You make growing up in New Jersey a pretty remarkable thing. Some of it was crazy, reckless fun. But the abduction of a local girl was a deep, sobering turning point, and the revelations about an addict friend are profoundly disturbing. Through it all, you often reflect on parents and families.
How do the extremes you witnessed in childhood stack up against the experiences of your parents the generation before?
Every generation differs from the one before it, obviously, so nothing all that groundbreaking there. But culturally speaking, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more extreme difference in upbringing than that of my parents compared to me. My mother is from rural Alabama, my father from rural Arkansas. They were both born during World War II, were teenagers in the ‘50s in the Deep South, grew up with little to no money. Whereas I spent my formative years in northern New Jersey, in the same area, more or less, where The Soprano’s was set. So, yeah, you can imagine that the experiences my parents had in adolescence were far different than my own. Which makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it, as to why we sometimes didn’t see eye-to-eye. So much of my behavior, though essentially normal for a teenager growing up in New Jersey (okay, maybe not so normal—a lot of it was a bit extreme) was completely foreign and shocking to my parents. I think some of the behavior and shenanigans was far more difficult for them to contend with compared to the parents of my native New Jersey peers. Totally different mindsets. So in many respects, I was raised in a Southern culture within my household, but had a Northern mentality when I was with my peers, which inevitably lead to conflict at times.
I’d never really thought about it before, that clash of cultures, until just now. I recall one example, when we first moved to Jersey, and my mother was eight months pregnant with my sister. We went to Shoprite for groceries, and not only did the employees not carry the groceries to my mother’s car for her, they didn’t even bag them, which was a complete shock to her. In the South, pregnant or not, her groceries would have been bagged and then a boy would have carted them outside and put them in the car for her. My mother cried her eyes out, wondering where in the hell she’d been transported to where people were so inconsiderate. But I’ll tell you what, all these years later, she’s one tough cookie, my mother. Jersey has a way of doing that--the culture, the mentality--it makes you tough. In the book, you don’t see a lot of my mother. My father is such a larger-than-life character that he tends to get the spotlight—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse—while my mother was the driving force, the slow-and-steady constant in the background.
What's an example of the way they've shaped your decisions as a parent?
My mother always loved me unconditionally, and I’m the same way with my son. My father, on the other hand, though he also loved me, had a much different approach. I’ll refrain from giving examples here because the book is chockful of them. But let’s just say, my father’s parenting style was often extreme and not exactly traditional. Unorthodox, perhaps. I think I’ve taken a very different approach with my own son. But I’m certainly a blend of my parents, hopefully taking the best aspects of each to raise my son, who, if I do say so myself, has turned out to be a solid young man.
You use a broad range of writing styles. How do you approach those decisions? For example, in "The Second Person," how did you arrive at using "you" instead of "I"?
Probably the most honest answer is luck. The more complicated answer is a combination of many factors, which includes reading a lot of other writers, talking with other writers, and not being afraid to try things that might seem weird or strange or otherwise out of the ordinary. I can blame a lot of my experimental work on my good friend and former colleague, Matthew Vollmer, who’s a true artist. He observes the world through different eyes than most, and every aspect of his life is viewed through that writer’s/artist’s eye. I mean, he wrote an entire book of personal essays consisting of inscriptions on tombstones. His influence has been profound in my own work. Before meeting him, I was more of a “traditionalist”. Now, I’m willing to take risks that I wouldn’t have ever considered earlier in my career.
As for “The Second Person”, that’s an essay where I can pinpoint exactly its origins. I’d read an essay called “How to Make a Slave” by Jerald Walker, which consists of a set of instructions on how to literally make a slave out of construction paper, cotton balls, and so on. But before too long, it turns into this fascinating look at how the author, a black man, has dealt with race and racism his whole life, which sounds dark and gloomy. But actually it’s hilarious. And it’s written in the second person, which is often seen as gimmicky—an idea I don’t always agree with. Sure, second person can be gimmicky, but if done right—if there’s an absolute reason why “you” is the wisest choice—then it can work beautifully. His did just that, worked beautifully, and it got me thinking about other definitions of “second person” besides the literary, point-of-view definition. Most notably, that I have conversations with my “other self” all the time, my “second person.” And I took it from there.
You've also published novels and short stories. Sometimes you use autobiographical material in that work. How do you decide what best fits fiction or nonfiction?
I wouldn’t say there’s any real concrete decision that I make. If I’m writing fiction and some past detail from my life pops into my head, then I simply use it. I might also use that same detail in an essay. There are some prime examples in the essay from the book, The Code That Can’t Be Cracked, about my “addict friend” that you mentioned. There’s a scene in that essay where he uses firecrackers to do some pretty disturbing things to another kid. I used that real life incident in my first novel, which turned out to be the “point-of-no-return” scene, where the lives of the boys were forever changed. Their Rubicon moment, I suppose. So I use them interchangeably as they fit my purposes, fictionalizing when writing fiction, and of course sticking to the facts as they really happened when writing an essay.
What's next? What are you working on now?
What’s next? A novel, I think. I’ve recently sold a few short stories that are loosely connected, and there’s something there. A voice. A dark tone that I like. So my mind has been whirring, trying to make connections. Tomorrow, in fact, I’m doing a “ride along” with a couple of local police officers, because one of the characters is going to be a cop—a good cop who does a bad thing—and I know next to nothing about police work. So I’m going to do some research in preparation for a fellowship/residency I’ll be attending next month. During that month, I plan to crank out a draft for what I see as a literary suspense novel, very much in the same vein as Dan Choan’s Ill Will. We’ll see how it goes. I’ve also got a lot of ideas for new essays I want to write, perhaps a sort of follow-up to the Surviving Jersey collection. So a lot of ideas churning in the brain, now I need to get them down on paper, generally the hardest part for me. But I’ve learned to trust myself, learned to trust the process. It will come, I just have to sit down, put in the work, and give it time to develop.