The Work Itself Is a Home

A conversation with Cheston Knapp

Kaylee Ritchie

The Work Itself Is a Home

Cheston Knapp is managing editor of Tin House. His book Up Up, Down Down, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Scribner in February 2018. With his wife and son, he lives a life of reluctant modesty in Portland, OR.

At the upcoming 2017 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Knapp will participate in three panel discussions: “Finding A Publisher that Cares About Your Book,” “Ask a Book Editor,” and “Literary Magazines from A-Z.”

We asked Cheston Knapp about how he came to land his position as the managing editor at Tin House, to describe what makes a creative nonfiction piece stand out, and for advice on having work published in a literary magazine.


CNF: You’re the managing editor of a very well-respected literary magazine, but also a writer. How did you get into editing? And what path did you take to get to where you are today professionally?

KNAPP: I was hired as an intern at Tin House … sheesh, more than a decade ago now. At the time I had designs on going to graduate school, corralling myself into that safe institutional stable, but jobs kept opening up here. First I worked as the assistant for the workshop we run every summer in Portland, then I became the director, and, during that time, I was also pinch-hitting for the magazine, working as a sort of editorial mercenary. Staff-wise, Tin House is pretty small, and almost everyone wears several different professional hats. I found that I really enjoyed working on stories and essays, and, in some ways, I consider those early editing years a kind of apprenticeship—I was learning the ropes, only I was lucky enough to be learning them while working with some of our nation's best writers. I labored over everything that came my way, sure each time that the writer was going to figure out that I was a clueless doofus. They all do, of course, but no one has yet told my boss, Win McCormack, without whose largesse Tin House wouldn't exist. Then the managing editor position opened up, and now here I am. I often think about that early desire to outfit myself with a writerly certificate, a degree in linguistic prowess. I'm always wondering whether I would've produced more of my own work had I gone that route. But I'm also pretty sure that if I'd gone that route I wouldn't have the job I have now, maybe not any job at all, who knows, so whatever—bird in hand.

CNF: What’s your day-to-day like at Tin House?

KNAPP: It changes depending on where we are in production and what I have going on. Pretty much for every job I answer a slurry of mind-dulling emails in the morning and try not to read the news, and then, around noon, when I'm so horrified and depressed by all the news I've failed not to read, I go for lunch—typically a modest salad and a piece of fruit, but also really more typically some beefy sandwich with extra calories that makes Future Cheston's heart hurt a little—and then maybe I'll send out some contracts or rejections depending on my mood and the day of the week. Or maybe I'll have to talk to our circulation folks about the upcoming direct mail campaign or the previous month's subscriber and renewal rates. Other times I'll edit a story by someone as tummy-rumbling-ly accomplished as Karen Russell or Adam Johnson or Anthony Doerr or, one time, Alice "Queen Bee" Munro, and I'll procrastinate and blame the extra calories for my fearful hebetude and try to rationalize my decision to lie upon one of the couches in the office and just read.

CNF: What characteristics do you think make a creative nonfiction essay exceptional? What are you looking for when considering work for publication in Tin House?

KNAPP: I can't tell, does this site have infinite scroll? Because I sorta think I could go on about that long. Whole books have been written that attempt to answer this question! Exceptional essays can look as different as exceptional people. So many brilliant minds have worked at cracking the nuts of their identities through essays and maybe that's a good enough place to start: an exceptional essay, for me, is always in some way about the manifoldly complicated pronoun "I." Content doesn't matter so much for me, in other words. Give me first the writer's voice, his or her stylistic pluck and stutters, and let all the other chips fall where they may.

CNF: Can you give any advice to writers who may be looking to find a home for their work? (This does not have to be specific to Tin House, but it could be)

KNAPP: I'm afraid I don't have any unique or special advice that one doesn't already hear at writing conferences: read the journals you're submitting to, familiarize yourself with the literary landscape, gird yourself for a relentless surging cataract of rejection, be a good literary citizen, etc. But I will say that I think we tend to put too much emphasis on publication, so much so that it can corrupt the work. I've seen it happen. I mean, even the way we talk about it is fraught—find a home for the work. You should feel it in your bones—that the work itself is a home. And the more work it does—even attempts to do—the more it will feel like a home and the more other people might want to come over for tea and, I don't know, whatever a crumpet is.

CNF: Can you talk a little bit about the submission/editorial process works at Tin House?

KNAPP: Sure thing—how familiar are you with the concept of a lottery? Just kidding! There are six of us on the magazine's editorial board, and we all read the stuff that comes our way, whether through agents or the slush or soliciting writers we admire. Each week we send the best of what we've read around to the others and, on Wednesday mornings, we discuss and vote on them. Majority rules, although it very rarely comes to that. One of the things that I like about Tin House is the communal vibe. Since it's put together by six different tastes, it's more likely to provide something for every reader to enjoy. Or that's the idea, at least.

CNF: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about publishing, either as a writer or as an editor?

KNAPP: It's probably something as seemingly simple as how little one has to do with the other. Yes, editors publish writers, but publishing has its own odd exigencies—an agenda ill-suited to the headspace one needs to produce work that, only by an inscrutable and miraculous magic, doesn't suck so hard it chokes. My advice if you're writing with publishing in mind: don't. Save yourself the heartache and an editor the headache.

CNF: You’ve put together a collection called Up Up, Down Down, forthcoming from Scribner in February 2018. Can you tell us a little bit about the collection?

KNAPP: There are seven essays in the book, and they all circle questions of identity and authenticity. There's this choice soundbite from Coleridge that I really love, and it more or less sums the project up: "Oh me! that being what I have been I should be what I am." How can I be all the people I've been? Each essay sort of tilts at a previous iteration of myself, a former identity. So there's an essay about attending adult skateboarding camp that's also about nostalgia and my having been a semi-serious skater growing up. There's an essay about beer pong and my brief time in a fraternity. And there’s an essay about UFOlogists and having grown up in the church. Content-wise, they're sort of all over the place, really.

And, I didn't know this was going to be a book. I wrote three of the pieces and found that they had a sort of family resemblance. Then I wrote another and found that it, too, fit, if obliquely, with the others. With those four in hand I thought, oh fuck, not this, anything but this. It wants to be a book. All at once I was saddled with an inchoate collection of linked-ish essays. Out the door, with remarkable celerity, flew all my wildest dreams of bestsellerdom. Anyhoo, I wrote three more essays and as I did, I was conscious of the thematic resonances and little echoes throughout. The book represents six years of work, but most of that happened over the last two and a half.

CNF: Do you have any final words for the conference attendees, or for other practicing writers of creative nonfiction, who will be reading this interview?

KNAPP: Given the staggering self-important prolixity of my earlier answers, I'm pretty sure the only person who'll make it this far is my mom. Hi, Mom! Did you ever find my high school diploma? If some other hapless soul has hung on, I'll leave them with this canapé from Valéry that I've been coming back to: “It seems to me that every mortal possesses, very nearly at the center of his mechanism, and well placed among the instruments for navigating his life, a tiny apparatus of incredible sensitivity which indicates the state of his self-respect. There we read whether we admire ourselves, adore ourselves, despise ourselves, or should blot ourselves out; and some living pointer, trembling over the secret dial, flickers with terrible nimbleness between the zero of a beast and the maximum of a god."

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Kaylee Ritchie

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