In the past few months, I’ve had the good fortune to encounter several compelling stories of travel, each of which happened to be released in the form of a chapbook. Specifically, Courtney Maum’s Notes From Mexico, Bart Schaneman’s Trans-Siberian, and Aaron Gilbreath’s A Secondary Landscape (about a road trip down the West Coast) all impressed me greatly — which is how I came to reach out to all three writers about discussing chapbooks, narratives of exploration, and much more.
Each of you has recently released a chapbook focusing on some sort of travel or journey. What made the chapbook your preferred format for this particular narrative?
Courtney Maum: I wrote about sixteen drafts of this story: some were short, some were long, each draft was very different. But for a long time (eeek, three years I think?) my “preferred format” was a Word doc buried on my laptop’s unorganized desktop. When I finally (finally!) got the story into shape, I sent it to a contest sponsored by a literary magazine I admired called “The Cupboard” that publishes four stories a year in little book formats. I couldn’t quite believe it after struggling for so long with the story, but I won the contest, and thus got to see “Notes From Mexico” in book format. It’s a strange tale and I do think that it would have been a bit off-kilter alongside other work in a more traditional literary magazine, so I’m very happy that it’s allowed to simmer in its atmospheric strangeness, all alone, in its own book.
Aaron Gilbreath: Although I love the chapbook format, I hadn’t planned on publishing my essay this way. I sent it to literary magazines first, then Kevin Sampsell, publisher at Future Tense and an essayist himself, approached me when he was launching a new chapbook series. He asked if I had any essays that hadn’t appeared elsewhere, preferably something long enough to fill a small book. Fortunately, Kevin liked the essay that we later renamed “A Secondary Landscape,” and the piece happened to be the ideal length for the thirty-two page format. That’s what I love about the prose chapbook: you can read it all in one sitting, get fully engrossed in a single story, a single movement, and resurface. They’re self-contained; you can fit them in your shirt pocket, palm them in your hand. And they’re egalitarian: inexpensive enough that writers of all stripes — especially poets, who have a harder time swimming those commercial publishing channels — can produce them. I’m excited to have a chapbook as my first book.
Bart Schaneman: “Trans-Siberian” is part of a larger narrative. As I wait to find the right publisher for the full-length book, I wanted to put out something that would generate interest in the bigger project. The two months I spent in China, Mongolia, and Russia worked as a story that would stand on its own, so it seemed like a natural fit for a chapbook/novella/zine. I’m always trying to get work out, whether it be essays, journalism, short stories, poems, or work on my blog. Full-length book work is my priority, but waiting a year or more to give my readers new work is too long of a quiet period. People have short attention spans. And Aaron’s exactly right: People can read my book from start to finish in one sitting. That’s great. With so many competing forms of entertainment out there, I’m honored when someone takes the time to start one of my books. But when they tell me they read it all in one shot, that’s far better. That’s motivation to keep going.
Aaron Gilbreath: Bart’s strategy about using selections from a larger book as a way to generate interest is an appealing one. If people like what they read and want to read more, they’ll probably buy the full book when it comes out. Fans of serial HBO shows know that we want stories to keep going. That’s part of the logic of why bands seed tracks to music blogs: to create interest in the album. Because we’re in a time of media transformation, though, where traditional book publishers and magazines are trying to figure out ways to monetize in the filesharing, read-it-online era, I think a lot of traditional publishers are afraid of giving too much away for free. Part of the logic: if we give a bit a way for free, won’t readers grow to expect everything for free? Time will tell. Probably not, though. This is America. We’re ruled by commerce and materialism. We’re used to paying for things. As eBooks, chapbooks and paperbacks prove: it’s not that we don’t want to pay, it’s that we just want to pay a lower price than a $25.95 hardcover. I never thought much about it until recently, but chapbooks embody this approach.
Courtney Maum: Regarding the question one thread below, I couldn’t agree more. We all know how hard it is to get a short story collection published in the traditional sense. Maybe if the stories were published serially — you pre-pay for the whole collection and then the individual stories are sent out once a week- perhaps this would romanticize the format somewhat, or at least provide incentive for readers plagued by short attention spans.
When writing about a particular place, how do you find a balance between evoking a place and keeping that sense of place from overpowering your narrative? And when thinking of a place, were you relying entirely on memories, or did you need to do research in order to hone certain details?
Bart Schaneman: I’ll answer this from the back to the front. I was taking notes the entire time I was on the Trans-Siberian. One of the great things about rendering a true experience is that your material is right before your eyes. You’re not in a library or on Wikipedia looking at pictures of the place you’re trying to describe. You can see it, smell it, hear it. (It’s easy to find time to write about Siberia when you’re stuck in a train for 5 days looking out the window.) When I went to write the narrative, I had pages of real-time sketches I could mine.
About the first part of the question: my favorite kind of writing is place-centric writing. Willa Cather, Faulkner, McCarthy, McCullers–if we read to escape, and I do, then the place needs to be a major part of the work. The first novel I wrote was about a place as much as it was about the people. People are their places. Our environments have a large role to play in forming us. Our sense of space, of nature, of beauty, of other people. Of course, when I’m writing, I’m trying to keep a character in every sentence, but every now and again I’ll allow myself a paragraph or two of scene description. I can’t draw. Or paint. But at least with a few sentences I can open up the reader’s imagination and show them the world I see my characters living in.
Aaron Gilbreath: Mark Twain said “All writing is travel writing.” I’m not sure the context in which he said that, but I agree in the simplest sense: narratives move. They involve characters on a journey, if not along an action-packed plot or highway, then from ignorance to a revelation. No matter where a story takes place, characters should be moving toward something, be it growth or awareness, or a decision to resist growth and stay put. I don’t really have a specific method for keeping place from overpowering narrative — I twist the knobs and levels differently piece to piece — but I want characters to drive the story. I like stories where people take precedence over places or ideas. It’s similar to what the author Jane Jacobs advocated in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. For her, great cities were great because of their inhabitants. She advocated for dense, walkable, socially diverse neighborhoods, not to protect the buildings, subways or streets, but for the benefit of the residents who used them. I feel the same about setting: although place often functions as a character, it’s always secondary to the human beings populating the story.
As for memory versus reporting, you can’t go on memory alone. You have to check it against something. Narrative nonfiction writers know that eyewitness accounts are as unreliable as our own memories, so even though we’re striving for compelling, poetic prose, we should also strive for accuracy. Otherwise we bend the meaning of ‘nonfiction’ so much the genre begs for a broader taxonomy. Although the issue of accuracy comes up around things like dialogue recreated from memory, if you don’t take as good of notes as Bart and other writers do on site, you have to check. I love the image of Bart recording his surroundings and experiences as they happen, especially on a train. I’m an obsessive note-taker myself, so I’m biased. To fact-check and expand location details, we can use Google Earth and street level imagery, use books, ask friends, scan photos. You can call people in the area and ask them questions, be it a convenience store salesclerk at a rural crossroads or your uncle who lives near the place you’re writing about. When I can, I visit the location myself. It’s great having a reason to leave the computer and get into the world.
Courtney Maum: I have to say, I don’t really think about maintaining this balance when I write. When I first started writing short stories, I was drafting these tomes I felt so good about and serious about while writing them, until I re-read them and realized that the protagonist never left the house and that all the action was taking place inside his or her head. Riveting stuff! Having a strong sense of place has helped me get my characters out of the damn house. In terms of process, whenever I’m able to, I try to write in the place I’m writing about. For example, I recently “method wrote” a novel, by which I mean that I wrote each chapter in the actual place where the scene is happening, a challenge that took me from the deserts of Joshua Tree to the karaoke strip clubs of Portland, Oregon. If I’m writing about a place I’ve never been to, I do extensive research online, with maps, on forums, and by interviewing actual residents so that the descriptions — hopefully — will resonate as legit.
In general, do you find it more challenging to write about somewhere you’ve already visited, or somewhere you’ve never been?
Aaron Gilbreath: They’re both challenging in their own ways. A yearning to travel often powers my writing about places I’ve never been, but a lack of personal experience creates certain obstacles. And although writing about familiar places is easier on one front, that familiarity can mean you take it for granted and flub details. You don’t want to get too cocky: Ah, I know this place, I grew up there, been there a thousand times. It’s too easy to mistake familiarity with accuracy.
Courtney Maum: The challenges are different, but I do love the specific challenge of writing about a place I’ve never been to. We’re so lucky now, with tools like Google Maps or Yelp, we can really do some interesting research on places we might not otherwise ever go to — like a specific Applebee’s in a specific, small town. What makes it interesting? What makes it different? What would our character notice? Not only has the internet made it possible for me to not have to go to Applebee’s, but for those of us who don’t have a travel budget, it’s opened up the possibility of places we can go to without leaving our beat-up chairs.
Aaron Gilbreath: I support Applebee’s blocking technology.
Bart Schaneman: I’ve never written about a place I haven’t been. Maybe I’m too prudish, or too tentative, but I’d be worried about getting it wrong. Aaron’s right that if you’re too familiar with a place, it’s easy to miss details that someone who hasn’t been there might find interesting. But I’d still rather err on the side of familiarity. I set almost all of my fiction in the Midwest because I know the names of the trees and the birds and what causes the shifts in the weather.
For that reason, a place like Siberia was easier to write about — the landscape doesn’t vary much, at least from the train, and a lot of the flora and fauna is similar to that of America — but I saw things in China I’ve never seen before and didn’t have the words for. I took pictures, but I couldn’t accurately describe what I saw.
Bart’s already addressed this somewhat, but I’m curious: who, for all of you, are the writers who best convey a sense of place? Are there specific lessons you’ve learned from studying their work?
Bart Schaneman: Right, as I mentioned before, Cather, Faulkner, McCarthy and McCullers are all big place-writers for me. Authors who write/wrote about specific places well enough that you associate them with their regions. Another contemporary writer, Kent Haruf, is also very good at place. He writes about small town, Northeastern Colorado.
For a while there, I thought “regional writer” was a disparaging term. Reductive, somehow. But I don’t think that anymore. I’d be honored to be known for giving voice to a certain part of the world.
As for the second part of the question, with Faulkner you really get the sense that he studied the landscape and the plants and animals. You can smell the jasmine. You can see the decaying plantation houses. Simply knowing the proper names of the things in your characters’ surroundings gives the writer a sense of authority. And we all want to make the reader feel like she is in good hands.
Courtney Maum: I would say Deb Olin Unferth, Jim Shepard, Martin Amis, A.M Homes and the poet, Arda Collins. Jim Shepard captures the sense of place(s) of adolescence; dank bedrooms, stuffy classrooms. I mean, sometimes his prose actually smells like gym socks and sweaty t-shirts in the best possible way. Deb Olin Unferth and Arda Collins manage to convey a sense of place that is both intensely strange and almost unbearably beautiful. A.M Homes does LA weirdness like no one else, and even though Martin Amis’s prose is sometimes dense or unwieldy, his books always leave me with very specific land and cityscapes in my mind. In terms of lessons I’d say yes, these writers have taught me that I can always do better than I currently am doing and to keep on reading.
Aaron Gilbreath: As an aspiring writer in my early twenties, Ed Abbey was my first role model. He wrote fiction and nonfiction about nature and people. It was smart, funny, opinionated and confrontational. My young self loved his righteous provocations. I also loved that he wrote about my native Arizona. Back then I was trying so hard to capture the essence of life in my cactus-covered homeland — what it meant, how it felt — and here was this person doing it right down the street. His work showed me that, with enough effort, I could improve my writing, and he showed me that writing about places and ideas weren’t enough. You had to populate them.
After that, I read more widely and found models all over: George Singleton, Charles Portis, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown. Like so many nonfiction writers, Joseph Mitchell is one of my gods, but so is Calvin Trillin. Peter Hessler writes incredibly well about China, Dorothy Allison about life in the South, Gerald Haslam and poet Larry Levis about California’s San Joaquin Valley.
My reading and wanderlust go through seasonally shifting geographical phases. One month I’ll crave Los Angeles, the next month crave New York, then dream of London and Seoul and Australia. This happens every year. To indulge this cyclical hunger, I search for books about particular places, and in the process I’ve discovered writing that’s deeply influenced me: Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, Joan Didion’s Play As It Lays, Sandra Tsing Loh’s Depth Takes a Holiday, Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust. Along with a few of John Fante’s novels, these remain some of my all-time favorite works about a place, and they’re all LA books. Fante’s novels capture a dusty, desolate, desperate old downtown Los Angeles that I never tire of, a lost world that feels as bustling and shady as it does isolated and blinding, electrified by want more than palm trees and sunshine. Another enduring influence is the movie Repo Man.
Courtney Maum: I forgot to mention Robert Stone. Robert Stone! A bunch of desert dust and the scent of dried-up limes comes at you when you crack open one of his books.
Thanks again to all of you for taking part in this. I wanted to bring this discussion to a close with one last question. You’ve all spoken about longer projects in the works, and I’m wondering — has the experience of doing these particular projects had any effect on your future projects?
Bart Schaneman: For me, because I was using this shorter book to generate interest for my longer book, doing it this way helped to hone my sense of how to market my own work. It’s important to know how you’re going to sell your books once you’ve given up on going the traditional publishing route, which I did years ago. I wrote a good first novel and wasted way too much time that I should have been using to write trying to find a publisher. I’ll never do that again. The important thing is the writing. Of course, I wish I had the resources and the reach of a big publishing house behind my books to get them to more readers, but I have limited time. I like to live. I like to write. And I have to work. I wish I had more time to find an agent or a publisher, but writing is a perishable skill. If you don’t do it every day you weaken your ability. Spending days of writing time sending out query letters and sample chapters and synopses — especially when every agent and publishing company has specific requirements, requirements they’re really fussy about and want you to waste a lot of time catering to (our submission requirements are a double-spaced manuscript with no page number on the first page, the first 5 pages, a 3-page synopsis, an author bio; our submission requirements are a single-spaced manuscript with a page number on the first page, the first 17 pages, a 5-page synopsis, no author bio: our submission requirements are a triple-spaced manuscript with page numbers on the bottom, the last 64 pages, a 300-page synopsis, a complete autobiography, etc, etc.) Until you’ve wasted so much time with this nonsense that your work languishes. I’d rather self-publish a hundred novellas than spend my days jumping through different-sized hoops.
Aaron Gilbreath: The main lesson my chapbook has taught me about current projects is: find the format that fits your story, not the other way around. Just because many of us dream of publishing a book that provides a nice advance, not every story is suitable for the for-profit enterprise of commercial publishing. It’s a business. Some of our prose is too experimental for that outlet. Some of us write black sheep forms like the essay. I think of it the way I think of individual pieces. Some things you write are essays, some are articles, and some of the ones you thought were articles turn out to be short blog posts. The same goes for book projects. Some stories are chapbooks. Some are longform lit mag pieces. Others are books to send to trade publishers, and others are eBooks. Not every long narrative is a potential trade paperback to give your agent. Sometimes it’s best to go indie — not to be forced to, but to want to. Independent presses and relatively obscure literary magazines foster some of our country’s best writing, hands down, and writers should try to match our story to the venue. Sometimes self-publishing is ideal, like with essay collections or collections of music writing, two forms that trade publishers often turn away. Otherwise, just post your story on your blog, or find some great, innovative online magazines to serialize it for you. I want to be as creative in publishing as we try to be in our writing, and always, always think of readers first. Give people something to enjoy or something stirring, rather than something that gratifies your ego or validates you as a writer. I want a paycheck. Insurance would be nice, too. But most of all, I want to provide people good reading material, because that’s what I love, too.