John Jeremiah Sullivan: "Everybody is stuck in a more or less absurd and tragic situation"

The Books Interview.

John Jeremiah Sullivan has delved extensively into the portrayal of Michael Jackson. Photograph: Getty Images

Do you see long narrative essays of the kind collected in your book Pulphead as a distinctively American form? It’s not something I’d jump to say, because I think of the essay tradition I’m writing in as quintessentially English. For me, some of the most interesting precursors of that tradition are to be found in the magazine writing that was happening [in England] in the 18th century –Addison and Steele and that circle.

This summer I read for the first time Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet The Storm, about the massive hurricane that hit England in 1703. Everything we think of as being unique to New Journalism is already present there. And that’s a good thing to me, because it means when you do this sort of writing you’re standing on more solid ground than you might otherwise think.

But I suppose it’s true that in the last century Americans took [the form] over and infused it with a new energy and a kind of hybridity. You see so much of that in American non-fiction writing over the last hundred years – different forms and modes of non-fiction mingling willy-nilly. It’s nonfiction that is playing by literary rules.

You mentioned the New Journalism. Your work doesn’t condescend towards its subjects in the way that a lot of New Journalism did. My view of life tends to be that everybody is stuck in a more or less absurd and tragic situation, just by virtue of the reality of death, if nothing else. So I don’t think of it as a great moral deed to extend empathy and compassion to people who wouldn’t otherwise seem to deserve it. I’m not surprised people end up weird and hobbled. I suppose that the New Journalism fed on a kind of sarcasm. It was horrified by America – that was one of its motivating forces. And so it went out with a satirist’s scorn. But I tend to be suspicious of that.

A good example of that attitude is your essay about Michael Jackson.
Right. I read the interviews he gave to black magazines like Ebony and Jet and couldn’t recognise the person being written about. So it was a humbling and instructive thing for me to discover that a lot of the stuff I thought I knew about Michael was really just bullshit –white media judgementalism and passive aggression. That’s not to say he wasn’t a deeply weird and problematical dude. But those magazines ended up capturing more of his humanity than the bigger magazines did.

There are several pieces about music in the book. Is music particularly important to you? Yes. I grew up in a very musical household. My mother played the guitar and sang folk songs. My brother was a professional musician for a while. Instruments and music were all around me. And because of my brother, who’s a pretty accomplished nerd when it comes to musical history, I grew up hearing a lot of intense arguments and conversations about what made a certain piece of music good or bad.
And the inescapable subjectivity of that sort of discussion captivated me.

In many of your essays, it’s as if you’re excavating something previously hidden. Is that how you see what you’re doing?
Yes, definitely. Deep, long, excessive research is something I enjoy, the way some people enjoy video games. I’m always happy when a subject comes along and I can feel it tugging me towards the rabbit hole.

Is that what the subtitle of your book – Despatches from the Other Side of America – is getting at? One of the fun things that magazine writing made possible for me was to explore some of the nooks and crannies that were left, both in the country and in the personalities of individual people. The thing about America that I still love is the occasional naivety and earnestness and genuine oddity, the ecstasy of self-definition, that we’re prone to. So that’s what I meant by it.

Have you ever been tempted to try your hand at writing fiction? In the past couple of years I’ve started messing with fiction. If you’re primarily interested in human nature, as I am, you can only go so far in non-fiction. You’re talking about real people and you don’t want to wound them. Fiction gives you a freer hand. You can go all the way into the darkness.

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America” is published by Vintage (£9.99).