Against the Non-Fiction Absolutists
Steven Church: Why Do We Want to Jump into the Tiger Cage?
Steven Church’s One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals, out now from Soft Skull Press, is exactly what literary nonfiction should be: imaginative, formally elastic, emotionally engrossing, and deeply intelligent. It begins with the vivid and harrowing retelling of the moment David Villalobos, a 26-year-old visitor to the Bronx Zoo in 2012, jumped from the Bengali Express Monorail into the habitat of Bashuta, a 400-pound Siberian Tiger. Church writes:
I see him there, in the long slow seconds of those first moments in the cage, turning and smiling, his thick shock of black hair standing out against the green background, his eyebrows arching into eternity. There is no sound to these images. Bashuta’s huge paws pad silently on the grass, covering the ground between them in seconds.
The book that follows is an exploration of the line between the human and the dangerously animalistic—specifically: why certain people decide to cross it, and what their leaps say about the desire within all of us to throw ourselves toward death-wielding predators. Church is an essayist in the best sense: his interests are compelling because, through his use of imagery, lyric association, juxtaposition, analysis, and dramatic action, he vividly renders his ongoing exploration for his readers, asking us to join him as he wends his way back and forth across the divide on which the book is founded. We circle a variety of subjects—Leonardo DiCaprio, Mike Tyson, Werner Herzog, The Incredible Hulk, and even the short-lived 1980s TV series Manimal, to name a few—and throughout it all, as moments like the one David Villalobos experienced appear again and again, Church weaves in his personal narrative: that of a 21st-century human—a father and a teacher—trying to understand what it is, within us, that drives so many to cross the line.
I spoke with Church just after the presidential election, and as you might expect, our conversation was influenced by the results. But I do think that his book speaks to our specific time and place in American history: what’s happening now, as millions of Americans struggle with new kinds of lines and stakes.
At the end of One with the Tiger, Church, reflecting on the different people who’ve made the same drastic decision to jump into the abyss as David Villalobos once did, writes, “Perhaps [they] all wanted to be closer to death—but they wanted this because it’s only in such fleeting moments where immortality exists, where you are most fully and completely terrifyingly alive. In such liminal spaces, however brief, anything is possible.”
This is Church’s fifth book of nonfiction. As he’s proven time and again throughout his award-winning career, he’s one of our country’s elite essayists.
Timothy Denevi: One with the Tiger explores such a compelling and terrifying liminal space in the human psyche; how did you come to be interested in this particular subject?
Steven Church: It’s kind of hard for me to trace it back to one source. I mean, some of this book has been brewing for years. The chapters on Mike Tyson and Ferdinand the Bull were each published years ago as distinct essays. But I guess it was the story of David Villalobos that provided a kind of catalyzing force that seemed to drag all the pieces into the same orbit. I read the news obsessively, but often not the “normal” news, drifting instead down dark paths of sublime oddity. David’s story was one of these stories and once I heard it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and researching other sublime and violent encounters between humans and animals. They happen all the time and I think we are instinctively drawn not just to intimate experiences with wild animals—even apex predators—but also to the stories of these experiences.
TD: As a bit of a follow-up, how do you see this book in relation to your previous work—your explorations of themes as diverse as nuclear war, echolocation, fatherhood, and Elvis Presley’s love of racquetball (to name just a few)?
SC: I think of this book as a book-length essay with many digressions, tangents, and associative leaps, one that relies heavily on pop culture and other shared stories or texts to extend and expand the investigation beyond the surface level understanding of these events; and this is pretty much how I’d describe most of my book projects. Focus, for me, is both an asset and a liability. I tend to bounce and wander, and it’s only through revision that I can tie the threads back together.
TD: The shape of this book—the way your mind moves, on the page, around the subject you’re exploring—is both elastic and also intricately patterned. Can you talk about how you settled on the overall form?
SC: The patterning, the creation of echoes and such, often comes later, after I’ve kind of figured out the larger ideas that are driving a particular group of essays or investigations. But it takes a while to see that pattern sometimes, or to find the right lens through which to see these other pieces. For this book, my trip to New York and the Bronx Zoo in 2014 to kind of “retrace” David’s journey (aside from actually leaping into a tiger cage), ended up providing a crucial spine on which to hang other pieces of my thinking. It gave me a narrative through-line and a kind of present action that I could return to, and allowed me to create a more traditional narrative skeleton for some of the more digressive guts of the book.
TD: You’ve included an extensive amount of research and reportage in One with the Tiger; can you talk about what it was like to integrate this information into the book’s thematic exploration—especially the decisions you made when it comes to addressing the standard nonfiction talking-points on fact, truth, and reality?
SC: I’m not a nonfiction fundamentalist; and I often find those standard talking points either boring or just an opportunity for fundamentalists to pontificate and judge other writers as a way to make themselves feel superior. But when it comes to this book, there is a pretty strong meta-nonfiction element in the book where I’m talking about the ecstatic truth of these encounters, which seem to necessarily drift into hazy areas of truth and story. For me the artistry of a movie like Werner Herzog’s documentary, Grizzly Man, is more interesting and more important than questions of factual accuracy. That’s not to say that I’m intentionally trying to poke a stick in the eye of genre fundamentalists; but I do think those standard talking-point questions too often lend themselves to superficial and overly simplistic understandings of nonfiction writing. And part of the mission of the book is to try and get beyond the surface of such stories, to really dig into the subjective and sublime weirdness of encounters with apex predators.
TD: You’re also the editor of The Normal School, a literary magazine known for publishing lyric, inventive nonfiction. How has the essay, as an artistic form, developed and changed in the 21st century? In what direction is it heading? How might it offer a means of formal expression, at this moment in history, that other genres don’t inherently provide?
SC: Selfishly, I tend to think that nonfiction writing is the most exciting genre in part because it necessarily partakes of so many other genres and forms of discourse; while the essay still embodies the digressive, tangential, thought-focused Montaignean roots of the form, it’s also doing so many other amazing things these days with visual form, video, audio, graphics, and other innovative techniques. I guess I think that the essay—with its emphasis on replicating thought on the page and its engagement with the wider outside world, asks of its writers and readers something deeper, something beyond escape or distraction. It asks them to think deeply, to confront themselves on the page. I mean, if we consider a book like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, Between the World and Me, we see an author using the epistolary form to essay about incredibly important issues in America in a way that I’m not sure has ever been done before. That book should be (and will be) read for generations; and I just have to believe that it’s a book that wouldn’t have the same impact if it was written in any other genre or form.
TD: Who are some of the writers you were reading during your composition of One with the Tiger? Do you see it in dialogue with previous works? Is there a quote or passage by one of your favorite writers, in particular, that you’ve found yourself going back to while constructing this book?
SC: One book that definitely was in conversation with this project was Kerry Howley’s book, Thrown, which I actually picked up and started reading while I was in New York to visit the Bronx Zoo. I’d already been thinking a lot about the idea of ecstatic truth and experience, shaped in part by Tom Bissell’s interview in Harper’s Magazine with Werner Herzog; but Howley’s book really helped me see how these ideas might work themselves into what I was doing. It’s a wonderful book that everyone should go out and read before midnight. I think Andre Dubus’s memoir, Townie, also factored into some of this, if only because of the emphasis on violence, masculinity, and family. Also, Joyce Carol Oates’s amazing collection of essays, On Boxing, was certainly influential and her quote about Mike Tyson, “. . . he has the power to galvanize crowds as if awakening in them the instinct not merely for raw aggression and the mysterious will to do hurt that resides, for better or worse, in the human soul, but for suggesting the inconstestable justice of such an instinct,” would end up being a kind of mantra or permission for much of what I’m doing in parts of the book.
TD: As we’ve discussed recently, after the results of the recent election, it’s difficult to see anything—including your own works of art—in the same way we once did. I think that this book speaks rather brilliantly on the complex and difficult-to-know capacity for self-destruction in all of us. Can you expand on this a bit? How, in the wake of our national decision to jump into the cage with President Donald Trump, as it were, does One with the Tiger resonate deeply—and presciently?
SC: I think apocalypse is a huge part of the American psyche. I think we are obsessed with it and court it like a lover. We want to be consumed and shattered because we believe that it is only in the wake of such destruction that we can be re-made, re-born, re-affirmed and edified; and perhaps we are seeing some of this playing out in our national election. Many people’s fear and disappointment with Trump’s election is matched by equal amounts of guilty satisfaction over the potentially apocalyptic implications and the concomitant rebirth, reimagining, and recasting of ourselves. But honestly, as much as I hope this book resonates with a lot of readers, I also think we all need to be reading, reviewing, teaching and championing more books by women, LGBTQ writers, and writers of color. We need to read literary magazines and newspapers and support independent presses that challenge the status quo; and we need to do so much more. I think straight white male writers like us—obsessive, (perhaps maniacally) driven toward the literary pursuit of “ungraspable phantoms”—have perhaps always thought of ourselves as noble Ahabs, but the truth is we are the white whale.
TD: That’s beautifully put. To follow up (and to quote loosely from One with the Tiger): why are we so attracted to throwing ourselves into unknown liminal spaces—moments of chosen destruction in which, as you say, anything suddenly seems possible?
SC: For me, someone like David Villalobos, if seen through a different sort of lens, becomes heroic, or at least a fearless challenger to simple, predictable, and boring experiences. He threw himself into a liminal space that offered possible death, sure, but perhaps also into an experience that offered something like transcendence or at least jouissance (a pleasurable self-shattering). He actually believed he could cross the divide between human and animal, a divide that seems increasingly narrow and fuzzy to me. I think he was called crazy and castigated in public as a way to mask our own secret sympathy for his actions. I think—deep down inside—most of stand at a zoo fence and wonder what it would be like to be on the other side. And perhaps there isn’t anything fundamentally crazy about the urge to cross over.
LH: What’s next? Is there a new project in the works?
SC: I’m working now on an anthology essays we’ve published in The Normal School, but I’ve also got another collection of my own essays that is pretty much done and a book-in-progress on Parkfield, California, the Earthquake Capital of the World.