An Interview with Nicki Richesin
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies: The May Queen, a collection of essays by women about life in their thirties; Because I Love Her, essays by women on the mother-daughter bond; What Would I Tell Her, a collection of essays by men about the father-daughter bond; and this spring’s Crush, essays about first love. She lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. Literary Mama editor-in-chief Caroline M. Grant spoke to Nicki about writing, editing, mothering and imagining Anais Nin’s Twitter feed.
Caroline Grant: How did you get the idea to edit a collection like Crush?
Nicki Richesin: I wanted to make a complete departure from the kinds of books I had been editing. I hoped Crush would be a fun project with a broader audience than just parents or women in their thirties. Falling in love and being rejected are universal experiences that often make lasting impressions on all of us. It’s a story that may be told many different ways and I enjoyed reading how some of my favorite writers would remember their own first loves. I was also interested in exploring the meaning of loss and love. What does it teach us to lose what we love or value most in our lives? I believe loving someone is the ultimate act of devotion. So I find it fascinating how differently we can experience a love story from the one with whom we shared it. Quite a few of the contributors discovered their memories were completely different from their loved ones.
CG: Will you share something about your first love?
NR: He told a mutual friend that he “liked” me, but this is someone I had noticed from afar. I remember he had a bit part over the summer in a passion play, so he had grown his hair very long for the production. Needless to say, he stood out from the clean cut boys at my school. After surviving the onset of puberty, it was quite startling to me to finally feel like a woman in his company. It felt like he had opened a door to a new world that had previously been locked to me, and handed me the key. Nothing has ever been quite as romantic to me as the way he looked at me. Except for possibly my daughter’s smile.
CG: What was the biggest surprise for you in assembling this collection?
NR: This anthology was meant to be a fun project, but in many ways it was the most difficult book I’ve edited. Originally, I had wanted to assemble a collection of essays on young love by YA novelists. In the past, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of narrowing my contributors into neat, little impossible-to-find categories (women turning 30 or in their thirties, mothers with daughters, fathers with daughters). After a few months, it became clear to my editor that the anthology couldn’t possibly consist of only young voices as they lacked perspective and experience. I would be the first to argue that this doesn’t make their feelings any less valid, but overall it made for a limited point of view and one that didn’t encompass mature love. It was back to the drawing board for me. However problematic the process, I’m happy I trusted my editor. You can always improve an anthology by trying to find a new voice with a unique perspective, but at some point, you have to accept that it’s good enough.
CG: Can you talk a little bit about your process? How do you think of the themes for your anthologies? Do you work closely with your editor or agent to fine-tune your proposal before soliciting contributions, or do you work independently and then pitch your idea?
NR: The process begins with the kernel of an idea. I’ve chosen topics I’ve personally grappled with myself, like turning 30 (this now seems laughable on the cusp of 40, but running out of time was a neurotic obsession that plagued me) and the mother-daughter relationship. Then I contact the writers I admire and some with whom I usually have a working relationship and begin to solicit their essays or synopses. We often have an email correspondence or occasionally phone conversations about what their pieces will entail. I greatly value these relationships I’ve developed with my contributors. They’re revealing very intimate details of their lives. So I feel honored that they have agreed to share these moments with me and contribute their work. Once my agent and I have polished the final book proposal, she sends it to prospective editors. It’s usually only a bare outline of what the book will eventually become, but it’s a beginning. After I have a contract in place, I commission essays for the collection.
CG: What kinds of challenges do you experience in editing an anthology?
NR: I’ve been fortunate to work with wonderfully talented writers. Authors like Jackie Mitchard spin tales of golden thread like Rumpelstiltskin. I wouldn’t dare touch a single shining word. Most memoir writers (and fiction for that matter) have to confront their own self-doubts and fears to become writers. If they’re not willing to explore feelings of discomfort or embarrassment, they probably won’t be able to express their true emotions. I find it incredibly brave that the contributors are willing to put their hearts out there and spill their guts on the page. My biggest challenge is getting writers to a point where they’re willing to do this. For some, it’s too scary and intimidating and they’re far more comfortable inventing stories for their fictional characters. I find it awe-inspiring that the Crush contributors were able to delve into their pasts and adequately convey what they felt, who they were and what their loved ones meant to them. I’ve never felt that way again and I doubt I ever will. It makes the telling all the more dramatic and shattering.
CG: You have quite a professional standing now as an anthologist; is this the writing career you expected? Can you tell us how you started out, and share something about the detours or unexpected turns you may have taken along the way?
NR: I grew up dreaming of one day becoming a writer, but secretly knowing that this was an impossible job to pursue. I worked as an intern in the production and design department at the University of Tennessee Press where I discovered firsthand the challenges a small academic press faces every day. After I graduated, I moved to London to work for Rapid Science Publishers in Waterloo. It was the most exciting time in my life. I made some incredible friends and fell madly in love with London. I also did a short internship at Bloomsbury in Soho Square. I interviewed with the great editor, Liz Calder, who discovered J.K. Rowling. I have never felt more inspired by a woman.
When I moved to California, I worked for Addison Wesley Longman rather miserably as I was poorly paid and chained to the photo-copier. I also encountered a type of editor I did not want to become, one who had spent many years fighting her way to the top only to be subsumed by her efforts. She taught me an invaluable lesson: I recognized it was only through taking great risks that I would ever get ahead and I quickly learned I had nothing to lose. Although I was fired from AWL, I made life-long friends there as well: Kimberley Askew, Claire Cameron and Kari Dickinson. Working at Red Herring Magazine in San Francisco during the dot.com boom changed my life. I didn’t know the first thing about “the business of technology”, but I witnessed the drive required to be a journalist during our editorial meetings. Even as a lowly editorial assistant, I began to understand that I too could contact writers for a story. This is when I began working on The May Queen in earnest. I read about Julianna Baggott in a Poets & Writers cover story, I contacted her, and the rest is history. Thank you, JB!!
CG: You’ve published poetry on Literary Mama and written other pieces; do you approach your editing work differently than your other writing projects? If so, how?
NR: Editing is a completely different beast from writing. Writing is far more ferocious and overpowering. I can apply the cold eye of an editor much easier to other writers’ work than my own. I’m a great reader, so I know what I love and will respond to. In this way, I’m a bit selfish in my tastes. I’m continually surprised by which essays from my anthologies resonate with readers. I write for myself, first and foremost. If it doesn’t please me, I would never submit it for publication. If you want to be a writer, English mystery author PD James advises that you should read widely, expand your vocabulary, and practice writing. I still struggle with making my writing life a priority. I think it begins with identifying oneself as a writer and not being afraid to say, “I’m a writer.” I wish I were more disciplined and felt I deserved to make time for my writing life, to dream and to express myself.
CG: Has your writing process changed since becoming a mother and how is it evolving as your daughter gets older?
NR: Having my daughter made me much hungrier in pursuit of my art. Many of The May Queen contributors expressed a similar response to motherhood in their careers. Although this was my experience, I often resent the insinuation as I know many women don’t experience this same drive to create after having a child. In the past, I’ve been criticized for only including women who wanted to marry and have children in The May Queen. This response baffles me as I made quite a concerted effort over five long years to include women from all walks of life with dissimilar goals and experiences. As for my daughter, she has inspired me to be a better person. I would like to concentrate my efforts on non-profit work in the future and that’s in large part based on her influence in my life.
CG: The May Queen was published in 2006; in the five years since then, what do you think has changed in publishing and how has that affected your work?
NR: I feel like everything has changed in publishing over the past five years. It’s especially challenging to build a strong author brand that reaches readers in the evolving digital and online marketplace. Authors are now expected to engage with their audience through social networking and blogging. As a result, they’re closer to their readers than ever before. It’s funny to imagine Mark Twain blogging or Anais Nin tweeting about her exploits with Henry Miller. It feels a little invasive — all this weighing in and having an open dialogue with your public. I hearken back to a time when there was a little more separation of author and reader, when we could let the mystery be. I must concede I’m particularly indebted to my Outlook email correspondence. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to carve out a career for myself. I’m a bit of a luddite so I have a hard time not shunning new devices. If the death of the book is imminent (and I certainly hope it’s not), you’ll find me hiding in my local library, thank you very much.
CG: What writers inspire you? Where do you find the most support and encouragement in your writing life and in your mothering?
NR: There are too many writers to name, but here are a few who have influenced me this past year: Michael Chabon, Julie Orringer (I devoured The Invisible Bridge in two voracious days), Jo Ann Beard, Ian McEwan, Amy Bloom, Mary Karr, Andrew Sean Greer, and I could go on forever, but I’ll stop there. I’m grateful that I have been able to forge a time to think and dream and write. It’s a privilege I feel blessed to enjoy at this point in my life. I have a dear group of close friends who encourage and cheer me on. I’ve relied on the same group for seven years for support and advice on mothering. I also learned a great deal from my daughter’s teachers.
CG: What are you looking forward to most as Crush makes its way to readers? Is there anything about the publicity and promotion process that you dread?
NR: I absolutely love meeting the contributors in person and doing readings together. We’re doing events in San Francisco, New York, and the southeast. I’m doing my first “lunch with the author” at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. That’s exciting, but a little nerve-wracking too. We also have a radio interview on The State of Things. Doing a live interview in-studio makes me nervous, but if I rely on my notes, I hope to live up to their expectations. Sharing Crush and discovering new readers by meeting and conversing with them is such fun for me after working in isolation for over a year.
CG: Will you share what you’re working on now?
NR: I’m in the beginning stages of working on a follow-up to The May Queen about being a woman in one’s forties. I hope to work with the same contributors and a few new ones. I’m excited to see how these writers’ lives have changed and what has transpired differently from what they imagined six years ago. I would also like this collection to take the form of a backlash to the media’s attempt to portray older women as crones or cougars. I’ve been offended by the negative caricatures of older women in film and on TV. I’d like to see how the contributors investigate many issues facing women in their forties: struggling with infertility, caring for their children and elderly parents, and aging gracefully with dignity rather than trying to be forever 21. Maybe one day I’ll finally make time for my southern gothic memoir, albeit a less twisted and bleak one.