Talking Shop with John Jeremiah Sullivan

David Marchese

If you're a fan of music writing—or any kind of writing, really—you should pick up John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead (Farrar, Straus And Giroux). It's a collection of reported essays he's published in GQ, Harper's, the Oxford American and other publications. It's also great. In the last two weeks, I've read new collections by music-writing Paul Nelson, Ellen Willis, and Greil Marcus. Pulphead is the only one that I stayed up at night to keep reading.

Sullivan, who writes about plenty of non-musical subjects, has such a strong voice—a compelling, lyrical blend of high cadences and low diction—that you'd likely be enthralled if he writing about paint-drying supervisors. So it's a double-treat that he trains his mind on subjects as rich as Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, and Bunny Wailer.

Sullivan called—after dealing with some plumbing issues—from his home in North Carolina, to talk about how he does what he does.

Did seeing your work collected cause you to recognize any themes about which you'd previously been unaware? Yeah, you're surprised to discover your own face in a way. Because if you've been writing about all the stuff you're obsessed with, then you're kind of helplessly some kind of autobiography. So it was both fun and sort of painful to recognize that—because you are seeing some coherence, but you're also seeing your own limitations.

How do you decide what to write about? When it came to finding the stories, it seems like it was almost different every time. Most of the pieces in the book were being negotiated to some extent between me and an editor. My relationship with my editors is an ongoing conversation punctuated by assignments. But the magnetic thing that's being exerted is this thing that I'm referring to as obsession. The subject plugs into something that I've always wanted to write about or am already sensitized to or paying attention to. I'll usually try to find a way to cross the streams like that, which explains some of the memoir-y stuff that pops up.

Were you ever interested in trying straight music criticism? That's what I thought I was doing! I'm only half-joking about that. After the book came out and I started reading the way that people were describing what I'd done, I thought, "They thought you were freaky the whole time."

To what extent do your pieces confirm something you already believed? Or do you discover the truth of your subjects as you do the writing and reporting? I would say in the better pieces, my understanding came out of the reporting and the writing. One of the things I notice in the weaker ones is that they basically confirm something I was already thinking. It's up to the writer to be self-implying the standard of, "If it seems neat and clean, is that because it is or because I want to see it that way?"

Your pieces strike such a nice balance between showing the reader things and telling them what those things mean. What's the key to maintaining that balance? I haven't figured out the underpinnings of all that. But I do recognize this pattern in my pieces where it's almost like if I do pages of showing, I get a paragraph of telling. People say "show, don't tell," but there are things technically that telling lets you do. That's one of the reason I don't like that advice—and really don't like much of the advice that gets peddled around creative programs—because for almost all of it you could you could just add the phrase "Unless you do it well." So I value those telling moments but at the same time I know that people are kind of allergic to them.

Did you have a moment where you realized you'd found your own voice as a writer? It's weird. It's a double-consciousness thing. There's an answer I could give you that comes from reading my own pieces, which I try to do as infrequently as possible. But I can't write until it sounds like my own voice. That's a place of legitimacy from which I can begin. Which is to say that my voice becomes transparent at that moment. When I wrote about Christian rock for GQ, that was the first time I experienced having a voice in a self-conscious way. Like, "Oh, you can actually get control of this and point it the way you want it to go." It's not just like trying to hold on to a fire hose.

What's your dream story? I'm trying to think of what that would be. The whole experience of having the book come out sort of neuralyzed me. I'm just wiped of ideas. It doesn't feel good at all. So what am I going to do?

Open up your dream file. I don't need a dream story right now. I need a story I could actually use.