Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters
Visiting writer Poe Ballantine stopped by Denton in early November this year, where he read at the University of North Texas and we rustled up breakfast at the Old West Cafe. I had the Cowboy and a plateful of homemade biscuits and gravy, and Poe had the Train Robber with cheese. While our bloated stomachs squeezed blood back into our brains, I quizzed Ballantine on the finer points of self-expression, parenthood, Amazon one-star reviews, Jack Kerouac, marriage and fame. We talked mostly in context of his new memoir, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. The book is centered around the unsolved murder of math professor Steven Haataja in Chadron, Nebraska where Ballantine lives, and is also, seamlessly, about Ballantine’s bilingual marriage, his autistic son and wondering where the true heart of America is buried. During Love and Terror’s writing, Poe took part in a documentary about the murder case. The film shares the same names as Poe’s memoir, and a link to filmmaker Dave Jannetta’s kick-starter page is listed below. The book itself is ridiculously funny as it is strangely tragic and page-turning. Somehow, Ballantine has made the Nebraskan panhandle feel both terrible and exotic. I should say too that Poe was kind enough to wait on me at the Old West while I finished my biscuits.
Clint Peters (CP): Your book condenses some material down from about five years to a space of about a year, and you modified a couple of other things for narrative flow. Why do you think some readers get routinely miffed, underwear bunched in a knot by a writer who shapes material openly? Do they think artists don’t write nonfiction anymore?
Poe Ballantine (PB): It often depends on the type of underwear, you know, tight underwear bunches more readily, but there’s definitely confusion between creative nonfiction and journalism, and I don’t think there should be. Journalism reports an event from the field objectively and factually as it happened. Its intent is to inform. Creative nonfiction unzips the skin of journalism and reaches down into the penetralia for emotions, meaning, beauty, ideas, and if you’re lucky, art. When you set my account side by side with the so-called factual account of Steven Haataja, the newspaper articles, police reports, autopsy report, etc. there’s really no comparison between which illuminates the record best, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
CP: Tell me about the decision to broach a murder investigation. How did you get the, um, excuse the expression, balls?
PB: I only entered the whale’s mouth on this because Steven lived right around the corner from me and I had spent some time with him and knew many of his colleagues, neighbors, and friends. His death felt personal. I knew that his story could’ve well been mine. I had never written true crime, so it took me a while to get my feet. For a year this was strictly a timeline, a list of suspects, a few press releases, some interviews, a handful of theories and scenarios, and several hundred unanswered questions. Gradually, I enfolded other elements. Early on I realized that Steven’s tragedy needed humanizing, which gave me an opportunity to depict my town and its residents. There might be a debate about whether or not I should’ve undertaken the investigation, but when that whale’s mouth opened, I don’t really think I had any other choice but to walk in.
CP: How would you be as a writer today if you’d graduated from an Ivy League college at 22, entered an MFA program (or MA program like UNT’s) and been newly minted at 25?
PB: I’m guessing before I fizzled out completely I would’ve written four literary novels, “literary” in this sense meaning plotless, convoluted, ambiguous, and at least three hundred pages too long. My first novel would’ve been about an eccentric and talented but deeply troubled Civil War family, the second a dense and irritating study of political power during the Hoover Administration, the third an examination of race with keen insight and sympathy written in the comfort of my all-white neighborhood. The last novel, right before my suicide, would’ve been about a man strongly resembling myself who struggles with alcoholism and depression from writing literary novels.
CP: Which books would you burn and which would you surreptitiously stick on a shelf at a bro party house if you could?
PB: I’d burn all four of those literary novels I just mentioned. I don’t know what a bro party house is, but in its bookshelf I’d stick this book I just heard of about a 1950’s atomic scientist, who after a bad experiment comes home one evening from the lab disfigured and double in size, eats his wife, children, and two poodles, then has a sex change operation. I can’t remember the name of it.
CP: Does that book exist? That’s the kind of thing I remember being tossed around my MFA program. It’s certainly no weirder than Pynchon.
PB: That book is a product of my imagination, Clint, as far as I know.