An Interview with J. Nicholas Geist

Interview conducted by April Murphy

April Murphy: I was blown away by your essay “A Murderer’s Work” in the Spring 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. The essay explores the tumultuous relationship between virtual violence for entertainment (as in video games like Far Cry 2 and Bioshock), and real-life violence based entertainment (like bull fighting). The narrator’s strong, vibrant first-person voice relates these two experiences.

Writing from the point of view of the character in a video game – so much as to say “I” – raises interesting questions about perspective and narration. If you’re playing a character that  someone else created, whom does the “I” represent?

JNG: For me, I think it’s like any other game. I was playing Settlers of Catan last night with some people who aren’t nonfiction writers, and I don’t think either of them thought, “Who am I when I am playing?” It’s certainly true that I’m playing a character that someone else has created–and, generally speaking, that a second person (or team) has written and a third person has voice acted–but it’s still me who’s playing. The choices I make are mine. Videogame characters are a sort of collaborative identity, but it’s the player’s contribution that actually individuates the character.

Recently, there’s been a bit of a mad hullabaloo about the ending to Mass Effect 3, and a lot of the frustration has run along the lines of “My Shepard wouldn’t do X.” I think that’s telling. When first I read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, I was struck by a story he told about the first Mass Effect. (I’ve written a bit about this on my blog.) In short, he describes how, no matter what else is going on in the game, “his” Shepard always has a specific reaction to a certain character in the game. “My” Shepard always has the opposite reaction. We’re playing the same game, but in a very real way, we’re not playing the same character.

To say it more simply, even if the scenario is constructed for me by a team of designers, writers, and developers, the experience of playing the game is still mine, and the things that happen to my character are happening to me. They become a part of my experience, and a part of how I make sense of the world–which is ultimately why I think videogames are worth writing about.

AJM: As someone who is a thinker about several different types of pop culture narrative, including comic books, I’m curious about your take on the emerging genre of graphic nonfiction. I’m a scholar of graphic narrative myself, so I’m keen to notice a structural relationship between graphic novels, popular comic books, and memoir – but not many academics agree. 

JNG: I’d hardly call myself a “scholar of graphic narrative,” but I certainly read a lot of comics. I think more than anything using a graphic medium to tell stories is much like using text to tell stories–there are lots and lots and lots of ways to do it, and we do ourselves a bit of a disservice when we lump them all together. (We hear people dismiss “comics” and “videogames” all the time; we don’t ever hear anybody say, “Pfft. Words.”)

I think one of the most useful things about graphic media for a memoirist is the fact that comics already have a cultural acceptance of an interstitial authorial or narrative voice.


The medium affords three different voices presented side by side–the voice of a character speaking in a previous panel (“His name is Jason”), the voice of Robin in the present action of the scene (“YEEEEEEEHAAAA!!”, etc.), and the voice of the narrator (probably Alfred–“He liked having him out there”). Each voice serves a different purpose, and so the writers are able to contextualize the scene in a way that a written text can’t easily emulate.

One of the things I love most about nonfiction writing is the way in which the different voices intertwine to help make meaning in complicated ways. In any given scene in an essay, “I” may be speaking with three different voices, all of which are in direct conflict–that is, what “I” as a character in the essay am thinking may conflict with what “I” as a character in the essay am saying, which may conflict with what “I” as the author of the piece am suggesting. I think this is something that graphic media let us do really well, and in really interesting ways. (I just wish I could draw.)
AJM: While memoirs like Fun Home, Persepolis, and Maus have been ‘accepted’ as literature, it’s been difficult for other graphic novels to break into the canon. Do you think this has something to do with the need of a first-person narrator? Any other theories?

JNG: One of my favorite quotations on the subject comes from Marshall McLuhan, who writes, “The student of media soon comes to expect the New Media of any period whatever to be classed as ‘pseudo’ by those who acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.” Which is to say, any new medium seems both inferior and simplistic to those whose literacy is built on older media. Today, people wish their kids would spend more time reading novels; when the novel was young, people looked it as a fanciful waste of time for flighty layabouts. Having grown up a late-20th-century geek, I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that comics or video games can be art, but I have a lot of trouble accepting the idea that a tweet can be literature.
I think for the ensconced literati, Fun Home, Blankets, American Born Chinese et. al. are the exceptions that prove the rule, the shining examples that show how clearly all the rest of it is junk. Our kids, though, will grow up with the understanding that comics can be art, and so they will look for art in comics, and make art in comics, and then it’ll just be normal. And things will be that much more awesome.

AJM: The structure of “A Murderer’s Work” weaves together several different locations – Madrid, California, virtual Central Africa, and even a city under the sea – can you talk a bit about how you connected these disparate places and characters so that they fed into a larger narrative?

JNG: I think of the essay–and possibly all literary writing–as the art of making connections, and I feel like Montaigne’s essays really exemplify this. For Montaigne, the movement of the narrative almost never comes from a discrete, sequential set of events–what we think of as a “traditional” narrative–but from the way his thinking about his subject takes shape as he considers his feelings and experiences.

In “A Murderer’s Work,” because the places and settings are so distinct and disparate, it made sense to me to separate them out as discrete chunks, rather than try to weave everything together. This was especially true because in a sense each of the settings has a completely different set of rules governing it–Bioshock’s plasmids, Far Cry 2’s weird political situation, the ritual of the bullfight–and so using the setting of each as an organizing principle seemed to make it easier to keep track of what to expect of the world at any given moment.

AJM: Nonfiction writer Abigail Thomas has said that the structure of a nonfiction essay arises from thinking deeply about the content – essentially that if you write, the form will start to take shape without you consciously thinking about it. It seems that this may be true in the structure of “A Murderer’s Work” – but I’m curious about whether you think about structure while writing, or in revision, or, if structure seems to take care of itself?

JNG: I love that idea–that form comes from thinking deeply about content–but I don’t think that’s quite the same as saying that essays take shape without intentional direction. I think really what an essay is for me is a sort of crystallized thinking–a record of the process by which I have come to make and understand a connection between things.

(Forgive me. Things are about to get a bit ridiculous.)

So: content. Let’s say I’ve got some ideas I want to write about.

My writing process involves lots of junk writing–stuff I do just to get the ideas out, to figure out what I think, to help me understand myself–which I think is pretty common. Most of what I write doesn’t end up in the essay, but it’s necessary for me to get to the point where I can get a sense of how these ideas connect, for me. A lot of my prewriting takes me places I don’t need to go; I spend a lot of time retreading the same ground, wandering down dead ends, branching off needlessly, but eventually, I get where I’m trying to go.
And so I think my way into these things making sense. Once I have a sense of how everything fits together, then I can start thinking about structure–but that structure comes from the thinking. I try to figure out which connections, which strands, which digressions and convergences are really necessary to the understanding I’ve built, and which were the necessary superfluities which were artifacts of my process, but not really a part of the essay proper. There’s a lot of whittling here, and it is for me a very conscious process, but it’s really a process of finding the the structure in my thinking and solidifying it.
And maybe it’s at this point that I figure out that that thing I thought was a digression is actually what ties it all together, or that something I thought was crucial really doesn’t matter. In the initial drafts of “A Murderer’s Work,” there are two big scenes–one in a Spanish dorm room, the other in a (real, non-digital) car on my commute–that were actually the first things I wrote. They were the starting point of my thinking about the issue, and they were definitely connected to the conclusions I come to. But eventually I realized that they weren’t a part of the connection I was trying to understand in the essay.

The structure of the essay–bulls, Bioshock, Bowa-Seko, and all that–came out of my thinking about the interface between videogames and violence, but it was a product of a concerted effort to make sense of the question of what, amid all of that wild thought, was actually meaningful.

I like the way Philip Lopate said it: “I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read nonfiction is to follow an interesting mind.…I’m arguing more for reflective nonfiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.”

AJM: Many people think of nonfiction as existing on a tenuous border between fact and fiction, blending together reality and the imagination. Your work expertly makes takes this border and stretches it to its limit – but can you tell me where you think the steadfast boundaries of nonfiction lie?

JGN: The tagline of Creative Nonfiction is “True Stories, Well Told.” And I think what we mean we say “true” with regards to a story is that the events presented are consonant with reality.
And so, at the risk of sounding like an enormous dink, I think “nonfiction,” as a designation, will always be hampered by the fact that reality is always filtered through subjectivity. This isn’t necessarily to say that there’s no such thing as objective reality, but I do think we can’t access that reality except through our sensorium, such that everything we encounter gets filtered through our biases, our assumptions, our prejudices, our peccadilloes, our passions. If there is such a thing as objective nonfiction, then I think probably nobody can write it.

If our access to reality is filtered through subjectivity, then I think the only useful way to call a story “true” is to say that this story is consonant with my perception of reality–i.e., that it is honest. If I tell the truth as I see it, then I’m not lying, fabricating, misrepresenting, or fictionalizing. The worst I can be is wrong. (Which I am both comfortable with and accustomed to.)

Where I think the people who run afoul of the creative nonfiction police do so is when the write something that doesn’t align with what they know to be true. James Frey knew he wasn’t in jail for three months. If it was the “emotional truth”–if it really did feel like three months–then that’s fine; that’s real, and legitimate, and I think Frey had every right to say, “It felt like three months.” But he didn’t. He said it was three months, even though he knew that wasn’t true.

Thankfully, I never killed my father in order to secure access to escape from his undersea empire. (I’ve never killed my father at all; he’s quite alive and happily occupying the surface world, with no empire to speak of.) But I have had the experience of occupying the mental space of a videogame character that did do those things, and so those experiences are a part of my subjective reality. I can be honest about the way that they affected me, the role they have in their life, and the significance I’ve found in them without having to treat them as “real.”

Truth, I think, is probably too big a job for me. Honesty, though, I can do.

AJM: And this, honestly, has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for joining us at American Literary Review. We look forward to following your writing!

J. Nicholas Geist is an essayist, gamer, programmer, teacher, feminist, and all-around geek about town. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing from California State University, Fresno in 2008. His work has been published inCreative Nonfiction and Ninth Letter, and he frequently publishes weird stuff with Kill Screen. You can find him on Twitter as @jnicholasgeist or on his blog at geekabouttown.com