Thursday, February 17, 2011
Interview with Patrick Madden
Pat Madden is the eighth interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted through e-mail. A bio note, as well as a link to Pat's book, follow the interview. As always, wise words here, Pat: thank you!
1. "Remember Death" is a great example of your tendency toward the associative (and how the associative deepens independent elements within an essay). What's your process of composition with a piece like "Remember Death"?
That essay talks a bit about how it came to pass: I heard the phrase “memento mori” at a reading by Brenda Miller, which was a phrase I knew from an old Rush tour book, so I started jotting down a bunch of associations I had with that phrase. Then I began unpacking (or unraveling) a few of them (researching, finding words to give them form), which led to memories in graveyards and high school, then researches to track down more on this “vanitas” style of painting, which led to the Danse Macabre and Kevin Bacon and Jesus’ hard sayings and Morse code and so many other tangents, and then the strange convergence of spending a day with my best friend, Vin, on the anniversary of our schoolmate’s death, exactly double our lives later. Meanwhile, as I was reading other things, I was finding resonant quotations written long ago by others. Essays and essayists have always been concerned with death. The death of his father and best friend led Montaigne to retire and begin his writing. Speaking of Montaigne, my essay’s epigraph, for instance, didn’t start me writing but, when I found it later, seemed to be an affirmation from the universe that I was on the right track. I tacked it on after much of the essay was written. Similarly, I found the ending before some of the middle was done. This was one of the first really long essays I ever wrote, and when I began I had a sense that it could extend infinitely in all directions, but that I could corral some subset of “death” into a literary form that would read linearly but exist spatially. It sprawls rather wildly, but I tried to contain it with subtitles and clever transitions and repetitions and resonances of symbol or idea. And in any case, I believe that, punning on Paul, “All things work to the good of them that love essays.” When I’m writing, it seems that my whole life aligns with my project. That happened with this essay, for sure.
2. I always leave your essays feeling a bit smarter (in "Remember Death," about the tradition of vanitas). Is there an essayist who accomplishes the same for you?
Thanks! Certainly in writing them I feel like I get a bit smarter (I do a lot of research as I write). Most essayists accomplish this for me, really, or at least the essayists I like to read do. That’s because they never limit themselves to writing about what happened to them. They marshal history and philosophy and science to dance with their experiences. Two writers who especially fill me with knowledge are W. G. Sebald and Ian Frazier, who personalize vast quantities of stuff and write it literarily/artfully. I should also mention a kind of radio essay in the shows produced by RadioLab (Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich), which you can hear on NPR or download from www.radiolab.org. These guys are so entertaining in that intellectual way, and their subjects (shows on “time” and “chance” and “identity,” etc.) are absolutely fascinating.
3. You give glimpses of your Catholic upbringing in Quotidiana. How did those past experiences compare with, and perhaps inform, your current thoughts on faith and divinity?
I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 20 (when I was a junior at Notre Dame), but I see this as a direct result of my upbringing, not really a rejection of Catholicism or its fundamental tenets. My formative years have certainly been profoundly influential on my current beliefs, likely beyond my ability to comprehend. I like to think that I have an appropriately nuanced and complex belief in God, driven by a humble awe at confronting the miraculousness of everyday life as well as the terrible sufferings that rarely touch me but which besiege my brothers and sisters elsewhere. The deep truths of divinity and humanity seem mysterious and wonderful to me, yet not entirely inaccessible. I try to find spirit in everyone and everything. I’m never successful, but I try. I also try to recognize how I am a product of my past and an individual member of many overlapping communities and traditions. I think it’s likely that the Catholic tradition is more deeply engrained in me than the Mormon tradition, which I’ve adopted and which I believe firmly, but not blindly. When you ask about my “thoughts on faith,” I’m inclined to say that I wish we were all a bit more faith-filled, by which I essentially mean humbled (by the world, by life, by love, by God) and open to wonder.
4. Any Catholic (or, in the wider sense, Christian) literary influences?
Are you kidding? The first and greatest essayist was a Catholic! The essay is a Catholic literary form! (All joking aside, it seems to me the most catholic of all the literary forms.) Here’s Montaigne professing his faith, so to speak:
"I propose formless and undetermined fancies, like those who publish doubtful questions, to be after disputed upon in the schools, not to establish truth but to seek it; and I submit them to the judgments of those whose office it is to regulate, not my writings and actions only, but moreover my very thoughts. Let what I here set down meet with correction or applause, it shall be of equal welcome and utility to me, myself beforehand condemning as absurd and impious, if anything shall be found, through ignorance or inadvertency, couched in this rhapsody, contrary to the holy resolutions and prescriptions of the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church, into which I was born and in which I will die. And yet, always submitting to the authority of their censure, which has an absolute power over me, I thus rashly venture at everything, as in treating upon this present subject."
This section, which begins the essay “Of Prayers,” was written after the Essays were censored by Catholic authorities in Rome, thus its deferential tone (note, too, how he offers advice for essaying: “formless, undetermined fancies,” etc.). But Montaigne really was a staunch Catholic despite religious turmoil during his lifetime and many family members converting to one form of Protestantism or another. And while he may have been a bit “wayward” in the eyes of the Church of his time, his heart seems to have been sincere. He was a believer who was unafraid of doubt. He could entertain contrary notions without losing his core faith. He was above all an essayist. And he did die in the Church, with a priest saying Mass in his room as he expired. There’s something fundamental about his Catholicism (including his resistances to dogma or to official pressure) that infuses the essays with a sense of holiness.
I’ve been deeply influenced by so many writers, most of them Christian, many of them Catholic, but I’ll mention here four recent influences who’ve probably not yet left a deep mark on me but who are exciting for their ruminative essays. I’ve been overjoyed to discover in the past few years Alice Meynell, Agnes Repplier, Louise Imogen Guiney, and Vernon Lee (pen name for Violet Paget), and it’s really only just now, as I double check their biographies, that I have become fully aware that these four, my favorite among the many women essayists I’ve discovered, were all Catholic. They’re very little known or read these days, so I’d like to recommend them (you can find work by all four at www.quotidiana.org). You might begin with Lee’s “About Leisure,” which begins Catholic-like, calling St. Jerome (ironically?) “the patron saint of leisure.” From there it’s quite pleasant and surprising.
And I’ll end with a special mention of a contemporary writer who has done more for me than almost anybody, in terms of influence and kindness both. Brian Doyle, whom you’ve just interviewed here on site, first came to my attention in the Best American Essays in 1998, with “Altar Boy,” then again in 1999, with “The Meteorites,” still two of my favorite essays. I loved his lilting sentence rhythms and tight attention to the beauty of words as reflection or conveyor of the beauty of life, which seems always beautiful (sometimes painfully so) when filtered through Brian Doyle’s brain. When I found a third Doyle essay, “Grace Notes,” in Notre Dame Magazine and realized that we were both alumni, I shot him a quick fan email, to which he graciously responded, and we’ve been in touch ever since then. I’ve read all of his books and have consciously sought to understand syntax the way he does (I’m not there yet, but the process has improved me). He’s been a tremendous ally, too, publishing a couple of my sorry attempts at poetry and three of my (not-so-sorry) essays in Portland Magazine. The first essay he published, “Laughter,” was selected for the Best American Spiritual Writing. I’m certain it was noticed because of its location in that well-known spiritual magazine. In any case, since then I’ve invited him to read at Brigham Young University three times, and he always packs the auditorium. It’s standing room only. As an essayist, he’ll likely never achieve much renown, but I want the world to know more about this humble man who’s in love with the world and shares his sharp observations and insights through his essays.
5. I think the essays in Quotidiana speak to two major concepts: a sense of awe at the complexity of the world, and a desire to catalog those complexities. Are essays better suited to revealing those concepts than fiction or poetry?
Absolutely. No doubt about it. OK, I’m just pushing buttons, and I’m reluctant to make such a bold declaration, but I do believe that essays, by their tradition and their form, offer writers (and readers) a way in which to more fully explore the mental processes involved in confronting complexity. Other literary forms are more overtly filtered, but essays, even if they’re necessarily subjective and incomplete and all that, give a fuller picture of a writer’s mind. I’ve often thought that while we may gain a lot by reading the great novelists and poets of the past, we can never quite regain them. Their writing presents their ideas at a distance. Essays get us closer to the naked individual spinning through the dizzying world, naked and honest, trying to make sense of things. I like to say that essays more fully resurrect their writers, which in turn makes us readers feel more accompanied in our own trials and tribulations or celebrations. So, in short—don’t hate me, novelists and poets—but yeah, I think essays are more suited to revealing and expressing awe at complexity.
6. As a professor at BYU, you must read many creative pieces by students. What are their preconceptions of the essay genre? What are some of your favorite essays to teach?
I think we human beings have a natural tendency to tell stories, which is good, and to think that our stories are unique and inherently important, which is not so good. When most of us begin writing, we retread a lot of the ground that’s been tread before, and our small variances on familiar themes are insufficient to make literature. I’m talking about trite and true stories in which we play victims or conquerors. Early on in my teaching, I learned that I should do some heavy instructing about the history of the essay before I assigned students to write. This tends to help young writers push past their first-level thoughts, to subvert or complicate their default viewpoints, to question themselves, to “interrogate their ignorances” as Phillip Lopate says. I’ve been really happy with the results: students utilize their experiences to drive their minds into interesting thoughts, making new connections between things that don’t often come in close contact. Many of them write “On _____” type essays. They seem to be happy with the freedom/encouragement to think instead of just recount.
I do have a core set of essays that I love and that seem to exert a good influence on students. In addition to the essays I’ve already mentioned, I’ll list a few indispensible ones (in no particular order): “New Year’s Eve” Charles Lamb, “On the Pleasure of Hating” William Hazlitt, “Relief” Kim Dana Kupperman, “Final: Comprehensive, Roughly” Desirae Matherly, “Red” Michael Danko, “A Pleasing Encounter with a Pickpocket” Louise Imogen Guiney, “Of Practice” or “Use Makes Perfect” (variant title translations) Michel de Montaigne, “Words” Agnes Repplier, “Shadows” Alice Meynell, “Auscultation” Steven Church, “On Running after One’s Hat” G. K. Chesterton, “Savannah la Mar” Thomas De Quincey, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard” Roger Schmidt, “Seeing” Annie Dillard, “Beauty” Scott Russell Sanders. I could keep going, but I’ll stop.
7. One of my theology professors, Rev. Patrick Madden, has discussed how the Church can benefit (and has benefited) from the scholarship of independent Catholic theologians. What could the Catholic Church learn from writing and writers? Do you have advice for the Church?
His name is really Patrick Madden? I’d like to meet him. I suspect that the Catholic Church already does benefit from the work of Catholic scholars and writers, even if there’s no official conduit for such influence to make its way into doctrine or practice other than by contagion, a kind of humble (and slow) fellow-infection. Theologian A publishes her ideas or shares them in a classroom or in a conversation after a Mass; reader or parishioner or student B finds in these ideas some value and changes his life subtly, which, in turn, affect others in similar ways. The molecules in a gas gain energy by catching momentum from their fellow molecules, no? I don’t see writers as inherently prophetic, though they do tend to pause and think about life, and to gather a wide body of influences through their research, so their ideas can often be more ecumenical than the general populace’s, and they tend to have a facility with language, which can make for a rhetorically pleasing packaging around difficult or deep ideas. Going back to Montaigne: here was a man who stayed quite firm in his Catholic beliefs, yet allowed himself to think about the inherent complexities of life in ways that undermined simplistic dogma. Maybe we should all do that. It’s a firmer faith that’s weathered some resistance, I think.
8. I love your mentions of non-literary culture within Quotidiana. If someone has never listened to Rush, what track should introduce them to the group?
“If someone has never listened to Rush”? Do such people exist? I like a lot of Rush songs, but I can’t really beat conventional wisdom. I have to go with the obvious: “Tom Sawyer.” This was the first Rush song I ever heard, and it hooked me! (Note: I find Rush’s lyrics to be superintelligent, a cut above typical rock fare, but “Tom Sawyer” was co-written with another guy, outside the band, who was a bit surreal, so its lyrics are a bit cryptic). It’s on the Moving Pictures album, which is full of great songs and is probably better than any “greatest hits” package anyway. Other favorite songs: “Subdivisions,” “The Spirit of Radio,” “Natural Science,” “Limelight,” “YYZ.” I could get quite esoteric on this topic, but I’ll stick with the “gateway” songs for now.
9. What project(s) are you working on now?
I’m writing a second collection of essays, similar to the first, but ranging over different subjects in different ways. Just this week I finished an essay called “Fixity,” which begins in Greenwich, the earth’s Prime Meridian, from which we measure out longitude and our time. From the narrative of my visit there, the essay examines the human mania for a fixed point of reference, including moments of birth, the Genesis account of creation, an eternal, immutable God, and even the Big Bang Theory. It’s a kind of dizzying tour of history and thought wondering why we feel such a need. My other recent or current essays think on originality, middles, coincidence, and, you’ll be happy to know, Nick, that I’ve got a big essay inspired by the Pentecost stained glass window in Our Lady of Mercy Church, which is dedicated to the memory of “Ralph Scott’s mother and father” and which depicts the apostle John with a right hand on his left arm. There’s a lot of traipsing about Whippany in that piece.
Patrick Madden is the author of Quotidiana (Nebraska 2010), a collection of personal essays, some of which have appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Fourth Genre, and the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies. He teaches at Brigham Young University and curates www.quotidiana.org, an anthology of classical essays and essay resources. Like your host, Nick Ripatrazone, he grew up in Whippany, New Jersey, a wonderful, lovely place. Though he lives now in Utah, with his wife, Karina, and their six children, he remains a New Jerseyan at heart.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 12:05 AM