On May 4th, at our 9th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating three of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week, we’re talking to Tin House managing editor Cheston Knapp, author of One Story Issue #133, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” and the linked essay collection Up Up, Down Down.
Up Up, Down Down is a collection of well-calibrated and sharp essays that wryly probe age-old questions of authenticity as he explores regional professional wrestling, the psychology of UFO hunters, growing up and out of Christian and fraternity fellowship, his own evolution as a writer, and much more. These essays are rich. Persistent and entertaining in his interrogation, and often surprising in his insights, Knapp is an open, candid, and inviting writer, with a gift for striking and original descriptive language.
Jonathan Rizzo: Where were you when you found out Up Up, Down Down was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Cheston Knapp: I must’ve been at work, because I recall hanging up with my agent and walking back into the office with a creeping, Kafkaesque suspicion that there’d been some sort of clerical error, that my editor had mistaken me for someone else (Chester Knupp? Justin Knode? Chisholm Knawshaw?), someone who’d written a sexy and eminently salable book, perhaps about one of the lesser presidents or a long-forgotten historical event or a novel about a once-repressed bassoonist full of lubricious sex—you know, the sort of book people now seem to want to read. This feeling persisted even well after I’d signed the contract… But to celebrate? Can’t recall for certain, but it’s likely that my wife and I ate some over-priced za and toasted “To the beginning of the end.”
JR: In “Far From Me,” you write of feeling discouraged and crushed when a friend dismissed a draft of the piece One Story eventually published, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love,” as too similar to David Foster Wallace to be taken on its own merit. How did you get over that? And, though you were discouraged, was some part of you pleased with the comparison?
CK: Like, you mean, beyond expunging all memory of that cheeseweiner from my mind and never talking to him again? Nah—I don’t know. In some way writing that essay on the anxiety of influence (“Far from Me”) was a way of examining/unpacking why something as dumbly innocuous as that comment would’ve hurt (or pleased) me back then. Now I couldn’t care less, one way or the other. Through all the reading I did for that essay I came to believe that our prevailing ideas about influence and originality and individuality and “authenticity” are hopelessly flawed and deeply fucked, and that whatever flattery or fear we experience in relation to them is misguided and thin and ungenerous and reductive. Emerson, as with so much, got it right: “We are tendencies, or rather, symptoms, and none of us complete. We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives.”
JR: The first essay in Up Up, Down Down, “Faces of Pain,” concludes with you walking into the training facility of a professional wrestling organization to get “a piece of the action.” How far did you take it? Did you develop a stage persona? Did you step into the ring?
CK: Too far. In fact I seem only to know how to take things one way—too far. I’m hesitant to say too much about this because I’m kicking around the material as a pitch for another book, but I did spend some time with a lucha libre promotion that toured the US southwest and certain parts of Mexico. I played a burnout surfer from Norte California (modeled after Brad Pitt’s character in True Romance) by the name of Agua Frisco. But it was important for me, in working up “Faces of Pain,” to leave all this info off-stage, as it were, to stop at the very moment that other, more standard journalistic profiles would’ve begun, with entering the ring. I wanted to play with that form a little.
JR: Alongside the recurring exploration of the relationship between authenticity and experience running throughout these essays, you disclose in “Neighborhood Watch,” which is about your relationship and response to your neighbor’s murder, that a feeling doesn’t really become “real” for you until it’s rendered in prose. Has writing and having Up Up, Down Down published made the events recounted in the book more real for you?
CK: Ahh, the old “modalities of the real” chestnut. I’m glad the essay got you thinking about these things—it was one of my hopes for the book, that it might prompt certain questions for the reader without necessarily hazarding answers/solutions to them. Offer anything like an answer/solution and you’ll swiftly find yourself in dangerous essayistic waters… So I’ll mostly demure here and say that in that essay I was trying to contend with, among other things, the very idea of storytelling, that slippery process by which an event from life (in this case the murder of my neighbor) becomes a “story,” and so available for public consumption. Digestion. And the way Peter’s story was being told, in all the local media here, God, it frustrated me. There wasn’t any context at all. The event was just another bit of salacious gossip offered to the public as “news,” you know, before tomorrow’s weather forecast and the highlights from high school sports. So I felt this demanded I pay attention to how I was experiencing the event and then foregrounding all the problems (and pleasures) writing a story entails.
JR: The powerful combination of candor and self-interrogation is in effect in these essays as you spotlight and strip away cultural identities (skater, Christian, frat boy, writer, et al.) and familial identities (son, brother, husband, father-to-be). Is writer the one that unites them all?
CK: No one puts it better than Pliny the Elder: “It is a well-known fact, that when a man is in fear, the blood takes to flight and disappears, and that many persons have been pierced through the body without losing one drop of blood; a thing, however, which is only the case with man. But as to those animals which we have already mentioned as changing color, they derive that color from the reflection of other objects; while, on the other hand, man is the only one that has the elements which cause these changes centered in himself. All diseases, as well as death, tend to absorb the blood.”
JR: Do you feel philosophy helps or hinders understanding?
JR: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?
CK: I have the utmost respect for Maribeth and Hannah and the whole OS team, past, current, and TK, so it’ll be a treat to see them in all their glory. Also I’m pumped to see what Famous Writer I’ll whizz next to—last time it was Jonathan Lethem!