people to read stuff you’ve written, and I’m not arrogant or delusional enough to think anyone should read the stuff I’ve written. I’m just yawping to keep from falling off the planet, and hoping for the occasional spark or connection.

How important is a sense of place to you when you’re writing and reading?

It’s crucial. I have a very small handful of places in the world where I feel at home, and I know them intimately, and cherish them. This is sort of pathetic, but in every place I’ve ever lived I’ve managed to create this space that looks and feels exactly like the preceding places. I have all the same stuff in there, and in the same basic configuration. It’s kind of like a personal space version of Vertigo. I’m an extreme creature of routine and ritual, and wherever I am I like to do the same things.

Your work reminds me of John McPhee and Wallace Stevens. Who are a few of your literary inspirations?

Oh, wow. That’s so tough for me. I read obsessively, and increasingly don’t remember much of what I’ve read. More and more lately I reread stuff I love. Dickens, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Chekhov’s short stories, William Maxwell, Borges, Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell. I also binge-read authors the way other people do television series, so I’ll read everything by Henry James or someone like that, and then I’ll move on to the next one I’ve always been told I’m supposed to read. I read poetry every night, and, yes, Stevens was a big one for me, but my worldview — or whatever you want to call it — is the exact middle ground between Stevens and Whitman. When I was still a journalist I was influenced by Mitchell, Liebling, McPhee, and a lot of those New Yorker writers.

Your writing often has an element of wonder to it. How do you keep yourself open to the enchantments of the world during dark times?

When you’re still essentially 6 years old and slack-jawed by things like dogs, bubbles, waterfalls, jungle gyms, phonograph records, snowstorms, and hula hoops, it’s kind of hard to shake a sense of wonder. It’s everywhere. I’m not very social, or at least don’t go out much, but I talk to people wherever I go. I have always had some sort of relationship with the people at the book, records, and convenience stores in my neighborhoods, and get to know at least a little bit about their stories. No matter how dark things get, I still love to dance by myself every night.

You’ve defined grace as the ability to stand outside yourself and see the world clearly while you’re immersed in it. Is this something that one can cultivate with practice? How do you do it?

Again, this goes back to the peripheries, the margins. There’s always something or someone that the world wants to be the focus of your attention. At a baseball game, for instance, the play’s in front of you, but there’s all this other stuff happening elsewhere. I’m always looking around, or looking away, and trying to pay attention to what’s going on elsewhere. You see and hear all sorts of amazing stuff.

You have a spectacular home writing/reading studio that is detached from your house. How long did you work on building it? And how does it fill your spirit?

I owe that entirely to my wife, Kate. She made it happen, and it’s a dream space for me, a refuge. When she decides to do something, she really goes after it, and from pipe dream to reality it was an unbelievably quick process. It really makes a difference to be able to walk across the yard and into my own little world. I still pinch myself every time I make those 30 steps and open that door. For the first time in my life, I have all my favorite stuff in one place. No Internet, which is huge for me. My father-in-law is an artist and architect, and he designed it; he’s one of the few true geniuses I’ve ever known. Honest to god, in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect space. I have a hard time feeling lousy or sorry for myself when I’m out there.

What is your forthcoming book about?

It’s about the disappearing world and memory. And roller-skating, music, insomnia, and the business of those condom machines you see in the bathrooms of bars, gas stations, and truck stops. And America just before the Internet changed everything. It takes place in a rapidly changing small town much like the place where I grew up.

— Photo by Carrie Elizabeth Thompson