We recently sat down with BJ Hollars in the Origami Zoo’s aquarium to discuss his forthcoming book, In Defense of Monsters. As we watched the paper clown fish and folded squids and origami sharks swimming behind the glass in the dim blue light, BJ told us about Bigfoot conventions, Thomas Jefferson and a mysterious lake creature known as Buckethead.
Origami Zoo Press: What made you decide to write essays in defense of creatures typically thought of as hoaxes and whose believers are typically thought of as crazy?
BJ Hollars: I’ve always been fascinated with the unknown. A few years back I attended a Bigfoot conference just outside of Pittsburgh, and after spending the weekend with the other conference attendees, I came to realize that these people were just like me–cautious skeptics. They weren’t overzealous about Bigfoot’s existence. If anything, they were hesitant. To them, everything required further study, nothing was set in stone. Under other circumstances, we’d simply call these people open-minded, yet somehow we’ve gotten into the habit of calling them crazy, instead.
I’m working on a new essay about Thomas Jefferson’s experiences with a so-called monster. He received some mysterious bones and decided they belonged to an unknown species of giant, American lion. They didn’t. They belonged to a giant sloth. But he had to be open to the possibility, even if he turned out to be wrong. Likewise, upon hearing of the discovery of some mammoth bones, Jefferson determined that the mammoth was likely still alive, wandering the American landscape. When he sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition, they were to keep their eyes out for giant lions and mammoths. I suppose I’m fascinated by that world–a time and a place when people (even presidents!) were free to believe in something that stretched the boundaries of logic.
OZP: Are there any monsters you haven’t yet written about that you’d like to get to? With the ongoing War on Religion, as Rick Perry calls it, might your next essay be entitled “In Defense of Santa”?
BJH: Oh, wow. “In Defense of Santa” would be great. I’ve tried plenty of others–”In Defense of the Donner Party,” and “In Defense of Halloween,” among others. They weren’t about monsters so much, just people and events in need of defending.
I suppose this whole project was actually born in my composition class. I asked my students to write papers in which they argued all kinds of issues. And I began thinking, “What’s the hardest argument I could tackle?” And then I decided that proving the possibility of Bigfoot’s existence would likely be quite a challenge. So I wrote it. Now, I’ve found myself continuing to write essays about monsters and unknown creatures, but they’re not quite so obviously defenses. They still defend something, I think, but it’s not necessarily a creature’s existence. It’s something more human, a trait I feel we as humans have lost–an imaginative interpretation of the world.
OZP: Have you had any monster sightings yourself? Have you faked any?
BJH: I haven’t seen any…yet, though I have faked one. It’s funny you ask, because I never really considered it a “fake sighting” until this moment, but it certainly was. I worked at a summer camp a few years back, and of course our lake was home to a lake creature named Buckethead. I’ve written about him here. Long story short, a camper allegedly drowned in the lake, his face was eaten by fish, and when he somehow came back to life, he was embarrassed by his fish-eaten face and placed a bucket over his head to hide his deformity. And sometimes, late at night, if a camper is wandering without his buddy (i.e., violating a camp rule), then you can see Buckethead wandering the beach (or so the story goes…). Anyway, I made a documentary about this camp, and this legend played a huge role. Everyone had a different version of the story, so I spliced together dozens of different campers telling their versions. And then in the end I staged a scene where I walk my sleeping bag to the dock and lay down. I planned to “prove” Buckethead’s existence once and for all by spending the night there. As bait, I placed a white bucket beside my head and waited. The camera rolls as a moss covered hand reaches for the bucket, stealing it away while I fake sleep a few inches away. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my friend Michelle for her willingness to jump in the cold, cold water on my behalf. It was clearly cinematic gold. Or at least silver.
OZP: Is there a hypothetical monster you feel is missing from our daily lives, some social anxiety that has not taken the form of a tangible creature? Or are there any monsters of today you feel are overlooked, or not considered monstrous in the first place?
BJH: That’s a great question. I suppose there’s the greed monster, which we seem to be battling against with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and before that there was the hate monster, which we fought through Civil Rights. But if we take a step back, all of these monsters have one thing in common: they’re not monsters, they’re people. I think that’s sort of the tragic thing about many of our fears. We spurred them.
OZP: You’ve written a book of nonfiction and edited several anthologies. What else are you working on these days?
BJH: Well, more monsters, always more monsters.
But I’m also working on a book about the desegregation of the University of Alabama and the civil rights movement as it was experienced in a small, university town in the south. I spent four years at the University of Alabama, and that world rubbed off on me. My first book, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America explores similar terrain, and I’d very much like to complete one final Alabama book.
I’m also quite interested in animals and what they can teach us. I recently came across a story of a blind dog who has its own seeing eye dog. And it was just an incredible story. Then, a few days later I learned of a study where a free rat tried to help a trapped rat escape from its cage. And then I learned that this wasn’t an anomaly; there seemed to be something in the rat’s nature that prompted it to help a fellow rat. I’d like to learn more about the morality of animals, about their willingness to help others. Maybe we can learn something.
OZP: If you were a monster, what would you be? And what would you eat?
BJH: I’d probably be a ravenous, blood sucking koala bear. And I’d eat eucalyptus leaves. Oh, and brains. Lots and lots of delicious brains…
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You can pre-order BJ Hollars’ In Defense of Monsters here.