Interview with Colin Rafferty


What is a current project you are working on?

I’m working on a series of audio essays on Americana that’s trying to use as much public domain sound as possible. It’s been an interesting way of looking at this country, and a crash course in both editing software and copyright law.

What is the piece of writing advice, good or even bad, that you have received that has impacted you the most?

My high school computer lab had a program that analyzed our writing, and among its statistics that it reported was the percentage of “to be” verbs in the paper. My senior English teacher, Mrs. Wareham, required that our papers have no more than 30% “to be” verbs, and since then, I’ve been deeply aware of using (and overusing) them.

What are some of the greatest influences upon your writing, whether other writers or outside influences?

I have a wall in my office on which I’ve tacked up a lot of maps of museums, and I think a lot about how museums work and how they present the visitor with both artifacts and narratives in an engaging way. I think this is also how essays work—they take what happened and arrange those things in a way that’s interesting for the reader to experience. You can build a museum that’s a white box and you can write an essay that’s a straightforward realist memoir, or you can build a building or write an essay in which the form, the shape is as much as part of the experience as what’s inside it.

What inspired you to write a series of essays about the presidents? What is your method for writing these essays?

I wanted to mess around with the lyric essay, because I noticed that lyric essays were writing wild, experimental pieces that were almost always based in memoir, and that seemed limited to me. Choosing the presidents gave me 44 subjects about whom I could write essays that were both experimental in nature and fact-checkable in content. It also gave me a fairly stable subject matter—or so I thought when I started the project.

To write the essays, I usually started with a general idea about subject and form, like thinking about Ronald Reagan and a movie script or Franklin Pierce and a medical diagnosis. In the case of “Pardon (#39),” it was thinking about Jimmy Carter and his pardon of the Vietnam draft dodgers, and combining that with Carter’s faith and its role in his presidency. It was also a way to engage with the Bible, which is certainly the most successful nonfiction text of all time. With that seed of an idea in mind, I’d go for a walk, turning phrases and ideas around in my head until something finally clicked into place, at which point I’d head for the nearest coffee shop to write out a first draft in longhand.

Do you have a favorite place to write, or are there any habits, rituals, inspirations, etc. that help you write best? 

I like writing in public because it puts the pressure on me to produce something. Buying a coffee gets me a table space for a limited time, and I don’t want to waste it. For that reason, I’ve tried to pare down my writing rituals to something as simple as possible: pens I like, notebooks that are nice but not too nice, a playlist on my phone that’s interesting enough to distract the critical part of me, a cup of coffee, and go! Anything that takes longer would just be procrastination on my part.

Can you recommend one book that you think everyone should read and tell us why?

I really love Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book, which not only stands in conversation with Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, one of the oldest pieces of nonfiction writing, but also points towards a future for nonfiction, with its fragmented sections, lists, and keen juxtaposition of research and memoir. It’s a hybrid work, published by a poetry press, and it’s just great.