To you, what is GOAT really about? Is it an indictment of the fraternity system? Or is it a story of survival? Or is it a look at the way young men come of age?
I suppose GOAT is about all of those things and each aspect is somewhat interesting to me. But GOAT is a story, first and foremost, one I tried to tell in a true and different way. I never set out to write a polemic, but I do hope people might read it and think a little more about the ways we hurt each other. Violence, in any form, is something each of us deals with-sanctioned, random, public, personal—they’re all expressions of the same base thing.
What is it about the need to belong that makes people go to such extremes to be a part of something?
I think there’s a great deal of pressure to belong, to feel that you are doing the right thing with your life, in your own eyes, in the eyes of your parents and the people in your town. Go to college, be well adjusted, get a job, sell something, make money, join the country club. I knew lots of people who thought about which sorority or fraternity they'd join while they were still in high school. It'’s a dangerous sort of pressure, I think, and it doesn't just come from friends; it’s teachers, parents, neighbors.
How do you feel now about Sheepland and the members of that fraternity?
Sheepland occupies an important place for me. My father was there. His father went there. I still love going to football games there, the pageantry of it all, the excitement. That's never really changed for me. It excited me as a child and a young man. It excites me now.
I don’t really feel good or bad about members of the fraternity. I don’t know any of them any more on any significant level. Maybe they’ll read the book and connect with it.
Have recent hazing stories in the press affected you?
They always affect me. Hazing is about humiliation and power, someone being in a position to degrade someone else, and any time that happens, any way humiliation is expressed, it’s damaging, and one of the cruelest ways we interact.
Have the events in GOAT shaped your relationship with your brother, Marvin Goat, and with the rest of your family?
Very much so. It’s colored everything since it happened. But my family is, and always has been, my center. Marvin and I have always been close, and what happened made us understand one another better, it helped us know the other in a way we hadn't before. I’ve had people read the book and ask me questions like “why did Marvin do that do you?” But I never felt the book presented that sort of relationship; it feels to me, rather, that we did things to each other, good and bad. Marvin and I both went through those things, but we experienced them in different ways. We both made the choices we felt we had to make.
How have the events depicted in GOAT affected you in the intervening years? How have they affected your writing?
I’ve always been a generally nervous person. What happened heightened that tendency. It’s something I deal with every day, really, but I'm at a pretty good place with what happened now.
As far as the writing goes, I tried to fictionalize the events in the first part of the book but it always felt false, like I didn’t have the perspective to write about it in any way at all. And a few years after that, during a summer when I was living in Goatville, I just started writing the second half of the book. I’d spent a year in graduate school writing a little bit and reading all the memoirs I could get my hands on. Now it seems like what I was doing was preparation, figuring out where the story fit and how to tell it.
Was writing GOAT cathartic for you?
The word cathartic has always been attached to memoir, I think, because of its personal nature, but really, all writing, any act of creation, for me, would have that side. But it's a part of the process, not something I think writing is really about.
I don’t think art is about solving one's own psychology-if that happens along the way, good-but I’ve never approached writing with catharsis at my primary concern. That’s self-help, not art.
The memoir is just a form, and like other forms, it carries certain constraints and expectations. My goal was always to make a book that does something different with form, with language, with tone. A book that makes people rethink those expectations and constraints.
Clearly, readers are reacting as much to the writing as to the story.
Yes, the story is something people respond to. It’s hard and scary. But so far people have commented equally on the voice, the way the story is told. As a writer, that's what I hope people latch onto-the language, the style, the experimentation. But I'm not a fan of experimentation simply for its own sake, to be cool or new. I think successful experimental writing comes from knowing the rules, knowing the body of nonfiction, knowing how other writers (poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction) have done things, and why, reading everything and anything with a critical eye, and always bringing those things to the craft of writing.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a few things—some essay-type things. I don’t really know what to call them, these short nonfiction prose pieces. Maybe call it experimental journalism. I’m also working on a novel that has punk rock bands in it. And pop songs. The state of Florida is also in the book, which I like, because I think Colorado is a good state. There’s an airplane. And cars. A commune. Lots of trees and sun.
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