On the Books: J.J. Anselmi

Fresno State MFA alumnus J.J. Anselmi
Fresno State MFA alumnus J.J. Anselmi

Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The second installment profiles J.J. Anselmi. His writing has appeared in The A.V. Club, CVLT Nation, The Quietus and elsewhere.

In an interview earlier this month, MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with J.J. about rewriting a finished first draft while staying true to your voice, un-learning how to be a shithead, and defending the place where you live and write.

Jefferson: When were you in the Fresno State MFA program?

J.J.: I started in 2011, and I graduated in 2014 in creative nonfiction.

Jefferson: What were your first thoughts when you learned your first book would be published?

J.J.: Definitely excitement. Also, a little disbelief. After you work on something for so long, you have a lot of hopes that it’ll get published. But then, getting the actual message that it will be in the world, you know, didn’t seem quite real. Even though I knew it was, there’s still an element of it that it didn’t seem like it would actually happen, because I’d been hoping for it for so long. Then I got the actual galley. For me, that’s when it really became concrete.

Jefferson: I know that your book grew out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript. What was the process was like for you, taking what was your thesis and making it into something more, a full book?

J.J.: The thesis was pretty close, in terms of just raw structure and content, to what’s in the book. I came into the MFA program with a rough draft of it that I’d finished after my undergrad. During the first semester, I realized that I needed to rewrite the entire thing.

Once that did happen, it did take the thesis form. Getting it into the book form was less of a jump than that initial rewrite. It was really, at that point, just a lot of fine tuning, editing, and really asking myself what needed to be there in terms of smaller parts and stuff like that.

Jefferson: Can you say more about that initial rewrite? You come into the program thinking, this is why I’m here. I’ve got this draft. So what was it like when you realized, oh wait, this isn’t actually what I thought it was?

J.J.: It was a little discouraging at first, but I’m so glad that I did it. The first draft of what I had definitely had a lot of the features that [faculty] John Hales and Steven Church kind of talk about. You know, some of the potential downfalls of memoir, especially memoir on the mainstream level. So there was a lot of telling my story with the assumption that the reader would care, just for the simple fact that I was writing it.

But I realized in John’s workshop, the first one that I took, with the help of my [grad student] colleagues, that in a good personal essay and book you have to tell the reader in some way, whether it be subtly or overtly, why they should care about your story and your reflections. I realized that that first draft just kind of assumed that the reader would be interested in me for the simple fact of the writing, or maybe the quirky nature of the story.

So, I realized in John and Steven’s workshops that I really had to make the examination larger in a few different ways and kind of look at it from a more universal angle. Really from a reader’s perspective, what somebody could gain or learn from my insights about my own story.

Jefferson: I’d like to ask you about your book’s title, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music. I’m assuming you’re going to get this question: Why use the expletive in the title? It seems like a very intentional inclusion. Why include it?

J.J.: On the most simple level, I feel like it’s an attention grabber. But it’s also a hint of my own voice now, as well as the voice that appears throughout the book when I was growing up as a teenager and getting into metal. That’s part of it, the use of expletives or anything that rebels in any way possible, whether it’s in silly, superficial ways or more meaningful, ideological ways.

That’s a long way of saying that it’s trying to stay true to the voice of the book.

J.J. Anselmi’s Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music is out this month from Rare Bird Books
J.J. Anselmi’s Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music is out this month from Rare Bird Books

Jefferson: Heavy is being published by Rare Bird Books. How did you find out about them? What drew you to their work, and what about them seemed like a good possible fit for your book?

J.J.: When I finished the MFA and I had my thesis manuscript, I was pretty rabidly searching for any publisher that I thought would even look at the manuscript. You know, any publishers that looked at unsolicited submissions, because I don’t have an agent.

With Rare Bird, I remembered from a few years back they had published a book by Jerry Stahl called Bad Sex on Speed. I remembered that title and kind of thought well, you know, that sounds similar, as far as looking at some kind of underbelly of a subculture. And so, I ordered the book. Once I read it, I really got into the voice-heavy narrative of it. I looked at more stuff on their website, ordered another book or two. I realized pretty quickly that it would be an ideal fit, in a lot of ways.

They publish a lot of books that, like I said, look at different subcultures, especially the more experiential perspective of somebody who has either lived or grown up in that subculture. I also immediately loved the design-heavy approach that they have to their books. They definitely stand out from pretty much every other publisher’s books that I’ve ever seen.

So, once I ordered a few books and sent them my proposal, I kind of had a feeling that it would happen. Once I got an email from Tyson Cornell, the publisher, requesting more material, after I’d initially sent in the proposal and sample, he requested the whole manuscript. I really started to get my hopes up. It felt like the perfect fit.

But then I also started to worry. If they didn’t take it – I was getting rejected by at least a dozen publishers at that point. Once I realized how good of a fit it would be, I started to get kind of paranoid. Thinking like, well what if they don’t take it? This is the perfect publisher. I knew I’d be really heartbroken if they didn’t take it, and so luckily they did.

Jefferson: I noticed that the imprint, specifically, for your book with Rare Bird is what they call A Barnacle Book. It’s described as “fine, cutting edge works.” Why would you say that your book fits the imprint’s description?

J.J.: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to think of it as cutting edge because in a lot of ways, it has a real linear structure. I guess maybe, a little bit, for the fact of it being a memoir in personal essays. But after doing the MFA program, it’s hard to think of my book as cutting edge, after looking at so much of the history of creative nonfiction and knowing that people have been doing something really similar since the 1920s or earlier, really.

Jefferson: That’s a humble response.

J.J.: Thanks. I think it fits into the fine, cutting edge description in that it’s a literary approach to a different subject matter that people might consider being edgy in some ways, I guess. You know, drug use, and sexuality, and mental illness – and heavy metal, obviously. So all these kinds of different sort-of fringe communities, people on the outskirts of the different levels of society. Hopefully, it’s a fine literary approach to that subject matter.

Jefferson: On the subject of metal. Are you familiar with author John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats? His band is an indie rock band, but he’s a huge metal fan, and that comes out in his writing.

J.J.: I haven’t listened to a whole lot of the Mountain Goats. But I’ve read his 33 1/3 book about the Black Sabbath album Master of Reality. It’s amazing. I haven’t read a lot of the other 33 1/3 titles, but from what I’ve checked out, his is very different. It’s this weird fiction approach of a kid in a mental institution basically arguing why he should get his Black Sabbath album back.

That book was actually a pretty huge influence. I remember finding it as an undergrad. I didn’t really know of too many creative writers who had written about heavy metal. I saw the book in a record store and of course I had to buy it. I just really loved the voice. It’s sarcastic in some ways, but I think it’s also genuine in that I’m pretty sure that John Darnielle really loves Black Sabbath and that album.

Jefferson: Who are some of your other influential music authors? Do any of them write about metal?

J.J.: Yes, I would definitely include Elena Passarello and Laina Dawes in my list. Elena has an uncanny ability to make the reader hear the music and sounds she describes, even if you’ve never actually listened to these things. And Laina writes clearly and elegantly about the ways in which heavy metal could be more inclusive for women and people of color.

Jefferson: Beyond your book, what work are you doing outside of writing, to make a living?

J.J.: I’m working as an adjunct English instructor at St. Paul College where I live in Minnesota. When I was in California, I was an adjunct instructor at the Madera Center [for State Center Community College District] and at College of the Sequoias in Visalia. So yes, continuing the teaching work here.

I just recently got hired as a literacy coordinator at Luxton Park Community Center in Minneapolis. I’m basically working with kids, grades K through 5, in an after-school program. I’m doing some literacy stuff with them, but also just kind of hanging out, playing games.

Jefferson: Thinking back to when you were in the Fresno State MFA program, aside from what you learned in the workshops about your writing, what else about your experience in the program has stuck with you after graduation?

J.J.: To me, the Fresno State MFA was almost just as much about coursework and workshops as it was about facing my own privilege. Really looking at a different area of the country that I had very little experience with or knowledge of. My only experience with California before was Southern California and the suburbs of San Diego.

Fresno State and also Fresno, the city itself, are very interesting. I learned a lot about what’s at stake with urban sprawl, economic recession, how important a downtown center can be and what can happen when people abandon that center, and also learning about all the different cultures that comprise Fresno and its complicated history.

I feel like a lot of my MFA experience was about opening my eyes to experiences that were very different from my own. A lot of that happened just riding my bike around Fresno, looking at the city and trying to learn about it, and also in my classes at Fresno State. I was trying to best teach students who grew up in completely different ways than I did. Basically trying to learn as much as I could about who they were, so I could serve them.

So I guess a shorter answer to that is, the Fresno State MFA for me was learning to not be a shithead. It’s being with super smart colleagues. It’s being – not called out, necessarily – but just getting a lot smarter, facing privilege and my own approach to people.

Jefferson: Where are you originally from in Wyoming? Where did you get your undergraduate degree?

J.J.: Rock Springs, originally. I did my undergrad at the University of Colorado, Denver, in English with a focus on fiction writing.

Jefferson: In hindsight, is there anything about your time in the program in Fresno that you would have done differently?

J.J.: I can’t really think of anything in particular that I regret with Fresno. I’m really happy that I went, for a bunch of different reasons and for meeting all of my amazing colleagues.

I guess I tend to gravitate to places and toward people that – I don’t know. Fresno, you know, it’s not Iowa. It’s not the most prestigious MFA. But coming into it from that perspective, and then going to places like the AWP Conference and encountering different levels of snobbery, feeling like I had to kind of defend the Fresno State MFA. It gave me a good perspective on the writing world. It just made me work a lot harder.

Fresno, to me, was a great place to write and I had tons of time to do it.

Jefferson: That classic Fresno aesthetic from Philip Levine: what work is.

J.J.: Yes, exactly. And that’s one of the other things, where I felt like I identified with Fresno pretty immediately. There’s this kind of very blue-collar feel to it that reminded me a lot of Wyoming.

And so, it was different in a lot of ways, but it was also similar, this area of California that isn’t the most desirable. Wyoming definitely, and especially Rock Springs, felt that way to me. It’s a boomtown. Kind of revolved around coal mining, and now hydraulic fracturing. So it definitely doesn’t have the best reputation in the state and the surrounding states.

When people talk about Wyoming it’s usually more about Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, much like when you talk about California it’s typically not about Fresno, it’s Los Angeles or San Francisco or Yosemite. So I guess I already had that kind of chip on my shoulder, of knowing what it’s like to defend a place that people tend to sort of write off or have kind of a sarcastic or snobby view of.

Jefferson: Heavy comes out online Jan. 19 and your official book release event is Jan. 26 at Common Good Books in Minneapolis. In addition to supporting the book, what are you working on now? What’s your next writing project?

J.J.: Lately I’ve been doing some music journalism, a little bit heavier on the journalistic approach than the writing that appears in the book. [There’s also this piece on gun violence for Salon this past November.] I do have an idea for a second book. I don’t know how rough it is. But I know generally what it’s going to be. One of my goals this year is to make significant headway with that, start the research process. It’s going to be a lot of looking at my family history and doing interviews.

In Heavy, I talk about my family’s reputation, people in Rock Springs thinking that we were part of the mafia, which was also part of this 60 Minutes episode that Dan Rather did about my grandpa. So the new book, the second one, is going to be a lot more about different rumors and dealing with these myths surrounding my family. But it will be grounded in a narrative about my second cousin, who also appears in Heavy. So, going a lot more into depth of the story about him, living in Rock Springs, when we were both just fuck-ups essentially.

I was working for this vending machine company and we were both very much the black sheep of our own family – in a family that was disreputable in some ways – and we were these outliers, these rejects that the rest of the family didn’t really want to deal with. The second book is going to be a lot about that.

Jefferson: What writing by journalists, music or otherwise, is inspiring you right now?

J.J.: Yes, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s writing has been super influential. He finds that great balance between narrative and personal reflection, and also going into depth about different pieces of music or pieces of culture in general. I’m really influenced by his approach.

I recently started writing for The A.V. Club and one of the writers on there that I like has been Jason Heller, one of their senior writers. He’s a novelist also. He just has this amazing knack for sentences and describing heavy and abrasive music in these really compelling ways, to the point where I feel like his writing about a particular album is almost, if not more, as interesting as the actual album. He has been a huge influence. I was lucky. We both worked in the same warehouse in Denver. It was cool to get to know him on a personal level, and then once I realized he’s an amazing musician and writer, I kind of became a fanboy at that point, and I still am in a lot of ways.

Jefferson: See, more Fresno aesthetic, right? It’s good to just work in a warehouse sometimes.

J.J.: Yeah, for sure. That warehouse especially was pretty cool. I didn’t know anybody who worked in this book warehouse when I got the job, but then once I started working there, I realized that three of my favorite musicians in Denver worked there. So I basically got to become friends with, to me, people who were these rock stars.

Jefferson: Is there anything else you’d like to add, about your book, about your time in Fresno, or about anything else?

J.J.: I just can’t underscore enough how thankful I am of John Hales for doing as much work as he did on that manuscript, editing constantly and providing me with so many different suggestions. He really is the unpaid editor of the work, which I say in the acknowledgments.

Also Steven Church, for providing invaluable feedback along the way and for giving me the idea on how to start the book, which was hugely important. The whole idea I had to start was pretty horrible in a lot of ways, so I’m very thankful for Steven’s idea.

And I guess, going back to the influence of Fresno as a whole, I can’t say enough how thankful I am to have gotten in contact with everybody I had in different workshops. People came together from all sorts of different places, and I know that I met colleagues and friends in Fresno that had these different life experiences, but you wouldn’t encounter that in a lot of MFAs. So this book definitely would not have taken the shape it has if it wasn’t for the Fresno State MFA.

Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the creative writing program. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the program in creative nonfiction.

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