“I Wanted It To Be Like a Country Song”: An Interview With Noah Cicero

Noah Cicero

Noah Cicero has written several books. I find great comfort in Noah’s ouvre, in the sense that he has never seemed interested in limiting himself to a particular type of story. The Human War was an influential, early-millennial beat-style meditation that unsarcastically grapples with the pointlessness of war, while Go to Work… is basically a political action-thriller, replete with government conspiracies and a firefight. There’s the philosophical discussion of Buddhism in Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal. There’s both lost-love poetry (Bipolar Cowboy) and bleak observational poetry (Nature Documentary). There’s a menagerie of stories, snippets, eBooks, collected works, all testaments to Noah boldly exploring new territory without any sense of self-doubt or obligation to construct some kind of “brand.” And so now there’s Give it to the Grand Canyon, which is a deeply personal, plainly written travelogue about living and working in the Grand Canyon National Park. From the casual discussions of how one goes about getting a job there (they will hire anyone) to how one goes about getting to the job there (a lot of driving, no matter where you’re coming from) to how one goes about, well, doing the job there (serving ice cream to disappointed tourists), Noah’s story is a relentlessly realistic collection of vignettes. What I mean is that there are no twists, no manufactured dramas, no heroic deeds, but instead everything – from the unadultered danger and beauty of the canyon itself to the vague interpersonal relationships among the staff – is written as it is experienced, is remarked upon as it happens, is left to fizzle or ferment without any constructed symbolism or structure.

And listen, I’m a sucker for this kind of writing, this “feeling bad in an exotic place” kind of shit. I hope it doesn’t sound lame or predictable to bring up uncle Knausgaard in this introduction, but between the free-roaming character sketches, the multilayered digressions, and the comfort-inducing panorama of a wild and wooly elsewhere, Give it to the Grand Canyon is, for me at least, nostalgically Karl Ovian. But this book, as one should hope, pushes the form and function of this style of writing further, as it must. For me, it is refreshingly open as pertains the true breadth of emotion, innovating on the memoiric semi-fictional meanderings of time and place by letting emotions other than the Knaussy’s touchstones – namely, shame – take center stage. Give it to the Grand Canyon is, on my reading, full of anger, bitterness, longing, confusion, and despair. It doesn’t plaster over its emotional peaks with detached introspection, but rather lets them poke through like cactus needles through a sneaker. The sense that everything is fucked is noted and confronted but not accepted. People are shitty, our values are broken, our expectations are misinformed. But these well-worn laments are not here for you to shake your head and shrug wisely. Noah’s works are all unique, but they all share the same key uncynical, unsarcastic spirit. In Give it to the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon is huge and beautiful and people are brilliant and broken and it fucking sucks that this all has to be so hard.

I spoke with Noah over email about the book. The questions are selfishly written, because they are mostly questions I wanted to get the answers to. And maybe you got, or will get, different things out of this book than I did, and so they won’t answer any of the questions you have, or will have. If that’s the case, I encourage you to reach out to Noah yourself, because he is a thoughtful and compassionate interviewee, and I personally took a lot of satisfaction from his answers to my questions.

I’m taken with the imbalanced nature of the vignettes in Give it to the Grand Canyon – you allow yourself to follow threads of backstory and side story as they come up. It many ways it feels more conversational, like how someone would tell a story in person. Did you have a guiding principle in how you wrote or edited in terms of detail and context? Did you pose any challenges for yourself in the writing or editing?

I wanted it to be like a country song. I imagined an old man telling his grandkids about his youth. Maybe the kid found an old picture of grandpa and asked about it. The book is an old west country story, you may think, “Well, this happened in 2013,” well one day, 2013 will be a long time from now. I don’t care about making things chronological, I’m not making a movie, I’m writing a book.

Regarding chronology, I don’t want to ask the standard “fiction vs. memoir” question here, but there is a lot of overlap between where both you and the novel’s protagonist, Billy Cox, have lived – Ohio, the Grand Canyon, Korea. And I realize that I’ve internalized large parts of your life within a really short timespan (via your writing and interviews), so I think I have a warped sort of timeline in my head about where you’ve lived and your relationships to those places, especially Ohio (since I grew up there, it’s of extra interest to me). Where have you lived, and when, and if I may, why?

I grew up in Vienna, Ohio, a town of like 4,000 people. It is a small town with one red light 13.1 miles from Youngstown, Ohio. There was only about 85 kids in my graduating class. It was the kind of place where people hunted and rode dirt bikes. When I was 19, I moved to the Grand Canyon, and then San Diego, then I went back to Ohio. The next summer I went to Eugene, Oregon and stayed for the summer. These were all really crazy adventures for a young person. I moved to a place named Hubbard, Ohio, a place that bordered Youngstown, it has a population of 7,000 or so and actual places to eat. I stayed in Ohio for a while, taking a lot of Western vacations, but never living there.  When I was 32, I went to South Korea to teach English, I did that for a year. When I returned, I moved to the Grand Canyon, lived there for about four months, then to Las Vegas, I couldn’t find a job, so I went to Scotts Mills, Oregon, outside of Silverton. I lived there for a few months, then went back to Las Vegas, and I have lived here ever since. I am 39 now, I haven’t really lived in Ohio since 2011.  

Regarding why: I always have loved the Western United States, I just feel a lot happier here than back East. I went to South Korea because I always wanted to live a year abroad for at least a year of my life, and life gave me that chance, so I took it. 

There’s this ongoing theme of disparity in the book: the Grand Canyon is probably the biggest, most important, most culturally significant, powerful piece of nature in the United States, and yet it’s relegated to a backdrop in a play of minimal effort and futility. You frame it as a place where international student workers sell hotdogs for minimum wage, where the only industry is tourism, where drunks and criminals and old people sleep in dorm rooms and scoop ice cream during the day. It’s like society has deemed it no different than a Six Flags in New Jersey or a Chipotle in Seattle. I couldn’t help but feeling this rage build up inside me when reading. Was writing this book a way for you to exorcise your own rage? Do you feel angry?

You want to get angrier? Phillip Anshutz owns Xanterra, the company that runs concessions at the Grand Canyon and many of the parks in the United States. He is worth 11 billion dollars and pays his employees less than $10 an hour and offers no health insurance (looks like on Indeed.com that it is $11.40 now). The foreign students had to pay for their work visas, when an English teacher goes to Asia, the company always pays for their work visa, it is absurd Xanterra won’t do that. The American employees that live there all year round, except for the servers, they live lives of total poverty. They never make it to their next check for food, so Xanterra hands out yellow tickets (company scrip), the employee pays for their food in company scrip and then gets the scrip deducted from their cash paycheck. It was not a good scene for a lot of people. 

The only way I survived was that I had money left from teaching in South Korea, if I was going to live there and do the job I had, I think I would have run out of money in approximately six months. Imagine having a job that condemns you to running out of money. 

Regarding the Six Flags-ness of it, I don’t know. I’ve been to Angkor Wat and Bayonne in Cambodia, and Moray and Maras in Peru, and they didn’t turn it into Six Flags. Angkor Wat had Siem Reap about 10 miles away or so, Moray and Maras had nothing. I don’t think it makes me angry, I like the restaurants and the little world next to the canyon. The canyon is 277 miles long, the village only takes up like one or two miles max of it. 

Following up on this, I feel like there’s this perpetual tug that people who live in cities or stay in school for a long time or who have white collar jobs or whatever have, where they idealize the wilderness, getting back to nature, living some simple life of manual labor. And this feels to me like the main tug that brings Billy Cox back to the Grand Canyon, but then we see the reality of living and working there, all minimum wage and anxiety. The wrangler character specifically stuck with me, who says:

…I’ve spent my life working for ranchers, and all of them eventually won’t want to pay you, or they tell you to get the hell out. We never sleep in nice places, I’ve never owned a house my whole life, I’m 35 and never got married. I don’t got nothing to my name, I sleep on trails, I ride a mule in the hot sun… When winter comes, I gotta leave the park, they won’t have enough work for me, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t even know how to think about my future, there will be work somewhere, but with who, and will they pay me? What kind of bed will they give me to sleep on? Will I even have a pillow?

I read that exchange and felt this sense of hopelessness, that we’re surrounded by natural beauty but we can’t build a life around it. What do you think? Do you think it’s possible for an average person to find a life of meaning and dignity out under the stars? Do you still feel that draw in spite of your experiences?

I don’t feel a strong draw to live under the stars. Living out in the middle of nowhere is tough, there is no Starbucks or vegan Chinese restaurants. I have to live with 107 degree heat and dust storms and allergies, nature is not absent from my life in Las Vegas. It is possible to work at National Parks or at farms, you just have to be really tough. I don’t think most people are tough enough to do things under the stars. It isn’t that it doesn’t exist, it is that, “Well, I have a tooth abscess,” and just have the dentist rip the tooth out, without concern for vanity at all. The Internet is terrible at national parks, there is very little privacy, there are animals and bugs everywhere, the food selection is not that great. A lot of what society thinks is important means nothing in the tiny worlds of national parks, which is hard for people to let go of. I don’t think intellectuals would like it at all, because how smart you are means nothing to the people working at a national park, you can’t define yourself by your education or what books you’ve read or what school you attended. No one even knows what NYU or UCSD is at a national park. 

Another central theme of this book is the notion of masculinity, but specifically there’s this sense of a trade-off having occurred. You not only frame the disparity between Billy’s grandfather in terms of traditional gender roles and manliness but also the freedom that society/capitalism allows us. Like, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to buy a house, I don’t think any of my favorite living authors ever will be able to, either, and I think it’s interesting that this is part of the discussion of masculinity in your book: Billy doesn’t hunt, but he also doesn’t own a house, he treats women with respect, but he’ll never be able to get a job with dental insurance. Do you feel a similar sense of inadequacy as a man relative to your forebears? What role do you think economic/societal autonomy have on masculinity today?

The book to me is about masculinity and the 20th Century, about the psychological break a lot of millennial men have with their fathers and grandfathers. My grandfathers owned land and stores, my father owned land, and I own barely anything. It is, like, to me, at least, I was not raised for the life I ended up having, and my father did not expect me to have this life, so I have been a huge let down to him. Billy feels like a disappointment to his father and grandfather, and the shadow woman that he left or left him. He feels like a huge dumb disappointment, like he did the wrong things in life, and he doesn’t know how to fix it. For me, in my IRL life, I went and got a Paralegal Degree from a community college, now I make money and have dental. I think, if you end up in your late 20s, early 30s, and you are like, “I didn’t do the right things,” then go to a community college and get a degree that makes money, you have to make money regardless. Join an advocacy group or volunteer, or even help coach a local school’s sports team, do something in your community. You have to make a choice to grow up and become serious, then you get some money and social recognition and your life will be better. It will not be the life of your grandpa or baby boomer dad, but it will be your life. 

Making money, having dental insurance, contributing to the community – do you feel like this is mitigating, or can ultimately mitigate, this sense of generational failure? Also, what’s it like to be a paralegal? Do you work as a paralegal now? I have no idea what most jobs are or what they’re like.

I don’t feel like failure, I feel like this is how my life turned out, and I have to make the best of it. I used to have sadder feelings about it, but I must have resigned myself to this fate at some point in the last few years. 

Being a paralegal is a lot of fun, there are lots of different kinds of paralegals, I am a litigation-trial paralegal, that isn’t a specific name, just what I do. I do civil litigation for Plaintiff law firms that do trials. I do different things every day, which is fun. I do Demands, Complaints, Written Discovery, Early Case Conference and Expert Disclosures, Focus Groups, and when we have trials I help with the theater of the trial and jury selection. My favorite things are Focus Groups, we bring 10 strangers in and tell them about cases and then get their views on the case. I love trials the most, I like to be at the courthouse, being part of the action. 

You’ve written several books over several years, and in your interview with X-Ray, you mention that you sat on Give it to the Grand Canyon for a few years without trying to get it published. What purpose do you think published books serve in 2019?

I don’t know what published books serve in 2019. “Serve” means to perform a duty for someone, your question is highly metaphysical in nature. So, like serving God or an Ideal or a dream? This question implies that I have the authority to create a moral imperative for all literature. At times, I feel like I am writing a confession to God, that I want God to know, I appreciate all this. 

I guess I meant the lower-stakes serving of the contemporary audience, the community of people who read and write, and people who don’t do either. I think I’m reacting to the sense that you didn’t see a grand or immediate imperative to turn the document on your laptop into a physical book for people to buy and consume and review and recommend, and I’m thinking of that in the context of your previous books, their reception, what that process was like. 

The book makes me feel vulnerable, it seems too honest, I just feel like Billy Cox is Don Quixote, swiping at the windmills of love, with his Dulcinea that will never return. Billy Cox is a fool and a madman. Billy believes in a dead world or a world that only exists in novels and songs where true love matters and money and culture doesn’t. 

Billy Cox really truly believes that if he loves enough, if he suffers enough, if he truly honors his Dulcinea, she will return. Dulcinea will never return. Why Dulcinea doesn’t return, Billy never even feels curious about why, which just shows how much of an idiot he is. Like Don Quixote, he is too wrapped in notions of honor to ever give up. What confuses and destroys this Don Quixote character is that Billy Cox doesn’t want to love more than one woman in his life, he thinks it is odd to move from one partner to the next, eventually finding a partner that has “shared cultural and economic values,” that thing we all learn in Intro to Sociology class about love. Billy doesn’t believe in “shared cultural and economic values” he believes in True Love, he is like a child when he first learns there is no Santa Claus, when he sees True Love doesn’t conquer all, he doesn’t realize it, he doesn’t internalize it and resigns himself to that fact, in fact, he double downs, digs deeper into True Love. I think Billy also feels that if he cannot have that specific woman, then nothing matters, society itself only means something if he has her, without his Dulcinea, all cultural norms and mores mean nothing, she was his anchor in the vast sea of society. Because Dulcinea refused to love him, he has been forced by circumstances to become an Übermensch, he didn’t want to be an Übermensch, he wanted to live with Dulcinea, work an okay job, have a cat and maybe even a kid, not have the responsibility of an Übermensch. Or, maybe, he was always this Don Quixote/Stavrogin/Übermensch character and Dulcinea knew it, she realized it at some point in their relationship, “My boyfriend is a little crazy, it is sexy, but oh man, I can’t keep up with his weirdness. I need something more normal.” 

Billy Cox still believes in people like John Wesley Powell, John C. Fremont and Alexander Von Humboldt, but the world has been discovered, there are no undiscovered lands left for him to find. That’s why he goes to South America, hoping he will eventually find something undiscovered, at least to him anyway. 

You mentioned on Twitter that you “want to say really painful things about how to construct one’s writing career so people finish books and feel satisfied with what they’ve done.” How do you feel about your writing career? Do you feel satisfied by the books you’ve written? 

You have to recognize the literary world is really small, because literature is unpopular. When an economic sector doesn’t make anyone rich, the only way it survives is via rich people paying for things, good examples being the art world, fashion, jazz and classical music, and coffee with monkey poop in it. This has led to the aesthetic of wealthy people dominating what narratives, sentence structures and themes are important. Most people in the writing world are completely blind to this, which makes literary events a struggle. 

There is this thing I call “Smart People Culture” in the literary world. Many of the people in the literary world received good grades in school and in college, and think they are smart, and for some reason they think they own culture. And then, they think they have the right to belittle people for their likes and dislikes all the time, and they do everything they can to never hold a job where they have to interact with non-college educated people on an equal basis. The saddest thing is that the only people that really triumph in that world are the most non-self-aware people, having no self-awareness is actually a virtue for these people.  

Publishers in the lower indie world often do not pay or try very hard to promote your book, and there are very few avenues to get any press. So, what to do in a world of sycophants? Write your damn books the damn way you want to write them. Stop expecting the world to kiss your ass, make your ass into something worth kissing. I made my career, I didn’t ask FSG or Random House or an MFA Program to make one for me. Make your own world.


Noah Cicero is 38 years old and grew up in a small town near Youngstown, Ohio. He has lived in Eugene, Oregon, the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Seoul, South Korea and currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has a movie made of his first book called The Human War, which won the 2014 Beloit Film Festival award for Best Screenplay. He has books translated into Turkish, Kurdish and Spanish. His first book of poetry Bipolar Cowboy was voted one of the best books on Goodreads in 2015. He has many short stories, articles and poems published at such places as Thought Catalog, 3AM Magazine, Wales Reviewand Amphibi.us. neutralspaces.co/noahcicero

Zac Smith is the author of 50 Barn Poems (CLASH Books, 2019). His interviews with a buncha people have appeared previously in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and the Nervous Breakdown, and his stories and poems have appeared in online in places like Hobart, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and other cool websites. He lives in Boston, where he likes to walk his dogs.

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