B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Alabama in 2010 and is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America.
“B.J. Hollars, in his essays and fiction, reminds us that the world remains—despite our attempts to name and classify—mysterious and uncharted. Sasquatch, Nessie, monster turtles in Indiana? I’m grateful to B.J. for giving this skeptic some reasons to believe.”
“The monsters in B.J. Hollars’s fascinating essays include a hairy ape-man slouching in a forest, an enormous turtle peeking out of a backwoods pond and us. In fact, in our dogged yearning for answers we may be the most monstrous of all, and for that reason, the most sympathetic. Moving, sensitive and meticulously researched, this book is essentially about hope—the hope for finally arriving at an elusive truth that is somehow simultaneously the hope we never do.”
BJ Hollars likes tea. All kinds of tea. Has one entire kitchen cupboard jammed full of chamomile and green and white and Sleepy Time and citrus and black teas — and he’s really nice about sharing. It must be the tea that makes him one of the hardest working writers I have ever met. He rises at five in the morning to get started before his computer, then heads to campus to teach a full course load, then gets home to edit one of three anthologies, work on a novel, edit a few short stories, finish his grading — and he still somehow finds time to visit the gym, walk the dog, watch reruns of his favorite TV shows, and throw the occasional backyard barbeque. Oh, and his first child is due any day now. Hollars is also one of the most humble, happy, and approachable writers I have ever met. Maybe it’s the tea.
Assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Hollars is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and is at work on another Alabama-themed book of nonfiction. He is also the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (Pressgang, 2012) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). His writings can be found, well, all over the place: North American Review, American Short Fiction online, Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, Fugue, Faultline, The Southest Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, Hobart, among others. I recently caught up with him over a virtual cup of tea to ask a few questions about his most recent work, a chapbook entitled In Defense of Monsters published by Origami Zoo Press.
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Megan Paonessa: Congrats on your new chapbook, In Defense of Monsters. I remember when you began this project, it was partly meant to demonstrate to a group of composition students that a case can be made for anything whatsoever — even Bigfoot — if one can write a strong enough argument. I recognize in these essays lessons I would teach my own students: how to use a counter-argument to strengthen a claim, how to introduce research with a signal phrase, etc. When did your chapbook’s opening essay, “In Defense of Sasquatch” stop being a teacher’s experiment and start taking on a life of its own?
B.J. Hollars: That’s a really great question, and to be honest, I’m not sure when it expanded beyond the classroom. Sasquatch simply held me hostage, would not let me go until I’d proved him back into existence. It was funny, wandering the University of Alabama’s Gorgas Library in search of proof of Sasquatch. I left that library with a two foot tall stack of Sasquatch books, but none of them got me much closer to the truth. When I stumbled upon Arizona State University’s “The State of Observed Species Report,” I think the essay began to gain traction. The report kept careful count of the number of species that vanish and are discovered each year, and the fluctuation of species was simply startling to me. Sasquatch no longer seemed like such an impossibility given the thousands of other species that emerge from the wilds each and every year.
MP: Your essays ask us to question the moment logic took over imagination and disallowed us to believe in monsters. The narrator is persistent in this respect, heaping eyewitness accounts upon legends upon history upon statistical representations of otherwise unbelievable claims proved fact. Outwardly, the narrator presents a logical argument for the existence of monsters. Why was it important to you to make a valid case for these monsters?
BH: I often fear humankind is too quick to lump all of the “unknowns” into the realm of impossibilities. It’s simply easier for the human mind to conceive of a reality it’s more comfortable with. Thomas Jefferson is a great example of a scientific mind willing to dream beyond the stifling boundaries of “scientific certainties.” In 1796, Jefferson examined some unknown bones and dreamed them into a giant American lion. They actually belonged to a giant ground sloth, though this wouldn’t be made clear for many years. I’ve always admired Jefferson for his ability to see the world differently, even when he was wrong. He didn’t view America as a land of limitations, but rather, a place of possibilities.
MP: Sounds like your next project should be about Jefferson!
So, your narrator believes in monsters — or wants, at the very least, for us readers to entertain the idea of their existence. But let’s assume the narrator’s voice and the author’s voice are not one in the same. On some level, don’t you-as-author need to jerry-rig the essays in order for the stories to come alive in their most successful ways?
BH: Ha. Perhaps jerry-rigging is the proper phrase for what I’m trying to do. Do I take some liberties of logic? You bet. But what makes these essays unique (I hope), is that they’re wholly grounded in scientific fact. I try to rely less on fringe science and moreso on national studies, such as ASU’s “The State of Observed Species Report” mentioned above. I try to keep an open-mind in order to pry the reader’s mind open as well. One can certaintly challenge my conclusions, but its far more difficult to refute the facts. This is why I’m careful to include a Works Cited page at the end of each essay. I want the reader to see what I see.
MP: A few notable writers have written mock-essays in the past — I’m thinking of Jorge Luis Borges in Labyrinths, or even your mentor’s book Michael Martone by Michael Martone — stories that the turn the idea of fiction on its head by posing themselves as nonfiction. Are you interested in this overlap? What is the appeal of writing a fictional piece posing as nonfiction?
BH: Good question, and I suppose the answer to it is rooted in the assumption that I consider these essays fictional. I’m not sure I do. I’m quite familiar with many fictional forms that pose as nonfiction (the literary equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, perhaps, though far less menacing), but I’m not sure that’s what I intended to do with these essays. I really am trying to talk straight about monsters, but, as you mention above, I’m simultaneously employing the vehicle of “monsters” to talk about imagination as well. There’s a link — however precarious — between monsters and the extinction of imagination. To write off monsters like Sasquatch and Nessie is one more giant leap down an already constricting pathway. I think imagination is paramont to creativity and maybe monsters play a role here, too. Why not let them be the cure to an ordinary life? We need to be capable of dreaming of Bigfoot prints in order to find our way back to a pathway of imagination.
MP: You’re a fan of monsters. You’ve gone to a Bigfoot convention or two, perhaps in the same way Trekkies and Gamers go to their respective functions, or perhaps more for research — but I don’t think you came back cynical, in an informant sort of way. In fact, you seemed sympathetic. Are you? Do you think these convention attendees need essays like yours to exist?
BH: Another great question, and you’re right — I did come back from the Bigfoot Conference quite sympathetic to my fellow Squatches. This sympathy, I think, came as a result of my understanding that the people who attend Bigfoot conferences are not necessarily die-hard believers as I’d assumed. In fact, the people in attendence were far more skeptical than I imagined. Most of the conference’s presentations were grounded in science, and many of the debates revolved around what form of science might best prove or disprove the case for Bigfoot.
I recently shared my chapbook with a few of my friends in the Bigfoot world, and I’m still waiting for a reaction. Squatchers are quite protective of Bigfoot; they’ve grown weary of the world thinking they’re crazy for even considering the possibility that a 600-pound hairy beast may, in fact, roam the wilds of America. I’m not sure if they “need,” my defenses of monsters, but I like to think of myself as an ally to their cause. But in the end, monsters are only the half of it. I’m defending imagination as well.
MP: I’m a fan of any writer that pushes the imagination — so thanks for your work, BJ!