Conversation with Fritz Swanson

October 15, 2018

 

To kick things off: What inspires you?

Disassembled or abandoned things. I have to confess that blank pages,
or total freedom, never really excite me. I rarely sit down to create
in a vacuum. Instead, I like to start with something forlorn,
something already in process. I like tracing, I like photography, I
like writing historical fiction, I like transcribing audio, I like
describing what I see. I like broken machines. I like dead technology.

In the mountains where my momma was from, there was a stew made from
leftovers called “slumgullion”. Basically, if you can take your left
overs, pour them into a pan, add onions and sausage, fry it all up,
you have slumgullion. It’s my favorite meal.

Tell me a little about how you got started as a writer. When did you
start actively identifying as a writer? What kind of things did you
write about early on, and how have your interests and the subjects you
pursue evolved over time? What are the ups and downs of the life of a
working writer?

In first grade there was a contest to write a children’s book. We all
had to write and illustrate and bind our own book. I wrote a story
about when the Easter Bunnies went on strike (this was unintentionally
based on the Disney Silly Symphony “The Funny Little Bunnies” where
easter eggs were made on an assembly line by hundreds of rabbits). My
mother typed the text along the bottom of each folio page, I drew the
chickens and bunnies, and my father helped me with a pamphlet stitch
binding. It made me extremely happy, and I won 1st place. Experiences
that early don’t leave you.

When I was a junior in college, I wrote a short story based on one of
Sitting Bull’s early memories. I had read the account in an American
History class at UM, and it inspired me to write a kind of prose poem
called “Slow”. That was taken for McSweeney’s Issue Six, and They
Might be Giants wrote a song to accompany it. As first publications
go, that felt pretty amazing.

But that publication never really sparked anything. To be honest,
being a “writer” has always been my identity, but the work of it is an
endless slog, and I have watched all my peers submit to it, and none
of it looks like what is advertised on the package. It took me a long
time to realize I was a teacher, and not just a writer. I focused so
much on my writing early on that I forgot that teaching is what feeds
me and my family, and that is true for MANY MANY writers. I had such a
hard time with that compromise that I got fired from UM once. But then
I buckled down and grew up and looked at the work that was necessary,
instead of the work that was attractive.

For me, much of my career has been a meditation on my own failures.
What is beautiful in the writing that I love, and what is broken in my
own work, and how can I draw those two things closer together. I’m
constantly trying to “fix” my process, and the side effect is that I
keep coming back to class with new insights, and I keep having new
successes in my writing career.

First, you have to realize that there is no such thing as writing. Not
on its own. There is publishing. Publishing is delivering to readers
some combination of what they want, and what they need. Readers want
some things so much they pay for them. And that need on their part
creates publishers, and those publishers create the writers that feed
them words. Writers don’t ever get the chance to create on their own
terms. And the few who THINK they are creating on their own terms are
really just living through a happy accident. (I would encourage you to
read “Paradise Park” by Steven Millhauser to explore the idea of
creating art for an audience. Contrast it with his “The New Automaton
Theater”.)

So, I had a happy accident with “Slow” and I thought it would
transform my life. But it didn’t. It took me a long time to listen to
magazines, and to publishers, and to editors. The work of writing is
trying to match your interests to the readers. It is the struggle of
persuading yourself that what they need is what you want to make, and
also the struggle of persuading them that what you want to make is
what they need. It is a constant negotiation, and a constant dialogue.
It is figuring out what the reader needs even if they haven’t
expressed the desire.

And all of this has lead me back to nonfiction work, to journalism, to
history and art. I published a few stories early on, but really the
money (such as it is) is in non-fiction work. I write what I am paid
to write. I try to achieve some beauty within that frame.

You’ve taught at Michigan for a while now, teaching courses on writing
to students from all disciplines the school has to offer. Having
evaluated the work of countless students, what are some of the most
common errors that young writers make? What do they overlook that
someone of greater experience knows not to take for granted? In your
opinion, what does it take for a writer to stand out from the crowd?

You need to have absolute clarity of purpose. And the first line
matters. You want to start with a clear statement, or narrative image,
and you want that starting point to be absolutely necessary all the
way to the end of the piece. I love the opening of “A Good Man is Hard
to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, for example. Everything in that story
happens in the first few lines. I often find that for students, what
that takes is cutting the first page. It takes a writer a few
paragraphs to find their voice. Sometimes it takes the whole essay to
figure out what it is about. Then you take your last paragraph, put it
on page one, and start over.

You teach letterpress printing at the Wolverine Press, and have even
had essays on letterpress printing published in a few different
places. Where did your fascination for this subject–which must be
fairly niche in the twenty-first century, I have to imagine–come from?
Why do you feel it’s important to share this with your readers?

Book making, book production, goes all the way back for me. My first
story in first grade was also a book making exercise, and I kept doing
that all through my boyhood… writing, printing, binding. Initially I
worked with typewriters, and with a laser printer later on. But my
father was friends with a local printer and farmer, and I was
introduced to his old letterpress printing equipment when I was very
young.

My father had bought a John Deere Model A, rusted in a field, and he
was rebuilding it with his friend Tom Trumble. In the barn where they
were cutting steel with a plasma torch, and hanging up pieces to be
painted a new bright green, there was a Chandler and Price 10X15 New
Style printing press with a great big flywheel on one side. This was
Tom’s newly acquired printing press. He had bought it from his former
employer Lee Printing, which had just that year gotten out of
letterpress printing for good in favor of offset printing. It was the
first printing press I had ever seen.

That memory stuck with me, and years later I was the lead designer for
an early online literary magazine called Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k). I was
riffing on design history, and so I was going back into old books to
find interesting antique images for the website design. I spent a long
time in Taschen’s edition of The Description of Egypt as Published by
the Orders of Napoleon Bonaparte, which has great 18th century
engravings of artifacts from Napoleon’s archeological expeditions. But
after a while I wanted a different image source, and I happened upon a
copy of the American Type Founders 1923 Specimen Book which displayed
all of the type and cuts they were selling at the peak of their
success. I remembered Tom’s old press, and I got kind of obsessed with
the typography of the book.

I realized that what I wanted to do was buy a good set of ATF’s Caslon
471, which is the type derived from that used by Ben Franklin when he
was printing his satirical Poor Richard’s Almanack. I wanted to buy
the set, and buy a press, and to write a short story worthy of that
type, and of that printing process.

After reading and re-reading the specimen book, I started searching
for the type. ATF had gone bankrupt in 1993, and I had purchased the
book around 2002. But I found a man named Theo Rehab who had once
worked for ATF, and I reached out to him and found that he was still
casting ATF 471 using machines that he had saved from ATF after its
bankruptcy.

In 2010 I convinced THE BELIEVER magazine that they would like a
profile of Theo. This became “The Last Man for the Job”. The research
I did to prepare for my interview of Theo would probably constitute a
masters degree education in typographic history. I had already bought
a printing press a few years previous, and I used the money I was paid
from THE BELIEVER ($400 for 8000 words) to buy 25 pounds of Caslon
471.

But as always, along the way I did wedding invitation printing, and
some small editions of some poems for events on campus, and this led
to me pitching the idea of a print shop on campus that eventually
became Wolverine Press. We create hand-made traditionally printed
broadside editions of poems and prose that celebrates the visiting
writers who come to campus each year. It’s all about creating a
literary community, and about connecting contemporary writers to the
physical labor of publishing.

I want to remind every student who works in the shop that we are
standing on the ground, that words have a literal physical weight,
that paper is cut and folded and sewn, and that we aren’t just minds
floating in clouds. That we are here, present, in this moment. That we
tire, and we grow hungry, and we must feed and care for our bodies as
much as we do our minds.

And there is just something seductive about a machine of creativity,
like a press or a camera or a paper cutter or a pencil or a case of
type. They always contain infinities.

I still haven’t printed the little story I wrote. It’s about George
Washington discovering that his father had accidentally bought an
Egyptian God at the last slave auction. It’s called “Serapis” and you
can find it on the web. Someday there will be a nice little physical
edition. But not yet.

Who are some of your favorite writers–both contemporary and
historically–and how do you feel that they've influenced you?

Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, William Gibson, Alan Moore,
David Foster Wallace, William Butler Yeats, JD Salinger, Virginia
Woolf.

All of these writers have shown me that what is distant is also very
near, and what is inaccessibly abstract can also be shown to be
unavoidably concrete.

Looking at this list I would also observe that virtually all of them
waged war with the publishing industry (except maybe William Gibson,
which is ironic in its own way).

All of these writers lived their careers in constant negotiation with
readers and publishers. And they were all GREAT negotiators. Because
the key to negotiating is being willing to walk away from the table.

A big focus for the class I’m in with you now is how to make an essay
read like a story. We’ve discussed a lot about structure, turning
points, discursive and narrative writing, purpose, etc. It feels like
no accident to me, then, that individual class periods often feel like
stories themselves, the pace with which we dissect pieces having a
controlled structure that builds to moments of revelation where we
begin to understand the meaning behind the complex pieces that we
cover. I’ve found it quite effective, personally, for staying engaged
on subjects that, if taught in other ways, may not hold my interest so
well. So, in simpler terms, what is the importance of story–and the
art of storytelling–to how we communicate, in and out of writing?

I grew up on an old farm that had, in the generations before me, been
a beef operation. Our barn was a small slaughterhouse.

The steers came in from the south and walked down a channel set on
either side with heavy tube steel rails, and the path was long enough
for about three steers. The steers marched down the channel to a gated
spot where they were struck in the skull by an air piston, or earlier,
by a kind of hammer. Their legs would buckle, and they sagged into a
harness chained to a track on the ceiling.

The steer was transformed in this moment into beef.

The beef was then drawn the rest of the way down the channel through a
veiled door into the high ceilinged cooler where meat cutters in
leather aprons and heavy coats dismantled the beef into hanging sides.

The steers were long gone by the time I was born, but I remember
chasing cats along the old channel. I remember hanging upside down in
the chain harness like a gymnast and shining in the dusty air, cut
through with sunbeams from the west.

And in that old cooler, we kept our chickens.

And their favorite place to roost was a long steel sink where the
cutters had once washed the blood from their hands and arms. I would
go up in the cold autumn morning with a basket, and I would dip my
arms into that sink, and I would gather up the still warm eggs of the
hens as they pecked at the feed I had scattered to distract them.

Time only moves in one direction: forward. We follow along a channel
set down long before we arrived, and while we never really know where
the channel will take us, we always know exactly where the channel
will take us.

We always know where we are in a story. We can feel what approaches,
and we collapse when the moment comes. We do it every time.

Stories are the most natural thing there is.

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