A Marvelous Crutch: An Interview with Brad Zellar
April 25, 2014 | by John Lingan
Brad Zellar’s writing has appeared in daily newspapers from Minnesota and in an expansive blog called Your Man for Fun in Rapidan; he has chapters and essays in collections like The 1968 Project and Twin Cities Noir, and occasionally he writes fiction, which he tells me he publishes “under an assortment of fake names.” But he’s most comfortable writing about photographs, as he did in the book Suburban World: The Norling Photos, and in his most recent project with the photographer Alec Soth, the LBM Dispatch.
Named for and printed by Soth’s limited-run publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, the Dispatch reimagines the iconic American road-trip photography book as a series of small newspapers, each of which chronicles a quick trip Zellar and Soth have taken through a different state or territory. Previous Dispatches have covered Michigan, Ohio, and California’s “Three Valleys—Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death.” The most recent includes images and stories from the Texas Triangle.
I wanted to know about the writing process for the Dispatch, and how Zellar chooses the issues’ many quotations from historical and literary sources. But I was most curious to hear his thoughts on writing to accompany images. Not quite a photo-interpreter in the Berger/Sontag tradition (though he is a great writer in the “how to look” sense), Zellar embraces photography as a fan, and he’s not afraid to let images do the talking when necessary. In Zellar’s work, photos are windows, excuses for curiosity—above all, the Dispatch embodies the devotion to stay curious.
A lot of your work, here and elsewhere, has accompanied photos. How does it affect your own writing to know that pictures will share its space? How does it make you think about your purpose as a writer?
The public library in my hometown had a terrific collection of photo books when I was a kid. I was an obsessive reader, but it was from those photo books that I formed my first real impressions about what the world looked like. And they played a huge role in cementing a resolve that I very much wanted to travel and see that world. I used to spend hours hunched over William Eggleston’s Guide, the first Diane Arbus monograph, and a book of vernacular American photographs called The Champion Pig.
From an early age I used to write stories based on photographs, and I’ve never really stopped. I have a large collection of found photos, I like to take photos myself, and I just get a kick out of looking at pictures and trying to animate them with words. I love that photos represent so many possible realities, and they’re sort of a laboratory for exploring points of view. You have the people in the pictures, obviously, each of them a different voice with a different version of whatever story is being told, you have the people outside the frame or lurking in the peripheries, and then, of course, you have the photographer.
I look at photos and hear voices. I imagine all the other pictures and moments from the same roll of film. I make forensic inventories of every piece of information I can glean from a photograph, and a list of questions the photo poses for me. Working with a photographer is such a marvelous crutch for a writer. There’s so much I don’t have to write down, because I know I’m going to have Alec’s evidence to work with.
You’ve said that the Dispatch is very much about quickness—the trips are short and fast, the work comes almost immediately. But a lot of your writing is curatorial, the quotes and excerpts and so on.
The planning and preparation generally takes more time than the actual trips. I usually leave town with a notebook full of quotes, facts, and figures, very little of which ever ends up getting used. The whole focus of a trip can turn in an instant when we’re working, and we’re both very much aware of that by now.
A big part of what allows us to move quickly once we’re on the road is the amount of research, planning, and preparation we do before we get in the van. Once we’ve targeted a state or region we’ll usually start brainstorming about things we know about the place—quick, off-the-top-of-the-head stuff. The history, literature, music, and art that’s been produced there. I’ll assemble a mixtape and a small library of relevant books. I like histories, but my initial interest is always fiction and poetry. We’ll also look at other artists who might have worked in the area. From there we’ll dig into current events, local news, demographics, and events calendars, essentially trying to put together a list of possible themes as well as an initial itinerary. We both like to have a decent idea where we’re headed every day, and some notion of what we’re interested in there. Serendipity always plays a huge role in the trips, obviously, but generally that’s the result of following our original trail and turning up something of interest along the way.
There are always those moments when, for lack of a better word, the arc of the whole trip swims into focus, and that usually leads us to start looking more intently for stuff that may not have been on our original radar. It’s usually a thematic Eureka—in “Upstate” [Dispatch #2], for instance, we started feeling like the whole swing of the thing was taking us back into time, history, and the wilderness.
Do you talk at all about your goals, as far as depiction goes? What’s the larger motive as far as what ends up in the Dispatch and what doesn’t?
Alec and I started with the idea that we would just find a way to work around home, and for a period of several months, purely for fun, we were exploring the exurban fringes of the Twin Cities, pretending to be newspapermen. In the course of these rambles we ended up in places that, though they were no more than forty minutes from my doorstep, might well have been foreign countries. Little townships, small town service clubs and fraternal organizations, church dances, crime scenes, small business expos, stuff like that.
In a place called Linwood Township—maybe thirty miles from Minneapolis—we visited the town hall, which was located in a tin, prefab building. Every single expenditure for the township had to be voted on by a show of hands from every taxpayer who showed up for the meeting. In an adjacent room there was a senior citizen center. The whole thing felt like something you’d stumble across in the Yukon. The township had recently planned a big centennial celebration. It was going to run over several days, and they sent out press releases, only to discover later, through a call from the county historical society, that they were off on the date by something like forty-nine years.
We weren’t looking for provincialism. We went into the project expecting to discover the milfoil of corporate America—the same sort of bland development you’d encounter in the suburbs and city just to the north. But we’ve discovered exactly the opposite. You get off the freeways and into the heart of the heart of the country and time and again you find that all these quaint notions about American cultural life and values are still out there. They’re sometimes under siege, obviously—there’s economic hardship and meth and immigration and other stuff like that. But there are also all these places where you’ll find well-preserved and thriving Main Streets and a boisterous local culture and social life.
In the states we visit, we’re always trying to get away from regional stereotypes—the cowboys, et cetera. But it turns out there’s no escaping them. There have been times when we’ve been trying all day, or even for days at a time, to find a doomsayer or a true crackpot, and we just keep running into these tough, resilient, incredibly open people. It’s corny as hell sometimes, but it’s also sort of inspiring. It’s probably fair to say that we’re both pretty cynical and naturally solitary characters, and neither of us shies away from uncomfortable encounters, but on so many occasions when we’ve steeled ourselves to walk into a situation that from the outside looks like nothing but trouble, we’ve been welcomed with open arms. The only exception to this has come in attempting to penetrate the bastions of the really wealthy. They just won’t let you in, and things can get nasty in a hurry.
What do you mean?
We’ve tried everything, almost literally. We’ve worked contacts with art collectors and people on the boards of museums, made countless calls, cold-called at exclusive clubs and country clubs, tried corporate offices, submitted formal requests. It’s crazy. I guess they’re just very wary of how they might be portrayed—perhaps for good reason—and they’re accustomed to being in complete control. It’s shrewd, really, if frustrating. The resistance has been firm, dismissive, and often hostile.
To your point about the persistence of regionalism, I think we often forget—to use one totally unverified but pretty cool statistic I once heard—that if the entire American population were packed as densely as Brooklyn, we could all fit in New Hampshire. Most American communities are rural, and even those that are close to cities, like the ones you found in Minnesota, still have this incredible resistance to true change.
A sense of place is huge for me, whether I’m reading or looking at photos. I like to have some idea of where I am. Perhaps not surprisingly, the places in this country that have the strongest and most rooted regional identities—the Deep South and the West—tend to have the deepest literary traditions. You can’t visit Mississippi without thinking of Faulkner, Eudora Welty, or Barry Hannah, and they did such an incredible job of describing the place that even on my first trip down there it all felt very familiar to me. In the Midwest you tend to have the classic portraits of suffocating conformity—Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, just for instance—and growing up in that world I’m not as drawn to such places, or such books. The West—and particularly Montana—has produced scads of great literature and art, and that’s a place that has always attracted me for that reason—partly for the larger-than-life romance of it, but also because it all still resonates and feels relevant to the current state of things. The Northeast is full of moldering history, too. And the ghosts of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne seem to be everywhere.