By Christopher Poore '14
It isn't a mistake that monsters like the Sasquatch march proudly through (and sometimes play basketball inside of) the short stories of BJ Hollars '07. Much like the quasi-mythical creature, Hollars proves himself consistently difficult to label or index, eluding the convenient classifiers of "historian," "essayist," or "fiction writer."
In the last year alone, Hollars has published three books, each with its own distinct genre: the anthology Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings; a book of history titled Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa; and his debut collection of short-stories, Sightings. Just like his books, an interview with Hollars, assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, covers a variety of ground, from President Kennedy to walking the dog.
Is it difficult to migrate between fiction and non-fiction? Do you have any tricks when moving between styles?
You know, it's not as hard as it might seem. After all, they're certainly related genres. In fact, many writers simply define creative nonfiction as an attempt to employ fictional techniques to write something true. And so, in both genres, I'm working with the same tools-dialogue, description, characters, among others. When I'm writing one or the other, all I need to ask myself is whether the story I'm telling is true or not. The writing, for the most part, doesn't change.
Do you have a favorite writing form?
Any writing is my favorite writing form. These days, just making the time to write anything-a grocery list, a haiku, an essay-feels like a luxury. Back at Knox, I became famous/notorious for writing a short story every day for six months or so. These days, I look back on that time and recognize it for the gift it was. Still, every spare moment is a moment to put down another line or two, so I do the best I can to keep a pen in my pocket.
Two of your books deal with issues of race: Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, and Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America -- recipient of the 2012 Society of Midland Author's Award. What drew your interest to these issues?
As a freshman at Knox, I found myself enrolled in Professor Fred Hord's Introduction to Black Studies course. I'm not quite sure how I ended up there, but I'm so glad I did. That might have served as the impetus for my interest in race relations. This interest continued to grow after spending four years living and writing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The South blessed me with many stories, and ultimately, that's what I'm always most interested in- trying to tell the best story possible. For instance, my latest book, Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, allowed me to track down all kinds of forgotten tales about a city's civil rights movement. And after enough research, eventually these stories about a small southern town expanded outward, and soon I had stories that led me all the way to President John F. Kennedy's Oval Office. The point is, there's always more to the story than the story lets on. The fun part is trying to trail every lead and see where you end up.
Your work also seems to steer toward stories and anthologies dealing with coming-of-age issues. What draws you to these stories?
I think coming-of-age stories provide a fertile terrain for connectivity with readers. After all, the world only guarantees us three things: we are all born, we will all die, and somewhere in between, we will all come of age. Now, these coming-of-age experiences may vary wildly, but there's some solidarity in knowing that it's something-for better or worse-that we will all endure. And so, perhaps my interest in these types of stories centers on their ability to transcend the page and allow readers to easily identify with the characters and situations. That, or I'm just terribly, terribly nostalgic. And in truth, it's probably the latter...
What advice would you give to budding writers?
My first advice would be to go to Knox and soak up everything you can. But assuming the people reading this interview either currently attend Knox (or have previously), I suppose I'll just reiterate the same, old advice offered by most any writer: You have to write every day. But it's more than just writing every day. I think you have to want to write every day. And in order for that to happen, you need to read others' work, and take in an art show or two, and spend some time in a museum, and walk the dog, and listen to a record the whole way through. In short, you need to invest in others' creativity in order to spur your own.