An interview with Ian Frazier
Nonfiction writer Ian Frazier is often ranked up there with his New Yorker predecessors A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. But, happily, he puts his own unique, funny, baby-boomer spin on everything he does. Via an essay like "Bags in Trees," about his adventures freeing trees of those plaguey plastic bags and building a 50-foot "bag-snagger,"™ he documents details often overlooked and meets people who've become completely unguarded through the sheer force of Frazier's charm.
Frazier has written eight books, including Great Plains, a heavily researched, personal response to traveling through America's West, and On the Rez, a first-person commentary about the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His latest, Gone to New York, is a collection of essays that cover his arrival in New York, fresh from Ohio, in the '70s, and his adopted city's dramatic transformation following 9/11. I recently had a chance to speak with him about his life in writing.
Gone to New York spans four decades of the city's history and your own. How have things changed?
I first came to New York in the middle of May after they had just finished building the Twin Towers. The father of a friend of mine took us on a tour there. There was still dirt around them and those two things rising out of the dirt were so weird. I looked at those buildings and said, "Why did they build that building twice?" It was sort of a smart-ass question. But I just did not realize how ... how fragile that was. You think, well, you build it, it's done, and it's there forever, you know? But it's not.
How does an idea interest you enough to write about it?
Well, usually it's if I see something that makes me think, "OK, there's something to this." I had an idea for a long time to do a parody of the Book of Job because it's actually a hilarious book of the Bible. It's so ridiculous what happens to Job. It's like a slapstick comedy—“Oh, no! Pow!" It's like SNL's Mr. Bill, "Oh, Nooooooo!"
Throughout your work--Jim Derren in "An Angler at Heart," Le War Lance in On The Rez and Martin Tytell in "Typewriter Man,"--there are warm portrayals of your subjects. Do you keep in touch with any of them?
I haven't heard from Mr. Tytell for a couple of years. He retired. Derren died shortly after the piece came out. I am still in touch, for better or worse, with Le War Lance. I should just do a collection of letters from Le War Lance because when you read them it's like, again, the Book of Job. He sent me a letter a few months ago that he had been in a car accident. He totaled up his expenses and it came to $1.2 million. And whether that's true or not, by the time you get to $1.2 million, it's like, Wow, that's quite a hospital bill. But, yeah, I'm still in touch with Le and his brother.
What do your kids think about your writing?
I read "Lamentations of the Father" on A Prairie Home Companion and then I went home and listened to the broadcast with my family. During the reading I said the part about "though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table." Thomas, who was about maybe 5 at the time, was listening to it, and he said, "You know, I do that."
He didn't know it was about him, huh?
No. It was just like this coincidence to him--you know, “Isn't it incredible? I've done that." After a meal, I used go downstairs and make notes. I was driving one time, and I had just bought the groceries. The kids were in the backseat, and they had taken out a loaf of bread, still in its plastic bag, and were rubbing their feet in it. I saw it and said, "Don't rub your feet on bread." I thought what a bizarre sentence, and when I got home I wrote it down.
How do you come up with your metaphors?
Some you think of and you know you'll use them at some point. When I was a kid my neighbors across the street had a bat get in their house, and they all freaked out completely. One of the brothers caught the bat and got rid of it and the family calmed down. His big brother was walking up the stairs, and the kid who caught the bat took a black sock and threw it down the stairs at him. And the brother screamed, "Ahhhhhh!" When I was writing Great Plains I was watching the crows in Montana and I remembered that story, so I said in Great Plains something like, "The storm blew in and crows crossed the sky before it like thrown black socks." But I'd had that since childhood.
Something about your essays reminds me of the way certain writers, like Joseph Mitchell and John McPhee, for example, take an everyday subject and make it fascinating. Who are some of your influences and what about them interests you?
Well, McPhee is a good example. I was with him last year. We were fishing on the Delaware River, and we drove past one of those grain elevators. He said there's a main control room where an operator can punch buttons and can make a mix of different kinds of grain. So you can order 20 percent rye and 10 percent Tennessee grass and this kind of thing and get a mixture. I asked him how he knew that, and he said, "I went up there and asked." He's just curious, you know? He's in his mid-seventies and his curiosity is still just as if he was 8. He's still wondering, "How does that happen?"