The Nitty Gritty: Interview with Paul Crenshaw

By Charlotte Hamrick

Paul Crenshaw and I have at least one thing in common, we both grew up in a small, conservative, rural town in the American South. But while he was still a boy in the 1980’s, I was a young adult just moved to the big city. Our experiences during that time were very different and this hit home to me from the first story in Melt With Me: Coming of Age and Other 80’s Perils, his third book of essays.

I’m familiar with Paul’s writing and have sought out his pieces in literary journals since I read his first book of essays, This One Will Hurt You, a book that did indeed hurt me. In a really good way. His prose is intimate, introspective, and thought provoking which is important to me personally, as a nonfiction reader. I was eager to read this new book and it didn’t disappoint. I found it a challenging read because our experiences and processing of world events during that time were so different. But, as I read, I began to appreciate the impressions and uncertainty that events during the Cold War and in the prevailing culture made on his young life. Paul’s essays reminded me about a lot of serious and scary things that were happening in our country and the world in the 80’s. Told through the lens of a boy finding his way in the world, the essays made me see through his eyes. Isn’t that what good literature does, should do?

I talked with Paul recently about Melt With Me for Reckon Review.

How difficult was it to write about your thoughts and feelings as the child you were forty years ago? 

Emotionally it wasn’t terribly hard. When I’m in writing mode I distance myself from the work, at least in the first drafts. A few of the essays I did not want to write—like “Arc” and “Dead Baby”—but once I get started, I focus on the writing itself, and not the emotion behind it.

The biggest problem was differentiating what I knew then versus what I learned later, which is a lot harder than one might think, considering how memory works. I remember an early draft of “Left Turn At Albuquerque” in which I mentioned the SALT II Treaty with the Soviet Union, and a reader asked how I was aware of a nuclear proliferation treaty when I was 7, and of course the answer is that I wasn’t. But I remembered watching the nightly news with my father. I remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the fear of nuclear war, even if I didn’t know how it would affect me 40 years later.

A memoir is also supposed to be what we learned. How these experiences changed us, or taught us something. So a lot of this book is focused on what I knew then versus what I learned later. When I was a child “Star Wars” was a movie with lightsabers. “Star Wars” now implies that after we kill everyone on Earth, we’ll go after those who live among the stars.

That was the hardest part to write. It always will be.

How has your opinion about any of the events you wrote about changed from then to now? 

I’m working on a new book now that continues this questioning of the past, and what I keep finding is the fallout from the 80s—how our fear of nuclear war drove our military spending, and how we still spend 3 times as much as our nearest competitor, and more than the next 10 competitors combined; how Reagan’s response to 80s crime led to mass incarceration and how People of Color were disproportionately harmed by the new laws; how the new laws led to racial profiling, which led to more mass incarceration, which led to more racial profiling.

I also believe these 80s fears led to all the mass shootings we have today. Crime, or at least the media coverage of it, caused more men to buy more guns. It caused us to become provincial—I cannot tell you how many times I heard “inner-city” used as a curse, a word that contained all our smalltown fear of whatever stood outside our own province. Fear of the AIDS epidemic—and how the evangelical church used that fear to drive and divide—slowed the medical community’s response, which caused more gay people to die. The crack and crime of the inner city sent white America fleeing to the suburbs, none of us at the time caring to know about the economic conditions that led to all this crack and crime. That when we get afraid, we will do anything to feel safe, no matter how unsafe it makes the rest of the world.

So what really changed was the way I see the world. When I started thinking about how many TV shows in the 70s and 80s had quicksand in them, I thought it was an amusing bit of TV misinformation—surely there could not be this much quicksand in the world. But what I found were all the ways we let fears get inside us. Quicksand, the razor blade in Halloween candy, the Satanic Panic, the Dungeons and Dragons panic, the AIDS panic, the bathtub and missing kidney—all stories told to keep us afraid, because being afraid, in the 80s way of looking at the world, keeps us safe.

Of all the events you write about that occurred in the 80s, which do you feel impacted you the most at the time and which has impacted your writing the most now? 

I think the 80s were death by a thousand cuts. It wasn’t one big incident, just constant little cuts. I tried to capture this in “Choose Your Own Adventures For 80s Kids,” in which every choice turns out to be wrong, leading to danger or death—from kidnapping or quicksand or acid rain. In “Candy Cigarettes” there’s an 80s-style montage of all the images we saw on our TV screens, starting with the assassination attempt on Reagan, through the Challenger disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the First Gulf War, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Atlanta Olympic bombing, 9-11, the Second Gulf War.

What really scared me in the early 80s was the church. I went to a Southern Baptist church then, and many of the congregation, and other Christians around the country, seemed to be looking forward to the end. The end was inevitable, we heard in every sermon, and years later when the Gulf War began there was a lot of talk of Armageddon, that end-of-time Biblical battle, so my fears of the end of the world were always wrapped up in religion, which is, of course, supposed to be panacea for all our earthly fears. Which is weird because I was never afraid until the church told me to be, another theme I return to often in the book.

As an adult, I keep coming back to how closely we came to ending the world in ’83. I mention this in several essays in the collection, and of course I wasn’t fully aware of everything that happened then, but now I keep circling back. I won’t fully recount how it happened, but in September of 1983, a Soviet early-warning radar detected the launch of five American Minuteman Missiles. Like I said, I didn’t even know about this then, but hearing about it later confirmed all my childhood fears—that some day one country would go too far, whether by error or ignorance, and the end the church had been prophesizing for 2000 years would finally come about. In the atmosphere of the 80s, it seemed inevitable that we would destroy the earth in our search for something better.

Which essay was the hardest to write and why? 

“Dead Baby.” No question. For “Arc,” I had the idea for a long time and didn’t want to write it because I knew it would hurt, but when I finally did, it came out quickly. Other essays had traps I wasn’t aware of, like how “Choose Your Own Adventure for 80s Kids” was really fun to write, until I got to the end and had to start making sense instead of just listing things I was afraid of as a child.

“Dead Baby” required I make jokes about what should never be made fun of. But the essay, I think, captures that divide between the adult writing the essay and the child who lived it—the child can never see what’s coming, nor how much it will hurt, which is why we make jokes about things that should never be joked about, and the adult looks back with all the gathered wisdom of the years, but also all the pain, trying to make some sense of it all when oftentimes the only answer is that life doesn’t make any sense. Which is, of course, the most painful lesson.  

Do you have any advice for writers mining their childhood years for an essay? 

I don’t know about advice, but oftentimes small details were the way in to the essay. I couldn’t write about the Cold Cola Wars without writing about Kevin Sloak, the kid with the fingerless gloves and trench coat. I couldn’t write about my dead nephew without remembering how “Dead Baby” jokes went up and down the halls of our high school in the 80s, and how we found them tasteless and disgusting, yet still spread them everywhere. When I remembered church bus trips, and school bus trips, and how there was a hierarchy to bus seating in high school, and how, in the dark of a rattling bus along a lonely state highway in early December, you can be as lost and lonely as the streetlights switching past. How our teens years somehow capture all the hurt and heartache of being alive without giving us the emotional strength to handle it all. How any memory—a cartoon or a launch code or a faint memory of your mother early in the morning smoking in the dark by herself—is a way into another world.   

Melt With Me: Coming of Age and Other 80’s Perils is published by The Ohio State University Press and can be purchased on their website.

Paul Crenshaw

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. His third collection, on the Cold War culture of the 1980s, is forthcoming from The Ohio State Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Pushcart PrizeOxford AmericanGlimmer Train, Tin House, and Brevity

author Charlotte Hamrick
Charlotte Hamrick

Charlotte Hamrick’s creative writing and photography has been published in a number of literary journals and anthologies including Still: The Journal, The Citron Review, Atticus Review, Reckon Review, Trampset, and New World Writing, among many others. Her fiction was selected for the Best Small Fictions 2022 and 2023 anthologies and she’s had several literary nominations including the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. She is the former Creative Nonfiction Editor for Barren Magazine and current Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Citron Review. She also writes intermittently on her substack, The Hidden Hour. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and a menagerie of rescued pets where she sometimes does things other than read and write.

3 responses to “The Nitty Gritty: Interview with Paul Crenshaw”

  1. Congrats to Charlotte Hamrick on a well-written article and choosing to raise awareness of this new work. I’m a big fan of Paul’s writing. His essays are insightful, entertaining, and bring back forgotten childhood memories. Looking forward to reading Melt With Me.

  2. Fine interview, Charlotte Hamrick and Paul Crenshaw, thank you for these essays. The 80s were so upsetting, I remember thinking please please just let my kids grow up, that is how frightening those times/events were and unfortunately, as we know now, how long-reaching the influence.