- Interview with Ian Frazier
Ian Frazier grew up in Hudson, Ohio, and graduated from Harvard University, where he was a Lampoon writer. From the mid-1970s on, he has been a regular contributor to the New Yorker, writing all parts of the magazine, from its "Talk of the Town" to "Shouts and Murmurs" to "Letters from . . ." articles. He has published ten books of prose all along the continuum of humorous-to-serious, including a fascinating, far-reaching Family history; a ramble through the historically vibrant Great Plains; On the Rez, about South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux; and The Fish's Eye, a collection of "essays on angling and the outdoors." His two most recent essay collections are Gone to New York and Lamentations of the Father. Though the first book consists of researched, observational, fact-based pieces, and the second includes absurd bits of humor, often in borrowed voices, Frazier calls them all "essays," a fact that I appreciate immensely, especially in this day and age, when the term supposedly sends publishers and readers screaming and cowering. Across more than three decades, Frazier has honed his craft to become an essayist of formidable observational skill unraveling significance in an artful, yet artificeless prose that is luminous in its vision of humanity: making meaning of our detritus and our stories, the things we leave behind and the things we keep always with us. Malcolm Jones Jr., of Newsweek, has called Frazier's writing "beautiful and funny and smart without a shred of hipness." Mark Oppenheimer, of the Los Angeles Times, has called him "America's greatest essayist." I agree. Frazier's newest book, Travels in Siberia, which proceeds in his detailed observational style across the vast tundra, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in fall 2010. [End Page 119]
This interview was conducted in two parts in November 2008, in Provo, Utah, at Brigham Young University: the first by students in an undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop (named in the interview), and the second in a KBYU radio program, "Thinking Aloud." I have combined and edited those conversations into the following interview.
Many of your subjects are common moments that anyone could have experienced. How is one moment more inspiring than another moment, and how do you choose which experiences to write about?
I guess it's just what sticks in your mind. And sometimes what sticks in your mind isn't particularly significant, but it's something that just stays at the top of your consciousness. A lot of times, the form of the piece or something that I have planned to say later will select one part of the experience; if I know I'm going to be talking about something later or if it's connected somehow, that gives it additional significance. And some of the things that I write about are unusual, are things that happen once in a million years. You're talking about ordinary things, but sometimes there are things that just beg to be part of a piece because they're so extraordinary. For example, I was in Kansas writing my very first reporting piece. It was about an Indian raidthat was made in retaliation for an earlier attack on an Indian village. We had gone to where the Indian village was, down in this little bend of a creek, in a sheltered place, and the rancher who owned it said that after the attack on this village, there were a lot of dead people who had been killed in the attack. Then he pointed and said, "and they buried them right there." We were looking down into the draw, looking at the horizon, and as he pointed, a falling star went exactly where he was pointing. It was something that would normally never happen, and that was how I ended my first piece. It seemed as if the ending was sort of handed to me.
With any piece, you end up with a lot of material and you think a lot of it is great; you have to just be honest with yourself about what means the most to you. Sometimes, if...