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.
CP: Why this writing thing? Is it, like, a calling? Is it therapeutic? You can tell me.
PB: Among my limited talents, writing is what I do best. And though I don’t write for therapy, I often start out with a question I don’t know the answer to. I suspect most readers are refreshed by authors who don’t pretend to know, even after they’ve examined a subject exhaustively. The important thing is to invite the reader along for the ride, and that should include beer and sandwiches as the sun sets over the river.
CP: What’s next for you, Arctic exploration? What if, indeed, the killer is caught (officially)? A sequel?
PB: If the killer is caught, a revised edition, perhaps a sequel, would be required, especially in light of the fact that Phoebe Krakatoa has now disappeared and many suspect that she did not meet a good fate. I’d hate to get trapped writing about crime in my own small town, though, so maybe I’ll get the chance to escape to a foreign country.
CP: How do you write and have a family?
PB: The two were incompatible for a long time. I couldn’t have a dog either. I was traveling by bus, staying in small rooms, etc. When I hit my mid forties and had begun to publish regularly and had enough material to last a lifetime, I married and settled down. It’s possible to compose under any kind of circumstances, but I have to assert a daily claim to three or four hours of uninterrupted time. My wife and son understand this. It’s just work, after all.
CP: When you make sentences, do you edit each one or do your pour them out as if gasoline onto a fire that your soul is making?
PB: I pour them out on fire and then go back later and forge them.
CP: Ok, one weird thing I have to ask, did you help decide to put your picture on the cover of your new memoir and did that add another level to the already inherent exhibitionism of writing?
PB: I vowed from the beginning that I would never have a photo on a book jacket. Author faces by and large are not meant to be seen, or at least they’re a deterrent to book sales, and I’m no exception. But my publisher wanted a jacket photo for all my books and I went along in the moronic delirium that comes from someone wanting to publish your work. When she saw some of the stills from the documentary about me and my book she decided to plaster my butt ugly mug across the cover. Can’t say I’m crazy about it, but sales and design and all that stuff are her department.
CP: How much does that one no-name, one-star review for your memoir on Amazon rub you?
PB: That review, which doesn’t bother me because it barely makes sense, was written by Maria “Susie” Zimmerman who runs a portable burrito wagon in our small town. Maria is married to the criminology professor who took over the investigation of the missing math professor after the local police had fallen into a doze. At first she LOVED my book, then she got to the part where I told about her husband’s campaign to steal my wife. Then she HATED my book and promptly got on Amazon to tell the world. I have heard that she rails to many of her customers about her dislike for my book and how she plans to burn it. She is so obsessed with my book that she often forgets the sour cream or puts on too much sour cream or too many jalapenos or she pours green salsa instead of red. Maria insists I should’ve titled my book The Revenge of Poe. She believes I wrote Love and Terror not to paint my small town or discuss my bi-cultural marriage or my son red-flagged for autism, or to address in detail the mystery of the murdered professor, but to get revenge on her husband for trying to jump my wife’s bones. I kind of like that title, The Revenge of Poe. It brings to mind a gothic tale of 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, poodles, has a sex change operation and opens a burrito stand. I think I’d LOVE that book and put it on the shelves of bro party houses across the land. Maria’s burritos, by the way, I’ll give four stars.
CP: Does your growing popularity freak you out or does it feel deserved or something else?
PB: I think Pfizer is about to unveil a drug that increases the size of your popularity, but until then, I don’t sense any popularity, growing or otherwise. If it happens I’ll let you know.
CP: Wait, you’ve had two essays in the Best American series and one in Best American Short Stories, Sy Sanfransky recently put your butter-smeared pin-up in The Sun and Cheryl Strayed drools over your pages. I’d say you’ve got some momentum.
PB: As far as popularity is concerned, I’m still regularly described as “obscure.” Most people in the small town where I’ve lived for almost twelve years were not aware I was a writer until Love and Terror. A kid at the reading there made a point to say that he’d never heard of me. This is pretty typical, and I like it fine that way, I’d just like to sell a few more books.
CP: Why do people compare you to Kerouac when you read nothing like him?
PB: I don’t get to pick the writers I’m compared to. Kerouac, for a beat writer, is pretty clunky, and the idea of composing without revision off a roll of butcher paper or whatever is absurd to me. But people are attracted to gimmicks and icons and pre-digested stories: oh this is the guy who killed himself because no one would publish him, or this is the woman who put her head in an oven because her boyfriend’s dick looked like a turkey neck, or this is the guy who tried to shoot an apple off his wife’s head and killed her instead, or this is the guy who traveled aimlessly and antiheroically and used a psychopath for his central character. So I need a handle, I suppose, a place where readers can grab on and jump aboard. And since I traveled aimlessly and antiheroically, like Kerouac, I’m kind of stuck with this roll of butcher paper fed into my typewriter.
CP: How did you manage to survive without health insurance, and how did you manage to not slip into television bunkerdom? How did you manage to write as a short order cook? Damn it, how do you have that enviable tenacity?
PB: It was all or nothing for me. I was going to be a writer or wrapped up in the roots of an apple tree, so I wasn’t thinking about insurance or retirement or dental care. My tenacity as you call it, which came from leaving myself no alternatives, often felt more like drowning. I was never asked by anyone to do television, besides there’s too much money in that.
CP: No, I mean, how did you stay away from the perpetual defecation that spews from TV? The average American spends four hours a day gorging on pixel juice.
PB: I’ve logged several thousand hours in front of the telly, but there were years at a time when I didn’t have a television or if I did, it was part of the rental — only two or three networks with nothing on. Most of the time there’s still nothing on. TV, I notice, especially the news “shows,” make me more cynical and inclined to melancholia, and I don’t think that’s an accidental correlation.
CP: Is there a certain amount of time that has to pass after an event for you to write about it, and if you wait too long will you lose it all? Where, for Goldilocks, is the middle way?
PB: I fill notebooks with detailed notes. If something happens that I recognize as a potential story, I’ll put it down whole as I can as soon as I can. I have written pieces as they happened or as they were happening, but this is unusual. To find the idea or the problem underneath, to explore the penetralia, takes time. The notebooks full of details and sketches that you save will not only jog your memory but help, when the piece is ripe, to bring it to life.
CP: Given your keen sense of place and landscape, have you ever thought that in another dimension you would be a nature writer? Or, are you a nature writer?
PB: Nature writers generally have a well-trained eye, sometimes even two eyes. They’re more visual than aural, is my point, and though I wouldn’t gainsay their powers of imagination, they’re more confined than I like to be to the environments they observe. I paint mostly urban pictures because I’m more interested in people than poppy fields. I’m also more aural than visual, and I spend more time in my mind than outdoors.
CP: Thanks Poe!
PB: Glad you enjoyed your biscuits.