chapbook

The Chapbook Interview: Amy Monticello on the Creative Nonfiction Chapbook

How do you define “chapbook”? “Creative nonfiction chapbook”?

When I first heard the term “chapbook,” in graduate school, it was used to describe a small group of poems excerpted from a larger or still-developing manuscript from an emerging writer. Prose chapbooks were still flying way under the radar.

This definition seems outdated to me now, or at least insufficient. With the rise of chapbook competitions and small presses that focus exclusively on the chapbook, the form has become a more sophisticated endeavor, even in poetry where they began. Just look at the Wick Poetry Center chapbook contest winners. Those books don’t feel excerpted. They feel like deliberate collections that happen to be short because the arc created by the poems demands them to be so. Close Quarters, as a group of flash essays about an incomplete sense of family, feels right as a short book, too. In fact, I’m all in favor of eliminating the term “chapbook” from the literary marketplace. A chapbook is just a small book, and I think it should enjoy at least the same prestige as a novella (neither poetry nor creative nonfiction have such a cool mid-length form). Maybe an “art book,” since so many are produced in-house, with limited print runs that allow for more visual and tactile care to go into the design. Last March at the AWP conference, Sweet Publications sold out of its copies of Close Quarters and Megan Gannon’s A Witch’s Index in large part because people at the bookfair were drawn to them as objects. But even “art book” feels too narrow, as though the design is more important than the writing inside. Close Quarters will be released as an e-book this year, so its life will go on after the print copies are sold out.

For prose, I think the chapbook form would be awkward if writers only used it for excerpted work. We want to give the reader a whole, resolute experience, even if that experience is about fragmentation. And I’ll bet poets feel the same way.

Alexandra Franklin notes in her review on Slash Pine Speaks that the essays in Close Quarters (Sweet Publications, 2012) “are all about binding even when the ties that bind are attempts to repair mistakes.” Marissa Landrigan says in her reverse interview of you on The Nervous Breakdown that “I think the chapbook then, offers us nonfiction writers a length and a specific boundary in which to place our stories just so. Rather than treating is as a sort-of scrap bin for the remnants of a longer work that just don’t quite belong, we can do more (and maintain a better reputation for the genre) by seeing those remnants as an entity.” Given that a creative nonfiction chapbook is a newer incarnation of the chapbook genre, how did you organize, order, arrange, and plan out a CNF chapbook? Did you seek out models to structure and to frame for your chapbook just so or was it intuitive? How did you bind the essays together into a whole?

The majority of the Close Quarters essays were written as part of my MFA thesis at The Ohio State University. My thesis braided two narratives—the story of my parents’ relationship, and the story of one of my first loves. Both relationships ended rather abruptly, and both relationships evolved into friendships that could be fraught, at times, with the past. So, in its earliest form, Close Quarters was one half of a book. But I soon realized that the two storylines smooshed together like that forced too many comparisons for an honest and in-depth exploration of each relationship—I kept trying to force connections that stripped each narrative of its complexity, and the characters of their individualities. So, with a heavy heart, I split them up. Right away, however, I knew that splitting them had created chapbook opportunities, if only I could find a publisher interested in creative nonfiction chapbooks.

I haven’t read many CNF chapbooks, so I used the novella form as a guide instead. I knew I wanted to tell a complete story, with all the moves of a finished work of prose. Though it’s much shorter, I think the chapbook reads like a traditional memoir or set of linked essays.

I’m particularly interested in the point of view of various essays in Close Quarters and the ways you take up the perspective of your father when he’s courting your mother or your mother’s thoughts when she’s pregnant with you, for example. Landrigan answers that question by saying these essays “are all truly from your perch on the shoulders of your parents.” Can you say more about your choices to write certain moments in the perspective of your parents? What do you gain and lose by switching perspectives? Why did you make certain point-of-view choices in the service of craft?

I think children of divorce often feel their own histories—their own existences, even—are threatened or somehow incomplete. When I drafted these essays, I automatically found myself writing in my parents’ point of view, but in doing so I was trying to find my own origin story. Like the majority of children whose parents split up, I spent a good deal of my life wishing they hadn’t, and this unanswered wish sometimes manifested in destructive ways. I tended to believe that love was inevitably temporary, so I became self-sabotaging in relationships, finding ways to end them of my own volition. I felt easily betrayed by other people, while at the same time addicted to praise and validation (I could never, ever have enough). Even now, I can be ruthless pessimist.

Writing from my parents’ point of view demanded that I write from an empathic place.  Even though the narratives that take place before I was born ultimately had an impact on my life, taking myself essentially off the scene allowed me to treat my parents as characters unto themselves, rather than bound to me. I hoped that by placing myself in their positions I could better explore the complicated nature of their decisions.

I’m also curious about the license with imagination in Close Quarters. In many of the essays in the chapbook, the character of your father is so well drawn, a portrait that feels like something one might run across in a Great American Novel. Franklin notes in her review that your “characters—members of her family—are compelling and fully human” Can you talk about the license with imagination and how far a writer can/can’t push into what is real, what is guessed, what could be possible, what should have been? Landrigan calls this “a great wondering, a giant what if.”

Because my father is a bartender by trade, he is also an avid storyteller. Many of the essays in Close Quarters are really part of my father’s canon, even the one about my mother’s pregnancy. So, in terms of what happened, say, on the night before my parents became engaged, there’s little imagination at work. I’ve heard that story hundreds of times. And because my father is remarkably reflective, he supplied a large portion of the interiority, too. That’s one thing I can say about divorce: it can create opportunities for searing honesty between parent and child. Neither of my parents held back much when I asked them questions as a kid. I just didn’t know what I’d eventually do with the information.

There are times when I imagine, though, most often when I’ve got one of my parents cornered at an emotional intersection. I take license in imagining their thoughts at these times as a fiction writer would. I felt comfortable doing this for a few reasons. First, in listening to my parents tell these stories over and over, I could observe their faces, the pitch of their voices, the way they seemed to feel about what happened, and I could apply those observations to the essays. Second, I felt that using their point of view would be best executed if I openly imagined what they felt—one seemed to demand the other. Third, my intimacy with them allowed me to make educated guesses I wouldn’t make with other characters in my nonfiction.

I tell my personal essay and memoir students that they all have to draw their line in the sand about what licenses they’ll take in nonfiction writing. I don’t believe the same rules apply uniformly, so for me, it’s all about the material. I’m researching for a true crime book right now, and the rules of this book are already very different from the rules that govern Close Quarters.

 Can you talk about the “I/eye” in your chapbook?

The whole I/eye of personal narrative is so messy, isn’t it? You should hear a group of undergraduate writers discuss that one syllable with such nuance. Maybe I should record it.

Since most of these pieces are in the present tense, there’s got to be a reflective sensibility governing the truth of myself at age two, eight, fifteen, and so on. I have to be able to write my own character with all her misunderstandings, preoccupations, and self-absorption, while setting off subtle cues to the reader that there’s an author who understands the significance of and motivations behind her juvenile self’s thoughts and actions. The character of Amy in the chapbook is certainly recognizable to anyone who knew me then (and probably to anyone who knows me now). The difference between that Amy and the author is that the author has done the reflective work that overlays the character. It’s a “what I know now that I didn’t know then” sort of move, sometimes almost implicitly embedded in a present-tense scene. This is why critical distance is so important for nonfiction writers. We have to be able to see ourselves and the situations we write about clearly, but non-judgmentally.

In her review on Contrary Magazine Lee Gulyas discusses hunger and fear in Close Quarters as she writes “we are left with the image of two-year old Amy voraciously devouring her cake, exhibiting a hunger so fierce that if she stops eating it may all disappear.” In Landrigan’s reverse interview, she discusses your use of alcohol, “In moments like this, dropped with excruciating precision, we hate alcohol. We sneer at the despicable things people do when they’re drunk… But you don’t let us off the hook that easily…this is the struggle — and success — of any good work of creative nonfiction. To give us raw humans, with their flaws, and their demons, and their broken hearts, to allow us to hope endlessly for redemption that only sometimes comes.” Alcohol is a character in Close Quarters, at times it’s painful and yet it’s what binds the chapbook together. Can you talk about your portrayal of alcohol?

Rebecca Barry, who wrote a blurb for Close Quarters, almost included a line about how the book champions what alcohol can do for our bonds, but she ultimately felt it was too risky, from a marketing standpoint, to say something like that about booze. But I appreciated her reading of alcohol’s character in the chapbook, as I did Marissa Landrigan’s reading of it.

I wanted to write outside of what writer Lidia Yuknavitch calls the “monolithic narrative” about alcohol abuse. In an interview that follows her gorgeous memoir, The Chronology of Water, she says, “Sometimes we’re just sad. And wrong-headed. And drunk. That’s all.” I’ve certainly been all of those things, many times. Maybe because I grew up in bars and am a regular drinker myself, I’ve always been puzzled by the particular shame surrounding substance abuse. If you subscribe to the disease theory, then blaming the user is useless and cruel. If you believe abuse is a behavior that can be controlled, then why is it classified as worse than lying, or bullying, or any other hurtful pattern (including, I’d say, judging others)? I’d like to see our culture move away from shaming people, period. Shame, in my experience, doesn’t work.

Besides, I cannot deny alcohol’s role in my relationship with my father, and in his relationship with my mother. My father told me many of the stories in Close Quarters while one or both of us was drinking. He also introduced me to the democracy of the tavern world, where he has hired hundreds of teenagers, ex-convicts, and people of all genders, skin colors, sexual orientations, and checkered pasts to cook in his kitchen and sling his cocktails. I’ve always been so proud of the generosity that characterizes the real-life Close Quarters. That generosity is what my mother, long ago, fell in love with about my father, and what she has come to rely on in their friendship. That he once drank too much—and as he ages, he drinks less and less—was never the real reason their marriage failed. It was his absence at home. Sometimes that absence was physical, like when he’d stay out too late at the bar. But more often, I think, it was an emotional absence, an inability to participate in the kind of modern family life my mother wanted. Something I don’t mention in the chapbook is my mother’s more recent understanding that she left my father in large part because he was too traditional about marriage, like his Italian-American parents. My mother, on the other hand, wanted to steer towards more contemporary notions of partnership. They married at the tail end of the Sexual Revolution, so they were an enormously conflicted pair when it came to gender roles. At the time, impatient and overwhelmed with a baby, my mother couldn’t have imagined the ways my father would grow and change.

I don’t mean to ignore or downplay the obvious medical and behavioral issues that come with drinking. My maternal grandfather died of pancreatic cancer likely caused by his lifetime of heavy alcohol consumption. I only mean that I don’t share the view that it should be treated differently than other kinds of excesses. And as a writer, I didn’t want to forget the presence of alcohol during so many good times together as a family, either.

How much of your writing do you share with your family? Have your parents read Close Quarters? What do you do when a family member has read something of yours and confronts you about it?

My mother read almost all of the pieces in Close Quarters when I was still graduate school, and both of my parents have read the finished chapbook, along with some of my extended family. My father doesn’t own a computer, so he doesn’t read my online publications, but my mother reads absolutely everything I publish. Sometimes, she even reads my drafts.

Admittedly, my family’s response to my work is mixed, though mostly positive. My mother has a gifted sense of humor about herself and our family, and also understands my intentions from years of raising me on her own, so she’s an amazingly supportive reader. My father responded to Close Quarters as I expected—he enjoyed the writing and disputed none of the chapbook’s truths, but felt mildly embarrassed at being “exposed” to people beyond his immediate world (he’s not used to that). Something interesting he criticized: I didn’t include that his older brother was killed during the Vietnam War (an electrical accident while serving active duty in Taiwan). My father felt this information should have been disclosed for character-building purposes. I saw his point.

In other forms, such as on my blog, Ten Square Miles, my extended family has expressed concerns from time to time. Mostly, they worry that revealing so much about my private life will end up biting me professionally. These concerns are hard to assuage. I’m always unsure myself. As an instructor, I try to maintain rigorous standards for my teaching and interactions with students, but as a nonfiction writer, I cannot always select my material with that audience in mind. Some of my students have found and read my creative work, but so far, I’ve been fortunate to receive generous responses from them. I don’t think we give students enough credit for handling the grit of life. I’ve never felt that my reputation in the classroom has been compromised by my creative work—quite the opposite, in fact. But not everyone in my family is familiar with concepts of academic freedom, so I try to listen to their concerns, and then make my own calls.

What emotional impact has writing Close Quarters had on you?

Writing Close Quarters deepened my respect for my parents and their achievements as a couple. My incredible editor, Ira Sukrungruang, asked me to write the opening prologue of the chapbook shortly before publication, and, as always, his instincts were profoundly correct. Writing the prologue helped me clarify the chapbook’s biggest lesson: Divorce doesn’t mean the end of love, for love can evolve. Love can change direction. Divorce isn’t necessarily the end of a relationship; it can become a new kind of relationship.

In her review in Contrary Magazine of your chapbook, Lee Gulyas writes “The chapbook itself is lovely—a dark gray, tape-bound cover, hand-sewn edges, the title held aloft in a hand-stamped black illustration of a bar sign. The inside paper stock is a creamy buff color with good texture, and the text, in Garamond, is” inviting. In Franklin’s review, she writes “It’s a slim volume, perfect-bound, with a crossed-stitch binding that suggests a corset laced up at the spine. The corset stitch is elegant and unusual—a thick cord twisted and knotted into a series of X shapes the length of the book.” I agree with Gulyas and Franklin. It’s a beautiful handmade book. How involved were you with the production of the book, the cover design and layout?

Honestly, I wasn’t much involved at all. The Sweet Publications design team—brilliant, personable, lovely, lovely people—solicited and welcomed my ideas, but I’ve got no eye for graphics. My husband took some pictures of the real-life Close Quarters, including the one that became the cover art, and I love that the actual sign of the bar is featured. The funny thing about the stitching is that it wasn’t part of the original plan. The heat tape just wasn’t binding tightly enough, so the Sweet team had to improvise. You know you’re working with a talented bunch when their troubleshooting turns out to be the most dynamic part of the design, and, as Alexandra Franklin so keenly identifies, a metaphor for the chapbook’s content. I couldn’t be happier with their work, and I love them all as people. I owe them cases of Scotch.

What current projects are you working on?

Earlier, I mentioned the true crime book, which is still in the research phase. For the sake of the people involved, I won’t say too much at this point. But switching gears to investigative journalism has been both frustrating and highly rewarding—I’m excited to hone new craft skills and develop more patience for data mining. I’m also slowly writing a full-length collection of essays that deal with happiness and nostalgia in contemporary America. These essays aren’t dissimilar from the ones in Close Quarters, but are firmly situated in my own point of view, take on broader cultural themes, and use a more expository, reflective approach to the material.

Number of creative nonfiction chapbooks you own: 2

Number of creative nonfiction chapbooks you’ve read: 2

Ways you promote other writers: Sharing links daily on Facebook and Twitter (chronic post-junkie here!), writing book reviews for Kirkus Indie and The Nervous Breakdown, and getting my butt out to readings whenever possible.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Usually at the bar, on my friends. Also, J. Crew.

Favorite drink: Italian red wine (Brunello di Montalcino or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) and just about any Finger Lakes Riesling.

Inspirations and influences: Cheryl Strayed, Bernard Cooper, Emily Rapp, Roxane Gay, Lee Martin, Lee K. Abbott, Amy Benson, Marissa Landrigan, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chloe Caldwell, Elissa Wald, and Jo Ann Beard. That’s a long list, but I’m really into the ladies these days. They’re just killing it in nonfiction.

Residence:  Ithaca, New York.

Job and education: Lecturer at Ithaca College. Bachelor of Arts in Writing from Ithaca College. Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from THE Ohio State University.

Bio: Amy Monticello’s nonfiction has appeared in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Phoebe, Waccamaw, Upstreet, Redivider, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She is also a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown, and maintains an essay called Ten Square Miles. Read more about her at www.amymonticello.com.

Amy Monticello from Connotation Press on Vimeo.

(Ken Robidoux, the videographer at Connotation Press–An Online Artifact, video of Amy’s  reading at AWP)

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