Hungry for the Essay: An Interview with Kim Dana Kupperman
February 22, 2012 § 12 Comments
Kupperman’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Best American Essays 2006, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and River Teeth. Her honors include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2009; a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a scholarship from the Center for Book Arts in 2008; multiple notable mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays anthologies; the 2003 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize; and first place in the 1996 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest.
CG: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings has been described as an essay collection that “reads not unlike a memoir.” As a writer and publisher, what are your thoughts about this characterization?
KDK: Many of my essays are autobiographical, and much of first part of the book contains familial tales; this explains that characterization by some readers. But on another level, the reading public has become familiar with themed collections of essays, as well as essay collections repackaged as memoir. Our culture, on an even deeper level, is obsessed with classifying everything. We are marketed down to our last inch of skin and nail; no surprise that our reading is intensely marketed as well. And memoir is now the familiar category, which is odd in a way, considering that only several decades ago, memoirs were what famous people wrote, and essays, a little further back, were immensely popular (think serialized writing, pamphlets, etcetera).
During the last twenty years, it’s as if no one wanted to say the word essay, which is exactly why I founded Welcome Table Press. Though looking at some of the books coming out these days, from mainstream, independent and university presses—David Shields’s Reality Hunger; Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur; Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land; Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana, to name several—it seems as if essays might be coming back into favor. Which, of course, I love.
I think there’s room in the world for both memoir and essay; these are two forms of prose. And, as I’ve said before, people are reading essays all the time (think of the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, not to mention blogs, our modern-day version of the pamphlet, editorials, etcetera). And people are writing essays. All you have to do is look at the immense popularity of conference panels on the essay or, for that matter, the number of people who attend Welcome Table Press’s biannual symposium, In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form. That people are showing up to such events tells me the essay is a form worthy of attention.
CG: Many nonfiction MFA students work towards compiling essay collections and yet, as Phillip Lopate has stated, “no one wants to publish a collection of essays” (“In Defense of the Essay,” River Teeth, Vol. 12, No. 1). Your book, and success with Welcome Table Press, prove otherwise. What career advice would you give to writers enamored with the essay?
KDK: I think people need to be in this profession for the art: there’s no money in it. I’ve heard many fellow writers tell me, and I’ve heard it myself, that publishers, editors or agents thought the writing was stellar, but they couldn’t sell an essay collection. One of the reasons I founded Welcome Table Press was in response to this trend.
Writers should publish in literary magazines, and I’m not just saying that because I used to work at one. If you want to publish in literary journals, it means making a commitment to them, purchasing and reading them, becoming knowledgeable about the market before submitting to them. With this economy and the push to make everything digital, we’ve lost a lot of journals recently. Which saddens me.
CG: Your work has been acclaimed for its resistance to self-indulgence. Is this a cultivated stance or an instinct?
KDK: Both. I’m really not all that interesting. I think I’m more apt to indulge in language and in the gift of ideas and the turning of phrases from other writers.
CG: Language often leads in your work, such as when you deconstruct the etymology and meaning of the word cliché in the midst of having an affair. You write: “I’ve never considered that the clichés I’ve headed into (including this one) are merely reminders that I’m alive, kicking around the same story over and over, trying to transcend the too familiar, sometimes unable to twist language in new ways to describe what or how I’m living.” Could you reflect on how language leads you to story?
KDK: I’ll often look at a word’s etymology as a way into exploring meaning and, potentially, a way into locating the origin of an idea. This kind of rumination is crucial in the essay, a kind of chewing on language. An essayist is, essentially, writing the biography of a thought, allowing cognition itself—its circuitry and obsessiveness, its “moments of being,” as Virginia Woolf called it—to play out on the page.
It’s also an essayistic instinct to look at the potential derivations of patterns, behaviors, ways of thinking, etcetera. This instinct materializes as the speculative voice, doing what Barbara Hurd calls “perhapsing,” the probing at all the maybes and what ifs of a particular narrative.
CG: You use a vast repertoire of stylistic devices, including italics, fragments, dashes, hyphenated modifiers, ellipsis, parenthesis and lists. Did you cultivate this style? Or do you think syntactically?
KDK: Yes, I think I do; I think all writers do. Language is all we have. Visual artists might use paint; carpenters, nails. As writers, all we have are words, punctuation and syntax. That’s it. And from that we need to fashion a voice and persona.
Certainly my work as an editor has helped me grow as a writer. I’m very grateful to Mark Drew, the assistant editor at The Gettysburg Review, who has provided a great deal of mentoring to me as an editor. Speaking a foreign language helped me to further understand English and its nuances. By learning the intricacies of French grammar—and then, in turn, by teaching English and the intricacies of its grammar to French speakers—I learned to pay attention to syntax and diction, to really examine how we put words together.
CG: Sven Birkerts once noted that “Writers just starting to work with memoir often have real difficulty with (the) crucial distinction between event sequence and story.” What advice would you offer to an emerging essayist interested in using memories to shape narrative?
KDK: Annie Dillard wrote a terrific essay, “To Fashion a Text,” in which she advocates what I like to call the fine art of omission, and in which she describes the decision a writer faces about “what to leave in and what to leave out.” I wish more writers left more out.
Another bit of advice I’d offer is this: Always try to write about others more than you write about yourself. It’s how a narrator looks at the world surrounding him or her, what and who they look at, that ultimately interests a reader.
CG: Your book’s subtitle, Missives from the Other Side of Silence, suggests the art of collecting. How did you determine what to leave in and leave out when assembling your book?
KDK: I’ll answer this question with parts of a talk I gave at AWP’s 2009 conference, from a panel called The Essayist’s Dilemma, which was moderated by Marcia Aldrich, former editor of Fourth Genre; panelists included Lucy Ferriss and E. J. Levy:
The arrangement of my book came about in stages, beginning with that monster called the creative thesis, completed after two-plus years in a master of fine arts program. After I graduated, I thought that all I’d need to do was write a few more essays to fill out the collection I had so diligently assembled as a thesis. And then a friend read the essay titled “Relief” and said, “This is very interesting, but what happened before the time you wrote about?” That question prompted me to take apart this particular essay and write it into a memoir. Which meant, for practical purposes, removing a piece of writing from an already slim collection. And so I spent almost two years writing a memoir.
Though I published chapters from the memoir as discrete essays, it did not sell. After sending it to agents, publishers and contests, and having it turned down, I decided to take a new course of action. I dismantled the memoir, breaking it into discrete autobiographical essays and restoring “Relief,” the essay from which it germinated. I merged these into the essay collection I had already written and to which I had added one or two newer pieces. It occurred to me that if I wanted to publish this book, I’d need to solve the puzzle of how to organize these somewhat-linked-but-mostly-not pieces.
Though a book of discrete essays may be opened and delved into at any given point, most readers, perhaps because we are trained by the beginning-middle-end literary schema, desire an organizing principle, a structure that imposes meaning—even if it is quite nuanced—that relates the parts comprising a whole. Using sections to group the essays would help, I thought. And, the book’s title would derive from one of the essays; I knew that the title would, eventually, lead me to develop a suitable configuration, but which title to pick, which essay to emphasize? I identified some of the shared preoccupations among the essays—air, wind, flight—as well as some of the overarching themes—departures and disappearances (read “death”), but how to wrap it up in a neat package for the dear readers I imagined on the other side of the page?
When I decided on the title, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, I realized that the subtitle would have to function as the agent of cohesion. I thought of applying a leitmotif of correspondence, using different kinds of letters as subheadings for individual sections. I noted words and phrases that evoked the epistolary: Letters home. Missives, dispatches, correspondence, billets-doux, epistles. Return to sender. Air mail. Parcel post. Sealed with a kiss. Etcetera. I played with the organization that was possible within these different rubrics. “I like the word missive for the subtitle,” I said to my husband during a moment of procrastination induced by coming to a dead halt. “But missives from where?” I wondered. “How about ‘from the interior’?” he suggested. And presto!—I had a title: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Interior. All that was left was to figure out how to group the essays. I started by using Roman numerals.
When Graywolf Press editor/publisher Fiona McCrae suggested that I change the subtitle of the book to Missives from the Other Side of Silence, I agreed. Several months into the copyediting process, I looked at the table of contents. Those Roman numerals seemed lonely. I still saw the collection as needing some sort of organizing principle. That’s when I returned to the original idea of the epistolary. After all, I thought, Sue Halpern, in her introduction, asked readers to approach these essays “as an assortment of letters bundled together,” a phrase that led to the cover design.
I dug out my list of epistolary vocabulary and phrases. After looking at the three sections and moving an essay or two, I clearly saw what I needed to do. The first section I titled “Letters Home and Abroad,” because these pieces were all about my family, here in America and there, in czarist Russia. The second section I called “Return to Sender,” and in it I included a mix of essays about such diverse subjects as a lover’s suicide, working in a battered women’s shelter, and a meditation on the color orange. In the third section, “Billets-doux,” I placed all the pieces about love, platonic, romantic, and of language.
CG: What’s next for you?
KDK: I’m working on a memoir called Five Days, about my mother, who came of age in New York City the early 1950s. Though I’ve written a lot about her, she still remains complex and interesting, and now that I’ve matured as a person and as a writer, I see different ways into understanding and writing about her that I never saw before. In some ways, what I’m really writing is not a memoir, but a biography-in-essays. I’m also working on two collections of essays, one that contains more hybrid and experimental pieces, the other classical, digressive essays.
Christin Geall teaches nonfiction at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. Follow her @ChristinGeall.