An interview with John Reed

Image by David Shankbone

Interview by Kristina Marie Darling

Your newest book, A Drama in Time:  The New School Century, just launched from Profile Books Ltd.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Well, I’d like people to know about The New School and its history, and coming to the book with a very basic outline of The New School is something I’d hope for. There’s nothing like writing a book about a submarine and having someone ask you, “but what’s a submarine?”

I’d also love for people to know that it’s a reference book, with many pictures, and that it was designed to read through or to just peck at, reading now and then and going back to for information. That would make me really happy, knowing the book lived that kind of life on people’s shelves.
The last thing, hmm. I’d love for people to know that there are many mysteries to solve here. 

In addition to your achievements in nonfiction, you are an accomplished poet and novelist.  Why is it important for writers to allow themselves to move fluidly between genres? What can nonfiction writers learn from poets?  And from their colleagues working in fiction? 
When I was in graduate school in the 90s, this idea of writing across genres was actively discouraged. It may still be discouraged at some schools. I was often challenged: what are you? Would I be writing cultural criticism, non-fiction, poetry, fiction? My first novel was historical fiction, which seemed at the time the only way to marry a fictive sensibility with an historical one. Now, many of those distinctions have gone away, which is as it should be. This is partly, I expect, a result of the use of fiction techniques in non-fiction, and vice versa. And this isn’t only in the literary space, but in the media space. Reality television, the internet, etc etc, all this is old hat now. We understand that narrative design is a skill apart from the writing itself. It seems to me, and I’m sure people would disagree with me here, that there are really only two forms of text, prose and poetry, and that even those two aren’t that different. If you can write a line of poetry, and you understand to limit your metaphorical values and employ extended metaphors rather than multiple metaphors, you can write a line in any form: film, television, advertising, essay, journalism, anything. And the great lessons of prose—narrative structure, tense, interiority and POV—will take you into any textual terrain, line to line, scene to scene, paragraph to paragraph.

Relatedly, How did your cross-genre sensibility equip you for the rewards and challenges of writing A Drama in Time:  The New School Century?

The problem of a centennial book about The New School was a sophisticated one: how could I make it a single compelling story? The fear was that it would be: a giant block of prose that was dry as dust; a nearly as boring timeline; a seemingly random series of callouts. The solution was to layer an epic structure onto a journey structure: there are many individuals and points of the story, but the story as a whole is a characterization of The New School. That’s what justifies the non-chronological telling. I wanted to put the internal experience of the school before the external experience of the school. I was quite pleased with the solution; it came to me as an aha revelation.
In addition to documenting the New School’s history, you also teach in the MFA in writing program there.  What has teaching opened up for you as you embarked on this project?

The project has been extraordinarily humbling. I’ve had the chance to research—not nearly enough but still I’m grateful—the lives and visions of an amazing cohort of artists, writers, creatives and thinkers. There’s so much more to do; I can only hope I’ll keep finding ways to go back to this history. As faculty, I’m humbled and honored to work with the New School artists, writers, creatives and thinkers of today—all of the community that upholds the New School tradition. The people at The New School impress me every day. Everyone.

As you promote A Drama in Time, what readings, events, and workshops can we look forward to?

I’d love to work on some narrative design seminars: look at narrative structure as it’s utilized across media and throughout culture. I do things like that in my teaching at The New School but I enjoy the more open forums sometimes.

What’s next?  What are you currently working on? 

I’m finishing up a long term historical novel project: very much in keeping with my first novel. Civil War, a bit of romance, history and sadness. I’ve also been working on a quick novel project, through this COVID moment: another romantic project, an apocalyptic love story. I have these sonnet videos I’m playing with. I don’t know. I’d be curious to know what people think about those. Not really officially anything yet but I was thinking of doing a “season” of them: