John D’Agata, In Check

John D’Agata is an unlikely candidate for controversy; it may be a question of semantics. He teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He is the author of several books, including About a Mountain and Halls of Fame. His most recent book, The Lifespan of a Fact, is a reproduction of “What Happens There,” a 2003 essay he wrote for The Believer about a teenage suicide, along with a transcript of the ensuing exchange between himself and one of the magazine’s fact-checkers, Jim Fingal. Throughout, as the debate between essayist and fact-checker grows increasingly heated, the very nature of nonfiction writing is called into question. How important are the dozens of inaccuracies Fingal calls into question? How much right does D’Agata have to stretch components of the objective truth in service of his mission to communicate a larger narrative?

While he’s a passionate advocate and practitioner of the essay as a form, D’Agata is also polite, well-spoken, and reasoned in his defense of manipulating facts and eschewing the label of nonfiction. Since the publication of the book, however, he has received harsh rebukes from critics in major publications (not to name names). We caught up with D’Agata over the phone during his cross-country train trip to the East Coast, which includes a speaking engagement at McNally Jackson in New York tonight.

JARED LEVY: This trip you’re taking now, is it just to promote The Lifespan of a Fact?

JOHN D’AGATA: Yeah, it’s all Lifespan stuff. I’m making a number of visits to schools—I’m doing a few things at Columbia and NYU; I’m going to be in Cambridge before I get to New York. I just learned that I’m on the car that has all the Boston people. Someone just told me that Monday is the Boston Marathon—which I had no idea [laughs]. That’ll be happening while I’m reading, which probably means that there will be a half dozen people at the reading, but…

LEVY: Just look both ways before you cross the street [laughs]… I know Jim [Fingal] is going to be at the upcoming conversation at McNally, but is he also going to be at any of the other events?

D’AGATA: We’ll be at all of them together. We’ve done some events in the Midwest together and a little bit in the West. We never got to California; we had to cancel a few events out there. But, yeah, Jim’s been doing them all with me. He’s gotten great at it very quickly. He’s a fantastic ham. I’ve realized that Jim is just a fantastic performer and that I am the world’s worst actor. I’m really stiff when I’m doing these things. Jim will be at all of them; and at the bookstore in New York, Heidi Julavits, who was the editor we worked with at The Believer, is going to join us.

LEVY: The Lifespan of a Fact appears to be conversational in nature. Does the transcript come from emails that you two were exchanging? Instant messaging?

D’AGATA: Is that an honestly naïve question or are you asking because you want me to talk about the constructed nature of the book?

LEVY: I’m curious how it came to be that the two of you got in this heated exchange. When using various technologies, it can be frustrating to get real-time responses. I wasn’t sure if you two were on Google Chat furiously typing, because sometimes it felt like that.

D’AGATA: That’s a great question and the reality is that the conversation happened over a long period of time. It was very stretched out. It happened sometimes via email, sometimes over the phone, and it happened sometimes in person. Jim actually made a trip out to Iowa–twice actually—to talk with me. We didn’t record our phone conversations. We didn’t have a stenographer there. We were in my dining room looking over this stuff, so there was a necessary element of construction in the book—or reconstruction. We were taking the scaffolding of some of our email exchanges and fleshing them out. We were taking the hints of an argument that lasted years while we were going through this process: an argument whose existence was very spotty, because it’s hard to maintain a conversation over a number of years. It’s almost impossible that an argument would naturally form the kind of arch that it does in Lifespan. So, the conversation is constructed.

LEVY: Were you surprised that you were being asked to clarify, explain, and give evidence for certain choices you made? Were you expecting that level of scrutiny when you submitted the piece?

D’AGATA: I could answer that by saying yes and no. The essay was originally written for Harper’s. They approached me a few times before I wrote this essay, asking if I’d be interested in doing something for them. They approached me after I had written only one book—my first book, which is called Halls of Fame, which was wildly experimental. I mean very, very over-the-top formally playful. An editor there who has since become an essay superstar, John [Jeremiah] Sullivan, contacted me and said, “Would you like to do something for Harper’s?” I said, “You know, I don’t think I write the sorts of essays that Harper’s prints.”

He said, ‘I’m contacting you because I liked Halls of Fame and I’m interested in you doing what you do for Harper’s.” I put together an essay for them that I thought was a little bit of me and a little bit of what Harper’s would be into. So I was a little surprised while the essay was at Harper’s—given that they approached me—that they were appalled that I was telling them up front, “Well, this right here is a construction and this person is a composite and I altered this fact and over here is incorrect.” They were just sort of shocked and I said, “Well, you know, what do you think Halls of Fame is?” [laughs]

It’s not a work of journalism. I don’t think you read an essay about the President of the Flat Earth [Society] because you are necessarily interested in learning about the earth being flat. You’re reading that essay for a different reason. So, I was little surprised by that. But, once the essay went to The Believer I wasn’t as surprised; partly because I had already gone through the fact-checking process with Harper’s and partly because I was again completely up-front with the editor there and said, “Listen, there are these inaccuracies that I’m very aware of and I want to keep them.”

I pointed out where some of the big ones are, and they were understanding. They weren’t appalled. So, the only thing that was surprising about The Believer experience was Jim’s thoroughness. Jim, I think, was 22 or 23 years old and an unpaid intern at McSweeney’s and The Believer when he was doing this. He made a trip to [Las] Vegas on his own; on his own dime, to do even more legwork to check up on my facts, and produced a document in response to my 20-25 page essay, detailing all of my inaccuracies, that was over 100 pages long, which I found appalling, but which was remarkable. It was embarrassing to have this giant document detailing how sloppy a researcher I am—because many of the inaccuracies I was very much aware of and made myself—I was just sort of embarrassed that they were all there in black and white for all the world to see. So, that’s the only thing that was surprising about it. But that document that Jim produced—that 100-plus-page thing—it actually deepened our relationship. After he produced that, it was just clear how brilliant Jim was and that document didn’t mark the end of the fact-checking he had to do. We had to keep fact-checking more after that, so our relationship was better after that, because I respected him a lot more, and that document also helped inspire the idea that we should try doing a book.

LEVY: What was your thought process that brought you from having this back-and-forth to publishing Lifespan?

D’AGATA: I think that’s what I meant when I said that it was this 100-page, way over-the-top document detailing all my inaccuracies that inspired the idea for the book. While I deeply respected the huge intelligence behind what Jim produced, it also illustrated, for me, the absurdity of the way we seem to approach nonfiction: which is as a genre providing us with information, as opposed to the other sorts of experiences that we get from the other genres in literature, or really from any other medium in art. The primary goal of the so-called nonfiction text is to relay the facts of an event: the facts about a person, the facts of history, which is not why I turned to this genre.

Remember: I’m a guy who came to so-called nonfiction as far back a back door as you can get, from Greek and Latin texts, that certainly never used to term nonfiction—really didn’t use the term essay—but if anything, these are experiential texts that these guys were writing. That’s my understanding of what the essay is. I never really understood the idea that nonfiction ought to be this dispensary of data that we have at the moment. Also, roughly around the time we were doing this fact-checking, the James Frey stuff was boiling and exploding. Again, because I never really understood why people think what nonfiction’s job is to give them information as opposed to something else, I just stood in amazement as this guy was chastised nationally. Not just by the literary community, who did not treat him well, but by Oprah, famously.

The Frey incident illustrated yet again the hysteria that people bring to this issue, which is why we wanted to preserve the obsessive nature of Jim’s fact-checking in its pursuit of, I would say, maybe pointlessly specific facts, as well as creating an atmosphere for that conversation. As he was revealing all of my inaccuracies and I, of course, was pushing back harder and harder and harder throughout the text, it created an atmosphere that was toxic; created an atmosphere that allowed us both eventually to become over the top. So, my character in the book is a complete asshole and pretentious and Jim pushes back and is as much a dick as I am. My hope, which has not been fulfilled, is that readers would satirically recognize that hysteria which we always fall into when this issue comes up. But, what is remarkable, which is even more remarkable than people saying, “Oh yes, don’t we get out of hand when this issue comes up and let’s learn from our mistakes”—my very naïve hope of mine—instead what’s happened is that the book has become an illustration of this issue.

I don’t want to name a publication, but when I’m called an asshole by a major media outlet, or a jerk or a liar or a hack or a whatever, it’s very clear that these reviewers are reading the persona in that book as me: that I’m behind that figure. Which, for me, proves how we approach nonfiction at a much different level than we approach fiction or poetry or drama: that there’s almost no room for metaphor. We expect the “I” in any nonfiction text to be an autobiographical “I” when there is a history in the essay of the “I” being a persona. And, it’s certainly disheartening to realize, throughout this book, that we are really nowhere when it comes to reading this genre. It at least has helped me understand where we need to go, what more we need to do.