BJ Hollars

recorded in Tuscaloosa, AL

 

BJ Hollars

This is BJ Hollars and we’re sitting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama right now. I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana, originally, but I was kind of drawn down here by Michael Martone, who’s a professor here, and obviously a writer, who also happens to be from Fort Wayne, Indiana originally, which was my original interest in this particular writer before I actually got a chance to work with him. I heard about him, heard he was down here, I heard him read at Knox once and so from that I realized it’s the guy I want to work with. And though I didn’t know much about the state of Alabama or how to find it on a map, I was down here a couple years later and no regrets. It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of barbecues, a lot of football, a lot of flag football with the MFAs down here, so that’s kept me in shape. It’s a really good community and a really fun place to spend a couple years.


The Knox Writers’ House

What’s it like to live as a writer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama?


Hollars

Ah, it’s hard because you think about Tuscaloosa and then you think about the university and the MFA program and I bet there’s a lot of good things about just thinking of the town itself, in terms of being a writer here, but for me the community’s been so important, the community of writers and artists. I’ve lived in this little hovel on 15th Court for four years now, so I know it probably better than anyone ever should, but it’s really nice to share the space with so many other writers and poets and artists all up and down the street. It’s nice to walk the dog in the morning and watch everyone else fuddle around in their slippers and their robes and think about what poem or what story they’re trying to work on that day, sitting outside having casual conversations about problems we might be having in writing, or exchanging books. It’s a nice way to start the day, to know you always have a reader or an ally just a couple feet away from you.


KWH

Do you think that’s a necessary aspect of writing communities for you?


Hollars

For me, yeah. Because the other plan was I’ll do a low-residency MFA, it’ll be great, and I talked to some people and they said, That’s great, but you gotta—the good thing about, more than a residency, but having a full time MFA job is that you have a full time community, and that was critical. We have one of the tightest knit programs down here, simply because, you know, we do play flag football every week, and if we’re not playing flag football, we’re playing basketball in the gym or barbecuing, and it’s always an email to the list serve, it’s not like, You, you, and you come to this barbecue, it’s like, Hey, we’re barbecuing, bring some stuff. So it always felt very open. I was getting those emails before I was even down here. I had just graduated Knox and I was already getting invites to barbecues I couldn’t go to because I was ten hours away. But I think that community is really important to me. It never felt competitive, it always felt like we’ve all got our own thing and we’re just trying to find a way to make our niche work.


KWH

Do you feel like you’re in conversation with any of the other writers that you studied with here? Or that you studied under here?


Hollars

That’s a good question. Maybe that conversation occurs more with the poets. I know at least with me personally, it was so much of a conversation. It was kind of like we’re all carving our slice of the pie, so if you were to name a writer, I could pretty much describe what kind of writing typically comes out of that type of writer, not to pigeonhole anyone, but certainly when you’re in a workshop, pumping out ten, 12, stories a term, we really get a good sense of how much we can produce, and what tricks we have up our sleeve, and what our interests are. So if you were to ask any of my former fellow-MFAs what kind of story is BJ going to write for you, they could certainly give you a pretty clear example.


KWH

What do you think they would say?


Hollars

Oh, they would say [laughs], some trash about coming of age, usually a penis joke or two, something like that. And that’s kind of the case, and I take pride in that, I’d say, Yup, that’s sort of it. Because I do write because I want people to laugh and enjoy it and be entertained. And if there’s some depth to it too, which I often strive for, even better. But yeah, first and foremost for me it’s not about being super serious, it’s about writing a story that’s going to sideswipe people. You think you’re in for a chuckle or two but by the end of it hopefully you feel a little more than that.


KWH

With your transition into nonfiction, you started entering the realm of the political and the racial; do you think it’s important for writers to address the political or do you think that writers have some sort of obligation to engage those issues?


Hollars

Well, to each his own would be the way to start. Some people create art for art’s sake, some people create it for community, for an audience, for a particular audience. Four years ago, I never thought I’d be political in my writing, or writing about race or anything related to that. I didn’t feel qualified to do so. I still maybe am not, but when you’re down here and exposed and you walk down the streets and think, This is where the Union Army walked, and this is where they burned down the university, and this is where the lynching occurred, and you start knowing the landmarks by the stories that are ingrained in the bricks and the trees. It’s hard not to think about ways you could conjure up those stories. So I spend a lot of my time now reading old newspapers and microfiching my way through history, and archiving my way through history. Just today, I came across this letter, April 6th, 1864, so during the Civil War, it was this anonymous letter that was just signed, From an inquirer, but the top of the letter read, Keep this letter forever, but never show it to anyone. And it was a two-page letter written from a woman, I suppose, saying, Look, I know this girl, she’s very young; she’s pregnant; we want you to have the child. If you agree to this, slip this postcard in the mail and we will see it and we will talk further. And this was just a random letter I found in an archive. Probably no one’s seen this letter in 50 years, it was covered in dust, no one cared. Another archive I found today, gem: I found the first poem ever written in Louisiana. It was published in like 1793, I don’t think Louisiana was even a state then, but it was the first poem. I couldn’t read a word of it, I think it was written in French, but there it was, just sitting in an archive in some old folder. There’s all kinds of wonderful things to find if you dig deep enough. So that’s half the reason why, I enjoy the researching element.

from Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

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