Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters
Patrick Madden is perhaps the closest thing we have to a Michel de Montaigne, ver. 2017. Pat began with his meandering, discursive essays in his collection, Quotidiana (Nebraska, 2010) before following up with 2016’s Sublime Physick, which won a Gold Medal this year from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. “Quotidiana” is Pat’s somewhat made-up word, but refers to a collection of materials concerned with the everyday, just like Montaigne’s essays themselves. Quotidiana is also a website Madden maintains, an online compendium of 420 public-domain essays published before 1923. Along with students at BYU, Pat picks the “essayest” of essays each year and posts the winners on his site. The process of selection is unapologetically subjective, which would soften Montaigne’s heart.
Sublime Physick is marked for its playfulness, a 100-page essay that is completely engrossing, and performs a modern take on Montaigne’s rambles into subjects ranging from fatherhood to Eduardo Galeano. Besides Quotidiana and Sublime Physick, Pat co-edited the anthology After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015), which went on to win a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. He co-translated Eduardo Milán’s Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2012), and his writing has appeared in The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, The Normal School, and lots of other places. Madden finished his PhD at Ohio University in 2004 and began teaching at BYU. Because who wouldn’t want to talk to a Montaigne reincarnate, I sent Pat a message, and he was kind enough to chat with me over a few weeks through the internet.
Clinton Crockett Peters: What’s it like to write a 100 page essay, “Independent Redundancy,” and stick that 100 page essay into a collection like Sublime Physick where the reader least suspects it?
Patrick Madden: I’ve felt apprehensive about this very thing, though I should say that maybe if a reader knows my previous work, they might suspect they’ll find a long essay in the book. But not this long! So I worried that people wouldn’t read the essay. And maybe that’s been true to some extent, but I’ve also heard from a handful of people who say they really enjoyed the long essay, and some for whom it’s their favorite, in part because it’s “audacious” to expect enduring attention in this time of cultural attention deficit, and in part because it’s a sustained and sinuous argument against a simplistic view of originality. So I feel semi-vindicated, and I’m rather pleased at the fact that we pulled it off, whether or not most people actually read it. On the off chance that someone reading this interview might be tempted, I’ll mention that this essay contains the book’s biggest and most intricate Easter egg, which is hinted at throughout the essay, perhaps most notably in its expression of my wish to be made immortal through others’ (or computers’) supplemental, anonymous writing in my voice and on my behalf.
CCP: One of the things I love about Sublime Physick is the first essay, “Spit,” and how much you focus on bodily fluids. I love that I find it gross and you know it. I love that you seem aware of this feeling and sticking the essay at the front of the book anyway. How in the name of William Hazlit do you begin with bodily fluids?
PM: Thank you. This move got me my first negative review (you and I belong to a mostly civil club of writers who generally aren’t inclined to say anything unless they have something nice to say), from Kirkus, an unsigned pre-publication review that began asking “WWMD: What would Montaigne do? Left to write a fresh collection of essays, he might not lead with a piece in which expectoration takes center stage…” I can say that the Essays are veritably full of unpleasant bodily emanations, in scene and in story, directly and euphemistically. Montaigne never shied away from spit or vomit or sperm or shit, so, ultimately, I had to conclude that the reviewer hadn’t really read Montaigne.
I chose to lead with “Spit” for a variety of reasons, including the feeling that beyond the unpleasantness of the ostensible subject lay a kind of redemption, in that the essay winds up being about repentance, its complexities and complications. I suppose I was setting up an initial challenge for readers, too, a kind of parallel to Montaigne’s admonition in his note “To the Reader,” that “You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so vain and frivolous a subject.” If a reader is not chased away by Montaigne’s dismissal, they’ve passed the first test. Similarly, if they’re intrigued, instead of disgusted, by my literal treatment of spit, then they’re my kind of reader, and they’ll probably enjoy the rest of the essays, too. Finally, I modeled “Spit” stylistically after “Laughter,” my most-published and maybe best-loved essay, which essay would have led off Quotidiana if I’d been savvier then. Instead, I began that book with an introduction of sorts, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” which, I discovered too late, became the free sample available on Amazon and other online places. “Laughter” would have been the better choice, as it’s more personable and funnier. “Spit” borrows from “Laughter” in its general shape and in some specific section moves and even in some key phrasings. It’s more serious in its subject, but I think it’s also funny at times, and both essays are, ultimately, about transcendent matters.
CCP: When did you fall in love with Montaigne and why? What kind of OKCupid profile do you think Michel would have in the 21st century?
PM: Not having any experience with OKCupid, I had to do some research to answer this question, which brings up one of my core writing principles: that one should never walk away from an essay without first learning something new. You shouldn’t allow yourself to simply download what’s already in your brain onto the page. Anyway, I’m still not quite sure how Montaigne would respond to OKCupid, so he very well might enjoy the opportunity to seek out romantic partners based on a secret mathematical algorithm, but I suspect he’d be rather skeptical of the whole endeavor, and he’d certainly freak at the faulty parallelism in the “3 principles that make OkCupid the best dating site on Earth: our love of math, we’re always free, and everyone’s welcome.” Why not “we love math”? (OK, maybe that’s just me freaking out.) And I think, from reading all of his essays numerous times, that he’d push back against the claim that the site “makes the ineffable totally effable.” Montaigne honored the ineffable and disbelieved any claims of totality.
All of which is to say that a while back D