The following is an interview regarding J.J Anselmi’s new memoir, Heavy.
Q: Heavy seems to grapple with the complicated link between destruction and creation. It begins and ends with tattoo removal, a form of destruction. Yet, the tattoos themselves, while a form of art, do destroy bodily tissues. Do you see the tattoos as an overarching motif in the work? Do they represent a kind of balance between the dichotomies of destruction and creation?
A: Once I started to realize that the destruction/creation binary and all of the gray area within it is a central part of Heavy, my tattoos and the scars I now have seemed like the perfect way to symbolize that idea. Getting tattoos of my favorite metal bands as a teenager was my attempt to solidify my identity, which is sort of an oxymoron, considering that identity is fluid. But the drive to find a stable and unchanging sense of self was a huge factor in the experiences I describe in the book. My tattoo removal and scars add a layer of complication because, even though I think identity is constantly changing, I also think that there’s aspects of the self that we can’t change.
Q: Rock Springs, Wyoming is the central setting of your work. I feel like—if you lived in the same place for the bulk of your formative years—your relationship with that place is always incredibly fraught. Coming from a small, isolated town in Michigan, I know my emotions about the place are complicated. There’s a lot of ambivalence about one’s hometown, a mix of an unavoidable sentimentality and equally unavoidable bitterness. Was it difficult to write about your hometown in a manner that felt nuanced enough? Did you have any particular process that allowed you to see your hometown more objectively?
A: I’ve been trying to write about Rock Springs for a long time. My knee-jerk response is to see that town through a lens of bitterness, especially when I think of the trauma some of my loved ones have endured there. So I have to remind myself of the many positive experiences I’ve had in Rock Springs, my lifelong friends that I met there, and also of the qualities that place instilled within me that I really value.
It took me years to actually believe that I wouldn’t still get trapped in Rock Springs some day, no matter how long it had been since I actually lived there. As that anxiety has waned, it’s become easier for me to think about that place in more complex ways. Also, just visiting Rock Springs a few times during the writing of Heavy was helpful. It could become this terrifying place of gloom in my head, and then, when I’d go back, it was still just Rock Springs, a small boomtown in Wyoming.
Q: There seems to be a major theme of identity as formed by resistance. The narrator is straight edge in opposition to the history of addiction in his hometown and his family. Then, he’s a heavy drinker in resistance to straight edge culture. While a lot of these identities fade, do you think any of the various personas the narrators adopt have some truth to them? How would you define sincerity and authenticity in the context of this work?
A: Although they both fall apart in the book, my identity as a metal head and sober person still ring true in a lot of ways. Even though I’ve become aware of the shortcomings of the metal world, that music still feels like home to me. I’ve branched out over the years to listen to all different types of music, but metal is easily the most electric style of music for me. Along the same lines, I realized when I was twenty-one that drinking and getting high just wouldn’t work for me. Even though it was a reactionary response, being straight edge as a teenager did stem from the realities of addiction that I saw in my daily life. I realized when I was older that, although I don’t mesh with the exclusive and rigid version of hardcore straight edge culture, partying just connects to too much negativity in my past for it to be harmless for me.
As far as how I define sincerity and authenticity, I think it has to do with how far you can strip down an identity. Through all of my times of self-doubt, listening to and playing heavy music is just this bedrock of my personality that has refused to leave. Being sober is similar. I’ve looked at these aspects of my personality under a deconstructive microscope, and they still work for me. So I guess the authentic and sincere are those aspects of a personality that can still function after you take them completely apart.
Q: Obviously, music and identity are also major themes. The narrator seems to cling to music as a source of identity, and this passion is often compared to religious fervor. It seems to me the work is kind of coming-of-age story. It’s all about learning that identity is complicated, and one’s center is actually a place of chaos. Grappling with the nebulous concept of identity is hard, but I think can be particularly difficult with a memoir. When reconstructing yourself as a character, how did you define that character? Was it hard to give a multifaceted picture of someone who, at the time, engaged in a lot of black and white thinking?
A: I really tried to look back at my past motivations and see them in realistic ways. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been easy to look back at my teenage self as being silly and idiotic. But there are also kernels of truth in how I reacted to my surroundings that have been really fruitful to remember and think about. For me, the challenge was trying to balance laughing at my past identity constructions with genuinely trying to understand why I felt like I needed an unchanging and reliable sense of self during those times of my life.
At times, it was also frighteningly easy to step back into black-and-white thinking about certain people and situations, partly because my understanding of them hadn’t really evolved over the years, despite what I’d tell myself. So the challenge there became to attempt to see those elements of my story through a more mature lens.
Q: Suicide, I feel, is another difficult topic to write about, as it can be so hard to understand. Most people fear death, so suicide seems so unnatural. Was it hard to write about wanting to die? Did you think, while writing, about ways you could make suicidal thoughts understandable to readers?
A: It’s really easy to fall into psychological/therapeutic jargon for suicide when writing about it. While those terms and explanations can be helpful in a treatment setting, I don’t think medical definitions of addiction and depression, or terms such as ‘suicidal ideation,’ are very useful or productive in literature. For me, thinking about suicide as more of an existential decision was really helpful as far as ways to make that thought process seem understandable—and even familiar—to readers. On a subconscious level, I think we all make the decision to live or die everyday when we wake up. So I tried to frame my own decision to kill myself through that lens.
Q: Freddy’s suicide, the first in the book, is one of the most difficult to grapple with. I think it’s because he’s described as someone who genuinely liked to make others feel good. Reading that and then, a few paragraphs later, hearing more details of his suicide was crushing. What struck me as painful, I think was that Freddy was an equal mix of likable and profoundly frustrating. How did you reconstruct his character when writing your memoir? A character like this could easily be painted in a black and white fashion, as either a complete victim or a complete burn out. Your portrayal seems much more true to life. Was it hard for you to give readers such a complicated picture?
A: Since I only knew Freddy when I was a kid, I had to piece together a lot of different stories that I’d heard about him over the years in order to attempt to paint a realistic picture for readers. By the time I started writing Heavy, I also identified with him a lot and could understand why he chose to destroy himself with drugs and booze and eventually end his own life. So thinking about him through the lens of why I also made those decisions helped me avoid depicting him as an empty burnout character.
On the other hand, as I discuss in the book, I think Freddy also chose to inhabit a stereotype of a party animal. It was difficult to discuss that idea while simultaneously trying to avoid depicting him as a caricature, so I really tried to focus on the aspects of his personality that transcended the parts of himself that he was able to confine within that stereotype.
Q: It struck me as odd that the narrator chose to be an alcoholic, as addiction is not traditionally thought of as a choice. My friend Jim once said, “Addiction is just something that happens when you’re stuck in a rut.” The narrator also remembers he can choose to die at any time when he drives out to Bondurant to kill himself. Suicide is also, arguably, not a choice. I wondered, as a reader, whether this was an intentional commentary on the nature of the mendacity of the narrator’s identity. While he’s inarguably troubled, he ultimately has a choice. He chooses to get sober, he chooses to live, and yet others in Rock Springs can’t make those choices. Was this intentional? What do you think makes the narrator different than other citizens of Rock Springs?
A: Depicting addiction and suicide as a choice was definitely intentional. I’ve led a more privileged existence than a lot of people from Rock Springs, and I had help when I decided that I needed to leave—both of which have informed my worldview. At the same time, I’ve come to think of addiction, as with suicide, as an existential dilemma.
Similar to medical and professional explanations of suicide and depression, I find those explanations of addiction to be somewhat empty in a literary context. Considering my family’s past with drug and alcohol use, it would be easy to say that I simply have some kind of addictive gene in my DNA that makes it impossible for me to drink or get high in harmless ways. (And it’s quite possible that I do.) But those types of explanations gloss over the fact that humans are conscious beings with the agency and capacity to make decisions, which is something I wanted to emphasize in Heavy. So I tried to focus on the different aspects of my existence that made the decision to shut off my brain seem like the best option, which often boiled down to the things that made me feel powerless. In this way, choosing to get fucked up was an attempt to feel powerful, even though it was a destructive decision. I’ve been more fortunate than many people from Rock Springs, but I think most addicts and suicide victims have had the agency to make that root decision at some point. Physical addiction throws a wrench into this idea because using becomes a medical need; but, before a person gets to that point, I think there was a decision making process that took place.
Q: I saw Charles D’ambrosio speak at my MFA program, and someone asked him why he chose to end “Documents” with an image of his father’s boots. D’ambrosio answered it just felt right, that for some reason that image seemed like the natural conclusion to the story. In the book, there were several moments—the grandfather’s death, the hunting scene—that ended on an image or memory that seemed somewhat disconnected. There were also small observations throughout the work—tiny flickers of memories embedded in a scene—that appeared during pivotal moments. Were you working somewhat unconsciously in these moments, like D’ambrosio, or was your process more controlled than that?
A: My natural inclination with personal essays is often to try to end with a big moment of reflection, which typically comes off as overwrought. But the thinking I do during that process is often valuable. After I’ve gotten through that step, I’ll try to think of an image or memory that embodies the ideas I was trying to explore. One of the cool things about an image is that it often becomes more complex and multi-faceted than just the ideas themselves written out.
But learning to end pieces that way was the product of getting a lot of feedback, so it’s very deliberate for me. Finding the right memory or image does seem somewhat unconscious, though, as it will often come at random times, and when I’m doing something else. When it’s right, it definitely feels right, but getting to that place of knowing what I need the image to embody feels like a very analytical and calculated process.
Q: Lastly, there’s a certain rawness about this book that’s refreshing. Your past mistakes are very out there, and you’re not afraid to construct a version of yourself that’s not always entirely likable. The Casa Bonita scene was particularly cringe-worthy (although, admittedly, some of it made me laugh). In my MFA program, one of my professors said the hardest part of memoir writing is resisting the urge to be the heroes of our own stories. While most self-aware people know, deep down, they’re not the heroes, I think most of us have an inclination to justify our behavior when writing of past indiscretions. Was there ever a moment in writing your work when you wanted to be more of a hero? How did you manage to resist the urge to justify or downplay aspects of your past?
A: Looking back on the events in the book, I wish that I’d acted differently a lot of times. So one main challenge for me was actually being kind to myself and, like I mentioned earlier, genuinely trying to understand some of my past actions and thinking processes. Simply hating myself on the page would just turn a reader off in the same way as self-aggrandizement, so I often had to be nicer to myself than I’d been in my own head.
Of course, like anyone else, I’m often the hero in how I remember things. One chapter that was particularly challenging to avoid this type of thinking was “On Destruction.” For years, I’ve had such a huge chip on my shoulder about different members on my dad’s side of the family that I tended to always think I was in the right, even when I was doing petty shit like throwing a tree into the swimming pool of my grandpa’s motel.
As a whole, finding a middle ground between self-hatred and aggrandizement can be one of the hardest parts of writing creative nonfiction for me. I have to look at each situation individually and analyze it as honestly as possible in order to find that balance. I think the drive for personal writing needs to be connected to finding those universal kernels of truth, and to let that drive overrun the ego, which is definitely easier said t
J.J. Anselmi is the author of Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music (Rare Bird, 2016). A regular contributor to The A.V. Club, he holds an MFA in creative nonfiction, and he loves to beat the shit out of the drums. Check out his writing here: www.jjanselmi.com