A Conversation with Michelle Herman

Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing, Dog, and the forthcoming Devotion (2016); the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life; and three essay collections—The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song. She is a Professor of English at The Ohio State University, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Recently, Herman spoke with The Journal about the Non/Fiction Collection Prize, the hybrid nature of fiction and creative nonfiction, and the importance of the prose collection.

The Journal: The Non/Fiction Collection Prize is awarded to a collection of short stories, essays, or a combination of the two. Why is it particularly important to The Ohio State University Press and The Journal to seek out collections of short prose?

Michelle Herman: Because collections of short stories and essays are the hardest things to publish in the current market. Essay collections are virtually impossible to publish—the “big five” New York publishers won’t touch them—unless the writer is already a (very) known quantity. Short story collections don’t fare much better in the marketplace these days—and even when they are published, they are rarely published well: books are simply printed and shipped (and often enough they’re not even shipped).

There are the surprise success stories, of course—the exceptions that I suppose “prove the rule.” I’m thinking about Leslie Jamison’s smart, interesting first collection of essays, which Graywolf, one of the best independent presses we’ve got, published—and did right by—and that was a book that reached its intended audience.

There are our own MFA alumni Claire Vaye Watkins and Don Pollock—just to name two of the stars in our firmament—whose first collections of stories were published beautifully by New York houses and went on to do very well indeed.

But these truly are exceptions. I think that university presses are, more and more, trying to fill that gap that’s been left behind by the failure of the New York presses to bring interesting new writing to readers. I wanted us to do our part to bring a wonderful collection of either—stories or essays—or both—into the world each year.

TJ: The Non/Fiction Prize has a long history under different names at The Ohio State University, but one aspect distinct to its current iteration is that we’re calling for these hybrid fiction/nonfiction collections. Can you tell us a little bit about why the Press and The Journal decided that this is an area we’re interested in publishing?

MH: You know, I had a remarkable conversation the other day with the writer Lore Segal, an old friend and mentor of mine, who in her middle eighties is putting together such a “hybrid” collection (though she wasn’t calling it that—in fact, she asked me what such a collection might be called!). But this conversation struck me as extraordinary because it came on the heels of my having read a hundred and something letters of application for a position we’re trying to fill at Ohio State’s MFA program. It’s a fiction position, but a good half of the applicants spoke of their interest in hybrid forms.

Now, both of these encounters with the idea of fiction and nonfiction mash-ups occurred long after I had decided we would look at collections of both forms of prose—and I’ll confess that the idea wasn’t my own. It was an MFA student, Terrance Wedin, who proposed it to me. It had never crossed my mind before. But as soon as he said it, I thought, Oh, yes, of course! Because I have been writing personal essays alongside my fiction for the last decade and a half, and that move into nonfiction came so naturally to me.

And the formal division between the two forms seems entirely artificial. Not that I don’t believe in the separation of church and state (you can decide for yourself which genre is church and which is state): I absolutely believe that true stories need to be true, that there is a contract with the reader that promises that—and I am still enthralled by the idea that first took hold of me as a child, that I could make up stuff up and it was all right—but can a writer’s true stories and ideas and reflections and so on live alongside and be in conversation with her fiction? Of course they can. They do.

More and more writers seem to be moving very freely and swiftly between nonfiction and fiction, and I have seen over the last few years quite a few students in the MFA program working on essays and stories that are in complex conversation with one another. And now I’ve seen some very successful MFA theses that embraced that movement, that conversation.

While I don’t expect that there’s going to be a rash of such books entering the marketplace—at least not as long as the marketplace stands as it is now, with the big five controlling virtually all of trade publishing and still anxious about “what shelf” books belong on—as if there were very many shelves anymore!—I actually do think that for university presses and independent presses, we might start seeing more of these kinds of books. And I very much like the idea of being on the forefront of that possible—I wouldn’t call it a trend, exactly—but let’s call it a move. And that move includes more than the kind of collection I’m talking about.

There’s a lot of “hybrid” writing going on, crossing nonfiction and fiction in a single work, short or long—and also crossing nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. And I like this very much.

TJ: As you noted, you yourself are a writer of fiction and nonfiction. How do you see your work in the two genres informing each other?

MH: Well for one thing, I’ve stopped using any aspects of my autobiography in my fiction. I hadn’t even realized the extent to which I was pillaging my life for the first many decades of my writing career, but when I started writing personal and autobiographical nonfiction, I started thinking, oh my god, I don’t want people to know what parts of my fiction are true and what parts are made up. And since I am adamant about the “true stuff” being verifiably true—even if the only “verification” is my own memory!—I became immensely self-conscious about dropping any bits of my “actual” life into my stories.

I wanted a clear division—because for me, moving back and forth between genres is tremendously refreshing. Like jumping into a freezing cold pool on a hot day…or maybe it’s more like sitting in a hot tub in Colorado with the snow falling on your head. (Oh, dear, another metaphor. Which is cold and which is hot? I think for me, the fiction is the cooler genre—and I mean that in both senses of the word.)

Another important part of the switching back and forth for me is that I’m much more fluent in nonfiction than I am when I write stories, and I think that’s probably because I write nonfiction the way I talk—I’m not saying that the work is not “crafted,” that I haven’t chosen every word with care; what I mean is that in nonfiction I’m expansive and discursive, and I wander very far afield and then wander my way back, which is exactly the way I am in conversation. I also have the chance to talk about what I think about things, which is something I have always been very careful not to do in fiction.

So I have these two different repositories for the kinds of things I’m interested in. I’m very interested in inventing characters, and I’m very interested in creating relationships and exploring them. And I’m interested in being in other people’s shoes, you know?—and writing through worlds that have nothing to do with my own. So going back and forth between the two has become such a great pleasure that, in a way, I want to encourage more people to do it. Honestly, I’d be a poet too if I were any good at it but I am not.

TJ: What do you think a successful prose collection—be it fiction, nonfiction, or a hybrid of the two—does? What are you looking for in this year’s entrants?

MH: That’s always the hardest question to answer, isn’t it? Everyone says, “All we’re looking for is quality,” and yet “quality” is such a slippery, slippery term. So what do I mean by it? I am always looking for—in anything I read—a few very particular things. One is evidence of the writer being in love with the musicality of language and really interested in the way language is used. I feel as if this should go without saying, but clearly it cannot go without saying. I read published books all the time—or rather, I begin to read published books and then shut them with a bang—if the words I’m encountering were not chosen with great care, no matter how deeply held and persuasive a belief or an idea or how vividly imagined a world. Language is our medium. If it’s used casually, if it’s used without love, without joy and precision and wonder, then it seems to me the medium isn’t the right one for the message.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Damn right there are—few and far between, yes, but sure. Offhand the only writer I can think of whose infelicity with language has never troubled me is Theodore Dreiser. If you imagine a world as fully, if you make me believe the characters and their relationships and undertakings as fully, as Dreiser did, then I might just overlook your clumsiness on the sentence level, okay?

And that bring me to the other thing that matters terribly to me—in fiction—which is that, when someone is writing naturalistic, realistic fiction, I must believe that the characters are alive, that the experiences they’re having are actually lived experiences. And if the writer is not writing naturalistic fiction, well, then I want to believe in this other plane that I have made my way into—I want to fall into it with the writer.

And in nonfiction? I want to see the evidence of a mind at work. I want to hear the writer’s voice. I want to be seeing the world through that writer’s eyes. I want in. In any essay—or any story, for that matter—that I read, I want to be so fully immersed, so taken up, by what is on the page that when I come to the end of it I want to be blinking in the light, re-entering the ordinary world after a transporting experience. Let me know that other world, your “real” world or your fictional one, so thoroughly that for the moment it’s my own.

And I should say this: I don’t care if the stories or essays—or stories and essays—have no relationship to each other other than being the product of a single voice, a single mind. I don’t care if they are not “on a theme.” I am a great believer in the miscellaneous collection of stories and the miscellaneous collection of essays.

Which is not say that I don’t enjoy thematically connected or otherwise connected collections. Our first winner, as it happens, is a collection of stories that is described as “a ring of stories” by its author, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the book a novel in stories—I think “a ring” is just right, actually—the stories are inextricably linked and they’re all about the same characters. They were so gorgeously written, and the characters so fascinating to me, I thought—well, this book must be published. Other readers should have this pleasure I am having!

But I do think this is only one possible iteration of a collection, and I do think that—to come back to the question of why university presses are in this business at all—trade publishers are not very much interested anymore in the miscellaneous collection of anything. Which also returns to the question of why I’m willing to look at hybrid collections. I like seeing the range of what a writer can do. It’s endlessly interesting to me if the writer herself is interesting to me. It’s one of the reasons I like reading collections every bit as much as reading novels or full-length books of narrative nonfiction.

TJ: Are there recent prose collections that you think are doing the work a collection can do in ways that are pleasing and wonderful to you?

MH: The essay collections I’ve read recently and loved most are Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (which had the words “essay collections” nowhere in its title, by the way) and the playwright Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write—two very different kinds of books. I think every one of Alice Munro’s collections of stories serves as an example of the “perfect” story collection (and one of them, Dear Life, is really a hybrid collection although, again, that dangerous word appears nowhere on the cover). I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s collections. I love Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, I love Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim—oh, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichieoh’s The Thing Around Your Neck and Lore Segal’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen and Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers—these last two read almost but not quite like novels; they are the most tightly linked of linked stories. And while I’m talking about linked collections I have to mention Don Pollock’s Knockemstiff—another sort of linked collection altogether. (Now that I’ve started naming books it’s hard to stop.)

I’ve also been reading a lot of “emerging” writers lately, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Moffett’s Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, Arna Bontemps’s Elegy on Kinderklavier, and Jamie Poissant’s The Heaven of Animals. I wish I could name essay collections by emerging writers, but I so rarely encounter them! I’m hoping to find one soon among our contest submissions.

TJ: You’ve been talking about the way in which this is a prize that can help to do work the big New York houses aren’t doing right now. What can this prize do and what have you seen it do for emerging writers or writers at any point in their career?

MH: Winning any major book prize is a marvelous thing for a writer. But I will say that with this prize, with a brand new Director and a brand new Editor-in-Chief of OSU Press, both of whom have a profound commitment to seeking out and publishing new literature—and not just through the prize, but through an imprint that is about to be formally announced that will actively seek out new literature, especially from voices less often heard—and who are also committed to the publicity and marketing of these books unlike anything we’ve seen before, we are firm in our conviction that the books chosen will get into the hands of the readers who need and want them.

I think we’re going to make a big splash—I think these books are going to be very, very visible, and I would hope that for an emerging writer, a book published through this prize will bring multiple offers of interest from other presses, and for the mid-list writer whose second or third or fourth or beyond book is even more difficult to place than a first book by a young writer, I think this prize can be an infusion of life into the writer’s profile. We wouldn’t be running the prize at all if we didn’t believe that it would make a difference, for writers and readers both.

TJ: Thank you.

MH: There you go.

Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing and Dog, the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life, the essay collections The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song, and a book for children, A Girl's Guide to Life.

Michelle Herman is the judge for the 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize.