Interview with David Shields

Cassandra Jensen

Writer and filmmaker David Shields has authored twenty-two books, including the groundbreaking Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Vintage Books, 2010) and the award-winning Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), as well as, most recently, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power (Mad Creek Books, 2019). His latest documentary, Lynch: A History, explores the silence-as-protest of NFL star Marshawn Lynch. I talked with Shields via email about the film and some of his other projects-in-progress.

Cassandra Jensen: As a former film student now studying nonfiction writing, I’m fascinated by how you’ve established yourself as both a writer and a filmmaker without necessarily distinguishing between the two. For example, you’ve called your latest documentary about Marshawn Lynch—Lynch: A History—a cine-essay, and it does resemble your printed essays in its vivid patchwork of quotes and found material. What inspired you to render Lynch as a sort of biopic rather than, say, a written biography? Was there something particular about his story that you felt lent itself to the cine-essay form?

David Shields: As my work has tried to demonstrate, my doc-films and my book-length essays are virtually the same thing. I see no difference really between the form of, say, Lynch: A History and, say, Nobody Hates Trump More than Trump or The Trouble with Men. Why does Lynch take this form? So many reasons.

First of all, we approached Marshawn, who said he didn’t want to participate in the film but neither would he impede it. Second, doing a journalistic work-around—for example, interviewing his teammates, coaches, etc.—seemed like a bad-faith approach. Third, previous books of mine, like Reality Hunger and War Is Beautiful (powerHouse Books, 2015), do a lot of remix. Fourth, I’ve never found that interviewing athletes is particularly useful, anyway.

Fifth, a galaxy of researchers and I found tons of amazing material on the web about Marshawn—it’s all there. Sixth, the approach seems so congruent with Marshawn and his hometown, Oakland. It felt like glitch art, like graffiti. Seventh, fair use concerns were paramount. We needed to pull very quick clips from each source, we needed to make a commentary, and the commentary had to be legible to a so-called “average” viewer.

The result was a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention: the film is meant to feel like you’re trapped inside a GoPro camera during Beast Quake 3.0—the film is meant to feel like a Marshawn Lynch run. In that I think it succeeds.

CJ: One way to view the film, as you’ve pointed out, is as an ode to the eloquence of silence, or an exploration of the rage (particularly Black rage in the face of white exploitation) inherent in silence. An example that comes to mind, since I recently read your book about him, is J.D. Salinger, famous for his silence after Catcher in the Rye and his refusal to interview. But I’m curious whether you think there are other ways for writers, who typically thrive on expression, to enact their own form of silence-as-resistance. What might eloquent silence look like in a writer’s work—apart from, say, just putting down the pen? 

DS: For me, what I think about is literary and cinematic collage/montage. All the huge space of silence within my work and within other people’s work. I have just read Andre Perry’s new book Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now (Two Dollar Radio, 2019), which I absolutely love, and the reason it is so powerful, I think, is that he leaves in a lot of space, a lot of silences; the reader meets Andre in the silence(s), and there is thus a bridge built across the abyss of human loneliness.

CJ: Maybe a case in point of your tendency to blend roles and genres is that for Lynch, you were producer, director, and editor. That must have been a lot to juggle! In other ways, it seems like the film was a team effort—whereas the stereotype about writing is that it’s done on one’s own. Since you’ve co-authored books as well, I’m wondering how you compare collaborative filmmaking to collaborative writing. Are the processes similar? Is one more personal, time-consuming, or challenging than the other? 

DS: I would emphasize that with the film I had an awful lot of help, mainly from the lead editor, James Nugent. I really did produce the film and write it and help edit it, but James was crucial: music, editing, etc. This project was exhausting. I’m shocked that I survived it. It took four years and over $100,000. I’ve had good collaborations and hellish collaborations and everything in between. It just feels like a phase of my artistic life now that I do a lot of collaborative work. It seems to help me stay focused; it builds in the guilt factor. How are literary and cinematic collaborations similar or different? I don’t see a huge amount of difference, to be honest. For example, Caleb Powell and I wrote I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel together. Then we did the film together with James Franco. It all feels very similar to me.

CJ: I tend to struggle with titles in my own writing. You’re a whiz at them, though: your latest book, The Trouble with Men, has quite a hook of a title; then there’s my favorite, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead; and, of course, Lynch, which refers both to the athlete’s surname and to the history of white violence he’s resisting. How do you go about choosing your titles? Are there any title-writing tips you can share?

DS: I have many strengths and weaknesses as a writer (none as a person, of course), but I do think I’m a good titler, of a certain kind. My favorite thing any reviewer ever said: “Why does every David Shields title sound like the title of an emo band’s first album?” Or as someone else said, my aesthetic is sort of “sex-on-the-first-date.” That is, my titles just go ahead and say it. Another friend said, “With you, the shit gets real, real fast.” That’s what my titles do. I’m not good at poetic titles: “The Moon in its Afterglow,” or whatever. But I’ve learned how to just say, “Hey, this book is about, uh, The Trouble with Men.”

CJ: It seems like you’re still pretty immersed in cinema: I hear you’re currently working on two new documentaries. Can you talk a bit about these upcoming projects and what brought you to them?

DS: One of them, Burning Down the Louvre, takes place a few weeks before the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Rita Banerjee, who’s Bengali, and I, who am Jewish, film in Paris to try to comprehend the current American racial cataclysm from a French point of view. We debate about skin color, class, gender, privilege, and art—and disagree about all of it. It’s an antagonistic conversation.

After the bombings, it becomes undeniable that even in France—a safe haven for African Americans since the Louisiana Purchase—there’s something profoundly wrong. We human beings do not seem to know how to coexist. After filming in Paris, Rita and I weave archival material into the story—Chomsky vs. Foucault, Harari, and Hannah Arendt, whose philosophy of intimacy and friendship the film ultimately celebrates. The space between any two people is the source of all hate and all love.

That’s what the film catalyzes around, this insight. The scariness of two people actually connecting.

CJ: And what about the other film?

DS: The other is about modernists and postmodernists (Melville, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche) trying to figure out how to be, how to conduct moral discourse, and how to exist in a universe in which there is no absolute authority. This idea that “if God is dead, everything is permitted.”           

A couple of days before the 2018 midterm elections, at the NonfictionNOW conference in Phoenix, Robin Hemley, Nicole Walker, Erik Sather, and I asked writers and nonfiction professors questions like, “How do you know what you believe? Do you have any absolute beliefs? Is there such a thing as truth? What is nonfiction, and is it true? What do you think is the difference between truth and belief? If you have siblings, have they shown your view of the world to be flawed? Are you superstitious? Do you believe in ghosts? Why are you here and not canvassing for Stacy Abrams?”

The consensus answers, “I have no absolute beliefs except in art; there are no absolute truths other than that there is no truth; my sister and I are estranged; there are no ghosts except psychic luggage; I’m not canvassing for Abrams because all I finally care about is art.” 

What no one was willing to talk about, and what the film addresses, is that what Kellyanne Conway, Trump, Giuliani, QAnon, Fox News, and others have done weaponizing the last 150 years of intellectual thought and philosophical investigation and post-Einsteinian physics and Saussurean linguistics and the “crisis” in nonfiction. If the perceiver by her very presence alters what’s perceived, then Steve Bannon, et al., are all quite consciously creating, on a day-by-day basis, a universe in which nothing is true—and thereby Trump and Putin and QAnon have successfully ended human discourse. Jeffrey Epstein hangs himself, and within minutes Trump tweets that the Clinton crime family is behind this. It’s based on nothing, but it’s a strategy that goes back to The Underground Man.

God is dead. Everything is permitted. Or is it?

Cassandra Jensen is an MFA candidate at The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. A former Iowa Arts Fellow and public media professional, she is the current nonfiction editor of The Iowa Review. She is also a graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, where she earned an MA in Documentary Film and History.