Saturday, May 25, 2024

Q&A with Justin Gardiner




Justin Gardiner is the author of the new book Small Altars. His other books include Beneath the Shadow. He is an associate professor at Auburn University, and is the nonfiction editor of The Southern Humanities Review.


Q: Why did you decide to write Small Altars?


A: I have been writing about my brother Aaron, on and off, for over two decades now. Mostly this has come in the form of poetry, focused on his struggles with mental illness and his more recent struggles with a rare form of cancer.  


After Aaron passed away in the fall of 2019, I knew I had more I wanted to say—about his life, about his death—and I knew the project would veer towards prose.  


The book’s focus on comic books and superheroes (as well as classical piano music) was chosen because those were major interests in my brother’s life, and I hoped that through writing about them I would bring him closer into view (both for the reader and for myself). 


I am not really interested in a cathartic approach to making art. I was never trying to get rid of or cleanse myself of any emotion toward my brother through writing Small Altars, but I did want to go deeper into those emotions, to fully articulate them to myself, and to try and transform the heavy sense of grief I felt into something more companionable.  


Q: I’m so sorry for your loss…


How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I don’t honestly remember when I chose the title for the book—if it was something I knew I was building up to, or if I didn’t settle on it until after I had already written the passage, near the end of the book, where it shows up.  


I suppose the title evokes for others the sense of a small memorial, and—in a way—that is what the book ultimately is, but the passage where this phrase takes place is actually about something much different than that, about the places we tend inside ourselves—not for the dead, but for the living: “When death comes for one person, it hollows out so much of those who remain. It clears away the small altars that we had kept for them, sweeps clean the dusty enclaves where we once sat.”


My brother had been a huge source of sadness and worry in my life, but it wasn’t something I ever talked much about, or that had any real outward place in my daily life—especially over the last decade once I settled on the East Coast.  


After his death, it almost felt like there was a room or alcove inside me that was being walled shut. I wondered, “What becomes of this place now that he is gone?” And I think that one of the reasons why I wrote the book was to try and figure that out.


Q: The writer Rajiv Mohabir said of the book, “At its tender heart, Justin Gardiner’s Small Altars considers death, yes, but the life of fraternal bonds, illness, and separation—all placed on the psychic altars kept for loved ones.” What do you think of that description?


A: Rajiv is a writer whose work I have long admired, and that description is an excerpt of a longer blurb which is included on the back of my book, which is—itself—an excerpt of the even longer blurb that he originally wrote, and which we could not fit on the back cover. 


 So mostly I just feel grateful that he engaged as deeply with the book as he did—that he felt like he had so much he wanted to say about it.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from Small Altars?


A: Since the book’s publication, a number of people have reached out to me—some friends, some near or total strangers—all saying that the book helped them to think through and understand their own relationship to grief.  


I can’t think of a greater compliment, or a greater hope for the reception of this book, than that. Especially for anyone who has lost a sibling or a child, for anyone whose family has had to deal with the tolls of mental illness or cancer—I hope they find something that can be of use to them inside these pages, to help them come to terms with their loss.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: These days I am excited to be back at work on a long dormant nonfiction project—a sort of coming-of-age in the backcountry book that I started well over a decade ago, while serving as the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Fellow in southern Oregon.  


The idea for this book is that it is structured into many self-contained essays/chapters which span roughly a decade of my life, and that each are set in a different National Park or Wilderness area.  


An essay that I thought I was working on for this project, about a trip I took down to Antarctica, wound up becoming my first book: Beneath the Shadow: Legacy and Longing in the Antarctic, published in 2019. Then came a series of other projects, including Small Altars, and it is only now that I am—finally, happily—circling back.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Tupelo Press had me put together a Reader’s Companion for Small Altars. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I really enjoyed working on it and am quite proud of the result.  


It includes more on the book’s backstory, as well as details about its structures, themes, and influences (along with discussion questions/writing prompts/reading suggestions).


So, if you liked the book, or want to learn more about it before picking up a copy, please check it out. (This would also be a great resource for anyone who is considering using Small Altars in the classroom or as part of a book club.)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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