[Editor's note: John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Upon This Rock" is by now a modern classic of literary journalism: writer rents an RV, experiences a Christian rock festival (and certain revelations) with a bunch of guys from West Virginia. In a "Why's this so good?" piece for Storyboard, ESPN The Magazine's Paul Kix wrote, "What I love about any of Sullivan’s stories, but especially this one, is his command of the language. The man can flat-out craft a sentence. He can do pathos, he can echo (without mimicking) the flourishes of other writers, and he can do humor. ... To feel this piece evolve as you read it is the true miracle of it."]
Storyboard: How do you come up with your story ideas?
John Jeremiah Sullivan: I don’t know. Let me pass on that one.
How long was the writing process?
That’s a question I’d like to know the answer to. I have no memory of it. I know that I wrote it in this old house we lived in, in downtown Wilmington, on Dock Street. An old antebellum house. We lived on the first floor and we were there for a year. I guess I spent maybe a month from the first sentence to handing it over. But it could have just felt that way.
How did Darius and the rest react to this story?
I only talked to Darius and Ritter, but they forwarded the feelings of the other guys. They told me that they really enjoyed it as a story. And I was honored by that. In other words, they knew that I had been trying to do something as a writer. They kind of said, “Hey, we see what you did there.” They didn’t try to evade that I had sort of come out as a non-believer in the piece in a way that I maybe didn’t to them. I never lied to them about my faith, but I probably said as little about it as I could.
So they didn’t feel betrayed?
On the contrary, I think they were excited to get a lot of attention in Braxton County, on account of this piece. They’d relate to me in great detail how much their stock had gone up with girls from having been in GQ.
Ten years later, what’s your opinion of “Upon This Rock?” How does it stack up to the rest of your work?
I’m always trying so hard not to think about my work at all. My hierarchies don’t tend to be very detailed that way. You’ve made me like it more with your questions. And not because of flattery, or anything like that, but in answering you I realize I still don’t know what was going on there. That tells me that what I wrote was not cynical.
“Upon This Rock”
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
It is wrong to boast, but in the beginning, my plan was perfect. <Why did you begin the story like this? It’s rather wonderful; the nod to Genesis, the acknowledgement of one sin, even as you — in your boastfulness — are guilty of another…/eg <It was one of those sentences that came before I’d given it any thought, if that makes any sense. I have no memory of wondering what the first sentence would be. It just seemed obvious, at the time, as part of the mania of these reporting assignments. I read it now and it sounds like it’s beaming in from another planet. At the time, it seemed like the most transparent way to begin the piece./jjs <Did you decide on it early in the drafting process?/eg <Yeah, it was a rare case of the first sentence of the piece being the first sentence that came to me. Sometimes it’s fun, when you can get away with it, to fossilize the actual circumstances of these assignments in the writing of them. I always got a kick out of that with New Journalism, the way the texture of that world, of the actual milieu—not of the subject, but of the reporting itself; the magazines; the newsroom—gets trapped in the writing of the piece and recorded. I had this anecdote about having wanted to go to another festival and the whole thing falling apart. It happened to be true, you know, that I ended up at the Creation Fest, not just by accident, but I wasn’t even meant to be there. That little story gave me that./jjs <You mention New Journalism. Was that a big influence on you?/eg <Oh, yeah, massively. I mean, this piece is talking to Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss.” That’s one of the pieces people point to as the Big Bang of New Journalism./jjs <Interesting. I wouldn’t have put two and two together./eg <Well, I shouldn’t make too strong a case for that reading. Sometimes a writer’s take on your own stuff is so excessively idiosyncratic. I was very much inside that mindset, you know, living in New York and writing for magazines and trying to learn from the people who’d done it in the most interesting way. People like Gay Talese./jjs
I was assigned to cover the Cross-Over Festival in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, three days of the top Christian bands and their backers at an isolated midwestern fairground or something. I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder—homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves: “This Christian music—it’s a phenomenon. What do you tell your fans when they ask you why God let Creed break up?” The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving …