The Assay Interview Project: Debra Monroe
January 4, 2020
January 4, 2020
Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two award-winning books of creative nonfiction, On the Outskirts of Normal and My Unsentimental Education. Her essays have appeared in many venues, including the New York Times, Longreads, The American Scholar, The Southern Review, Rumpus, Salon, and are often cited as “Notable” in The Best American Essays. Influential craft interviews with her have appeared in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle and in Glimmer Train. She teaches at Texas State University in its MFA Program, and is the recipient of many teaching awards, including The Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching. The recipient of Texas State University’s Graduate Mentoring Award, she has notably shepherded dozens of students toward distinguished writing careers.
About Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology:
Existing creative nonfiction anthologies don’t reflect the current cultural landscape. This anthology, featuring essays in forms both traditional and innovative, showcases the genre today—not how it was fifteen years ago when creative nonfiction seemed to include only memoir.
Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology reveals how quickly the genre evolved into exciting subgenres. With essays by established and emerging writers, it mirrors the rich panoply of the current American experience.
Heidi Czerwiec: I’m thrilled by the prospect of the new anthology you’ve edited, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. I remember you first raising it as a possibility, and the creative writing social media pages exploding with excitement. I want to take this opportunity to talk more about your process of assembling this anthology, from recognizing a need, pitching the idea, curating the contents, and marketing the final book.
Textbooks and/or anthologies usually come about as the result of a pedagogical problem – there are shortcomings in the available options or materials, so someone patchworks together their own readings and materials, and eventually proposes a new book. For instance, if I’m teaching a nonfiction class or workshop, I’ve used another popular paperback anthology, which is great but a bit dated and heavy on the narrative. I supplement with readings from the fantastic Rose Metal Press books of hybrid and flash nonfiction, and work to balance the diversity of authors and styles.
What shortcomings did you perceive in the available nonfiction texts? What’s missing that this anthology provides? Or, asked another way, in what ways do you see this anthology providing an option that wasn’t previously available?
Debra Monroe: The existing big anthologies—sampler-style anthologies designed for classrooms—were compiled fifteen to twenty years ago. Smaller, thematically cohesive anthologies have appeared since, filling gaps left by the big anthologies. Like you, I was making my reading assignments piecemeal. I wanted one of those big, “something for everyone” anthologies that could be dipped into again and again for different levels of classes, for different pedagogical purposes.
The existing big anthologies reflect creative nonfiction as it was described when I was in grad school—a long time ago! It was described as “true stories told in the idiom of fiction.” Very narrative. And creative nonfiction seemed demographically monochromatic because the publishing world was, and that’s the body of work editors surveyed as they made anthologies. When editors compile anthologies, they include work that’s already a few years old. The existing big anthologies contain well-known work from the 1990s, the 1980s, and before.
I wanted an anthology that reflected the genre now. An anthology with aesthetic variety. I wanted an anthology that was demographically inclusive. I teach on a minority-white campus. For a student, being included means that some of the assigned essays depict life experiences that pertain to yours. Even if I didn’t teach on a minority-white campus, my syllabus would reflect how the country looks, not just how my campus looks.
I also wanted to stop photocopying so many craft articles. I longed for a single meaty article: a widely researched but synthesized and accessible history and theory and craft of the genre. This anthology’s introduction is that, with a “Suggested Further Reading” list.
A lot of us recognize holes in the available materials, but not all of us are willing or able to put in the work necessary to produce a textbook. What was the instigating moment for you?
After years of publishing and teaching fiction, I started to publish creative nonfiction. As I prepared to teach it for the first time, I ordered the anthology everyone recommended. This was ten years ago. The anthology was already dated. It reflected the era when memoir, a great subgenre, seemed to be the whole genre. And essays in it didn’t demonstrate much of that “thinking on the page” most of us agree is creative nonfiction’s hallmark—what Phillip Lopate calls “the double-perspective,” what Judith Barrington describes as “musing” as distinguished from “scene.” The researched essay, the essay mixing experience with research, the essay mixing experience with cultural commentary, the meditative essay, the experimental essay, and the lyric essay were unrepresented.
Worse, the anthology included fifty essays but only three by writers of color.
If I used the book, I realized, I’d be photocopying more than half the reading assignments. On the first day of class I told students there’d been a mistake with the book order—I didn’t volunteer that it was my mistake—and told them to return the textbook. I didn’t decide to edit an anthology that day. But I decided we needed one.
How did you go about pitching this anthology to publishers? What was important to you?
I wasn’t chomping at the bit to create an anthology. Or to shop it—my least favorite part of the writing life. But I’d written an email to a friend, a British lit guy who’d written textbooks. My email was full of family news, typos, probably a few curse words, and a two-paragraph complaint about planning for the following semester and the paucity of anthology options. Really, creative nonfiction is so vibrant, evolving so quickly. He forwarded my email (not just the relevant paragraphs) to his former editor at a major publishing house, adding that I had the expertise to edit the book. My strange email floated around a major publishing house for several months—think “producer of revered anthologies for English classrooms”—and one day my email came back to me from the director of acquisitions, who asked for a textbook proposal.
I was a bit stalled out with my own writing because every subject that triggered dissonance I recognize as my impetus to write was topical. And I don’t write op-eds. I write books. Writing a proposal according to this publisher’s specs seemed like a decent use of my time. A proposal is a 50-page document, including market research; a description of the project; what is, at that point, a “dream” table of contents because no permissions to reprint have been secured; and a sample chapter (which became that researched, synthesized, and accessible history, theory, and craft introduction).
When I submitted the proposal, the acquisitions editor seemed pleased to discover that I was a thorough researcher and strong writer. She nonetheless suggested that some word choices in the introduction were “difficult.” My target audience is upper-division and graduate creative writing students. I’ve been teaching at those levels for decades, and I’ve never had much trouble being understood by students. In fact, students report that I’m good at making abstract concepts not just explicable but available as craft strategies. What she said next was clarifying: she wanted our anthology to be both the anthology I’d described as well as a freshman English reader. My word choices were too demanding for a freshman English reader, she meant.
First of all, there’s no shortage of freshman English readers, and if we aimed at both markets we’d miss both markets. Freshman English readers have short, easy selections. My proposed table of contents included many essays, some challenging, some long. And what was the point of the introduction? Or the market research? She dropped the subject only to bring it up again and again. I discovered on LinkedIn that her previous work experience was developing freshman English textbooks, and this was reflected in every revision suggestion she made. She said the anthology’s contents should be divided into sections according to topics or forms or subgenres. I pointed out that many essays would fit several topic labels; that some essays fit a few form descriptions (because form is always not quite original but an original pastiche of existing forms); and that some essays fit more than one subgenre description. I wanted the essays to appear in alphabetical order, as they do in any anthology. We just weren’t talking about the same book.
Yet I had a 50-page heap of research and writing. I started querying other textbook publishers. That was eye-opening,
One major publisher: “We don’t do anything with living writers anymore, the cost of permissions. We do public domain anthologies, or we make small updates to existing anthologies.”
Another: “Are you willing to pay for the permissions yourself?”
Another major textbook publisher: “We’re getting out of the humanities entirely as not profitable.”
I’d add that my college-age daughter’s textbooks in the sciences and social sciences cost $200-$300 apiece, and they often come with key codes for online tests written by the textbook author. As editors explained, the internet has changed textbook publishing. The profit margin is slimmer than it was. Textbook publishers are under the same constraints as all publishers: mass market, good; midlist market, not so good.
A friend who’d published textbooks in communication theory told me that the only textbook publisher still interested in niche markets was Kendall-Hunt Higher Ed. After researching them, I sent an email. The next day I got a voicemail I nearly deleted. I read the phone transcription first, and the phone transcription said something about a “pool party,” which was the garbled version of the name of the director. But I did listen to the voicemail—I hadn’t expected an answer, let alone an answer by phone, to my query so soon—and I returned the call. He asked to see the proposal. Two days later he wanted to offer me a contract. By then I knew the cost of permissions was everyone’s stumbling block. Yet as I’d looked at comparables, or competing titles, some were $120, and I don’t know many teachers who would ask their students to spend that on a book. He made a decent budget for permissions and agreed to keep the price near $60. We ended up slightly over budget, and the price is $70. There are 48 essays in the book.
I wish the book cost less. A couple of friends who don’t teach were surprised at the price, expecting it to be perhaps $25, like a book by a single author. But publishers, both small and large, determine their permission-to-reprint fees based on some combination of the fame of the writer, how long the work is, how current it is. Some writers offered to reduce their percentage of the fee, but most didn’t own complete rights, and their publishers didn’t or couldn’t reduce permission fees. And writers should be paid. Publishers should be paid, so they can invest in writers.
Writing and/or editing a textbook or anthology is very different from writing a book – it takes time away from your own creative work, but a good one is a gift to the community. How do you foresee it being used?
I’ll get this sub-audience out of the way upfront: for people who can afford to pay $70 for a book, it’s a very companionable book. A wide array of experiences depicted, a wide array of forms, styles, voices. Humor, wisdom, sorrow, curiosity, and intelligence. A great book for a general reader.
But I designed it for teaching classes in creative nonfiction. It has a teaching introduction. It has headnotes that describe the author and the original audience for the essay, headnotes that point at formal innovations. After each essay, it has writing prompts designed to trick student writers past that fear of beginning.
What was your process for putting together the contents of this anthology? How closely did the ideal you held in your mind match up with the final list?
I was told by everyone that my dream table of contents wouldn’t look anything like my final table of contents. I’m pleased that the ideal and the final result are pretty close. I had to drop a few essays we couldn’t afford. At one point, I wondered about doing open submissions, unpublished essays only. But that would have taken years longer, and I’d have needed help reading submissions. The publisher wanted a book sooner, not later. I didn’t have unlimited time. I teach. I’d started writing a new book. I was judging the AWP Creative Nonfiction Book Award at the same time. It seemed obvious to everyone that the time for a new anthology was years ago.
There are a lot of heavy-hitters in this lineup. How did you go about securing their participation? There are also names I don’t recognize – can you tell me more about the mix of writers here?
I wanted a book that included writers with star power. Students want to read them. Teachers want to teach them. Yet students are grateful for work by emerging writers—essays by emerging writers can be less intimidating models than essays written by someone who has won the National Book Award.
Tracking down permissions was almost too interesting, a constant improvisation. I once saw one of the permissions request emails from the publisher. There’s no sales pitch, no description of the anthology’s rationale. The subject heading is bland if accurate. One writer later told us she’d deleted the request several times, assuming it was spam. Finding writers, well-known or emerging, often meant sleuthing. My publisher’s permissions department would usually stop after contacting the book or magazine publisher. Or sometimes our request would get stuck in the bowels of a big publishing house’s permissions department. I discovered that if a friend, or a friend of a friend, knew the writer, the writer could sometimes get the process moving.
For one of the last permissions—and I wanted this essay so badly—we’d been in touch with the editors where the essay first appeared, and they answered, CCing the writer, that the writer owned the rights. But the writer didn’t respond. A friend who knew the writer felt sure this writer would want to be in the anthology, and he had the writer’s phone number. I left a voicemail that said, “I’m the friend of our mutual friend so-and-so…” I explained the anthology. Nothing. A month later, I impulsively sent a long text message, long as text messages go. A month later I got this text message back: “Sounds good, I’m in.” Until I scrolled back to see that it was an answer to my message, I had no idea who was texting me. Yet he still didn’t answer his emails. A few weeks later, in real time, as I was holding my phone and prompting him to search his email inbox, he sent the permission contract back.
As for names you don’t recognize, most of them wrote essays I’d read in journals. I realized at one point that I’d included three essays by graduates of The Ohio State University, writers with publications but no book yet. I’m pretty sure Silas Hansen long ago suggested those. Silas Hansen is a great person for reading recommendations.
An anthology often says much about the moment in literary history when it appears. What does this anthology say?
It says that we are interested in the sheer variety of American experience.
I wanted to be certain that my idea of inclusion wasn’t impressionistic. I used U.S. census statistics to double-check that contributors to the book were as diverse as the country is.
Though the essays are a bit “evergreen”—not topical in the way that the news is—all of them, in one way or another, are responses to the internet age. We are swimming in unfiltered information. Every essay, whether experimental or traditional, is a sort of willed act of finding meaning in an era when facts and falsehoods—the sheer onslaught—compete for our attention.
What did you like about putting together this anthology?
Reading the essays. Writing about them. Researching and writing the history, theory, and craft introduction. I had hunches about that information, but it was great to verify it, cite it, paraphrase it. Putting the anthology together seemed like the culminating fusion of several skill sets I’d acquired: writing, teaching, research. I love teaching, so writing for students turned out to be my jam, so to speak.
What do you like most about the anthology itself?
The essays. Check out the table of contents.
You were asked to include an instructor’s manual. What was that process like?
I was bamboozled at first. I started teaching as a TA, with a department practicum, and after that I designed my own syllabuses. But the publisher insisted that instructors do use them, given the new paradigm—this over-reliance on adjuncts who do the lion’s share, more last-minute course assignments, more first-time course assignments.
I asked for samples, and my publisher sent me instructor’s manuals from science and social science, which turned out to be lists of terms to be taught during this or that week in preparation for tests written by the textbook author. They didn’t seem like acts of communication as much as outlines.
I decided to include everything I would tell a favorite graduate student or former graduate student preparing to teach creative nonfiction for the first time. I decided to make it a guide to teaching creative writing based on long experience. I had great help from a friend, Alayne Peterson, whose input was insightful because she teaches undergraduate classes more often than I do.
When will this anthology be available for instructors who want to use it in a course?
It’s available now, hot off the press!
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and for Poetry City. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com
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