Interview with the Old-New Godfather of Creative Nonfiction

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lee Gutkind is known as the godfather of creative nonfiction. In a trailblazing move to give the genre a home and to legitimize it in the academy, he founded the first CNF-only journal in 1993. With the new issue this spring, Gutkind is taking Creative Nonfiction, now in its advanced adolescence, in new directions.

He’s also on a literary odyssey with his own teenage son. Truckin’ with Sam: A Father and Son, The Mick and The Dyl, Rockin’ and Rollin’, On the Road (June 2010), combines travelogue with memoir in this latest personal CNF endeavor. The book traces the journey of a self-described “old-new father” and son whose time on the road helps them fine-tune their relationship. Against a soundtrack of inspirational music from an earlier era, Lee and Sam go cruising the highways of America, Canada, Africa, and beyond. Together they negotiate border crossings, mountain summits, and tuna fish sandwiches.

Author of more than a dozen books, Lee Gutkind is currently the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. Sam is a freshman studying mathematics and physics at Carnegie Mellon University.

From the cab of their pickup truck, the Gutkind duo talked recently with TriQuarterly Online’s Gina Vozenilek about their new book and about the new look for the nation’s flagship CNF magazine.

TriQuarterly Online: In the book, you describe “truckin’,” from a Grateful Dead lyric, as “a metaphor for spontaneity—a lack of restriction . . . breaking the rules. Changing the pattern. Going with the flow.” You use this word in the title of the book. Did you set out with Sam to write the book of your travels, or did the idea of the book come to you more, well, spontaneously than that?

Lee Gutkind: I think Sam will have to answer this on his own, but I think that what I really wanted to do was truck with Sam. That is, I wanted to spend time with him, and I wanted it to be as spontaneous an experience as possible. My whole life has been devoted to writing books, and so there is nothing that I do that, in some corner of my mind, there isn’t the possibility of a book looming and growing. We wanted to truck, and I asked him if he would do a journal or a diary, and before we knew it, we had many pages, and a book had been created. I don’t know. Do you remember it in the same way I do, Sam?

Sam Gutkind: Yeah. I mean, I would pretty much agree with that. We always knew it would be a possibility of a book, but we didn’t commit to that at first. 

TQO: Truckin’ is obviously a departure from your books that use immersion journalism techniques, such as Almost Human and Many Sleepless Nights. Do you think Truckin’ breaks any rules or changes any patterns, particularly when you compare it with your other more memoiristic works of nonfiction, such as Forever Fat, your collection of essays?

LG: Well, to me it’s all truckin’. I mean, to me, the satisfying life, the fulfilled life is the truckin’ life where you are able to follow your dreams, follow your instincts, and do what you think you need to do and want to do. [ . . . ] But I also make it clear to my son Sam that there are boundaries that are important to think about as you truck, just like in the book. [. . .] Life is not that far away from the kind of books I do, and so you put yourself in a situation that kind of allows you to move in the direction of the people who you are following. And if you go in that direction, and you are free to do that, then you are free to be part of something else larger. But there are boundaries. It’s not totally chaotic; there are times when you have to decide you can’t truck anymore, or there are also times that you have to decide that you can’t go past the boundary. I do this in writing all the time. So I knew more or less what I wanted to accomplish in Many Sleepless Nights, and I set myself to be as spontaneous as I could without violating what I think I needed to do. In this particular case, I needed to bond with my son. I needed to have every potential opportunity to be with him, to be a part of his life, because that was really important to me, and I knew one day would come—and that day has come now—when he is nineteen years old, he is a freshman in college, he is living away from home. I knew I wanted to give him everything I could as far as having these experiences before that time.

TQO: How has the experience of writing a book with your son challenged you as a writer and as a father?

LG: Well, for one thing, I had to be as true as I could to the facts and also to my own feelings and emotions, because he was someone who lived the experience with me, and someone also that I’m trying to teach and to be a model for, so I couldn’t exaggerate; I couldn’t lie—not that I would want to do that. You have the person that you trust and love the most in life right beside you, monitoring you, watching you, and also, someone that you are writing about, so it was a very, very unique kind of experience. I mean, Sam, my son, was the ultimate gatekeeper of this book.

TQO: Hmm. Sam, speaking of being a gatekeeper, of course this book includes some of those diary entries that you kept while you were truckin’. So was adding them to the book your idea, or did your dad ask you to share these private musings with the world?

SG: Well, when we started going on the truckin’ trips, my dad asked me to keep a journal, and obviously I liked some of the entries better than others. The ones I liked, the ones I thought were worth putting in, are the ones we put in the book. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not in there, but the stuff that’s in there is the writing that I think is worthwhile.

TQO: OK, that’s my next question. Were there ever any debates about the inclusion or exclusion of some of your diary entries?

SG: I think there might have been a couple of debates. I can’t really remember anything major, but I think nothing that was serious.

LG: May I say that—and Sam could tell me to be quiet if he doesn’t want me to talk about this—but from my point of view, some of the most impassioned and emotional and also beautifully written passages had to do with some traumatic events he had in seventh and eighth grade, which we decided to not put in.

SG: Well, this book isn’t really about my experience in middle school, so . . . I mean, it’s about what we did on the road.

TQO: Well that sounds like editorial process in training, figuring that out together as you go along. That’s interesting.

LG: Yeah, we went back and forth on that.

TQO: In the chapter called “Listening to the Road,” Lee, you write about the music of your odyssey: rock—The Rolling Stones, the Doors, Janis Joplin; and folk, old and new—Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Fiona Apple, to name a few. In what ways was music important to this odyssey for each of you?

SG: Oh, I think music was very important. My dad was trying . . . the book we read by Gary Paulsen, The Car—the book that originally gave us the idea to do this—it was about hippies; it was about the sixties counterculture, and by listening to this music, I was able to learn more about that culture, so that was really important. I would say music was what we did when we were on the road. It kept me from getting bored from sitting in the car for ten hours at a time. I got to have new experiences through the music. I think it was pretty important.

LG: If you recall, in the book I call myself an old-new dad, because I am older than most fathers of Sam’s friends and classmates. There’s a cliché of the old guy sitting around trying to tell his son or daughter what life was like in the old days and I didn’t want to do that necessarily all the time, but I wanted to show him what kind of life and what kind of environment I came from. There’s nothing you can say about Mick Jagger that his voice and his songs don’t say for you. So this was important to me, to communicate that era to him.

TQO: Lee, you write that “good writers and good vocalists should be in your face.” What do you mean by that, and what about this book would you say is most “in your face”?

LG: Well, I think that this book is in my readers’ faces, in our readers’ faces, because to me it was one of the most honest literary experiences I have ever had. I have not in any way tried to sugarcoat this father-son traveling experience. We had difficult times. We argued. We were bored. I made a fool out of myself when I tried to be a good father often. I didn’t succeed at all in the things I tried to do sometimes, but that’s what good literature, it seems to me—this is what I wanted to do, to rip the pages of our life out of our own world and kind of show readers what it’s like for fathers and sons, especially for fathers who are struggling with insecurities having to do with the fact that they are older than most other fathers.

To me what’s really interesting is that in retrospect Sam’s journal entries were mostly chronological. And so I am sitting beside—in this truck, this same truck that took us to Alaska—I’m now sitting beside a nineteen-year-old grown man. He has a beard—or not a beard, but he shaves now, and he’s over six feet tall, and his voice is deep, as you can hear. Now, when we started truckin’ he was twelve years old! And those journal entries begin when he’s twelve years old. And so, I read those journal entries now and I see, and the reader can see, I hope, how he matured. How he grew from, you know, being interested in computer games and video games to his very sophisticated understanding of and dedication to mathematics and philosophy. And so to me, it’s a joy. I could forget everything I wrote and just kind of follow his journal entries and live that life, or relive it again as I reread them. That’s a really exciting thing.

TQO: It sounds like you would recommend truckin’ to other parents. As I listen to you now, I’m very aware that my oldest is twelve years old, and I’m sort of imagining how that would feel, seven years from now, being able to look back on a written document of travels together. I feel like I should get a truck. So you would recommend the experience?

LG: [laughing] Well, I’ll ask Sam. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire life. So, that’s evident, but I’ll let Sam take it: would he recommend it?

SG: I mean, I guess it’s a different experience for the parent than for the kid, but I don’t know. If that’s what your children are into, I’d go for it.

LG: But Sam, would you do it again?

SG: I’d do it again, yeah. [laughing] It’s an ongoing process, certainly. It’s a way to live life: having adventures. So I think I’m always going to be into it.

TQO: Do you think your relationship with your father was directly impacted by this overt attempt to capture each other?

SG: Yeah, I would say so.

LG: He’s not saying whether it was impacted positively or negatively. [laughing]

TQO: Good point. So do you want to clarify that?

SG: Well, who’s to say? What my relationship with my father was like at the time—I mean, who’s to say if it is better or if it’s worse? It’s just part of our identity now. When you’re stuck in a car for that much time at once, you just start to think about things. You look at things and think about things, and it’s a very introspective experience as well.

TQO: Shifting gears now. Lee, you are the editor of Creative Nonfiction and have just redesigned, and some might say reinvented, the publication. Before we talk about the new look of Creative Nonfiction, can you talk briefly about what factors in the literary universe were converging back in 1993 to make the moment ripe for the launch of the first nonfiction-only journal?

LG: In 1993 basically in the world of writing, the novel was king. Short story was the ultimate form of art, except of course for poetry. Anyone worth his or her salt in the world of literature wrote poems and taught poetry in the university. There wasn’t a lot of room for someone writing narrative nonfiction or creative nonfiction.

Also at the time in the world of journalism, magazines were still very successful—the New Yorker was successful, Esquire had a lot of pages, the Atlantic published a lot of fiction and nonfiction, so the climate was different. But lots of people were experimenting with using literary techniques and writing true stories. And there was nowhere to go for these folks. Uh, I take it back. There were a few places to go, but nowhere especially for people experimenting with narrative nonfiction. And so I really did sense that this was the time to create a publication that would give a market to those people who wanted to try serious narrative long-form nonfiction and also try to legitimize it as a genre, which is why I decided to go to a journal form. Because in the academic world, in writing programs, the journal was the king. If you were published in a magazine, even if it was a darn good magazine—I’m not knocking the New Yorker here—but if you were published in a magazine, that wasn’t as good in the literary world; it was not as good as publishing in a journal at the time. So it was time to start a literary journal in nonfiction—creative nonfiction—that would give writers, emerging writers, and writers experimenting with narrative and nonfiction a place to go. So that was what I thought, and it was one of those things that I knew in my heart was right, and in many respects I was just truckin’, I was just doing something because I felt it was important to do.

TQO: And how has the climate changed?

LG: Now there are many—there are four journals that do this, that publish narrative nonfiction. And almost all literary journals—all those literary journals that didn’t want nonfiction, all the really wonderful ones—now are hungry for creative nonfiction. And so the world has changed a lot, and there are markets. In fact, there are more markets than there are good writers to satisfy the market at this particular time. And so now, I thought, it’s time to not only lead that field, to continue to publish the absolute best creative nonfiction possible, but also to take another giant leap forward to make the journal into a more mass-market-looking product. And also to begin to write about the genre, because seventeen years ago, it was a case of pioneering the genre, and now it is a case of dissecting and discussing a genre that is the most rapidly growing genre in the publishing world—and in the academic world.

TQO: So you have expanded the scope of the publication to include some new writer-friendly features: you’ve got that regular craft column by Phillip Lopate, news from the publishing front, innovative features such as the “Pushing the Boundaries” section for more experimental nonfiction, a daily tweet contest, literary finds from the blogosphere—all these new departments, and they run alongside the traditional essays Creative Nonfiction has always published from established and emerging writers. So tell me a little bit more about your aims in publishing such a large variety of literary and meta-literary materials, and then, what are some of the risks you’re taking as you do that?

LG: Well, the biggest risk is that people will not accept our change, that our readers won’t like it. [ . . . ] The second risk is not only the risk of changing the format, but we are changing the frequency of our publishing. We’re moving from being a triquarterly to being a quarterly, and so it is an incredible, a significant, amount more effort and financial commitment. And so the risk is failure. The risk is being rejected, of not perceiving what our readers want and need and therefore, you know, dying. And in this particular case, the publishing industry, as you well know—I mean you guys more than almost anybody—know how tenuous the publishing world can be, and so it’s a big risk. And the danger is that it might not be the right move to make. Did I answer your question?

TQO: Yeah, you did address the idea that there’s a risk in innovation, but you had a very successful product. I still wonder what causes you to leave what you know is successful and change it up. The new Creative Nonfiction is far more “newsstand” than it is academic looking. I mean, before you even open the cover, it’s just such a different animal. Are you making a conscious attempt to appeal to a broader group?

LG: We are making an absolutely conscious effort to significantly expand our readership. Look, creative nonfiction to me is the most exciting thing a writer can do, because all of the tools of poetry and fiction are being combined under one genre—people who write true stories, people who write journalism, or nonfiction, or whatever you want to call it. And if you look at the bestseller list, if you look at what people are reading, if you walk through any independent bookstore . . . people are reading narrative nonfiction. Now why should some of the best narrative nonfiction ever written—the stuff we publish in our journal—only be open to those people in the university community? We don’t want that to happen.

I think that creative nonfiction is the literature of the people. I think that everybody these days is incredibly interested in true stories. Scientists are learning to take what they know and turn it into narrative. Business people, physicians—the whole world’s changing, and we’re becoming “storyfied.” And I think that this is the time to take this genre and open it up to a much larger audience. So I want more readers. I don’t want a thousand more readers; I want a hundred thousand more readers, and this is an opportunity to make it happen—to make it look more accessible and be more accessible. The other thing that is equally important to me is that people are no longer just writing essays. Writers are no longer just writers. We’re reaching out from a technological point of view, and we’re experimenting with different forms and different ways of delivering information and ideas to the public, like tweets, like blogs . . .

You know, you don’t make a change when you’re losing ground, you make a change when you have a successful product with momentum, and that momentum will help drive the change. So it’s not as if we made the change because we’re losing our reader base; we made a change because we’re on a train, and our train is going faster, and we needed to do something to keep up with that train and serve the people who are riding in the cars.

TQO: That’s really interesting, and you are the godfather of creative nonfiction, so—

LG: People say so.

TQO: In the new issue of Creative Nonfiction, in your editorial remarks, you note that even as technology inundates us with information and communications, we grow more and more socially isolated from one another. You speculate there that the popularity of creative nonfiction is, in part, a response to this phenomenon, that “we crave the intimacy that humans forge through storytelling, through sharing and comparing our experiences.” This is certainly something you put on display for your readers in your new book.

LG: Exactly. Exactly that. What’s so ironic about this new world, especially with all these technological ways we can communicate with one another, is that sometimes we communicate quite vividly and quite intimately while we’re sitting in our rooms, all by ourselves, looking at a keyboard and not a human being. But we miss the human connection. We miss the, you know, sitting on the front porch talking to the neighbor who is walking by with his dog. And so, telling stories, writing creative nonfiction, that, to me anyway, is reproducing or creating for the first time the dialogue between us and the world that we have been cut off from. Telling these stories, and sharing these stories, and being, as we talked about before, “in the face” of the reader, is a really good thing for all of us to try to do, especially in a society that grows more isolated with every passing day.

TQO: Lee, you and Sam are truckin’ right now. Where are you, and where are you headed?

LG: Well, we are somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And we are headed to Atlantic City, where Sam and I wrote some of this book and also where one of the parts of a chapter takes place: we ran on the boardwalk and we wrote a little bit about running together, so we’re headed that way. We were just talking, while we were driving, that in two or three months we’ll be going to Australia, and we thought we would rent a truck there and ride around for a while and see what that country is all about.

TQO: Tales from the Outback?

LG: Honest to God, maybe that will be our next book.

TQO: So maybe there will be a Truckin’ Part Two.

LG: Oh, wouldn’t I love that.

TQO: What do you say, Sam?

SG: [laughing] We’ll see what happens.

Read an excerpt from Truckin'.