Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, recently spoke with John Messick, author of Issue #7’s “Throwing Stones at Apple Trees.” Here’s what he had to say about his urge to travel, some of the experiences behind his writing, and his growth as a writer.
In “The Fisherman and a .410 Shotgun,” you write: “For an impatient and restless kid, one who prays more to water than to God, the hardest thing in the world is to remain still.” Where are you from, and where has the inborn desire to move taken you?
For the record, I’m a pretty fidgety adult too. I grew up out in the country in northwestern Wisconsin. We lived on a hobby farm with chickens and a big garden. In the spring we tapped maple trees; my dad raised honeybees and grafted his own apple trees. I was lucky—my parents stayed married, I stayed mostly out of trouble, I earned good grades.
I think the traveling comes out of that family support. When I was a toddler, my parents decided that my dad was going to quit working and take care of the kids. I don’t know if they drew straws or what, but having a stay-at-home dad changed the way I discovered the world. Even today, we prefer a good story to explain why a man would stay home instead of work. In sociology studies, he’s either a degenerate or he made a lot of money young. My dad didn’t fit either category. He just chose to make a career out of taking my brother and me on camping trips.
Because I was hyperactive, Dad encouraged me to move a lot. When I was eight, we bicycled across Minnesota. When I turned 14, we bicycled to Maine. I’m pretty sure the adventures were a desperate measure to slow me down, but it didn’t quite work out the way he imagined.
What compelled the trip to Turkey at the heart of “Throwing Stones at Apple Trees”? How was it connected to the relationship you left behind, which you reference in the essay?
I had been dating someone very seriously for a couple of years before the trip; we had planned a journey together— to ride bicycles through Greece. We bought tickets to Istanbul because they were cheaper than flights to Athens. But we broke up a month before the trip. I couldn’t get a refund on my ticket, and it was too depressing to go to Greece alone. So I switched directions and pedaled across Turkey, then hopped ferries into Syria and Lebanon. Traveling solo, I could be relatively spontaneous. It became almost a spiritual journey for me, in terms of what I learned about myself. That said, my journals do contain a lot of self-loathing in their pages.
Can you share a poem or lines from one that Sadik and Mücahit from the cinema passed on to you? Is there one that still lingers for you?
Talking with Sadik and Mücahit made me realize, more than a specific poem, how powerful great literature can be. They helped convince me that world literature—the exotic stuff we have separate courses for in English Departments—isn’t some novelty from a foreign country, but part of an essential global conversation. So what if a book is written in translation? The best books in the world destroy our xenophobic tendencies; they prove that cultural difference will never transcend the depths of the human heart. Great writing anywhere teaches us to be better human beings, and it should be shared, no matter what language it was first published in.
Memed, My Hawk, by Yashar Kemal, is an incredible novel that I learned about from those two. I’m still working through the list of other authors they recommended.
This trip hasn’t been your only adventure. You’ve worked in Antarctica, an experience detailed in “Discovering Terra Incognita,” and you hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. Tell me about those experiences.
I spent a season in Antarctica shoveling snow. Really. Most of the time, I was stationed at the South Pole, and the people I worked with were incredible. We had a Sunday morning poetry workshop. A group of us formed a bluegrass band and played a New Year’s Eve concert. I loved my time there, because it made me realize how little humans actually know about the planet that we live on. The Antarctic science culture creates this space for scientific study where we are looking into such poorly understood concepts on a minuscule scale that it invites a religious experience. I think the mystery of God and the mystery of science have a lot more in common than we admit.
My partner Mollie and I hiked the Appalachian Trail together. She’s a writer, too, and one of the more interesting parts of the journey was trying to blog about the hike. The blog format is a lot like journalism, at least from the writing perspective. As soon as you post it, people are reading it. There’s no time for editing, for the hand-wringing and self-loathing that comes with the revision process. Hiking the trail and writing about it taught us both how to trust our intuition a little more.
Can you make any links with the experience of hiking 2,000 miles—and the act of traveling generally—and the act of writing?
Lots. There’s a whole list of bumper sticker slogans that you can apply to both writing and hiking. “Hike your own hike,” was a common mantra that we heard on the trail, and I think applied to writing. It serves to remind me to stay passionate about my work, to write what I believe and not what I think the market might be interested in right now. Quality work takes perseverance, and in the end, a great accomplishment stands on its own against the fickle nature of what sells.
Also, it was sometimes harder to think about how far we were hiking than it was to actually hike it. That’s a bit like writing, too. Stay in the moment.
Can we talk about style? Your sentences are crisp and tight, short and powerful, in a style most associated with Hemingway. Given that your published work centers on Hemingway-esque subjects like travel and fishing, I wonder how he has or hasn’t influenced your voice.
I worked for a fisheries research project a few years back in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not far from Hemingway’s famous Two-Hearted River. One day in this little grocery store in Grand Marais—population about 50—I was looking at a stuffed brook trout on the wall, and the cashier says something like, “You know why Hemingway was a great writer? He didn’t give away his secrets. That Two-Hearted, he wasn’t fishing that river. He kept the real spot to himself.”
The truth is that while I love Hemingway’s sentences, I still struggle with the attitudes in his writing. The pervasive colonial sentiments and the often blatant misogyny present in so much of his work creates a strange dichotomy. He was a product of his time, sure—I guess—but it still makes me ask: How do you emulate a master of craft—while handling the same subjects that he does—without sounding like either a copycat or an asshole?
Who are your other influences?
In some ways, my influences change for each essay. I don’t believe you can write well about what you know of a place without learning what others have said about it before you. For “Throwing Stones,” I spent some time with Orhan Pamuk, and with Flaubert’s and Mark Twain’s journeys through the region. I wanted to see what other travelers had written across time, in order to better situate my observations. If you need general names, I have a list: Norman Maclean, Thomas McGuane, Annie Dillard, Gary Paulsen, Peter Matthiesson, Paul Theroux, Isabella Bird. Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel” taught me that it doesn’t take a lot of words to bear witness, and that travel writing includes travel poetry. I live in Alaska, and at AWP last year in Seattle, I heard the term “Alaskan Literary Renaissance” being thrown around. Sherri Simpson, Joan Kane, Nancy Lord, Seth Kantner, Velma Wallis, and Lynn Schooler have produced, and are producing, some remarkable work about the region.
And it might sound strange, but I enjoy reading really old travelogues, especially those about polar exploration and stuff by Victorian travelers. I think they can teach us a lot about how we view the exotic today.
What about the braided essay structure? I’m always fascinated by why writers choose this structure. Why does this narrative choice work for you?
Your print issue has a much better example of a braided essay than mine. Craig Reinhold’s piece “Here in the Museum of Things Gone Terribly Wrong” is an absolutely fantastic, and important, essay.
I think the best braided essays open up a deeper conversation about their subject matter. Today, just telling a compelling story is rarely enough. We also have to tell what the story means, and moreover, both the meaning and the story need to be oriented within an ever-more-connected world. I think the braided essay is an evolution in storytelling, and a result of a world where information overload is a daily reality. Moments of brilliance are harder to earn, and I think ultimately structures that push the search for connections between disparate parts of the human condition will be what saves writing.
Dialogue plays a big part in your stories. How do you reflect what was actually said when you write your essays? Is it an approximation of what was actually said? Do you record the dialogue somewhere?
My journalism professors always taught that what falls into quotations is sacred, and for the most part, I try hard to follow that. In some essays (you mentioned “A Fisherman and a .410 Shotgun”) I’m working with my childhood. In those cases, I did my best to recall what someone said, but also to recall the inflection. I checked with other people who had known Mr. Radevich and asked whether the dialogue seemed accurate and natural.
In Turkey and elsewhere, I take notes. I jot down statements that inspire me, and I transfer them to my journal at the end of the day. If I’m unsure, and I’m able to, I’ll get in contact with the person I’m quoting to ask if I have it right. Much of what makes dialogue hard I think has less to do with getting the quote right (that’s easy these days, with phones that record conversations) than with knowing how to use dialogue to enhance a scene. Again, my journalism professors: don’t put anything in quotations that you can say better yourself.
I’m only sometimes successful at it. The writer I study for natural sounding dialogue will always be Salinger.
The New York Times recently ran a story on the debated value of pursuing an MFA. You attained one from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. What are your thoughts on whether or not a writer should pursue the degree?
I loved my time in the MFA program, but it isn’t for everyone. Job prospects for MFA graduates make “bleak” start to seem like a positive term. An MFA program can be draining. The literature courses, the books on craft analysis, wading through peer’s workshop drafts. But like any education, it builds experience.
There are definitely writers who believe that acceptance into an MFA means they are already great writers, and they only want that sentiment confirmed. The fact is, an MFA won’t help get you published—good writing will. It helped me a lot when I realized (in my last year of school), that while my work has potential, it is a very long way from great. At its best, I think an MFA can teach that the slog of revision—and not the head spin of a first draft—is where really good work is produced.
What are you working on now?
Well, as far as writing goes, I have an essay collection I’ve been working on for a long time now. Almost a third of the essays have been published in little journals, so I’m optimistic I’ll find a home for the entire collection soon.
Otherwise, I’ve been tying some flies for the summer salmon season. Mollie and I moved back up to Alaska after our hike, and we’ve been helping out in a sled dog yard all winter. So really, I spend a lot time working on the dog poop problem we have. Somehow it never ends.
In “Learning to Read,” you write, “I struggle to grasp movements and motivations that lie beyond me. I see the act of trapping as a way to comprehend mystery.” What other mysteries are you hoping to uncover on your journeys? What are you hoping to do next?
Find a publisher.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, I have to ask: what has been your worst workshop experience?
I learned how to critique writing at the Miami Herald, working as a summer intern there in high school. They assigned me to the Miami Beach office, where I sorted through the weekly news briefs. I’d submit my stories at the end of the week to the editor, a kind and wonderful woman named Heidi, who would generally tell me, “This looks fantastic.” Then she would change 300 words in a 250 word piece and send me home for the day feeling confused and inadequate. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.
So when I arrived at my first graduate workshop with a book draft and too much conceit about the way writing functioned, I made some enemies. One guy wrote a short story that I really didn’t like (the main character stabbed someone with a dried wedge of cheese), and instead of being thoughtful, I wrote a really heartless response. Later in the semester, I was at a party at the guy’s house, and I discovered he had put my response up on his door. It was super embarrassing to reread what I’d said, and to realize how unhelpful I’d been for his work.
After that, I tried not to make the workshop such a flexing contest. Workshops are supposed to be supportive, to foster the writing process, and not to show off the best work we have. It helps to remember that even though writing is a solitary battle, we still need a lot of support.