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By Mikayla Johnson

Eric Freeze grew up in southern Alberta, Canada in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies. He studied creative writing and African-American literature in the US, getting a PhD at Ohio University and eventually teaching at Wabash College in Indiana where he is a tenured professor. He writes both fiction and creative nonfiction, and teaches in other genres such as screenwriting and writing for video games.

Inscape: What is your experience with literature and compassion? It is a commonly studied and understood theme in the literature world that the more you read, the more you can understand and care
about other people who are different from you. I found it special and interesting in your chapter about the GoPro, in your book French Dive, where you dove after the GoPro and investigated the woman it had filmed, wondering if she was all right. I think you took strides beyond what the average person would do to reach out to her, and the experience affected you enough that you wrote about it. I wanted to ask about your experience with not only how reading literature has affected you, but how being a writer has affected your ability to look at and reach out to people different from yourself?

Eric Freeze: I was really heavily influenced by my studies in African American literature. As a Canadian, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in the U.S., but I don’t have any of the markers that most immigrants do. I’m in this odd place where I’m sensitive to issues that other immigrants experience, but I don’t have the same kind of cultural, linguistic, or racial markers. With African American literature, I was really drawn to how they could write from a position of marginality—especially African American women. Some of my first mind-opening experiences with literature were reading African American women. One of my favorite writers today is Jesmyn Ward. She’s younger than I am, and she’s won the National Book Award twice already. She’s just a phenomenal writer. She has this ability to write from a position of marginalization and find creative space.. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s grandmother tells her that Black women are the mules of the world. They’re the bottom of the totem pole socially. They’re discriminated against because of their gender and their race. These are things that are internalized not only in the overall community in the U.S. but also within the Black community. I found it to be incredibly appealing that she wrote about this character in the 1930s who was able to overcome those challenges and find a space where she’s this whole creative person, able to live life on her own terms. I think that if there’s anything I’ve learned from my study of literature, it’s that yes, reading does give you empathy, and it also helps you realize the limitations of your own subject position. I’m working on a book right now called Breaking Bread with Baldwin. It’s about James Baldwin, who chose to live the last 17 years of his life in the south of France. He’s constantly writing from a position of marginality, and I would love to be able to write about him in a way that is comparative, because I’ve had all these experiences with marginalization, though my experiences are very different from his. I’m a straight white guy from Canada, and that subject position is like a passport to the world, whereas he was Black and queer and didn’t feel that he belonged. He was a stranger everywhere—he was a stranger in the U.S., and he was a stranger in France. The only way I’m able to write about him is by writing about how I’m not really able to write about him. In other words, there’s a limitation on what we can understand of another’s experience. Reading text by others from different subject positions than your own can give you incredible insight and help you empathize, but you realize very quickly that you can never really comprehend something that another person has experienced. Anybody who has been in the position of marginalization knows that. They’ll have people say, “Oh, I read your book and I totally understand where you’re coming from.” The first thing that person is thinking is, “No, you really don’t. But I appreciate your effort to do so.” I think an obligation we have as human beings is to really try our best to understand where others are coming from, realizing that we’ll never get there. Talking about this religiously, that’s what’s so amazing about the Savior. He’s somebody who can transcend that. He can know what everybody has experienced.

Inscape: It’s a really comforting, freeing, unifying thing. I appreciate your point that we will not know what someone else feels, but listening, making a place in our lives for their stories, and sharing them with others is really important.

EF: Part of the challenge of writing that chapter about the GoPro was that I started writing it in the way I wrote my first essay collection. I started with a couple of essays, and this was one of the first ones I wrote. As I was trying to contact this woman, I realized there were limitations for how I would be perceived by her, and probably by society in general. Was there any way for me to be like, “Yeah, I’m doing this just because I want to give you something that you lost.”? Because of the way I found it, and how I was trying to reach out to her, it could cast me in this very uncomfortable light. There’s no real way to say that I’m just this dad that finds stuff on the bottom of the sea and here’s this thing with your sketchy videos on it that I want to give back to you. I’m sure that may be part of the reason she never responded.

Inscape: She didn’t know that your motives were pure.

EF: It’s kind of like this weird thing that some guy found this GoPro. On the one hand, men have been privileged for so long, they are in the dominant subject position. Elements of that subject position are always there. There’s plenty of diversity in men’s voices, so it’s not like we need any more. But on the other hand, if you start looking at the voices from more traditional subject positions, it’s rare to find one of an intelligent, caring, empathetic, white male Christian, who is really honestly just trying to help. Or you’ll see the Ted Lasso-type characters, who are well intentioned but also really clueless and dumb.

Inscape: Something I think that is special about your work is that you have expertise in creative nonfiction as well as fiction, and you also teach screenwriting and writing for video games. Also, I read from your bio that you live half the year in Indiana and half the year in Nice, France. Can you speak to the duality of your writing abilities? And how is that mirrored in your living experiences?

EF: Well, I’m writing a lot about France, more and more I think. I served an LDS mission in France, and my wife speaks French as well. When we were in graduate school we wanted to find a way to go back there regularly, so we worked for a study abroad program. We did that for nine years, and every summer we would go over and basically shepherd very privileged American kids around France. When we started having children, I really wanted to be able to give them a bilingual experience, so I decided I was only going to speak French at home. I still only speak French at home even though my kids are now teenagers. We wanted them to have a more intensive immersion experience in another language, which was why we did this living experiment during my first sabbatical. After that, we wanted to find a way to go back more regularly, and I negotiated with my job so that I’m still a tenured member of the English department, but I’m on a half-year contract, so we are in Indiana in the fall and we are in France from December through July every year. That has led to a lot of my attention going to France and my experiences in France. My next book, Breaking Bread with Baldwin, is also about home renovation, and it extends some of the things I leave off with in the first book. I think partly because of the way our lives have been more and more centered around this experience, a lot of my writing has also followed in that direction. My writing for video games classes came about more because of my students, because those are areas of writing they’re interested in. I didn’t have experience in that area of writing, but about four or five years ago I taught a course on writing for video games using a textbook I found. We never had a console in my family; video games were things we played at friends’ houses. I’m not a gamer, and I’m still not. Even so, I’ve weirdly become an expert in this area. Creative nonfiction was kind of the same way. I didn’t write creative nonfiction until I taught creative nonfiction. I had lots of friends who wrote creative nonfiction, so I was aware of it as a genre, but I didn’t study it in earnest until I was actually teaching it. The same goes for the other genres I’m writing in. I’m working now with two collaborators who are gamers, and one who writes for the industry. We have a textbook that should be coming out in late 2023 or 2024 with Bloomsbury Academic, called Storymode. It’s a textbook meant to be used in creative writing classrooms, which is something that doesn’t exist yet.

Inscape: Neat that you can pioneer that!

EF: It’s been really fun to be a part of that. Every year we do a panel at AWP, and it’s always standing room only; there are so many people interested in it. Video games are at this kind of inflection point where narrative games are becoming more and more popular and are in need of more depth and better narratives. Plus, the tools for producing these games are becoming more and more accessible. You have AAA games that are like the gaming version of Hollywood, which are very genre-focused, more traditional “gamer” games. But you have this whole indie sphere that is expanding what traditional games are doing and also democratizing the production of these games. Games that are not that complicated but are very narrative-focused are winning major awards. Teaching students how to write those kinds of games and educating other writers about these narrative possibilities in different spaces can really expand what we’re doing in creative writing programs.

Inscape: That’s amazing. You’re really preparing these writers to go out and form the next era of creative writing. I was reading a literary journal that’s based out of the UK, and this entire issue was dedicated to multimodal writing. It’s so interesting that there are so many apps out there and games that even take place in a certain location. There’s a castle in England that you can go to and open an app, and depending on where you are geographically in the castle, it opens different parts of the story. It’s incredible. Neat that there’s still a need and a drive for narrative even though there are already so many video games everywhere.

EF: There are all these companies now that are called “serious gaming companies.” They develop augmented reality games with narratives, so these are places where students can actually get jobs writing narratives. I don’t know what BYU is like for this, but at my university we’re always talking about outcomes. When you’re teaching in the Humanities, that’s one of the areas where it’s like, how can we deliver some concrete options for what our students can do after they graduate? If they can display certain tools in a portfolio, they can get a job writing right out of their undergraduate studies. You write what you know, and you’re constantly expanding into what you don’t know. The more you take risks, the more you develop as an artist and the more opportunities you’ll have. Some of the best writing possibilities are those that don’t even exist yet. If you put yourself in a position where you’re constantly growing, those opportunities will present themselves.

Inscape: That speaks to what we talked about before; if you have your foot in creative nonfiction and fiction, it’ll really hone your craft. With those different genres, you’ll be ready for opportunities.

EF: The thing is, academia doesn’t always like that. I think that creative writing programs are great for fostering this, but they can also hinder it in some ways. Creative writing programs, and academia in general, are really concerned with taxonomy and organizing everything into boxes.

Inscape: They want to know what your emphasis is.

EF: Exactly. And so, when you start doing these kinds of things—I teach in a small liberal arts college that’s small and private, and you’re sort of encouraged to develop new competencies—I think this can still happen at bigger programs like MFAs, but a lot of times that innovation will just be happening within your genre. Some folks say, “I’m a poet, I’ll do things within poetry.” But if they start working on fiction, they’re imposing on their fiction colleagues, and some people might say, “You can’t do that! You’re a poet!”

Inscape: Whereas you come from more of an abundance mentality: “Why can’t we all learn and grow in all of it?”

EF: We still have those conversations as well—in the middle of doing a department review, or as we try to revise how we do our major. When there is so much concern about developing these other competencies, what happens when we have to go ask for another position? We need to be able to make the argument and say, “We need somebody who can teach renaissance lit,” or “We need somebody who can teach creative nonfiction,” or whatever area it is we deem necessary, but if we have too many people developing competencies but not developing them well enough, then we’ll be able to make that argument. It gets really political and complicated in any institution, but there are ways to do it as an artist and even as an academic that will always keep you interested and always keep you learning.

Inscape: This is interesting to me, because you learned creative nonfiction by teaching it, and now you’ve just published French Dive, which is a gorgeous piece of creative nonfiction. It’s interesting that you can learn so much by teaching. Do you approach life experiences knowing you will write about them? And does that affect the way that you live?

EF: Sometimes things just fall into your lap. I remember talking with Pam Houston one time, and she told me she was going to join this club of women who herd goats, because it was a subject she was interested in writing about. I think sometimes that does happen, like right now I’m actually excited about this afternoon after reading at BYU, because I’m going to visit my brother in Bountiful. He has a YouTube channel where he’s been doing these bike restorations and garnering this huge following. I have my old bike from when I was a student at BYU that he found when he worked at Outdoors Unlimited, and one of his friends sold it to me. I’ve kept it with me all these years, and it needs total renovation. I brought it with me on this trip, and when I visit my brother later today we’ll start restoring it, and then we’ll go on a ride that he’ll post on his YouTube channel. I know I’m going to write about the experience—maybe not immediately, but it’s such an interesting story. If it’s an interesting story to you, it’ll most likely be interesting to someone else.

Inscape: I think that’s the gift of writers. Even with things that wouldn’t be interesting to someone else, when you write about it from your perspective and your passion, someone else can see that restoring bikes is really incredible.

EF: It’s noticing the right details, too. I love that anecdote from Henry James, “Be the person on whom nothing is lost.” You notice certain significant details. You’re going to be experiencing things, and when it comes time to draw from the recesses of your memory, you’ll still have those details. If certain details are ironic, different, or interesting, those will feed into your creative compost and generate some beautiful pieces afterwards.

Inscape: Those little details make it vibrant. My next question has to do with Sian Griffiths, who is a writer and professor at Weber State. She was our English Reading Series guest last week, and she shared something that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. She said that each creative nonfiction writer has to wrestle with how much absolute fact and how much imagined truth comes into their writing. How do you balance including what you know for sure happened and what you think you remember, because it will always look different from what your wife remembered or what your kids remembered. How do you balance that, and do you ever get fact checkers? Do you just share the truth you remember?

EF: I will talk to people if there are certain details I’m trying to get right. Because I come from a fiction background, I’m less concerned about trying to get things exactly right. The thing that matters most to me is getting to the truth of the experience, but I’m very aware of the persona I’m creating for myself every time I write an essay or start a piece of creative nonfiction. It’s important to consider what will serve the story best. I have essays where I’ve gotten rid of characters or combined them into one, because it makes more narrative sense. If things are distracting from the core narrative, then I’ll shift or alter them. I have one piece I wrote in my first book of essays that is completely fabricated. I started the piece with, “It was as if . . .” It allowed me to make stuff up. I’m not really implying, just imagining a section. When it came time to publish that piece, it was in the Harvard Review, and they needed some assurances that this actually happened. That it was actually researched. It was about Hemingway taking this fake bike ride through Paris. There was just one anecdote from John Dos Passos where Hemingway would get in this striped jumper and ride his bike through Paris. That was the whole story, so I used that anecdote to say what this would actually look like. Then I had this imagined section. I think people feel this dishonesty sometimes, feel the manipulation sometimes, but sometimes I’m surprised too. I had one critic look at a section in French Dive that they took issue with because it sounded too contrived. It was a conversation I had with my brother, Kent, about why people choose to live in different places. They thought it was too convenient, but that was an actual conversation that I had! Even when you tell the truth, you might get people who question it. Try to be as honest as you can. Manipulate just when it’s in service of the story. Be aware that you’re creating a persona when you’re writing. Some level of subjectivity will always influence your truth.

Inscape: Last question—details about France, especially Nice, are an integral part of your writing. Do the details you include come mostly from lived experience, or do you also research?

EF: Oh, I research like crazy! A lot of the research I did for French Dive came from looking at archives and stuff in the municipal library that’s right next to where we live. I wanted to find documents about the apartment, our street, I wanted to find out what happened to the community where I live now. There’s a lot of research I didn’t include, but a lot of it is included. There’s a lot of guidebooks about Nice that pick up on interesting historical anecdotes, but I wanted something that was a little more researched and authentic. I found the first map of my street from the 1300s. There’s a history that goes on before that—the old town existed before the first maps that we have. And the place where we live has been renovated hundreds of times over that period. We bought the apartment underneath ours, where the memoir French Dive ends, and now we’re doing renovations once again, but these are much more involved. Every time we tear off some plaster, we reveal previous years of living. We’ve found the old original beams, which we think are from the renaissance, that we’re trying to restore now. We both love renovations, though my wife loves them more—I’m more like the hired hand. We work really well together, which is another reason this new schedule that we have now is so great for us and our family. We basically work on our jobs in the mornings, and in the afternoons we do our renovation stuff together until the kids get home from school, and then everything goes crazy.

Inscape: Eric, thank you for giving so much of your time to meet with me, I really enjoyed this interview.