Issue #40, Winter 2011

What's the Story #40

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #40

One Friday night long ago, I was in my office, reading through a pile of unsolicited submissions for a book series Creative Nonfiction was starting, when something happened: I found a manuscript, by an unknown writer-therapist named Lauren Slater, that blew me away. It was a six-essay collection—insightful, intense with totally daring and absorbing prose from beginning to end. I telephoned her the following day, told her that she was brilliant (she seemed unaware), said that I wanted to publish one of her essays in Creative Nonfiction—and the entire collection, which she called Welcome to My Country, in the book series. Not long after, Lauren’s essay Three Spheres appeared in Issue #3 of Creative Nonfiction. It was among her first publications. The collection, alas, was another story; I offered Lauren $1,000—the top of my budget—for Welcome to My Country, and Random House countered somewhere in the mid-six-figure range. And that was that.

But our connection—not only a working relationship but also an ongoing friendship—was cemented. Since then, Lauren has published many more books and has attracted many admiring readers. There’s a kind of Lauren Slater cult of readers who are especially enamored and intrigued with her book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, published in 2000. Allow me to excerpt the entire first chapter—a chapter that lays the foundation for the amazing breadth and meaning and nature of the book:

“I exaggerate.”

You needn’t read any further. That’s it.

I do not exaggerate in saying that the subsequent chapters make for compelling, intriguing, surprising and sometimes mindboggling reading that pushes the bounds of creative nonfiction. Lauren’s writing is invariably provocative, and she’s been incredibly prolific since the publication of Welcome to My Country, with five subsequent books of creative nonfiction, contributions to numerous anthologies and even a collection of fairy tales (for adults) to her name. She’s written essays and profiles for most of the major magazines in the United States. She’s also gotten into trouble a few times—sometimes because she is too direct and honest about the people about whom she writes and sometimes because she takes chances as precedent-setting writers are wont to do. Following the publication of her most recent book, Opening Skinner’s Box, she was criticized for her methods of research and reporting, among other things.

Lauren is currently working on a new book about animals—The Sixty Thousand Dollar Dog: Adventures in Animal Land, due out this year from W.W. Norton—and I am very pleased to introduce an excerpt from that book in the Essays section of this issue, which has an “Animals” theme. Lauren also graciously agreed to be interviewed for the Encounter page, and so I recently flew to the Boston area to talk with her personally. Joining me for the interview was one of Lauren’s oldest and best friends, Pagan Kennedy, herself the author of 10 books and articles for dozens of publications, from The New York Times Magazine to Details.

We sat in the tiny living room of Lauren’s modest house and talked about animals, Judaism, writing and the publishing world for nearly four hours. Joining us in the living room were Memphis, Lauren’s shiba inu puppy, and Sonny, Pagan’s puppy—who, as Pagan put it when I invited her to join me, were “long overdue for a play-date.”

As you read excerpts from our wide-ranging conversation, try to imagine the commotion of Memphis and Sonny wrestling, growling and grunting, racing back and forth across the room, dive-bombing the furniture—sometimes stopping to gnaw at the sofa—and us with relentless, playful rapture. Imagine also the house, under constant revision, like an unfinished manuscript, with Lauren’s paintings and stained-glass windows and trinkets and woodworking projects in sight in every room, intensely colorful and daring in shape and design, surprising and a little bizarre, a visual complement to the impact and feel of her powerful writing. Her backyard garden is similarly wild and surprising, yet choreographed—not unlike her prose, as you can see in The Centaur, which begins on page 16.

Like Lauren’s story, which circles around her dissatisfaction with the standard depiction of girls’ fascination with horses, the other essays in this issue explore the many ways humans and animals share not only physical but also metaphorical space. Notably, in Of Mice and Women, Susan Cheever wonders how she can happily keep pet mice but become completely unglued upon discovering wild mice in her apartment. Cheever, a memoirist and biographer (most recently of Louisa May Alcott), has written about her father, the famed short story writer John Cheever, as well as about addiction to alcohol and sex, but not (yet!) about animal addiction—though she touches on that topic here.

Any animal addict will get a fix from this issue, which is truly a literary menagerie. Jennifer Lunden’s The Butterfly Effect recounts a trip to a monarch butterfly wintering site in California, which is also the home of Ro Vaccaro, the “Butterfly Lady of Pacific Grove.” Randy Fertel tells the story of how his father brought gorillas to the New Orleans Zoo, and Jeff Oaks finds that dog ownership is a path to embracing adulthood. Kelly Herbinson takes a date to watch grunion spawn, the ultimate exercise in fertility—and sometimes futility; Kateri Kosek, working at a wildlife preserve, had the unpleasant task of removing starling eggs and hatchlings from boxes intended for wood ducks. Finally, Chester F. Phillips, a rancher who loses a calf to a mountain lion, meditates on his responsibilities not only to the animals he raises but also to the animals whose territories he inhabits.

 ***

Almost 500 writers submitted work to a contest we ran seeking work for this issue, and we had to turn down many other fascinating, moving, informative stories. After all, this issue isn’t all Animals: It also contains Phillp Lopate’s column on the ethics of writing nonfiction about other people and Sarah Z. Wexler’s observations about magazine editors’ troubling resistance to technology. As in every issue, there’s also the cnfonline page, with a narrative blog and some recent winners from CNF’s daily #cnftweet contest. If you haven’t joined in on Twitter yet, I hope you’ll check it out: it’s fun to see what writers can accomplish with only 140 characters, and there’s quite a lively community using the contest as an ongoing writing prompt. This issue’s Pushing the Boundaries feature is a lovely, lyrical meditation about Jacques Cousteau and Lake Tahoe. Finally, we’ve got a special crossword puzzle to keep you company over morning coffee.

This is our third issue in the new magazine format. The response to date to the redesign has been quite rewarding. The reviews and letters we have received have been positive, and our distribution has expanded. You can now find—maybe you did find—Creative Nonfiction in bookstores around the United States and in Canada, Singapore and Australia. Most encouraging of all, our subscription base is increasing steadily—and it’s our subscribers and long-time readers who mean the most to us.

Because, after all, without readers, a literary magazine can’t accomplish much. And although Creative Nonfiction has changed in many ways, our primary mission has remained the same since 1994: to publish the best and most distinguished authors—writers like Lauren Slater—while showcasing promising new talent like many of the writers in this issue, whose careers we can all look forward to following.

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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