A BOY WITH A BEARD, A MUSTACHE AND GLASSES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH GRANTHAM
I liked Joseph Grantham right away. I was at a writer’s conference, hanging out with a group of people, and there was this strange young man with a mustache and glasses whom I liked right away. He was really funny, and seemed smart and kind, but mostly my immediate like for him was just a feeling: sometimes you just like people. Later that night, he and his sister gave me a poetry book that they had published on the sibling-run Disorder Press, Sister Suite by Christine Stroud, which is mind-blowingly good.
We stayed in touch, and a few months later, he confessed he was wildly depressed and sick of living in New York. My husband and I said he should come stay with us in Beckley, WV. I think we were kind of joking. But then he did. He came and lived with us for over a month. At the time, he had just finished writing Tom Sawyer, which was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms earlier this year. The poems in it are funny, and smart, and kind, and also sad and neurotic. There’s nothing pretentious or precious about them, which makes them the best kind of poems, the ones that feel like somebody is sitting down right across from you and just telling you about their life.
We conducted this interview via email.
Juliet Escoria: You wrote most of this book while living in New York, working at a bookstore, and feeling really depressed. Now that you’ve left the city, how do you feel about that time in your life? What’s it like reading these poems now, over a year later?
Joseph Grantham: Yeah, most of it was written when I was feeling depressed and living in New York and working at a bookstore. I did throw in a couple that I wrote when I was in college, and a couple that I wrote while I was living in San Francisco and working at a bookstore there.
I don’t know how I feel about that time in my life. Maybe I feel nothing about it. Or maybe it’s like a movie that I can watch in my head and think, ‘Wow, that’s a sad movie.’ But there are sadder movies. In retrospect, my time in New York doesn’t seem that bad. In retrospect, the worst things about that time that I can remember are little things. Like having crumbs in my bed all the time. Or eating lentil soup five times a week. Or not doing the dishes for a couple weeks. Or just being bored and not really having enough money to go anywhere or do anything.
And some of the good things that I can remember are watching my friend Sam play video games on the couch. Or riding the subway when it’s not crowded. Or walking to get a coffee. Or filming fake beer commercials in my apartment with my roommates.
When I was editing the manuscript, I had to resist the urge to delete the poems that seemed melodramatic. I wanted to keep those in the book. I wanted the book to be a kind of time capsule. A book written by a boy.
I still like the poems though. I think a lot of them are funny.
People talk about coming-of-age books as having to do with the psychological and moral development of a character. What’s the psychological and moral development of the young literary figure, Joseph Grantham, as seen in the book Tom Sawyer?
One thing I’m proud of with regard to the book is its structure. I think, for the most part, every poem is where it needs to be. The book couldn’t start with any other poem than the one it starts with, and it couldn’t end with any other poem than the one it ends with. It has an arc. And the structure of the collection was probably the thing I paid most attention to while editing the manuscript.
The psychological and moral development of Joseph Grantham that takes place in Tom Sawyer…hmm. I think what happened is I learned that my ‘heartbreak’ is kind of boring. Also, ‘heartbreak’ is an accusatory way to describe a breakup. It’s a one-sided view of the culmination of a relationship. And, in a way, when I keep saying that my heart was broken, I feel like I’m condemning the person who ‘broke my heart’. Which is unnecessary. But maybe it’s okay.
But my point is that by the end of the book, I think it’s apparent that the narrator of these poems is starting to come out of whatever spell of sadness he’s been under, the apocalypse is over and now it’s the post-apocalypse and the post-apocalypse isn’t so bad, it’s actually really good.
And whatever coming-of-age that isn’t apparent in the text, well, it happened in real life and it affected the way I edited the book. I was sad in New York and then I lived with two different happily married couples who taught me a lot of stuff and then I lived with my parents, another happy couple, for a little while and they continued to teach me stuff and then I went back out on my own and kind of recreated my New York experience in San Francisco, and by then I was smart enough to know I had to evacuate San Francisco. So I did. I’ve grown a lot since the book was written. Now I’m practically married, live in rural North Carolina, and have two kittens (Tammy Wynette & Possum). But I’ve still got a lot of growing to do. I think you should keep growing until you die. I also think you should eat oatmeal for breakfast.
What’s it like living with and being in a relationship with another writer? I was watching Gossip Girl and they were doing that cliché thing where they act like two writers in a relationship are inherently competitive with each other, which hasn’t been my experience, at all. The only downside I’ve experienced is sometimes I’ll be in a phase where I’m feeling completely irrational about the book I’m working on, and if [my husband] Scott says something that isn’t a 100% perfect response, I’ll go into a tailspin, or vice versa.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips and I are very different writers in so many ways. She’s read so many books that I haven’t read and I’ve read a lot of books that she hasn’t read. She has an MFA, I don’t and probably won’t get one (not that there’s anything wrong with an MFA, I just don’t foresee that happening for me). She’s from the rural South and I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco. I have a book published now and she doesn’t, but she will one day because she has an incredible voice that comes through the page and it’s an important voice and one that people are drawn to and one that doesn’t need me to speak for it.
But I guess when you’re in a relationship with another writer you have to stop yourself from comparing yourself to your partner. It wouldn’t do any good. You just have to root for each other. And that’s what we do.
We’ve had some funny little fights about writing related stuff. Like one time Ashleigh was giving me grief about a tweet I did about how I’m working on a novel. She said, “I would never tweet something like that.” And then I started giving her grief right back about how she couldn’t talk any shit because she went and got her MFA. Just really petty shit that’s funny in retrospect.
But yeah, I understand what you mean about needing the other person to say the 100% perfect response. Sometimes Ashleigh will read a story of hers to me and ask me what I think and I’ll say that it’s really good and not give her any real feedback and that’ll annoy her. Or once I read a Stephen Dixon story to her on the porch and it was dark out and we were getting bit by mosquitoes. And when I finished she said she didn’t understand why I’d read that specific story to her out loud. That it wasn’t a good story to be read aloud, she would’ve rather read it on the page. And I remember that hurting my feelings. But anyone who knows me well knows that I’m really sensitive. My feelings are always getting hurt.
In the past few years, you’ve lived in two of the biggest, bluest cities in the country and also two small conservative towns. After living in one of the small conservative towns myself, I’ve realized that a lot of the ideas I had about small towns were closed-minded and ignorant– which is ironic considering people in big, blue cities think that people in small conservative towns are closed-minded and ignorant. What are some things about living in small, conservative towns that surprised you? What has it taught you about humanity?
Damn, I could probably write a whole essay on this question. First off, the county I live in (Northampton County, North Carolina), and the surrounding counties, all voted blue in this most recent election. It’s also about 60% African American. I think that before I moved here I was stupid enough to think that the people here would, for the most part, be conservative, uber religious, white people. And sure, there is some of that. But it’s also way more complex than I ever could have imagined. And it’s confusing and surprising and complicated at the same time. For example, the only two people who I’ve actually heard say positive things about Donald Trump, happened to be African American people. I found this surprising. So surprising that it made me laugh a little bit. But nearly every white person that my girlfriend works with voted for Trump. And our local restaurant in town has Fox News on the televisions. So there’s that.
I recommend watching this documentary; it was filmed in our neighboring county, Bertie County, and it’ll give you a good idea of what it looks like around here.
Another thing, from my little experience in this area, people aren’t thinking about color and race all the time and don’t seem as sensitive about all of that around here. I don’t mean to say that there isn’t racism or that people don’t care about racism, but it seems like most people around here literally don’t have the time to think about it. They’re just working too hard and trying to feed their families and take care of their community and their health.
I’ve seen blacks and whites come together here in ways that I haven’t seen anywhere else. For example, this company was trying to build a coal ash plant in our county, which would end up giving everybody here cancer and undrinkable water, and people in this community banded together. There were many town hall meetings and it seemed like the barrier of color was broken, at least for a little while. White preachers and black preachers all preaching together under one roof, everyone hugging and thanking each other, everyone happy to see everyone else.
I also feel like I’ve encountered more diversity working at a pharmacy in North Carolina than I ever did working at bookstores in San Francisco or New York City. The beautiful thing about working at a pharmacy is that everyone needs medicine. No matter what color or class. It brings people together. We’re all sick and we all need to get better. And the pharmacist I work for, he cares about the people who come into his store. He does whatever he can to make the medicine affordable. He goes out of his way to make sure the customers are paying as little as possible. The other day someone came in with an insect sting and he just gave the guy the ointment he needed. He wants to help the people in this community. And a lot of people here need help. I’ve seen people have to pick and choose what prescriptions they’re going to pick up on a given day, because they’re waiting on a paycheck to come through.
I guess what all of this has taught me about humanity is that even though things seem so horrible right now, there’s a lot of love and beauty and goodness in human beings and on a good day, the people around here give me hope.
I also think it’s important to say ‘fuck you’ to the people in big liberal cities who think the rural South is what’s wrong with our country. Education is a privilege down here, not a right. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good education.
Do you think Tom Sawyer should be read in schools? Some people think it shouldn’t. (I mean the Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Obviously, Tom Sawyer by Joseph Grantham should be read in schools.)
I thought it was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that people didn’t want in schools. Because of racist slurs in it. Well, to be honest with you, I haven’t read that book so I don’t know the context. I’m not even positive that I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. So I don’t know. I think I read my grandpa’s old comic book version of it. And I just remembered that my dad told me that when he was in elementary school he did a book report on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But he hadn’t actually read the book. He’d just read his dad’s comic book version of it. But, anyway, I think people should read both books. In schools and everywhere. I’ve heard that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the Great American Novel.
It’s mostly Huckleberry Finn, but people have a problem with Tom Sawyer too, apparently. If you haven’t read Tom Sawyer, why did you name your book after it?
When I was working at the bookstore, an Italian woman asked me if I could help her find a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And I found it for her. And then I saw that she was with her husband and her husband was carrying their newborn baby boy in his arms. And they bought the book and left the store.
And later that day, I found myself daydreaming at work and imagining the future of that little Italian boy and imagining those parents going back to Italy and reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to their son and imagining him growing up and remembering when his parents read that book to him and maybe now he’s an adult and it’s favorite book.
There’s a poem about that day at work in the book. And when I went back and looked at all the poems in the manuscript, and saw the words Tom Sawyer, I just thought, ‘I could call my book that.’
And The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is kind of a coming-of-age story and so is this book of poems. It’s a coming-of-age book of poems.
But really it could’ve had any title of any book. If the Italian couple had asked me to find them a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, then my book might’ve been called Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
It could’ve just been Book.
But I like Tom Sawyer as the title. People can make what they will of it.
You won’t eat Taco Bell (which is unforgivable IMO but whatever). What’s your favorite fast food to eat?
I actually ate Taco Bell for the first time in seven years a few months ago with Ashleigh. It was late and there weren’t any other places to eat and we were staying with her friend and I didn’t want to look bad so I went ahead and ate Taco Bell. It was good! I think everything I got was vegetarian though. For the record, I took a seven year break from Taco Bell because one night my friend wanted Taco Bell and I went with him and he bought me a chalupa and, even though I wasn’t hungry, I ate it and then I shat liquid and vomited simultaneously for an entire night and morning. But now I think Taco Bell and I are on good terms.
But my favorite fast food place is probably Chipotle. If that counts. I spent a lot of time in a Chipotle on Spring Street in Manhattan around the corner from the bookstore where I worked. I ate there on a lot of dinner breaks and the breaks were only thirty minutes so I was just shoveling and shoveling food into my mouth and listening to podcasts and it was kind of meditative and gross at the same time. And one time someone popped a bottle of champagne in that Chipotle.
If Chipotle doesn’t count then I’ll choose Subway. I like sandwiches and the other day Ashleigh and I split a turkey wrap from Subway and it was really good. I feel bad for Subway. Out of all the human beings in the world, and they had the bad luck of choosing a guy named Jared who likes to have sex with children as their spokesperson.
Who is your favorite pop star, and why? The term “pop star” can be applied to people famous for things other than just music.
I go through phases in terms of who my favorite pop star is. Like last year I felt attached to Hugh Grant. I kept thinking that Hugh Grant deserves more respect. He’s charming. He’s got a great smile. He’s good in that movie About a Boy. I felt like I had to defend Hugh Grant. And then the other night, on our way home from somewhere, Ashleigh told me to put on a Matchbox Twenty song and then we listened to Matchbox Twenty for the rest of our drive home and I remembered how much I enjoyed some of those songs. And then I started researching the lead singer, Rob Thomas, and I was fascinated by how strange he is. I read that one time during an acid trip, he played with dry ice and burned his hands so bad that they almost had to amputate them. I also like the manic way that he describes this song in this live video. Please watch the beginning of this video.
But I guess my favorite pop star is John Lennon. Who’s yours?
I’m interviewing you, not vice versa. My favorite pop star is irrelevant to this conversation.
If books had friends, what books would Tom Sawyer hang out with?
I change my pop star answer. It’s Bob Dylan. A few months ago, after watching that Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, I realized that I think Bob Dylan is cool. I always liked his music growing up, but I didn’t realize how cool he is until a few months ago. He’s also weird. And he never wanted to be a protest singer. He didn’t really go to any protests. Which I think is funny. And he’s been appearing in my dreams lately.
If books had friends I think that Tom Sawyer would hang out with Bipolar Cowboy by Noah Cicero, which is a really underrated book of poems that I don’t hear enough people talking about. I also think Tom Sawyer would hangout with Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria which is another really underrated book of poetry. Is this my way of saying that my book is underrated even though it’s only been out for two months? I don’t know! It would probably try to hangout with Cats and Dogs by Andrew Weatherhead, which is a book that I read for the first time the other night and loved so much that I went onto Goodreads and gave it five stars and I saw that it only had three other ratings and it should have hundreds of other ratings because people should read it. And it would like to hangout with Atticus Lish’s hilarious, beautiful, fucked up book of drawings, Life is With People, which I read for the very first time in your house.