Ian Frazier is a master of both distilled insight and utter nonsense. His nonfiction books are grandly scaled, immersive examinations of how place, populace, and history create each other. They’re set in the sparsest corners of the American West (Great Plains, 1989), in a multigenerational Midwest (Family, 1994) and on an Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota (On the Rez, 1999). But for all his impeccable reportage credentials—including two decades as a staff writer for the New Yorker—Frazier is also brilliantly, bizarrely funny. His brief, almost miniature comic pieces tend to contain few, if any, jokes; the humor arises from the carefully overwrought language, and the fact that they were written at all. In the collection Dating Your Mom (1986), the long-distance phone calls of Igor Stravinsky are critiqued as if they were newly discovered sonatas. In Coyote V. Acme (1996), one story literally attacks another—a letter-perfect parody of Updikean suburban angst finds itself under siege by a WWII battle narrative. Each piece has a perfectly operating internal logic, which Frazier gleefully commences to amp up until it self-destructs. It’s dizzyingly strange, and hilarious.
This interview began as an email correspondence, then continued as a phone conversation with Frazier in his New Jersey home. He speaks in soft, loping cadences, conveying both a continuous rummaging for the right words and the momentum that comes from finding them, like a man improvising a particularly good bedtime story.
THE BELIEVER: How do you feel about talking about your work in general?
IAN FRAZIER: Talking about writing? Well, I must like to do it. I mean, when I read other people’s I think they’re fatuous, but when I read my own I like what I say.
BLVR: Yet your first-person narratives are remarkable in their lack of self-centeredness. It’s almost as if you subvert the whole authorial-expectations game. Each time you sort of negotiate a new contract with the reader, a means of tackling a subject in depth without setting yourself up as an authority. Do you have a sense of that when you start a project?
IF: Yeah, and I think anybody should. I’m opposed to expertise. For some reason, when I feel I am becoming an expert, I sabotage the whole thing. I mean, I’ve written about the West but I would never want to think of myself as somebody who writes about the West, as an expert on that subject. The problem is, it’s as if you’re either going to be an expert or a dilettante, and I don’t want to be either.
BLVR: When you do talk about yourself, the deflationary aspect of it can get kind of tricky, because you can go too far and then it’s cutesy.
IF: Exactly. You can deflate yourself down to the point where, in a way, it’s more narcissism. You’re just saying you’re too self-effacing. And I think in anything you’re writing about, you want the reader to see it, and you don’t want to stand in the way. If your participation can make the reader, for a moment, see it a little more clearly, I think it’s justified to talk about yourself.
BLVR: Other nonfiction writers don’t necessarily say that they’re experts on a subject, but you do get this sense that they’re trying to deliver to you a great lump of meaning, of significance. You, on the other hand, steer clear of drawing big-picture conclusions.
IF: Yeah. In any subject, there will be the received wisdom of it, and you already know what that is. When I wrote Great Plains, as I was reading about the Great Plains I read a number of times that “the Plains Indians were the finest light cavalry the world had ever known.” Now about the fourth time I read that sentence I realized it’s absolute horseshit. It’s just a trope. It’s something that you stamp on a book about the West. And it means zero. It’s just a sound, as opposed to something. If you tell somebody you’re writing a book about a subject—it doesn’t really matter about the subject—you will immediately get the received wisdom back.
BLVR: Which isn’t something one can just deftly deflect. It’s almost like a coral-reef-calcification sort of thing. It takes a long time to chip away at it.
IF: Right. Every subject that’s interesting has that reef around it. And what everybody has tried to do is either chip through it, or just hop on top and be part of the accumulated coral. And in a way there’s something kind of pleasant just to go along with the cliché sometimes. The idea of the West, for example. I’m seeing it in all of these farewells to Reagan, these fantasies about the West as the sunset that he rode off into, the man on the white horse with the gritty grin, and the no-nonsense manner. I think there must be something very comforting and powerful about it, because you simply can’t eradicate it from America.
BLVR: But you find your own cultural resonances. In On the Rez, you go looking for the legacy of Crazy Horse and you find a newer legacy that seems to be gathering power, that of the late teenage athlete SuAnne Big Crow. Your central fascination is with her and her actions during a particular basketball game, which you point out as an act of heroism. When you felt inspired by that, did you think that if you wrote about it in a straightforward fashion, it might come across as New Age treacle of the first order? Did you feel like you had to kind of sidle around it, deadpan up to it?
IF: About SuAnne?
BLVR: Yeah. And how you were inspired by her act of heroism. That’s a word that seems infused with corniness, but it’s really what you’re talking about.
IF: Yeah, I guess I just suspended my disbelief there. I really did think she was a hero. And I do. Around SuAnne there is a lot of myth, and also there’s a kind of high on the reservation, and it’s almost the kind of culture of the funeral. The wiping-of-the-tears ceremony. And the grief of it is so real that whether it’s corny or kitsch or what is just beside the point. What is actually felt here—I don’t care how you express it, you know? What you’re feeling is so strong that you don’t even have that much of your brain left to judge: is this kind of corny or not? Because at that point you don’t care. You just… it’s emotion. And I just wanted the emotion. When I look back on that I realize that I was so hyped-out by dealing with the drunkenness and the misery of the reservation that when I came across somebody that I had no doubt was good, it was just like a life preserver. I just grabbed for it.
BLVR: Have you noticed how so many people have this comforting little family myth that they have a Native American ancestor tucked in there somewhere on the family tree?
IF: Oh yeah, everybody has that. And in the movie Pocahontas, Pocahontas falls in love with John Smith. So you have to say, “Our continent loves me.” There’s a Robert Frost poem, something like “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” And that’s a way of saying “We are the land, the land loves us. The people who were here already think we’re great.” It’s a complete fantasy but somehow it’s very powerful and very comforting.
BLVR: There’s a mental fusion between Pocahontas and Sacagawea, too.
IF: Yeah, and you notice it’s much easier done, somehow, with a woman. That the woman takes you in. Somebody has said that if you ask who the ancestor was, it’s very often an Indian “princess.”
BLVR: It seems like white American culture needs to stop mythologizing Native Americans, and yet Native Americans need to grasp for new cultural ideals, like SuAnne Big Crow. But your admiration of her is clearly extended to the reader—you want everyone, Native American and otherwise, to draw something from her story.
IF: I do think that the idea of “this is our culture and it’s not yours” is sort of like a medicine with terrible side effects. It might make you feel better about yourself, but the side effect is isolation. And when white people look at it and say, “That’s their culture, we can’t go there,” which you do get a lot, that has a comfortable consequence, which is you don’t have to think about their culture.
BLVR: You’re trying to make it a permeable membrane.
BLVR: When you write this kind of nonfiction, how do you approach it? Do you go through multiple drafts, or does it just come out magically on the page?
IF: Usually, what comes out is so far before the writing of it. For me, I just believe that I have paid enough attention, worked hard enough, done whatever I had to do to persuade myself that I have authority. And I don’t rewrite a lot. I mean, I’ll look back at it and read it over, but it’s not as if I write a draft and then go back and rip it all up and write it over.
BLVR: It’s not authority so much as emotional validity, right?
IF: I have persuaded myself. I have my own attention.
IF: I don’t know how you would actually characterize that.
BLVR: Let’s contrast this with Family, which is a book in which you have every right to stake a very personal claim because it’s exactly what the title suggests: a book about several generations of your family. So many family histories are a kind of inverted pyramid, where the various ancestors are seen in terms of what qualities and values they’ve passed on to the present generation, which is usually embodied by the author.
IF: That’s the pedigree approach.
BLVR: You totally step outside of that. It’s almost the other way around. In your family history, when you get to the present day—to the point you could start talking in terms of “I”—you intentionally shift into the collective noun. You start talking about “we.” And this isn’t we as in “we Fraziers,” it’s we as in all Americans, the reader and his or her ancestors included. Did you realize how different an approach that was when you were doing it?
IF: I had misgivings beforehand, because I don’t think there’s ever been a good book written about your family. I’m not saying a memoir, but a book where somebody starts and traces his family. I think they all have an implicit me-not-you relationship to the reader that kills them. So I just wanted to find any way that I could to get the reader in there, to give the reader something to do. To have it include people that aren’t in the family tree. And afterwards I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, “You know, we’re distantly related.” They’ll read it, and they assume that we’re related, and in fact strict genealogy might say maybe not. But I’m glad because I wanted people to feel like they were part of it.
BLVR: The challenge with Family is that you want it to be accessible to other people, and yet you can’t reduce your family characters to archetypes.
BLVR: That would feel false. But there’s still the fact that you remove yourself from the center of the narrative in a lot of ways.
IF: Yeah, at this point I have much greater distrust of I, the first person. Back then there was still this idea that you’re supposed to be objective, you know, and I think that’s really gone now. I think so much of everything, books and all kinds of writing now, has a taint of advocacy.
BLVR: Well, you can’t be objective when you’re writing about your family. But you kind of cut the umbilicus of the first person by going chameleonlike, going flat and fading into the background. In the latter chapters, where you talk about your life in college, you just dismiss it in a couple of sentences. I was dating a black girl.
IF: Yes. She, by the way, objected to that. And I would have liked to say that differently. I could have written that section at much greater length, but I was just somehow so afraid of stepping past people’s tolerance.
BLVR: Well, there’s a passivity to it, an abdication of the author as center-stage narrator. Do you sometimes wonder if there are unanswered questions here?
IF: Right. And is it too flat-affect? It’s like, Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing. It may be a little too adolescent in that way, like you’re not telling your mom and dad what you did.
BLVR: Personally, I wish that going to Harvard and writing for the Lampoon and starting to write for the New Yorker was in fact an archetypical action that made you some sort of Everyman, but—
IF: But it isn’t.
BLVR: Yeah, unfortunately.
IF: It isn’t. It’s still something that’s hard to… [very long pause]. I guess I see things often in terms of [Native American] ledger-book drawings, where they would just draw what they did in this two-dimensional picture. And they would write under it, you know, “I take ten scalps from the Crow.” It’s just a picture, very symbolic. And it’s sort of hard to tell your story that way. It may be too flat a way of describing it. Obviously it is.
BLVR: Now you’re working on a book about Siberia. So you’re moving considerably out of your frame of reference, right?
IF: Yeah. I think my bigger hope was to see the things that I’m interested in, in America, but with greater perspective. And also, America has changed. It’s become, since I wrote those other books, much more part of the world. And to me this is just a completely dizzying thing. I mean, I think both America and England developed as relatively sane and decent parts of the world because they were isolated. And the more that I read about the history of Asia and Central Asia, you just had no breathing room. You didn’t have time to grow. Your institutions were constantly threatened, and sometimes just completely wiped out. The Mongols show up! Oh, my gosh! And that’s it. You’re screwed for three hundred years. And that didn’t happen to us—of course, you could argue that it did happen to Native Americans. So I guess it’s just to see what global forces do to your ideas about America.
BLVR: Our whole sense of self has been built on the idea of having a frontier to exploit. And yet Russia’s frontier, which obviously was much greater than America’s, never carried that sense of hope.
IF: In some cases there were Russians who went there and did better than they had done under serfdom, but the idea of it is the dark other side of this geographic dream. The West was our hope, and Siberia was Russia’s despair. All hope has been completely sucked out of it. You go there, and you’re through.
BLVR: We used the concept of frontier to fuel our democracy, and Russia used Siberia to fuel their autocracy.
IF: Right. It worked really well. Prisoners would escape and be recaptured, and the people who caught them would say, “The tsar’s cow pasture is large, but we always find you.”
BLVR: And they would talk about the “winter flowers.” Spring would come and they would go and find the bodies of the escaped prisoners who had frozen to death, and that was what they called them.
IF: The person who I’ve sort of followed to Siberia appears briefly in Family. The guy, George Kennan, was a telegrapher. And that I think that’s part of whatever global inquiry I’m pursuing—George Kennan following the westering impulse. He was in Ohio, his family were pioneers. He kept going, and if you keep going far enough you get into this horrible, horrible place. It’s not the Golden West.
BLVR: And he was doing it when, the 1880s?
IF: He went first in 1867, then again in 1884.
BLVR: One of the things that comes across in a lot of your work is that there is a different role for history to play. You visit the past, but you don’t exactly strip mine it for meaning. You don’t plug it too forcefully into the present.
IF: I like the past partly because you have the illusion that you think you know what happened there. I am sort of an anxious person, and if you have a lot of anxiety, you just say, “Oh god, just how does it turn out? Just skip the details, just how does it turn out?” There’s something, to me, calming about knowing the end of the story, knowing the punch line.
BLVR: You’ve been working on the book for four or five years now?
IF: Oh, long time. I’m still working on it, but I hope to finish it in the next few years. I’ll probably go back to Siberia.
BLVR: When does the subject become nonamorphous? When do you know that it’s time to start setting it down?
IF: I don’t, really. I guess when I start to feel that what I was curious about, I’ve gone over completely. I mean, I drove from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok over seven weeks, and we got to the Pacific, our destination, on September 11th. It was a really weird thing, as you can imagine, to be there and hearing about it with satellite-phone calls and then watching it on Russian TV. Somehow that changed my way of thinking about it. I haven’t quite seen what the context is.
BLVR: There aren’t many people who’ve managed to pull off writing both humor and, for want of a better word, “serious” nonfiction. But I have a sense that with you it’s not a matter of switching hats, of shifting between modes. I actually see a lot of commonalities in your nonfiction and humor. I read one of the pieces in Dating Your Mom…
IF: … and it’s not all that different from something I might actually write.
BLVR: In both nonfiction and humor, you give us a slight nudge to move us beyond the normal perception of things. It’s just that in your humor that nudge drops us off a cliff. I’m going to quote from “The Last Segment,” from Coyote V. Acme:
The air grew heavy with the scent of diesel exhaust and leave-taking as men from the telephone company seized fire axes and began chopping away the cables. Like the wings of a giant bird coming to earth, the microwave towers slowly fell. The instant that groundwater reached the boiler room, four-inch rivets started to pop and fly across the flaming studio.
What makes it funny is that you’re describing the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now, this is from Family:
Women wore the same clothes Madonna wears today, only with dresses over them. In public, middle-class men wore black suits and black silk hats, and if yours was a hat of brown felt, they asked you about it. People had more teeth, and more dentists to fix them.
Stripped of its context, that passage is as funny as the first. But in your book it’s just there to drive a point home.
IF: Your examples are interesting, because I’ve often written things that were just a couple of notches away from each other. They were very similar, but one was funny and one was serious. After I read that I thought a lot of what I like to write, what I try to write, is nonsense.
BLVR: Your ear is so attuned to the calcifications of cliché, it seems like you exorcise it from your own nonfiction by putting it into your humor.
IF: Right. I really like pieces where you start at the beginning, and as you get farther and farther you realize this person has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s a defining kind of moment as a reader. It’s like you’ve gotten in the back of a taxicab and you realize the cab driver is completely lost and is just driving. It’s that kind of helpless but thrilling feeling. You’re being taken somewhere.
BLVR: With your work in Mother Jones, it seems like you’ve stepped up using your humor as a tool in a political context. Do you feel that other humorists are dropping the ball—that there’s not enough cutting Bush down to size because he’s already so patently not up to the job?
IF: I think that we’ve hit better moments for satire. It did get to the point where things are so ridiculous that what can you say? When Bush says, “Well, we need another decade to study global warming.”
BLVR: In your piece about that, you said it’s going to take at least ten years to find out which decade we should use.
IF: We still have to find the decade. That’ll probably take us a decade. I’ll set my watch.
BLVR: All you need to do nowadays is take something he says and riff off it.
IF: Yeah, I know. I’m actually thinking it’s too easy.
BLVR: But you still write about him with some empathy.
IF: Well, because he’s four years older than I am, he’s somebody that I can imagine knowing in college or something. And when I see him, I look in his eyes as he’s talking and I realize he has not a clue. And it’s a terrifying feeling of sympathy. You’re in that nightmare, somebody has asked you who the president of some country is and you don’t know, and you’re supposed to know. I think all of us sympathize in a way. You just think, this guy is in way over his head.
BLVR: He delivers speeches in the tone of a high-school jock, reading a book report he didn’t write about a book he didn’t read.
IF: That’s really true. I think he’s actually brought it to almost an art.
BLVR: As an author you learn to not let on when you realize someone is just pretending they’ve read your books.
IF: One of the things that school teaches you is how to talk about something that you haven’t read. It’s not something you can measure against other countries, the way you could math scores or something, but I think that if you had schoolchildren from all over the world talk about a book they haven’t read, Americans would come in first.
BLVR: One last question. Can we talk about Army Man?
IF: Army Man! [Laughs] The happiest moment of my career. One of my happiest.
BLVR: How did you come to write for this tiny little zine out of Colorado?
IF: Well, George Meyer is somebody I knew, but I didn’t know him well then. He moved out to Colorado at about the same time I moved to Montana. I don’t know if it was exactly the same time, but it was similar, so it was something we would talk about. And then he started this… you’ll notice, by issue #3 there are many, many contributors. And I think that’s a function of the writers’ strike. There was a strike and people had time and they had stuff in their drawers, which was stuff that Letterman hadn’t done or something like that. But Army Man… almost everything in that is great.
BLVR: It’s like looking at the Gutenberg Bible of American popular culture.
IF: Oh, and so much of The Simpsons and all these things that my kids know by heart, if you look at the very germ of it it’s in Army Man. Ian Maxtone-Graham has this little thing in there, “Fair Warning.” The piece is one sentence: Any woman that marries me had better be ready for some fucking.
BLVR: That’s Maxtone-Graham’s, but it’s also the essence of your kind of humor. It’s like a game of horseshoes—you want to get it as close to reality as possible. It’s not that it’s way out, it’s that it’s just off…
IF: That’s it exactly. That’s a very good description of that joke. There’s a piece in there by Jack Handey that’s just incredible. And I had that piece called “My Ideal Woman.”
BLVR: In which you use the term “meatus.”
IF: Yeah, technical terms from ultra-weird porno from years gone by. A piece which George did not want to run. You’ll notice it’s in #3, when he didn’t think he’d be doing any more. Years after it had come out, Roger Angell—who was the New Yorker’s fiction editor at the time, and who edited my humor pieces for a long time—somehow saw that piece, and he said, “How come you didn’t submit ‘My Ideal Woman’ to the New Yorker?”
BLVR: Like they would have run it.
IF: Yeah. They’d love that.