Ian Frazier’s been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1974 and has published more than a dozen books with FSG. In his latest collection, Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces, his own curiosity becomes the impetus for the writing that The New York Times called “observation backed up by research and marinated in rumination and wordcraft.” He and Sarah Crichton, publisher of Sarah Crichton Books, sat down recently at Greenlight Bookstore to talk about this curiosity, as well as meteorites, General Henry Shrapnel, and Brooklyn bus rides.
Sarah Crichton: It’s interesting: there are twenty-three pieces in this wonderful book of yours, and they are all very different, ranging from reportage on feral hogs in the South, to a ride on the most dangerous bus route in the five boroughs of New York. Yet they very much belong together; this collection is surprisingly cohesive, and I’d love to discuss why that is. But before we do, I’m dying to know something. That bus ride: you really wanted something dangerous to happen while you were on it, didn’t you?
Ian Frazier: To be honest, I did not. I didn’t. I was actually surprised that nothing bad happened at all, and that everybody was so nice—extremely nice. It was a fun bus ride, maybe because you’re paying a little bit more attention in case something bad does happen. I rode it up and down and I got off at a lot of different spots, and then got on another bus. Finally, there was a really sweet and pretty young woman bus driver. That was the bus I decided to write about, but I took a whole bunch of different ones. I got out at the place where Officer James Li had been shot. It had happened not that long before, so there were surgical gloves on the sidewalk, and there was crime scene tape still there. And James Li turned out to be okay.
SC: So that was as dangerous as it got.
IF: It was a very relaxing and pleasant ride.
SC: One of the things I loved about that piece the first time I read it in The New Yorker was that it reads like a bus ride. You just kind of rock along, going through Brooklyn. It’s very surprising and lovely. I love the list of the signs you spotted out the window: “EZ Pawn Corp., Baby Genius Day Care Center, Miracle Temple Church of God, Cameo Auto Body, Victory Tabernacle of Praise, Tree Stump Barber Shop, Beulah Church of God Seventh Day, Inc. . .”
IF: I like lists, and I do more lists than I probably should. But going through neighborhoods, you see stuff that you haven’t seen before, and you think, now, what is this trying to tell me? I had never noticed how many storefront churches there were, you know? A lot of times, you’re going by too fast to write all the names down. So I took the bus many times, up and down, and I would catch another word or a phrase , and I would fill more in there, and I ended up with a much longer list than I needed.
SC: In a very different piece, you wrote about the only known woman who has been hit by a meteorite. She was in her bed.
IF: In Sylacauga, Alabama.
IF: A woman lying in her bed, and a meteorite comes through the ceiling, ricochets off a radio, and hits her.
SC: What’s really sad is that she’s just renting this place, so she can’t keep the meteorite.
IF: Right, because by American law, the meteorite belongs to the person who owns the property.
SC: Who is named Mrs. Birdie Guy, a great name.
IF: Right. And the owner, of course, insists on her rights. This is a very famous meteorite. Until now, no one in literature or history has ever been hit by a meteorite. So this is an amazing thing. And this woman had to be hospitalized because of it. Both because she was actually somewhat injured, and because she kind of had a breakdown, because all these people showed up. It happened to be right at the same time as Roswell, and people were getting spooked about outer space and the Cold War. So, she went through a terrible experience.
She takes possession of the meteorite that hit her, and then Mrs. Birdie Guy sues her. The woman ended up losing the meteorite to Mrs. Birdie Guy—but by that point she and her husband felt so attached to the meteorite that they bought it from Mrs. Birdie Guy, thinking that they could leverage it into something. But they didn’t make a penny off of it. It’s now in the University of Alabama Museum of Natural History. Lots of people come to visit; out-of-state people come to see this meteorite.
I did the piece because somebody in Freehold, New Jersey, had a similar experience—a suspected meteorite came through the ceiling of his second-floor bathroom. I saw that in the paper and I just thought, “That looks pretty amazing. A meteorite hit this house.” So I went and talked to the guy, and there’s a whole story of what happened with that meteorite. That led me to start reading all this different stuff about meteorites. I went out to Meteor Crater in Arizona. When you fly from L.A. to New York, sometimes you fly right over Meteor Crater. It looks like a huge bullet hole in the desert. I went there, and then I learned about a guy there, Dr. Ernst Schumacher, who began the science of planetary geology. One of his big goals was to go to the moon and collect samples himself with his own rock hammer. But he became ill, and then he was killed in a car wreck. He had asked already that some of his ashes be put on an extraterrestrial body. So they put an ounce or so of his ashes on a satellite that was shot to take pictures of the moon. When the satellite finally was done taking its pictures, they just crashed it into the moon, so Dr. Schumacher’s ashes ended up there. That’s the first person in history to end up with part of their body on another planet.
These are firsts that have happened. First meteorite striking a person . . . First person to end up with a bit of his ashes on another planet.
SC: This is probably an unseemly segue, but one of my favorite pieces here, one of the most surprisingly moving essays in the book, is a piece about shrapnel.
IF: General Henry Shrapnel, yeah.
SC: You really made me feel for him.
IF: I ended up feeling for Shrapnel, too. He was somebody who, like all boys, and many women, many people in general, liked to blow stuff up. I loved to when I was young. Shrapnel invented shrapnel. People don’t know that Shrapnel is a person, was originally a person, so when they talked about shrapnel, it used to be capitalized. Through much of the nineteenth century, it was capitalized. He invented it in the late eighteenth century, and it was first used in 1805, and then it was used in the Napoleonic Wars. Thank God he didn’t invent it before the American Revolution, because they would have mowed us down. He invented this shell that would explode at a distance. It was a cannon shell that you put a little timer in to blow it up at four thousand feet out. It would blow up, and it was filled with musket balls, so all the musket balls would spread out. The French had no idea how they were being hit by musket balls. The British were over a mile away; how were they getting hit by musket balls? It ended up contributing to the victory at Waterloo. And this was a big thing. He thought he should be made a viscount at the very least. It never happened. I forget which king promised he would do it, but the king died. The next king didn’t do it.
Shrapnel left. He moved his family to Canada, and there are still Shrapnels in Canada. He was, as I say in the story, he was only trying to help. He was trying to help his country, and he spent his entire fortune—he had inherited a small fortune—he spent it on his experiments, and he was not recognized for it.
Just try and think what it would be like to be Shrapnel, to be Shrapnel’s soul in the other world—you keep hearing your name in these horrible contexts. I imagine, what if we said, you know, “The civilians were killed by pieces of Frazier.”
SC: Well, as you point out, Shrapnel’s name also really leant itself to being immortalized this way, because of the sound of the name, the onomatopoeia of it.
IF: I mean, Shrapnel: his name was the weapon. It was like shrap nel: “death knell, you’re dead.” If he had been named Smith, it wouldn’t be called that. But, Shrapnel . . . Before General Shrapnel, they were clothiers, the Shrapnels.
SC: The pieces collected here were written between 2000 and 2015. When you were pulling them together for the book, did it surprise you to see how they fit so well together? Were you surprised to see recurring themes and ideas emerge? You are such a splendid storyteller; I wasn’t surprised to find that here. But I was a bit surprised by how personal the book is. Not that you reveal everything about yourself, but you’re a recurring character who pops up throughout, and it’s you—your interests, your concerns—that holds the collection together.
IF: Usually in a book, I think, “Here’s the effect I want this book to have.” But with these pieces, there was just—it was things that I was curious about, or things that people suggested to me, like wild hogs, that they thought I might be curious about. I have a piece in there about invasive carp that are all over out west, in the Midwest. They’re very, very thick in the Illinois River. I was resistant to doing that piece. I had read something about it and another friend of mine had done a short documentary piece about it for some nature channel. And I thought, “My friend already did this piece, so why would I wanna go do it again?” David Remnick urged me and kept saying, “Go do this piece.” It was really sound advice because I turned out to love this subject. So some things were my own curiosity, and some were things where people said, “This is something you should do.”
I didn’t expect the book to have that much coherence. I hope that it does. If I was going to use an epigram for the book, it would be this story about Sitting Bull. It is said that when Custer was finally wiped out, and three or four people, guys from Reno’s command, were running to get away, Sitting Bull said to these Sioux and Cheyenne who were chasing them, “Let ’em live. They’re just trying to live.” A lot of the book is about how things are just trying to live—like the way horseshoe crabs are trying to live, or Asian carp are trying to live, and the way we will adjust to things and figure out how to live. I’m interested, I guess, in the line between the sociopathic and bullying. Wild hogs are right on that line—like the invasive carp, they’re destructive. But you kinda just love ’em, like, “Man, they’re really just trying to live.”
SC: I think that does come through to the reader. By the way, I happened to notice that the book opens with a piece called “By the Road,” a terrific piece about a conversation you had with a man in Montana. And the last line of the book, from an essay about the horseshoe crab, is this: “Next to the road, where most people never look at them, they show how life goes about living on the actual earth.” So the book starts with ‘By the Road,” and it ends with “next to the road.” Did you do this intentionally?
IF: I didn’t notice that—and now I’m going to say I totally planned it on some deep, deep level.
SC: I was so pleased to find this that I pointed it out to your editor, Jonathan Galassi, and he said, “Well, the man’s an artist.”
IF: That’s my editor.
Ian Frazier is the author of Great Plains, The Fish’s Eye, On the Rez, Family, and Travels in Siberia, as well as Coyote v. Acme and Lamentations of the Father. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Sarah Crichton is the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books.
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