Crafting the perfect essay collection

Once relegated to English classes and admissions offices, this form is undergoing a literary revolution.

Essayist Elena Passarello steps away from the library podium in Corvallis, Oregon and begins to read her piece about Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to carry messages in France during World War I. A hundred audience members sit riveted by both Passarello’s fine dramatic reading style and by the information itself. Passarello had collected so many strange and surprising details about a little-known bird credited for saving 200 American soldiers – details that lent themselves perfectly to the essay form.

Once referred to as the kiss of death for book sales unless you were, say, Anne Lamott or David Sedaris, the word “essay” now attracts the attention of agents and editors eager to showcase pithy meditations on everything from growing up American Thai in Chicago (as in Ira Sukrungruang’s Southside Buddhist) to meditations on classical sculpture (as in Jericho Parms’ Lost Wax) to a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost (as in Passarello’s newest collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses).

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“It’s rare that a collection is so humorous and sometimes really devastating,” says Kristen Radtke, who designed the latter book for Sarabande, a nonprofit literary press based in Kentucky and New York. “She’s experimenting and pulling from the best parts of the traditional essay form. We’re always looking for something new and exciting, told from a unique perspective.”

The industry echoes Radtke’s enthusiasm for the essay genre; nonfiction collections fill tables at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference book fair each year, and individual pieces flourish in publications from The New Yorker to The Normal School, from the Oxford American to High Country News.

Promoting conversation

Florida writer Sukrungruang has authored five books – the fifth, an essay collection titled Buddha’s Dogs, comes out in 2018. He believes many of us learn an incorrect definition of the genre early in our lives. “We’re taught that an essay is a document that proves or answers,” he says. “I go back to the word’s Latin root, which means ‘to try.’ Not ‘to give an answer,” but ‘to try.’ Sometimes an essay offers an answer, but asking questions is just as important. A good essay promotes conversation.”

While such conversations may have once been limited to printed letters to the editor, publishing essays online has opened paths to wider, more immediate discussion. Dozens – sometimes hundreds – of online comments appear after each posted essay, inviting readers to interact with the text as soon as they’ve finished reading it. Consider Sukrungruang’s devastatingly beautiful “After the Hysterectomy” in Brevity, which inspired heartfelt reactions from readers recognizing both the artistry of the piece and the pain that informed the writing of it. Look at Passarello’s very different, and equally compelling, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar: On Mozart’s Feathered Collaborator” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016) which inspired an online reader discussion of other bird-loving musical composers.

Write, publish, repeat

Sukrungruang, who teaches at the University of South Florida, encourages his writing students to send out their essays for publication before they ever begin compiling and pitching a book-length collection. “This shows editors that a magazine has taken an interest and found the work [to be] good,” he explains. “Any type of publication helps.”

Essayist Ana Maria Spagna agrees that it’s important to publish some – but not all – of the essays in a collection beforehand. Based in the tiny town of Stehekin, Washington, Spagna is the author of six books, including the essay collections Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw and Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness.

A teacher in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, she focuses on one essay at a time, publishing several in magazines and literary journals prior to compiling a book. “I’ve seen essayists work too hard too early in the process to make a cohesive whole and lose some of the magic of the unexpected,” she says. “There’s also a way in which writing for different publications, working with different editors, and hearing right away from different kinds of readers now in the digital age can allow us to stretch, to write not only more broadly but more deeply. To write better.”

Parms is the assistant director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut essay collection, Lost Wax, emerged from her graduate school thesis. Post-graduation, she revised and wrote new essays and sent them to literary journals – a process she found invaluable in honing her voice and building her confidence as a writer. Her editor at University of Georgia Press sent the manuscript to peer reviewers for their assessment prepublication. “One of the reviews I got back noted something to the effect [of] ‘this is a writer whose work has appeared in journals of note,’” Parms says. “That was a plus.” 

Organization is key

Parms felt strongly that she wanted to publish a book of essays as opposed to a memoir. “That’s a question for writers to ask themselves,” she says. “Where do they see themselves as standing between essays and memoir, and how can their essays come together as a book while honoring their ability to stand alone?”

Spagna adores the process of compiling her essays into a book-length collection. “Over time, I begin to see themes emerging,” she says. “At some point, I toss the essays on the carpet and literally move them around to see how they might fit together, where there are holes that might be filled to make them cohesive. Then I write new essays to fill those holes. Many essays get left behind as strays, but that’s okay.”

As Sukrungruang reminds his students, the essay one publishes in a magazine doesn’t have to be the version published in a full-length collection. He wrote some of the pieces in his upcoming collection several years ago and has no qualms about admitting in a revised version that he no longer feels the way he once did about a subject.

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“One of the things I love about essay writing is that the ‘I’ is always in a state of evolution, which is to say we feel differently about a subject as time goes by,” he says. “I revisit my essays to see if I still feel the same way about a subject. I kind of like admitting that I don’t feel a certain way anymore. Essay collections provide that intellectual place to talk about time and how it changes one’s perspective.”

When it does come time to gather essays into a book, he says organization is key. He tells his students to look at how they can link their pieces by theme or subject. “There’s something beautiful about being able to dip into an essay anywhere in the book,” he says, “but it’s particularly beautiful if you can read the collection from beginning to end and see the bridges, the images that run through them.” 

Read and research

Interested in publishing an essay collection of your own? Read a lot of essays, both individually and in collections. This is gospel, according to essayists. Sukrungruang adores T. Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay, Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.  

For her part, Parms gravitates toward the work of Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, and Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas. “There are really exciting things happening right now in the world of essay collections, particularly those coming out of university presses,” she says. “It feels good to participate in creating them.”

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Spagna has a special fondness for debut essay collections. At this year’s AWP conference, she gravitated toward Parms’ Lost Wax, as well as Steven Church’s One with the Tiger and Nick Neely’s Coast Range. “Lots of fabulous, and wildly different, collections about animals,” she says of the season’s new offerings. “There was also, as always, a strong interest in identity, especially racial identity and politics. There are so many ways to write essays,” she says, “so many ways to compile a collection. There’s room for everyone.”

Pitch to publishers you love

Reading extensively in the genre gives writers a feel for those presses and editors with whom they feel a particular kinship. Over a decade ago, Spagna worked with an agent, attempting to place her first collection with a New York City publisher. When that didn’t work, the agent urged her to rewrite the book as “continuous narrative.”

“It was a terrible idea,” Spagna says. “Essays are essays, and while they may share some narrative components, trying to make a bunch of essays into one long story strips them of their quirkiness, the way they grapple with ideas, their very heart.”

She ended up placing the collection with Oregon State University Press. “It was a huge relief after trying so long to make the [first] book something it was not,” she says. “Going with OSU turned out to be absolutely the right answer. So when I wrote Potluck, it was a no brainer. I went straight to OSU again.”

Parms knew early on in her career that she wanted to publish her first collection with a university press. “University of Georgia Press had always been a compass for the work I tended to read,” she explains, “so when I was finally ready to send out the manuscript, I sent it to them.”

She submitted the full collection in May and had a contract by October. “It’s been a nice collaboration,” she says. “My top priority was having a book that I loved and felt good about, and I can’t say enough about the editorial team at presses like Georgia that make quality books.”

Ready to pitch your own collection of essays? Consider approaching the editors that publish the books you love to read. Study the publishing house’s website and the backlist of titles, and familiarize yourself with the submission guidelines. Some acquiring editors prefer an entire manuscript, while others want simply a query letter followed by a book proposal – both ideal documents in which to mention and link to your previously published pieces.

Sarabande Books, which published Elena Passarello’s two essay collections, accepts full manuscripts during the month of September. The editors look for original voices and surprising content. “For example, we published Angela Pelster’s collection Limber,” Radtke says, “about trees. It sounds so simple, but it’s anything but. It’s less about the subject and more about the quality of the essays.”

“So many exciting things are happening in essays,” she adds. “They’re my favorite things to read. Some of the most progressive work is happening in this area of literary publishing right now.”

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and an editor at Creator & Collector Services. Web: creatorcollector.com.