Claire Messud and Brendan O’Meara on Creative Nonfiction in an Era of ‘Fake News’
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by novelist and essayist Claire Messud and journalist Brendan O’Meara. First, Messud discusses her new book of essays, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, and the difficulties of grasping the facts when we’re bombarded with so much information daily. Then, O’Meara shares craft insights from his interviews for The Creative Nonfiction podcast and discusses the connections between newsrooms and literary nonfiction. He also previews his memoir-in-progress about his father.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel. This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year · The Creative Nonfiction Podcast: Episode 60—The Godfather of Creative Nonfiction: Lee Gutkind · Episode 99—David Grann on The Killers of the Flower Moon and Why Every Story is a Struggle · Episode 121—Susan Orlean on Pacing, Structure, and The Library Book · Episode 227: The Futility of Reassurance and Being on the Hook with Seth Godin · Isolation, audio magazine
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter · The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio · The Plague by Albert Camus · War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy · Selected Writings of Paul Valéry · Continental Drift by Russell Banks · NW by Zadie Smith · Another Country by James Baldwin · The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald · The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon · Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher ·
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates · Bronwen Dickey · David Carr · Sisters in Hate by Seyward Darby · The Living and the Dead: War, Friendship and the Battles That Never End by Brian Mockenhaupt · The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm · The Heart and Other Monsters by Rose Andersen
Jean Guerrero · “Host of ‘The Daily’ Clouds ‘N.Y. Times’ Effort To Restore Trust After ‘Caliphate’” by David Folkenflik, NPR
With Claire Messud
Whitney Terrell: In the introduction to this essay collection, which I really enjoyed, speaking of the relationship between today’s news and the great literature of the past, you write, “It’s all already happened, somewhere, in some way. It’s all there to be retrieved.” This is basically the foundational concept of this podcast, that everything that you can find in your Twitter feed or in the evening news has already been written about somewhere. Could you elaborate?
Claire Messud: Well, certainly emotionally—the gamut of emotions has been experienced. But I think weirdly, literally, here we are in a pandemic, and it’s not the first pandemic. We can read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, or we can read Boccaccio’s The Decameron, or Camus’ The Plague, right? There are so many examples of that. I joined a Public Space ongoing series of book groups. The first in the spring was Yiyun Li’s War and Peace book group. So I was rereading War and Peace in the darkest days of March and April. They’re these scenes that you may recall, where everybody’s trying to flee Moscow—and it was a time when people were trying to get out of New York City—and suddenly having all the wealth in the world didn’t matter, what you wanted was to get out of Moscow and get to some farm in the middle of nowhere to get away from the invaders. In Tolstoy, it’s an army. In our case, it’s been a virus, but the atmosphere and the circumstances are oddly resonant.
Another one I read [was] Paul Valéry’s essays. He wrote in 1936, the big problem we have now—he was in his sixties at that point—he said young people think that the older generations haven’t lived or experienced anything because of the technology gap. Because the older people don’t know about technology, younger people think they have nothing to say to them. And of course, I have teenage kids…
WT: My son says to me all the time if I give him advice, he’s like, well, dad, you didn’t have electricity growing up. He feels that it’s okay to say, yeah, you made fire outside, you didn’t have indoor heating, that kind of thing. That’s his view of my technology ability, even while I am better than him at certain technology things, like remembering to charge my phone.
CM: Good for you. Because I feel like I lose on all fronts. I’m not better at any of it.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the through lines of this collection has to do with the difficulty or impossibility of actually being factual about our experience, speaking of the technology gap and the internet. And so this is really at the heart of your collections, title essay, “Kant’s Little Prussian Head.” I wondered if you would read to us from that essay?
CM: [reads excerpt]
WT: Today, you hear people talk about the arguments for and against the use of facts, right—that surely the right side is to be in favor of facts, and the wrong side is to be against facts. But when you ask how can we conceive of the entirety of uncommunicated and incommunicable human experience, you seem to be suggesting a different equation, which is really interesting to me that the problem isn’t lack of facts, it’s that we have too many facts.
CM: It’s certainly true. One thing is, of course, that we’re now bombarded with facts—and with information or with nonfacts—but we’re just bombarded because of technology in ways that we historically weren’t. It was just much harder to get information if you had to sit down and read a newspaper or go out and meet people in the town square, rather than your phone pouring information to you nonstop. There’s that whole thing about the number of images that we take in or see in a single day is more than people used to see in a lifetime, I think. There are too many facts. But I think that one of the things that writing can do is curate those facts in a productive way. I have a friend who’s a physicist and her project is at CERN, that vast Super Collider in Switzerland. And you can’t observe the trajectory of a quark. But what you can do is measure at certain points, so then you can project what that trajectory is. There’s no way you can catch it the whole way around. But if you strategically and wisely choose the points that you record, you can extrapolate what its actual trajectory is. And I feel as writers, that’s what our job is—strategically to choose the points so that your reader can infer the trajectory.
VVG: So maybe part of our job of developing a voice is thinking about how we develop principles for picking those spots?
CM: Totally. I try to explain to my students that those are political choices. I think one of the things that’s hard when you’re starting out writing and you’re young is you think, oh, if I believe in the good of so and so, I need to portray only the good things about this person. But of course, when a character in a story only has positive attributes, they don’t feel real, because human beings don’t only have positive attributes. We’re all a mix of light and dark. And so you want to choose the details that give the complexity of something, but also the vision of that person that you hope to convey in its fullness and its three dimensionality.
With Brendan O’Meara
V.V. Ganeshananthan: We’re talking about writing and nonfiction in an age of no facts. Depressing. Your show began in 2013, early in the second Obama administration. One could state obvious truths back then without feeling gaslit by elected officials or major news channels. And when you were first starting out as a podcaster, you talked about art and truth and their importance and coexistence. So how are you thinking about the role of facts on your new show about creative nonfiction?
Brendan O’Meara: Facts to me are just a given. When you have nonfiction in the title of your show, or when you purport to be a reporter of the news, whether it be sports or hard news or feature news, facts are the wireframe on which we hang the true story. And to me, there was never an argument that that would be an issue to interpret facts. Bronwen Dickey, the great writer and reporter, has been on the show several times—she went on a rant about the lifespan of a fact. She says, a fact is a fact, there is no room for interpretation, there are certain things that are true. So when I start a podcast, of course, where I’m interviewing people about the art and craft of telling true stories, facts are just kind of a given, and the people who are on the show have an understanding of that. So it’s never been something I’ve really had to wrestle with. We can always talk about how memory can put a filter over fact, which can lead to some artistic liberties and certainly can lead to some great explorations. But so long as the sun is rising in the east, I think we can all agree on that. That’s sort of a core tenant of CNF Pod.
Whitney Terrell: I think back to the different scandals, when somebody like James Frey gets busted for not being honest about what his memoir [A Million Little Pieces] was about. I’ve heard people criticize In Cold Blood for having been not exactly reported in the way that Truman Capote claimed—that he would go and talk to those guys in prison and come home and write down the conversations. Was he really reporting on what they exactly said, or was he basically writing dialogue for them? That is part of the discussion about what is creative nonfiction, and what is not.
BO: Yeah, exactly. And he purported to have a photographic memory, which maybe he did to some extent, but I’m sure he was more on the artistic liberties side of the reporting, where if something sounded better on the page to him that was more important. Fortunately, I haven’t had anyone on the show where I’ve really had to challenge the veracity of their reporting or their writing. But we’ve had those talks with memory. The best memoirs to me, it’s the people who can turn that camera inwards, can be a reporter on their own life and ask themselves the objective questions as if they were writing just a long feature about somebody else, but that long feature just happens to be them. And I think David Carr writes about that beautifully. In a conversation I just had with Lee Gutkind, the founder of the Creative Nonfiction magazine—he’s written a lot of narrative, immersive journalism, and his latest book is a memoir, where he really did almost take himself to task, the way he would somebody else looking outward; he just had the the courage to turn it inwards. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had a James Frey locking horns type thing. I welcome the day that that might come because that might be kind of fun for listeners.
WT: That Lee Gutkind interview is really good. We are admirers of your show, and we do encourage our listeners to go check it out. We’re talking to you during this period between Biden being elected and being sworn in; facts feel like they’re more under threat than ever because the President is saying untrue things every day regularly on his Twitter feed. Most of the country seems to have decided that this is not happening. And then a part of the country has decided that it is and it’s real. It’s very bizarre. This year alone, you’ve talked to Stephen Miller’s biographer, you’ve interviewed the author of a book about citizen journalism, and done an audio magazine of essays about isolation. I’m tracing the arc of your show over its many seasons. It’s really interesting. And I wondered how you see it developing as the political circumstances outside of the show have changed.
BO: What’s nice about the show and the tenor of it is that it’s a safe place for facts, and we’re not going to tolerate any perversion of the truth. It’s going to be what it is.
WT: You’re not going to have Newt Gingrich on to talk about his recent book?
BO: Yeah, exactly right. It’s one of those things where I get to curate who comes on and I have the people on who I deeply admire—how they go about the work, the artistry that they can take verifiably true things and spin a good yarn and get creative in terms of the structure but not the facts. When you have someone like Jean Guerrero on—her first book is a memoir, where she really does this deep dive into her family and her father in particular. And then she writes this biography on Stephen Miller, and it’s a totally different thing. It’s great to be able to chart the evolution of a writer when they go from genre to genre.
Seyward Darby—she’s been on twice—her first book just came out: Sisters in Hate, about the leading women in the white nationalist movement. She could, have over the course of her reporting, certainly pushed back a lot against that because they don’t stand for anything that Seyward stands for, but in her reporting, she just let them talk and let her recorder fill up and her notebook fill up so she could write the story in a way that didn’t imbue her worldview too much on the story she was trying to report. Those are always the neat questions that are worth unpacking. How much do you impart your own voice on it? Do you just let these people tell their story, even if you categorically disagree with them, or find them just hideously, horrible people to be around, toxic people with toxic ideas?
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Emily Standlee and Andrea Tudhope.