The Assay Interview Project: WIlliam Bradley
October 13, 2015
William Bradley’s work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly wrote about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. He also wrote a great deal about his life and battles with cancer. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lived in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson. William Bradley died in 2017.
About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.
Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.
Thank you for talking to me about your book.
Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?
William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.
The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.
I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.
I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.
In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.
“Nana” starts out:
I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.
Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?
My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.
But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.
I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.
You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.
How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)
Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.
And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.
It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.
Why did you call this text “Cathode”?
I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).
Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.
Writers often talk about taking risks: usually, at least in the United States and Canada, by this we mean emotional risks. Rarely do essays published in literary journals carry material, legal, or physical penalties for their authors. But in “The Essayist’s Creed” you tell of how a text you published dramatically changed the course of your life: you lost a tenure-track position because of an essay you wrote about sex and love when the Baptist college’s pastor took it upon herself to hound you out. It’s a story that absolutely floored me when I read it (so much for academic freedom!).
Tell me about this episode. How long ago did this happen? Did you fight back? Did the writing and academic community support you? Was there outrage on your behalf? Do you have regrets or would you do it all over again? Has there been an unanticipated upside to what happened?
Those are a lot of questions, and the truth is I haven’t said much publicly about what happened for a variety of reasons, but with the book coming out it’s probably time.
I went to work at a small Baptist college in 2008 because my wife—an early modern scholar—negotiated jobs for both of us there. I interviewed with the provost and the department chair and told them that while I was interested in working for them, they should be aware that I had written an essay about sex and marriage that contained some strong language and some vivid descriptions, but that it wasn’t pornography. At the time Ira Sukrungruang had read the essay and asked me to submit it to Saw Palm, where he was editing nonfiction, so I had a strong feeling it was going to be published soon.
Both assured me that the essay wouldn’t be a problem for anyone at their school. They did not require any type of faith or lifestyle commitment, and anything I published would be protected under the school’s academic freedom policies.
(The essay discusses a time in my marriage when my wife and I found ourselves the only monogamous couple staying at a Key West Bed and Breakfast with a group of senior citizen swingers and includes a moment when an elderly couple began having sex in the inn’s clothing-optional pool while I looked on, too shocked to say anything or even leave the area. It ends with the observation that the woman’s hair was clearly still growing in from chemotherapy treatments and that though their marriage is different from mine, if it’s as happy as mine is, I’m happy for them).
The summer before my tenure year—2011—I learned that someone who I thought was a friend had given a copy of the essay to the campus minister, who I didn’t realize did not like me. Details from there are hazy—it’s hard for me to know who said or did what at the time—but it resulted in me meeting with the provost, who told me that some staff members thought I should be fired but that he knew I had done nothing wrong and that the president agreed with him. But he also added that some of the more conservative members of the Board of Trustees would not approve of the essay and that he would prefer they not find out about it.
So, of course, these trustees did learn of the essay. I had the support of my department chair, my dean, and a unanimous vote for approval from the promotion and tenure committee, but the provost still wrote that he recommended that the president deny my tenure application due to “lifestyle”—which I think either means because I went to a bed and breakfast with a clothing optional pool or that I refused to cast judgment on people due to their sex lives. The president then denied my application for tenure.
To be sure, the provost maintained that it wasn’t the essay that caused the problem, but what I revealed about myself in the essay. So he argued that academic freedom wasn’t an issue. I disagree and find his reasoning rather astounding, but it’s worth reiterating that the school didn’t have any type of lifestyle expectations of their faculty. And that the experience recounted in the essay happened before I’d even heard of the school. And that I don’t think I actually revealed anything particularly scandalous about myself.
I fought back in the sense that I began the process to appeal the decision and started thinking about a lawsuit, but I was then offered a job I felt was a better fit —my friend Natalia Rachel Singer called to tell me about this visiting gig at St. Lawrence University. I could either stay and appeal and then eventually file a lawsuit when my appeal was rejected by the Board of Trustees, or I could return to my home in upstate New York. Although it meant living separately from Emily for huge chunks of the year, I decided to go.
To be honest, though I think I would have won a lawsuit—or received a sizable settlement—it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. The school was not in great financial shape, and I realized that suing would really punish the students and faculty, who had been really supportive of us during this time. It was really just a minister and a handful of administrators and trustees who hurt us, and I don’t think they are the ones who would really suffer if the school suffered, you know?
But that was a really dark time. My wife cried every day for a month straight—I think she felt the betrayal even more acutely than I did. We had worked really hard for that school and tried to make the place home, and to be just cast out like that was a devastating blow.
Regrets? That’s hard to say. I regret trusting two people—one in particular was someone who had been a very close friend before really turning his back on us when we could have used his help. But seriously, so many other people were wonderful and supportive and remain close friends to this day, so I can’t say that moving there was a mistake. I worked with some talented student writers.
We’re in the process now of surrendering the house to the bank because we can’t really afford to pay the mortgage and pay rent now that we’re both living in Ohio. I’m working as a reporter, and it doesn’t pay as much as I got when I was an academic. So I regret that we don’t have much money, but then I remember that we found our cats as abandoned kittens in the backyard of that house. So if I say I regret buying that house, it means I regret having the cats. I don’t want to sound weird about this, but I think loving these creatures has made me a better person in a lot of ways. So I can’t say I regret buying the house either.
Publishing the essay? Maybe. But I’ve gotten some really good feedback on it—people seem to like it.
I’ve also benefited from some tremendous kindness from the few people in academia and creative nonfiction who know about the situation. Patrick Madden sent me a very nice email. Natalia Singer and Jill Talbot were both so nice when I moved to Canton. George Justice—was he still in Missouri when you got there? [No, he had just left. JŠ.]—has offered wise counsel, as he has since I was a graduate student. Andy Hoberek keeps finding work for me to do for the Los Angeles Review of Books. And Ned Stuckey-French especially has just been awesome. He was the first person I talked to when I began to suspect things were getting bad there, and he has been so helpful with advice but, even more importantly, with friendship and support. He consistently reminded me that I hadn’t done anything to deserve such treatment at a time when I really needed those reassurances.
The unanticipated upside is that I realized how great my friends are. Also, my marriage seems to have become even stronger in a way I never would have predicted. We sort of evaluated what was important to us, what we wanted out of our life together, in a way we hadn’t before. I don’t think either of us prioritizes our careers as much as we probably used to. We still work hard, but I think we were reminded that we work hard so we can have enough money to keep a roof over our heads while we watch horror movies or read books—that we don’t need much more than that.
Above all, Fractals seems to be a testament to survival, life, and love. Despite the cancer, the job loss, the meditation on aging, this is an incredibly hopeful book. Hope resides in your decision to get married, to write, and to continue on despite an uncertain future. It lives in the joy and comfort you derive from television watching rituals, from your work, and from your life partner.
For me, the work of writing has always, in some way, been a fight against oblivion. It’s my way of resisting death and (however delusional) of trying to ensure that a trace of me remains after I’m gone. Also, I write to create of trace of people who are already gone and in danger of being forgotten.
What about you? Are you also writing against death in some sense? Against cancer? As a way of cementing or preserving the past (here I think of that 2-year-old girl getting chemo – she “lives” in your essay, or is that too facile?) or as a pathway to the future?
I love the idea that the little girl “lives” in my essay—I’d never thought of it that way before.
I am absolutely writing against death—and I like the way you put that. I didn’t know the word, but I developed this thanatophobic streak when I was in the second grade, after my grandfather and uncle died and I realized that one day my parents would die—that one day I would die too. It’s something I’ve been kind of haunted by since then, although, you know, I can function. But every so often I get kind of overwhelmed by it.
Oddly enough, at the times in my life when I was probably closest to dying—when I had my bone marrow transplant and this past summer, when I had some sudden heart problems—the fear completely went away and I was remarkably accepting of the possibility that I might die. But now that I’m healthy again, I’m terrified.
But, as you say, I’m hopeful. I mean, I’m a really fortunate person. I may be broke now, but I’m still in love with my wife and she’s still in love with me and I get to write about comic books and game shows and my cats are healthy and I have no reason to think that I’m going to wind up out on the street. Being mortal may suck, but it’s hardly an injustice. And the truth is, I’ve had a pretty happy life. There has been conflict, and some things had to be overcome, but that hardly makes me unique.
I’m not necessarily writing to immortalize myself because I’m so charming and wonderful, but because I think every human life matters, and that includes my own. My essay or book is worth writing—and reading—because, just like everyone else, I’m part of the human experience. I’m a fractal, I guess you could say, and fractals are fascinating.
Julija Šukys is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature.
This interview originally appeared at julijasukys.com
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