First off, let me welcome you publicly to the Carve staff! We’re all extremely excited for the magazine’s expansion into nonfiction.
When we exchanged emails earlier about your background, I was immediately struck with your desire for a somewhat nontraditional entry into the world of writing, including working odd jobs for awhile, and I think it is especially crucial for the genre of nonfiction for writers to have lived (and continue to live) lives partially outside of academia and the literary world. How important do you feel it will be in your role as nonfiction editor to be on the lookout for not just new voices, but also voices that seem to be drawing on rich experiences?
I certainly hope we can add new and experienced voices to the nonfiction section at Carve, and I hope it becomes a place that people look to for reflections upon life and literature. Ultimately, experience is the most important facet of nonfiction writing, whether shared or unique. The thing that typically sets a writer (and good writing) apart from others is how the experience is conveyed or what it’s connected to. I certainly didn’t intend to have a nontraditional entry into the world of writing, but the experiences I had on the way brought up more questions about the world than answers, and I think I was drawn to writing because writers were the ones addressing these questions in terms I could connect to. I suppose I was drawn to this position because I want to know what people are experiencing, and as an editor, I’m fortunate enough to map out writing that I think others should take notice of.
You completed your master’s thesis at the University of Glasgow on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is not a light book, to put it mildly, so I’m guessing your tastes lie more toward unflinching narratives. What are some works you consider to be in your own personal canon of nonfiction?
I was very into the McCarthy-esque story for a while, but the act of finding new writing is also an exciting experience for me, so I’m not sure I’d ever fully pin myself down. There was an Ann Beattie essay from a few years ago, where she explores the idea of having visitors to one’s home, and at the end of the essay, I had this phantom image of figures drifting in and out of a back door, wooden steps, tablecloths being stripped, and the house emptying out its energy, and it really connected me to any time I have had people to my home or times I’ve unthoughtfully traipsed through other people’s homes. And I really liked that. I suppose I’m always looking for new ways of expressing ideas.
Off the top of my head, a personal canon of nonfiction would include Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs. His essay “On the Bay” is nice and very different. To take on subjects as varying as English football hooliganism and French food (later on) is very interesting to me. Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes is a welcoming invitation to the topic of death and what writers have said about it. I don’t know where it would rank in a list, but Elizabeth Samet’s Soldier’s Heart is an interesting read on her experiences teaching at West Point. David Foster Wallace (pick one). Willie Morris’s North Toward Home. Cynthia Ozick. David Searcy is a writer I’m currently intrigued by.
Is there anything in particular about the literary essay that you feel sets it apart from other forms of nonfiction? What about the form elevates it to art?
For sure. Nonfiction can be such a wide and diverse category. And then we can get into the controversy of when nonfiction bleeds into fiction, and that’s an entirely different question.
The literary essay, or essays that explore life and literature, can be swirling meditations on what it is to be human or what experience can tell us in a wholly abstract way (or maybe in ways that can be logically and assumptively acceptable to the writer and the reader). Journalism, position essays, things like that get straight to the point and try to illuminate facts. Literary essays provide more questions than answers, and when they express questions that people can connect to (especially in the formulation of their words), they can make someone feel the same way that looking at a beautiful painting or a landscape can. I haven’t read a news report that’s made me feel that way. But great speeches are, in my opinion, closer to art as well.
On the spectrum of writing from personal essays to hardcore investigative journalism, where do you think Carve nonfiction is going to land, or will it simply seek to encompass the best writing in all the available forms? In other words, tell us about the creative vision you have for the new section.
I know it can be frustrating for writers to read journals and the descriptions of what they want. There seems to be a lot of clichés thrown around. It would be hard to turn down anything that is simply, at its core, great writing, regardless of form. And a lot of journals scream, "Read the journal first!" And while that’s true and people should, I think it also breeds this idea that your writing needs to look just like writing in that journal, and that’s a dangerous line to walk. I don’t think we'll be looking for things like investigative journalism at the moment. We would like to probably keep it simple with essays on life and literature and experience — and how those ideas intersect. Now if the essay is about investigative journalism, and afterward, the reading committee feels like they can connect to the ideas of investigative journalism and literature in creative terms, that would be an interesting essay.
Who are some contemporary creative nonfiction writers you particularly admire? Who’s on your nightstand?
I admire anyone who’s writing compelling creative nonfiction and putting themselves, as writers, out there so the rest of us can learn, connect, and examine. I never want to feel like the author is self-serving in this regard. My nightstand has a collection of books that are half-read, water-stained, and have been regrettably ignored for acceptable and unacceptable reasons. Owning It All by William Kittredge. The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa. A book of essays by Texas writer Stephen Harrigan. And various short story collections.
I asked this of managing editor Anna Zumbahlen when she first joined Carve as an editor, but I’m always intrigued by the things that rub editors the wrong way: So, do you have any literary pet peeves you can share? Anything that drives you nuts beyond grammar and formatting?
When discussing someone’s writing with them, I’ll never reference another writer, or say “this reminds me of [so-and-so]'s work.” The closest I’ll get is telling someone to read work that reminds me of their work or work that I think they would benefit from reading. I don’t think telling any new writer that their work reminds you of someone specific does them any good.
You also share the name of a guitarist in the progressive metal band out of Indiana called The Contortionist, whose most recent album is interestingly titled Language. How important is language to creative nonfiction? And perhaps more importantly, what’s your playlist that you write or read to, if any?
That’s funny. I knew he was out there, but when I read the question the first time through I thought of a book titled The Contortionist’s Handbook that’s somewhat Palahniuk-like (if I had edited the manuscript, I wouldn’t have told him that). A friend several states away checked it out in a library once and read it and mailed it to me. She told me to read it and then had an expiration date for me to mail it back, so it wouldn’t be late.
I don’t listen to music when I read or write. I try to write or edit facing a wall/corner/cubicle. And going back to the beginning of the conversation, language is probably the most important facet of creative nonfiction because it can take the most mundane of experiences and turn them into ideas that seem life-altering.