Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she teaches creative nonfiction. Greenwood grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts.
EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
EG: I began dabbling in nonfiction upon the suggestion of a favorite ex-boyfriend who liked my emails and urged me to try something a bit more ambitious. I blogged under a pseudonym for a while which was totally freeing. I’d always loved writing and revered books but had no clue how one went about becoming a writer, outside of academia. I was teaching English as a Second Language in the NYC public schools and wanted to make a switch, so I spent about a year asking everyone what they did for work and what they liked about it. Fortune smiled upon me when I was seated next to a woman at a dinner party who described her job as teaching writing at Columbia and taking classes, and getting paid to do so. Bingo. That was what I wanted to do.
EB: So you decided to pursue an MFA. But why nonfiction as opposed to fiction or poetry?
EG: Nonfiction feels like the only genre available to me.
EB: I feel that way too! I tried to write fiction for a while when I was younger and it was always just thinly veiled nonfiction. It was sort of pathetic.
EG: I wish it were more of a decision! Poets and fiction writers create people and worlds. In a way, I fear the kind of reported nonfiction I write can be parasitic because I spend a lot of time extracting the specialness of other people and attempting to refract it through my own lens. But I hope it isn’t parasitic because through that alchemy I’m attempting to bring a new idea or insight into being, however tiny.
EB: Your book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud is, of course, a reported and researched work of nonfiction. But it also relies on your own tale of toying with the idea of death fraud to drive the narrative. Why did you make the artistic choice to include your personal story?
EG: My book lacks a single narrative arc; instead it is a collection of linked profiles about people who open up a facet of the phenomenon. Something had to tie it all together, and that something was me, as I was asking the questions and mapping the trail in real time.
EB: In general, what do you think the role of the writer should be in a work of nonfiction?
EG: To tell the stories she can, in the way only she can. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family contains not a whisper of the narrator on the page, but she’s there all along in the selection the details and her characterizations. Conversely, Janet Malcolm will tell you how she spent her train journey to interview a source and her opinion of that source’s sartorial choices, as she does in The Silent Woman. I adore both styles and don’t think either is superior. We are all just groping in the dark, trying to tell stories the only way we know how.
EB: That’s so true. Everyone has a different way of telling a story. Imagine what Random Family would be like had it been written by Janet Malcolm! Choosing how much of myself to reveal in a piece has always been a challenge for me when I’m writing nonfiction. What has been challenging for you?
EG: Writing nonfiction is being at the mercy of your subjects. For Playing Dead, I hounded some people for years until they would meet me. Having to be a pain in a stranger’s ass and a general nuisance sometimes doesn’t feel so rewarding. And it can also be a little disconcerting when your job is “writer” but your actual day-to-day is spent cold calling people, talking to voicemails, and sending emails out into the ether. It’s very unglamorous and often uncreative work.
EB: Ugh, I know. I never thought that so much of being a writer would involve harassing strangers. Sometimes I wish I wrote novels just so I wouldn’t have to do that. But what has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?
EG: The most rewarding part is when you speak to the humans on the receiving end of those phone calls and letters! I have found people to be just unbelievably generous. Hearing strangers tell me the story of their lives and getting brought into their worlds for an hour or a few days is a total privilege. I’ve been a wedding guest at nuptials that took place in a maximum security prison, I’ve walked the beach with a guy who faked his death on that same stretch, I’ve learned how to gouge an assailant’s eyes out with a ballpoint pen in the Philippines. At moments like these, I always feel I am living my best life, in the Oprah sense.
EB: So what about you specifically? What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction?
EG: I’m interested in letting people tell their stories and making sense of their understandings of themselves. In Playing Dead, I profile people who believe Michael Jackson faked his own death. While some may consider these people too wackadoo, I really wanted to understand what was motivating their beliefs and how it shaped their days. I think I bring empathy and delight to the incredible ways people compose their lives and make sense of the world.
EB: That’s wonderful. I think empathy is so important as a nonfiction writer. Empathy will get you so much farther than judgment. People shut down when they feel that they are being judged. What do you do when a subject refuses to talk to you?
EG: I’ve had subjects refuse to participate from the get-go, in the form of not responding to follow-up emails or requests for interviews. And when that happens you just have to shrug it off and move on. You cannot force a subject to talk, but I rarely take no (or no response) as an answer the first time. Once the ball gets rolling, I’ve yet to have a subject stop talking.
EB: What about gender? How do you think being a woman has affected your experience as a writer? In Playing Dead, you write about how the world of death fraud is dominated by men, and it seemed that often you were the only woman in the room when you were interviewing someone or conducting research. What was that experience like?
EG: Not that I can speak to the other side, but I have a suspicion that men open up more to a female interviewer. It’s not rocket science: men like being listened to by women.
EB: Ha! That’s true.
EG: It’s always a tense dance between letting a person talk and then guiding the conversation back to your purview. For Playing Dead I interviewed subjects over the course of years, so you sometimes forget that you’re there to extract a story, especially once you get to know people really well and you’ve shared lots of meals over time.
EB: Suki Kim has said that as an Asian woman, people never assume that she is a journalist, and that even after she tells them, they often forget. Joan Didion has also said that subjects would forget she was reporting on them because she was small and a woman, and then they would speak more freely. I guess that’s the one time that sexism (and racism/Orientalism) can work to one’s advantage.
EG: That’s why I always keep the recorder running and the notebook out as a visual reminder of my role.
EB: How has writing nonfiction impacted your life as a writer and also a person? Clearly researching Playing Dead made you reassess your plan to fake your own death and ultimately decide against it. What else?
EG: The best compliment I ever received was from a professor in college who said she thought I lived equally in my head and as in the world. Writing nonfiction is the best way I’ve encountered to honor that tendency. I’ve gained entrée into places I do not belong, and I have the luxury of following my curiosities. But doubling down on pursuing this path has meant sacrificing a regular paycheck, a retirement account, co-workers, regular working hours, health care, and anything resembling a normal schedule. I crave security (hello, I’m a Taurus!) both financial and professional, but chose to abandon both to really give this career a whirl. So, having to confront that constant uncertainty has (on my better days) forced me to live more in the moment and tap into faith that the universe will provide. And I probably ask inappropriately personal questions at dinner parties.
EB: I don’t think you’re alone on that one—I’m pretty sure that’s a standard trait of nonfiction writers. Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
EG: A few selections from Sei Shonagan’s “Hateful Things” in The Pillow Book, first published in 1002, C.E.:
If I am traveling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but the owner of the carriage.
One is in the middle of a story when someone butts in and tries to show that he is the only clever person in the room. Such a person is hateful, and so, indeed, is anyone, child or adult, who tries to push himself forward.
One is telling a story about old times when someone breaks in with a little detail that he happens to know, implying that one’s own version is inaccurate—disgusting behavior!
A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him, but who speaks in an affected tone and poses as being elegant.
Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason—and then that person goes and does something hateful.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.