I met Greg Bottoms during our days in the MFA program at University of Virginia. I admired his work then, and I admire it even more now. We both came from similar backgrounds, with what would appear from the outside to be stable homes in solid communities; he in Virginia, me in Vermont. Yet our early lives — and by extension, our present lives — were touched and informed by violence and crime, both of which we write of in our own ways. His new book continues his ongoing search to try to articulate with the acuity of truth, the real and lasting impact crime and violence have upon individuals and society.
ER: Crime is central to your writing. You grew up with criminal friends, and your brother, a paranoid schizophrenic, tried to kill your family one night by lighting your house on fire. You wrote about this in your acclaimed, profound, and devastating memoir Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness, which addressed your brother’s mental illness and its impact on you. Yet, you return again to his story and stories of crime, to, as you write: “to try —try— to make sense of the regular absurdity and occasional shocking beauty” of the world. Is this why you return to these topics? You are still trying to make sense of what are sometimes seemingly senseless acts?
GB: Yes. I think so. I usually need to feel some emotional tug to write something. And writing and storytelling to me are ways to think — through the act of making and remaking sentences — about the things that concern me most deeply. It’s meditative in a way, to spend so much time looking at words and paragraphs and reworking things for clarity or effect or more forceful expression. Milan Kundera—I think in Art of the Novel—says that writing reveals your obsessions. It does. I almost think you can tune yourself to fully reveal your real presence or “self” in prose and once you do that it’s like you can’t lie without jarring yourself out of the work, without being disgusted by your own bullshit when you make missteps that have to do with dishonesty, even if you are writing fiction or poetry and some or all of the facts are invented. So I write what I need to write in the way I need to write it.
ER: When you grew up, degenerates that would later become violent or criminals seemingly surrounded you. If your brother had not committed that act, how integral do you feel crime would still be to your writing; or is this an impossible question to answer?
GB: A tough question. I don’t think I would be a writer had I not faced real existential questions growing up that had to do with my brother’s illness. When I was younger I was much more interested in the visual arts—drawing and painting—but when they couldn’t express what I wanted to express because they were too symbolic and too far removed from a presentation of direct thought, ideas, and feelings I shifted to writing and then worked at it the way I imagine an Olympic swimmer works at swimming. Crime is what I write about so often because of how I came to write in the first place.
ER: In one tale of crime you write about, you state you thought you might find a reason for it, but there simply isn’t one. Do you feel sometimes that, in the end, there is no way to “make sense” of certain crimes and acts of violence?
GB: Well, I think there is always a reason for a crime. But it is often not satisfying in terms of narrative or a sense of closure. It’s useless, without a moral. A degrading act from a degraded person.
ER: You describe yourself as belonging to a group of boys who were “potentially-upwardly-mobile-but-choices-will-matter.” Your work touches on the fact that far more boys from relatively stable homes are in far more danger of slipping into lives of crime and violence than most people, even their families, realize. Does your “escape” at times seem as unbelievable and absurd to you as anything else?
And are you trying to make sense of it as much as you are criminal acts?
GB: I am trying to make sense of myself. No question. Sometimes really directly; sometimes more obliquely. Self, memory, identity—that these things can feel so sturdy and preordained at certain times and so fragile and contingent at others—are keen interests of mine. I think my choices as a young person were pretty willful in the end, for worse and for better. There is literally nothing in the world worse to me than violence and brutality. And that’s what I write about and why I write about it. People who are cavalier about violence, who don’t understand it as a force that can alter everything in its path, simply haven’t really experienced it.
ER: While you’re admittedly a layman in regard to the criminal justice system, you state your opinions on it. The “justice” system at times feels just as absurd and pitiful in how it abandons veracity for argument, where truth is less important than making up a good story to sway a jury one way or another. As you say: it can drive a person a little crazy. How do you reconcile the fact that there is so little regard for fact and truth regarding violent acts that profoundly alter the lives of so many people?
GB: I don’t reconcile it. I guess I try to call attention to it as the state of things. To me the great topic of our time and something for the arts to explore is “What is truth?” or “What is reality?” even. Events are captured, represented, re-represented, disseminated, interpreted, re-interpreted, misrepresented, and further disseminated in like seconds. Then commentary and bloviating and competing ideologies and sub-species of those ideologies take over and further twist meaning away from anything resembling the actual event or issue. An old guy I know just a few days ago said (and I wrote this down): “Something happens. Then people who don’t know shit start talking about it as if they know shit. Then other people who know even less pick it up and they talk that overheard shit as if they know something and as if what they are saying ain’t complete shit. That’s us. Shit heads. A country of shit heads.” I wouldn’t say it like that. But I can’t top that. I really can’t.
ER: Illustrator W. David Powell provides artwork to Pitiful Criminals, as he has to your other titles. How did this collaboration come about and what do you feel his illustrations contribute to your work that isn’t otherwise to be found in your writing itself?
GB: I’ve known David for many years now. Once I had written a bunch of these stories, I began to conceive of it as a much more visual work—almost a graphic novel. He and I talked about it and he loved the idea. I think his drawings enhance the stories. And we designed the text to actually work best as an e-book, something to be read on a smart device or laptop that would also come out in book form and look the same as the e-book, rather than the other way around.
ER: Your writing in Pitiful Criminals is clear, sharp and straightforward as it reveals devastating and distressing insights. Why the decision for the line and paragraph breaks and page jumps in this particular book?
GB: This also had to do with the way people would read it. Short, sharp sections and lots of jumps and white space. I said I wanted it to look like prose poems. David said something like, half-jokingly, “stories for the ADD generation.” He was thinking about the look of books like Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments. I was thinking about Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room and Annie Dillard’s For The Time Being.
ER: To try to make sense out what seems at times senseless must give you an ouroboros-like sensation at times. Where will you turn your writing to next?
GB: That’s a good way of putting it. A snake eating its own tail. Super self-reflexivity. I’ve been very taken by European writers who are doing what is often referred to as “auto-fiction,” work that doesn’t worry about the distinction between essay and story, memoir and novel, that uses every mode available to make literature that feels testimonial and documentary but is not only testimonial and documentary, that strives to be literary art about the here and now with an essentially un-fictionalized first-person persona. Writers like Emmanuel Carrere, Elena Ferrante, Annie Ernaux, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ferdinand Von Shirach. I’m working on an unconventional crime novel and an odd, time-jumping, second-person memoir about white and black race relations in the part of Virginia I’m from during the 70s and 80s. Both are in the early stages. I once told someone who asked about my books circling the same themes and even some of the same events that I was just writing one book—about 5,000 pages long and in novella-length installments. My ego isn’t such that I assume all that many people are going to be interested in this grim opus. But it seems like I have to write it anyway.
Greg Bottoms is the author of a highly acclaimed memoir, Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness, an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year” in 2000; The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art (2007) and Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith; and four volumes of autobiographical short stories set in his home state of Virginia.