We were recently on an AWP panel together about the linked essay collection, and we'll be on another panel at NonfictioNow about the collection as genre, so I thought that might be a nice place for us to start our conversation. One aspect of your book The Girls in My Townthat I really respect is that it so easily could have been a memoir, but you didn't go that route. And I'm so glad you didn't. Because I think a collection of essays says something different and does something different—and sometimes more important—than memoir, but I wondered what your thoughts are on that subject. Could you imagine your book as a memoir? What might have been lost? And what do you think is gained by opting to write a collection of individual essays rather than one sustained narrative?
Sarah, I really enjoyed discussing these questions with you at our AWP panel! By participating in that discussion, I was able to [End Page 209]better articulate these rather vague questions that I had struggled with as I put together the final draft of my manuscript: Should I unify these pieces? Should each chapter stand alone? Are my chapters at all coherent?To answer those questions, I must begin by saying that I am a big champion of the essay and of the versatility of the genre. I have wanted to call myself an essayist rather than a memoirist, so I am biased in that direction. Plus, I always thought that to write a memoir you had to have a sense of a beginning and an end, and I never had a sense of those borders in my own work. Because I wrote each essay in my book with what I thought was a very different persona (picture a many-headed hydra monster), I was daunted by the idea of trying to join all my essays together, and afraid that if I forced my "personalities" to speak with the same voice, I would basically kill them all in doing so. Therefore, I opted to keep the style and randomness of each piece, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that readers would forgive me for those leaps. Ideally, I hoped that readers would enjoy those leaps and be pleasantly surprised by them.
And when I read the gorgeous essays of Mine, I am assuming that you faced many of the same challenges. Can you comment on these same questions that you asked me? I noted that your essays naturally centered around the theme of possession and ownership, of what belongs to us and what doesn't. An additional question I would like to ask you: Did you write your essays with the theme of "mine" in mind from the beginning? Or did you write your essays/chapters organically and then after you had written several of them realize the connections and the natural coherence within them?
I lovethat metaphor of the hydra. I like how it re-imagines the essay collection in such a fierce way, and one that so succinctly rebukes anyone who would dismiss essays as less muscular or epic than a novel or a memoir. And an extension of the hydra metaphor that I now can't help thinking about is, if you chopped off one of those heads, i.e., if we were to excise one essay from our collection, what would grow back in its place? For me, questions like that were always at play when I was trying to understand what my book was or could be.
So to get back to your question, no, I didn't start with a unifying concept. What happened...