It’s a first for both of us—Joe Blair’s first time being interviewed and my first time calling an author at a John Deere assembly plant. (Well, technically in the parking lot, where Blair has retreated to his truck because it’s quieter.)
Blair, a writer and HVAC repairman, is, at the time of our conversation, on a job in Waterloo, Iowa, but has taken a break to discuss his new memoir, By the Iowa Sea. Asked if his co-workers know about his double life, he says, “I certainly don’t brag about it. . . . I’m not ashamed or anything, I just don’t talk about it much.” (Though he did inspire one fellow pipefitter to start journaling.)
Blair is plainspoken, modest about his success and seems genuinely surprised by his publishing deal, which came about after he wrote a “Modern Love” essay for the New York Times. He compiled the book, in part, from his writings over the years, a process he describes as a “frickin’ nightmare.” “There was no arc,” he says. “I had to create one.” The arc he created carries him on an Odyssean journey across tumultuous seas both real and metaphorical.
As a kid, Blair was always drawn to journeys and journeymen. He would contemplate the Easy Rider poster on his wall and entertain fantasies of the open road. As a carefree young man in his early 20s, he set out on his bike, his new bride Deb on the back, never dreaming that the trip would end with them settling in Iowa, starting a family and embarking on the conventional path he’d once eschewed. Fifteen years later, Blair finds himself working as an air-conditioning repairman and spending his free time caring for his old house and four children (including one with special needs), and considering (and ultimately engaging in) marital infidelity. All of these stresses are compounded by the unique challenges of parenting Michael, who has a severe form of autism. Blair feels stuck in place, trapped under the oppressive weight of his many responsibilities. Until, that is, the water rises, bringing with it an awakening that upends life as he knows it.
“Before the flood hit, it felt to me like I had no choice left,” Blair recalls. “I had my own business, we had this house, we had this family. And I remember thinking, this is it. We can’t move, can’t do anything.”
Though the 2008 Iowa flood provides a convenient metaphor for the unraveling of Blair’s marriage and the rebirth that follows, he says it was more than that. “I never really considered the size of that notion until we went through it. And then you realize it’s not just a metaphor, it does change everything. When you’re paddling a canoe through your old neighborhood, over the fence you built, and the whole neighborhood is just roofs and tree limbs, it changes you.”
The flood provides a metaphor for the unraveling of Blair's marriage and the rebirth that follows.
In a sense, the floodwaters loosened him from an inertia that had set in years before. “Until we came to the time of the flood, for instance, I wasn’t equipped to deal with Michael, with my relationship with Michael, on the page because I wasn’t ready to deal with it in real life,” Blair says. “At the time of the flood, I was ready to do it. Just like I was ready to face up to my relationship with my wife. I had to confront many of my deficits, and they expressed themselves in all their glory.”
“Genuine” and “honest” are adjectives often applied to Blair’s narrative voice, and with good reason. There’s a rawness and emotional authenticity to his writing that many have likened to the work of Rick Bragg. Blair, however, isn’t entirely comfortable with this kind of praise. “I have a knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘honesty’ because of going through the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa.” (He attended the workshop for three years in the early ’90s.) “There, ‘honesty’ is a word everyone sneers at.” That said, it’s a quality he strives for in his writing, and he’s found a process for achieving it that works well for him. Each morning, he meets with a longtime writing partner; the two set up their computers, tap away for an hour or more, and then read their work aloud. “When I’ve written something, I don’t think of the writing as good or bad; it’s either closer to the truth or farther away,” Blair says. “And when I veer from the truth, I know it when I read it out loud.”
It’s an intimate act, this kind of sharing, as Blair discovered when he began meeting with fellow writer Pamela Bell. The two eventually had an affair, which he recounts with remarkable candor in the book. “It’s a very personal thing and to do it you have to make sure your heart’s in the right place, and with Pamela, my heart didn’t know where it was, so it was easy to fall into infidelity.”
On how Deb felt about Blair laying bare the most private, painful parts of their marriage, he concedes, “Some versions of the book she hated. She’d say, ‘I hate these people.’ It really made her angry. Every time she read it, it was like getting beaten up, again and again.” The book went through countless revisions as Blair struggled to “get her right.”
Though the memoir deals with many things—the trials of middle age, parenting a disabled child, life in the Midwest, marital hardship—the book is at its heart a combination love story and coming-of-age story. Readers will discover opalescent truths on every page.
At the end of our conversation, Blair shares this insight about his son, Michael: “We can’t fix him and neither can anyone else, so what we need to do is to love him. Just like we need to love our other children and each other. And I think that’s what coming of age is. It’s learning how to love. This life, it’s a beautiful thing. And I think it’s a chance for us to have grace. To be a light in the world rather than a shadow.”