Like the anthology itself, this interview came about because of a spontaneous interaction on the platform formerly known as Twitter. I’d been aware of some of Aaron Burch’s (many, frighteningly many) other projects, but really didn’t know all that much about him. I was following him on Twitter, though, and upon its publication I saw the skull on the cover of How to Write a Novel: An Anthology of 21 Craft Essays About Writing, None of Which Ever Mention Writing next to a screenshot of the tweets that prompted the more formal beginning of the project. Spurred on by the jovial, friendly, and slightly left field vibes of the discussion on the original thread and in the replies on the publication post, I replied (out of left field) as well, and asked Aaron if he wanted to do an interview about the new anthology. And so we did an interview.
Aaron Birch is the author of a number of books, most recently A Kind of In-Between, also from Autofocus, which came out the same day as How to Write a Novel. He’s also a teacher (and does plenty of other things besides, which is relevant to the lightly-edited discussion that follows). We sat down via video call in between grading sessions on his end and Monday afternoon meetings on mine.
Thanks for your patience. I’m still trying to figure out how all the different video chat recordings work, now that we’re out of the thick of the pandemic and things aren’t “just free because” anymore.
I recorded a podcast last week with a dude who has the free version of Zoom, which I think caps meetings at 40 minutes, so you have a hard deadline. You see this counter and you’re like, “Okay, he’s getting in one more question, because we’ve got three minutes left and then it’s gonna die,” which is kind of weird, but also kind of nice.
I do love a constraint. Which brings us to your new anthology, How to Write a Novel. Did you have to solicit work for this collection, or did all the essays come from submissions?
No, it was just a call for submissions. The original plan — although there maybe never was a “plan” — but one piece of the early idea was that I would solicit some, and then I think in part I kind of got lazy, and in part the response seemed strong enough that I didn’t really need to. The publisher and I have already talked some about doing a second volume at some point, maybe with some “bigger name” solicitations here and there. I had some people who in mind who I felt would grab hold of the idea in the same the way that I was thinking about it, but if it felt like most people who were submitting, with relatively minimal guidance, were like, “I get it.”
Speaking of you and the publisher, there’s a good story about how this anthology came to be. Mind recounting it for those who might not already know? You already had a relationship with Autofocus before this came to be, I understand.
Yeah, so Michael Wheaton, the founder of Autofocus, had published a short essay of mine on the site, Autofocus, and then we developed an online writer friendship from there. At some point, we were working together on what was my short essay collection, A Kind of In-Between, which was going to be an Autofocus book, and then I tweeted something one day about how I would love to edit an anthology of essays on craft, none of which ever mentioned writing. Which is basically the subtitle for the book.
I don’t know how much I really wanted to edit this anthology or if I was just avoiding grading and was like, “I’m going to tweet out this dumb idea” that was at least half snarky, because I probably saw somebody else tweet about a craft book and I was feeling a little bratty or something. But kind of immediately, Michael replied to that tweet was like, “I know someone who would want to put that out” and then DM’d me and said, “Seriously, if you want to do this, we could make it happen.” And that was the nudge that I needed to go from having an idea that I’d tossed out into the world, that was maybe just a joke, to thinking that maybe there was actually a cool project in there.
That feels in line with the spirit of the some of the other projects you’re involved in or have been a part of.
I think so. I started this literary journal, Hobart, and did it for 20 years. So much of that journal was me just having an idea and trying it. In my mind, it’s like every idea I had was a good idea and it worked, because those were the ones that kept going and stuck and did work, but I’m forgetting the ideas that I would try one or two times and would just fall flat, and say, “Okay I tried that, it didn’t work, but then here’s these other things that maybe did.”
So it’s a lot of just having an idea, which is often borrowing an idea that somebody else had or that already exists out in the world and either kind of tweaking, or matching together two or three different ideas.
And I’d forgotten, but for a long time but really sporadically, I did this interview series on Hobart that was “The Art of Fiction…” with the word “Fiction” struck through and something else at the end in place of “Fiction.” Which basically is the interview series version of this book. I was thinking about The Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” interview series, and I was thinking about how much I love talking to other writers about things they’re passionate about that aren’t writing. One of the first ones I did was with Kyle Beachy about skateboarding. And originally I just wanted to ask him a bunch of questions about skateboarding, but I was running a literary journal that publishes literary things… but whenever I think and talk about skateboarding, there’s an element of it that feels really parallel to writing. So I thought I’d just ask him a bunch of skateboarding questions, but we’d talk about it as writers.
Once upon a time, I had a writing professor who said that craft books weren’t worth reading because (they felt) you should instead either be writing or reading “good literature.” The whole time I was reading this collection, I was laughing about how this book lets me cheat (according to that professor, anyway). Given that it is a craft book, however, what was the selection process like? Were you thinking about sort of the structure that the book ended up taking [with headings such as “On Finding Your Voice,” and “On Noticing”] when you were looking at the submissions, or did the groupings that organize the book come about naturally?
They happened pretty naturally. I went into it trying to be open to whatever felt right for the process. At some point I thought it would be really great if I could break it down just like a craft book and look for an essay about revision, or an essay about endings, but in the end I accepted the 20 that were in the Venn diagram of my favorites and those that most fit the idea for the book.
So then once I had the essays, I was thinking about how, in some of the essays, the parallel to writing is very obvious, and for some of them, it’s a little more abstract. It was a question of how do I make this not feel like just a collection of personal essays but a uniform project, specifically about “how to write a novel,” and so at that point the sectioning happened. I printed them all out and put them on my bedroom floor and was like, “Okay, these two feel like they’re kind of doing this thing, and these three are doing something else…” and I started grouping them. There were a handful of essays that felt like they probably could fit under multiple different sections, and in those cases I made decisions to put them in section A instead of section B because of the way that I want the reader to think about the essay, even though it could have just as naturally fit in one of the other sections.
Speaking of framing, I loved the writers’ notes on their process included in the bios section.
I’m glad. That idea came pretty late. I think I had already accepted all of the pieces and was starting to put them together, and again, so many of “my” ideas are just things I’m borrowing from other things that I like in the world, and those notes are always one of my favorite aspects of Best American Short Stories. As a reader, I love that kind of bonus material, but then it also adds this layer of context to this book, which isn’t quite what it says it is, and really clicked the book into place, I thought.
It gives the reader a nice window into all the other things the essayists may be doing, aside from fermenting hot sauce or gardening and also, incidentally, writing.
I think part of being a writer and, as cheesy as it is, part of writing a novel, is living a life and having interests other than writing, but then also having interests other than just, you know, one other thing.
Of course, this book doesn’t actually teach you anything about writing a novel, specifically.
Sure, it doesn’t teach you “how to write a novel.” Mostly it’s a better, more hooky title than something like, “How Your Interests Help Make You a Better Artist,” and there’s a little bit of — what I hope is — a fun bait and switch. I very rarely think about things like this, but I think that title, How to Write a Novel, is so attention-grabbing, straightforward and declarative. And really it’s about being an artist, having artistic pursuits, and living a full life, and thinking about your interests and obsessions a little bit more deeply, which I think is all involved in writing a novel. But there’s not any, “You need to sit down x number of days and do this and do that,” stuff in there, which is probably much more literally “how to write a novel.”
The anthology was published at the same time as your essay collection. I know that the collection came first, but am I right in thinking you were working on the two in tandem? What was that like? Do you tend to work on many things at once?
I was getting ready to say that I work on one project at a time, although I guess, literally, that’s never true. I think with regard to writing, when I am on working on my novel, I’m not working on short stories. Although even then, the lines blur. I get stuck on the novel, and so I start writing flash essays, or whatever. I came to writing and I came to literature from starting Hobart — I really started Hobart at the same time as I started writing myself and so the dual paths of editing and writing were always intertwined, to the point where I didn’t even really think of them as separate. I’m always working on probably at least one editing project and one writing project, and then there’s also usually a third or a fourth thing that I’m juggling, one of which I’m probably dropping at all times. So then I’m feeling guilty about dropping one of the balls, but then also, it’s helping me get the other three done. I kind of need to be doing four things in order to get two things finished.
The essay collection was pretty much done by the time we were really working on the How to Write a Novel anthology, although the essay that was the genesis for the craft anthology is in the essay collection. I wrote this personal essay just about practice, and about skateboarding and about shooting baskets and about being a runner and about making eggs and about painting skulls (which is why a skull is the cover of the anthology), all of these things that I’m not necessarily great at, but by doing them lots, I’ve gotten better at. The essay collection is largely asking, “What do I think about who I am?” and then in a weird way, that’s kind of what the craft anthology is wrestling with also. And I think both kind of helped me. I’d often be working on one as a break from the other. So when I knew I probably needed to do one more editing read through of the book, but I didn’t want to, but I had time to be productive, I’d go read submissions instead. It let me say, “Oh I’m being productive, but I’m still also avoiding the thing that I don’t really have the energy to do right now.”
I also wanted to also ask you a little bit about some of the internal repetitions that occur across the essays. Like prayer, for example, or the “Platonic Ideal.”
I think it was largely serendipitous. And like we were talking a little bit about earlier, when I put out the call for submissions, I wasn’t really sure what I would get. So, to some degree, I was going to let what I was going to get shape the project itself. I was hoping that I’d get enough of a variety of topics that there’s not a ton of overlap, and ideally no specific overlap. I know there were a couple times where, as an example, I had two really amazing bird watching essays, and I think ultimately kind of one just beat out the other one. And maybe that was a little unfair to the other essay, but as opposed to having what I think of as interesting echoes, they felt a little too repetitive. As a writer, and as someone editing an anthology, I think what you’re wanting to do is lean into those interesting echoes without just repeating yourself. So in the book there are two running essays, but one’s about being a runner and one’s about watching Tom Cruise run in movies. Two different ways of looking at and thinking about running.
But I really appreciated those handful of ideas that would come up again and again. One of the things that they all show (maybe implicitly) is just how often, as writers or as artists, we have common touch points. Like the idea of prayer is not universal, but certainly common. Or thinking about the Platonic Ideal and the lofty pursuit of art alongside the daily things I need to do to keep myself alive, like eating food, and collapsing those two ideas, or even thinking of them flip-flopped. I think it’s something that many of us do, so you get enough different writers talking about writing, there will start to be some of these common touch points, right?
The other thing that occurred to me as I was reading the collection was that this might be the first collection I’ve read where COVID is both very obviously a specter lurking everywhere, but also not the entire main focus of the work or of the essays themselves. Something like running or cooking is, of course, kind of timeless, but this did feel very situated against, or in response to, the pandemic. Did you get a lot of lockdown essays in the submission pool, or was the general sense more like “this is the state of the world, and we’re going to keep on doing what we do?”
I think more of the latter, but it was also just hard to avoid given the time during which I did the submission call. It may also be intrinsic to Autofocus itself, which started during COVID, and to my working relationship with Michael, which also blossomed during COVID. It’s almost even embedded in the DNA of our work together.
For a long time, especially early in the pandemic, there were a lot of people who really didn’t want to read COVID-specific literature; I think many of us just wanted to go to art as an escape, and also maybe it was too recent for anybody to be reflective about it. This book is about craft but in a sideways, roundabout way, and it was written by 20 different writers who were writing these essays in the midst of COVID, who were addressing it because it was on their mind and affecting their lives. But they approached it sideways like how they approached the topic of writing. There’s not a Zoom essay or anything, and yet that’s part of our lives, so when we’re thinking about how to be an artist, it’s still so ever-present. And a lot of it was the timing of it, but still.
Though there weren’t any Zoom essays, we did have “Not to Mention the Parking,” by Katie Darby Mullins, in which a writer-as-teacher did slip in there (and my knee-jerk reaction was, I admit, that it at first felt like cheating a little), but even that was still so in the spirit of the project, given that teaching is something a lot of writers do for money. And it’s also just a wonderful essay, and not really about teaching writing.
I’m glad you loved that essay too. Going back to not knowing what to expect from the submission, I think I originally expected people to write “this is how I skateboard” or “this is how I cross-stitch” essays. And this one, thinking about someone being in the classroom, is not what I would have thought I’d get, maybe in part because it’s almost too head-on. But it’s really about this conversation that happens in the classroom. And the draft she submitted talked a little bit more explicitly throughout about some of the writing lessons that she was teaching, and I was like, all of that works in a more traditional essay, but for this, I think we can get away with cutting all of that and just have this class conversation.
There were a handful of submissions that were just straight on-the-nose craft essays, and I had to say, “Well, you didn’t quite get the prompt, which is fair, and maybe this is a great essay on how to write dialogue,” but that isn’t really what I wanted the book to be doing. And then there were a handful that were still making that metaphor to writing too explicit, and so some of the editing was a question of how could we keep all of the essence of the essay, and hopefully cut back on as much of the “writing” as possible — hopefully all of it — while keeping just enough to still have it there under the surface.
I liked how it both was and wasn’t a craft book, and just how many of the essays I was then excited to go show my non-writer friends and family who are super into cooking, or skateboarding, or training horses, or whatever. And literally the night before I started reading the collection, we were making a pantry-clean-out shepherd’s pie, and that happened to be the topic of the first essay, so…
That’s funny. And maybe I’m just stating the obvious, but that is such the metaphor for writing, right? It’s the same thing with a craft lesson as in cooking: sometimes that recipe is really helpful, and I need it to get started, and sometimes I do need to return to that craft essay about dialogue, because I need to just remind myself of what the basics of a shepherd’s pie are, or what the oven should be at. But also a lot of the joys are in just trying something, saying let’s throw in this ingredient, or as you’re drafting something, saying what if I do this, or what if I do that? So many of the joys are in that kind of discovery or accident, in trying something and it working. And if it doesn’t work, then you try something else.