The Nonfiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: With its phrases in parentheses, your essay creates the feeling of a series of whispered rumors being told about Cold Mountain. What role do rumors and legends play in the world of nonfiction?
Sean Prentiss: For me, much of the most exciting parts of creative nonfiction are the tangential things to the absolute truth. It’s the misremembered things. The legends you ask about (that may or may not be true). The myths of our culture and of our lives that sure feel completely real. It’s speculating on what the future holds. These are some of the many tools that creative nonfiction writers get to play with as they work on accessing their truths, their myths. The world is messing and confusing and creative nonfiction often should be that way too. Not clean and simple and wrapped up in the end.
RR: The use of parentheticals also creates the feeling of an unreliable narrator. What is the function of this narrative technique in your essay?
SP: Part of the function is that I want to call this piece an essay because I never wanted to invent this character. And history seems to think he exists. But records just don’t exist (as far as I know) that he 100% did exist. So the parentheticals allow me wiggle room to tell a “true” story about a person that may or may not exist (but we believe exists). So that’s part of it. And that might be part of the unreliable part. We just don’t know.
The other part is there’s a man and there is a mountain and they are two things (a man and a mountain) and one thing (a mountain, which the man is a part of). So the parentheses merely also serve as a way to differentiate between the two. Here is the man. Here is the mountain. But remember that the mountain is always the mountain and the man is always of the mountain.
And the other part, the part I maybe love best, is that whispering you mention above. We get the tangential (but powerful) thoughts whispered in the readers’ ears. We get the weird ideas. The subtle things that tint the color some darker or lighter shade. It’s subtle. It’s whispered. But it affects the entire piece. That’s the hope.
RR: Also, what are your thoughts on contemporary legends—are they as interesting or inspiring as historical legends?
SP: Yes. Legends and mystery, for me, are what it’s all about. It’s what creative nonfiction writing is about. We don’t search for what we know, we search for what we don’t yet know. We search for what we don’t understand. Our place in the world. Where our home is. How to love. How to be a good friend or brother. How to live on this earth. How to find that hidden desert grave.
We want to chase down mystery. It’s what religion and science are both about. Not about just discovering truths but about searching down mystery. And that comes from the legends, from the unknowns, from the wrongly known.
Like Edward Abbey says, It doesn’t matter if we find gold or fool’s gold. It’s the search that matters.
RR: What is it about Cold Mountain (the place) that inspires you?
SP: I’ve never been to Cold Mountain, but, as mentioned in question 1, I live far away from as many people as I can. It’s not that I don’t love people (I do, especially Sarah, my family, my best friends) but that it’s too loud in towns and cities. So I understand why Cold Mountain (the man) would escape off into Cold Mountain (the mountain). It’s what I understand. It’s how I long to live my life.
RR: How did you learn about the legend of Cold Mountain?
SP: It’s been a mix of good luck. I moved to Vermont and once here, I found a local and wonderful poet, David Budbill. He writes from the tradition of the ancient Chinese poets. That led me to explore those poets, and I fell in love with them. They are maybe the first modern narrative poets. They’re maybe the first environmental poets. So I fell deeper and deeper into their poetry and found the legend of Cold Mountain. A very short biography inspired me to retell his story in a creative way, again, maybe because I understand his impulse for slinking off further and farther from the city world.
“The History (Legend) of Cold Mountain (the poet)” appears in Rappahanock Review Issue 1.3.
Sean Prentiss is the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, a craft anthology that examines creative nonfiction. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University. You can read more of his work here.