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"Old skool Palm Pilot - a felt marker on the back of your hand" - Scott Tinley

Interview with Scott Tinley, Author of Things To Be Survived

This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second part will be published one week from today. 

Prepare to be blown away by this Scott Tinley and his book, Things To Be Survived. This book is amazing and its writer moved me near tears — and that's no easy accomplishment — with his stories, some true, some fiction and most somewhere in that gray area in between. More on that latter thought shortly.

I first heard of Scott Tinley through articles about him in Outside magazine, which I have been reading faithfully since I was about 15. (The magazine itself is one you should definitely be reading even if you, like me, spend more time reading about being outside than you actually do being outside.) Tinley was written about being a professional triathlete who twice won the Hawaii Ironman endurance race.

I had not heard from him in years until I received an email from him asking if I'd be willing to read his new book and interview him about it. Thanks again to Bill Katovsky, author of Patriots Act, for suggesting Tinley and I connect. Apparently my interviews with Katovsky and others are getting more notice than I realized.

I agreed to the interview and had the fleeting thought — later proved to be correct — that the book might help me better understand my father and brother, both of whom competed in many athletic events. As with my brother, Tinley worked as a lifeguard in Southern California. But if your impression of lifeguards is based on shows like Baywatch you will quickly realize that some of these guys are not just strong but also quite intelligent. Read his answers and tell me you are not impressed. 

Reading up on him on the Internet I learned that seventh-generation Californian Tinley now teaches sport humanities at San Diego State University, not too far from where I grew up in Southern California.

What has Tinley been up since winning the Ironman in 1982 and 1985? I'll let him answer that with an answer to one of my questions.

Scott Butki: Do you really believe this comment in your book: “Perhaps my career choices were guided by a secret desire to cheat death: lifeguard, firefighter, paramedic, professional athlete and then, at forty, graduate student”? 

Scott Tinley: I’m still doing it, trying to get my PhD, working with kids, lying about my age, the whole thing. But I think I’m better about the realities of it now. I’ve seen enough death to know how I’d like to go, not that I’m in a rush to go anytime soon.

How did your background as an athlete affect your future work as a writer? 

For many years I was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to travel the world on someone else’s meal ticket. While sport was a great gig, it was merely a vehicle to explore the nature of things, even if they were hiding under my pillow. I spent an incredible amount of time by myself and began writing for what I consider the best of reasons – just to figure stuff out. Sport and games, in their, truest form, transcends all cultural boundaries. If you can run, kick a ball or throw something high in the air, you speak many languages.

The other thing about sport is that while it’s not a perfect meritocracy, when in the truth of first light competition, there’s a hell of lot less ambiguity than in the world of commerce. 

My late dad, Arnold Butki, used to run marathons and exercise daily. I get bored when exercising and if I try bike riding it's inevitable I'll get ideas that I want to write down. So I can't resist asking a question not totally related to the book: What do you think about when exercising for such a length of time? Did you have my problems where your mind starts thinking about things you want to write down but you can't?  

Old-skool Palm Pilot – a felt marker on the back of your hand.

Most of the time, I wouldn’t try to think about specific things. Ideas would just come to me and I’d give them some amount of purchase and then go back to unthinking. My new school Palm Pilot for the technophobe is a cheap voice recorder.

Actually, I have a friend who used to run the same loop everyday with a marker in his pocket. When he had some thought he wanted to record he’d write it on the same two or three lampposts set off next to the street. The guy had at least one novel scribed on city property until they painted those poles one Monday while he overslept.

It’s not quite Hemingway leaving his only copy of a completed manuscript in a New York City cab but it’s cool pathos, don’t you think? Who can’t relate to that lost “great idea”? The one that got away.

Can you elaborate on this dedication: "To all the raw and rummaging scribes who pick up a pen because they just don't give a damn.” 

I’ve always had notion for the underground brilliance, the voice that is never heard, the performance locked away in his or her own cave. In an increasingly celebritized society, the power of the understated has grown. That’s why the best writers of “Nam lit” were grunts and third tour journalist, guys who got their ass kicked, came home and "unthought" about it. Then wrote some mind-blowing prose where no one, not even them, could tell you what was real and what was imagined. I’ve taught O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” 20 times and still find things that even Tim may not realize he carries. O’Brien, even after great literary success, remains raw and rummaging.

The piece, "Over her, over me," was quite moving. It seems like a good reminder about how deeply affected paramedics and other emergency workers can be by what they see and do. How do paramedics deal with that? Is your solution music and alcohol or was that just the characters choice?  

Music? Always. Alcohol? As necessary. That’s a story based on a real experience. I was working as a medic that night Lennon was shot and went on a call that, let’s just say, wasn’t hard to fictionalize. The world of emergency medicine takes a special breed. I was pretty good at it because I have this ability to temporarily compartmentalize things. But I knew that one day the box would be full of demons and they’d come out in an army too strong to fight. So I quit. This story is just one of a few which I’m still trying to chase away.

Please tell me – and the readers who have not seen your book yet – what led you to make the following statement:

Although this collection includes both fiction and non-fiction prose, it is not always obvious which is real and which is imagined. It is the author's express desire to let the reader make that distinction if they feel they must, that it places the text somewhere where they can come at it comfortably. And while just a few of the characters are real with real names, the rest are based on the experiences of the author. He makes no claim to their existence and any imagined connection to living persons are left to the full responsibility of the reader.

Well, to be honest, part of my rationale for purposely blurring the lines is in protest of the market-driven, overly genre-specific state of domestic publishing. The overt subsumation of art by “those-that-will-profit” is pretty damn disturbing. Its appropriation of things that make us feel human by the means of distribution. The golden rule – he who has the gold… rules.

If a piece of work does not thrill the sales force, include inside scoop on (insert celebrity de jour here) or offer some falsely pacifying antidote for the rampant malaise that bureaucratization has wrought, then it can’t be labeled, packaged or sold. Sorry for the rant but it’s pretty simple Marxism – eventually even the folks with money in their pocket will suffer at the hands of their own.

As I understand it, Habitus Books was formed as a response to this. And yes, it’s a disclaimer of sorts but a challenge to the reader to suspend their beliefs about the real and the imagined, to let the text take them where they will go without pre-disposed interpretation that, “Oh, well, this is what the author experienced so let me compare, contrast and critique accordingly.” This is what reader response criticism allows – that there is no single reading of a text, they create rather than discover.  

Maybe it's just me but there seems to be a contradiction between the above statement and then the book being separated into those stories "real" and "imagined." Was that an intentional clarification between fact and fiction or a difference between you and the publisher or what?  

As the book went into production, I freaked just a bit, and thought for someone unfamiliar or uncomfortable without at least a few simple signposts, they might get lost and frustrated. And so I re-ordered the stories into “imagined” and “real.” To clarify, the imagined stories are fictionalized versions of similar events that I’d experienced in real life. And the Real is pretty damn real. In hindsight, I may have made it worse. Now that it’s in book stores and selling, even the marketers don’t know where to place it, which was my original point about trying to point out the problematic of increased rationality. Certainly there is little financial remuneration in aesthetic subversion. 

Why do you resist letting the reader know what is fact and what is fiction? Is that something you would encourage or discourage if done by some of the students you teach?  

The best writers I’ve had in my classes are the iconoclasts, the authentic antiheroes who just don’t care about external validation. I’d encourage both readers and writers to first, temporarily forget what they were taught in high school about structure, plot, character, setting, etc., and to approach a text from that place that moves them – existential tectonic shifts, if you will. The challenge is to find that place to begin with. A lot of us have allowed our minds to be filled with sound bite temporality and nothing really resonates because we’re rarely alone with our thoughts and our struggles. I resist all types of labels as they can prevent us from finding that cohesion, that communitarian ethos that exists when we approach language as the one true human thing.

The comment about the "responsibility of the reader" sounds like you are placing the onus on the reader rather than the writer. Is that your intention? If so, why?  

Any text, regardless of its form, can be an opportunity for communicative action. In writing a very personal book such as this, I’ve felt like I’ve done my part in sharing. But I would not ask a reader to, as I said, to “compare, contrast or critique.” That misses the point of reader response theory. The beauty of plurality in reading is that the text can take you where you let it, not where it’s supposed to take you. The best example in the book is the last chapter, a very true story, a letter to my daughter as she left home for college. I’ve had numerous parents write and tell me it just broke them up. And I’ve had students respond with, “How could you embarrass your daughter like that?” They’ve allowed the story to both reflect on their own circumstances but also create a political site; a momentary struggle within their own psyche.

This reminds me of  what Dave Eggers has done with What Is The What, which he calls an autobiographical novel, meaning he wrote about a "Lost Boy" he worked with, but some elements, and it's not clear which, are fictional. Have you read it?  

Dave is one of the best at craftily and openly blurring the lines. But a non-fiction novel is not a memoir (there’s that label thing again), or at least a good one won’t act like it, and what Eggers has done so well in that book is climb inside Achak Deng’s head to tell his story. I’d imagine the autobiographical nod would be similar to an actor that is naturally subsumed by his or her character in part, due to the intimate similarities in history, experience and personality type.

Often the best art is facilitated by its sharing of psychosocial blood. That’s the challenge with young American writers today—too many of them are being bled of their savings by “low-resident” MFA programs instead of hoping tramp steamers and living out of their bus in Oaxaca. Getting your ass kicked will give you something to paint. Eggers, for his part, has always “earned” his stories. 

I know the James Frey fabrication issue has been done to death but your statement brought him to mind, not only because if he had such a statement he might not have run into such problems. What is your take on memoirists who exaggerate or fabricate?  

Frey would likely be excused, as you note, if he had framed his story as a melding of fact and fiction. But then he wouldn’t have been able to sell it either. What mainstream readers want (and publishers know) is the fantastical represented as real. It takes on the form of pseudo-myth. And in a dearth of authentic heroes, popular culture has allowed and contributed to the manufacturing of hero-types. The public (aided by Oprah) projected into Frey’s text because they want to see people screw up and then make good.  While Frey clearly crossed the line he is not the first nor the last. Memoirs by default are subconscious efforts to meld the ideal ego with the ego ideal. Most memoirists don’t even know when they’re embellishing.  The more important question might be how do we, as a society hungry for great tales of survivorship, continue to blind ourselves to what heroism is left hiding in the rents and seams of our world? How can we feel heroic while making dinner for a sick friend? How do we look beyond the hegemonic message that states, “based on a real story”  and realize the translation is that it’s more than 50% fabricated?   

Also, what is the biggest misconception about you? 

I have no idea. But I always get a laugh when I hear for the 900th time, “You look bigger on TV.”  I’m sure there’s some metaphorical reference there but by now it’s just funny. Everybody looks bigger on the little screen, even Tom Cruise at 5’ 5”.

No offense but the last person I'd expect to see writing a blurb on the back of your book is X-Files creator Chris Carter. What's the connection between you two?

Chris is a friend, a brilliant writer and deeply understated. We surf together and talk of literary things. I think he’s been typecast as the “X-Files dude” but Carter retains some eclectic and interesting talents. Before he started in television he used to throw pottery for a living. When I grow up I want to make vases and pots like Chris and sell them at the Farmer’s Market in Laguna Beach, California on Sunday mornings.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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