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Sunday, December 14, 2008
Author Q&A: Christina Baker Kline on the essay collection, About Face
I collect three things: shoes, magazines, and well, collections--essay collections. I recently kicked the shoe habit (involuntarily: heel spurs), and I cancel subscriptions whenever my husband rants about magazines cluttering the living room, kitchen, bedroom, car and loo. But as for the personal essay collections – well, I find it hard to express the circumstances under which I will stop acquiring new ones without resorting to trite clichés: cold days in hell, flying pigs and all that.
But About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, edited by Anne Burt and Christina Baker Kline, had extra appeal, since I know both editors, who live just a few miles from me. And it would have been hard to resist attending their book event held at the Bobbi Brown Studio (Brown wrote a foreword). Beyond that, however, Christina Baker Kline is one of those rare established writers who is known for extending a warm and deep generosity and meaningful support to writers still less well established. It was a delight to talk with her recently about the collection.
Lisa Romeo: About Face was published in August. How is the book doing now?
Christina Baker Kline: I don't even know! This book is published by Seal Press and they have a different strategy than major New York publishers. It's a small press, but they will keep a book in their backlist for a very long time. They are wonderful. If you go to their website, you will see it looks very different than what you see from a big publisher. It started as a feminist press, and they publish some titles that are very outside the mainstream, and some others that have pretty broad appeal, which I think is the case with this book. Seal seems to be moving a bit more toward the commercial mainstream – by buying books like About Face and The List (which was just published, written by our friend Gail Belsky). Also, they publish fewer books than a bigger house, but they stick to them. So, I actually have no idea how About Face is doing in terms of sales, but the feedback we are getting is terrific. The word of mouth has been great.
LR: What has the response been like at the events you and Anne have done?
CBK: What's been fascinating is that we've now done a wide variety of appearances -- book clubs, readings, presentations, panels -- and we see a huge range of ages, from women bringing along teenage daughters, to college students, and much older women. I did several events in Maine over the summer, and in New York City, Anne and I did about ten events this fall, and no matter where we were, we found the book had something for any age.
Several years ago, I became interested in editing this collection for a number of reasons. A woman in France had just had a facial transplant; a number of plastic surgery shows were on television -- and I was fascinated with the cultural implications of all of this, and what kinds of new choices women were making about their appearance. The question that interested me was: how does what you see in the mirror affect the way you live your life? It begins as a question about beauty, but Anne and I managed to find such a diverse group of writers that the conversation widened to include culture and racial identity, and it became a deeper and broader discussion than I ever anticipated.
LR: At a recent event, one of the contributors, a best-selling novelist, talked about how her first essay was actually rejected. "And you know what?" she quipped, "these two women are my friends!" That must be a precarious position – to commission essays, and then having to edit, and sometimes ask for rewrites, from accomplished writers.
CBK: It is tricky. When you ask an established writer to contribute, I think you always need to know going in that if their first effort is not quite what you were looking for, you have an obligation to them to try to work together to the end product. Sometimes it’s a matter of helping the writer figure out what it is they are really getting at, what they truly need to say; sometimes the writer is dancing around it. Anne and I always tried to help our contributors wring the resonance out of what they were trying to say. In some cases, we sent back the work because it needed more depth, and then it came back much richer.
The really professional essay writers have figured out how to talk about themselves in a way that is both revealing and yet within the very firm boundaries they have set for themselves. Kathryn Harrison, for example, knows exactly how much she wants to reveal about herself and no more; she is very clear about the territory she is getting into. When you've written personal essay for a while, you figure that out. On the other hand, as editors, Anne and I did have to watch out for the very seasoned magazine writers who may tend to wrap up the pieces too easily with an unearned epiphany. We would push them to go deeper and give those pieces more nuance.
LR: How did you select contributors?
CBK: The contributors range in age from 23 to 75, and the book encompasses a huge range of cultures and backgrounds and ethnicities. With a subject like this, it would be easy to have a lot of repetition, and it is important that the pieces are very different from each other. Early on in the process, our editor asked us to have each piece start with a paragraph in which the writer described her face, but those paragraphs sounded too similar. In the end we took that out, and encouraged our contributors to use their faces as a way to reflect on the larger issues about the way they live or their place in the world.
LR: I noticed neither you nor Anne have an essay in the book.
CBK: Anne was interested in writing a piece, but her life at the time was just too busy. In my case, I have edited three essay collections and have not written a piece for any of them. I love to edit; in another life I would be a book editor. Although it can be very satisfying to take a piece of your life and frame it and give it meaning, I am uncomfortable, myself, with the revelatory aspect of writing memoir. I prefer to write fiction. I particularly like the combination of writing fiction and then editing other people's essays. (I also love to be edited by a good editor when a piece of writing is under construction, and I get pushed to see things I couldn't recognize before.)
LR: Montclair, NJ, where you both live, is extraordinarily rich in writers; you probably could have done an entire collection – a series! – by knocking on doors in your own neighborhood.
CBK: Consider that there are 80 published book authors in Montclair, and this is where we live! We wanted to avoid complications and hurt feelings. Our original plan was to have no Montclair writers, but we ended up having a few after all. Our list came together organically. Anne and I both know a lot of writers and have a broad pool to draw from in the wider world, and there were only 25 slots, so we had to choose carefully.
LR: What's next for you?
CBK: I just turned in a novel that is coming out next summer from William Morrow/HarperCollins, called Bird in Hand. The book is very different from my previous novels. It's about New York and a suburban town (not unlike Montclair), and it's contemporary and rather dark, about four people whose marriages are crumbing.
I actually started it before I wrote The Way Life Should Be, but finished it after that book, because it's very intense (it involves the death of a child) and was complicated to write. I just wasn’t able to finish it at that particular time in my life. So I put it aside and wrote The Way Life Should Be, which was great fun – it’s in the first person, present tense; it moves along at a fast clip, and resembles in some ways a romantic comedy.
After that, I was ready to go back to Bird in Hand. I really had to figure out how to make it come together; there were a lot of problems with structure, because it moves forward and backward in time from four different points of view. My editor, Kate Nintzel at William Morrow, gave me such amazing guidance.
I also just handed in a proposal for a new novel, which begins with a 90-year-old woman living alone on the coast of Maine, and in alternating chapters goes back to her life as an orphan in New York City, and how, when she lost her family, she was placed on an orphan train and sent to the Midwest. I’ve been doing a lot of historical research about the orphan trains in the early 20th century – a fascinating part of American history that hasn’t been talked much about.
LR: If you had no other responsibilities, and were offered a fully funded year's time to do anything you please, how would you spend it?
CBK: Well, I'd write the orphan train novel and travel! Actually this is exactly what I’m going to do this coming year. Next summer I am going to teach at the University of London in Kensington, four mornings a week. (I get a two-bedroom apartment and lots of free time, so my family will come for a while, too.) Fordham (where I'm Writer-in-Residence) just started a new London program, and I proposed a class called "Writing for Granta" (the literary journal). It’s a creative nonfiction class; at end of the four weeks, the students will have created literary journals of their own, with their own pieces.
Being Writer-in-Residence at Fordham is my dream job, and I'm sad that it's only a three year appointment (I finish in 2010). I really enjoy working with both undergraduates and grad students. I am teaching the things that interest me most – this year my classes include “Fiction Boot Camp,” “The Arc of the Novel” and “Writing the Personal Essay,” for example. I love the collaborative aspect of teaching creative writing. I work hard to give my students serious advice and encouragement; in turn, they give me new ideas, send me in new directions. It’s a lovely alchemy.