Jacob Newberry is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University, where he is the recipient of the University Fellowship. He has also been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in Creative Writing and spent last year in Jerusalem as a result. He is the winner of the 2012 Ploughshares Emerging Writers’ Contest in Nonfiction, as well as the recipient of a nonfiction scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Granta, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, Southwest Review, and Best New Poets 2011, among others. He is the former poetry editor of Southeast Review. Originally from south Mississippi, he received his MA in French Language and Literature in 2009. His essay “A Thousand Nations” was published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review. The following interview was conducted by KR’s editor at large G.C. Waldrep.
I’m interested in myth, and one of the questions I’m going to be asking each of the writers this round will deal with myth in contemporary American literature: whether or how it works. In “A Thousand Nations,” of course, the mythic cycle of Christianity (Old and New Testaments) is very much in view; the language of that myth cycle—specifically, of the New American Standard translation of the Bible—functions sometimes as a counterpoint to the narrator’s struggles and voice, sometimes as a substitute for that voice. Are there other mythic resonances here? What, if any, is the relevance of myth or mythic process to your work?
I think you’re right to point out the centrality of myth to the piece, especially in terms of the language itself. I think one of the things I wanted to highlight, though, was the multiplicity of myths and their omnipresence in my life at that age. Your description of the Biblical language as a “substitute” for my voice is very much what I hoped to convey, as it had become so deeply internalized that the struggle was all-consuming.
That element, I think, is the answer to your question about the relevance of myth: the narratives of the Bible were so deeply and thoroughly ingrained in me that I have never really been capable of thinking outside that context completely, even in all the years since I abandoned faith. Our worldviews are shaped by the stories we’re told as children, and as a teenager I still believed them all and feared their consequences much more than I can describe. That kind of brass-burning interaction with stories is, I think, really quite rare in the world we live in today, excepting at the outer fringes of fundamentalism, where I resided. And while I wish I’d been allowed a more measured understanding of the Bible, I can at least do right by the struggle of that time in my life by always honoring the story above everything. This has always been the generating impulse for what I write: the story at all costs.
Marcus and Alexander’s church and vision are deeply rendered in this essay. At the far edge of American evangelical Christianity, a door opens into a world most readers of contemporary American literary fiction never see. Is this a world you still have access to?
I’ll say that I still have access to this world in that I was a member for such a long time. Even before leaving for Marcus’s church, I had been raised with a set of beliefs that didn’t quite fit with those of the other members of our congregation. That is, even the other people in our Southern Baptist church thought our beliefs went “too far.” We were very strict, and quite literalist in many ways, and this sometimes unnerved them. And so when I left for Marcus’s church, of which I was a member for around a year, it was a natural progression for me. It felt like the fulfillment of a divine plan.
I’m happy to say that I’m not in any way affiliated with that group (which no longer exists), nor am I affiliated with any church at all. I don’t want to imply that all churches (Protestant or otherwise) pose some kind of inherent danger: it’s only that my faith unraveled largely as a result of my experience. (It was actually a very long process, but I’ll forego that here.)
But my “access,” as you describe it, is found in my memory, in the still-palpable surety of the world’s quick passing, in the vivid and luminous language of an entire culture that I was a member of for many years.
Even as the narrator of the essay is undergoing the exorcism he knows will be unsuccessful—and will drive him from the church—he never blames either the congregation or the religious vision it represents. In fact, one of the most striking things about this essay is the absence of blame. There is beauty, and great sorrow, and some terror…but no blame. Was this a conscious decision? If so, was it hard to make happen, given the subject matter?
In the moment, and for many years after I left that group, I blamed myself entirely. It wasn’t a question of having had wrong done to me; it was the story of my having been offered a way out and lacking the strength to take it. Revisiting that time now, I understand that it isn’t true, of course. Gratefully, I’m very far removed from the emotional damage of that time, and so I was hoping to write the essay to as great an extent possible in the mindset of myself at that age and in that place. And at that time there was very little blame outside of what I felt for myself. I’m gratified to hear that this came through.
You’re a polymath who writes and publishes widely in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. As someone who can only write in one genre at a time (and who finds switching off incredibly disruptive), I wonder about your process. Do you work in all three genres simultaneously, or in sequence? And do you feel you’re exploring the same themes or subject matter? Or are there certain themes or subjects or moves that occur in one genre, but not in the other two?
I do tend to work in bursts that are in a single genre, but I also tend to be using all the stove’s burners at once. That is, I’m always working on numerous things at the same time, at different levels of completion, and in different genres.
As for knowing which genre a piece belongs in, I find that I’m gaining more intuition as I mature as a writer. I’ve written the story of this essay in every genre imaginable and failed at all of them. That’s when I realized I’d worked through it all enough times to be able to say it in nonfiction. Some of my intuition now relates to my belief that if a (true) story is strange or outlandish enough, and is then fictionalized, the reader will be very, very skeptical. If the (true) story is told in nonfiction, though, the contract with the reader is much different, and the focus becomes less on insisting and proving the plausibility of those events and more on rendering them as fully and beautifully as possible. This, then, is generally how I try to decide: which genre will allow me to make a story as beautiful and lyrical as it can be? Sometimes the answer to that is a poem. (I consider poetry to be my home base, and it’s often my default choice.) But sometimes the answer to that question – especially if the story is true and dramatic enough, as in “A Thousand Nations” – is that I decide to write it as nonfiction, so I can spend my energy on the lyricism that I value above all. If I’m hoping to evoke a place or time or sensation, but also hoping to say something that I haven’t necessarily had direct access to, then the answer might be fiction, which I find to be the most challenging of all.
And I can’t pretend that I’m not exploring many of the same themes in every genre, or even in every piece I write. They say we’re only ever writing the same story over and over again, and I don’t find that idea off-putting. I find it a kind of cosmic affirmation: you find your one right bell and then it rings and rings for as long as you have strength to make it so.
You have a B.A. in piano and an M.A. in French Literature. You’re now working on a Ph.D. at Florida State in Creative Writing, in both poetry and nonfiction. You lived once in Paris, then for a year in the Pyrenees, then again for a year in Jerusalem. You seem to have a tendency to change your paths, both geographically and artistically. Do you think of this as a strength? Or do you wish that you had been studying creative writing as an undergraduate, and then as an MFA student, before your Ph.D., as is presumably the case for many people working on a Ph.D. in Creative Writing?
Well, I’ll say that I don’t know that my particular path is much different from that of many people working toward this degree. I decided to get an M.A. in French Literature because I had no better ideas, and because my French was good, and someone suggested it, and there was funding available. I don’t know that this differs much from the stereotypical motivation for getting an MFA right out of undergrad. The only real difference is the subject matter. And I’ll say that I’m very grateful for having been a piano major, despite my not having the talent or drive to succeed as a professional pianist.
The three or so years I’ve lived outside the U.S., though, are the very best decisions I made with respect to my writing. I lived in Paris as an undergrad and studied piano at a conservatory there, and the experience was thoroughly damaging. I moved to the Pyrenees as I finished my M.A. and lived in a town of 1200, without regular Internet access and without enough money to travel more than one weekend a month. That experience was ruinous. I lived last year in Jerusalem in much, much better circumstances than the village in the Pyrenees, but that year was also a pretty severe hammering. But the reason those years were so damaging was because I was being shed of so much foolishness and naïveté, a process which feels awful. I came away from each one weakened in the short-term but immeasurably strengthened in the long-term.
For example, when I lived in the mountains, in that village of 1200, without much access to the Internet, and without a landline phone (so I could hardly use calling cards, which get eaten up by payphones), I simply had nothing else to do but read, and then write. So I started writing long letters to my friends back home, and to read everything I could manage to find, in both English and French. And then I started writing poems every day. I disliked it at the beginning, but I just simply had nothing else to do. That’s the year I became a writer. So the idea of having been an undergraduate creative writing major just doesn’t apply, since at that age I never would have considered myself a writer. I was a pianist. Then when that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, I became an aspiring French scholar. Only when that also didn’t work did I realize that I wasn’t thriving because I was in the wrong arena. The only way I found out that I was a writer was by being bad at other things. In that sense, I’m grateful for my path.