Poe Ballantine calls himself a “whiskey-drinking, floor-mopping, gourmet-cooking, wildly prolific writer with a penchant for social commentary.” For nearly three decades he was a vagabond, roaming North America, working in kitchens and factories, living cheaply, and spending carefully so he could maximize his writing time. His goal was a literary career as a novelist (he’s written two novels), but he’s quick to admit that his nonfiction accounts of his travels have turned out to be his best work.
Born in Colorado in 1955, Ballantine grew up in San Diego, California. He had his first adventure on the road at the age of fourteen, when he and a friend hitchhiked out of town and took refuge for two days in a Girl Scout camp. When he was eighteen, he left San Diego and headed for Europe, but he got only as far as New Orleans, Louisiana, before he ran out of money and had to find a job. He liked the challenge and unpredictability of the nomad’s life so much that he spent the next twenty-seven years moving from place to place, living and working in more than sixty American cities and towns.
He also spent time in Mexico, teaching English in the state of Zacatecas. There he fell in love with one of his students, Cristina, who dreamed of a life in the U.S. For Ballantine the thrill of endless rambling had faded, and he was ready to settle down. He remembered a remote High Plains town where he’d worked as a hotel cook six years earlier: Chadron, Nebraska, population 5,600. With its affordability, friendliness, and lack of Spanish-speakers (he thought Cristina would learn English faster by immersion), it seemed to Ballantine the ideal place. In Cristina’s eyes it was truly el medio de nada — the middle of nowhere.
They married and had a son, Tom. In his new life as a husband and father, Ballantine faced the same problems he had in his wandering existence: low-income jobs and difficulty finding time to write. Cristina, far from home and struggling to learn English and adapt to her new country, grew impatient and unhappy. Tom began to display symptoms that doctors would diagnose as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Meanwhile Ballantine was trying unsuccessfully to write a book about the town and its eccentric inhabitants. Then one freezing December night a neighbor named Steven Haataja, a math professor at the local state college, disappeared. Three months later a ranch hand discovered Haataja’s burned body in a gulley on private land not far from the college. The ensuing police investigation produced no definitive answers. Ballantine decided to look into the case himself and began writing about it, weaving into the narrative the story of the town, his matrimonial trials, his son’s diagnosis, and his development as a writer. This resulted in his latest book, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, which came out in September 2013 from Hawthorne Books.
Ballantine is also the author of two collections of essays, Things I Like about America and 501 Minutes to Christ, detailing his picaresque exploits. (Most of the essays in both books were first published in The Sun.) His work has appeared in the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories anthologies, and his investigation into Haataja’s suspicious death is the subject of a forthcoming documentary by independent filmmaker Dave Jannetta (loveandterrorthemovie.com).
I first met Ballantine at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington, where he gave a warm and humorous reading, then stayed after to talk to me and other audience members. In person he’s affable, self-effacing, and more interested in what others have to say than he is in talking about himself. His manner is youthful despite the gray in his hair. I developed a correspondence with him, and he agreed to this phone interview, in which he speaks about his years spent laboring in obscurity, his difficulties with married life, and his journeys through North America.
Powell: You avoided academia as a young writer. Do you think you made the right choice?
Ballantine: It wasn’t a choice. I kept trying to succeed academically, but it wasn’t a good fit. I realized after a while that most writers who take the university career path spend the bulk of their time securing positions, competing for power, and grading papers, all of which is a creative drain and something I couldn’t stomach anyway. While I was sitting in sterile classrooms, listening to the drone of the climate control and hoping to get a B, I was missing out on the adventure and danger outside the university walls. It was exposure to harrowing, vital experiences that I hoped would separate me from the millions of other writers with talent.
Powell: In your book Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere you compare your experiences on the road to Beowulf’s, “out amid peril in strange lands, pitted against monsters and the mothers of monsters.” Who are your monsters?
Ballantine: The monsters are a metaphor for adventure. The academies are Beowulf’s mead halls. For a while I kept returning to the mead halls, where it was warm and safe, but the professors just weren’t teaching what I wanted to learn. The better teachers, I found, were the writers I admired.
Back in 1987 my painter neighbor would bring over boxes and boxes of Paris Reviews, and I’d pore over them in the evenings, intoxicated by literary celebrity. I remember being drawn to Céline and Jorge Luis Borges and repelled by Ernest Hemingway. It was interesting to read the interviews and see how writers’ personalities matched their styles. Truman Capote, for example, deliberately muddled the truth about himself, since he knew it was going to be muddled anyway. He claimed to write with a martini in hand, but, like most writers, he knew that alcohol was anathema to his craft. What I gathered from all these interviews was that writing was a lot harder than it looked; that it might take a week or a month or even a year to get a sentence right, and then you’d have to make that sentence fit with the next.
By then I’d realized that the only way I was going to learn and grow and get material was to leave the mead halls for good and venture out into the world. How could I write the Great American Novel if I didn’t know anything about America? So the process of going into the cities and factories and backwaters and facing the monsters of America was essential. But I didn’t really benefit from this exposure until my late thirties. Before that, I was writing fiction that had little to do with my actual experiences. I thought for a long time that my own life was too bleak and depressing and distorted by drugs and alcohol to write about. There were years when I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t even write except to jot down a few notes about how miserable I was. After my garret-along-the-Seine notions of the writing life had unraveled, I was left broke and raw in one strange town and menial job after another. I had no idea that this would become the richest vein for my work.
Powell: You mentioned alcohol. How do stimulants and other drugs affect the creative process?
Ballantine: I approach composition the way I would any other task: I try to be as clearheaded and well rested as possible. There are numerous legends about drug-induced inspiration: Ayn Rand and her amphetamines, and Ken Kesey blazing on acid, for example. But if you have something to say and a style in which to say it, then you shouldn’t need chemical assistance. I can’t speak for the many musicians and painters I’ve known who’ve produced great work while high. Maybe drugs are better suited for colors and notes than they are for words.
As I was saying, I didn’t achieve anything noteworthy until my late thirties and early forties. That’s when I stopped writing stories about fictional characters who lived far away and whose lives I didn’t know. I also started reading some of the confessional poets, such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and that slowly became the way for me: a personal, vulnerable approach; a kind of honesty of the soul. Much of what artists arrive at isn’t conscious or deliberate. It’s something that evolves of its own accord. My effort to find myself in America was my material, the monster I needed to slay, not some short story about an old woman with cancer who dies in the snow in Cleveland.
Powell: You became your own best character.
Ballantine: It’s ironic, because I wasn’t interested in myself as a character. After I’d begun writing personal essays, I’d still sometimes write something else, and readers would ask, “Where are you? What were you doing? Where are those delectable admissions of failure?” And I’d say, “Aren’t you sort of tired of my delectable admissions of failure?” I certainly was. But apparently that’s my gift. I don’t know why. It wasn’t by design. I have been accused of self-absorption, because so much of what I publish is in the first person, but I’ve written plenty of third-person stories. They just don’t play as well.
Good writers are after the truth. We’re trying to draw the blood from real life and use it to make the words come alive, and that kind of alchemical process can be, you know, hazardous.
Powell: The pieces generally considered your best were extracted from privation, poverty, self-destruction, and failure. Do you think suffering produces compelling art?
Ballantine: Most of the writers I admire were forged by insanity, war, poverty, crime, the road, or their own demons. Naturally when you survive that sort of voyage, you’re bent in a particular way and probably no longer interested in writing about your aunt Sally in her summer cottage on Cape Cod.
Powell: You spent your youth traveling alone in search of something indefinable. Now you’re married and have a son. Do you think that becoming more settled — and perhaps more satisfied — has been a help or a hindrance to you as a writer?
Ballantine: Travel for me was a kind of laboratory experiment on myself: How would I do on the street with no money? How would I fare on a freight train without a destination? Could I survive a full-time job at a sheet-metal house or a transmission factory without losing a finger? What would it be like to go through life alone in devotion to an entirely abstract and possibly unattainable goal? Settling down has given me the chance to reflect on the results of the experiment and compose without distraction.
Powell: You met your wife, Cristina, in Mexico, where you were teaching English, and your marriage got off to a rocky start.
Ballantine: After all those years of picking up and starting over in a new place every six months, I found matrimony in the beginning to be just another strange town: lots of discord, alienation, and longing to leave. My wife and I were fighting all the time and using the “D word.” Like writing, marriage is much harder than it looks, and our troubles were compounded by profound philosophical differences — her disinterest in literature and desire to own three cars, for example. We were from different cultures, spoke different languages, and were eighteen years apart in age. She’d been a dentist in Mexico; I was a drifter. But any couple, if they’re willing to work at it, can learn to get along, and that’s the point at which real love, not dopey teenage euphoria, begins.
Powell: You told Cristina you didn’t want to have a child until your writing career had developed. You kept saying, “Write, write, write!” and she kept saying, “Baby, baby, baby!”
Ballantine: I knew that if I had a child, I would be totally devoted to it, and I’m single-minded about my writing. I didn’t want any babies getting in the way. But then came Tom, my son. I’m fond of children, and I like complex problems, so I persevered and found that the twin cities of matrimony and parenthood were a pretty good place to stay.
I’m still pathologically devoted to the written word, but it can’t bring the happiness and fulfillment of family and community. Being a husband and father has also given me loads to write about. Looking back, I see that I was fashioned in an interesting and even magical way by the trials I describe in the book.
Director Francis Ford Coppola once recommended that filmmakers get married young. Then they wouldn’t be out until 3 AM catting around and dissipating their creative energy. They’d be forced into full, clear-eyed days to produce.
Powell: You write in Love & Terror about your marital strife and culture clash with Cristina. How did she react to having your private problems made public?
Ballantine: She hated it. Most people don’t know what they’re getting into when they marry a writer. If I’d told her at the outset that she would become a character in my work — especially the way I have portrayed her in Love & Terror — she would not have come to America with me. So I didn’t ask for her permission to write about her. She doesn’t read much anyway, and I knew she wouldn’t read my book. But when other people told her what I’d said about her in it, she was furious. She thought I’d been conniving. In a way, though, I really wasn’t conniving — OK, I was conniving, but I couldn’t have written this book without testing some of my relationships.
For about a week after Love & Terror came out, Cristina cried and talked about leaving me, but then people started approaching her, and it was plain that they liked her more than they had before, because they felt they knew her better now. And all I’d done was depict her as she is. Long story short, she got plenty of attention and praise, and now she doesn’t hate me anymore.
If you want to tell your story as true as it can be, you have to tell everything. One book that comes to mind is Marion Winik’s First Comes Love. It’s about her marriage to a gay man with AIDS. He did drugs; they had children. Marion’s funny and brave and even more forthcoming than I am. But I think a writer has an obligation to warn friends and family that if they tell a story, if they reveal a secret, it’s fair game for material — unless, obviously, it’s something that could land them in jail.
Powell: Really? What if they confessed to a murder? That’d be a tough secret to keep.
Ballantine: My point is that good writers are after the truth. We’re trying to draw the blood from real life and use it to make the words come alive, and that kind of alchemical process can be, you know, hazardous. But if you don’t get into trouble, if you don’t gamble, if you don’t present a sticky situation, if you’re not facing a monster, then you’re simply not going to be interesting, from a commercial or an artistic point of view. If you want to make a difference and stand out, you’re obliged to sound the depths.
If someone had given me a big grant when I was struggling to become a writer, I suspect it would’ve stunted my development and probably prevented me from hitting that long patch of disaster that finally propelled me across the threshold.
Powell: Let’s talk about the mysterious murder — or suicide — of Steven Haataja, which is the main subject of Love & Terror. You’re new to the true-crime genre. Were you influenced by the classics like In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?
Ballantine: Very much so, especially Midnight, which appears to be a travelogue about Savannah, Georgia, until around page thirty-eight, when we get the first mention of the crime at the book’s center. True crime can be a trap, because of its reliance on base emotions, but if the book is grounded in mood and place and well-developed characters, a murder is as good a plot device as any.
Powell: You’ve called most true crime a “callous milking of human misery.” Do you feel that you avoided exploiting your subjects?
Ballantine: Too often true crime is written by someone who boarded an airplane with a tape recorder and arrived in town and stayed at a hotel while cataloging the sorrow and misfortune of perfect strangers. Before Steven Haataja was found dead, he was my neighbor. I’d never spoken to him, but I’d seen him around town and once at a movie screening. He’d really stood out with his height and the fedora he’d often worn. And I was acquainted with the majority of his friends and colleagues and the various police officers who took turns investigating his case. The book basically fell into my lap.
In the beginning it was a journalistic exercise: I wanted answers to a long list of questions. For a good year or so I just stuck to collecting the facts about the case, as I could discern them. Gradually I threaded in other stories: about my marital problems, about running the psychological gauntlet after my son was diagnosed with ASD, and about my own journey from totally unknown writer to mostly unknown writer.
I hope that I’ve treated Steven with respect, and maybe through all this his family can get some justice. Now that the book is out, people have come to me with photographs, memories, and anecdotes about Steven. It’s almost the seventh anniversary of his death, and not a day goes by when I don’t wonder how in heaven’s name a wonderful man like him could have ended up like that. Maybe it doesn’t matter to him, wherever he might be now, but it matters to me. Having had the chance to talk with so many who knew and loved him, and having gone through an arduous process of re-creating him on the page, I have come to know and love him, too.
Powell: What were the circumstances of Haataja’s death? Do you agree with the official findings in the matter?
Ballantine: Three months after he’d disappeared, Steven was found burned beyond recognition and bound by extension cords to a tree on private ranch land a half mile or so from the college campus where he’d taught math. The case is still officially open, so the evidence is inaccessible to the public. Most local law-enforcement officers say it was a suicide, but it’s not possible in my mind that he could’ve burned himself to that degree without accelerant, his ankles tied like a calf in a rodeo event, and not also burned the grass around him, the tree to which he was trussed, or the branches above him. He doesn’t fit the self-immolation profile, nor was he the type to abandon his students four days before the term was over. Steven’s father was on his deathbed at the time, and Steven was an only son. He paid his rent the morning he disappeared. Two police officers I’ve interviewed believe that, if it was a suicide, it had to be an “assisted suicide,” which for them is a euphemism for murder.
Though I have no legal access to crime-scene photos or police and autopsy reports, I got ahold of some of them anyway, and, to be blunt, I think the investigation was bungled. I believe investigators support the suicide theory because it cleans everything up. It makes the notion of a killer in our midst go away.
The county sheriff really helped me out for a couple of months — he was the only law-enforcement officer to do so. Though he’s on record supporting the suicide theory, after having read my book and seen a rough cut of the documentary, he admits that his conclusion is not as firm as it once appeared. He’s in a tough spot. He’s made these public declarations, and he’s not the type to back down or change his position. At the same time it’s obvious he has doubts.
I don’t see how any thinking person who reviews the case can rule this a suicide. When you weigh the voluminous evidence, the suicide scenario weighs about two grams. Murder weighs eighteen pounds.
Powell: Dave Jannetta is making a documentary about the case and about you and your book. Does he reach a different conclusion than you do?
Ballantine: Dave found that his film worked better if he focused on the people and the town. He lets everyone give an opinion and leaves any judgment about what happened to the audience. I’m more inclined to guide the reader.
Powell: Some have suggested that Haataja might have been gay.
Ballantine: The Nebraska State Patrol officers, after their lengthy and costly investigation, declared in their first press conference that there was no evidence to indicate that Steven had been either homosexual or bisexual. But there were rumors that he’d been gay, and the newspapers intimated as much.
Powell: If he was murdered, do you think it was a hate crime?
Ballantine: It’s possible. Eight years before Steven’s death, Matthew Shepard was basically murdered for being gay in Laramie, Wyoming, a High Plains cowboy town two hundred or so miles from here. After Steven’s body had been found, popular opinion was that his murder had also been a hate crime. I have serious doubts about this theory, though, because Chadron is a much more tolerant place than Laramie. We have a diverse population: a New York sheriff, a Hindu newspaper editor, a long-haired county defender. There’s a groovy little liberal-arts college in town and even a gay bar of sorts.
Powell: How did residents of Chadron respond to what you wrote?
Ballantine: Shocking as this might sound, the populace of this small town, where everybody supposedly knows everybody else’s business, was for the most part blissfully unaware that I was writing a book about Steven’s death. I’ve always been good at standing on the edges of the crowd, or even in the middle, and going unnoticed. Every day I would talk for an hour or two with someone about this case, then come home and make notes. But most of my neighbors don’t take me seriously as a writer — another of my blessings. When the book came out, it surprised people around here by its depth and scope, and by the fact that I was telling secrets and speaking with candor about my marriage and myself. So far, responses from local readers have been overwhelmingly — sometimes giddily — positive. For one thing, I’m straightening out the account and putting rumors and gossip to rest. I’ve also painted my town and its residents with some care and affection. Naturally there are a few who aren’t happy: those I’ve identified as potential suspects, for example. I’ve been threatened with three lawsuits, a smear campaign, and a punch in the nose.
Yesterday morning a fancy white car pulled up in front of my house as I was returning from having walked my son to school. Cars and trucks pulling up alongside me or parking in front of me is getting to be a regular occurrence. I never know whether the occupant has a beef or wants an autograph. Anyway, the driver of this car climbed out with my book in hand and asked if I was the author. I said I was. He then began to tell me that I’d hurt his business and his reputation with some seemingly inconsequential detail in my book. He said he’d intended to sue me, but “I could find nothing on you.” (I’m not sure what he meant by that.) So he had decided to sue my publisher instead. I apologized and offered a retraction and reparations, but he would not be consoled. He asked why I hadn’t left the case alone. I said that I thought a good man had been murdered. He told me that no one liked my book or my descriptions of Chadron. Then he climbed angrily back into his car and left.
Powell: What kind of effect does an episode like that have on your writing?
Ballantine: I didn’t get a thing done after he was through with me. I just lay in bed all morning, feeling bad. You know, Thomas Hardy once received a copy of Jude the Obscure ripped to pieces, and it almost made him quit. Richard Brautigan once got one of his books sent to him hollowed out and filled with excrement. That kind of vicious reaction to your work, no matter how you rationalize it or how tough you might be, dilutes your enthusiasm for the writing business.
Powell: Earlier you mentioned that your son was diagnosed with ASD. You were skeptical of the diagnosis. Why?
Ballantine: I once went to school to study psychology — I was going to be a drug counselor — but gradually I rejected the premise that there’s this physical entity called a “mind,” which one day will be mapped and treated as if it were a liver or a thyroid gland. As far as I know, the location of the psyche or the mind, much less its existence, has yet to be determined.
So I was wary of the ASD label for my son. I soon figured out that I could get any diagnosis or medication that I wanted just by taking him to different doctors. The whole business was ambiguous and bizarre: my son went in for one problem, and they discovered all these other so-called disorders and offered hazy solutions for them. The mental-health profession wants to stamp everyone with a label. Where does it stop?
Take my wife, for example. She’s a lot like our son: She’s not social. She’s very literal-minded and hypersensitive. She is ritualistic and becomes angry when her rituals are disturbed. You could put an ASD tag on Cristina and not get much argument, but she leads as full a life as anyone.
Except for a few months of counsel with an autism expert, I’ve managed to keep my son out of the hands of psychologists. This may sound naive, but instead of drugs, I generously applied an old-fashioned remedy called “love,” and my son, who was once friendless, isolated, and struggling in remedial programs, now has friends and is getting As and Bs in a mainstream fifth-grade curriculum.
Powell: You’ve written about having suffered suicidal depression in the past. Do you think you’ll ever experience it again?
Ballantine: At age thirty-eight I had a complete crack-up. It wasn’t mental illness as much as it was a collision with reality. I’d been clinging to this notion that I would write a novel that would rescue me from manual labor and other types of human suffering. I was also “in love,” which at that time for me was a kind of snail-like state in which I worshiped the bottom of a woman’s foot as it was about to step on me. I had gotten myself into student-loan debt and was breaking all my rules about being the free-and-easy vagabond. I was supposed to have become famous by then, or at least to have been in a regular dialogue with an agent in New York, but the novel I’d quit school to finish had turned out no better than any of the others I’d written.
This entire fantasy of love, success, and wearing a velvet jacket in the smoking car on the train shattered before me. The days that followed were a stroll through a house of horrors that ended with an aborted suicide attempt. But that dark period was also my invitation to transformation. When the walls came down, the light broke through, and I had sudden empathy for my fellow man, for the fallibility of being human and the inevitable tragedy of life. By the time I’d recovered, I’d developed a pretty tough armor of scars and a more compatible relationship with reality. But I won’t tempt the gods by declaring that I’ve achieved any kind of invulnerability.
Powell: Do you see a connection between dark moods and madness and the creative impulse?
Ballantine: I do, but I can’t say specifically what the relationship is. In my case I lost my mind only to gain a new one. It was an altogether harrowing trial, but I can’t see it happening any other way. I don’t even number that episode among the worst times of my life, because, although it was extremely difficult, it was the passage I had to make to get where I wanted to go. Anytime you’re venturing into unexplored territory all alone with the intention of coming back with an exotic trophy, you’re probably in for a trouncing, but I don’t see how you can do it and not get hurt.
Powell: What role does morality have in writing?
Ballantine: Novelist Dashiell Hammett likens his detective hero, Sam Spade, to Satan. Hammett’s contemporary Raymond Chandler compares his detective hero, Philip Marlowe, to a knight. I’m always rooting for the knight. So I like Chandler infinitely better than Hammett. Chandler’s more lyrical and much funnier. His eye is better, and he writes with more color and sympathy and heart. Chandler’s detective breaks the rules and does things his own way, but he’s always working for a higher cause.
We all have moral choices to make. We can go out into the world with reckless disregard for anyone but ourselves as we struggle to get what we want, or we can help and teach one another.
Powell: Do you get compared much to author Charles Bukowski?
Ballantine: More than to any other writer, and he and I do have a lot in common: we’re both Southern California, working-class, confessional types who write about the gritty side of life in a realistic and (I hope) humorous way. His style has obviously rubbed off on me, but I never consciously imitated Bukowski the way I did Capote and Robert Penn Warren, and I’d like to think I’m more polished and thoughtful and a better horse player than Bukowski.
Powell: Where do your beliefs fall on the political spectrum?
Ballantine: I left home a liberal, and I’m still somewhat left of center, but I’ve drifted to the right over the years. I’ve lived among the poor most of my adult life, and I’ve seen how complacent and helpless people can get when they’re given things they didn’t work for. If someone had given me a big grant when I was struggling to become a writer, I suspect it would’ve stunted my development and probably prevented me from hitting that long patch of disaster that finally propelled me across the threshold.
That said, too many of us are whipped into a frenzy about unfounded beliefs. And most political opinions are based on self-interest and fear. If we want to solve problems and improve people’s lives, it has to be done rationally, not emotionally. And it can’t be done from a Right or Left position, my team versus your team.
I have a number of acquaintances who believe President Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The other night we were sitting in the living room of a retired judge who asked my Mexican wife, in an almost accusing way, what she thought about immigration. He seemed to think America’s problems are all caused by immigrants and the poor. To my mind what’s great about America are its immigrants and its poor.
In a free society there will always be some on either extreme who, if given the chance, will subvert the system to tyranny. I’m in favor of letting those two factions, the hard Left and the hard Right, cancel each other out. I don’t ride the middle because it’s comfortable. I do it because my job as a writer is to observe from a distance, to report, and to lift the mood of the oppressed when I can.
In my own life I don’t have strong feelings about subjects that stimulate passionate disagreement among others. Capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, and genetically altering rhododendrons are all great subjects of debate on CNN or at the bar, but I can take either side of any of these arguments. I’m more interested in a carefully weighed examination than I am in a snap judgment, in part because most of these big questions don’t have categorical answers. I’m also content to admit my ignorance and defer to those who know better.
Getting smashed to bits gave me humility, gratitude, and the ability to love and appreciate my fellow humans. Everyone gets smashed to bits; it’s your best opportunity to grow.
Powell: Which offers more to you personally: fiction or nonfiction?
Ballantine: I started out writing fiction, and I wrote only that for a long time. Then I found out that I could get paid more for nonfiction. So I applied my understanding of mood, character, dialogue, pacing, and voice to my exploits on the road. Once I’d done that, nonfiction came easily. True stories are not necessarily easier to write than made-up ones, but they have more potential for intimacy and a certain power. Readers have visceral responses to my nonfiction work, whereas I don’t get a lot of letters about my fiction.
Powell: You once wrote an essay, “The Irving,” about feeling anger and envy toward more-successful writers. You’ve garnered a bit more fame yourself since then. Do you still feel the same envy?
Ballantine: “The Irving” was more of a rant about my disappointment with the literary scene and the connection between the universities and their designated celebrities. As far as my fame is concerned: Really? I made ten thousand dollars from my writing last year and seven thousand the year before that. I’m still consistently described as “unknown” or “obscure.”
Powell: You do have some loyal fans.
Ballantine: A few readers have actually come to Chadron to meet me, which is strange. I believe most writers should be read and not seen, which is one of the things that attracted me to writing in the first place. I’ve developed some limited celebrity here in town because of Love & Terror, but my previous four books went unnoticed by my neighbors, as they did by almost everyone else. By and large Chadronites preferred to think of me as a janitor or a cook, which I was and probably soon will be again. But now that I’ve stirred the pot, naming names in a mysterious death, most of the townspeople have read, are reading, or are going to read Love & Terror, after which they will stop by my house to tell me what they think or yell at me from the windows of their pickup trucks. Constant interaction with strangers who feel strongly one way or another about my work is unnerving. I recently deactivated my Facebook and Twitter accounts for this reason. I don’t want fame. Wealth would be all right, just to see what it’s like, but not fame.
Powell: You lived for years in Mexico. Did being an expatriate change how you view the U.S.?
Ballantine: One theme that appears repeatedly in my work is the search for a place where I might belong, as if geography has anything to do with it. In my few years in Mexico I learned that, as much as I loved it, I didn’t belong there. I’m an American whether I like it or not, and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I forgive my country for not being perfect.
Powell: Do you think you’ll ever go back to Mexico to live, or another foreign country?
Ballantine: If my wife wanted to return to Mexico, I’d go with her. I think I’d enjoy living in Scotland or southern France, but I’ve never had enough money to do that.
Powell: Except for your time teaching English in Mexico, you’ve always worked with your hands to support yourself. How has that affected your writing? Would you recommend that lifestyle to other writers?
Ballantine: I would recommend to other writers whatever life comes naturally to them. Honesty is your most powerful and persuasive tool. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and still live among working-class people in a small house with a slumped roof across the street from the railroad tracks. Though the working class constitute the vast majority of the population, we are woefully underrepresented in literature and the arts, except on TV as police officers or people sitting on couches insulting one another. We’re often portrayed as rubes and slobs. Dickens was kind to us, but he had no inkling of what we did. Truth be told, I’ve met many more interesting and intelligent people in blue-collar environments than I have in universities.
Powell: You’ve said that there are three basic types of writers.
Ballantine: There are the “eye writers” — the stylists whose descriptions go on for pages. Willa Cather and John Updike come to mind. Then there are the “ear writers,” who rely on rhythm and sound and seem to me better grounded in story. Perhaps this has to do with the oral and musical origins of storytelling. Finally there are the “idea writers,” who report to us their views of the world in stylized lectures. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are representatives of this category. No one of these categories entirely excludes another. I’m a rhythm writer who likes to discuss ideas.
Powell: Tell me about your writing habits and methods.
Ballantine: I try to write three or four hours every morning. I don’t like taking days off or vacations. I’m always worried that I’ll leave the house, get hit by a train, and not be able to finish my current project. I hold off on food until I start to daydream about black-bean burritos with bacon. I drink buckets of coffee. I have no set goals or daily minimums. I work on what interests me, because that’s the only way I can stick with a project that might take ten years to complete. If I’m putting up new material, I write as fast as I can to outrun the buzz saw of consciousness. After I’ve framed a piece, I’ll put it away for a long while, then drag it out and read it, hoping I can trick myself into objectivity. I like to have ten projects going at once, so when one stalls or fails, I can switch to another. And my pieces have a very high mortality rate.
Powell: Any advice to aspiring writers?
Ballantine: Find something you’re passionate about, preferably not politics. Be prepared to get dragged through the desert tied by one leg to a pickup truck full of chimpanzees. Drive your friends crazy by reading your work aloud to them. Stay open to experience, and realize that most of your years of effort will look like failure. You won’t be alone in your failure, but it will feel like it. Even if you’re good, the odds are stacked against you. Win the Pulitzer if you can, but don’t kill yourself if you can’t. Teach only if you have to. Comfort will never be your ally. And think of Gene Roddenberry, who wrote one bungled script after another before Star Trek launched him into the stars.
Powell: You’re fond of saying that you don’t know anything.
Ballantine: Only because it’s true.
Powell: Yet you have no compunctions about proclaiming your views on the big subjects like God and cosmology.
Ballantine: I wouldn’t say I have any real theory on any of that, because I don’t know. How can anyone know? Every major belief system, including so-called nonbelief systems such as atheism and nihilism, is built upon a fantastic premise: All matter exploded and congealed somehow into you and me and Hootie and the Blowfish. God inseminated a virgin whose child saved the world. A frog hiccuped and the prairies blossomed. I can’t come up with a better story than those, so I remain an astounded witness to a vast mystery arranged in remarkable order.
Through experience and skepticism I’ve arrived pretty much at what the conventional religions teach: A central moral code. A belief not only in forces creative and destructive but also regenerative. An embrace of sacrifice. Little in the way of wisdom and enlightenment came for Jonah until he was swallowed by that fish, and it was the same for me until I was swallowed by reality. Getting smashed to bits gave me humility, gratitude, and the ability to love and appreciate my fellow humans. Everyone gets smashed to bits; it’s your best opportunity to grow.
Powell: You’ve written so much about America. Where do you think the country is headed?
Ballantine: I’ve never been good at predicting the future. I suspect, however, that the purely mythological nature of the republic is enough to sustain it for a spell. America will endure, I propose, because immigrants, the oppressed, the freedom-and-fortune seekers, and Swedish punk bands still believe it is the promised land and a good place to make a stand.