Seven Questions for Jeff Sharlet
  • By
  • January 13, 2011
    • Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet was a Nation intern in 1993. He is the author of several books, including C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (Little Brown, 2010) and national bestseller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008). He's an assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College and a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone. In this interview Fall 2010 Nation intern Michael Tracey asks Jeff about his work and his influences.

1. If current-day Jeff Sharlet could give Nation intern Jeff Sharlet one piece of advice, what would it be?

Fact checking is powerful.

2. Which Nation writers have informed your worldview?

More than I can name, but the most important to me — not in terms of worldview, since I don't have one, but as writers I study and, wherever possible, copy and steal from — have been the late Andy Kopkind, JoAnn Wypijewski, Alex Cockburn, and Stuart Klawans.

I was an intern for Andy in the late stages of his illness, so I only saw him once a week when I'd bring a batch of magazines over to his apartment and we'd sit and talk. There was no particular instruction or transmission of advice, just conversations in which a very fine writer and thinker was gracious enough to treat a kid like I was honestly — not as an equal in the work, because I wasn't — but as a human being with ideas. You can see that same generosity and clarity on every page of the anthology of Andy's work edited by JoAnn Wypijewski, The Thirty Years War.

JoAnn was managing editor then; to my mind she's one of the best living nonfiction writers at work now. I read everything she writes, study it, and assign it in my courses. There are so few lyrical writers on the left and those who are tend to be ambivalent about being identified as political. JoAnn writes gorgeous, empathetic, imaginative, and deeply principled prose. I think every intern should study her work, maybe starting with her great piece on the Abu Ghraib courts-martials, "Judgment Days," in Harper's.

I've met a lot of Nation-types over the years who criticize Cockburn for what they describe as a lack of responsibility and due reverence. Thank f***ing God for that. And thank God Cockburn is eloquent and sly enough to achieve that without simple resort to profanity. What I think a lot of people don't get about him is that he's not a contrarian just to be a contrarian, like Hitchens, but because he seems to have glimpsed something much better, beyond the present order and all the orders of the respectable left. The book to read is The Golden Age Is In Us, a collection of his journals.

Stuart's just my favorite film critic. But "just" doesn't convey how important his film writing has been to me. Maybe he is to criticism what JoAnn is to narrative; imaginative and deeply political in the best sense, perceptive not just of what's "important," but also of all the small details and movements that make a story matter. He's also very funny, but since I'm not, I can't say that aspect of his work has had any influence on me. I don't know where I'd start with his work — just read it all.

3. How did you represent yourself when you first gained entry to the C Street house [a house run by "the Family" in Washington DC where Republican members of Congress live], and were its residents at all suspicious of your motivations?

I represented myself as myself; I've not yet had to resort to fake mustaches or aliases. When I was invited to join the Family, the religious group that runs the C Street house, I told the man who invited me, who I'd known for more than a decade, that I didn't share his beliefs. He said I didn't have to, since beliefs don't matter — obedience does. So I took him up on the invitation, went down to visit, told them I was working on a book called Killing the Buddha (co-authored with Peter Manseau, published in 2004) and took notes openly. At one point one of the younger leaders jokingly suggested I write a book about them, but since (as noted above) I don't like funny, I took him up on the idea. When I went to C Street I went as a member of the Family. First guy I met was Senator John Ensign. He wasn't suspicious at all. He was bouncing on his toes, bragging about his time on a run he'd just returned from, and I said, "that's fast!" He agreed, but since then things have soured between us. This fall he came to the Family's defense by attacking me in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where he declared, "I know one of the people who has written a lot of those things and most of the stuff he says is untrue." So I'll clear the air: Ensign is right. He's slower than an American Woodcock, which, I just learned from Google, is the slowest bird in the world.

4. What's it like to be sought out with equal tenacity by both religious and secular groups?

Titillating.

5. Are there any potential upsides to a rapture?

I don't understand the question. Are there any downsides? If you're good, you get to go to heaven. If you're naughty, you're liberated from the prudes for a seven year party. It seems to me like a winner all around

6. How could the U.S. media improve its coverage of religious issues?

Forget about the U.S. media, let's start with The Nation. There's lots of good stuff — I always read Richard Kim on any religious matter, and of course I'm a big fan of my sometimes collaborators Kathryn Joyce and Nathan Schneider — but there needs to be more, because there's more religion in the world than The Nation, or most of the leftist press, seems willing to reckon with. That's not a pro or con statement; it's a statement of fact. How can we fault corporate media for overlooking the continual influence of religion — all kinds of religion — in politics when the leftist press does the same? I know there are people at The Nation who get it — and I'm part of the problem, since I failed to deliver a requested excerpt from my last book on time — but I think the leftist press too often falls prey to the distraction offered by hypocrisy, described so well by JoAnn Wypijewski, writing about responses to Mark Sanford's C Street sex scandal (in The Nation, I should say): "Christians thunder, liberals sneer, but it amounts to the same thing, counting sins." Hypocrisy isn't the story that matters.

7. Do you have any advice for current Nation interns?

If you want to write, read far beyond The Nation. Read a lot of fiction. Don't be afraid of poems. Read high and low, and don't skimp on either. Too many young Nation-types stick to their imagined Nation canon. Too many political writers are deaf to poetry in all its forms.