Featured Authors

Featured Authors: Lia Purpura on the Epistolary Essay


Lia Purpura, author of Rough Likeness and NBCC Finalist On Looking, shares some thoughts on the epistolary essay:

The essay is a form whose intimacy with a reader differs significantly from the intimacies achieved by fiction or poetry. In many ways, the essay—which can combine lyrical, meditative, and even journalistic drives in a single piece—feels, to me, closer to a letter than any other form. The old-fashioned letter provided a space for communion between friends. Upon receiving a letter, one would repair to a place of solitude to read it, to allow the essence of the distant friend to fill up the space. A letter cordoned off a sanctioned area of mind, too, and allowed the lucky recipient to spend a bit of deep time conjuring up the feel of being with a friend, the friend’s sensibility, as bodied forth in language.

To get close to the epistolary spirit while working, I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different from the environment in which they were drafted. In this way I can keep constant the sense of discovery. Reading a piece over in, say, the car at a red light creates an urgency, a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of enclosure created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines of others’ busyness. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, in a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter with my words a private, secret kind of event. I can’t quite explain these reactions and why they generate the thrill they do; I can only report that it’s different to hear my way into a piece than it is to reason my way in.

How else do we read letters—and in what ways might those forms of reading inform creation? Well, we carry letters with us and pull them out during the day, at certain moments, when only that voice will do, or when we need reminding of exactly how X, Y, or Z was so idiosyncratically stated. The ritualistic gestures of letter-reading are powerful, too: the unsealing, the unfolding and smoothing out, the squinting (if you’re lucky enough to be reading a hand-written thing) the pausing, and musing, the refolding and tucking back in—all add to the physicality of reading.

Essayists I love best make a burn, a print on the page: they blow their internal climate onto my skin, like the Scirocco, the Mistral, those dreamy, named winds, so that I feel in the presence of. So much so that I experience that itch, that urge to respond right away—as I do to a really great letter.

Rough Likeness, Lia Purpura

Lia Purpura's essays are full of joy in the act of intense observation; they're also deliciously subversive and alert to the ways language gets locked and loaded by culture. These elegant, conversational excursions refuse to let a reader slide over anything, from the tiniest shards of beach glass to barren big-box wastelands. They detonate distractedness, superficiality, artificiality. In the process, Purpura inhabits many stances: metaphysician and biologist, sensualist and witness-all in service of illuminating that which Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”—previously unworded but palpably felt states of existence and knowing. Rough Likeness finds worlds in the minute, and crafts monuments to beauty and strangeness.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author herself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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Featured Authors

Featured Authors: Ryan Van Meter's Reading List

If You Knew Then What I Know Now has gotten a pretty remarkable reception so far. There have been starred reviews (Publishers Weekly), interviews (Bookslut), and a playlist (Largehearted Boy). David Gutowski, the Largehearted Boy himself, said of the book, “With effortless and elegant prose, the fourteen linked essays in Ryan Van Meter’s new collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now coalesce into a coming-of-age memoir as well written, honest, and moving as I have read in years.” Below are the books that Van Meter recommended to us as models and inspirations for his own work. They make up a bibliography of what it means to grow up, and grow into yourself in America. Take a look, and get reading.

The Boys of my Youth by Jo Ann Beard

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette

Naked by David Sedaris

Crush by Richard Siken

Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life by Abigail Thomas

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolfe

If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Ryan VanMeter

The middle-American coming-of-age finds new life in Van Meter's coming-out, made as strange as it is familiar by acknowledging the role played by sexuality. If You Knew Then What I Know Now reinvents the memoir with all-encompassing empathy. This is essay as an argument for the intimate, and an embrace of all the skinned knees in our stumble toward adulthood.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author himself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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Featured Authors: An Interview with Ashley Butler

The variations of style and content throughout these essays are quite broad and inventive. Can you talk about how you decided on the structure for this collection?

I’m often not aware of what an essay is about until after it’s been written and I’ve had some time away from it. The overall structure of the book became more obvious after Anechoic was written. After a while one essay or inquiry just seemed to follow the next. I’m also grateful to many readers for helping the collection find a form.

The five senses become characters in their own right by the end of this book.  Sight, for example, makes several appearances. In the essay “Causality:Casualty” you state, “Believe me when I say, one must remain hidden in order to maintain the feeling that one sees completely.” Could you further discuss the significance of the senses, specifically sight, in this collection?

Bentham’s Panopticon: that circular building whose circumference is lined with cells and whose center is occupied by a tower in which a guard turns to survey the prisoners. To some extent, what one sees is determined by expectations of the larger community or culture in which an individual finds herself at a given point in time.  Art historian Jonathan Crary reminds us that “sight is an historical activity”—a rose is a rose is a rose. We write to write ourselves in the process of writing.  Sight is a means and not an end.

Relativity plays a large role in this collection. A favorite quote in the collection is from Goethe when he writes, “No one who has never seen himself surrounded on all sides by nothing but the sea can have a true conception of the world and his own relation to it.”  Could you talk about what this quote means to you and what it means to this collection of essays?

In “Italian Journey,” Goethe begins by telling us how calm and quiet the four-day boat trip from Naples to Palermo is and only then does he mention the adverse wind and how he’s been violently seasick.  From the simple line of the marine horizon, he writes, he’s found another approach to his landscape painting.  It’s as though by being at sea (unencumbered by trees, hills, etc) he might realize some presentation of a limit beyond the body.  And this would be available only to the eyes. In Dear Sound, and in writing in general, I think openness is important, that is, to try to make a space so something can pass through.

Throughout this collection, you explore the lives of pioneers, specifically pioneers of space, speed, and science. How did you approach your research for these essays?

I spent a lot of time in archives and special collections.  The research for Anechoic took a year and a half though very little of it was included in the essay.  In some ways, the research became more about the obsession to know, to find some meaning in, or to somehow objectify, the feeling of absence.  For the other essays, the research served slightly different purposes though it’s always used to think through a more subjective inquiry.

Along the same lines, of all the famous explorers and scientist, etc., that you researched for this book, including the likes of Houdini, Yuri Gagarin, and Nikolai Federov, who was your favorite subject and why? What is it you hope to learn or convey by these stories of great exploration?

Tsiolkovsky drew up plans for an elevator between the earth and outer space—one long wire anchored in the sea and stretching up through the atmosphere. For his ideas Tsiokovsky risked being exiled or labeled mad/unsound, etc and thus considered less than human, or less civilized. Although he was ridiculed at the time, some of his ideas may not seem as radical or unusual now. In Dear Sound, the scientists offer another way to think through the essayist’s relationship to grief and the unfounded hope that the dead could send messages by making a light flicker, etc.