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Hiding in the Bomb Shelter with a Baby Monitor: An Interview with B.J. Hollars photo

B.J. Hollars has no problem crossing literary boundaries. In his short career, he's already written two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa. He's served as editor for three anthologies: You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story, Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings, and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction. Most recently, Break Away Books/Indiana University Press released his short story collection, Sightings.


The ten stories in this collection are all coming-of-age tales, but not in the ways you've come to expect. They play with boundaries between genre and literature, comedy and tragedy, magic and reality, to propel the stories in surprising new directions.  


This past May, we corresponded with BJ over email about Sightings, his obsession with Bigfoot, and how his writing process has changed since he became a new father.


—Bryan Furuness & Zach Roth


In these stories, so much of the conflict comes from characters negotiating boundary lines (e.g. the lines between childhood/adulthood, human/beast, outsiders/insiders, reality/absurdity). You've explored the boundaries of genre in Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction. So is it safe to say that boundary exploration is one of your obsessions? If so, what do you make of that obsession?


Well, I guess it wouldn't make much sense to deny it. I always figured I was just obsessed with strangeness, generally, but maybe that strangeness comes from my desire to fit things into unexpected boxes. In the fictional realm, this means throwing a Sasquatch on a high school basketball team, or having a tribe of Native Americans move into small town suburbia in 1975. Throughout the collection, my main characters are continually faced with unexpected interactions. And while the "outsider" characters don't initially fit within the worlds I've created, they generally wedge their way in by story's end. That wedging forces growth, and that growth demands some form of coming-of-age.   


Sometimes I feel like I spend half my life trying to shoehorn bowling balls into jewelry boxes, and yet somehow, to me, this seems like a worthwhile pursuit.

You've said that "the phrase 'coming of age' seems to put a bad taste in people's mouths." Why do you think that's the case? Were you wary of putting the term on the back cover?


You know, I experienced a similar predicament with my first anthology, You Must Be This Tall To Ride. That book was marketed as a collection of "literary coming-of-age" stories, but I think some readers bristled at the term "literary."  It was as if some believed that the genre was incapable of managing literary status. I always wonder about this reaction, mainly because how do we categorize books like The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird?  What do we do with those literary coming-of-age stories?


Now, let me be clear: Sightings is no The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird. But in this book I strived to move beyond the traps and tropes of the coming-of-age genre. Trust me, you won't find a lot of stolen kisses beneath the football bleachers. No regurgitated scenes from Dawson's Creek, either. One story does feature a prom, but then that prom is invaded by Sasquatch. This, I suppose, is how I tried to push past the clichés—by subverting the stories you've already heard with new elements. As I tell my students: "You want to make a story unique?  Just chuck a Bigfoot in it!"  I kid, but not entirely. If you want a story to exceed the expectation, what better way than by offering a reader the unexpected?


This, of course, is a long way of saying no, I wasn't wary of putting the phrase "coming-of-age" on the book's back cover. If the phrase leaves a "bad taste" in people's mouths, then perhaps my stories can—in some small way—help to cleanse that palate.


You mentioned You Must Be This Tall to Ride. In that anthology, you include a "behind-the-scenes look at the writer's reflections on his or her piece." Pick a story here—or maybe the collection as a whole—and take your own medicine: what's the story behind the story?


Ah, well after forcing forty writers to swallow the bitter pill of self-reflection, I suppose I was certainly due a dose myself. Okay, let me talk about "Schooners."  


I was sitting on the front porch of my Alabama home in the fall of 2009, a copy of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son in my hand. So I'm sitting there, watching the cockroaches crawl around and sort of reflecting on Johnson's unreliable (i.e. drug-addled) narrator, when my mind starts feeling a bit addled, too. I think Johnson's prose hypnotized me into this "I knew every rain drop by its name" mood. As I'm zoning out, I start thinking about raccoons. Lord knows why. Just then—I kid you not—a raccoon emerged from the bush to my left and stared at me, then down at those cockroaches.


No, this was not some drug-induced trip. This was just the strange power of prose and serendipity coming together. For a moment I felt like I'd become the prophetic narrator of Johnson's story. To commemorate the event, on page 31 of my copy of "Jesus' Son" I wrote: "Oct. 13, '09, 7:15p.m., Tuscaloosa—I was thinking about raccoons and one just appeared to me ten feet away."


Which brings us back to "Schooners."  As I was writing that story, I was pretty focused on voice. But I was also focused on reliability. I wanted to create an earnest, unreliable narrator who seemed unable to recognize his unreliability. And so, Roger Silverstein was born. In honor of my real-life raccoon sighting, Roger has a similar encounter with a raccoon.


I suppose this "behind-the-scenes" look doesn't offer much to writers other than this: Always be on alert for a story. It might just emerge from the bushes.

Talk to us about arrangement. What's the art and logic of selecting and ordering stories in a collection?

I think in the early stages the "art and logic" of the story arrangement came down to a simple philosophy: Put the best stories first in the hopes that some kind and generous reader might feel compelled to read beyond the first few pages. Of course, trying to decide which stories were the "best" (by which I mean "not the worst") was pretty difficult as well. And so I ditched that theory in favor of a more thematic progression. I like to think that the collection as a whole undergoes its own coming-of-age experience. At the start we've got stories about kids in rather silly situations (Sasquatch on the basketball court, a family of clowns moving in next door), but in the collection's final stories, we see a young boy re-creating his dead brother in the form of a vacuum cleaner, and in the final story, "Missing Mary," we get a second person account of a missing girl, one we never find. These stories wouldn't have worked in the beginning of the book. They seemed to be more at home at the end.


Though to be honest, I'm not sure this "logic" was terribly intentional. I think some interviewer pointed it out to me and I immediately claimed it as my grand plan. Maybe it was subconscious (or maybe just serendipitous), but regardless, I like to view the collection through this lens. When we're young, the world is bright, but as we grow, darker parts emerge. By the time the reader finishes the final story, I like to think the collection has matured alongside its characters.


You called Sasquatch on a basketball court "silly," but you've written about the creature multiple times. Clearly he holds some serious fascination for you. What does Sasquatch mean to you at this point in your writing career?  


It's odd. I've written two nonfiction books about racial violence and civil rights and yet no one has ever dubbed me the "racial violence/civil rights" writer. Instead, I'm known as "the Bigfoot guy," a title I've earned by writing a mere two pieces about Bigfoot. The first is an essay entitled "In Defense of Sasquatch" which can be found in my chapbook In Defense of Monsters. Basically, one day I asked my composition students to challenge me to argue anything. After all, the entire term I'd been forcing them to do the same. After a bit of thinking, they told me to prove the existence of Bigfoot. I said it would be my pleasure. And so began a long research process which took me from my armchair to the wilds of Jeannette, Pennsylvania to attend the East Coast Bigfoot Conference. Soon after, I found myself tromping the woods keeping my eyes wide open for unexplainable footprints. Eventually, I relied on data related to extinct and endangered animals to explain the possibility of Bigfoot's existence. I'm not saying Bigfoot exists, but I am saying that he did, once, thousands of years ago. The scientific name is Gigantopithecus. I'm not kidding. You can look this up. He's got his own genus and species. (So does the Loch Ness Monster, but that's another story...)


And my second Bigfoot take, of course, is my collection's title story, "Sightings."  Here we see Sasquatch navigating the perils of high school. I got so caught up in my Bigfoot work that I actually wrote a collection of linked stories about folks who had their own Bigfoot sightings around the fictional town of Wallerton, Indiana. The book was not great, but I loved the premise. Ultimately, only one story held firm, and that's the one you see in this book.     


This is clearly a non sequitur (and I've left your question behind long ago), but on the same subject, here's a little anecdote for you: In high school, one day we were called to assembly for a "special guest" and lo and behold, there was Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Dodgers.  He bestowed all kinds of advice that day, but here's what stuck with me: "Baseball," he preached, "is the only sport where if you hit three balls out of ten, you're an all-star."  He was right, of course; batting .300 is pretty darn good. But even then, I remember thinking: "Writing is the only profession where if you write one good story out of ten, you're an all-star."  I'm no all-star, that's for sure, but I understand the rules of the game.


Many of the fathers in Sightings wield much of the influence and agency in their households, and those that are missing are often conspicuous in their absence. Conversely, “Robotics” is the only time a mother takes center stage. Was this fatherly focus a conscious decision when selecting stories for this collection, or did it arise organically?


I think the many feckless and failing fathers that inhabit this collection came about organically. I wrote many of these stories prior to my own bumbling entrance into the world of fatherhood, so I can't claim myself as a model. But I suppose there is a surplus of fathers here for the same reason there is a surplus of boys. I feel closer to these characters, or rather, I know them better. I can understand their motives because I've had similar motives. People often ask me, "So...was your dad a Civil War reenactor?  Or an Oregon Trail reenactor?  Or an impressionist painter who once disappeared into the Vermont wilderness?"  The answer is no, he is not any of these things. But he has been known to build bow and arrows in the backyard, and light off bottle rockets, and shoot BB guns, so maybe he's actually a better model for the young boys of the book. But then, the father characters have a clear grasp on the wonders of childhood. So maybe my own dad was a model in that way, too.

You're a new-ish dad. How has being a parent affected your writing life?


What writing life?  Just kidding. Thankfully my wife can raise a kid, walk a dog, and generally manage our world with one hand tied behind her back, which has given me the gift to continue piddling around with words.


The biggest change, I suppose, is that more and more of my writing takes place in my head these days. Sometimes I'm elbow deep in diapers or puke or bubbles (the kid loves bubbles), so I do a lot more dreaming. After Ray Bradbury had his stroke several years back, I remember he and his daughter explaining their new writing process to me: How he waxed poetic and his daughter—from a few states away—jotted it down via phone call. I remember thinking: How could that ever work?  But it did for him.


Before realizing what writing was all about, I remember staring at this photo of E.B. White sitting in an empty cabin with his typewriter with a lake just outside the window. For a while, I thought that's what writers did: found a peaceful locale to create great art. Now I know that creating great art often means hiding in the basement bomb shelter with a baby monitor. But I wouldn't want it any other way.

image: Andromeda Veach