Ian Frazier has written eleven books, including On the Rez, Great Plains, and Travels in Siberia. His work has appeared in The New Yorker since 1974, and he has also contributed feature articles and humorous essays to The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and Outside. He was the guest editor for The Best American Essays 1997 and Best American Travel Writing 2003.
Ian served as the 2014 Nonfiction Writing Prize judge for plain china. Our conversation took place via email.
—Bruna Dantas Lobato ’15
PLAIN CHINA: Your book Travels in Siberia reads like a travelogue, and many of your New Yorker essays like “Hidden City” and “Tracks” are also rooted in place. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of place in your writing? What is the appeal of travel writing for you?
IAN FRAZIER: I am romantic about places because I grew up in a small town and knew every corner of it. The town has changed, as most places do, and I am probably always looking for some version of it in my writing. I like to travel and explore because that’s just my nature. I’ve noticed that people from Ohio, my home state, are unusually restless in that way. It’s a strange combination—love of an idealized home town, and restlessness.
PC: History—personal or otherwise—plays a huge role in nonfiction writing. What is the importance of historical context in your work?
IF: I’ve always wanted to know how we got to the point where we find ourselves. Again, I’m not sure why. For a while when I was young I dreamed of being an archaeologist. Maybe because the past is a kind of idealized place, like the places I search for in my writing.
PC: There have been a lot of controversies about nonfiction writers using fictional details in their narratives. Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?
IF: Fact is fact. Not much way around it. If you make something up in a work of fact, then the work is unfinished, and can be added on to by those who come later and correct your incorrect facts. I try to stay as close as possible to the facts without descending into mind-numbing literalness. It’s always a challenge. You proceed with good faith, close attention to your notes, and consideration for the reader.
PC: Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
IF: Writers who influenced me are legion: Mark Twain, at the top. Frances Parkman, Primo Levi, Jamaica Kincaid, E.B. White, James Thurber, Joseph Mitchell, Charles Portis, Janet Malcolm. I read poetry–Elizabeth Bishop, Derek Walcott, Robert Frost (over and over). Poetry is my favorite kind of nonfiction.
PC: What was it like to read undergraduate writers for plain china?
IF: The stories I read for plain china impressed me enormously. They showed skill in the writing, and many great virtues in the authors’ having gone through the experiences that the writing came out of.
PC: Do you have any advice for young writers?
IF: Use your courage to get yourself beyond the humdrum whatever that other writers are doing. Never stop reading.
PC: Can you tell us about what you’re working on right now?
IF: Nonfiction about people on the low end of the income-inequality divide. Also about heroes and people of religious faith.
Bruna Dantas Lobato ’15 is a fiction editor for plain china. She studies comparative literature and creative writing and was recently awarded the Bennington Undergraduate Writing Fellowship in Fiction.