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'A Nightshift Book': Jeff Sharlet On Finding Empathy In Unexpected Places

Exterior of a Dunkin Donuts at night
iirraa
/
flickr
In 'This Brilliant Darkness,' Jeff Sharlet relates a story of meeting and photographing the night baker at a Dunkin Donuts in Lebanon.

Author Jeff Sharlet, who lives in Norwich and teaches English at Dartmouth College, has written or edited six best-selling books of literary journalism. His new book is in some ways a departure from his past work. It's called This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers. It was written in the wake of the author's father suffering a heart attack, and then one that struck Sharlet himself.

Sharlet spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to ask first about this incident. Your father suffered a heart attack, and then you did not long after. What kind of a time frame are we talking about here?

It's actually about two years. In many ways, This Brilliant Darkness is an account of the reporting that I was doing in between that heart attack, that changed my writing life as a journalist and sent me on many long drives over over the mountains between Norwich, Vermont and where my father lived in Schenectady, and then two years later, just as I was writing what I thought was the last sentence of the book, I pushed myself back from my desk and at age 44 had a heart attack of my own.

You wanted to make this a kind of exploration of people who live at the margins, people who are awake late at night doing their jobs, that sort of thing.

Yeah, the book is really very much a nightshift book. I live in Norwich, Vermont, and one of the few places that's open late at night is Dunkin Donuts over in Lebanon, New Hampshire. And I was there working on another magazine deadline, a story I didn't really care as much about. And I noticed the night baker had this T-shirt with his very baroque skull on it, which is not the typical Dunkin Donuts uniform.  And I got to talking to him about the T-shirt and then about the tear tattooed beneath his right eye, which was in memory of his son, who had died. And I asked if I could take his picture, with the phone in my pocket, not as a photographer, just sort of as a snapshot between us. And I found that kind of, a sort of a vulnerability, that I felt like we were both experiencing in that moment that allowed us to connect.

A lot of these interviews were done late at night. You were approaching people. Were you ever frightened for your own physical safety at any point?

Oh, sure. Well, I mean, this book does roam around the world through this reporting. It starts in Vermont and ends in Vermont. But in between, there's Skid Row in L.A. where a very angry cop slammed me against the wall for asking him questions. And an angry heroin dealer sort of threatened to knock my head in with a baseball bat. And we'd go to Russia where a Cossack, an actual Cossack like Fiddler on the Roof, sort of pointed his gun at me and asked me if I thought he was joking. So, yeah, I was scared a lot. But in some ways, this book, This Brilliant Darkness, is about coming to terms with that fear, which I think as a journalist you kind of learn to contain and compartmentalize. And that comes at the cost of a kind of emotional honesty that I needed to get back to. So it was a little bit learning to be afraid and to embrace that fear.

I'm thinking also about a man that you met who had a tattoo on his arm with the letters "H.H. "And that was a pretty scary individual. And he was asking you some pretty specific questions about who you were. Can you just give us a little bit of flavor of that story?

Yes, a Vermonter, no less. I was driving across the state and I noticed a flag: an American flag, a Confederate flag, a "Don't Tread On Me" flag and the Blue Lives Matter flag, which is a rebuttal to Black Lives Matter. And I pulled over, and I thought I would talk to this man. I noticed there was a lot of spent ammunition in his yard, a "Go Away" sign in terms that I can't say on the radio. And nonetheless, I hung around. And he had security cameras. And for reasons of his own, he agreed to talk to me. Even though he said he knew I was a Jew. He could tell just by looking. And he wasn't so fond of Jews. But he was at this moment where he sort of wanted to step out of his his ordinary anger. Not too far out: He showed me his gun. He showed me it was loaded. He made it clear that these were the terms in which we talked.

He had quite a few Nazi tattoos. And had a long history of racist organizing. And this is a sad thing for Vermont: He had moved to Vermont, actually, because he wanted to live someplace whiter. I think when we go to look at the margins, things are are more fragmented and more fraying all around us than we realize.

Were you surprised at all that people opened up to you as much as they did in this book?

 Yes and no. I didn't feel like a journalist in the sense that I mostly didn't have an approach of  "I'm working on a story about X. Can you give me information about that?" I just wanted to say, "I'm awake in the middle the night. You're awake. What is your life like?" And there's this idea, I think, of empathy as something that one person extends to another. I don't think that's right. I think it's something that happens between two people. It's it's a sort of a flickering moment of of both seeing and being seen. And I was at that space in my life where I couldn't put on the the armor of journalism. So I guess I was a little more open. And I was fortunate in finding people who were working night shifts of their own and could share their lives with me.

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