B.J. Hollars, is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America—the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award—and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Tuscaloosa forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press in 2013. His short story collection, Sightings is forthcoming next year from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
His nonfiction pieces "The Megatherium Club" and "Leningrad" appear in Issue Thirty-Eight of The Collagist.
Here, BJ Hollars talks to interviewer David Bachmann about cannibalism, voluntary starvation, and stories worthy of preservation.
1. Part of the power of these pieces are their brevity. Were you ever tempted to make them longer or were they longer in previous drafts? Would something be compromised if you were to exploit, for example, the case of 36 self-starved men in Minnesota or the accomplishments of William Stimpson for even another paragraph?
I was very tempted to expand, and in fact, for several drafts I fell victim to the longer form. “Leningrad” was actually spurred by a 15-page essay called “In Defense of The Donner Party,” in which I tried to defend the party’s alleged resorting to cannibalism during the winter of 1846-47. The essay sprawled and sprawled and ultimately went nowhere. It took me four months to write, and in the end, all I was left with was the inspiration to write “Leningrad,” which was enough.
“The Megatherium Club” was sort of the opposite. I’d tried desperately to expand the piece, but I just kept running into dead ends. I researched the members (even spoke with the current president of the 21st century version of the club), but nothing was as interesting as the men in their now famous photograph, which I reference.
I’m not sure anything would have been “compromised” or “exploited” if the essays were longer, but I just don’t think they were meant to be. It took me a few tries, but eventually I stumbled upon the proper length, and that meant short.
2. You end each of these pieces with an italicized question that is fairly large in scope. To what extent are these meant to instruct, provoke, resolve, or none of these?
You’re right! I do end both with an italicized question. How funny that I never noticed that before. Of course, it sounds absurd to say that now, but it’s absolutely true. I suppose I never noticed it because I never intended these essays to be together. They were written at least a year apart from one another, and I eventually pieced them together simply because they both seemed to explore a historical moment in the form of a nonfiction short-short. That’s about the only resonance I initially saw. Upon reading them again, these essays suddenly seem like kindred spirits—inseparable in some way—though I promise you there was no master plan here. I always figured my subconscious was smarter than my conscious; this just proves it.
But to answer your question, I don’t think these questions are meant to resolve a thing. Maybe I did mean for them to provoke a bit (after all, they do sort of pivot toward the reader), but I don’t think I had any real agenda here. If anything, as is true of most of my nonfiction—especially reportage—I want to give readers the facts in an engaging manner and allow them to draw their own conclusion.
3. In “The Megatherium Club” you seem to tow the line of indicting the club’s hedonism during a time of war and celebrating their scientific contributions. Do you think that’s a reasonable reaction to the work? Do you want the reader to form an opinion of the Megatherium Club and if so, what is it?
Yeah, I think that reading is about right, at least for most people. I just got done saying I want readers to “draw their own conclusions” from these essays, but it turns out I may be leading readers directly down the interpretive path you just mentioned. As I began researching the history of the Megatherium Club (which was a side story while trying to research an essay about the megatherium itself), I became fascinated by these young boys who seemed to love their world but didn’t know how they fit in it. They could bestow most anything with a name, but a name didn’t guarantee familiarity, merely classification.
4. You make some forthright comments here, such as, “What little we actually know of these men speaks to our own failure as preservationists.” To what extent is the goal of this piece to preserve the men in this club by exhuming them?
I suppose that might be an ulterior motive as well. However, I don’t think I’m interested in preserving them because I think they necessarily deserve it. I mean, I think they do, but as I note in the essay, many of the members of the Megatherium Club already have natural wonders named after them—glaciers, valleys, rivers and whatnot—so what good will my measly 600 or so words do for them? I want to preserve them for the readers’ sakes. Yes, the natural world is mysterious, but so are the people who study it, and perhaps, so are the people who read tiny essays about the people who once studied it. We’ve all got our own stories worthy of preservation, but for now, I’d rather preserve somebody else’s.
5. In "Leningrad" you begin with the desperation of hunger during war time and end with voluntary starvation. Although the latter was for the sake of science, there is also a sense of recreation to the act of depriving oneself sustenance, almost like how the act of taking hallucinogens erases the constraints of the tangible. How do you want the reader to react to the 36 starving Minnesotans?
I suppose I really don’t know how I want the reader to react on this one, but I know I had a very visceral reaction when I first learned about these experiments. It seemed like such a trespass on the limits of scientific experimentation. After all, the Nazis were performing starvation experiments on one side of the ocean, while on the other side—back in Minnesota—we were performing our own starvation experiments in or order to counteract the Nazi’s starvation experiments. There seemed to be this perilously thin line between the morality of these very similar acts. The major difference, I suppose, was that in the Auschwitz labs prisoners were starved against their wills, while back at the University of Minnesota, people lined up for the abuse and were called patriots.
6. Your assertion that the club’s discovery “...reaffirmed their faith that the unknown was everywhere, that America was in need of taxonomy” suggests that America was in need of repair or enlightenment that it may not have ever received. Your assertion that “...neither parent adequately defined the word starving” similarly suggests a personal and/or societal imperfection born of deprivation, a void born of ignorance. Do you want either of these works to comment on society’s glaring flaws or is that something you want to avoid?
The trick, for me, was to leave the reader with something to think about without shoving a didactic message down anyone’s throat. I’ve recently found myself falling into the likely bad habit of leaving my essays with a final line or two of condemnation toward my subject. I don’t do it for any kind of “holier than thou,” complex from which I may be suffering, but simply because I’m shocked that so many atrocities of the recent past are already long forgotten. Many of us seem to have a sense that “bad things” once occurred, but we don’t seem to believe we have any obligation to think about them. It’s as if we privilege “bad things” with mythic status simply because it’s easier than facing hard truths. I suppose, at some level, I want to force the reader into viewing these hard truths. I want them to see the protruding ribs on the man who ate sawdust in Leningrad. I want them to peer deep into the bullet hole that killed a man at Gettysburg. Maybe we can learn from these “bad things,” maybe not, but forgetting them entirely shouldn’t be an option. Burdens are meant to be carried. Sometimes I think I just don’t want to carry any of them alone.
7. What are you reading these days?
Not nearly enough, of course, but most recently I’ve managed to sneak in Chad Simpson’s Tell Everyone I Said Hi, which is great. I’m also reading all kinds of research stuff, so a lot of dusty old books about giant squids and misidentified creatures and Sasquatch, as always. Oh, and every historical marker and museum plaque I can get my hands on. That’s where all the best stories come from.