Good Writing and Good Storytelling Is by Nature Surprising
A conversation with Callie Garnett
Good Writing and Good Storytelling Is by Nature Surprising
Callie Garnett is an assistant editor at Bloomsbury, where her projects include High Notes, the selected writings of Gay Talese (with an introduction by Lee Gutkind); the forthcoming essays of Blues historian Robert Gordon; and the brilliant (she doesn’t mind saying) novels of Aaron Thier. She is also a poet—author of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum from Ugly Duckling Presse. Her poems have been published in Company, Prelude, and jubilat. She has a Masters in English from the University of Iowa, and she lives in Brooklyn.
At the upcoming 2017 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Callie will participate in two panels: “Finding a Publisher that Cares About Your Book” and “Ask a Book Editor.” In these panels, she will discuss the evolving publishing landscape and answer questions about book proposals and publication.
We asked Garnett about her role in the acquisitions department at Bloomsbury and what she looks for in a creative nonfiction manuscript. Find out what advice she has for writers searching for a publisher who will care about their book.
CNF: You’re a book editor, but also a poet. Do you feel like poetry and creative nonfiction overlap? Maybe not in form but from a “story” aspect?
GARNETT: Totally. Some of the best poets come at poems like essays. Chris Nealon is really good at that. Also Margaret Ross comes to mind. These are poets who can really emulate thought in the way great essays can—like they can begin a poem anecdotally and work their way through an associated web, jumping, lumping ideas and splitting them, getting distracted and coming back, like we do when we try to wrap our heads around something.
It does seem that creative nonfiction is having a moment…
CNF: Essays are everywhere now. Everyone is essaying.
GARNETT: Yeah, it’s funny—Did you read William Deresiewicz’s piece in the Atlantic, “In Defense of Facts”? I like to reserve the right to call anything an essay. He gives a good sendup of that permissiveness. He says there’s a history to this form and you have to take it seriously—you can’t just suddenly say, well, you know, my grocery list is really an essay. It’s a good point!
On the publishing side, it seems like more people are thinking of essay collections as viable. Or maybe it’s just that more agents are fashioning submissions as the next Leslie Jamison or the next Eula Biss.
CNF: Are you in the acquisitions department at Bloomsbury? If so, do you have a sense of what makes a creative nonfiction book manuscript stick out? What is it that you are looking for?
GARNETT: I am acquiring, yes, although I’m pretty new. Most recently I acquired a dynamite memoir by the APIA writer T. Kira Madden. Before that, two works of narrative nonfiction that I’ll be co-editing: one about the history of documentary film and the other about the scope of domestic violence as an epidemic. I’m building a list, and my taste ranges, but if there’s a thread there it might be America. And attitude, meaning I like writing that makes you want to hang out with it rather than just absorb what it has to say. But who doesn’t?
What makes a manuscript stick out? Well, often if it’s nonfiction it’s not a full manuscript. It’s a proposal: usually an overview with some sample material. Make that sample material GREAT. (Or skip the proposal and write the whole book if you can.)
Publishing runs on a sense of urgency. You want your submission to feel a little like a hot potato—not in the sense of something to get rid of (ha!), but something that will gather publishing colleagues around, get them interested, get them into a game of toss, you know?
Strong proposals help editors get this game going by helping them be carnival barkers. Without sounding hollow, give them zingers, publicity hooks, early blurbs. Give them a list of comparable books (not “Amazon recommends”; use a more elastic sense of comparability, so it’s more fun). That’s so much of what publishers have to do: position a new book in relation to existing books. And speak to relevance. Why this now? It always comes up. And it’s often just a question of creative (but not contorted) framing. Actually, not just why now but why two years from now?
In my experience, editors are thoughtful, considerate, collaborative thinkers. But they’re operating in a context where time and attention are scarce, and they’re selling an idea to a team that includes marketing, publicity, salespeople. Everyone’s weighing in, sometimes agreeing, sometimes challenging. Help them be litigators for your case.
CNF: At the conference, you’re going to be on a panel, “Finding a Publisher that Cares About Your Book.” Can you talk a little bit about finding a publisher? What’s the best advice that you can give as far as finding one that’s going to care about your book?
GARNETT: Having an agent who represents great projects is a good place to start. Look at the Acknowledgments in some recent books you really admire, and find out who agented and edited them.
If a publishing house likes your submission, they’ll set up an author meeting or phone call. Prepare hard for that. Ask questions. I think what you wanna be watching and listening for is a sense of synchronization, not just between you and the editor—though that’s crucial—but also among the team members at a press. Is there good choreography there? Are they collaborating?
But I mean, it also depends on what you mean by “cares.” If what you want is lung capacity, the ability to market and publicize a book in a big way, that might mean a big publishing house. If you value close attention, it might be a smaller house. I like where I am because it’s in the middle. We’re small enough to give a lot of care to each individual project, but we have a sales force that runs with the big dogs.
CNF: Do you have a sense of where you think publishing is headed?
GARNETT: Humans will keep reading, I hope, and books are a pretty great technology for that. What kinds of books? Books about what? There’s no formula…no real way to predict this stuff, I don’t think. There’s always that moment when you’re reading a proposal and you’re jumping from the overview to the sample material, from the menu to the meat, that’s a moment of breathless anticipation. Will they be able to write? Because for all this talk around a book—and publishing loves to talk around books—good writing, good storytelling is by nature surprising. And a good publisher is devoted to pitching you headlong into that surprise.
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