This summer Florida writer Sarah Viren sat down with Texas writer Clinton Crockett Peters to talk about misfits, the grotesque, and what it means to write from the borderlands of the South.
Both writers have new essay collections out this year. Peters’ book, Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, spirals around creatures in the Lone Star State that humans don’t get along with, such as rattlesnakes, the Texas snow monkeys, prairie dogs, and sharks. Sarah’s collection Mine considers ownership and loss through essays about dead possums, ex-gay conferences, murder ballads, and a Galveston futon that once belonged to Robert Durst.
Sarah Viren: Our essay collections are quite different in some ways—yours is about invasive species, or “misfits of ecology,” and mine about ownership and loss—but one thing we have in common is that we both write from and about Florida and Texas. It makes sense that your book has so much about Texas because you’re from there. But why is there so much Florida? When I was reading, I often found myself saying “another Florida creature!”
Clinton Crockett Peters: It might be a “if you grow it, I’ll come.” Florida just kept having the things I was drawn to: kudzu, Florida panthers, cockroaches, the stinking cedar (also called the Florida torreya). All these things happen to be in Florida. If they were in Georgia, maybe I would have gone there and written about the Peach State more. It was just happenstance, and maybe it just says something about how Florida has all these dynamic things happening. Ecologically, Florida is really long North-South and East-West, so you’re bound to have a lot of dynamism I guess.
SV: Another interesting thing about Texas and Florida is that they really are misfit states: they’re both Southern states and then they kind of aren’t; they’re part of the US and yet they’re often derided by other Americans. So, to me, they seem like particularly appropriate places from which to write an essay. Because essayists are also misfits. We are these outsiders who don’t quite fit in. Nobody knows how to define us. Some people might even say we’re an invasive species. I’m not sure if you agree, but that’s something else I was thinking about while reading your book.
CCP: I’ve always been drawn to the misfits because they’re not beautiful, because they’re stinky, because people kind of hate them and dislike them. Essays seem perfect for this subject matter because they are so amorphous, and there’s a long essay tradition of cataloging the weird, going back to Montaigne and cannibals and Sei Shōnagon and “Hateful Things.” I think it’s because essays, with their whimsy, are good for examining at a slant things that are awesome but seem undesirable. Kudzu, for instance, is pretty fantastical. It can grow literally a foot in 24 hours and make a 300-pound taproot and kill forests. I love assuming the misfit has a place at the table and that this is normal and rolling with it. I think it changes perception. But what about you? Do you share this, this love or at least appreciation of misfits? It seems like from your book you do. You write about a mom who kills her kids and about a serial killer. These are misfits of a kind, right?
SV: Totally! I used to say for a while that I wrote about whatever or whomever everyone else abhors. When I was a kid, during the first Iraq war, I was the only person in my middle school in Tampa to come to the defense of Saddam Hussein. Everyone else was saying he was evil, and I argued that no one is completely evil. “At least he didn’t kill his wife!” That was my defense of him, which wasn’t all that effective, but still, I think that instinct—to come to the defense of whoever everyone else has decided is disgusting or inhuman—has stuck with me as I’ve become a writer.
And so, yes, essays in my collection are about murderers, infanticide, incest, dead possums, and gays—and also one essay is about ex-gays, people who are often rejected by both the queer community and religious folks. I think growing up queer has made me particularly in tune to the misfit perspective. I know what it is like to have people think I am disgusting. A woman in Texas once said that to my face, in fact. She didn’t realize I was a lesbian, and she saw something on TV about gay marriage and she turned to me and said, “Isn’t that disgusting?” as if we would agree.
Part of what I want to do as an essayist, really, is create a space for misfits, for us. I see that in your work, too. You write about the idea of contact zones, that place where the self meets the other, and I really liked that image. I’d say we both have a determination in our writing to not “other” something or someone. For instance, I’m thinking about an essay I wrote about a woman who killed her children, which is a different form of the abhorred than, say, your essay about cockroaches—but both are mediating on the abhorred. And yet what is attractive about those subjects is that, while we may want to “other” the cockroaches and we want to “other” the woman who kills her teenage children, we can never really do that. Because we all realize, somewhere inside of us—even if we won’t admit it to ourselves—that we could have ended up a child murderer or that we’re kind of like cockroaches.
CCP: I love how you put that. Personally, I like being drawn to the projected shadowy side of America or an individual psyche or even an animal. I think it’s part of the individual self that is othering when people are grossed out or disgusted. In my cockroaches essay, I write about a Miami guy who ate a bunch of cockroaches and died from it while winning a contest because he really wanted the python that was the prize. Had he not died he would be a kind of amazing guy in context. He ate a literal bucketful of roaches. I have to wonder, if I was that guy and I wanted that python that bad, and I was in Florida where people did these kinds of things, would I really make a different choice?
Another great example is the guys in charge of the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup in Texas that annually kill literally tons of snakes. It’s a pretty horrific event, but most of the men do it as a bonding experience with the other guys there. It’s akin to a hunting trip; it’s just what they do. If you’re around other guys who skin and eat animals and have done so for decades, it feels pretty normal.
SV: The scene with the skinning of the rattlesnakes and then the guy, in Florida of course, who choked to death eating roaches, are both pretty grotesque. The guy who ate the roaches is also very Florida to me. It’s part of the Florida mythology that we have so many people who will willingly do awful, disgusting, gross things. Thinking of how the South is associated with the grotesque, why did you want to include those elements?
CCP: I think in an essay about cockroaches, the reader is perversely expecting it, so I wanted to meet expectations. I think people want the grotesque too, in a weird way, because we’re biologically hard-wired for it. I talk about this in the Godzilla essay in my collection, about why we love monster movies: partially because I think we’re still hardwired to be prey. I think we’re also hardwired to be grossed out and if we aren’t, we have a kind of neurological unease. This is why, maybe, people watch torture porn movies and the like. Maybe it’s the train-wreck phenomenon. It’s also a point of confusion and mystery that I think draws people in. It might have to do with the impending doom of our mortality, the sense of doubt about our individual goodness or cleanness. How about you? How did you see your writing contributing to or working against Florida/Texas/Southern mythology, grotesque or otherwise?
SV: There’s one essay in my book that’s about “Tom Dooley,” that song by the Kingston Trio—a murder ballad, really—and in that essay I was really interested in the way murder ballads serve as cautionary tales. They were the true crime of that era. They tell awful, grotesque stories, and we listen for two reasons: One is that, like you said, we’re hardwired to want the train wreck. But with murder ballads, I think we also want to reinforce our superego. We have a natural tendency to police ourselves. And especially for women, these ballads seem like a way of being trained to police our bodies, of being taught to be careful, to be scared. And in that essay what I was trying to figure out was why—then—I would sing that song to my daughter when she was a baby. Why did I want to pass on that tradition of loving the train-wreck, of learning to be scared? And I don’t know, really. I mean in that essay my major conclusion was just that the song worked. My daughter calmed down when I sang it. She stopped crying. Which is a contradiction, I know. But then life is a contradiction. So, yeah, I think that in meditating on the grotesque, one thing we can do is give it more room to breathe, so that it isn’t just a stereotype. Instead it’s those bloody handprints that you talk about in the rattlesnake essay—that image to me was really emblematic of the beauty we can find in even the grossest situations. And I suppose that’s one way we can push against any attempt to mythologize, or disown, a place or a people—or a species. By painting them with enough detail that they can’t easily be confused with anything or anyone else.
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