So, you just weathered a really difficult Upper Michigan winter. I mean, the icebergs just melted in Lake Superior, and all these eager bastards are swimming in it already. What did you do to inaugurate the summertime, symbolically or otherwise?
I drank from the hose.
And you performed this act—this hose-drinking—in spite of the fact that you just read an article about Hexamethylenamin poisoning at the local rubber factory. I mean, over 60 employees fell ill.
61, yeah. Well, to be fair, that happened in 1924, so…
Gatekeeper-ism regarding ecological toxicity and regulatory information has evolved a bit since, huh. Sure, sure. Go after that hose with confidence, right? It’s summertime. Let’s take a risk, right?
Okay, now that we’ve talked about the weather, gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about your new book, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and its First Photographer. First, tell me something about the book that you tell everybody. Something common, brief, and easily digestible.
Well, when 19th century Newfoundland Reverend Moses Harvey secured and photographed, for the first time, an intact specimen of the giant squid, he essentially rescued the beast from mythology and finally proved its existence, forever altering the ways in which we engaged the construct of the sea monster. Preparing the Ghost unpacks Harvey’s fevered obsessions with the then-mythological giant squid and braids them with my own. To take the photo, Harvey transported the squid from one bay to another, and then finally to his home where he proceeded to drape it over his bathtub’s curtain rack so its full size could be displayed. The book traces the logistics of his undertaking and connects said logistics to the peculiarities of Harvey’s personal life, and to other digressive, but relevant obsessions. During the writing process—which involved a lengthy research trip to Newfoundland and Labrador—the project became this sort of book-length segmented essay onto which so many ancillary burrs attached themselves to the main threads of giant squid and Moses Harvey—meditations on pain and saxophones and weather and ice cream.
(muttering) I thought I said brief and easily digestible…Anyhow: You chose to include the word essay in the book title. Given that most folks who’ve attended school will cringe at the mention of that word, why that choice?
Sure: Academia has kinda ruined that word, essay, which, among other things, simply means, an attempt. I see the essay as a testing ground—as an excuse (or obligation) to test the parameters of the things we either clearly or hazily call facts. To see how much a fact can take before it breaks or morphs into something else. To undress a fact of its swagger and bravado. To place one fact next to a seemingly dissimilar fact and to watch how they react, collide, repel, couple, bump-and-grind through their blue jeans like moony teenagers, kiss each other goodbye on couches and in hospitals like long married couples. Is there magnetism? Electricity? Aversion?
(Pausing) Sorry. I’m still thinking about those blue jeans. Jean-to-jean love, you know? Hell, we’ve been there. Stains in the shapes of…
Speaking of, well, the nether regions: Can you tell us something that you’ve not yet told an interviewer. Something about…I’m kind of embarrassed to say…
You? Really? Take your time.
(sheepishly)…the penis of the giant squid?
Firstly, I’d classify the tone there as more (coy) than (sheepish)—you know: that high-pitched lilt at the end…?
Yeah. Total coyness.
But sure. The giant squid, if male of course, has a penis that, when erect, can be as long as the mantle (torso), head, and arms combined. As such, according to A. I. Arkhipkin’s and V. V. Laptikhovsky’s article “Observation of Penis Elongation in Onykia ingens: Implications for Spermatophore Transfer in Deep-Water Squid,” published in the June 30, 2010, issue of Journal of Molluscan Studies, our beast possesses the “greatest known penis length relative to body size of all mobile animals, second in the entire animal kingdom only to certain sessile barnacles” whose dicks, obviously, are way smaller.
Sweet. And a cool fact about the female giant squid?
Okay. The giant squid lays her eggs—sometimes up to 50,000 at a time!—in a string that resembles a pearl necklace, torn, bouncing along the seafloor on her legs until she finds an object that she deems suitable on which to pile the mass of embryos, a process which often results in thousands of acres of seafloor to be covered with the sheen of her jellied eggs, until such an object, like a big pink shell, is found. I’ve seen pictures. It’s gorgeous.
Sounds sorta celestial. How have folks responded to the book so far?
So far so good, thankfully. One critic called it, “Fantastical, atmospherically moody and Poe-like in its laudanum-fueled dreaminess.” That really excited me. Much of the book, I think, is about our shared experience of going slack-jawed in the face of our obsessions made manifest, so I’m glad readers are able to commune with that—the universal drive/struggle to make sense of, to connect up with, to contextualize that which seems larger-than-life.
That, and really nasty suction cups.
Any major influences on the book?
I must admit that the piece of “literature” that most inspired my obsession with Harvey and the squid was likely a cephalopod-ish article from the May 1983 issue of Boy’s Life magazine, though Moby Dick does make me wriggle (occasionally with glee). The twitchy and wonderful squid experts and enthusiasts with whom I corresponded on Preparing the Ghost certainly acted as influence—Clyde Roper (who once attached a camera to the back of a whale—which can’t be easy—in a failed attempt to capture some giant squid footage), the author Richard Ellis, and Steve O’Shea (who was part of the crew who actually captured the giant squid on film last year), et. al. As far as contemporary essayists go, I’d say John D’Agata, Maggie Nelson, Ander Monson, Eula Biss, Elena Passarello, Karen Hays, and many others have left their mark on me, and on this book. Other inspiring factors: my work driving an ice cream truck, a song my saxophonist grandfather wrote in the 1930s, and the famed Chicago heatwave of 1995 that killed 800 people over the course of five days.
What are you working on now? What’s gonna follow the squid?
I’m working on this new book project called Foood: 50 States, 50 Essays, 50 Recipes. (Yes: 3 Os). At the risk of sounding totally overblown, I’m trying to cobble together this spastic, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook of sorts that also may be a fun and digressive revisionist take on U.S. history. Something like that. I’m trying to concentrate on the small events—beautiful and horrific and mundane and extraordinary—that we glossed over when we originally (and then subsequently) attempted to set down regional definitions.
“A digressive revisionist take on U.S. history?” That does sound a little overblown.
I’ve always suffered from delusions of grandeur, ever since I was a kid. I clearly remember this one Halloween when I was like six or seven. My mom dressed me up as Count Dracula, like ever other boy in the neighborhood. I was out trick-or-treating and it was unusually windy and my cape was blowing behind me. I remember dropping my pillowcase of candy and extending my arms, and the next thing I knew, I was in the air, flying over Pinehurst Lane, looking down at the roadkill raccoon there, the tire tread in its body. I landed across the street on the Lerner’s front lawn, which was way too green and smelled like chemical fertilizer. All the earthworms were dead. I thought about that a lot this difficult Upper Michigan winter. How’s that for parallel structure?
Yeah. Whenever the cabin fever set in, whenever my depression compelled me to overuse the word despair, I would think about how, at one time in my life, I was dressed as a vampire, and I flew.