Amy Stewart and Paul Collins talk belles-lettres, the art of nonfiction, e-publishing, colonial mixed drinks, and cramming for your own interviews. Amy Stewart is the acclaimed author of Wicked Plants, Wicked Bugs, Flower Confidential, and the forthcoming The Drunken Botanist. Paul Collins is the author of The Murder of the Century, The Book of William, Sixpence House, and Not Even Wrong.
AS: Paul, I’ve always admired the way your work seems to defy categorization. You’ve written about autism, rare books, Thomas Paine, and now there’s the new book, about a grizzly 19th century murder–not to mention the Paul Collins Library with McSweeneys, which I love so very much. It seems like it must be so liberating to approach your work in this way–very much as a classic “man of letters.” How has that been for you?
PC: Today is literally the day of publication for The Murder of the Century! I literally do not know what subjects I’ll be writing about from one year to the next, which is probably why no two of my books get filed in the same part of a bookstore. It’s freeing and it’s confusing as hell! There’s a very reasonable desire — by booksellers, by media bookers, by reviewers — that you can tell someone what you do in a single sentence. And I can’t, though NPR’s “Literary Detective” peg comes in surprisingly handy. But it’s really a freelancer ethic. Freelancers are where one still finds belles-lettrists writing about anything that captures their curiosity; there’s that sense of if you sell an editor on it, then hey, you can write it. That’s allowed me to take on more scholarly pursuits, like 18th-century autism or a missing 1920s author, with a journalistic approach of parachuting in and doing intensive location work and primary sourcing — or sometimes running the other way, and hitting a journalistic piece with this insane scholarly overkill.
Really, I’m lucky that I live in an era after New Journalism encouraged using a first-person presence to (sort of, barely) hold it all together into a recognizable body of work. But that roving interest and reportorial presence has a much deeper lineage in the kind of writing you do — there’s that older tradition of the naturalist’s field notes. When did you find yourself being drawn into that personal approach to writing on worms or flowers — or into moving into that whole other ancient tradition of herbals and bestiaries on Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs?
AS: Congrats on your pub date! Don’t you always expect flowers or strolling violinists in the front yard or something? Pub dates are so weirdly anticlimactic.
Anyway–you know, it’s funny. I like to say that I write about what interests me, but it’s always within this loose category of natural history, science, botany, etc., which is certainly not ALL that interests me. The first three books were all written in the first person, so I was very much present in the story as the narrator, and I was truly sharing my own opinions and insights as I went. With the Wicked books, I was writing in third person, but with a voice–there’s still a narrator, even in the third person. I wanted the voice to have this dry, mildly alarmed, conspiratorial, darkly comical feel. It’s a tricky thing to figure out in the third person, but as you know, those medieval herbals did themselves have a voice–they were all crackpots and liars and snake oil salesmen themselves.
Hey, so I just heard David Shields talking about his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. He was talking about how thin the line is between fiction and nonfiction, and he said (in a much more clever way than I will say it here) that it is a mistake to view nonfiction as being about a subject–that just as with fiction, it’s about the art of prose. The language. It’s literature.
I could have kissed him. People always ask me what I’m trying to accomplish with my writing–like, am I trying to get people to plant a garden or use less pesticides or buy local or avoid getting poisoned, or what? And what I really want to say is, “I don’t want people to do anything, other than enjoy the book. What I’m trying to do is to make art. To make literature.” I mean, the subject is a kind of frame to hang the art on, but all I want to do is string words together in a beautiful way.
I think of it like this: Imagine a painter who does oil paintings of old, beat-up trucks. All the painter wants to talk about is light and color and brushwork, but what if people only wanted to talk about carburetors and gas mileage?
Do you deal with that? Do you find that people just want to talk to you about the subject (Shakespeare, autism, etc) and do you feel that the writing itself gets overlooked, or just not remarked upon?
PC: Oh, absolutely. I smile and nod, basically, because if they don’t get what I’m doing as an artist, then … they don’t get it. Writing about Shakespeare’s First Folio is a good example of that, especially because there are people who can talk and talk about the literal subject. But for me, discussing the plays of Shakespeare … I mean, he’s great, but I have nothing new to add there. My interest in the folio was as a totemic object. The objects themselves — Tom Paine’s skull, Shakespeare’s book, an 1897 murder — they’re all macguffins. I just like watching what they set in motion. Actually, I’m thinking that’s the section of the bookstore I want to make for my books: Macguffins.
And after I’m done with the book, I’m kind of done with the subject … I’ve lived it and breathed it for years at that point. The one exception, I guess, is writing about autism. The immediacy of that subject never changes for me, so I’ve a closeness to Not Even Wrong at both the artistic and the literal level. That’s the one subject where I will keep talking nuts and bolts with readers, because it’s a very nuts and bolts part of my life.
Part of it, too, is that the publishing process is so slow, which I guess is another reason why publication day’s often this weird anticlimax. By the time a book comes out, I’m halfway into my next project … I have to sit down and read it to remember what the hell I wrote. I’ll be at the Starbucks across the street from some radio station, sitting there an hour before an interview, cramming from my own book! Because it’s been at least 5 months since I looked at a galley, and probably 9 to 12 months since I’ve given the subject any real thought. This odd alienation from the work sets in — there’s not the immediacy of, say, writing a piece for Slate and seeing it go up the same week or even the same day.
You’ve actually had that more immediate kind of experience, I’m guessing, with the ebook-only The Last Bookstore in America — I haven’t even worked up the nerve yet to do a Kindle Single or something like Byliner or Atavist — how’s the experience of venturing into e-territory changed your view of working in print? Is it something you’ll do again?
AS: I can’t believe you confessed to cramming for your own interviews! I thought I was the only one who had to do that. It is a very weird situation to find yourself in. If you were to ask me about the book I’m working on right now, today, I could talk for hours (and I do, boring my dinner guests to death.) But that book I was researching a couple years ago that has only just now landed in stores? Yeah, it takes some work to get back to that one.
I did write a novel that is available only on the Kindle (and coming soon to all the other ebook platforms). Even that wasn’t an immediate experience–I wrote the book, edited it quite a bit, passed it around to some readers, including a freelance editor, sat on it, thought about it, let time pass–and finally Kindle-ized it almost a year later. I did feel weird about it. I definitely feel like I needed a publisher to tell me, “Yes, this book is working, here’s what you need to do to get it ready to publish, and then we will launch it into the world.” It seemed very strange to put it out into the world without going through that process.
But you know what? I’m a painter, and I have a lot of friends who are professional artists. And they wake up in the morning, go to their studio, paint a painting, and decide for themselves if it’s good enough to sell. Of course, a gallery owner can act like a publisher–they can be the intermediary that says, “Paint another landscape. We can sell your 18 x 24 landscapes all day long. These portraits of chickens? Not so much.” But most of the painters I know sell their work directly to people and send very little of it to a gallery. They have a blog and sell small paintings online, or they have a show in their own studio, or they hang their work in a coffee shop or something like that. So that’s what I really do like about releasing a book directly through these digital platforms. I like it that I can act like a painter and say, “This is where I want to go next as an artist, and I’m going to go there on my own, and I’ll put it out there and see how people respond to it.”
But of course, the other thing that was so amazing about Last Bookstore was that it was fiction. The fact that I could just make stuff up was just astonishing. You know how sometimes real life is boring? So you write yourself into a corner and realize that you’ve got to find a way to make this next boring bit interesting because it can’t be cut out entirely? With the novel, I would find myself thinking, “Huh. He’s back at his hotel room, and–I’m bored. I can’t think of a single interesting thing to make him do next.” So I’d do what I always do with nonfiction–pace around the room and get frustrated and eat junk food — and then I’d think, “Wait! He’s not in his hotel room! He’s–on a hot air balloon!” That was so insanely liberating.
What about you? Ever write any fiction? Or do you ever long to just take those interesting stories in history you write about and stretch them just past the truth into fiction, for the sake of the story?
PC: I’m a lapsed novelist! I owe my ability at narrative to having spent my teens and twenties writing novels. One of the best things I ever did, when I was 25, was write a couple of terrible screenplays … They went straight into the drawer, but they absolutely forced me to think in scenes and learn how to dialogue. There’s nothing else to hide behind when you’re writing a script.
But I’m a bit of a literalist in nonfiction. I like writing stuff that sounds stretched, but turns out not to be. Though I’ll entertain suppositions to bring a scene alive … Right now I’m writing a scene in 1799 NYC where I know that a couple went to church, and I know which night they went — from newspaper reports afterward I know how much money was collected ($138), what Psalm was preached upon — and from meteorology records I know the moon was nearly full and that it had snowed several times in the preceding week. So I feel fine about taking those facts and setting it in scene, by having the two of them sitting in the pew and seeing the collection plate passed around, having the bishop saying that particular Psalm as a line of dialogue, and them seeing their breaths in the moonlight as they walk home, their boots crunching in the snow … All guesses on my part, strictly speaking, but I think they’re justifiable ones.
It’s something that’s really shaped my last couple of books, because I can just download scans of every newspaper published that week, gather journal entries and published accounts — and then shatter it all into individual facts and assemble them into a novelistic kind of mosaic. It’s a set of tools that’s allowing me to create something I couldn’t have readily made 3 or 4 books back, and it’s really the direction my work’s now moving in. Which brings me to that old question: where’s your work now moving? What are you working on next?
AS: I’ve been driven to drink. I’m writing a book called The Drunken Botanist that is a botanical exploration of the cocktail world. All the plants we ferment, distill, infuse, blend, muddle, juice, squeeze, and crush in the name of intoxication. At this very moment I’m trying to think of a drink to dedicate to Frank Meyer, a plant explorer for the USDA (who knew the USDA had plant explorers?) who introduced his namesake lemon, along with 2,500 plants (!), to the US through his trips through Asia, Russia, and Europe. He died in 1918 at the age of 43 while sailing down the Yangtze River to Shanghai–apparently he went overboard “under mysterious circumstances.” You can imagine how excited I am to learn more about those mysterious circumstances–no phrase excites a writer more.
And somehow I will relate all this back to drinking.
Speaking of which–cheers! I believe you need a drink named after you. Some variation of a Tom Collins called a Paul Collins? Tell me your taste in booze and I’ll get to work on that.
PC: Ok, first of all: that book is going to have the most awesome readings ever. And this furthers my contention that the world needs combination bar-bookshops
I’ve actually become fascinated by colonial drinks, because the next thing I’m working on is set around a murder case that both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr got involved with — and the first thing that struck me was that the water in Manhattan was so bad back then that you needed to stiffen the drinks. As far as I can tell, basically every 18th century drink recipe is: take something and add rum.
So I’m going to say: a Paul Collins has rum in place of the gin, plus a slice of lime. (Because, you know, scurvy and all.) A few of those, and you’ll be partying like it’s 1799.