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Q-and-A with NIU author Joe Bonomo

May 22, 2013

Professor Joe Bonomo, a favorite teacher among many NIU students in the Department of English and a well-known rock ’n’ roll author and authority, has a new book out featuring a collection of essays exploring his youth.

The book, titled “This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began,” was the winner of the Orphan Press Creative Nonfiction Book Contest and published this past spring. It will be featured as part of WNIJ’s Summer Book Series, airing at the end of June.

Bonomo, the inaugural winner of NIU’s Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction Award in 2006, also has penned or edited a number of other books on topics ranging from rockers Jerry Lee Lewis and The Fleshtones to a collection of interviews with the cultural critic Greil Marcus and a book of prose poems about museum installations.

The publisher describes his latest essay collection as an interrogation of the dark edges of suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence and myth. From the memory of a rebellious Catholic schoolgirl to a coming-of-age story in a porn theater, Bonomo turns a prism lens on desire and faith and the body’s role in both, and ultimately questions the fallibility as well as the enduring power of memory.

NIU Today recently caught up with Bonomo for the following interview.

bonomo-bookWhy did you write this book?

I’ve been writing essays for many years. This book took shape as I started to collect those essays and to think about how they might work together. So, the book came about as a process of listening to what larger story, or stories, might be told by the many essays I’ve written in the last decade a half.

Tell me how you came up with the title, “This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began.”

The idea of infinity runs throughout the book, as a scientific formulation but also as an image and a metaphor. In the opening essay, I describe watching Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten” video when I was a kid at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and how that spooked and tattooed me in a way that I didn’t quite understand. The idea that we are mere specks in an infinite universe, and that when we gaze into our own bodies what we see at the molecular level is a darkness that looks just like the furthest cosmos – well, that was a lot to deal with as a kid! There are other memories in the book of dealing with the tensions of trying to understand infinity intellectually and spiritually. The book is largely interested in memories, the ways we remember, how we re-tell the stories about ourselves and others, sometimes changing those stories, and memory to me is a kind of .gif file, an infinite loop. Also, the book dramatizes what it was like growing up Catholic in the suburbs, being taught about, and charged with believing in, an infinite omniscient God with an infinite capacity for forgiveness, and then I’d go home and stare into a small, square backyard marked by shrubbery and a fence, the rigid demarcations of suburbia.

How many essays are there and can you give us a few topic examples?

There are 38 essays in the book, some long, some brief. I write about my family, growing up Catholic, faith, living in the suburbs and the cities, and the body, and the settings of the essays range from strip bars and Saint Andrew’s Catholic Church to playgrounds and abandoned buildings in Washington, D.C., and Appalachia.

Are the essays/stories autobiographical?

Yes. Sometimes I’m at the center; sometimes I drift to the edge, writing personally, observing.

Joe Bonomo

Joe Bonomo

What’s the common thread in this collection?

An essaying of the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth, and a grappling with language as we attempt to articulate the past and our shifting responses to it.

What did you hope to accomplish, and/or what do you want readers to take away?

When writing essays I’m guided in part by Wallace Stevens’ definition of a metaphor, that an ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object. Though my life and upbringing are pretty ordinary, when I’m following an autobiographical impulse what I hope to do is to turn myself – that is, my experiences, and my reflecting and commenting on them – in such a way as to render myself representative, emblematic of the human condition. Guillermo Díaz-Plaja said that “The essayist, really, is an arbitrary wanderer over a theme that remains hidden,” but one way a theme emerges for the essayist is via attentive, honest and candid self-interrogation. I think that the charge of any essayist is to ask, “Why does my experience matter beyond the fact that it’s my experience,” and “How might it be made to matter to others?”

What kind of feedback are you receiving?

It’s a little too early to tell. I’ve heard nice things from those who’ve read the book. My editors ran a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for the press, and it was very successful, meeting its goal and then some.

Do you use your own books and writing experiences in your instruction with NIU students, and if so, how so?

No. There are too many other writers and books to introduce to my writing students. I’ll occasionally share an essay of mine to talk about process or to help them toward drafting content for their own essays.

How can the book be purchased?

The book can be purchased directly from the publisher, Orphan Press.