Thursday, February 21, 2013

An Interview with Sarah Gorham

When I first started taking my writing seriously, one of the biggest problems I faced was finding new writers and works, new examples of essay collections to seek out and study. True, there are countless options in literary journals, countless Best American collections and anthologies, but I've always been more interested in reading long-form essays and collections. There's something wonderful about spending more than 10-15 pages with a writer, seeing the new expression that forms in the collage of subjects covered, their juxtapositions, the white narrative spaces between them.
It became much easier to find these collections once I found publishers that were as passionate about the form as I was. One of those publishers was Sarabande Books. Lia Purpura's On Looking was particularly powerful in shaping my tastes in lyric essays, and many of their other titles (including their fiction and poetry offerings) have continued to help me see what great literature is capable of doing.
I had the privilege of having an email conversation with Sarabande's President & Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Gorham. I asked her for her thoughts on the essay collection, as well as Sarabande's philosophy on what they look for when publishing some of the best literary nonfiction today:

*   *   *   *
Most of the essay collections being published today seem to be compilations of shorter nonfiction works by writers already established in other genres. I'm thinking of collections like Jonathan Franzen's Farther Away or DFW's recently released Both Flesh and Not: Not that these collections aren't engaging, but it seems like the purpose of such collections (ones that include book reviews, craft talks, etc) is not to celebrate the nonfiction work, but to better inform the audience of the author's fiction. Counter to that, I see a majority of Sarabande's recent essay collections--Let me Clear my Throat, Syzygy, Beauty, and Dear Sound of Footstep, If you Knew then What I Know Now--tend to be first books. Is seeking out first books of particular interest to you as a publisher? Is it just a happy coincidence?

I think the first thing to point out is that all the Sarabande titles you mentioned are book-length essays. The pieces form a unified whole as well as working individually. We do receive miscellanies-reprinted reviews, craft talks, dissertations, and the like-but almost uniformly turn them down. We're not specifically looking for first books, but debuting authors is part of our mission. Hopefully these authors will remain with Sarabande and we can go on to publish their subsequent efforts. We do treat them well!
I'm curious as to your thoughts about the essay collection. Do you believe it's important for a collection to have some kind of thematic connection, some overlapping narrative? Is it all right for a collection to be more of a "greatest hits" for a writer, not necessarily connected, but with a variety of high quality work?
The above response mostly answers this question too. Deny it though we will, there's a human need for story, a progression of dark to light, abstract to personal, however the arc plays out. We look for thematic cohesion in all genres, essay, poetry, and short fiction. Of course if all the essays were really blowaway-on the DFW level (dream on)-we would of course reconsider. That's pretty rare.
I am curious what you, as an editor, are looking for in a submitted manuscript. Particularly when it comes to collections of essays. What separates an okay-manuscript from a great one?
A great manuscript will have uncommon subject matter or an unusual approach to common subject matter. Elena Passarello's Let Me Clear My Throat is a good example of this, her take on the popular voice in all its carnations. Language too will elevate a book. Ryan Van Meter's If You Knew Then What I Know Now is a gay coming of age story, but written with such elegant, pristine sentences, not to mention humor and insight, it's hard to resist. There's got to be innovation and structural variety too. Primary is obsession. If the book didn't have to be written, why would anyone want to read it?
Scoping out your submission information on your website, I noticed that poetry and fiction manuscripts are only accepted in a limited window of time, whereas nonfiction submissions are accepted year-round. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I'm curious if this is Sarabande making a conscious effort to focus more intently on publishing literary nonfiction?
Yes, we've been expanding our essay line steadily for the last ten years. Still, the actual submission numbers are overall far less than either fiction or poetry, so it's still manageable to view them all year. That may change of course. Some of the programs I've visited have asked for an essay competition like our Morton and McCarthy prizes, but I rather like our more personal approach.
Generally speaking, Sarabande is one of the few publishers actively putting out book-length essays and collections. We see small publishers popping up to publish poetry chapbooks, short story collections, etc, but rarely do we see the same fervor for the essay. As a publisher, I'm somewhat curious as to your thoughts: Do you think there's not as much compelling work being produced? Is there something about the form that's not as immediately accessible to an audience?

To answer your question, the new essays are full of stylistic and structural innovation, work that relies on white space, associative thinking, odd juxtapositions-many of poetry's characteristics. By their very nature most large publishers don't want to take the chance their readers might not "get it," if there's an audience at all. The actual numbers of essay submissions are lower, but I see that as an advantage: less to screen. On the other hand, we've had no trouble finding superb manuscripts.
What can we expect to see from Sarande in 2013?

Two books are already out and receiving excellent reviews: Book of Dog, poetry by Cleopatra Mathis and If a Stranger Approaches You, stories by Laura Kasischke. April we present Patricia Vigderman's second essay collection, Possibility: Essays Against Despair. Speaking of DFW, she's written a beautiful essay on him included here. We're supercharged about Moth; or how I came to be with you again, a novel by Thomas Heise that could easily be called essay or even poetry. Others:

Easy Math, poetry by Lauren Shapiro (Morton Prize)
Belle Laide, poetry by Joanne Dominique Dwyer
Speculative Music, poetry by Jeff Dolven
Hymn for the Black Terrific, by Kiki Petrosino
Catherine, Laughing, poetry by C.K. Williams,
Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, ed. John Branscum and Wayne Thomas
Fire Year, stories by Jason K. Friedman (MMC Prize)

No comments:

Post a Comment