Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A chat with Local author Eric Nuzum, who is reading Wednesday at Wonderland

It's always cool to see local people with artistic pursuits. Petworth resident Eric Nuzum, who is a senior staff member at NPR, also has written some books, a few of which we've mentioned here -- for example, he did a reading at Past Tense Yoga for his book The Dead Travel Fast, a memoir about history's fascination with vampires (you may have seen the book's cover on the wall at Looking Glass Lounge.)

On Wednesday at 7:30pm, he'll be at Wonderland reading and signing copies of his newest book, Giving Up the Ghost.

The book, with a subtitle of A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted, is a memoir about Nuzum's experiences with depression, music, poetry, drugs, ghosts and more in 1980s Canton, Ohio, and also about his visits to famous haunted sites around the country. Here's the book's page on Random House's website, which includes more on the book, reviews, and praise from folks like Chuck Klosterman, Rob Sheffield and others. The Boston Globe liked it, as did AJ Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically: "It’s appropriate that Eric Nuzum’s book is a ghost story, because it’s been haunting me for the last few days. I can’t stop thinking about this lovely, wistful, funny and slightly unsettling book. If you read it, be warned: It may haunt you as well."

We had a chance to ask Nuzum a few questions about DC, the book, and more. Take a look, and check out the event on Wednesday.

Has living in the area affected your writing?
Yeah, on two levels. First, living in DC, a town full of great writers, has really forced me to figure out the kind of writer I want to be, in order to carve out my own space. I will never be the writer who constructs poetic sentences and glorious prose. But when it comes to telling stories that suck people in, make them laugh, and surprise them with how interested they are in fringe culture, that’s me. I think that’s really where I feel my work is distinct.

Secondly, every place I’ve ever lived has wormed its way into my books. Several stories in my last book, The Dead Travel Fast (an exploration of vampires in pop culture) happened while living in DC and involve people I found in the area. Even though this book, Giving Up the Ghost is a memoir, a number of things happen in the present day and includes mentions of DC.

One day I’ll work up the bravery to post a story from an early draft of the book that happened entirely in Petworth--involving a crazy man screaming insults and racial slurs on a Metrobus. It was frightening and shocking and, yes, had a connection to ghosts. My editor felt it was too harsh, so we pulled it. Bizarre, yes. Hilarious, not quite.

You have had a few literary events at local watering holes like Wonderland and Past Tense Yoga, why those places rather than more traditional venues?
Truth be told, I really loathe reading in bookstores. While I’ve done dozens of bookstore readings, they just are the wrong environment for me and my work. Most times its really bright and they stick you in the middle of the Womens Literature section (or worst, next to the Childrens section). Everything smells like musty books and old people. Those who come just sit there blank-faced and stare at you--just isn’t my gig.

I remember reading in a bookstore a few years ago and having a woman sitting nearby get up, come over, interrupt my reading, and ask me to lower my voice. I remember swearing to myself that I was never going to do another reading in a bookstore ever again.

I like reading at festivals or bars or performance spaces--things that feel like purposeful events. My readings are more like performances than what most people think of as a “book reading.” I want people to have a good time when they come to see me. I work hard to be entertaining.

When I wrote Giving Up The Ghost, I wanted people to laugh out loud when reading one page, get scared/creeped out on the next page, then laugh again a few pages later. The readings are pretty much the same experience. There’s a bit of spectacle thrown in. It’s a lot of fun.

My reading Wednesday night at Wonderland will definitely fall into this category.

At the 2009 event at Past Tense Yoga, you were reading from a forthcoming project involving ghosts called Bring Me To Heaven, did that evolve into Giving Up the Ghost?
Yes, the title wasn’t the only thing I changed. I’ve always thought it was corny when writers claimed that a book/story/play/whatever “spoke to me about the direction it wanted to go”--as if the work has a will of its own. Yawn. Pul-ease.

I changed my tune when it actually happened to me. This book was originally supposed to be a romp--a man who was scared of ghosts visiting haunted places to confront his fear. But as I started working on it, the story changed to focus more on me and why I was so scared--the history behind it all. I was probably the last person involved to recognize this change and fought against it (I really wasn’t hot to tell the story). The finished book still has some very funny stuff in it, but the tone is much darker and deeper. But it was the right call.

Interestingly my publisher (Random House) suggested I drop the title “Bring Me To Heaven” because they didn’t want to confuse people who might think it somehow involves religion. I had a hard time picking out a new title and we went through dozens of ideas. Then one day, sitting together on the couch, my wife said, “Why don’t you call it Giving Up the Ghost--because isn’t that what you are doing?”

Some of your work seems to deal with the supernatural: The Dead Travel Fast about vampires, and Giving Up the Ghost about a very specific, personal interaction with ghosts. Why the interest in that topic?
You’d think I was really into creepy things or dead things or creepy dead things--but really, I’m not. It just happened this way. I joke that my next book will be about kittens or Santa Claus, just so that I don’t get pegged as a humorist who writes about horror/death/etc.

To be honest, I’ve always been fascinated by the things that society invents to explain the unexplainable, be it gods, devils, ghosts, vampires, whatever. When you talk about people’s beliefs in these subjects, you are really talking about a much broader set of ideas, like how we cope with loss, how we give life meaning, and the often absurd answers we create when we have no fucking idea why things happen the way we do. I often wonder what people of the future will make fun of us for believing. What myths we create that will seem silly in 50 or 100 years.

So it really isn’t that I have a fascination with creepy things, but a fascination with the bullshit we sell each other to understand the meaning of our lives. That is equally deep and revealing and often really, really funny.

Have you done any research into local ghosts? For example, there have supposedly been some ghost sightings at the incoming Z-Burger at the Tivoli, oddly, and there have also been a number of famous authors who lived in the area -- maybe some are still around!
Hey, I just learned that Philip K. Dick was a fellow Petworthian! Who knew?!

In 2007, I wrote a piece for Washingtonian about confronting my fear of ghosts by spending a few nights in the Omni Shoreham Hotel’s haunted penthouse, known as “The Ghost Suite.” It was an attempt to “test run” the concepts I’d later use in Giving Up The Ghost. Though that experience, as well as a ghost-hunting trip to The Christmas Attic in Old Town, were eventually edited out of the book.

Truth be told, I love Z-Burger, but if someone is seeing large cloud-like things floating around...it probably isn’t a ghost. That said, there are times that I think all this ghost exploration has made me a bit tougher about possible encounters with spooks. But as soon as I read read the link to your post about ghosts in the Tivoli/Z Burger, I have to admit I was scared to turn around.

What are your favorite places in Petworth and the surrounding neighborhoods? Any favorite spots to write?
I also hate to say this, because it sounds like such a cliche for a guy who just wrote a book about ghosts, but I love Rock Creek Cemetery. It is, hands down, my favorite place in DC. It is unquestionably the most unexpected, weird, and interesting place you will find in our city. You walk into this seemingly routine-looking cemetery, and once you walk over the hill, you are transported into this unexpected and striking collection of statuary and architecture. Stunning. And the deeper in you go, the sounds of the city quickly melt away and you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. It’s a strange sensation--surrounded by a beautiful collection of art.

And since the city has pretty much grown around it and engulfed it--it simply doesn’t belong where it is. I mean, it is surrounded by pretty typical “east of the park” row houses and semi-gentrified life--then bam, you come across this place.

Unfortunately, they have recently banned dogs, a horribly short-sighted decision. As a result, I spend far less time there. But a walk through there is often my favorite part of a nice weekend.

As far as favorite writing places--I don’t fetishize writing. It is something I do. I can do it anywhere and in any situation. It’s kind of like swallowing, I guess. I don’t think about it, I just do it.

And finally, what do you plan to work on next?
That’s a good question--for which I completely lack an answer. I’ve thought about writing another book, I’ve also toyed around with the idea of making a short documentary film (something I’ve always wanted to do and think I’d enjoy). Right now, despite gentle nudging from my agent, it’s the first time in well over a decade that I haven’t had a book contract. I’m sure I’ll write another, but right now I’m enjoying not having a deadline or obligation or huge project hanging over my head.

Photo of Nuzum by Mulvane S. Winfield

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