Interview with Author Rick Bailey
This month, Airstream Dispatches and Monthly Mentorship participants read Rick Bailey’s American English, Italian Chocolate published by University of Nebraska Press. In some ways, this is the book so many bloggers and journalers out there dream of publishing–a compilation of notes, thoughts, posts, and other asides that one day comes together to form a collection and connect the dots. But there’s more to it than that, and Rick’s responses below will prove inspiring and informative to many writers (and readers!) out there, trying to find their way. Enjoy, and thanks to Rick for his time and great thinking on these subjects!
Katey Schultz: During some of our conversations about writing for discovery, one Airstream Dispatches participant wanted to ask, “What strikes me about your stories are the connections between seemingly unrelated things or incidents that become linked by the story’s end. Is the idea of connection a conscious strategy?”
Rick Bailey: Yes, the effort to connect is definitely a conscious strategy. I love working with more than one thread in a piece of writing, but when I do, I feel an obligation to the reader (and to myself) to try to bring them together. Having said that, I will add I don’t always know what the connections are going to be when I start to write, nor do I always know what the threads will be.
For example, in “Ravioli, Richard the Third, and Dead Bird,” I began writing the essay exactly as stated at the beginning. I was in Italy, reading a journal entry, wondering about those ravioli, and saw that startling statement about killing someone. Which got me thinking about dreams. Which reminded me of that colleague with an interest in Jung. And I thought, what the heck, it would be fun to tell the Richard III story, “the tyrannous and bloody deed is done.” I had a writing teacher who once said, when asked where he got the ideas for his writing: “From the writing.” That is frequently the case in my work. One thing reminds me of another. A detail suggests connections with other details. Again, I’m usually not aware of these connections when I start writing because often those details have not yet appeared on the page. For the sake of unity, when I start making moves to end the essay, I like to try to circle back and touch on details from other threads if I can. So at the end of that essay, “When I ask my friend” takes the reader (and me) back to an earlier detail in the essay, linking threads. The goal is to do that in a way that resonates and enhances meaning.
In the essay “Clinical” it was fun to tell the porcupine-on -the-roof story which was happening sort of simultaneously with the psychology class I was taking. I had been carrying around the practicum story for quite some time and the cognitive dissonance I felt about studying psychology. The two stories are not actually related explicitly in the essay, but they reflect on each other in a way I did not anticipate when I started writing. I didn’t explicitly state the connections as the end of the essay because it seemed better left unsaid. (I didn’t “explain.” I think I try to avoid making big, meaningful statements and pronouncements.)
In “Wisdom Teeth and Encyclopedia Britannica” the two stories suggested themselves immediately. The fun of writing the essay was making the side moves, alternating the telling of both stories. It wasn’t until I got to the end that I discovered the nice connection. It would never have occurred to my mother to consult an encyclopedia to answer the question at hand, related to wisdom teeth and pain medication. When I started writing, I didn’t know that’s where I was going. But I was very happy I got there.
One other element: When I start writing these essays, I often do casual research on the Internet—on the science of corn, the clinical insights into vomiting, what experts and historians think about sleep difficulties or underwear or dreams or beans. I also like to weave references to literature and daily reading to the essays. A news story might trigger an essay, reminding me of experiences (“Bridge Failure, Heart Attack, Fava Beans”). In the title essay, “American English,” the New York Times story invited me to remember my experience in North Carolina and the novel by Josephine Humphreys, which triggered recollections of chocolate in Italy and local food on the Virginia cost. Making side moves to this news and casual research is pleasurable and frequently offers opportunities to make connections. Finally, I think multiple threads and side moves make the process more interesting. I’m not talking about the same thing all the time. Richard Hugo said about writing poetry, Make the subject of the sentence you’re writing right now different from the subject of the sentence you just wrote. I like changing subjects. But in the end, I need to make sure the reader and I detect an echo.
KS: Another participant noticed your titles: “How important is a title? I noticed that in the source acknowledgements, many of the titles were changed for this anthology of essays. And how did you decide on the order in which your essays would appear in this book?”
RB: The order of the essays is sort of chronological. I did make a decision to group the Italy essays at the end.
I thought about titles when I worked on the manuscript to submit for publication and thought again when the manuscript was accepted and being prepared for publication. “Duck Love” seemed to point in the wrong direction. “Sick Wild” seemed more evocative. “Love at First Shite” seemed more clever than the kind of gross “Won’t You Sit Down.” I wanted “Donna” in the title because her story broke my heart. “Correct Cake” was suggested by an editor when I initially published the essay. I went along with the title but didn’t really like it. “Pure Corn” was the original title. “My Father…” again, heartbreak. (But also more specific.) “Ravioli,” more specific. “Small Beans,” meh. “American English, Italian Chocolate”—I wanted Italian chocolate in the title (and as title of the book) because I thought it would attract readers.
Titles are important. Here are a few titles of works submitted to a writing contest I used to judge at the college where I taught: Work, Imprisonment. Foreclosed, Immortal, Summer Bliss, A Mother’s Love, Happy Birthday, Early Spring, Protest, Friendship.
These pieces did not make it past the first reading. If they were submitted for publication with those titles, they might not even get read. Last night I got an email announcing the winners of a contest I did not win a few years ago. My entry back then was for prose (for the book you read). These are the winner and honorable mentions for the poetry prize this year (I haven’t seen prose winners yet): Praying Naked (winner), Exceeds Us, If This Is the Age We End Discovery, Read Weather, The Body Family, Through a Small Ghost.
KS: How did you find our voice?
RB: I scripted an online composition course for 15 years, “talking to” students with my writing, trying to entertain, inform, motivate, seduce. I think that’s where the conversational quality of my voice became a thing. Along with that talking and coaching, I was writing instructional models of prose pieces, for students to read and imitate. Some of those pieces became the basis for my first book. The tone/voice of my instructional narrative carried over into these instructional models and into the essays I write now.
KS: A majority of participants in Airstream Dispatches and Monthly Mentorship are published, or seeking publication. One asked, “How did you go about working with a university press? Did you have agent shop your manuscript or did you have a writing relationship with University of Nebraska?”
RB: I did not have an agent. No relationship with Nebraska. One of the first publishers I contacted liked the query and wanted to see the whole manuscript. Within a week, they said they wanted to publish the book. I thought: What? You want me? You’re asking me to the dance? I also heard back from Nebraska within a week or two. (And that was really an oh-what-the-hell query. I thought, Not a chance.) To my shock and surprise, the editor asked to see the whole manuscript. So, I had a dilemma: go with the first option, a second or third tier independent publisher whose catalog I did not find at all impressive, but was a sure thing, or wait for Nebraska. I delayed. I delayed a little more. Finally I told the guy I had been an academic and going to wait on a university publisher considering my work. He wasn’t happy but said he would wait. Three months went by. I had 20 or so queries out. The rejections came into my email, one after another. I didn’t win a couple contests. All of this made me think, Nebraska? No way. Finally the Nebraska editor said yes, maybe. She was going to send the manuscript to one of their published writers and get a second opinion. More waiting. Greece said: Well? Too late for this year’s books. Are you in or out? Another four weeks or so passed. It was terrible. Then, Nebraska said yes. A contract came in the mail.
KS: Let’s end by celebrating the work of another author. Tell us about book(s) that recently rocked your world, and why.
RB: I read and revisit Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago from time to time. The book was formative for me. When I read “Everything” (pp. 89-91) I knew I wanted to write dialog like that. Two people on separate planes talking to each other, talking at each other, with hot moments of intersection, and with people, non-participants, in the background (“Is that Joanie flushing the toilet?”). It was so fun to read. I figured it must be even more fun to write like that. Many of the short pieces, like “Bottle Caps” (pp. 40-41), “Laughter” (pp. 87-88), and “The Woman Who Fainted” (pp. 119-22) read like sudden nonfiction. I feel like Dybek gave me permission to render snapshots and screen captures from my life and provided models for how to do it.