Interview with nonfiction contest judge Steven Church
PN's Ania Payne chats us our nonfiction contest judge, writer and The Normal School editor Steven Church. Go here to send us your essays (deadline April 20, 2015).
Your most recent book, Ultrasonic: Essays, was just released two months ago. What are you up to now (writing or non-writing)?
I’m doing a little traveling and other stuff to promote Ultrasonic, but mostly I’m busy teaching, editing The Normal School, and finishing up another book that’s due to be released by Dzanc Books in Spring 2016. I’m calling it a “a very long essay,” and it explores the blurry boundaries between humans and animals through the lens of violent encounters. More specifically the book focuses on the story of David Villalobos, who in 2012 jumped from a monorail into the tiger habitat at the Bronx zoo and survived; but the writing also drifts into areas of philosophy, pop culture, and memoir.
“Crown and Shoulder” starts out as an observational and introspective essay about streets and car accidents, but by the end the essay is very personal, finishing with a reflection on your brother’s death from a car accident. You braid your research on the epistemology of “crown” with your own personal memoir so beautifully – do you have any advice on how to master the braided essay?
“Crown and Shoulder” is one of what I call my “constrained” essays. That is, my only goal really when I sat down to write was to explore the different meanings of the two words. It gave me a starting point and an assignment. But it’s also an essay that I wanted to move less linearly and more through echolocation, where what connects one section to the next or the one before is as much an echo or a similar sound, perhaps a repeated word or recurring image.
When you were writing “Crown and Shoulder,” did you know that you were going to end with your brother’s death? There’s a beautiful line in the last paragraph: “Some days I understand that everything I write is in some ways about my brother and his death.” Had you planned on writing about your brother’s death when you first sat down to write the essay, or did that realization develop as you were writing?
No, I actually didn’t know the essay would end where it did. That sounds like a convenient fiction, but the form and movement of the essay, as well as the realization I have on the page, happens pretty much as it was written. The essay began as an effort to find a more interesting way to write about a series of head and shoulder injuries I’d suffered over the years; and I spent at least a couple of years just letting it accrue sections. It was honestly kind of a surprise (or a “duh” moment) when it ended up at my brother’s death. I mean, I was probably actively writing away from that emotional core for a while, but I think this helped me approach a topic I’d written about before from a new direction or through a different door.
Do you have a specific writing routine? For example, do you listen to music – if so, what kind? Do you prefer a desk, a couch, or a comfy chair? Do you have to have certain things the same way every time you write or do surroundings not matter?
Honestly, my process has been a little different for each book I’ve written. The places change, the circumstances change, but the common denominators are early morning writing and research/reading followed by mid-morning/lunch time line-editing and revising, an afternoon nap, and maybe some light work at night. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes not. My last book, The Day After The Day After, was fueled in large part by a lot of old school Metallica played a high volume. Sometimes I need the noise. I’ve worked at home for a few hours, I like to go to my local pub, sit in “my” booth, plug my headphones in, crank up some music and work amidst the din and bustle of the bar.
Can you talk about how studying fiction for your MFA influenced and shaped your nonfiction? Do you think it’s valuable for any writer to study outside of their primary genre?
Absolutely it’s valuable, if not necessary to study outside of their primary genre. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that writing programs, conferences, the publishing industry, etc. are all so dependent on genre classifications that are, in many ways, the most important thing and also fairly arbitrary and meaningless. When it comes down the level of the line, the sentence, the paragraph, we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all trying to capture a unique voice or consciousness on the page. I think, as writers, we owe it to our craft to try and learn as much as we can from reading and writing in other genres . . . Of course, I don’t write much traditional fiction any longer. I use many of the techniques we tend to associate with fiction—characters, plot, suspense, dialogue, etc.—quite liberally in my nonfiction, and have at times bothered some readers by intentionally blurring the lines between genres in my work. But mostly I’m dedicated now to the essay as a form and a mode of thinking on the page.
You’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize nine times, you’ve published a couple of books, and you’ve been published in a wide variety of literary magazines, such as Brevity, The Rumpus, River Teeth, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, and more. Can you offer any publishing advice to writers in the early stages of their careers?
I guess the best advice I can offer is to start early developing the habits and discipline of submitting your work. For me, submitting to magazines is a part of my creative process. It gives me a goal for which to aim and a deadline, which forces me to focus and work on an essay until I feel it’s in a place where I can give it to an audience. Also, it’s important to develop a thick skin. You have to kind of enjoy rejection, and it helps to be both friendly and fearless. Submit to magazines where you would like to be published, magazines that you read and respect.
You also have quite a bit of editing experience as a founding editor at The Normal School – can you give us an insight into what types of essays and submissions really impress you?
I hate to pull this move, but I actually wrote a little something recently for the Essay Daily blog called “An Incomplete Taxonomy of Normal” that touches upon some of the kinds of essays we tend to publish in the magazine. Here’s a link.