Monday, April 29, 2019

On Anger, Experiments in Form, and The Shell Game: a Conversation with Kim Adrian

I'm teaching a graduate seminar on the art and work of the literary anthology this semester, in which we're reading anthologies across genre and in some cases talking with editors about the work that goes into assembling an anthology of others' works, and what that kind of work can mean, what sorts of space it can consolidate or create, and what conversations it can foment. You'll see some more of these conversations on Essay Daily over the course of the next couple months. I'm a bit of an anthology aficionado to begin with, and the class's conversations have only deepened my appreciation for an undersung form. It may be undersung and underappreciated, but it's crucial to the development of many writers. Almost all writers I know were inflected or affected or imprinted (in a positive way usually, though sometimes in challenging ways too) by anthologies at some point in their journeys. Whether it was discovering what the lyric essay was capable of in The Next American Essay or even encountering Lopate's great though very much of its time demographically The Art of the Personal Essay, or an infatuation with the Best American Short Stories anthologies of the late 80s and early 90s, these anthologies can be meaningful, and they have lives that go on long beyond the first encounter. Are they tied to a time and place? Yes. But they persist. And they mean. They can make a canon or break one. They give us permission, whether it's to write stories that you didn't know you were allowed to write or think, much less publish, or whether it's to mess around with form, in the case of Kim Adrian's The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). What are the connections between the writer's own work and the editorial/anthologizing work they do? What are the lives of anthologies and those who read and assemble and publish them like? How much work is it to put one together, or to find a publisher for one? What kinds of spaces are we creating or consolidating when we gather and publish an anthology? We'll be asking and answering some of these questions and more. 

After discussing some of the essays in The Shell Game, I posed a few questions that came up in our class discussion to Kim Adrian, and we present them here to you. We welcome your thoughts about anthologies, which ones mean or meant the most to you, and why? Which ones spurred you to do something different, not seeing what (or who) you wanted to see in an anthology? Let us know in the comments or on twitter. —Ander Monson


AM: Kim, thanks for doing this. So as I mentioned in an earlier email, I’m teaching a graduate seminar on the literary anthology—what they do / what space they make or collect for writers, readers, editors, publishers, teachers, students, and other communities. We talked about the great anthology you edited, The Shell Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), and we have more questions. Thanks for making this anthology and getting it out into the world. So: What draws you to nonfiction (others or your own) working in received forms? One needs to be a little bit obsessed with an idea, subject, question, or form to do all the work of assembling an anthology (which editors know is much more work than most people can imagine), and it’s clear from your other work (most obviously in your book, The Twenty-Seventh Letter) that form is both highly meaningful to you and, it would appear, generative. How’d you get so obsessed with form/s?

KA: I took a lot of fiction writing workshops in college and for a few years afterwards, when I had a part-time job at Harvard, where one of the benefits was free classes. Being young and having my heart set on becoming a writer, I took the advice I received in those workshops very seriously. What I didn’t understand was that the the limitations of the workshop setting itself (twelve students, one semester) often promote a prescriptive approach. One teacher even gave us a formula. ABCDE—Action, Background, Climax, Denouement, Ending—something like that. Trying to write stories that filled requirements like this was probably the worst thing I could have been doing at that time in terms of growing as a writer, but of course I didn’t realize that then.

During this same period, over the course of about a year, I checked out every volume of The Best American Short Stories from the library and charted the plot of each story. I was obsessed. It was a painful obsession because I, myself, couldn’t manage to write the kind of plot that’s based on so-called conflict. The kind where something has to “happen,” to “change,” the kind with a “rising action” that leads to increasing tension, a climax, and finally a letting down or denouement. My work has always tended toward the essayistic. I’m just more interested in lateral offshoots than in straight linear progression. But for a long time I resisted my own inclinations because I thought I needed to stick to the rules I was learning in the workshops. I suppose it’s natural to try to please your teachers, but that was a big part of the problem. Being a people pleaser can be a very dangerous proposition when it comes to writing.

At some point I realized that all the stories and novels and essays I loved best to read actually worked against the kind of prescripts I was trying so hard to master. Writers like Virginia Woolf or Kenzaburo Oe, with whom I was especially smitten at the time. So I started experimenting with form. The first story I wrote after this revelation did not go well in workshop. In fact, the teacher said in class that the narrator (clearly a version of myself) needed to be in a psychiatric hospital. Even at the time I remember thinking that comment was over the line. The narrator of that story was merely thoughtful and a little melancholy. That particular teacher had written a well-known book on conventional fiction writing techniques and, looking back on it now, I wonder if he took it personally, somehow, the fact that that story of mine—which was about young love—was as essayistic as it was narrative. Did he resent my coloring outside the lines he’d described so carefully in his craft book? Who knows. In any case, his comment made me angry. Especially because, by my reckoning, that story was the best thing I’d managed to get down on paper thus far. Oddly, that anger propped me up, and my experiments with form only got bolder.

AM: One question that came up in reading, say, Caitlin Horrocks’s “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivia Card” was to what extent the success of a hermit crab essay depends on how familiar the reader is with the form it’s inhabiting. That is, for one of my students who’s only a couple years younger than me, it immediately and powerfully brought her back to her own childhood studying those cards (her grandfather, she told us, was an obsessive Trivial Pursuit collector—!—and he had every edition, and she’d stay up late in bed as a kid reading and memorizing answers so as to get a competitive advantage against him (which is awesome in itself and tells you something about her…)). But if one were to teach that essay to an 18-year-old, I wonder what the form would even mean to them. Do kids still play Trivial Pursuit? Do they play it as a board game or as an app or something? If it wasn’t recognizable to them, how would they read it? That led me to a larger question which we talked about a bit in my class, but I thought I’d pose it to you: is any form used in a hermit crab essay a technology? (Are all forms technologies?) And then, does using a form tie an essay to a particular technological moment or era (I’m thinking here of, say, the Ok Cupid essay too)?

KA: I don’t think of forms as technologies so much as strategies. But yes, some forms will absolutely speak more clearly to certain readers than to others. As much as I love hermit crab essays, I suspect they are especially vulnerable to becoming cliché or passé rather quickly because of this recognition issue, at least in those essays that don’t exploit the form in a truly skillful way. Because in the final analysis form is always subservient to content, and in less skillful hermit crab essays that’s not always the case. But in a really good borrowed form essay, I don’t think you have to worry about the formal strategy getting outdated. A really fine piece of writing will carry its own. A good reader will have enough to go on to put it together, even if they’re not personally familiar with the form. Certainly there are examples that have aged very beautifully—Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, for instance. But that’s Primo Levi. He used the perfect form for his project. Not to dissuade anyone from playing around in this way, because I really do think it’s a worthwhile game. Hermit crab essays are a particularly accessible way to experiment with form that can lead to interesting discoveries and insights. For instance, I think they allow us to see very clearly how form and content are intimately related—how they’re essentially one and the same thing, but also not. Not quite.

AM: It’s a bit unusual for a writer to propose an anthology project to a press before publishing a book of their own. A lot of anthologies seem to trade in part on the reputation of the editor as a writer, and that’s a lot easier to do once that reputation’s built by the editor’s publishing career. As I remember it, the anthology proposal predated either of your books (though I imagine you had a contract for your Object Lessons book). I admire the boldness of your idea for this anthology but also wonder how the work involved in making it contributed to or amplified or overshadowed or slowed or otherwise affected your own work as a writer? Did it help you to surround yourself with discoveries of other writers using borrowed forms? 

KA: Yes, I already had the contract for Sock, and that lent me a bit credibility I think. I also had a fairly long history of publishing shorter works, including a couple of hermit crab essays, so that helped too. But honestly I was pretty surprised that I got the contract for the anthology. It almost seemed too easy. Though in a way the whole project felt like that. Not easy, exactly, just way more doable than I’d expected. That said, it was also a ton of work. I had to read over 500 submissions, for example. But I enjoyed almost the entire process—communicating with other writers, working with many of them to improve the essays, thinking about how best to order the pieces. The only thing I didn’t like was obtaining permissions. Working on the anthology did slow down my other work—my memoir in particular, which was eventually published by the same press. I just couldn’t concentrate on the few relatively minor revisions they had requested on that manuscript and also get the anthology out the door at the same time, so my memoir came out a year later than originally anticipated. Overall, the anthology felt like a juggling act and while it did take up a lot of time, now that I don’t have an editing gig in my life, I miss it. I found it to be a wonderful counterbalance to the isolation of writing. In terms of the last part of your question, I admire every essay in the anthology, but there were only two that inspired me in my own work. And yes, it was very enriching to work with those writers, and to examine their writing so closely, as an editor. It was fascinating.

AM: How did you end up at the University of Nebraska Press for both of your books (which are both lovely: they do good work)? 

KA: By the time I started thinking about the anthology I’d finished my memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, and was hunting around for an agent for it. The book is a bit of an odd duck, a borrowed form (a glossary) about my relationship to my mentally ill mother. Several agents had praised it but worried they wouldn’t be able to sell it because it didn’t have a strong enough narrative arc. (Lol, see above.) There was one agent in particular that I really liked. So even though he had said no to my memoir, I pitched him the idea for the anthology. He said he was interested, but that he’d need to see a real proposal and some sample essays before he committed. That’s what prompted me to reach out to a few essayists, write the introduction, and put together a formal proposal. When I sent these things to the agent, he said he still liked the idea but didn’t foresee a significant market for the book so he’d have to pass. I’d put in so much work by then, and had a pretty meaty proposal ready to go; it seemed only natural to send it out myself. I researched presses that publish this kind of thing—presses, I mean, that I could approach without an agent—and sent it to a couple of the most likely. University of Nebraska was at the top of the list because they are such terrific advocates of innovative nonfiction. They loved the idea and I had a contract in a couple of weeks. In terms of my memoir, I kept looking for an agent, or a larger publisher, on my own for a while but it was slow and frustrating. After a while I thought, why not send it to UNP? I was enjoying working with them on the anthology, and obviously had a good relationship with the acquiring editor there (Alicia Christensen), so I sent it to her and—happily—she took it. 

AM: In the proposal you sent me you’d sent me you included a possible mock-up of a cover idea, featuring art by Aki Inomata of hermit crabs in plexiglas artificial shell structures. That was a great cover image, I thought. I like them both, though the actual cover goes in a very different direction, one that really doubles down on the technology qualities I mentioned above. What happened between that idea:

and the one that you ended up with:


KA: Oh, that was a heart-breaker. Aki Inomata is a wonderful artist, and her acrylic architectural “shells” for real hermit crabs are perfect metaphors for hermit crab essays, which is why I took the liberty of using her work in a cover mock-up as part of the proposal. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak English, so communications about actually using one of her images on the real cover were difficult. She didn’t get what I was talking about—an anthology? of what kind of essay?? what’s an essay??? I wrote to her several times but it always ended the same way. At a certain point, she got an agent and I thought that might be a good development, but the agent didn’t speak English either. One of the contributors to the anthology, Joey Franklin, speaks some Japanese so he volunteered to write to the agent—but again that went nowhere. The image on the cover now is actually something I had to fight hard for too, because the first cover image the press sent was—let’s just say, not my cup of tea. Primary colors. 1950’s clip art of Dick-and-Jane-style Caucasian kids playing some weird game that looked like a bomb-building kit. It was a valiant attempt at a borrowed form—supposed to look like an oblong game box, with the title and image running sideways—but the overall effect was illegible and, I thought, pretty garish. The book at that point also had a confusing subtitle: “a collection of hermit crab essays.” Over the course of the editing process it had dawned on me that to anybody outside the tiny world of hardcore innovative nonfiction (basically, the readership of this blog) this string of words could only indicate a collection of essays about hermit crabs. So I’d been working, with little progress, to get it changed. For some reason the press was really adamant on keeping “hermit crab essays” in the subtitle. But after a number of frantic (persuasive?) emails and phone calls from me, they finally agreed to change both things. The image that’s on the cover now—of a computer form in the midst of being filled out—was my idea, much refined and elevated by UNP’s designer.


Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet ("aching, endless, unresolved, and extremely compelling" —Los Angeles Review of Books). Her first book, Sock, is part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons Series. Her award-winning essays and stories have been published in Tin House, AGNI, the Gettysburg Review, O Magazine, and many other places. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms is an anthology of lyric essays Kim edited, praised by The Millions for offering "a sense of hope about literature."

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