Interviewed by Amelia Loulli

Read Jonathan Duckworth’s nonfiction piece, Exam: Essays 101


Amelia: How did you arrive at the idea for ‘Exam: Essays 101’?

Jonathan: The germ of this essay began when I was in Julie Marie Wade’s class on lyric essays at Florida International University. Julie Marie Wade is among the most prominent acolytes of the lyric essay form and brings an infectious energy and joy to her class that encourages every student to experiment with writing process. We were reading and discussing an essay from John D’Agata’s collection “The Next American Essay,” George W.S. Trow’s “Needs,” when the discussion turned to a quote from the essay: “When I (we) shove a rental-car agreement in front of you, I (we) want (need for) you to have the feeling that life is a matter of: 1. Fine Options and 2. Splendid Choices.” I didn’t enjoy the essay when I first read it, although this quote still struck me as memorable, and when we discussed the quote I remarked, off-handedly “I bet you could write an essay that’s just a multiple choice test,” to which one of my classmates said something to the effect of “Jonathan, you’d be the person to write that.” Challenge accepted. By the next class I was scrawling down questions and answers in my notebook, surprised by how easily and fluidly they came to me—within the hour I had twenty or thirty questions already written.

Humor obviously plays a huge and effective role in this piece. How important is humor to you in your work?

I have a complicated relationship with humor in my writing. I love to laugh and I love to make other people laugh, and yet I also write a lot of poetry and fiction that is bone-dry serious. What I struggle with, and what I’d love to improve on, is mixing the comedy with more somber emotions. If I set out to write a funny story or essay or poem, it will be 90% comedy, whereas if I approach something with my serious cap on, there will be almost no levity at all. In my fiction writing though I’ll occasionally use comedy to dissipate what would be excess sentimentality, such as in the first book of the fantasy trilogy I’m writing where in one scene a main character proposes marriage to another main character and it’s all beautiful and gorgeous and just a little bit maudlin except while he’s getting on one knee to propose he’s got a bag of dead squirrels in his hand that are going to be harvested for their brains for another man’s squirrel brain soup. To me, humor is the proverbial Roman servant whispering in the ear of the general named Serious Writing that all glory is fleeting.

Whether funny or serious, what do you think the key is to engaging a reader in a text? 

I think it depends entirely on the reader, so you have to understand what audience you’re trying to reach with a particular text. This essay for instance would maybe amuse a non-literary audience at points, but it’s really intended for other writers, people who’ve waded through the process and committed time and energy to building something with their words.

Here are some questions for you which might feel familiar…

From Exam: Essays 101: Question 14: How many dates before you allow a sexy sentence to take you to bed?

A. 1.

B. 2-3.

C. 4-7.

D. Refer to my answer to question #4.

Honestly, 1. If I see a sentence that’s sexy enough my morals go out the window. It’s what happens every time I read Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, or Michael Ondaatje—my pants just drop.

Question 20: Which of these statements is most true:

A. The Appalachian accordion snake is a fearsome predator because it can elongate its body to double its striking range.

B. The Appalachian accordion snake’s one major shortcoming as apex predator is that its prey is alerted to its approach by the sounds of Paris.

I’m not answering it because they’re both true, I’m just really happy I imagined an Appalachian accordion snake and I think it could make for a wonderful children’s book where there’s one Appalachian accordion snake who can’t ever make friends because the music he makes drives all the other critters away and also because they know he’ll eat them if they ever try to hang out with him, and somehow I’d tie it into a theme of how kids shouldn’t bully other kids and try to understand the outcasts among them.

Question 41: True or false: a good man is hard to find. Circle one: T  F

False, but I think the real problem is we as a species have been too willing to fool ourselves into accepting bad men as good men. (Or is explaining my answer to a true or false question cheating? Am I allowed to cheat on my own exam? I’ll say I am and take it up with me later.)

Question 45: True or false, we like structure and Botticelli, but sometimes it’s fun to write Picasso. Circle one: T  F

True. Whether it’s always fun to read Picasso is another matter though.

If you could be asked one question in an interview, what would it be?

“As new manager of Borussia Dortmund, what can you tell us about your club’s chances of winning a Bundesliga title and ending Bayern Munich’s miserly reign?”

As you can see, I’m a man of simple, realistic aspirations.

If you hadn’t become a writer what would you be doing right now?

I’d probably be a clinically depressed law clerk right now, or maybe a marginally happy philosophy major adjuncting at a university.

This interview has been:

A. Bearable

B. A large, brave polar bear

C. Everything I ever wanted

D. Other (please specify…)

The polar bear, because it makes me think of those Coca Cola advertisements that reprogrammed my brain when I was a child.