Monday, June 22nd, 2009
Books of essays by a single author are seldom an easy sell. But anthologies containing essays by multiple authors seem to fly off bookstore shelves. Ever since Dropped Threads, each season brings at least one example, with subjects ranging from parenthood (or not) to illness. The demand seems insatiable, for readers and writers alike.
Since so many essays these days begin life with a call from an anthologist, I thought it would be interesting to interview editors as well as contributors. Cori Howard is both. Here, she talks about her work on Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood.
Q: What sparked the idea for this project?
A: A conversation in the park, with a good friend. I seem to get a lot of ideas that way, these days. We were talking about our post-baby sex lives, and that led us to start talking about how babies had changed our relationships, friendships, ambition, identities. And I had read some of the anthologies on motherhood published in the US, but I still craved more. That’s all I wanted to read about at the time. And I could only manage to read anthologies. Snatching a few moments to read an essay was (and still is) so much more manageable than a whole work of non-fiction.
Q: Why did you choose an anthology of essays rather than poetry or fiction?
A: Non-fiction is the only genre I’d ever worked in, the only genre I felt I could handle. I never considered anything else.
Q: Does the essay genre offer something different to readers? If so, what?
A: Truth, raw and honest emotion, deep and penetrating insights. All that.
Q: Was it difficult to secure contributors?
A: No. It was incredibly easy, even with seasoned writers who could have charged a fortune for their contributions were more than willing to share their stories. They all said they’d never been asked, but had always wanted to write about it. So I was lucky.
Q: Tell us something about the editing process.
A: I don’t remember. I did it all at night with a newborn and a 3-year-old. Just kidding. I remember staying up after putting my children to bed and reading one or two essays a night and feeling like it was such a privilege and an honor to be doing what I was doing. I remember sipping my wine and revelling in the stories that were being told, often so well-told that I didn’t need to do much editing. I would email the contributors with my initial thoughts, ask them to do a rewrite and send it back. The contributors who hadn’t published or written a personal essay before required more work, but every contributor was smart and savvy and easy to work with.
Q: What was the greatest challenge in getting this project off the ground?
A: There wasn’t one. I found an agent who was 8 months pregnant and pitched her the idea by phone. She got me a contract within 2 weeks, just before she headed off on mat leave. It was a truly impressive turnaround, even for a fast-paced journalist like myself. But even before I signed on the dotted line, I had started calling all the writers I knew and admired, soliciting their ideas and feedback.
Q: What has been the greatest reward, either in working on this book, or post-publication?
A: The book itself. I get so many women emailing and coming up to me to tell me how much it meant to them, how much they could relate to the stories, how it helped them feel less alone. And I owe it to the book, and to the response to the book, for doing what I’m doing now: teaching writing to moms online and in Vancouver. The gatherings that I have initiated have been even more rewarding than the book. I have witnessed remarkable transformation, both in personality and in writing. I’ve seen a community grow from nothing and I’ve met some of the most amazing, talented women. I’ve learned so much from them and their stories about bravery, courage, strength and power.
Q: What advice might you offer to someone else who wanted to put together a collection like this?
A: Have a partner who can help you pay the bills while you’re doing it! Just kidding. Although I’m sure that would help. I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that it was never really an onerous process, but always rewarding in some interesting and surprising ways. I knew if I ever did a book, it would have to be on a topic I would perpetually be passionate about, or it could easily become an awful experience. But I knew from writing and publishing essays on my experience as a mother that it was a topic I wouldn’t tire of….and I haven’t.
Cori Howard is an award-winning journalist who has worked in newspapers, magazines, television and radio, filing stories from across the world. Her writing (much of it personal essays on motherhood) has appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Independent, Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Reader’s Digest and Today’s Parent. You can find more information about her, her writing, and the courses she leads at The Momoir Project.