A Portrait of the Essayist as a Middle-aged Man: An Interview with Patrick Madden

by Ryan McIlvain

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

When Patrick Madden speaks of his chosen genre, he often calls it “the essay,” according it the respect of the definite article and the weight of tradition. It’s a long, wide, deep, endlessly variable tradition, though lately it’s been flattened out, rather commandeered (I don’t think I exaggerate Pat’s view) by writers with little real analysis to offer, and less insight. Here was the bender to end all benders . . . How I survived my baroquely awful Wall Street job . . . A year of eating only peaches . . . A year of following all speed limits, on all surfaces, in all weathers. (I hope that last memoir/adventure essay really exists somewhere. The others I’ve skipped or abandoned halfway through.)

In a Patrick Madden essay, very little of the exceptional happens. Pat’s daughter spits on him by accident, and he thinks about it. Two more of his children wander away from the house and panic the neighborhood, then turn up. Pat thinks about it. Or maybe the essayist has a birthday (time moves normally, unspectacularly in a Patrick Madden essay) and he decides to think about that, too. Longevity statistics, Psalmist sayings, Dante in the middle of his own life's journey, Montaigne on the essential moderation or middleness of the essayist's method—all this and more fills up Madden's head. "I am thinking about my life," he writes in "In Media Vita,"

my prospects for sticking around, my character and my temperament, my successes and failures, my quest to find peace and contentment, which, I suspect, lie somewhere not only in the midst of life but in its middle.

This is nonfiction writing in what Phillip Lopate calls the “analytic” mode, a tradition within the tradition that goes back at least as far as Seneca and Plutarch but perhaps finds its fullest expression in the sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne appears early and often in Madden's work, a sort of patron saint of the essay in general, Madden's essays in particular. Here is Montaigne on the epigraph page of Madden’s new collection, Sublime Physick: “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my physics; that is my metaphysics.”

Madden’s metaphysics too, no doubt. And perhaps the essay’s too, its higher purpose, its métier.

I find that I’ve taken to referring to “the essay” myself, still drunk on Pat’s influence, a former student of his, current friend, and avid reader of his work. One day in his office he told me—was there a provocateur’s glint in his eye?—that the true essay cannot be reduced to a mere story, nor to a programmatic thesis statement. It’s too wily a thing for that, too slippery to be held to either of those poles. This has been an important idea for me ever since—in writing and in life—and it pleases me to think it was contained in one of Pat’s wry but basically earnest assertions of the essay’s “true” calling, its Montaignean mantle of pure blue thought, wide open, high up.

RYAN MCILVAIN: Not just in "Independent Redundancy," the long essay at the center of your new book, but really throughout your work you acknowledge and think about your influences so deeply that it becomes sort of radical, an implicit rebuke to the idea that our ideas come to us ex nihilo. Aren't you a little like an academic essayist in this sense? I know you're allergic to what Joyce called "the true scholastic stink" of academic essay writing, but it does strike me that so much of what you do is cover the pre-existing "conversation"—

PATRICK MADDEN: Wait, Joyce said that?

I'm pretty sure. Nervous now that he didn't.

OK, I’ve just looked it up. It’s from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen and Lynch are shooting the breeze about beauty and literary forms, and Stephen shares some of the hypothetical questions he’s posed to himself in order to explore a theory of esthetics. After he asks “If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?” Lynch, amused, laughs and offers this bit of praise: “That’s a lovely one. … That has the true scholastic stink.”

So I think that’s a different stink than the one you and I dislike (the passive-voiced, preposition-laden, impersonal, pontificating academic tone [and note how we may have to revise even that term, pontificating, given Pope Francis’s preference for personality and humble clarity!]). I quite like Stephen’s/Joyce’s little koan. Is it a koan? Perhaps it’s a koan adapted to the sensibilities of someone like me (and you), with a kind of osmotic understanding of Western philosophy?

I don’t think I’ve quite answered any question yet, but it is worth noting that Stephen’s question is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to explore in an essay! Must “art” be intentional? Intended as art? What role may accident (or, perhaps, inspiration?) play in the creation of art? If we allow for small accidents, then might we accept completely unintentional art? Is “nature” unintentional art? This feels like it parallels some of my considerations in “Independent Redundancy,” the essay you began your question with, where I’m wondering about originality (arguing against the oversimplified version we sometimes believe/sell).

I'm glad I have a chance to congratulate your Googling, Pat. I think I picked up "true scholastic stink" from a James Wood introduction ("qtd. in Wood," etc.) and hadn't actually remembered it in its original context. You're a pretty big researcher, aren't  you?

I suppose I am a pretty deft Googler, and maybe a lazy researcher, though not as lazy as some! One of my main motivations in writing essays is to learn, to think beyond what I’ve known and thought in the past. I find it impossible to simply sit down and write things that already occupy my brain (whether memories of experiences or received notions about the way the world works). I always want to discover something new as a result of my writing, and, like so many essayists before me, I want to create associations among seemingly disparate things. I want my mind to be active while I’m writing, and since so much of what goes on up there is hazy and peripheral, research helps me give concrete form to things I think I’ve heard or things I only vaguely know. As Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I want to surprise myself at every turn in writing an essay.

Yet you also maintain an adversarial relationship with mere information, don't you? At one point in your new book you call Google "The Great Arbiter of Uniqueness," tongue firmly in cheek. Is there a can of worms you'd like to open?

I can understand arguments against the facility of access to information (and the possibility of misleading or false information), but on the whole I find the Internet to be a tremendously useful tool. I have read quite a bit, and I remember some of what I’ve read, and I know how to borrow books from the library and read them, but I’m grateful for the quick access I have to vast stores of knowledge via the Web. But because I’m trying to write literary essays, not reports, not encyclopedia articles, I am less interested in facts for their own sake than I am in how facts generate interesting frictions when rubbed against each other, or how I can make associative leaps between facts that bring them into new and interesting light. So I think the Internet is like any tool; it can be had for good or for ill. As Eric Clapton says, “It’s in the way that you use it.” I try to use it as a help, though I admit that it’s also a tremendous distraction, too.

I really see that in your work—the wonderful associative pressure you place on your facts. You want them to do things for you. I wonder (meta moment!) if you think of interview answers in the same light? Is an essayist's interview a kind of essay?

I’m sometimes fond of the tautological idea that (to adapt the saying to our present conversation), an essay is whatever an essayist writes, so that, yes, an interview with an essayist is a kind of essay. I’m also fond of noting that when the poets or the novelists want to write about their forms, they write essays. When the essayists want to write about their form, they just write more essays. It seems like the essay, then, is the ur-genre. And by an interesting sleight-of-hand logic, then, everything is (can be?) an essay. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Can you tell us about your experience interviewing your beloved Eduardo Galeano?

Ah. My first interview-essay! In late 2001, I was visiting my in-laws in Uruguay, and I noticed that Galeano’s books were distributed by a bookstore on the main street of downtown Montevideo, so I called them up and asked if he’d be available for an interview for an American literary journal. Simultaneously, I was emailing Robert Root at Fourth Genre, asking if he’d be interested in publishing such an interview. I had to introduce him to Galeano’s sizable and significant body of work and convince him that Fourth Genre readers, although most would likely not have heard of Galeano before, would enjoy an interview with him. In effect, I was playing both sides, allowing Galeano’s distributor to believe that the publication was already committed to publishing the interview, and pretending to Fourth Genre that I’d already secured the interview. Meanwhile, the distributor gave me Galeano’s fax number, and I wrote him a letter of introduction. But when I tried to fax it from the local Telecentro, it wouldn’t go through. After a few attempts, I gave up, but I still had the fax in my backpack when, later that evening, I was visiting Arturo Dubra, in the office of Senator Eleutorio Fernandez Huidobro in the Legislative Palace. During our small talk, I mentioned my frustrations in trying to send the fax, and he asked who I was trying to send it to. When I said “Eduardo Galeano,” he said, “Oh! Eduardo! He’s an old friend of mine. We grew up together.” So he called up Eduardo, told him that a gringo wanted to interview him, and got the correct fax number. We sent the fax from the Legislative Palace, Galeano agreed, and a few days later, I met him downtown at Café Brasilero, Montevideo’s oldest cafe. Meanwhile, Fourth Genre also agreed, so everything worked out.

I should say that I went to the interview very nervous. I prepared a list of 63 questions ahead of time. But Galeano was so kind and generous that our conversation veered immediately away from my script, and we talked comfortably and naturally, in a back-and-forth that, ultimately, got to only two of the questions I’d brought with me. Among the several insights that Galeano shared with me that day was the idea (new to me at the time) that literature is itself a creation, and that reality also contains literary works of the imagination, and that even nonfictional events must be translated into the imagination and then into words and then into a reader’s imagination, too.

I grew to love Eduardo Galeano, and I saw him most every time I returned to Montevideo after that, mostly at the Café Brasilero, but also in the feria near his home in Malvín. Once he visited me at BYU, giving a reading in May 2006. He ate dinner at my family’s house and played with my children, and he and I hiked up to and through Timpanogos Cave, which I think he quite enjoyed. He translated that experience into one of his brief vignettes, “Caves,” in the book Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. Galeano died in April 2015, and I miss him deeply. When I returned to Montevideo this July, I got his last book, published posthumously this year. I have begun to read it, but I’m taking it slowly, fearing, I think, that when I finish it, he’ll really be gone.

Beautifully said, Pat. Your essay on Galeano in the new book, "Empathy," is one of the best. It's also one where, like in the story you just told, you show off your narrative chops. Gloves coming off here— Aren't you more of a storyteller than you let on? And some of your models, too: Galeano, Brian Doyle. In "Entering and Breaking," you tell a terrifying and very taut story about the disappearance of two of your children, narrating and meditating in alteration. Whence this idea that storytelling comes at the expense of essaying?

By predisposition, training, and lack of skill, I have found my niche here in the essay world, which includes storytelling but doesn’t rely on it or develop it fully. Montaigne said “There is nothing so contrary to my style as an extended narration,” and I sympathize. I don’t think I’m a very good narrator. As soon as I get telling a story, I start looking for a way to break out into some analysis or thinking. But notice that Montaigne modifies narration with extended. He does tell stories sometimes, but he finds it difficult to sustain them. Similarly, Theodor Adorno thought that “the bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand.” I don’t hear in Adorno a necessary criticism of story itself so much as a desire to see the genres as different. Of course, there’s all sorts of overlap and blending, haziness at the borders, but Adorno (and I) wants to recognize an essay as an elucidating (“idea-driven”) thing. In any case, my point is that I’ve never mastered the art of writing a story.

I freely admit that this is a fault, a deficiency, in me. I quite enjoy stories, whether written or shared orally. And because I’m a twenty-first-century person, I tend to write out of stories, events, happenings that I want to share. (If there’s one easily identifiable shift in the essay form over the decades, it’s the increasing prominence of narrative.) Galeano and Doyle are, in large part, listeners, attentive to the stories of others, absorbing details and passions and translating them into words. It’s a great skill. And sometimes they seem to be just sharing what happened and leaving interpretation to readers. But they do this less often than you might think. In subtle or extended (and explicit) ways, they also enter into their stories and engage with meaning(s) directly, not usually in definitive, didactic ways but in destabilizing ways, ways that show their process of thinking from multiple angles.

As for “Entering and Breaking,” you’re right that it hinges on the story of the day my sons went missing, but I felt dissatisfied and unable to write about it until I’d found a secondary, metaphorical overlay, which came to me as a gift in a faculty seminar I was taking around that time. The subject of the seminar was evolution, but one day a stray question led to a physics professor talking about indeterminacy and quantum entanglement. This hummed in harmony with the ways I wanted to think about how I’d felt during the two-hour disappearance, so I felt inspired and enabled to write in associative, non-narrative ways about the experience. If you think that the piece displays some storytelling chops, then I’ll gratefully accept the compliment and hope that it means I’m still learning and improving my writing.

It does indeed display them, Pat. And the stops and starts, the meta interludes, serve to heighten the narrative tension all the more. I want to say, related to this, that I love the self-consciousness about form you often bring to your work. At one point in this new collection, that being said, you call yourself "painfully metaliterary." What's painful about it? And painful for whom, do you think?

Ah. There I am semi-channeling Charles Lamb, who says in “New Year’s Eve,” speaking of himself/his persona “Elia”:

If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective—and mine is painfully so—can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia.

He follows with a list of humorous insults (mostly asterisked out) to himself. I recall very clearly an epiphanic experience during my first year of doctoral studies at Ohio University. I was critiquing my friend Mike Danko’s essay, and I advised him, gingerly, to cut out the talking about writing, to stop breaking the spell of his narrative to comment on his process. I wanted to live in his past moments, not in his writing moments. I cringe now to recall my naiveté. Even during that workshop session, but certainly afterward, I began to see that the meta-literary moment is essential to the essay, its key component, its defining characteristic. After several more years of intense study and instruction in the art of essay writing, I feel exactly opposite the way I felt then. Now I love and expect to read an essayist writing about essaying. When I read a good essay, I envision the writer sitting in her chair, thinking through writing. So the comment about being “painfully metaliterary” is a dig at myself and my tendency to write in such a way. But it may truly be painful to some readers: those who are naturally inclined to want escape through literature, to experience vicariously other places, other times, other lives.

While searching for that phrase, “painfully metaliterary,” I noticed that I channeled Lamb more directly later in the book, saying that “the painfully introspective mind wanders beyond the limits imposed by circumstance to wonder what’s beyond or before.” This reminds me that the pain may also be felt by the writer, by me, at certain darker times. Sometimes I wish I could turn everything off and simply be, present in a moment, unmolested by worries or even associations in my mind, considering the lilies, taking no thought for the morrow, etc. But soon enough I return to essaying, with its tangled web of interrelations and layers of metaconnections, and my soul is filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain. (I’m quoting without quotation marks passages from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon here; I mention it just in case anybody gets upset at my “plagiarisms.”)

A nice segue into my last question, Pat. Could you talk a little bit about how your life and your essaying inform each other? Strange question to ask, perhaps, since the essays and books themselves provide ample answer. It just occurs to me, in Sublime Physick, that the line between living and essaying is becoming more and more porous for you, and in really beautiful ways.

This is a great question because it notices the results of my conscious effort to essay in life as well as in writing. I probably first came to this notion decades ago, reading Phillip Lopate’s Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, which includes a section on “The Personal Essay as a Mode of Thinking and Being.” The idea is deeply appealing to me, especially because there are not really any formal characteristics by which one can definitively identify an “essay” as distinct from other literary forms. So I’ve taken to thinking about the spirit of the essay, to looking at what an essay does, what it essays. This almost necessarily gets at authorial intent, or at least positioning, which I understand is verboten in much contemporary literary criticism, but I consider it all the same. An essay, for me, then, really comes from a deep place of curiosity and attention and uncertainty, in fact a dissatisfaction with or disbelief in the kind of facile certainty that pervades so much of modern life. Montaigne’s tower rafters bore the inscription “I do not understand. I pause. I examine.” His goal in writing was to probe the question “What do I know?” An essay is a humble, grateful way of apprehending the world, a recognition of our vast ignorance, a demonstration of love (real love) for life. A written essay can (should) be a distillation of the essaying process by which one lives. Or an artful representation of that process.

Nietzsche, in one of his fragments, reveals his revelation that “life [can] be an experiment of the seeker for knowledge.” Life is life, I know, and others’ lives cannot be metaphorized the same way mine or Nietzsche’s can, in part because of questions of privilege and opportunity, but this sentence rings true for me. Ever since I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve been experimenting and seeking knowledge. I feel outrageously, undeservedly blessed that I have been afforded such wondrous opportunities.

And as I say in the book, when Eddie Money was sent by the universe to sit next to me on a plane, thus completing my essay “On Being Recognized,”

I am constantly preaching about how when I’m “in” an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and new, in service of the idea I’m exploring.

I’m also very fond of paraphrasing Paul, who, for our intents and purposes, said to the Romans that “all things work to the good of them that love the essay.” I realize that I am being winkingly naive and selective, thinking magically, and you can’t quite tell if I really mean what I say, but why not? I believe that’s true.

Ryan McIlvain’s debut novel, Elders, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. His other work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Post Road, Tin House online, and other venues, and has received honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. A former recipient of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, he currently lives with his family in Los Angeles, where he is at work on his second novel. Click here to read McIlvain's review of Patrick Madden's Sublime Physick, originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Prairie Schooner.