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INTERVIEW #1 JOHN D’AGATA

interviewed by Andrew Zornoza John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame, a collection of short essays, and About a Mountain, a meditation on the limits of human understanding, and, ostensibly, the disposal of nuclear waste. David Foster Wallace called him “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.” and Annie Dillard says of him: “A writer of rare intelligence and artistry . . . John D’Agata is redefining the modern American essay.” D’Agata is also an editor of two influential anthologies: The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. His new book, out now, is titled The Lifespan of a Fact. D’Agata teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives. HOW:  I am curious about how you deal with the aftermath of a book like About a Mountain. A fiction or poetry writer is free to create a whole cosmology and not be responsible for it: the response, “I made it all up,” is always available. While your books have a poetic movement to them, your subjects are nevertheless out there in the world, still changing, and can talk back at you, call you in as an expert, deride you as a heretic. The essay writer seems to be beholden to many things after the creation of their work. D’AGATA:  A year after the book came out, almost to the day, Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear emergency occurred. I was on my school’s spring break at that time, trying to get some work done. But what I spent that week doing instead was discuss with various news editors why I wasn’t the right guy to come on their TV program or radio show or to contribute to their Op-Ed page about my thoughts on Japan. I am agonizingly shy, so in truth that’s part of the reason why I was turning them down. But, more importantly, I’m not an expert on nuclear waste. Despite having spent nine years researching and writing about the subject, I knew I was not anywhere near the best person to be speaking about what was happening in Japan. Certainly there’s a lot of information in About a Mountain that’s about nuclear power, and in writing the book I had to learn how to turn on a whole new part of my brain that could process the physics and the politics that are involved. But, as a writer, my understanding of all that information was in the service of a metaphor, not in the service of the information itself. Nuclear power and nuclear waste were not really my subjects; they are a vehicle for discussions of larger issues. So, for example, when the book was initially rejected by an editor because he didn’t think it read like a “general nonfiction reader on nuclear power,” I was actually relieved. I was bummed too, of course, because I wanted the book to be published. But I was relieved because what that rejection indicated was that the book was indeed signaling that it was about something other than its information. And that’s the issue that so-called “nonfiction” writers grapple with—the assumption that their books are comprised of nothing but their information, that there could never be anything in them other than information, that they are, in other words, not literary works but merely dispensaries of information. HOW:  You’ve championed many contemporary writers (Jenny…

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