John Jeremiah Sullivan—contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, author of Pulphead and Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, and the “Southern editor” of The Paris Review—picked me up from the Wilmington bus station in a black Honda sedan with the windows rolled open to the November night air. As we searched the streets for a quiet restaurant, he recounted a sanguinary chapter of the town’s racial history: how during the Reconstruction era, a progressive black government had been violently ousted by an angry white mob, our nation’s only political coup d’état. He selected a big, empty all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet. After second and third helpings of chopped pork and collard greens, we retired to his backyard, so as to not disturb his two young daughters. If Sullivan has one quality that separates him from his generation of literary minded, long-form magazine writers—whose moda operandi often involve self-aware narrators braiding careful deconstruction with descriptions so muscular they border on the steroidal—it is that Sullivan has laid claim to a certain dark, hollow chamber of the American heart. The proof of this is that, in driving past strip malls where race riots once roiled, or watching creamed corn grow skin on a buffet line, or chatting like stoned teenagers in a backyard strewn with his daughters’ Nerf weaponry, it repeatedly occurs to me that these scenes are perceptibly (but ineffably) Sullivanian. His next work, due out from Random House around 2014, will further mine this diffuse vein, but from a radically different angle: a “nonfiction historical novel” about a German lawyer who came to the South in the 1730s to set up a utopian republic among the Creek and Cherokee Indians. Pursued by the British for years, the utopian was captured in 1743 and ultimately died in prison on an island off the coast of Georgia.
Robert Moor, Editor-at-Large, Wag’s Revue: Do you enjoy interviewing people—this almost surgical procedure of extracting other people’s stories?