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A Conversation with Nathan Holic

A Conversation with Nathan Holic

Interview by Stephanie Renae Johnson

Nathan Holic is the author of the novels The Things I Don’t See and American Fraternity Man. He is the editor of the 15 Views of Orlando anthologies, and the Graphic Narrative Editor at The Florida Review literary journal. He writes fiction and nonfiction, draws comics, and teaches writing courses at the University of Central Florida.

Stephanie Renae Johnson: I want to start with American Fraternity Man, published in 2013. It’s a novel, but it reads like a gritty, humorous exposé on fraternity and male college life, a weird bildungsroman.

Nathan Holic: I like that characterization. It’s a work of fiction, obviously, so there’s a limit to what such a book can actually expose… If a reader wants a work of investigative journalism or historical record, there are other books and articles to check out… But I did want American Fraternity Man to show readers an institution with which they’d most likely be unfamiliar, and I hope that the reader is left with a greater understanding of why a young man would choose to join a fraternity, why he’d grow passionate about the organization, and how it would shape his view of manhood. I wanted it to be immersive, too, an experience for the reader, rather than just a document about fraternities.

I also wanted the reader to see the institution on a grand scale: not just the local fraternity house, but the national headquarters that sets agendas and rules, that communicates with generations of alumni members, that negotiates with university administrations. I wanted readers to see the “big business” that these groups have become. When it comes to fraternities (and most other organizations that we see or affiliate with on a daily basis), we often view them only on a “local” scale. We think of the fraternity houses at our specific college. We think of the specific Boy Scout troop in our neighborhood or town. We think of our local Papa John’s. I find myself fascinated by how local decisions are shaped by much larger (sometimes unseen) forces. Who was it, for instance, that pieced together the first Boy Scout guidebook, who decided which skills would be practiced and rewarded, who decided upon the style of artwork that would be used in the manual? What behind-the-scenes deals determined the brand of pepperoni that you ate last Friday, a brand of pepperoni that is required to be used at every Papa John’s across the country?

Much like a state committee deciding upon textbooks for your child’s classroom, there’s a lot at stake with these national decisions, and the trickle-down consequences can be dramatic. With this book, I wanted to take readers into both the National Headquarters and the many local chapter houses at a variety of different campuses, and show that the decisions of one can affect the other. We’re often quick to condemn the poor decision-making of college fraternities, but a single poor decision might be the result of decades of conflict between the undergraduates, the alumni, the national headquarters, and the university administration.

SRJ: How do you feel masculinity is portrayed in and affected by fraternities? Is there something genuine left under the parties, rape, and drugs?

NH: I feel like I should use the words “social construct” here?

No, that wouldn’t be right. I don’t think I’m smart enough to do that. Even though I write constantly about “masculinity,” and how men shape their entire lives (and often make awful decisions) to fit what someone else has determined is the right type of manhood, I usually feel more comfortable talking about it through the lens of fictional characters than in just talking about it as a general concept.

That, I think, is why fraternities were such a great subject for me. “Masculinity” varies from fraternity to fraternity, and campus to campus. Each group of men (often without even consciously thinking about it) decides together what it means to be a “real man.” I mean, Revenge of the Nerds exemplifies this perfectly: the groups on that campus, at the start of the film, have chosen to value athletic prowess above all else, but by the end, they’re celebrating intelligence and cleverness (and that’s a smart movie!).

Without a doubt, there are thousands of fraternities who likewise value strength and athleticism as their vision of masculinity, especially because—at so many campuses—intramural sports carry huge bragging rights, and NCAA sports (football, basketball) define the school overall. But I’ve also seen fraternities who are defined by their commitment to service (no joke), or (at one particular tech school that I’ll mention in a moment) by their computer programming prowess. At a national fraternity convention I once attended, I remember hearing about a chapter in Georgia that banned the use of hair gel: their vision of masculinity did not include “pretty boys.” I think I have more questions than answers about masculinity, though, which is one reason why I wrote this book. With so many different ideas of what it means to be a “real man,” how does someone decide for himself what that means? All men eventually have to face that struggle, regardless of whether or not they’re in a fraternity, or on a football team, or become involved in any type of male-centric organization: they’ve got to reconcile with their parents’ visions of manhood, or the visions favored by their teachers and professors and mentors, their employers, the particular subcultures to which they belong. It’s both bizarre and terrifying that a fraternity could be telling its members that a good man protects and cares for his brothers, but then the men decide as a group to haze their new brothers in violent and dangerous ways.

In the book, I talk about how the original fraternities were started (back in the 1800s and early 1900s) with admirable goals in mind: some were like literary societies, and others were akin to student governments, but all had the common purpose of friendship and community, at a time in a young man’s life when he is most uncertain.

And I do think that this purpose largely still exists, and yes, it’s genuine. I visited a chapter house at the University of Missouri – Rolla (the Missouri School of Mines) that was just thirteen men. It was always thirteen men, in fact. No more, no less. Every night, they cooked dinner together. Every week, they changed up their house chores according to a system that had been worked out decades prior (cleaning dishes, doing yardwork, etc.). Those guys were a family, and I don’t think you could convince me that there was anything nasty or destructive about the fraternity they’d worked hard to construct. Conversely, I’ve visited chapter houses that are 150 men strong, and sure, they’re mostly focused on athletics, or on the party life. They have cleaning staff that they employ, and kitchen staff and meal plans. The original purpose gets lost to the possibilities and fantasies that such an arrangement (million-dollar house, zero responsibilities, gigantic social budget) can arouse. In many ways, fraternity life is a mirror to the university experience itself, where the genuine purpose should be education, but students wind up selecting schools based on state-of-the-art fitness facilities, resort-style dorms, vibrant football game-day atmospheres…and then spending the majority of their time with extracurriculars and treating classes like an inconvenience.

SRJ: Your details in the novel are so visceral—were you ever in a fraternity yourself? You obviously chose fraternities for a reason, but why?

NH: I was in a fraternity. And after college, I took a job with my national fraternity headquarters, and visited thirty-seven different chapter houses in seventeen states.

And to be honest, I don’t think that I ever wanted to write about fraternity life. It just sort of happened, mostly because I wanted to make sense of the experience that I had. There was a great deal that was positive about my fraternity experience in college (and in my job afterward), but also a great deal that makes me…uneasy. There’s such incredible potential for what fraternities could be, and could accomplish, but there’s also such incredible potential for it all to go horribly horribly wrong.

More than likely, I only started to write about fraternity life after starting my MFA and trying to describe what it was that I had done after graduating. Nobody understood. And, in fact, nobody in my MFA program had been in a fraternity or sorority. And when I went to AWP, nobody had been in a fraternity or sorority there, either. Every writer I met: I almost had to keep it to myself.

I started to realize how little the larger world even knew about fraternity life. Like, real fraternity life. When a fraternity is in the news, it’s pretty much always the exact same story, and we never truly understand why someone would do the things depicted in that story. “Fraternity guy” has become one of those stock characters that we know and recognize even before he opens his mouth, whether in a book or a movie or a TV show. “Fraternity guys” in our culture are always caricatures, or props. When I read a work of literary fiction, the frat guy is there to be selfish and spoiled, to commit some despicable act (often, they’re also punished as a sort of “wish fulfillment” for the audience). In popular media, they’re just interchangeable party dudes for slapstick comedy and coed nudity (see: Old School and Neighbors, and every American Pie spin-off). We rarely treat fraternity members as if they’re real people.

Of course, I didn’t want to argue that these were unearned and unfair stereotypes…but they did strike me as one-dimensional, and dismissive of an entire world of questions worth exploring. I’m fascinated with that group of thirteen engineers at Missouri-Rolla. I wanted to explore the motivations behind hazing and binge-drinking, and the long-term repercussions of these decisions. I wanted to explore the business of fraternity life, too, how many millions of dollars are spent each year on pledge pins and hardcover manuals and T-shirts. I wanted to explore the man who joins a fraternity not because he is the very stereotype of Big Dumb Masculinity, but because he definitely is not, and aspires toward it. There are hundreds of thousands of men and women in fraternities and sororities, and they aren’t any more caricatures than anyone else in our culture. They’re real people, with real motivations, real fears, real struggles, and yet—everywhere I looked in literary fiction, and in the popular culture—we were always making them into the same character. My national fraternity headquarters was staffed by a significant percentage of gay men, and many of our most prominent volunteers were gay men. When I went to our national conventions, the predominant body type was not “Abercrombie model,” as that Seth Rogen movie might have you believe. The predominant body type was…well, Seth Rogen. Those details don’t fit into the “frat guy” narrative we often consume.

In writing this book, I wasn’t out to “dispel stereotypes.” I just wanted to give an honest look at the culture, and the people immersed in it, on a local and national level. As it turns out, it became the perfect subject to also explore masculinity, and the commodification of the university experience, and the shifting ideals and motivations of the entire “Millennial Generation” (and even what it means when we start generalizing so much about generations!).

SRJ: Speaking of college fraternities, you live in Orlando, Florida, and teach at one of the major universities there. How did this affect your writing of this book? Were you constantly taking notes on your students?

NH: Not really. I’d spent a year and a half working a job that had me immersed 24/7 in fraternity life. I’d already seen what I needed to see.

What it did, though, was force me to anchor my book in a very specific time period. You’re never more aware of how old and out-of-touch you are as when you’re surrounded by young people. My original draft of the book took place in a sort of generalized “2000s,” which might be okay if you’re dealing with adult characters whose lives are not so crazily impacted by technology. But with my students? From 2005 onward, every semester was bringing something new, from iPods to MySpace to Facebook to smartphones, and every single thing created logic-holes in my book. You couldn’t read it without wondering, “Well, why didn’t he just check Facebook?” Or, “Why couldn’t he just go online on his phone and…” Etc.

So I set the book in 2008, and once I did that, a lot of other important details fell into place. I was able to use a specific version of Facebook, for instance (remember back when your status updates always had “Nathan is…” at the start?), and I was able to parallel the protagonist’s mission to “save the world of fraternity life” with the Obama “hope” election campaign. I was able to play with the financial collapse, too, and the feelings of despair among college grads who had massive debt but zero job prospects. And most importantly, I was able to say—with each new technological innovation that hit the market while I was revising—“Well, that didn’t exist in 2008! No revisions necessary!”

SRJ: I think one of my favorite things that you do well is write about Florida: it’s so central to your work. How important is place in your writing? You write about the palm trees just outside of Orange County, the thick St. Augustine sod, things that are unique to Florida. In that same vein, do you feel your stories are Floridian?

NH: Absolutely. I’ve lived elsewhere, and I’ve obviously visited a lot of places, but my perspective is uniquely and definitively Floridian. I don’t experience seasons. I dread the months of July and August. I don’t know how to drive on hills or mountains. I’m accustomed to sharing my cities with flocks of snowbirds for half the year. I think that every thunderstorm is going to be Biblical, but will last only twenty minutes. I’m constantly mindful of fire ants, snakes, and gators, and I think every dark shape in every corner is a cockroach. Things that would be weird to outsiders are commonplace to me. At this point in my life, it’s just who I am, and rather than forcing myself to inhabit a different (and less authentic) geographic perspective, I just sort of made the decision to own it. Stephen King is Maine. Junot Diaz is Jersey. They’re allowed to wander, to visit other places, but they’ll always return home in their fiction. And Orlando (and Florida) are home for me.

The challenge, then, is to constantly evaluate what it means to be an Orlandoan, to be a Floridian, to constantly think about how my life is different from that of someone who lives in Boston or Seattle. And not in an obvious, “it’s hotter here” way. But, like, what does the heat and humidity force us to do? How does it influence our entire wardrobe, how we prepare for the day, what we consider doing, how much time we spend outdoors? In another city, summer is the time for outdoor baseball games and grill-outs, for days in the park. In Orlando, my wife and I bought an annual pass to the Orlando Science Center so that we could have an air-conditioned fun spot to take our kids during the summer. I buy jeans with rips and holes not because I think I’m hip or fashionable, but because I need the extra air circulation. We live directly across the street from a great park and playground, but for three hot, miserable months, it sits there baking, empty. There are bird and cat footprints in the clay of the infield, but no shoe-prints until September. To write “Florida,” I think, doesn’t just mean to record the obviously Florida, to find a bunch of synonyms for “hot” (or “crazy,” if you’re talking about the people!), but instead to capture how the highly specific details of everyday life are shaped by the obvious.

SRJ: After reading Things I Don’t See, I’m learning that masculinity and fatherhood are themes in your work. You’re a father as well, yes? Do you feel the same anxieties about fatherhood your characters feel?

NH: I am indeed a father. Three boys, two of them twin babies. These days, I don’t get out much, and my world is dictated entirely by parenthood. It’s tough to not talk about it, to not write about it.

And so often, we read about bad fathers. They’re central to literature, I think. There are so many “bad men” who blame their fathers for how they turned out (or, rather, who are shown by the author to be a product of bad parentage, ambitious Don Draper types who care more about career than children), and when we see good dads, they’re usually just props: they impart to their son a code, and then (like Peter Parker’s sweet Uncle Ben) they are quickly murdered in order to give the protagonist some daily reminder of what he’s fighting for.

(Note: I haven’t catalogued the “good dad” to “bad dad” ratio in all of literature. Anyone with reliable numbers can feel free to correct me.)

And while I understand that the idea of a “good dad” is fairly uninteresting, I do spend a lot of time wondering what that word “good” even means. How will I know whether I’m a good father? Is it hours spent parenting? Is it wisdom imparted to my son? Is it my son’s eventual financial stability, his love of life, his abilities as a father? These are questions that matter in my own life, but in my fiction (and in The Things I Don’t See, in particular), I want to explore what it’s like to be a father who wants to be good, but who somehow winds up with a terrible child. We’re very quick to blame parents, after all, but life is complex. A father might make tough decisions for his family’s welfare (taking a new job, buying a new house) that just don’t work out, and the consequences are far-reaching. I think The Kite Runner gave us a great example of this type of father: depending upon the angle from which we viewed him, he could’ve been great, or he could’ve been cruel. Is the question of fatherhood much like Tolstoy’s famous quote about families from Anna Karenina? All good dads are alike, but there are a thousand ways to be a bad dad.

Interestingly, I wrote a draft of The Things I Don’t See while I was still in grad school, and in that draft, the story came alive during the flashback scenes (a scene from the protagonist’s childhood), but it fell flat during the present-tense scenes (when the protagonist is an adult and a father). I was in my mid-twenties, not interested in kids at all, and so I was never able to really become that character who was “all in.” It wasn’t until my wife became pregnant that I decided to return to the story and revise.

That made all the difference, I think. While I wasn’t yet a father, I was then able to understand how a father thinks. These concerns that the character was struggling with: they were my reality. I constantly thought about my own personal and professional habits, what would happen if (for instance) my son spilled soda onto a stack of student papers that I was grading, or got hold of a lighter, or hit the family dog, whatever. Brad Listi, the host of the Other People podcast, has a great quote that he likes to deliver to new parents: “Welcome to perpetual fear.” That pretty much sums up parenthood. You’re fearful of all the things that could happen if you haven’t properly child-proofed and safety-padded the entire world, but you’re also fearful of all the things that your child could become if you haven’t parented well enough. That fear, I think, was the driving force behind the revision.

SRJ: The language is so conversational, so easy to read. How did you find your voice as a writer? How do you advise your students to find theirs?

NH: I appreciate that…so long as it’s meant as a compliment!

I’ve always wanted to be an accessible writer, someone whose books and stories do not require a PhD to enjoy and discuss. That’s not to say that I don’t like to be challenged, or that I don’t think readers should be challenged, but I’ve always taken seriously the rhythm of the prose, and I’ve always thought that it’s difficult for the story to have life if you’re not able to fall into it.

I don’t necessarily want my prose to disappear, but I also don’t want the reader to be thinking more about the sentence construction than about the story and the characters. I love beautiful and elegant sentences (and no one would ever peg me as a minimalist), but my writing is meant to serve the story and the characters. If we’re stopping again and again to unpack and decipher (or even celebrate) the prose, the story has become secondary. I want a reader to be rushed forward, always forward, to find him/herself immersed in the character’s mind, or in the situation, or in the sequence of events. In real life, there is no “time out” button, no putting the book down and coming back to the drama of your life at some other time. With my stories, I don’t want the reader to take a break either.

Voice, I think, is a difficult thing to teach. But the best advice I can ever offer to my students is to read your work aloud, and (if you’re a serious fiction writer) to read it to others. If you can read your work smoothly, and fall into a rhythm, and there is nothing awkward that trips you up, and it sounds to you like…well, you…and if, for the duration of your story, the listener understands what is happening, is able to follow along and keep track of the many different characters and scenes and situations…then you’ve probably got a good thing going.

SRJ: You’re a fairly busy writer, featured in several short story collections as well as novels. What’s next for you?

NH: I’m in the final stages of revising and editing my next novel, Bright Lights, Medium-Sized City, which follows an entrepreneur and house-flipper as the housing market hits rock bottom in Orlando. It’s a completely different perspective than in The Things I Don’t See, where we zoom in on a family affected by their home purchase. In this book, we’re instead looking at someone who got rich by taking advantage of others, but who then loses everything and must reassess his life. It’s a pretty intensive project, a lot of pages and a lot of research, and just before my novella was published, we added to our family with the aforementioned twin boys…so when I’m finally finished, I think I’ll just take a long nap.

Illustrations: Samantha Lucy Haslam

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