Conversation: Andrew Altschul, Joshua Ferris and Hannah Tinti, Part 1 of 2
On the one hand, an explosion of new forms and formats — eBooks, twitterature, flash fiction and much more — on the other, continued worries about the future of the book and reading in the culture at large. We asked three people who attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs — the AWP — Conference here in Washington to come and talk about their world. We recently had President Obama’s State of the Union, so I wanted to ask them about the state of writing today.
Joshua Ferris is author most recently of “The Unnamed.” His first novel, “Then We Came to the End,” was a National Book Award finalist.
A transcript is after the jump.
UPDATE: You can find Part 2 here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to all of you. I was just thinking that we just had President Obama’s State of the Union, so I don’t know if it’s a good question, but I want to ask the state of writing today? General question. Joshua?
JOSHUA FERRIS: Well, I think if you ignore all of the extraneous noise, it’s very good. There’s a lot of changes going on, but a writer when he or she sits down at the desk has to get that noise out of out of his or her head and do what they are made to do.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by extraneous noise?
JOSHUA FERRIS: The changes in the ways books are being delivered, whether or not technology is taking away from readers — all of the stuff that sort of surrounds books but isn’t about the book itself.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think Hannah?
HANNAH TINTI: I agree. I think that it’s a very interesting time. It’s a really dynamic time. The way things are being published is very different. For a while publishing companies were getting larger and larger and larger, as I think most companies were, and now they’re breaking down again, and there is a huge surge of small presses that are sprouting up to fill in the gaps I think that the larger publishers aren’t doing. And that is where I think where some of the most interesting books are coming out right now because they’re willing to take the risks that the larger publishers don’t.
JEFFREY BROWN: That’s an exciting way of putting it. You were taking about extraneous noise, so are they both happening at once?
ANDREW ALTSCHUL: Well, I think that’s right. I mean, every writer has to kind of learn to separate the business side of what they do from the artistic of what they do, and if you’re publishing a book right now as a writer you are hearing a lot from the publishing houses, who— a lot of them are nervous, they’re scared. They don’t really know how their business model is going to evolve in the next two, five or 10 years, but like Hannah said, that’s created a great environment actually where you have some of the smaller independent publishing houses that are really starting to publish some of the most interesting books in American fiction. The National Book Award this year went to a book on a minuscule press out of Kingston, N.Y., and the Pulitzer last year went to a book by Paul Harding from Bellevue Literary Press, which is another really tiny press, and so I think that really speaks to what both of them are talking about.
JEFFREY BROWN: I was wondering if on the other hand all those formats make it harder to break through in a way? You know, in an older time where you had a few gatekeepers, a few publishers, agents telling the rest of us what we should read and now there is so much more. No?
JOSHUA FERRIS: Perhaps. I mean, I don’t know. It’s difficult to sort of assess when you’re also competing with all of the other things on the Internet that you have to compete with. So I don’t really know. Hannah could probably talk to it better than I could because I don’t engage much. I mean, I hope to God that my book is published well, I have complete faith that they are, but most of the time I try to remain very focused on the quality of the work. I’m making sure that the sentences work and so forth, and I try to leave the rest to other professionals.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you say in terms of what gets out to the public?
HANNAH TINTI: Well, because One Story — it’s a literary magazine that publishes one short story at a time and we never publish an author more than once. We are working on our 150th issue right now. So I’ve worked with 150 different writers who have all sort of gone and published, so because of this I’m sort of tapped into what is going on and what their experiences are like and my own experience, as well, publishing books. So I think that the difference is that it used to be that the writer could be very detached and not really involved in the promotion of their work and now partly this noise that Josh is talking about, it requires an author to be more engaged directly with their audience and so —
JEFFREY BROWN: That’s even though he said he just still wants to sit at home and make sure the sentences work.
HANNAH TINTI: Well, I think most people really do. It’s very difficult. I mean, we’re writers, we want to be alone, you know, we’re very comfortable being alone and not talking to people for a days, weeks on end, and now instead when we have a book coming out there is a lot of pressure to for example engage in social media, you know, Twitter, blog, doing a lot of Skypes — that’s something that I’ve done a lot with book clubs.
ANDREW ALTSCHUL: And the flip side of the noise that Josh is talking about is that while it’s become more necessary for writers to put a lot of energy into promoting themselves and promoting their books, there’s a lot more ways to do it, the social networking that Hannah talks about and just the ecosystem of the Internet, in general. I’m the books editor of a website called the Rumpus, and we review books and we talk to authors all the time, some of whom are being published by traditional large publishing houses, a lot of whom are coming from independent presses and boutique presses. There’s a lot more opportunity to do that now then there used to be, but it demands a lot more of us.
JEFFREY BROWN: How do you find them, in you editor’s hat?
ANDREW ALTSCHUL: Oh, I don’t have to look very hard. They come to me, you know, whether it’s publicists of publishing houses of all sizes or their editors or more and more frequently authors who have really gotten the memo that they can’t, most of the time, they can’t really sit on the sidelines and expect that somebody else is going to provide the energy. I field hundreds of emails a week from people who want us to take a look at their book or talk to their author. A lot of it’s quite interesting. We don’t have the bandwidth to cover as much as we’d like to.
JOSHUA FERRIS: One of the best ways to remain relevant, I think, is to continue to write good books, and I think that’s definitely happening. So whether or not a particular book is being publicized as it should be or some of the energy is going over here rather than over here, there is a wide swath of writers who are continuing to write very well.
JEFFREY BROWN: You see that? You know that?
JOSHUA FERRIS: I see it. I read it and I feel it.