Exclusive Interview: “A Grim Detail” Writer Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins may be best known for the music he made with Black Flag and The Rollins Band. But for people who like to read, some of his best work has been the collections of journal writings that he’s released over the years, including (but not limited to) 2006’s A Dull Roar and 2007’s A Preferred Blur. Though in talking to him about his latest collection, A Grim Detail, and how his journals go from his computer to the printed page, it’s clear that he doesn’t think as much about his writing as we do.
A Grim Detail collects your journal entries from 2009 and 2010. What are some of the fun adventures you went on that are chronicled in the book? Because you’ve been traveling to a lot of exotic locations the last couple years.
It’s not all that fun, but a lot of it is eventful. I go to places that are for the most part, difficult. Often there has been conflict or the economy is not stable. Some of the destinations are a bit grim from the outside, but when get in there, you see that which can be extremely moving. That’s what I’m after more than anything.
How different are the entries in A Grim Detail compared to how you originally wrote them?
In later drafts of the manuscript, sentences that were poorly constructed are made more clear, things that are too repetitious are usually removed. I want the writing to retain the moment, but if it’s bad writing and needs to be corrected, then it gets done. I wouldn’t be interested in totally re-writing work like this.
How long after you write an entry do you start editing, typically?
When I am on the road, I write. When I am off the road, I edit. So, editing and manuscript prep are done during down time. This is often a short period, so it is common for a book to take a long to come out. A Grim Detail is a perfect example of schedule taking priority over editing.
How often, when going through your journals, do you come across something and think, “maybe I shouldn’t tell anyone about that”?
Not often. Things that are “inside,” if you will, or would compromise someone else, rarely make it into any written form.
And how often, when your pal Heidi is editing your stuff, does she say, “maybe you shouldn’t tell anyone about that”?
Not often. She will point out, very correctly, when sentences don’t make sense or when passages are getting too boring and need to be chopped.
Speaking of Heidi, you’ve been working with her for years. What do you think is the biggest impact she’s had on your writing?
She doesn’t like the frequency with which I use the word “though,” and I have tried to curb that. Otherwise, I am not really thinking of anyone in particular when I do journal entries as much as I am trying to be clear.
So how do you decide when you have enough stuff for a new book? Do you wait until the Microsoft Word file is 300 pages, is there a schedule, or are there things in your life just happen that make you think, “Yeah, okay, this seems like a good place to stop.”?
With books like A Grim Detail, it’s a year at a time, so when it’s the end of the year, it’s the end of the book. Other books I have done, it’s usually the same thing. It’s a good way to keep things in order.
You’re an avid reader. What writers do you consider to be the biggest influences on your writing style, the way you write, not what you write about?
At this point, it would be people like Ryszhard Kapuscinski and Robert Fisk.
You’ve often said that you’re more comfortable on the road. But I’m wondering, specifically, where you feel you do your best writing? At a desk in a hotel room, on a plane, in the back of a van?
When I am on the move is when I feel that life is being lived correctly. This is when I think I am getting the best out of what I can bring to the table. Comfort has never been all that interesting a state for me. All those places you mention work for me. I do a lot of writing outside, coffee places, out in the world. When I am in the world, I am fighting, processing. This is the best way for me to be. When I am off the road, I feel like I am inert and somehow missing out on the big deal.
Have you ever considered writing a novel?
I don’t have the intelligence, discipline, or ability to write in that form. I think that one needs to have some kind of connection to other people that allows them to feel their lives. I don’t have that. I am just not that connected to people. That’s probably the main reason.
Changing gears for a bit, it’s been a while since you’ve released a spoken word CD or DVD, though you do numerous spoken word shows every year. Are there any plans to release anything soon?
It’s a bit of a nonstarter to put all the time/energy/funds into something that is almost immediately posted on the internet for free. I go with the changes.
That’s too bad, I like your spoken word albums. On other fronts, you occasionally act in movies and TV shows. Given that you do these books of your journals, how often do people ask you not to write about their coke habit or all the extras they’ve been fucking or something else that would be really embarrassing for them?
I would never talk out of class, first off, and secondly, that kind of activity isn’t at all interesting to me. Like I said, I am not all that connected to humans.
So if you could read a book like A Grim Detail, but written by anyone else throughout history, who are some of the people whose journals you’d most like to read?
It would be great to read Lincoln’s day to day during The Civil War. Journals of John Coltrane would be interesting as well, I bet.
You always have a lot in the works. In terms of books and so on, what’s coming down the pipeline next and when might it be out?
There are always book projects in the works. I get them out as quickly as I can so I can get onto the other ones that have started to take shape. At this point, I am very involved with a television show that will take quite a long time to finish. This will keep work flow on books down a bit but there are more in the works.
Finally, if someone reads A Grim Detail and wants to read another book by you, which one would you recommend they read next?
I am unable to suggest any of my writing to anyone.
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