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English professor challenges students, readers in new book that blends fact and fiction

Fact or fiction? That's what B.J. Hollars, assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, asks students and readers to determine in his newly published book, "Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction." The hybrid text is intended to challenge readers and inspire students to look deep into subjects to seek the truth.

"Dispatches from the Drownings" is Hollars' fourth published book. Being a published author provides him with a unique perspective from which to mentor students in UW-Eau Claire's creative writing program, Hollars said.

"A graduate of the program recently informed me that she learned more from my failures than my humble successes," Hollars said. "I really loved hearing that. While I think my students appreciate knowing that I practice what I preach, it's important to me that they understand that I'm in the trenches alongside them. All of our faculty members in the creative writing program are accomplished writers, which provides great benefits to our students. They can choose between working with the poet laureate of Wisconsin, an acclaimed mystery writer and poet, or a pair of prize-winning prose writers. I know of no other program in the region that can boast such an incredible line-up."

Hollars said "Dispatches from the Drownings" was born "from two very different fears: my pragmatic concern about the dangers of our rivers, and the more philosophical concern about the modern reader's willingness to believe everything they read."

"Dispatches from the Drownings" presents 100 drowning reports, mainly in the Chippewa Valley region, between 1875 and 1922. Of the 100 reports, 75 are factual accounts of reported events while 25 are completely fictitious accounts created by Hollars. Hollars pairs many of the accounts with images from the collection of Black River Falls photographer Charles Van Schaick, whose images capture life and death in the Black River Falls region from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

"I often tell my students that even facts offered in good faith are generally only 75 percent true," Hollars said. "That is why only 75 out of 100 of the stories in the book are true. In an effort to draw further attention to the fluidity of facts, I never say which is which. At the book's outset I make it quite clear to readers that not everything they're about to read is true.But I think the plot thickens when photos are paired alongside the reports, thereby creating an interplay that asks readers to rethink what they think is true."

Also influencing Hollars was author Michael Lesy's book "Wisconsin Death Trip," in which Lesy depicted history through photographs and news reports. The reports in Lesy's book are all true, whereas Hollars' book includes a blend of fact and fiction.

"It's important to me that local readers understand that I am not trying to make light of drownings," Hollars said. "In fact, I was inspired to write the book, in part, to try to exorcise myself from the river's very real threats. But I also wrote it to address a more cerebral threat as well: trusting everything we read."

Hollars will present several of the reports found in his new book during an interactive reading held from 4:30-5:30 p.m. Oct. 1 in McIntyre Library's second-floor breezeway. Audience members will be provided with "fact or fiction" paddles and after the presentation of a scene they will be asked to guess whether they are being presented with fact or fiction. The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be provided.

"Audience members and readers should expect an interactive experience, one in which they themselves are asked to actively participate in parsing the fact from the fiction," Hollars said. "My hope is that this unconventional reading experience will force readers to reevaluate what they choose to believe. In a world of 24-hour news cycles, I think this lesson is more valuable than ever."

For more information about "Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction" or the reading event, contact B.J. Hollars at hollarb@uwec.edu or 715-836-2667.