An Interview with Patrick Madden

“Somewhere Out of a Memory”

This summer, I had the pleasure of listening to Patrick Madden give a talk at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference about repetition in writing alongside Hope Edelman, Michael Steinberg, and Ana Maria Spagna. From his presentation, and from sharing a breakfast table one morning while I was only semi-conscious, pre-coffee, I gathered that Madden was both equally brilliant and warm. The experience of reading his essays is like listening to an old friend—an articulate, nimble-minded, and well-read one, at that—confide their joys, pangs of regret, and insightful wisdom. Selfishly, one of my favorite parts of working for a literary magazine is the opportunity to speak with exceptional authors about their writing and writing processes, and I’m thrilled to have interviewed Patrick Madden for this issue of Sweet.

Alysia Sawchyn: It’s clear that you’re drawn to the commonplace, the “exploding” of seemingly simple events or interactions into “everything.” Do you know when something will trigger that essaying impulse? Or does it happen involuntarily?

Patrick Madden: I’m struck by possible essay subjects quite often, and they’re usually somewhat surprising, though I’ve gotten used to the fact of the surprises, so I almost expect them now. I try to align myself to be attentive to potential essays. I also realize that I won’t be able to write every essay that suggests itself to me, so I return to those ideas that return to me (those I remember) and gather momentum.

For instance, I’ve been trying to write “aborted essays” lately, essays that end before their time, that demonstrate a kind of chaotic motion away from equilibrium. They tend to be thematic. Recently I remembered a moment when my daughter ran out in front of a car, which slammed on its brakes and barely avoided hitting her. I think I’ll write that and think about luck. Or: I was pumping gas in the rain and noticed the beading water droplets on the car and thought about how we perceive things as categories, in general, or, as Montaigne says, “So great an uncertainty there is throughout; so gross, obscure, and obtuse is our perception.” This is becoming an essay on perception. Or: my family was driving back from a weekend away and my daughters had chosen the music, and Katy Perry’s “Firework” song came on, and I thought how I found the lyrics inane, but then thought against myself, supposing that many people likely find the lyrics inspiring, and perhaps there are those who’ve been truly helped out of a rough emotional spot by the song. I don’t yet have a title for this essay, but I want to think about judgment or value, primarily thinking against the kind of art that I have been educated to prefer. I have notebooks and phone files filled with essay ideas like these, most of which will never become essays.

Leigh Hunt (Romantic essayist and editor, friend of Lamb, Hazlitt, Keats, Shelley, etc.) once wrote that

The fastidious habits of polished life generally incline us to reject, as incapable of interesting us, whatever does not present itself in a graceful shape of its own, and a ready-made suit of ornaments. But some of the plainest weeds become beautiful under the microscope. It is the benevolent provision of nature, that in proportion as you feel the necessity of extracting interest from common things, you are enabled to do so. (“The Washerwomen”)

Maybe it’s not so easy, but I tend to agree with Hunt, that if you want to be struck by the wondrousness of the world, your desire will lead to focus and attention, which will deliver to you more essay ideas than you’ll know what to do with.

AS: Can you talk a little bit about your essay-writing process? I’m particularly interested in the quotations sprinkled throughout your essays—sometimes as asides, sometimes as headers—are these often part of the initial drafting and reflective of your thinking or are these elements you incorporate in revision?

PM: I am a binge writer, in that I don’t write every day, and I feel like I need long stretches of time in order to write anything worthwhile. Often I write at night when my family is sleeping, because then I feel that I’m not robbing them of my time. (This is faulty logic, I recognize, because I do not recover well from lack of sleep, so I am sometimes grumpy or preoccupied the next day(s).) But much of my “writing” time is not spent actually writing, and I continue to “write” my essays subconsciously for days, weeks, months, even years. I generate long jumble-lists of associated stories and memories and references, which I sometimes research intentionally, often finding quotes from others that way. But more interestingly, I also receive serendipitous gifts from the universe that align with my essays in theme and in tone, from songs I hear on the radio or words I read in books or hear in conversations. I suppose it’s just that my mind becomes attuned to a certain idea-channel and is likely to recognize resonances that it might otherwise ignore.

So the quotes come about at all stages of drafting. Sometimes a quote flits across my mind and inspires an essay. Sometimes as I’m writing I recall that someone I’ve read said something on the subject I’m exploring. Sometimes after I’ve written something relatively “complete,” a new quote appears before or inside me. I try to incorporate other voices in conversation with mine, not as ballast to bolster my ethos (as students are taught to do with their research papers), but as companions and co-thinkers. Like Montaigne, though, “If I happen, as I often do, to come across in the good authors those same subjects I have attempted to treat … seeing myself so weak and puny, so heavy and sluggish, in comparison with those men, I hold myself in pity and disdain.” (“Of the Education of Children”). I feel both humbled and honored to discover, again and again, that I have no novel ideas, that everything has been thought before, and better, by others.

AS: Your writing is rich with wordplay and clever asides; what to you is the role of humor in essays?

PM: Thank you for noticing. I sometimes worry that because of the odd, archaic-sounding titles I give my books and essays, they’ll come across as stuffy, and I’ve seen some evidence of this. But really I’m just a dad-joke machine, which tends to mean that I pun constantly. A few weeks ago my family visited Yellowstone along with my friend and fellow essayist Joey Franklin and his family, and we spent a good hour punning on the name “Mustard Spring” (a feature in the Biscuit Basin a little north of Old Faithful). It started with simple ones like “moose turd” and “mustered” (all set up appropriately with oddball scenarios) and progressed to things like “Q: What did the stockboy tell his boss when he’d finished? A: “I got theM all stored!”

In any case, for me, the best humor is linguistic, though not all linguistic humor is pun-based. I think it comes down to expressing the joy of creating a new thing in the artistic medium of language, and recognizing that literary writing is metacognizant, that is, it knows that it is artifice made of language. Once you realize that, you’re bound to play with words in interesting (discernible) ways, which tends to bring a smile to readers.

Annie Dillard shares secondhand the experience of “a well-known writer” who, when cornered by a student who wanted to know whether he could be a writer, answered, “I don’t know… Do you like sentences?” Agnes Repplier shares Theophile Gautier’s similar advice that writers read the dictionary, following with her own lament:

Musicians know the value of chords; painters know the value of colors; writers are often so blind to the value of words that they are content with a bare expression of their thoughts, disdaining the “labor of the file,” and confident that the phrase first seized is for them the phrase of inspiration.

I want to know the value of words. I think I do. Their value is not always humorous, of course, but it often is.

I sometimes feel like Rush (though in a very small way): They’re a band who’s seen as overly serious by casual listeners and detractors, but really they’re intelligently goofy, constantly self-deprecating, and humorously critical of society’s unquestioned assumptions. (See the polka version of their classic song “Closer to the Heart,” featuring Geddy Lee as a Jewish deli owner, Neil Peart as an Irish cop, and Alex Lifeson as a Slavic inventor). Partially in order to counteract wrong impressions about the seriousness of my work (but mostly just to amuse myself and others), I made a book trailer video for Sublime Physick based on a lovely/odd blurb that Brian Doyle wrote: “It’s like Montaigne and Sebald got drunk and wrote a book together.” Joey Franklin (aforementioned) looks uncannily like Montaigne, and one of our graduate students, Shelli Spotts, is a costume designer, and a former student, Brent Rowland, is a filmmaker, so we got a Montaigne costume made, and I got some Sebald glasses and moustache and white hairpaint, and we filmed the enactment of Doyle’s blurb, which I think came out wonderfully funny. Maybe book trailers are out of fashion nowadays, and maybe it didn’t help sell any books, but I still experience pure joy when I watch it.

AS: There’s a short section of your website Quotidiana that includes the “Essayest American Essays” from 2006-2009. What is the essayest American essay you’ve read this year and why?

PM: Tell you what: I’m going to update that section of the site before this interview is published, so you’ll be able to see which essays my students and I have enjoyed this year. I’m afraid it’s just slipped from my attention. But every fall I assign them to scour the year’s literary journals, noting excellent essays each week, and then, at the end of the semester, they each choose a favorite, the “essayest,” the superlative of essay. The general goal is to encourage my students to read literary journals, and to talk critically about our preferences. My own goal, at least in recent years, is to discover a great essay by a writer I’ve never heard of before. This year, I chose two essays, one by a former student, Madison Bowman, whose “These Eager Leaps” was published in Portland Magazine, and one by Emily Chase called “In Defense of Grudges” (from the Tusculum Review). Even its title was a perfect tip off for me that it was going to essay something very cool, that, like so many contrarian essays before it, it would defend the indefensible. In general, the piece is about “trying to be a more positive person” and the difficulty of giving people the benefit of the doubt, through an enlightening twist into what you’d expect would be the opposite of “being a more positive person”: holding grudges. Intentionally. Chase is such a charming guide through this surprising thought- (and life-) experiment that I am considering holding some grudges of my own.

You can see this year’s EAEs, as well as many previous years’ lists, at Thanks for spurring me to update those!

AS: There are a number of images throughout the essays in Quotidiana. Why did you want to include these alongside the texts?

PM: My primary motivation is rather simple: I love the cut-and-pasted illustrations in Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces and the odd, incongruous, unprofessional photographs in W. G. Sebald’s major books, and I wanted to do likewise. Technology had advanced sufficiently by 2010 that you could print inline images very easily and cheaply. So I wanted to catch some of the uncanny mysterious vibe that Sebald emits, to do a little more than “illustrate” nouns referenced in my essays, to create friction (sometimes) between text and image, to raise questions and doubts, to send readers’ minds out of the essays on, I hope, interesting tangents. Sometimes, the images were a way of amusing myself as I composed the book, like, having made the claim that I wouldn’t look up the Wonder Twins episode image I’d remembered of eagle-Jana carrying water-bucket-Zan and space-monkey Gleek, I then included an image of that very event. I even had some fun with the image credits at the beginning of the book, using odd phrases to describe artists and planting at least one Easter egg. Image 36, from page 178 in Sublime Physick, of me at Montaigne’s tower, is credited to Neil Peart, the drummer of Rush. Why? Because the text on page 178 quotes Google Books’ word cloud for my first book, Quotidiana, which includes the alphabetical sequence/sentence “Neil Peart never once painted Patrick; perhaps photograph?” (punctuation added). Could anybody ever find this on their own? Probably not. But after reading this interview they can! Even with the pictures, I’m mostly just amusing myself.

Also, why not break up the blocks of text with something a bit out of the ordinary? Everybody likes pictures in books, no?

AS: Speaking of images, could you draw for us your favorite Rush song?

PM: Of course I have no single favorite Rush song, but one of my favorites is “Subdivisions,”

with its double meaning about the struggles of growing up in the suburbs amidst social cliques. I asked all of my children to draw houses, which I’ve scanned and copied into the background of my drawing of teenage-me “dream[ing] of somewhere / To relax [my] restless flight / Somewhere out of a memory / Of lighted streets on quiet nights.”


Thank you so much for these great questions! I had a lot of fun thinking about them.


 … return to Issue 9.2 Table of Contents.