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Harper’s Magazine contributing editor Jeff Sharlet recently published Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between, a beautifully written bricolage of reported narrative, character study, and memoir tracing his travels among the faithful in the United States. Since then, Sharlet has been spearheading Occupy Writers, which brings together authors in support of Occupy Wall Street and collects their responses to the movement. (David Bezmozgis, Lemony Snicket, Alice Walker, and many others have contributed.) Harper’s put six questions to Sharlet about his new collection and his immersive approach to journalism:
1. Sweet Heaven When I Die includes chapters reported all over the country, covering people as different as Chava Rosenfarb and Brad Will. Given the book’s disparate threads, what unites it for you? Or, put another way, what animated the project for you?
The short version of what unites the book, for me, is that these are the stories I wrote to stay sane during my long immersion in the authoritarian culture of American fundamentalism for my last two books, The Family and C Street. They’re stories about the tightrope between despair and desire, and about the imagination — political imagination, in the broadest sense — required to walk that line.
So there’s Chava Rosenfarb, in “For Every Life Saved,” the last great Yiddish writer, a graduate of the Lodz Ghetto who wrote her first book of poems on the wooden planks of a concentration-camp barracks. There’s Brad Will, in “Quebrado,” an anarchist journalist who while covering a massive uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006, filmed his own murder; that story is ultimately as much about those he left behind, trying to make meaning and find justice in his death, as about Brad, who lived a life of brilliant holy-fool hedonism. And there’s maybe the most unlikely of heroes, a young woman named Valerie, the subject of “She Said Yes,” whom I met while covering a fundamentalist-youth movement called Battlecry. Valerie believes in her cause, which is as extreme a variation of fundamentalist politics as I’ve encountered. But she was also a reader, and she was a human, and that meant she wanted to tell me about loving Dostoyevsky, and to confess that she’d adored the brief sex life she’d had before she joined the movement. There was nothing flirtatious about it. It was a statement of desire in its most essential sense. Desire is a positive concept, but in all these stories, the recognition of desire demanded the ability to reject the world as you find it, to imagine more.
2. You begin with a very personal account of a relationship that reflects your history with faith, then follow that with a brief sketch, and then offer what might be construed as the most intellectual chapter of the book, your profile of Cornel West. Why did these juxtapositions work for you?
Cornel’s the subject of a long piece called “Begin With the Dead,” so-named for what I think is an overlooked aspect of his work, the “death shudders” that are at its heart, which carry the sense of mortality — of despair — that for him, as a Christian, informs all questioning. “We are dying from the minute we’re born,” he told me, a phrase that rang in my head in the first hour after my daughter was born, which was just days after I’d completed my interviews with Cornel. And in that hour after my daughter’s birth, which was difficult for her and her mother, before I knew that everything would be all right, I found that idea — that sense, that experience — of mortality deeply comforting, which is what Cornel intended it to be. The “death shudders” are the recognition of the flesh that allow you to live.
I should add that Cornel’s not your typical Christian. You might say he’s a Saturday man, positioned in the Saturday between Christ’s crucifixion on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday. Cornel argues that’s where we live, the Saturday in between, which is just one long dark night. That’s where the “in between” of my subtitle comes from, in fact.
The main subject of the first and longest essay in the book, “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado,” is an old college friend, Molly Chilson, and I think she’s a Saturday Christian, too, a true in-between person in the best sense. She was my girlfriend in college, a fierce, brilliant, radical leftist who sought inspiration — no, that’s not quite right; maybe “slow revelation” — in the Bible, and woe be to the war pigs who stood in her way.
But that was then. I began writing “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” years later, after she became the Republican district attorney of a giant area in rural Colorado. She became, in effect, the law, and she brought the same fierce brilliance to her politics, which had grown conservative over time. The essay is about a trip I took to see her to understand how that had happened; it’s named after a bar I spent a night in en route to her mountain town. Well, actually the bar is called Sweet Fanny Adams, but that’s a Britishism the owner translated as Sweet Fuck All, which is a kind of winsome, gentle expression of despair. Molly’s not a person afflicted by despair, but she’s a believer in original sin, which is perhaps the conservative version of Cornel’s dark Saturday in between.
3. You write about a visit to Brad Will’s family home after he was killed in Mexico while filming a demonstration. Near the end of the chapter, the family invites you to spend the night, and you end up sleeping in Brad’s bed, which struck me as something of a metaphor for deep reportage. What drives you to want to know a subject so deeply? And to what extent do the effects of inhabitation linger with you after completing an article or book?
Loneliness, I’d guess; I don’t really know for sure. Maybe that’s the tightrope I spoke of, between despair and desire. Loneliness is a form of despair, the failure of connection. So you set out to connect, right? And maybe you find some pals, and a softball team, and a spouse, and you’re fine. Which is great. I’ve heard it’s great. But maybe it doesn’t work out like that, or it does but for some reason that’s not enough. So you keep going, only now the path is narrower, because you’re looking for contact beyond the normal circles. Some people become religious seekers, some become junkies. The idiots become writers. And the really stupid ones do this kind of writing, where it’s not enough to make up a story, you have to actually inhabit it: you have to climb into the bed of a dead man. Not for the sake of “authenticity,” a term I’ve little use for, but because you want to know what it feels like, and you’re — enough of this second person — I’m kind of literal-minded.
When you really move into a story, it becomes a place you’ve lived in. The bed of Brad Will, the murdered anarchist journalist — his mother volunteered it when I got snowed in at their house — became a place I lived in, even if only for a night, in a way that places I’ve simply visited haven’t.
That said, it is in the past tense. In college, I’d bug my mentor, Michael Lesy, about his first and most famous book, Wisconsin Death Trip, and finally he told me that a book’s just a message in a bottle: once you put it in the water, it’s not yours anymore. What the person who finds it does with it isn’t up to you. So you publish a book, and you get to watch it bobbing on the waves for a bit — that’s this interview — and then it’s just someplace you used to live, and don’t anymore. Which is as it should be, I think.
4. You observe a fine balance throughout Sweet Heaven When I Die between letting the subject dictate the tone of the story, and adding subtle stylistic touches that lend a sense of your own voice. When you’re writing narrative journalism, how do you decide — if it can be said to be a decision — when to give free rein to the prose?
You mean how do you decide which of your little darlings to save? Sometimes it’s easy: you have a great editor. One of these pieces, “Rock Like Fuck” (it’s coincidence that the titles of two stories gravitated toward vulgarity), appeared in somewhat different form in Harper’s, where it was edited by the great Bill Wasik, now at Wired.
My prose in “For Every Life Saved,” about the Holocaust writer Chava Rosenfarb, is straightforward, because Chava’s story is so overwhelming, and her own prose so relatively unadorned, that you just get out of the way of the march of memory and reconsideration. “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado,” is probably the most “written” piece, and I know one critic hates it for that reason, even as he loved the Chava story. But I think the voice of “Sweet Fuck All” was appropriate to its real subject, which isn’t my old friend Molly but my own doubts and switchbacks and digressions as I traveled to see her. It’s a story about digressions; the voice is digressive. I love that kind of essay. Maybe my favorite living nonfiction writer is JoAnn Wypijewski, who can turn and pause and dip and explain all in one sentence. And it’ll be beautiful, for what you learn from it and simply as a sentence.
I can’t write as beautifully as JoAnn, but what I can do, I think, is write with the full range of my voice — that is, just as we have different ways of speaking in different situations, I think I try to write as myself, as I am with different people, at different times, whether it’s in a quiet room listening to Chava describe the camps, or in a dead-end bar called Sweet Fuck All listening to a Neil Young cover band, or at a fundamentalist rally with thousands of kids making profound oaths to abandon the secular temptations of breakfast cereal. Seriously. Breakfast cereal. There’s no way to report that solemnly. Fortunately, you don’t have to make jokes about it, either. Sometimes the subject does all the work for you.
5. It would be very easy to take shots at some of the quirkier aspects of Christian fundamentalism that you explore, yet you usually let them pass without judgment. I’m thinking here of such phenomena as the masturbation-prevention guide Every Man’s Battle and “hell houses,” which are essentially haunted houses that hyperdramatize sin. When you’re reporting on fundamentalism, do you feel antipathy at all, and if so how do you restrain yourself from being overtly judgmental?
I have, in fact, taken shots at Every Man’s Battle, one of the funniest, most disturbing, and saddest books I’ve read. (I’ve also read Every Young Man’s Battle, Every Married Man’s Battle, and Every Woman’s Battle. Such is life immersed in American fundamentalism.) No, I never feel antipathy or any sense of aversion. The more strange something seems to me, the closer I want to get to it, until I can find the human link that so far has always been there. Not “common ground,” another term I’m not fond of, or anything universal, but simply empathy. That, to me, is what makes literary journalism valuable: the practice of empathy. Not sympathy, empathy. What does it feel like to find meaning in a fundamentalist hell house, where the frights are in some cases your friends (actors pretending to be gay men kissing!) or values you hold, like separation of church and state, embodied by a cackling demon suggesting that rape and violence are the inevitable outcomes of taking prayer out of schools?
I don’t think I restrain myself from judgment, though. In fact, I’m wary of writers who claim to do so, people who say “I just tell the story.” Nobody “just” tells a story. Every comma is judgment. The question is whether it’s good, or fair, or insightful judgment. That’s not determined by whether the subjects think the story is fair, or, even worse, whether you get heat from both left and right (the resultant cliché of which — “I must be doing something right!”— is among the dumbest in journalism). The Clear Channel piece got that kind of reaction. Corporation-friendly types hated it because by showing how Clear Channel worked, it called into question the freedom of “free markets”; some lefties hated it because I discovered that some of their conspiratorial ideas about Clear Channel’s wicked intentions aren’t true. That’s no sign of evenhandedness on my part. I think Clear Channel is bad news, literally and figuratively. But instead of ranting at it, the best way to get at what I perceived as the truth was through the stories of these basically decent human beings mired in the corporate bog, like Bryan Dilworth, a Philadelphia indie rock hero, a promoter who’d been assimilated by Clear Channel and who alternated between denial and anger in response to his critics and expressions of the genuinely lovely, religious connection to the music that had brought him into the business. One of my favorite quotations in the book is his, when he says, “Then, there’s that feeling in your spine, and it’s all right. When the arc is just starting to arc. And you’re saying this could be Van Halen, this could be Neil Young. It’s like you’re bearing witness. It’s not ‘Ching-ching, here we go. It’s ‘I saw it. It does exist.’… Clear Channel? That’s money. I need it to buy liquor and baby clothes.”
6. Why did you end the book by writing about the folk musician Dock Boggs?
Liquor and baby clothes. Seventy-five years before Dilworth found himself in that predicament, Boggs, a banjo player and poor miner from Virginia, was in a similar fix, trading his talents for liquor (literally) and a living. He’d recorded eight sides for a record company in New York, which he viewed as the Clear Channel of its day. Boggs was no leftist; what he hated was the feeling that the big businessmen had you coming and going. So he opted out, selling his banjo and disappearing back into the mines for 30 years, until some college kids dug him up during the folk revival of the 1960s. This piece began as a short consideration of Boggs, whom I’d expected to find interesting but kind of cliché in that old-timey music way. But he wasn’t that at all; in fact, the folk revival of the 1960s was the worst thing that happened to him. It drew him right back to the monster he’d been in the 1920s. A musical-genius monster, but a monster just the same. To me that’s a story of hopelessness. And I was feeling pretty hopeless myself at the time, thinking about the mistakes I’d made as a writer, and about the death of the child of some close friends. So the book begins with despair — “begins with the dead,” as Cornel puts it — and ends with despair, and in both cases you go to that place the way you go to the last place you saw your keys. The difference is that while you might find your keys there (I never do), you’re going to have to walk out of that place a different way. That was the fact for Cornel, for Chava Rosenfarb, for Brad Will, for pretty much everyone in this book. Cornel’s working on that path every day. Chava found it, but it cost her. Brad was finding it, then he got shot. Boggs didn’t make it. I’m still working on it myself, but that, at least, is not a statement of despair. It’s as close to optimism as I get.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”