In Conversation with Clinton Crockett Peters
A native New Yorker, Lucas Mann got his MFA in Nonfiction from Iowa where he was first an Iowa Arts Fellow and then a Provost’s Visiting Writer. His first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, profiles a hardscrabble minor league baseball team in Clinton Iowa, for which Mann put over 10,000 miles on his truck and followed the team’s Venezuelans to their home. His latest book, Lord Fear: a Memoir, took him almost a decade to complete. Richly intriguing for its journalistic way of portraying Mann’s heroin-slain brother through interviews, Lord Fear has the biting insight and personal reflection that has grown out of the memoir movement in the last 20 years. Mann has been published in Kenyon Review, Slate, Barrelhouse, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife. We talked in late May about his new book and the state of the still burgeoning field of 21st century nonfiction.
CCP: Maybe first could you talk about the inception of your book Lord Fear. When did you first think about writing the book, and when did it take shape?
LM: The research and writing process started years ago, at the end of my college career. That’s when I started finding the people to interview about my brother’s life and trying to find a way to tell his story. I should say, though, that I had been trying to figure out how to write about him for years before that. Characters like him showed up in bad, early short stories, and he or his absence have been a constant theme in much of the personal writing I’ve done, even when he wasn’t the main focus of the piece. The book developed over many years and through many drafts, as well as moments of giving up and moving onto something else only to eventually return. It’s changed enormously, but the driving force at the inception of the project has remained — I’ve been obsessed with trying to try to understand his story and the legacy he left behind.
CCP: What was it like interviewing all these people connected to your brother’s life?
LM: The interviews were intense, which I guess is to be expected. There’s an incredible tension in any interview that I always find really compelling — both participants have their expectations and their desires for the conversation going in — and that dynamic was intensified when talking about my brother. A death like his puts an enormous weight on any conversation that follows it. You want to feel that what you remember was right, or at least makes sense. You want there to be logic and consensus. A lot of the interviews ended up being about how to adjust to so many different perspectives on the same person, and dealing with my expectations getting constantly subverted. Nothing went as I expected it to, and that sometimes hurt in the moment but was ultimately crucial to the formation of the book.
CCP: What gave you the idea to perform a kind of biography of your brother and not just a standard, linear, first-person centered memoir?
LM: It’s funny to have written a book called a “memoir,” only because the expectation that comes along with the term — that type of book you just described — was never something I even considered. I think that too often we stick to a very narrow, often dubious, definition of the genre. This isn’t a knock on that linear, first-person type of book — I think its bullshit that nonfiction writers feel compelled to put down others in the form in order to feel literarily worthy — it’s just not the kind of book I know how to write. This book had to be investigative. I was thirteen when my brother died, so the book was born out of a sense of unknowing. I had my own memories about him, and I felt very deeply about him, but the impulse to write came from the blank space around what I knew and felt. More than a biography, I’ve always thought of this project as an essay about my brother, in the really classical sense. It follows a line of inquiry, and tries to better understand a subject and my relationship to that subject. It’s an attempt. That’s the kind of work I’ve always been drawn to, both as a reader and a writer.
CCP: I really love how you resist defining your work through put-downs of other writers. I'm of the camp that it's possible to talk about differences without hierarchy; it just takes more work. I think your observation cuts to one of the most fascinating aspects of your book, which is its complex moral incertitude. Nowhere, I think, do you pander to easy cultural norms of blame. In fact, you seem very open to consider the layers of your brother like an anthropologist. How, if you can even speak to this, did you cultivate that removed, open self on the page?
LM: This is a really good question. You use the term "removed, open self," but I think the challenge for me came in trying to be open while being un-removed. The book definitely draws on the intense emotional intimacy that characterizes the memoir genre. I am a deeply invested, deeply biased narrator. But I wanted to make sure that part of my project was acknowledging and investigating my own perspective. I wanted there to be a lack of certainty within all this feeling, a constant questioning of my own assumptions, constant re-framing of my brother and the good and bad things he did. This grew naturally out of the particular structure of the book. Because it's built up through snippets of different peoples' perspectives, my brother's own writing, my memories, I hoped that the effect would be that the reader could never linger in one set of assumptions about Josh's life and addiction. I tried to use the different perspectives like pieces of a collage — place them in proximity to one another and their dissonance can deepen or complicate the overall meaning.
I feel like I keep getting up on a genre soapbox, but, oh well, I'm going to do it again: Far too often, we don't look for layers or complexity or ambiguity within characters in memoir. This is really odd to me. We judge literary fiction by precisely these qualities — if a character is layered, complex, ambiguous, we applaud the way that the writer has presented such a realistic version of humanity. But when dealing with real people on the page, that kind of difficult reality is uncomfortable. I think this is particularly true when writing about and talking something like addiction. I knew I didn't want to write a narrative that moralized and pretended like there's an absolute distinction between right and wrong, sin and redemption. I wanted to write a book about addiction that had no easy answers, that avoided outright blame, that didn't fall into the trap of this idea that somebody can win or lose against a drug. This is where the essayistic aspirations came into play. It was my goal to complicate things, to force myself to layer questions on questions, instead of saying, "Hey, here's the answer."
CCP: Do you see your new book as a hybrid of genres? Or do you hate that term and why?
LM: I remember there was a moment in my undergraduate career when I realized I’d used the word “agency” in like ten consecutive papers and had felt oddly proud of it each time. I think maybe “hybrid” has become that word in the MFA world. Or “hybridity;” that’s worse. I’m a bit ashamed of the amount of pride the word still gives me. There’s a really self-congratulatory sense of, “it’s not just…” — so, we throw the word around when we want to say that a book isn’t generic. It implies uniqueness, which is nice. Unexpectedly, both books I’ve written have gotten this reaction. They’re totally different books, but I guess each could be called “hybrid” for the simple reason that they try to be researched, personal and lyrical at the same time.
My first book, Class A, was about minor league baseball and felt pretty traditional to me, but then a review called it “genre-bending,” and it made me feel so fancy, but it also didn’t make sense. It was essentially a piece of literary journalism, except I was a very present narrator so I guess that made it two things at once? Lord Fear is the flip of that, in some ways — it’s a personal story, but research and other perspectives blend into the personal narrative and fracture it. By this definition, I don’t think I’ll ever write something that’s not a hybrid. I want the personal, the journalistic, the narrative, the imagistic. I want it all in one place. The thing is, I don’t think that’s hybridity. I just think it’s an essay. This is a genre that has a long history of blending a bunch of modes together as a way to help figure out an idea. We all do that.
CCP: Did you have any models for the work you were doing, authors you were keeping in mind?
LM: Perfect segue! J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself was very helpful as a template for the combination of the personal and the investigative. Same goes for Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude. Maggie Nelson was really influential for me, the way I think she is for anybody studying nonfiction now. Jane: A Murder was closest to my project and I loved it, but Bluets was also incredibly helpful to read because of the freedom Nelson felt in mixing together personal pain, other peoples’ stories, outside texts — so many layers in one slim book. Also Marguerite Duras’s The Lover carries such feeling across so many fragmented scenes — I decided to write Lord Fear without any chapters, so trying to figure out how Duras kept a sense of forward momentum was an important exercise for me. The book also incorporates quotes from different writers whose work I used as a touchstone when trying to think about the lineage of writing about addiction and/or memory — Woolf, Nabokov, Kincaid, De Quincey, Barthes — so a lot of the influences are overt and really essential.
CCP: How does this book compare, for you, to your last book Class A in terms of challenges and your own feelings of the subject?
LM: Class A was immersive in a really exhausting way. It came together much faster and was much more traditionally reported. I was out on the road with this baseball team, filling up notepads, chasing a story from scratch. Then I was amazed at how much personal investment and personal narrative pushed its way into that intense research experience. The challenges of Lord Fear have been kind of the opposite. I came to the project with an enormous, unwieldy, hard-to-fully-understand personal investment. Grief and confusion were there at the beginning of the project, and have shifted and developed over seven or eight years, but they’ve always remained at the core of the writing. The research, first with interviews, then with the analysis and incorporation of my brother’s writing, stoked the personal fire that was constantly simmering. The bulk of the research happened a long time ago, but the project has been built through a ton of revision, reframing, ruminating. Instead of an immersive experience, this has been a long, ever-shifting haunting. Sorry, this isn’t any kind of concrete answer to your question. I’m still trying to figure out what it has meant to me to write this book, to be honest.
CCP: How do you feel about memoirs in general, and more broadly, the field of nonfiction? Do you believe in the directions each or both are taking?
LM: I think it’s cool that we’re, apparently, having a “moment.” It’s incredible to have people getting excited about essays, literary nonfiction, whatever you want to call it. At the AWP conference in April, I squeezed into a standing-room-only auditorium to watch Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine speak. How cool is that? People writing weird, heady nonfiction were being treated like bestselling novelists. It’s a great time to be writing nonfiction, and thinking seriously about what the genre can be. I see a couple of problems in this, though. First, I think whenever an essayist or group of essayists get popular, there’s this temptation to act like there’s been a tectonic shift, like the wheel has been reinvented, which then discounts the fact that this vital work has always been happening. Also, I worry that while the word “essay” is finally getting its due, we may still be leaving other, longer forms out of literary acceptance. The word “memoir,” in particular, remains dirty — more opportunistic than artful, more formulaic than creative. It’s the only genre we define by its shittiest iterations.
There was a Jezebel piece just a week or so ago called “Delete Your Memoir,” that refers to the genre as the money-making playground of celebrities or, worse, unfamous narcissists. This is a pretty typical response, still, and I think it creates this effect where even people who love and write essays feel compelled to separate themselves from memoirists. During that panel at AWP, some of the writers spent time specifically saying that their work wasn’t memoir, that they weren’t interested in that kind of thing. Of course, you could also say that they’re books are good memoirs — inquisitive, intellectual, willing to look outside the self but still born out of personal questions and memoires. Just because Rankine’s Citizen is beautiful poetry and incisive criticism, doesn’t mean those two modes don’t also come together to make a great piece of memoir. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I spent a lot of time trying to think of a different subtitle for Lord Fear — anything but “memoir.” But I think that’s ultimately unhelpful. I want to own it, and I hope we’re moving toward a literary world where there no longer has to be an instinct to apologize for the genre you’re working in.
CCP: How important was being in an MFA program, specifically the University of Iowa, to your development and trajectory?
LM: Getting my MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa was enormously important for me. I think there’s a particular value in getting an MFA in nonfiction because it’s such an under-studied genre. The odds of a young writer having a frame of reference for the full expanse of what nonfiction can look like are pretty slim. For me, the MFA was as valuable as a literature program as it was a writing workshop. I entered hardly knowing what an essay was. Most people don’t, right? How many people have the chance to take something like an “intro to nonfiction” class in college? I was lucky enough to have some great professors as an undergrad who led me to realize that I loved both literary journalism and James Baldwin, but I showed up at Iowa with not much frame of reference beyond that. I hadn’t gone back to Montaigne, or further back to Shonagon, Plutarch, Seneca. I hadn’t been exposed to any modern formal experimentations. My first semester at Iowa I took a required class called “history in the essay” and got smacked in the face with all this possibility. Then my fellow students were all doing different things, coming from different places. I spent so much of my time going, “Oh my God, you can do that?” That sensation was crucial to Lord Fear, and continues to be crucial to my reading and writing life.