In August, Joshua Wolf Shenk started as executive director of UNLV’s literary center, the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter, Black Mountain Institute. The institute, founded in 2006, supports degree programs in creative writing, public readings and panel discussions, residential and faculty fellowships, and literary publications.
There’s a thread running through your work, from Lincoln’s Melancholy (2006) to Powers of Two (2015), that has to do with the emotional roots and realities of creative people. How did that theme develop in your life and work?
The two most important things in my career are the creative arts — the possibility of beauty, meaning, and connection that the arts offer — and the reality of suffering. Virtually everything that I’ve done has been at the nexus of those two realities.
There is a history of mental illness in my family that has been my legacy. As a writer in my mid-20s — I’m 44 now — I was very consciously looking for a big mental health story. At that time, thinking about psychology and psychiatry absorbed such a huge portion of my brain that it occurred to me that if I had any prayer of writing something good, I ought to find something on that subject.
One day I ran across a story about Lincoln being extraordinarily depressed as a young man, and it seemed incredibly important. How was it that Lincoln — who I had always known as a figure on Mount Rushmore and a god on the national mall — was also talking about killing himself? How could that be the same man? In some ways, it’s the core question of my life: how these varieties of emotional experience run alongside our lives, shaping, activating, coloring the most meaningful things.
In what other ways has your family history shaped you as a writer?
I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, in a city called Wyoming—the wild hills of Cincinnati. It was a classic midcentury suburb, but my family life was a little chaotic, in kind of a suburban Ice Storm kind of way, without its key parties. Not the kinds of problems you associate with poverty or violence, just the malaise of unhappy people.
Writing came from this sense that I needed to have the stuff inside me be known in some way, and I needed to find ways to connect to people. My parents had divorced when I was seven, and my oldest brother [David Shenk] was a kind of father figure to my middle brother and me. In college, he had become a very serious creative writer. I wasn’t consciously imitating him, but it was sort of, “This is something we can do, and something we can be.” Later on, he was a critical mentor to me in getting started as a book writer.
Your most recent book, Powers of Two, emphasized the importance of this kind of one-to-one creative connection. You challenged “the myth of the lone genius” and invoked some famous partnerships—Jobs and Wozniak, Lennon and McCartney. But for many artists, that sort of profound partnership seems elusive, as much a thing to be longed for as genius itself.
When Lennon and McCartney are on the cover of the excerpt in The Atlantic, it’s easy to think, “Well, the model here is the sublime, life-changing, earth-shattering partnership.” But those iconic relationships in the book are intended to be guides and models and teaching units. For most of us, creative partnerships come in many, many varieties. They may be long-lasting; they may be short-lasting. They may be places where two people are coequal; they may be places where there’s clearly a radical power discrepancy, where one person is clearly the boss or mentor and the other is clearly the employee or student.
This sense of partnership shapes my thinking in every aspect of my life. It’s relevant to my decision to come to UNLV. I’m not here to cap off my career; I’m here very much on the hunt for my own voice and vision. And while part of my role here as executive director is to lead, I’m also a writer-in-residence, and I’m very energized to be part of a dynamic community, learning as much as I’m teaching.
Creative writing students often want to hear about an author’s path from student to professional writer, the mystery of how to get there from here. How did you make that transition?
I went to Harvard College and majored in history and literature, and the dominant experience for me there was The Harvard Crimson. We were doing real news that really affected the community, and very strong features and editorials. That was a grounding for me in getting things right and in seeing the world as a place where you get the truth by talking to people who know it.
When I graduated in 1993, it was kind of a straight line from The Crimson to The New Republic, Washington Monthly, US News & World Report, and The Economist. It’s amazing to think back on: At The New Republic, I was in an office with Michael Kinsley, Michael Lewis, Andrew Sullivan, and Robert Wright. So there was this sense of socially important, fact-driven writing that really shaped me.
In my late 20s, I was introduced more to poetry and fiction and literary nonfiction. There’s another currency there, the currency of emotional authenticity and vulnerability, of formal innovation. So there was a new set of heroes: David Foster Wallace and Geoff Dyer and Nick Flynn, these writers who sort of bring their own neurotic or yearning self-consciousness to the fore.
I still love both strains of writing, about the self and about the world, and I try to integrate them. I feel at home in kind of a wonky, earnest conversation where everyone is really heads down about how we can make the world better, and also in an artsy environment where everyone is all wide-eyed and amazed at the spectacle.
Your interest in emotional authenticity then brought you to The Moth, the storytelling organization for whom you helped develop The Moth Radio Hour.
Yeah, I got involved with the Moth around 2001. It’s sort of part literary and part evangelical. I say that with a little bit of irony. The Moth is a place where people get up and confess the embarrassing, the sordid, the outrageous — these stories of their lives that may in another context be very shameful. And it’s such a powerful experience, in part because there’s this feeling in the room of a collective movement from shame to acceptance. The storyteller is revealing something that the audience sort of receives with love because the audience recognizes that this is not some weird outlier — this is a species of the universal vulnerability. And the storyteller feeds on that, so everything gets more and more real. It sounds dark, and it often is, but it’s also funny. When the truth hits us in an unexpected place, it’s like a physiological trigger — that’s the laugh button.
Tell me about your experience at Washington College, where you directed the Rose O’Neill Literary House from 2006-09. Was that a sneak preview of your work here at Black Mountain?
Yes, it was a great primer for the challenge and opportunity here. The context was different in some ways: It’s a small liberal arts college in a town of 5,000 people, and there was a physical house that served both as our office and a kind of clubhouse for undergraduates. So part of the job was negotiating the culture between these big ambitions for literary culture and some freshmen who wanted to play board games. But the main point is that there was a mission to nurture a culture of literature and the creative arts as a portal between the college and the community and the wider world. We were drawing on the energy of students and connecting them to New York City and publishing and great writers who came to visit.
That model of the university literary program as a midpoint between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the world — writing for general audiences and entrepreneurship in the creative economy — is articulated by both the Literary House and the Black Mountain Institute. It’s extraordinarily rare in the big picture, and I think it’s a testament to Carol Harter and Richard Wiley and Beverly Rogers that they had the vision to create such a thing at UNLV.
[Harter, UNLV president emerita, is the founding executive director of BMI. Wiley founded UNLV’s graduate creative writing program and served as BMI’s associate director. Beverly Rogers, ’77 BA History and ’06 MA English, is a BMI board member and recently announced her family foundation’s pledge of $30 million to the institute.]
After Literary House, you pushed forward as a curator and cultural facilitator. Tell us about those years.
A lot of my ideas about curating and stewarding a culture were initiated at the Literary House, and when I left I undertook projects that tested those ideas. I was a consultant to a couple of really innovative programs, including the Norman Mailer Center, the psychology program at the New School, and the Erikson Institute, a psychiatric think tank in Massachusetts. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2011, I started running events in my house. Sometimes I was playing an active programming role; sometimes I was facilitating. We had an event for the Los Angeles Review of Books; we did a fundraiser for the MacDowell literary colony where we had a conversation between Susan Orlean and Meghan Daum about the role of money in the life of an artist.
One night I offered my house as a venue for The Machine Project, this really unusual storefront gallery and artist collective. It was one of the wildest, coolest nights I’ve ever been a part of — they did art installations in seven or eight different sections of my house. An artist installed a video piece in my bathroom of televangelists; it was spectral and strangely spiritual.
And you left that for Las Vegas…
Well, the work I was doing in Los Angeles was both exciting and frustrating. I started to realize that to do some of the things I wanted to do, I would need a proper institutional home. Still, it wasn’t like I was out applying for jobs. When I heard about Black Mountain Institute, I was just staggered by how much it fit with my interests and my background.
There are a couple of things that make this environment special. First, there’s the community: Starting something new in a big city where there are hundreds or thousands of established organizations all competing for the same minds and eyeballs is very different from working here in Las Vegas, where there are a number of outstanding cultural organizations, but there’s also a sense of real need. The other huge thing is that being anchored in a culture driven by students and faculty creates the perfect springboard for these kinds of programs. It constantly brings you back to a sense of service — it’s this ever-replenishing fuel for staying engaged.