Steven Church is the kind of guy you want at a dinner party or on a pub quiz team, an obsessive collector of information who is not afraid to let things go off on a tangent.
In the hour spent talking with the author and Fresno State instructor about his new book, “Ultrasonic,” the conversation veers from Mike Tyson and Metallica to Parkfield, Calif., the earthquake capital of the world (population: 18), to racquetball.
“The game is sonically interesting,” Church says. “It’s an American invention. Sort of like rock ‘n’ roll.”
Elvis Presley played racquetball (though apparently not well) and wanted to open a nationwide chain of racquetball courts. The King had a favorite racquet he called Red Guitar and his own court at Graceland.
On the day he died, he played a 2 a.m. doubles match.
“He had a piano bar connected to his racquetball court and after the game, he sat down and played what could be considered the last songs of his life,” Church says.
That’s the kind of rabbit hole Church tumbles down while researching his work.
Church tends toward the obsessive. His debut, “The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record,” was based on his boyhood fascination with the world records book. The follow-up, “The Day After the Day After,” explores the idea of apocalypse and the overwhelming anxiety caused by the ’80s made-for-TV miniseries “The Day After.”
The essays in “Ultrasonic” focus on sound — the pop of a racquetball colliding with a front wall, heavy metal music (which the government uses as a form of torture) or the tapping of trapped miners, which led to an essay on his earliest interaction with his daughter (in the womb).
His next book, which he’s working on now, is an exploration of savagery and intimacy and the line between humans and animals, which is probably less high-brow than it sounds.
It’s actually about people who jump into cages with predatory animals — the lions and tigers at the zoo. It happens more often than you’d think— almost an archetype, Church says. It goes back to the Bible and Daniel and the lion’s den.
There’s also a piece on Mike Tyson, because the guy is famous for being a savage and fighting like a caged animal. He bit off a guy’s ear.
“My books are hard to talk about sometimes,” Church says.
It’s not always immediately clear how the divergent ideas in his essays fit together.
It’s the thing Church likes most about the form. Essays have the ability to digress, to take seemingly disparate things and bring them together.
“It shows you a unique consciousness at work, thinking about something in a nuanced and complicated way,” Church says.
“I was never really good at character and plot-driven development,” he says.
With an essay, the idea becomes the character.
“You are following the story of thought.”