Talking River Review faculty advisor Jennifer Anderson recently had the opportunity to review Gutkind’s memoir and ask him some questions about his book, his writing process, and how he’s faring during the pandemic.
I was introduced to the work of Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, twenty years ago as an undergraduate studying creative writing at Lewis-Clark State College, a small liberal arts college in Idaho where I now regularly teach his books to my own students. In addition to being regarded as “the Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Gutkind has been a well-known practitioner of immersion journalism for nearly five decades, a subgenre of nonfiction where, as he says, he “mine[s] the mysteries of other people’s lives” (102). When I learned that he had recently turned his focus inward by “immersing [him]self in [him]self” (103) and had written a memoir—his first ever—I was eager to read it.
As the title suggests, My Last Eight Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies is, on the surface, a first-hand look at aging. The memoir opens on the morning of Gutkind’s seventieth birthday and immediately dives into his conflicted mindset about growing older. He writes,
Seventy, I had repeated to myself, was only a marker. An unremarkable marker.
This, of course, was a goddamn lie. A sham. A way of steadying myself and keeping calm. Or keeping going, even though things weren’t going too well for me back then, to say the least. The stuff of my life—what had, in fact, kept me going—seemed to be gradually falling apart. (2)
Gutkind then chronicles some of his losses attendant to growing old, for instance, his health (he has trouble with eye floaters, his prostate, and sciatica) and short-term memory (he habitually forgets he is boiling eggs until he hears them explode on the stove). He reflects on the demise of several important relationships—the recent death of his mother and two close friends—as well as the uncertainty of his professional goals after his publisher cancels his book contract, a work about Menachem Youlus, the Torah Hunter, which Gutkind had hoped would be “the crowning glory of [his] career” (194). His honesty, as he works through these problems on the page, is refreshing. Not once does he dilute his disappointments, embarrassments, and anxieties:
I wanted to figure out who I was, who I had become, how my seventy years had been invested, why I did what I did—and why I did not do, perhaps, in retrospect, what I should have done. […] Like why was I, or why did I feel, so isolated and alone when, maybe, surely, there were people in my hometown and elsewhere who might want to interact with me? Why did I feel so vulnerable? (12)
As the best memoirs do, My Last Eight Thousand Days attempts to answer these questions by closely examining the past as well as the present. Seamlessly, in a manner analogous to how memory itself works—one moment triggering a recollection of another—Gutkind recreates scenes from his past to inform his current situation. We learn about his boyhood insecurities while in school and his tenuous relationship with his father; his stint in the Coast Guard and his perseverance in finally passing the rope test; his visits to his psychiatrist, his failed marriage, and his early writing career. Ultimately, Gutkind gives us an intimate and holistic look at his successes, his failures, and his vulnerabilities, so that we understand how his past has shaped him into the septuagenarian he is now.
But, if we presume that with all of its heavy subject matter, My Last Eight Thousand Days is solely a dark account of one man’s experience with aging and loss, then we are mistaken. Gutkind’s book is funny and often reveals an amusing, self-deprecating awareness. In one passage, he admits that his personal struggles with aging are not new when he recounts how he fled the expensive restaurant where his ex-wife had planned his fortieth birthday celebration: “The next thing I remember is lying in bed, blankets to my chin, eating from a box of soda crackers, sucking on the salt, drinking a Diet Pepsi, and watching M*A*S*H on TV” (7). In another, when confessing that he talks to himself out loud on the street, something that happens more frequently as he ages, he infuses his language with candid, energetic comedy:
The sound of my voice, carrying both sides of the conversation, eventually startles me, and I say, also out loud, “Oh shit. You better stop this.” And I do—until I begin to think of something else that’s on my mind, and my resolve to shut up fades, and the dialogue in my head gradually flows out of my mouth and into the street. And again, I have to shut myself up—“Stop talking!” I command—and again, for God’s sake, out loud. (18)
This frank, humorous tone continues throughout the entire memoir, softening even the hardest of truths by tapping into those human idiosyncrasies that we all, in one way or another, share.
It is worth noting, especially given the COVID-19-era in which we now live, that My Last Eight Thousand Days is more than solely a memoir about aging; it’s also a memoir about the importance of human connection, something that everyone, regardless of age, can relate to. At one point, Gutkind has an epiphany about his increasing sense of isolation. He writes, “[O]n my own, between books and immersions, I was tired of being a lone wolf, a guy so obsessed with work and climbing the goddamn flagpole of achievement that I had lost touch with other aspects of life” (232). So, he has what he calls an “attitude adjustment” (225) and starts reaching out to people, whether they be strangers on the street or the regulars at Starbucks, which helps him foster relationships and also develop a newfound sense of contentment, what he calls “the new, albeit older, me. A guy with friends, a guy with options” (254). It’s likely that Gutkind finished writing his book before the pandemic, but his message about the value of human connection proves especially resonant in a time where so many of us remain separated from others.
Though My Last Eight Thousand Days opens by detailing what Gutkind has lost in his seventieth year, it ends on a note of hope about all that he has gained. By immersing himself in his own life and mining the mysteries of himself, he has effectively uncovered many of the mysteries of the human experience inherent to us all.
Interview with Lee Gutkind
Jennifer Anderson: I want to begin by asking how you are doing during the pandemic, when all of us, to a degree, are experiencing an increased sense of isolation and disconnect.
Lee Gutkind: For one thing, I’m quite used to being alone, so it hasn’t made a gigantic difference. My whole life, I’ve been pounding away at some sort of keyboard and not answering phones or doorbells and ignoring friends who reach out because they want to just say “hi,” or have lunch or something. So, it’s not affecting me as much as it might affect other people who are generally more social than I am.
And secondly, if you read the second, transitional part of my book, you’ll see that over the past four or five years I have carved out a new life. So those folks are still there, like the happy hour Fridays we would spend at this place called Casbah. We’re now Zooming every Friday at five o’clock. We have our own happy hour. Now, to be honest, I don’t like it—I love bars; when you’re in a bar, you squeeze together, you climb on everybody’s shoulders, and then you have the side conversations, like your good friend comes in, and he’s got a dumb hat on, or whatever it is, and you say, “oh, that hat.” So, that’s all gone. But I’ve been okay because I know that even my new friends are okay in this same way.
JA: In this book, you are incredibly honest and even vulnerable as you contemplate your public and private personas and the current shape of your life. Can you talk about what it’s like to do this in your seventies, and even more importantly, in a public arena?
LG: Well, it’s my first memoir, and I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to leave anything out that I thought was really important. Just as I do deep dives into other people’s lives, it would only be right, fair, and smart to take the deepest dive possible into my own life, and it is a lot easier to do it when you’re seventy rather than when you’re thirty-two. Honestly, as a famous person once said, what do you have to lose? What I had to lose was not doing it right. What I had to lose was here I was, the big deal godfather, not doing memoir the right way. Considering that I may have less than eight-thousand days to live, and this may be my last book—I mean, who the heck knows?—I wanted to dig as deep as possible into who I am and why I am who I am, and I wanted to forget about being humiliated, because you can’t humiliate me anymore.
Also, since I have taught literally thousands of students how to write memoir, and I have edited so many memoir-oriented essays, I had to do it right. Since this could be my last chance at doing this, there was a lot I had to learn. A lot of the things that you do as an immersion journalist or reporter are different. There are lines based upon how much information people will give you about themselves and also what you can daringly intuit. So, I just decided, I’m going to go all out. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time. It’s like seeing a shrink, in many respects. You go in to see a shrink, you tell your therapist a story, and he or she nods and gives you signals. But then you go back to the shrink the next time, and you tell that same story, but you get a little deeper, and it’s a little different. That’s the way the writing process was for me. I wrote the story. I thought about it. I read it. Sometimes I even read it aloud to hear my own voice. And then there were things I thought I should add, incidents that I remembered. Many of the stories I initially told focused a lot on blaming other people, but the more I thought about it, the more I began seeing that what happened to me was very much my own responsibility, so that helped me come to terms and just, I guess, confess. It was hard and long to do it, but I never held back because I would somehow be outing myself or hurting my own reputation in any way.
JA: Aldous Huxley once wrote that “The trouble with fiction […] is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.” In your book, you write how your nonfiction project about Menachem Youlus, the Torah Hunter, fell apart due to his deception. You say that you tried, unsuccessfully, to even write the story as fiction. Then, for a while, you say that you were unable to write at all so retreated into the world of fiction, specifically the TV show Law and Order. Though often based on real-life events, each episode is shaped in a very predictable way. As a nonfiction writer, can you talk about the comfort that fiction gave you during that time, something that nonfiction perhaps couldn’t?
LG: For a number of reasons, I didn’t read nonfiction during that time, and frankly I read a lot more fiction than I do nonfiction anyway, because for me, nonfiction is my work. Every time I look at a nonfiction book, I begin thinking of it as an editor or thinking as a writer, figuring out what I can learn from that person, whereas reading fiction turns out to be much more of a pleasure. Now, it isn’t the case that I’m not reading any nonfiction. During that time, I read a couple of Erik Larson books. He has the ability to make the information so intriguing that it takes you away; you’re brought into Churchill’s house and his life and his family. But mostly, I read fiction.
And now for the second part of your question, Menachem was unpredictable in how he behaved toward me and what he did to me and to a lot of other people. I was not the only victim; the real victims, actually, were the people that he fooled into thinking he was giving them the Torahs the Nazis stole from their families. I didn’t want any more shoes to drop. I wanted to see a story. I wanted to connect with the characters and hope that those characters would do what I expected them to do and watch the entire sixty minutes play out. It was very comforting for me.
I was never so lost. Menachem made me think I could turn back again to be Jewish. Out of seventeen books, this was the first auction one of my books ever had, the first time a lot of people were jumping all over it—the hero Torah hunter rabbi—and I was pretty blinded. It isn’t that I didn’t suspect that there were things going wrong. But frankly, I thought that whatever went wrong would be part of the story. When he was uncovered as a fake, I wasn’t stunned at all. What stunned me was that my publisher cancelled my contract. I thought, well, this is a better story; he fooled people for twenty years, and now he’s been outed. This is so interesting. What’s going to happen next? Nobody found it interesting, except me and my friends, so all of that just shook me up. I mean, here I am, the great storyteller, the founder of Creative Nonfiction journal, and I got from flimflammed because I was so taken in by the potential of his story.
JA: Do you think you will ever return to the Menachem project, perhaps with a new angle?
LG: As I said in my book, trying to figure out how to re-spin that story occupied a lot of time and effort in my life and wore me out. It made me depressed and crazy, and so my compromise was that I spread it out as long as I could in My Last Eight Thousand Days; there are at least four chapters, I think, that focus on him. But there isn’t a week when I don’t think of Menachem and what has happened to him, how I allowed myself to be fooled because of my desire to write the greatest book ever, and because of my absolute lust for the best true stories. So, to answer your question, maybe. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to do it, and maybe he won’t be the main character, but he may well be the inspiration. It was so good to walk away from it that I don’t know if I want to walk back in and go back to my notes and look at it all over again.
JA: I admire how you weave humor throughout your book. What is the value of integrating humor into creative nonfiction narratives, especially when juxtaposed against heavy subjects like the ones your memoir addresses?
LG: Writing a depressing book is pretty much a guarantee that you will have very few readers. Maybe they’ll start it with you, but sooner or later, there must be a way for your readers to connect with the characters and connect with the story and enjoy it. Getting old is a bummer, but if you approach it differently, it can be humorous, especially if you’re willing to make fun of yourself. When you make fun of yourself, you show that you are a human being. I’ve been watching TV lately, and Barack Obama is not only criticizing Donald Trump and the Republicans, but he also makes fun of himself from time to time. That’s one of the lovable things about him. You know that you’re getting the straight stuff. It’s not just the words, but how he views life about himself and others.
I did this book once called Stuck in Time about child mental illness. I immersed myself for many years, and I spent a lot of time with the parents of a girl who was bi-polar. The parents were upper middle class, well educated, the father was a big deal in a large corporation, and they couldn’t control their daughter, no matter how much money they spent. They just couldn’t. They agreed to let me observe and take notes during therapy sessions, both with their daughter and with their social worker. But the thing that struck me was, it was so awful for those parents, and they would say such terrible, depressing, deadly things about how they felt about themselves, and then they would start to laugh. They would look at each other and say, “Ah, what else can we do but laugh!” What a great relief. I remember how they were able to tell the saddest story ever about their daughter and what they had to accept, and how they dealt with it with humor.
It makes us real. I mean, here we are in this COVID crisis of seven or eight months and everybody’s joking around all the time about masks. What else is there to do but kind of have some fun with it? It helps us all get by a little bit more easily. One of the things about my book that I really like, in addition to being honest, is that people tell me that that they laugh, and thank God they laugh, because there are not a ton of laughs these days, and it’ll get them to another chapter.
JA: After all of your “self-immersion,” do you have any advice for readers—maybe not just as a writer, but on a personal level—as to how we should live?
LG: I wouldn’t necessarily say I have any advice for anyone, but I have learned that you have to get over yourself and start to think about what it is you want for how many days or years you have left and try to achieve whatever that goal is. It makes it a hell of a lot easier when you have trustworthy people, friends and family, to reach out to.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t take too much at all. Right before you and I started talking, I was sitting in the office on Walnut Street with John, a guy that I have known on Walnut Street for at least thirty years. I never knew anything about him at all until one day, I don’t know, three weeks ago when he read my book, or he heard something about my book, and we started talking. He’s a terrific and interesting guy. Thirty years, and I never made any effort at all to connect with him. Last week, we went out and drank some wine outside, and we met the owner of the restaurant—I began talking to him just for the hell of it, you know, just reaching out—and we had the greatest conversation, the three of us, one of the best conversations I’ve had in years. I learned so much about this older Italian guy who started the restaurant and so much about my new friend John.
My life has changed so much by making the effort to reach out to other people and believe that they have something to share or say that I would be interested in. I always knew that everybody has something to share or say, but I was never open or interested. So that’s my lesson: COVID or not, mask or not, hiding in my house or not, I’m having a better life than I ever had before. It’s nice to have a few friends around, especially when you get older and the main activity—I’m not a funeral guy—but the main activity of many people your age is going to funerals.
JA: What do you think of the current state of creative nonfiction and where do you see it going, especially in this “post-truth” era in which we now live?
LG: I have been trying, frankly, to figure that out. I don’t think we quite know where things are going in this genre until it finally gets here. There are a lot of people pushing the boundaries of nonfiction in different ways that were hardly ever done before. Today, I just got an email from someone who is trying to understand what a braided narrative is. Okay, now maybe we were braiding twenty years ago, but we weren’t discussing braiding at that particular time. And then there is this battle to figure out how we can stretch the idea of the bonds of truth, and lots of people are musing about that. There are also people who don’t really care what’s true, still calling it creative nonfiction, perfectly happy for the sake of their own writing and their own feelings about literature to lie to their readers without a blink of the eye. And then there’s the recent really interesting stuff about alternative facts and fake news. It’s all going to come together at some point, and there will be a new way to describe and capture what creative nonfiction is.
Creative nonfiction, I would say, is supposed to be a balanced synchronization between story and information, style and substance. That’s the way I’ve always taught it. I’m guessing that that as time goes on, the style aspect will overwhelm the substance aspect, and that worries me a lot—not because style and story aren’t important; they are really important—but the real reason they are important is so that they will make the substance compelling and add clarity to it. I’m afraid that that part of those two words, “creative” and “nonfiction,” will partially fade away. We’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it; a lot will have to do with the writer’s voice and how credible we can be no matter what we say to our reader.
JA: Finally, do you have anything else that you would like to add about your book or about the process of creative nonfiction?
LG: Let’s just say that I never stopped working to write the best and most honest book that I have ever written. I don’t know if that’s true, but the ten years invested in it were really, in the end, quite fulfilling for me.
For more information about Lee Gutkind’s memoir, My Last Eight Thousand Days, visit www.leegutkind.com
All citations in this review are from Gutkind’s memoir, My Last Eight Thousand Days.