Book Awards E-MAIL US

Phoenix: A Brother's Life
J.D. Dolan
Alfred A. Knopf
195 pp.

Amazon.com order now logo



The Wag Chats with
J.D. Dolan

Short story writer and memoirist J.D. Dolan discusses the pleasures of writing a book-length narrative, the drawbacks of the memoirs genre and why a novel can sometimes be easier to write than nonfiction.

You've published short fiction (indeed, your first published piece was a short story), but for your first book, you chose nonfiction. What motivated you to write a memoir?

Dolan: I wanted to write a short piece about my brother's death—maybe twenty pages—because it had been haunting me for years. I ended up writing about fifty pages. But what I came up with was sketchy at best. As a fiction writer, I was confident I could write a story, but I wasn't confident I could write this story. Still, this seemed to be a story I had to write, and one that would suffer if I fictionalized it. To my mind, you fictionalize something to make it more true. This story was already plenty true enough.

WAG: A related question: One of the more intriguing aspects of Phoenix is your awareness of how overdetermined your text would read if it were labeled a novel. Indeed, you write at one point that:

I couldn't have invented a story like this—a guy who's pissed off at the world for years, a guy who's burning up inside, fetches up in a burn unit in Phoenix of all places. The older brother doesn't talk, and the younger brother chooses words as his vocation. The older brother, the dying brother, is thirty-nine, and very soon the younger brother will be holding his first publication, the proof of his new life, the thirty-ninth issue of the Mississippi Review. I shook my head at the thought of Joanne's Thunderbird—another name for a phoenix, which as everybody knows is a bird that rises from the ashes of a fire. Who would believe such coincidences? Who would believe such a story?

If you had, in fact, decided to tell your story as a novel, do you think you would have felt compelled to leave out some of this sort of unintended but tidy symbolism in order to make it more believable as fiction?

Dolan: Definitely. I would have cut two of my three sisters. I would have set it someplace besides Phoenix, Arizona—or I would have left it in Phoenix but made the victim's wounds different. And I would have given some strong, clear reason for the brothers' difficulties (as Ken Kesey did in Sometimes a Great Notion). In some ways, it would have been a lot easier to write this as a novel.

WAG: Phoenix turns the dynamics of your family inside out, for all to see. Did you have qualms about writing such a revealing book?

Dolan: I did, but not because I was worried about exposing myself or my family. For me, the scary part was to re-live those two weeks in Phoenix, Arizona, when my brother was dying in a burn unit. Of course, even as I was going through those difficult memories, I was mining them for material—for the book. As a writer, I knew I had to take risks, both literary and personal, if I hoped to come up with anything of lasting value.

WAG: How has your family reacted?

Dolan: My mother and my aunts and uncles loved the book. And my oldest sister loved it too. She said at some point she got so involved in the story that she forgot it was about us. I really liked that. I'm not sure what my other two sisters thought—they haven't shown up at my door with chainsaws or anything.

Oh, wait. There's the doorbell.

WAG: Most readers, I suspect, would think that writing Phoenix was a cathartic experience for you. Was it in fact cathartic—and if so, was that the most rewarding aspect of writing it?

Dolan: Yeah, it was cathartic, but often when I'd remember some small detail: My brother used to keep his spare change on top of his dresser, and he often gave me the change. It was very rewarding to discover these long-lost moments—especially the one I finish the book with (my big brother catching me in his arms).

It was also rewarding to tackle and finish a book-length project. I'd been writing for about fifteen years, but I hadn't managed to write a sustained narrative. I'd tried before, but I felt I had more at stake in this one. I was writing this book for my brother, and I damn sure didn't want to fail him, or myself, this time around.

WAG: Your own success aside, do you have misgivings about the popularity of the all-revealing memoir genre?

Dolan: I'm of two minds about it. I think there are a number of writers out there who've written popular (and, yes, revealing) memoirs: Toby Wolff, Mary Karr, Frank Conroy, Kathryn Harrison, Frank McCort and others. The accessibility of those books may have spurred more people to write memoirs, and this might be a very positive development: people can give voice to their feelings and maybe learn something about literature and about themselves in the process.

But those books I just mentioned were all written by extraordinarily gifted writers who've spent years developing their craft. They're artists. Unfortunately, many people think the subject matter of their lives is good material for book—and it might be, if they'd bother to become writers somewhere along the way. I don't imagine too many people would say, "Hmmm, I've had an interesting life...I think I'll turn it into an opera!" There's more to writing a memoir than slitting a vein and bleeding onto a page.

WAG: Would you write another memoir if the occasion arose? (A picaresque account of your years in the music industry would seem to be an obvious possibility, for example.) While we're on that subject, what is your next project?

Dolan: I don't have any great urge to write another memoir, and my years on the road in the music business would be the last thing I'd want to write about...although, I'm currently at work on a novel, and I find myself setting parts of it on the road. The novel is based on the life of Ralph Greenleaf, who was perhaps the greatest pool player of all time (the big debate is: Mosconi or Greenleaf?). Greenleaf toured constantly in the 1920s and '30s—he made $2000 a week on the vaudeville circuit, a fortune during the Depression. He was very flashy and charismatic—and at times very dark. An old friend of mine, Babe Cranfield (world pocket billiard champion in 1964), actually went on the road with Greenleaf. I've invented a character who goes on the road with Greenleaf—who was, by the way, a famous alcoholic. God knows I worked with lots of substance abusers when I was on the road. So maybe in some way I am writing about those years.

WAG: Finally, two related questions we like to pose to different writers, particularly those who teach writing. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself?

Dolan: The late Andre Dubus.

WAG: And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Dolan: Mark Richard.

—Interview conducted by Charlie Onion

Posted August 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Marion Ettlinger

J.D. Dolan is an assistant professor at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Nation, Best American Sports Writing 1999, and New Stories from the South. His first book, Phoenix, a Brother's Life, was recently published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, and is forthcoming in trade paperback from Vintage Books. His awards include the Jeanne Charpiot Goodheart Fiction Prize, and fellowships from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.



Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.