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Random acts of mayhem
Fort Wayne native BJ Hollars tries to “write his way out of disaster” in This Is Only A Test
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
BJ Hollars can pinpoint almost the exact hour his collection of essays This Is Only A Test started taking shape — about 2 PM April 28, 2011.
And when you hear Hollars tell the story, it becomes pretty clear why the date and time is so specific. “That was the day following the Tuscaloosa tornado,” he says. “All the power was out, and I started writing this essay at the end of my laptop’s battery life.”
A graduate student and teacher at the University of Alabama at the time, Hollars took shelter in his bathtub with his wife Meredith and their dog. They huddled there, sofa cushions over their heads, as an EF-4 tornado tore through their town. And just a few days before, Hollars and his wife had discovered they were going to be parents for the first time.
Now an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Eau Clair, Hollars grew up in Fort Wayne, and has several books to his credit. Fort Wayne, or at least a version of it, provides the setting of many stories in Sightings, his 2013 collection of short fiction.
The pieces that make up his latest book, This Is Only A Test, all revolve around fear. More specifically, how defenseless we can feel against the disasters and dangers that can seemingly come out of nowhere.
Some of the essays are relatively straightforward — Hollars simply tells you a vivid story, like in “Goodbye Tuscaloosa” or “The Year of the Great Forgetting.” Other essays play with structure and form, and use history and what might be called “urban myth” to get their message across. “In using different structures like lists, multiple choice tests, things like that… my hope is that they’re not so much gimmicks, but a new way to get at the reader’s heart,” Hollars says. “They’re techniques you can utilize to tell a conventional story in an unconventional way.”
The book is divided into three sections. The first is largely about the Tuscaloosa tornado and its aftermath. Classes were cancelled, students were dismissed, and Hollars says the friends and neighbors who stuck around seemed to be dealing with PTSD. Part of Hollars’ “therapy” (for lack of a better term) was writing about it. “The line in the book I keep coming back to is ‘I am trying to write my way out of disaster’,” says Hollars. “I devoured everything I could find about tornados. I just wanted to know every thing about them — what they were and how they worked. It was weird; I really felt like if I just kept writing about the tornado I would always know where it was. As long as I kept my eye on it, it wouldn’t suddenly blindside me.”
The feelings were amplified with the prospect of having a child, and the later sections of the book feature pieces about coming of age as a new parent, though in a way that brings a fresh perspective to the subject. An essay called “The Year of the Great Forgetting” talks about a fever his 18-month-old son came down with while they were on vacation. The worst of the fever passed, and although his son appeared healthy and doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, his temperature was always just a little bit elevated. “But it was just my anxiety kicking in,” Hollars says. “I couldn’t persuade myself that everything was okay, though it turned out to be perfectly normal.”
The anxieties of new parents are often a ripe source of humor, and there’s a little of that in “The Year of Great Forgetting,” when a doctor eventually tells the Hollars to slow down on the obsessive temperature monitoring. But the piece also perfectly evokes how very real some of these fears can seem.
In other essays, Hollars uses history to examine his theme. A particularly striking example is “Fort Wayne Is Still Seventh on Hitler’s List.” The title is a nod to Michael Martone’s story “Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List” (Hollars was a student of Martone’s; Chris Colcord interviewed Martone a few years ago for FWR). Hollars talks about an instructional film called Bombs Over Fort Wayne — he found the script for it in the History Center, but doesn’t know if a copy still exists. “That’s all real,” he laughs. “You can find the script at the History Center. I tried to find some version of it on Youtube or somewhere. But yes, there was all this material about, you know, what to do if the Germans bombed Fort Wayne. As if the Luftwaffe could get past New York without anyone noticing.”
For Hollars, incorporating history into his personal essays is a way to guard against narcissism. “Writing personal essays about you and your family… I think people can only take so much of that,” he explains. “I always ask my students, can your story pass the ‘so what’ test? Is there a larger take-away there? For me, there’s some validation in history for me, some pieces of the larger puzzle that can buoy the essay beyond the personal.”
There’s a loose progress to the essays in This Is Only a Test. “It’s coming to terms with the fact that no matter how much you want to protect your family, there are some things you really can’t protect them against,” Hollars says. “Some of the later essays tackle those overlooked moments, those times in our lives when everything is going just fine, and learning to appreciate them, realizing that that Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM, throwing a ball around or something, that might be the best moment of your life.”
BJ Hollars will read from This Is Only A Test at the main branch of the Allen County Public Library on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30. You can buy a copy of This Is Only A Test at the reading.