Interview with Patrick Madden

by Thomas Jenson

Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections, Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (2015). He curates www.quotidiana.org, co-edits the journal Fourth Genre with Joey Franklin, and, with David Lazar, co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. He has taught English at BYU since 2004.

Inscape: In your essay “Happiness,” your collaborator, Amy Leach, writes, “to have lived in such proximity to nothing, yet to have written a something, even a mini-something…maybe that is what it means, other disappointments notwithstanding, to enter into joy.” What are the disappointments of writing, and how have you personally overcome them to enter into joy?

Patrick Madden: Disappointment in writing can come if one is aspirational (and probably everyone is to some degree). Most people do not achieve the type of success they hope for. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where universities support artists—not just linguistic artists but visual and musical artists. Not too many of them though. There’s a lot more supply of willing and capable professors than there is demand for them. So ultimately I’ve been very lucky. And my books find a good but not a very large audience. It might be nice if more people knew about the books.

It’s beneficial for writers to be somewhat melancholic, empathetic. When you’re attuned to the way the world works or fails to work, then even if everything in your personal life is smooth sailing, you’ll still feel something–not to the same acute extent as a person suffering–when you witness suffering from others. That is also a kind of disappointment, the large-scale disappointments that everybody experiences. It doesn’t have to be unique to writers—I don’t think any of those things really are. But they do come up as part of the writer’s life.

I find that writing itself is a joy. This is not just me. I think most writers feel this. It often feels like an essay exists outside of me and I’m discovering it. I know this isn’t quite true, but it can just feel that way sometimes. The art of creation, plus the sense of discovery, is exhilarating. I tend to write outside myself, so I don’t just transfer what I already know or what has happened to me. I do a lot of research, and I love that kind of learning, too. And there’s some joy in sharing writing. One benefit of not having a broad audience in my writing is that people who read it tend to like it or at least be courteous enough to say they like it. So I don’t get any real negative feedback. It’s all good reviews.

Inscape: Do you feel like there’s less pressure because you have a smaller readership? 

PM: Probably. I have published my books with the University of Nebraska Press. They’re academic and nonprofit. As long as they don’t lose money, they are happy to publish the next book. So it’s fairly low stakes for me. They have published three books of mine now, and I love working with them. I have friends who have published with big New York houses. They don’t quite own their work the way I do. The publisher owns it and needs to make money from it, so there’s a lot more interference. And if the book didn’t sell, the publisher cut their losses and took the book out of print. I never felt that kind of pressure. There’s a tiny bit of pressure because I want the book to sell well enough so they’ll let me do the next book. But it’s worked out so far. It’s more of a carrot than a stick.

Inscape: In the preface of Disparates you write, “what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” How does the commercial success of your work influence it?

PM: Almost not at all. I get paid to teach, not to write. Any money I make from writing is used to take the family out to dinner. It’s so pitifully small that it cannot be a goal. But that’s freeing too. It means I can write about anything I want, not necessarily something timely or topical or newsworthy. I don’t think I find readers on the level of my topics. I find readers because of the writing itself. And most readers I suspect know me personally or know somebody who knows me. There’s a little bit of word-of-mouth. My graduate-school mentor, David Lazar, has written a number of esoteric essay collections. His latest book is about supporting actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age. So it’s a topical book. I mean it may not have a huge audience, but at least there is a subject audience for the book: people who are interested in that time and in that place. So he can find an audience that doesn’t know David Lazar, that doesn’t know literary nonfiction, that just knows that they’re interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood. My books so far have had no subject audience available to them. Even the title of this latest book suggests that it’s about a whole lot of stuff. There’s nobody out there looking for a book about a whole lot of stuff.

Inscape: I thought it was cool how you had a lot of different subjects. I noticed that there was a scientific lens sometimes. Is that something you intend with your writing?

PM: Yes. Over almost half a century I’ve developed my interests, and science has been a longtime pursuit of mine. I think my writing style comes from an alchemy of something inherent in me and the intersection of the right thing at the right time or influences from peers, parents, and teachers. All these things have added up to me. I think the book is a pretty organic emanation from the person I have become over several decades of life. I will say, though, that I began graduate school with a more narrative-driven style. Through training with this professor I mentioned, David Lazar, I was convinced to love the more researched and idea-driven essay. Which I really took to, but I wasn’t aware of that interest before I confronted it in graduate school.

Inscape: The book almost reads like raw thinking, as if I were sitting next to you while you are discovering these essays. If that was the process, what did editing look like later? Does editing your work go against the philosophy of it?

PM: Not really. On the one hand, I’m a slow, methodical writer. I really try to work the sentences and get them into an artful shape as I go. I know writers who are very quick and who have to revise more heavily later on.

But the result wants to appear effortless. I don’t know any writer who can really put the recorder to their mind and let it run. An essay is an artful representation of the mind thinking, but it’s not a transcript of the mind thinking. I don’t know about your thoughts, but mine are far too scattered. Montaigne, who invented the essay, basically says that he was so easily distracted that he began writing to tame his mind. He was naturally curious and divagating, and maybe had a bit of attention deficit. But when he wrote, he focused his attention. Not in a systemic way, but in a way that still allowed for the play of the mind but kept it on some train. Not a linear argument type of train—never that—but a kind of meandering argument in a rhetorical sense. Revision is always a kind of tightening and threading. The essay wants to get to something interesting, resonant, emotionally charged. But usually I’ll write toward that and then realize, “OK, I got here to a good place. Now I need to make the ending inevitable.” Long ago I thought of this, but I later discovered that Aristotle had thought of it, too. The idea is that endings should be both surprising and inevitable. Maybe the first response is, “Wow, that’s new and interesting. I hadn’t considered that.” The second is a recognition that, “I see how we’ve been getting here all along.” But the composition of the prose typically, in my case at least, isn’t enough to generate that feeling of inevitability. So I’ll run back and use metaphorical language that relates to the final image or something, so that when you get there, you say, “Oh, penguins! I remember he was talking about the Arctic before.” That’s not a real example, but it could be.

Inscape: You talked a little earlier about the melancholic attitude that writers should have. I feel like that tone came through with your essay “Repast” because the form is creative and playful even though it’s dealing with a heavy subject. How do you see those two things working together, the form and the content?

PM: Sometimes we categorize emotions in too opposed or simplistic ways. We think happy or sad, good or bad. We think of them as opposites. If you were to think of play or humor, you’d associate that with some kind of positive emotion or experience. That’s fine. I think it does often work that way. But I don’t think that’s a requirement. I’m interested in the ways form and content fit together in an inherent way. And maybe inherent just means in a way that we’re used to. But I’m also interested in creating new connections. As if that’s the whole game of the essay: to create new connections that have never been made before and will be interesting to readers. In this case, with that particular essay, the process is a little bit backwards. I had read an essay in the form of a crossword puzzle. It was a piece called “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter (she’s a friend of mine). I decided I wanted to write a crossword puzzle essay, so I found an online tool to make crossword puzzles. I didn’t really have a subject to write about. I started plugging things in. But I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t come up with anything that I thought worked well. But the same website could create a word search puzzle, too. That seemed easier because it’s filling in the gaps with garbled, nonsensical letters. And it hit me that I do have a subject for this in my mother’s funeral. So it was the failure of the crossword puzzle and the serendipity that the same programmers put together the crossword puzzle and the word search functions that got me to remember that my mom used to do these word search puzzles. In the master bedroom there were some of these leftover books that she had been doing, one of them a word search puzzle book. I started thinking about the metaphor of finding words and that scene at the repast where I had not prepared any sort of speech. The opportunity arose, it was kind of unexpected, and I just stumbled through it inadequately.

And then the connections started flowing quite easily. But easily because I steep myself in a lot of literature. One early association was the Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” and the situation he posits of an infinite library that contains every possible book, how in that library you would find the story of your whole life, even what you haven’t lived yet. There’s a lot of afterlife imagery in the story, and in other places Borges has compared the afterlife to library, so that seemed to work really well. I did not revise that essay much once I hit on the idea. It would’ve been tricky to revise anyway because these paragraphs had to be roughly the same length and I felt like the five paragraphs balanced nicely. They arched pretty well.

I also had fun hiding other words in the puzzles that don’t appear in the text. For example, one Easter egg is one of the phrases the librarian mentions that they found in a book: “oh time, thy pyramids.” That was a great discovery for them because most of the books were gibberish. And at the very end, my essay’s last sentence is also from Borges. It is the very last line of “The Library of Babel”: “My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.” 

Inscape: I think it’s a beautiful essay. And in my mind, it exemplifies the purpose of making unexpected connections. The book as a whole treats the essay—how to write it, what it can do, its historical champions. What is your philosophy of the essay? How is that understanding different from how you have seen it in the past, and what influences brought you to where you are now?

PM: It’s hard to be terse about it, but I’ll try: When you are younger, essays are punishments your teacher gives you that force you to prove that you did the homework. Your own perspective is not valued. All that’s valued is argument and proof. You are expected to have concluded before you begin and to use the writing as ballast to support an argument. You might involve expert opinion. This is antithetical in spirit to what essays are or have been or should be. What Montaigne intended is an attempt without reaching after conclusions. When I first started studying creative writing, I thought an essay was a short story that was true. I didn’t perceive the need for any kind of generic distinctions between short story and essay, other than this extratextual bit that in the essay the author certifies that this really happened whereas in the short story the author holds open space to invent some things. That’s also a pretty unsophisticated view. We’ve already talked about some of my basic hopes for the essay, which is that it’s an artistic record of a mind thinking about a subject of general interest, often intersecting with the writer’s personal life, but not always. Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” I think that’s an appropriate definition. I don’t think it limits things, at least. The essay generally balks at limits or pushes against them or subverts them.

Inscape: You write, “All essays…should be gnomic…without persnickety certainties.” But don’t some of your essays conclude on some certainties? Not that they are didactic, but parts don’t feel gnomic, per se. Was your goal with Disparates to leave the reader to deal with ambiguity, but did you also want to clarify certain things, like what makes a good essay?

PM: Scott Russell Sanders, an essayist I admire, effectively said that while the essay might reach some clear understanding about its particular subject, it always recognizes the vast uncertainty that remains. I think that’s a pretty good way to think about what essays do. I’m fond of setting the reader up by saying, “This is what I’m trying to say here”–that type of direct engagement. I’ll use the phrase “which is to say” pretty frequently. It’s a tick of mine. Because I want the essay to represent what it’s like in another mind – I want the reader to understand what’s happening in my mind – I want to both show and tell. But the telling can’t be banal, directly correspondent, saying this equals that. That’s unsatisfying for me. Instead, I want it to hold up a subject and point out our default response and offer a varied perspective, see the thing’s contextuality. Our understanding is a negotiation between the thing, the mind perceiving the thing, and the myriad influences that have shaped the mind perceiving the thing. Generally that’s a bit uncomfortable. It’s much easier to fall in line with the cultural defaults and interpret from within that space without questioning. If you perpetuate the system you will probably succeed in the system. I say this not as some grand rebel. My life has largely been fitting myself into systems comfortably, so that the system will benefit me. Here and now it’s possible for a person like me with this kind of creative interest to be sheltered by academia, to earn a paycheck sufficient to pay the mortgage on a home, to feed some children, and so forth. That’s nice. But ultimately the dominant value systems don’t really value the type of work I do as much as other types of entertainment. They more tolerate it.

Inscape: Is that frustrating to you?

PM: Sometimes. But I don’t really need more than I have. I have more than most people in the world. Maybe the mind is naturally inclined to see the things one lacks more prevalently than the things one has. You can always find people with nicer cars, nicer homes, living more ostentatiously. It is somewhat frustrating that teachers are undervalued, but less personally frustrating than culturally frustrating. I wish our culture valued these things more, the things that don’t translate so directly into economic value.

Inscape: What influence do you feel like Spanish culture and language had on your writing?

PM: I’ve been to some literary events in Uruguay that were just packed. The crowds were not as big as a soccer game, but they acted like they were at a soccer game. Once I went to see Mario Benedetti, one of Uruguay’s greatest poets, in a concert with a folklorist named Danielle Viglietti. The line to get into the theater went around the whole block. They would play and recite poems to music. It was just wonderful. After every single poem or song the crowd erupted into exuberant cheers. When you go to a poetry reading here in the US, everybody remains politely silent between poems. Another time I went to see José Saramago, the Nobel Prize winner from Portugal, when he visited Montevideo. When I got there an hour early, again the line wrapped around the block. When I finally made it inside, the whole auditorium was jam packed. I had to stand in a crowd outside the doorway just trying to hear what was going on. Obviously they could have held the event in a place with bigger seating capacity, but the way people respected literature was inspiring to me. There are people in the US who feel that way about literature, but maybe we’re too dispersed. We have different cultural habits here. And we only elect lawyers to public positions, whereas in Latin America sometimes they’ll elect the poet. They’ll send poets as ambassadors.

As for language, even though Spanish and English are both Romance languages – at least later English is heavily influenced by the French – they are different enough. I have a good friend in Uruguay who says that if you have only one watch you’ll always know exactly what time it is, but if you have two watches you’ll never be quite sure. I think that’s great. Knowing a second language has had a tremendous effect on breaking my correspondent/convergent understanding of language (and things beyond language). You can get by in life with a pretty simplistic relationship where language is just a vehicle for information. Language can work that way; it certainly does. But it’s not just that. The fact that Spanish sees things differently, even slightly, is a tremendous benefit. As in the phrase “se me cayó”: it fell from me or on me. There’s a distancing, a lack of blame. Or “to be born”: in English we use this clunky phrase. In Spanish it’s “nacer.” It applies in an active way to that thing whereas our phrase is passive and convoluted. Or the phrase “dar a luz,” which is a widely accepted metaphorical verb that is applied for the complementary action, which we don’t have a good name for: “give birth to” is such a clunky phrase. If it weren’t so well-established I’d have to strike it out anytime I found it in a student draft because it’s just a backwards way of approaching things. So knowing Spanish—and I’ve kept it up, my wife is from Uruguay, we speak it in the home, we have lived in Uruguay a bunch—has really infiltrated my mind and allowed me to think in new ways. And it’s not just that I can think in the English way or the Spanish way. I don’t feel like I’m tied to language as an information container anymore.

Inscape: I feel like this fits how earlier you were talking about emotional dichotomies such as happy/sad, comedy/tragedy. It seems like you really understand how the two things in the dichotomy converge in your work.

PM: We often think that in a dichotomy you have to choose one or the other, one thing’s right one and the other is wrong. But I don’t feel that way at all. I mean unless the kids are misbehaving and you have to straighten them out. At least where I’m allowed the space to live and think and write freely, it’s quite invigorating not to have to resolve. It feels like John Keats’s “negative capability,” holding contradictory thoughts without irritated reaching after conclusions. I’d much rather exist in that place

Inscape: Something you said earlier about fitting yourself comfortably into established systems so that they benefit you struck me. Do you feel like your teaching or writing is a way to break out of those systems?

PM: I hope so. It has been for me and I hope to model and perpetuate that for students as well. Unconsciously I’ve certainly worked within the system of white privilege for instance, or the “American dream,” the immigrant who works hard to give his children a better life. That’s my family story. My ancestors are fairly recent arrivals to North America, within two or three generations, and they certainly bought into that model. Back to systems, one main system I’ve consciously worked in is academia. When I was younger I quite enjoyed school. I figured out the rules, the reward structure. And I worked to get good grades and learn a good bit. The system was so influential that here I am, still in school. I didn’t want to become a specialist who has to spend an entire career focused on some very narrow area of knowledge. I wanted, and want, to have the freedom to learn anything, drop it when I am no longer interested, and move onto the next thing. That’s what an essayist does. I’ve been lucky that this thing called “creative nonfiction” is burgeoning. At the turn of the last century, not too many programs offered an emphasis in creative nonfiction, but now many do. The timing was quite good for me.

That’s the primary system that I’ve consciously worked within. But just yesterday I was talking to students about their final paper and telling them not to subsume their personality to the thing they believe to be “proper academic style,” which is third-person, passive voice, attempting pseudoscientific distance, objectivity instead of subjectivity. I am trying to work within academia to subvert academia little bit.

Inscape: You probably have to conform to the system to some extent in order to change it. Right?

PM: Somewhat. But I’ll tell you even in my department most people are specialists in literary critics. If I go to a faculty presentation on an academic subject, I have no idea what they’re talking about. They speak a language I don’t speak. And not only do I not speak it, but I don’t want to speak it. I feel like speaking that language would be a kind of selling out. Have you been to some of these presentations? Some of them are just so jargon-y. They’re not speaking to anybody who hasn’t had their exact training.

Inscape: Some final questions. What advice do you have for students who want to become writers?

PM: All the writers I know have one thing in common: perseverance. I know writers who are very different stylistically, and some can publish in these venues here and some can publish only in those other venues over here. There’s a lot of room for stylistic variance. But most failed writers ultimately make that judgment (of failure) on themselves. They make it based upon feedback—they get a lot of rejections and they start to think “maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But the ultimate judgment is always your own. Here’s a fun example. The book How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker just came out. I know Jerald. He’s a super good guy. It’s his third book, so he’s not a first-time author. But Jerald tells me that this book was rejected by something like twenty publishers, who all thought it wasn’t marketable. They wanted him to write a memoir. Even though essays are experiencing a surge in popularity now, the publishers he went to, at least, didn’t want essays. Meanwhile, I am one of the coeditors for the the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press. Jerald sent us the book, and we said “this is exactly what we like.” The book is now a finalist for the National Book Award, one of five books published in 2020 selected by the National Book Award committee. I can guarantee that there are publishers right now who are shaking their heads wondering how they missed it. So it’s not a case of becoming a writer and or not; it’s a case of believing in what you’ve written enough to keep shopping it around, keep sharing it, until you find a publisher that recognizes the value in it. And then a lot of luck, too. Because there are a lot of great books, and the National Book Award finalists are not the actual five best books published that year. They’re the five books published that the committee happened to discover that year and agreed upon. “Perseverance”: that would be my advice.

Inscape: How did things work out for you?

PM: Yeah, I was pretty lucky. My first book is effectively what I was working on for my dissertation before I got a Fulbright fellowship and wrote a different dissertation. So it’s made of essays I wrote during graduate school. I had published half of them or so in literary journals, bit by bit, small journals here and there. I sent the manuscript into a national book contest from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). That year the judge was Michael Martone, whose water bottle I sold in the first essay in my new book. And the screener was a guy named Ander Monson. He wrote one of the blurbs for my new book. So Ander Monson gets a hundred manuscripts and from them he has to select a small number, let’s say 10. Among them is mine, I assume because we share some esthetic affinities. I’m writing in a style that, basically, he recognizes as valuable. So he sends off his 10 selections to the final judge, Martone, who was Monson’s teacher. They share some affinities, too. And finally Martone selects my manuscript as runner-up. I didn’t win the contest but the book was runner-up. That meant I got a paragraph of praise from Michael Martone. With that in hand and having met a lot of other writers and editors, including Dinty Moore, who edits Brevity Magazine and has written a lot of books himself. He says, “Pat, you should send in your book to Nebraska. Tell them I sent you.” I send a proposal to Nebraska (who’d been publishing lots of great literary nonfiction for years, a lot of writers I admired and aspired to be like, not the big moneymaking writers but the serious literary writers who supplement their writing habit with teaching jobs) with the Michael Martone quote and that Dinty Moore recommendation. And it all worked out. It took some time, but they decided to publish the book. And the book did well enough that they were willing to take a chance on the next one. And that went well enough that they did the third book, Disparates. So it has been a gradual process of building momentum. And the timeline when I look back is not too bad. But it didn’t happen right away either. Quotidiana came out in 2010 and I graduated with my PhD in 2004. So that’s a few years.

Inscape: Did you actually sell Michael Martone’s water bottle on eBay?

PM: Oh yeah. For $20.50. I let people know that I was doing the auction so that they could submit questions and bid. And the winning bidder was a former BYU student. She thought it would be quirky to own that water. There are some exaggerations within that essay, but I think you can tell what kind of stuff I was making up.

Inscape: Well, of course, because you say in the essay that you bathed in the water, then you gargled it.

PM: Yeah, that didn’t really happen. But I don’t think that destroys the credibility, because any critical reader is going to understand that that didn’t really happen. I hope.