Holding the Mic: An Interview with Joe Oestreich
Let it never be said that rock stars don’t work incredibly hard. Take Joe Oestreich, for example, the bassist for (and one of the founding members of) Watershed, the Ohio-based rock outfit. Aside from still touring with the band when he can find the time, Oestreich is the English department chair at Coastal Carolina University, where he teaches creative writing and publishes frequently and largely enough to maintain his own rock-star status in the nonfiction community. His first book, Hitless Wonder, detailed a tumultuous, cross-country tour with Watershed, and his second book, Lines of Scrimmage (which he co-wrote with Scott Pleasant), focused on an infamous 1989 high school football season that divided a city—and, eventually, the state of South Carolina—along racial lines.
His first collection of essays, Partisans, was just released by Black Lawrence Press, and it features an arcade of the subject matters Oestreich is known for lighting up and pinging: music, race, sex, death, and what it means to be a man. Those same themes populate his fiction, too, in works like “Towing and Recovery,” which he published with storySouth in 2011.
BARRETT BOWLIN: Starting off, one of the things I absolutely admire about your work is the fact that you tend to swing the lens onto characters and people solidly in the working class, e.g., Mike Dulaney in “Towing and Recovery.” Going back a bit, what was the impetus of the work? What made you write this story?
JOE OESTREICH: Back when I was in grad school, my band Watershed was touring on weekends while I was going to class during the week. On one trip from Columbus to the UP of Michigan, the band van broke down near Detroit. I had a story due for fiction workshop very soon, and I had no ideas. But thanks to the AAA Gold Card, a tow truck driver came and towed us 100 miles back to Columbus. I was very stressed out on that drive home—more about the lack of story ideas than about the broken-down van. I rode up front with the driver. As we drove and he started telling me about his life, I realized that this guy was handing me a focal character. A story idea erupted from there.
BB: I know it’s weird to talk about process, but did you start taking notes in the truck’s cab on the way back? If not, how long did it take to gestate before you could start writing about Dulaney as a character?
JO: I didn’t take notes. With about 50 miles left in the drive, after I calmed down and realized that this guy might be a good model for a character, I started listening specifically with the “mining life for copy” idea in mind. I wrote a draft of the story pretty quickly after we got home. Nothing in the plot came straight from his mouth, but the idea of writing about a tow truck driver who is wrestling with the responsibilities of fatherhood did. Oh, here’s one thing I did take specifically from him: the understanding that tow drivers are often right there at the scene of the accident along with EMTs and cops—the folks we usually think of as first responders.
BB: Did that feel like one of the entry points into the story: that Mike would have seen some of the same fucked-up details as the first responders?
JO: Absolutely. That idea got me thinking about how somebody who had seen horrifying car accidents would react to two things: 1. His thirteen-year-old daughter being out on the road with an older boy, and 2. All the stupid stuff he’d done as a young man, before becoming a father. As a father myself, I’m really interested in that tension between, on the one hand, I’m supposed to be the responsible adult that knows what he’s doing, and, on the other, I don’t feel especially responsible and I have no idea what I’m doing.
BB: Ever just look at your own kiddos and think to yourself, “Wait, I’m supposed to be the responsible one here?”
JO: All the time. I have to remind myself that I’m in charge. When I was about to have my first kid, I was really scared that I was going to be terrible, and my dad said, “You have to do what all of us fathers are doing: making it up as we go along.”
BB: I think about that every time I make a parenting decision—e.g., a timeout, a grounding, letting my 10-year old watch Coraline for the first time—and I think, “Is this going to be the turning point where I screw up really, really badly?
JO: The good thing is that kids are pretty resilient. Even we can’t screw then up too badly.
BB: Exactly (or at least I hope so). Okay, so along those lines, one of the details I enjoyed seeing, as well, in Partisans was the inclusion of travelers and migrants and workers in the essays. Take Dave Cook, for instance, in “The Bodyman.” Aside from the fact that he bought the skeleton of a house for $1000 and was living in it as a near-vagrant, what made Cook such a compelling focal point for you to write about?
JO: Dave is a compelling person because, as somebody who suffers from a rare medical condition (Wilson’s disease), he has every right to complain. About damn near anything. His life, his health, his job prospects. And yet, he’s the least complaining-est person I know. He’s also one of the best storytellers I know. At first, I just knew that I wanted to write about him, but I had no idea what slant the essay would take. It wasn’t until much later that I stumbled upon his house—a fixer-upper-and-then-some that he bought for $1,000—as a metaphor for his body. He has autonomy over the house in a way that he sometimes doesn’t over his body, because of a necessary reliance on medication, doctors, etc.
BB: Going back to the method itself, was the metaphor for body-as-house the keystone that let you figure out the essay’s structure? It’s a four-part work, and I was curious about that.
JO: I lucked into the structure out of pure desperation. As I said, Dave is a great storyteller. Very detailed and well-paced. He’s from Connecticut, but he tells stories like a southerner. So I knew that in the profile I wanted to honor his sense of his own narrative. On the other hand—and I think this is nearly always true for profile writing—I wanted it to be my story of his story, meaning that I didn’t want to just hand him the mic and let him tell the story. Interestingly, when he read the published draft, he didn’t like it. Here’s what he said: “Man, You wrote down everything I told you. I just told you all the wrong things.” This was my first lesson in how hard it is for a subject to give up the narrative control of their own lives and surrender it to the writer.
BB: You can definitely tell that you take this sense of control/lack-of-control from your subjects into consideration in so many of the essays in the book.
We learn in “The Bodyman,” as well, that Cook once helped out your mom by building a roof over her back deck. It’s a good detail that ties him to your family, your history, connectively, but I was curious if it was difficult for you to write about your parents.
Specifically, you write about your parents’ divorce, about your father’s foresight (or lack thereof) in property investment (in “The Get Down”), about John Parsons, the man who filled in a lot of the gaps for your mom once your dad left (and how Parsons was later convicted of murder) in “The Mercy Kill,” etc. Your history with your parents serves as this type of backstory in the collection, and I like it how it serves as kind of a parallel, coming-of-age memoir. But what was it like writing about them and their story/-ies?
JO: I’m lucky. My parents have been very gracious in supporting me, even when I write about them. In real life, when I was a kid, they made it pretty clear that I wasn’t supposed to talk about the fact that my dad had been a priest and my mom a nun. On the page, however, now that I’m an adult, they’re generous with the details of their lives. I think that’s partly because they understand that the details of their lives are also important components in my life.
BB: I like the openness and the information that they’re willing to share. In those two essays, what was your level of interaction with them in the writing? Did you have to call them up for details you might not have remembered?
JO: I did call them. I ran some things by my dad to double check that my memory. And my mom reminded me that one night when John Parsons and his wife were having a bad argument, his wife had to spend the night at our house. On that phone call, my mom also told me the story of a Vietnamese woman reading her palm and saying to her, “You will always be taken care of,” which I thought tied in nicely to the idea of John Parsons—a convicted murderer—as a handyman/caretaker.
As much as those calls helped, I didn’t let my parents read that piece until it was published. I almost never let my subjects read the work before it’s published, and the reason goes back to that idea of who is controlling the narrative, who is holding the mic. I want to get all of the facts correct, of course, but I also want to make sure I’m telling my story of the subject, which is not necessarily the same story the subject would tell.
BB: Okay, so now I’m curious: did you have that same trepidation with your wife, Kate? She’s a recurrent figure in Part I of the collection (“Home and Away”), most frequently as your fellow traveler in places like Mexico, Turkey, and France. When you were putting the collection together, did you know how much of a presence she was going to have in the works, or did it come as a surprise? (Or both?)
JO: Kate is the most gracious and generous of all. She not only gives me “permission” to write about the personal details of our relationship and marriage, she reads to make sure that I’m presenting things accurately—which means “warts and all.” One of the challenges of writing nonfiction is turning real, flesh-and-blood people into characters on the page. You have to distill a person down to a character, but you also have to remember that a real person is going to have to live with how you portrayed them. Your characters are never just characters.
BB: Strange side question here: do you think that having Kate as a sounding board and editor makes it easier to write about your history and relationship?
JO: That’s probably true. I feel more comfortable writing about her (and “us”) because I know that in the editing process she will take partial ownership of the project. But again: even when she’s reading with an editing eye, I often disagree with her. Lots of times, I don’t take her suggestions. It has to be my story of our story.
BB: One of my absolute favorite memoir pieces in Partisans is “Tricoter,” which tells the story of a difficult conversation you and Kate had while visiting Paris. It’s a subtle interweaving of you and Kate as a couple, of language barriers, of Hemingway as an expatriate in Paris decades back, and also of the type of conversation his own characters had in “Hills Like White Elephants.” The narrative paints both of you into these frustrating (and simultaneously, wonderfully human) figures, and so I was curious if this was a difficult moment for you to write about. And to that end, what was the most difficult moment/event for you to write about in the collection?
JO: The idea to use “Hills Like White Elephants” as a template came almost immediately. As we were having the conversation, I wasn’t thinking about eventually writing an essay. But I was thinking, Damn, it’s uncanny how much this conversation is like the one between The American and his girl, Jig. Even though that essay hints at life decisions that are very personal, discussing them (obliquely) wasn’t especially difficult. Funny thing about CNF: the first hurdle is to get comfortable writing about yourself, to get used to revealing personal details. The second hurdle is understanding that you don’t have to reveal everything. You don’t have to bleed all over the page. Lots of writers clear the first hurdle but not the second.
BB: So going back to that question, what was the most difficult moment/event for you to write about in the collection? In the “I-have-given-life-to-this-thing-and-raised-it-to-adulthood-and-man-that-was-a-really-difficult-patch-back-there-whoo-boy” sense?
JO: Probably the essay “Partisans,” the one where I’m watching the football game in Mexico at the racist guy’s house. In many of these essays, I behave in ways I’m not especially proud of, but in that essay specifically, damn, what an asshole I am. The hard part, though, wasn’t revealing my asshole-ness. The hard part was finding empathy for that asshole. Just as presenting myself as a clear-cut hero would have been a lie, so would presenting myself as a clear-cut villain, a nothing but an a-hole. Instead, I was going for honesty, meaning self-deprecation but not self-flagellation. I tried to investigate why I acted the way I did. And why the racist guy acted the way he did. Why in the world would I put my interest in a meaningless football game above my morals and ethics and the health and safety of my wife?
BB: That’s one of my favorite essays in the book, too, because you do that work of the essay itself: writing about something in order to understand it better. (And let’s not forget that Kate had her knitting needles. She’s bad-ass.)
JO: Hell, yeah. She can defend herself.
BB: I know that your next book, Waiting to Derail, is a study on Whiskeytown, the band that launched Ryan Adams’ career, but I’m wondering what that future project is that you’re wanting to tackle but you know you’re not ready for yet, or that you’re scared of.
BB: Our readers want to know!
JO: Oh, man, the project I’m scared of (and also excited by) is one day trying to write a novel. Seems like a mountain every writer has to climb. I have a few ideas, and I haven’t yet settled on one, so maybe I’ll try them out at story-length first. I’m a nonfiction guy, so whatever fiction I write is going to feel pretty realistic. No elves or unicorns. Then again: a minotaur-like creature that’s half elf, half unicorn could be super cool, especially if he also drove a tow truck. A tow truck that traveled into a fourth dimension.