The Independent Author Seminar 9/97
TRUTH IN EXPERIENCE : NONFICTION ON THE RUNA Discussion With Independent Author James Campion About Expose vs. Straight Storytelling
With his interesting depiction of musical road-life in Deep Tank Jersey, independent author, James Campion raises questions of truth in reporting, biographical material vs. baring all, and the use of personal stories as subplot. Published by Callaloo Press out of Brooklyn, NY in the summer of 1996, Campion’s first book has been praised in many entertainment and literary circles as a brutal, yet emotional look at the passion and pratfalls of maintaining celebrity by performers in the rock and roll age and a great snapshot of late twentieth century nightlife subculture.
IAS: Did you have an outlined agenda for Deep Tank Jersey when you began?
James Campion: Not at all. It was an inspiration from the start. The big joke between me and DogVoices, the band depicted in the book, was that I had no idea what I was doing. I went into it with the intention of being completely truthful at the moment of discovery. What I mean by that is I wrote what I perceived was their motivation or basic characteristics. Of course, later on I learned of traits that would belie my original depiction, but I did not change the descriptions or hunches from the earlier chapters.
IAS: So you had no preconceived notions about your subjects?
jc: Correct. I just knew that a story was there. I felt it unfair to the guys in the band or anyone I might encounter along the way to come in with any ideas. And that’s the reason why I wrote it, or tried for as long as I could, to write it as I went along. I made it a point not to change any of the content once it was down.
IAS: So you wrote it in chronological order?
jc: Well, I gave it the old college try, but when it came to the point of overload I took a great deal of notes and compiled most of the hard interviews and recorded the deeper discussions on tape. Then later on in the writing process I was able to jump around and formulate the story. It really wasn’t a book until about halfway through. Until that point it was more of a journal. I tried to discover, not report. This book has nothing to do with journalism. I may have used whatever skills I might have had available to me in that direction, but it was primarily a back-seat operation journalistically.
IAS: You used all the actual names of people you encountered?
jc: I did.
IAS: Were you confronted with the possibility of editing for protection of the subject or to keep the story in line?
jc: I did very little editing with the story. I’m sticking by the thing, because we all have to face the fact that it happened. If it didn’t happen I would’ve had some explaining to do. There are deeply personal and harrowing moments in there that for some bizarre reason people trusted I would get right. My only defense in case of argument is to plead ignorance. For instance, if something happened and I wasn’t there for all of it, my version becomes just hearsay translated. If I describe an event from the standpoint of only one view, my view, then that’s the way it appears in the book. It’s similar to walking into a dark basement with a flashlight and whatever my flashlight reveals I’m aware of. There could be a horrible creature lurking in the shadows, but unless my flashlight hits it, it ain’t nothing but conjecture or imagination. I tried to stay away from imagination. That’s for fiction.
IAS: Would you describe Deep Tank Jersey as an expose?
jc: No. I didn’t compile the information as a reporter and I certainly didn’t dissect the subject matter like a reporter. This is really a story about me being thrown into a world I once knew pretty well, but only years later, with people I hardly knew. I think an expose is more of a harsh depiction of events. Now, that doesn’t mean the book fails to be in-depth or edgy. I got plenty of shit for it.
IAS: But as a work of nonfiction, shouldn’t it be incumbent on the author to explain, and in the explaining, there is a level of judging?
jc: If I think someone is an asshole, then that is opinion. If I think someone is insane, then that’s an observation. Wildly bizarre activity gives me the right to describe the participant as insane. Assholes are subjective types.
IAS: Yes, but you are still presenting an image for the reader that could be construed as your opinion.
jc: Listen, there were drunks and drugged-up sex and violence going on all over the place. That isn’t opinion, that’s fact. If I agree or disagree with these activities; now that’s opinion. Music can be loud. I am describing the music. The music is too loud. That’s opinion. I don’t see that as a fine line. Pretty thick line.
IAS: Were there stories that you left out for space constraints, or because it didn’t fit into the way the main story was moving along?
jc: If you’re intimating that I wrote everything that happened to me, no. But that’s a main process of writing this type of book anyway. You have to know when something is worth reading. I’ve had people ask me why the hell a particular scene is in there, but I knew at the time it had to be there. The Simon & Schuster people were thinking about chopping the book up. Those last weeks when they came down to the shore to badger me, they brought proof editors that wanted to know what the fuck was I doing being so goddamn honest about what they deemed was insignificant personal shit. You try explaining that to these people. Once the book was out I received a great deal of feedback in the other direction. Many readers felt there was no story without that personal honesty. That’s where I was luckiest in writing my first book in a journal style. I had the balls to tell Simon & Schuster that I couldn’t touch the chapters once they left my head. So they stuck me in publishing limbo and I went in another direction. Nothing against them. Many people in the industry think that’s nuts. But it’s a great lesson to learn. You’ve got to trust your instincts at some point: good or bad. There’s always something missing.
IAS: Something missing?
jc: Most comments I get from those who know the scene revolve around me just stopping short of getting a story. Others think it too in-depth to the point of being painful. I’ve had people tell me they actually cringed at things I thought were commonplace, but that is the point of leading someone down a path. That’s the point of presenting a story.
IAS: The abuse of drugs, or mostly alcohol: do you think that by making light, or even not judging it, you are condoning it?
jc: A guy from some Jersey magazine called me for an interview and plainly told me that he thought I romanticized excessive drinking in the book. I don’t know how you can read the thing and tell me that. Drinking is in the culture. I wrote the entire book in the glare of neon beer signs. It’s a book about nightlife, and I’ve got news for people, nightlife equals drinking. It is a cottage industry in selling alcohol. Band sells it, club sells it, the summer sells it. That’s the story. That’s the dark underbelly of Deep Tank Jersey. I did not feel that judging anyone had merit in the book. And when you’re immersed in the shit, you cannot point fingers.
IAS: Doesn’t that lend itself to the cliché rather than the exception for your subject matter?
jc: Life is cliché. If you decide to delete that from your manuscript then you’re not doing your job as a writer. You’re selling the story short. You’re cheating your reader. They want to smell it, taste it, feel it. They want to be inside of it for that moment. That’s why I read. It’s not about fixing it. It’s about knowing it.
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