“Nonfiction is the new philosophy”

An Interview with Steven Church

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The deadline for our first annual Creative Nonfiction Contest is fast approaching! We’ve already received many excellent submissions–get yours in by August 31!

To prime you, here’s an interview with our contest judge, Steven Church. Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record. His essays and stories have been published widely and he is a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School.

Prairie Schooner Senior Nonfiction Reader Sarah Fawn Montgomery interviews Church about writing that refreshes, Midwestern sense of place, his favorite authors and more!

As a founding editor of The Normal School, you see a lot of nonfiction submissions. What kinds of submissions in this genre excite you?

The stuff that excites me as an editor and reader almost always does so through voice, that somewhat ineffable quality of sound on the page, and the quality of thinking that is evident, typically from the very first sentence. I’m not terribly interested in subject–or in the slavish adherence to traditional nonfiction/memoir subjects such as abuse, addiction, trauma, or tragedy–for the sake of subject itself. To put it more bluntly, just because it happened to a writer doesn’t make it interesting for me. What makes a subject interesting for me is when the writer can defamiliarize it and teach me something, when she can give me a different and unique window into the subject. I’m also continually impressed when an essayist can find a way to refresh an old subject, can for example write a truly amazing and heartbreaking “illness” essay (see Bernard Cooper’s “The Constant Gardner”) or “suicide” essay (see Michelle Morano’s “The Subjunctive Mood”). For me, the most exciting books being written these days, the ones that really shake up how we think not just about literature or genre but also about thinking itself are nonfiction books. Nonfiction is the new philosophy; and I truly believe that the it is the genre with the greatest risk and reward, the books that will mess with your head, your heart, and even change the way you live your everyday life.

What exactly is “normal”? How does this serve as aesthetic for the magazine? How do you see this working within the current literary publishing market, especially with nonfiction?

We, of course, like the title “Normal” because it begs others to constantly ask us this question. And it gives us a chance to respond with each issue. The writing we publish in The Normal School runs the gamut from more traditional forms and styles to the eclectic or experimental. Part of this reflects my personal aesthetic and that of our other editors, but it’s also a reflection of the mission of the magazine to be a conversation amongst forms, styles, genres and subjects, an ongoing discussion of the norms of literature. Though we have 2 MFAs in fiction between our three founding editors (Sophie Beck and I), we all read and write a lot of nonfiction, so publishing essays has always been a priority for us. Though like a lot of magazines we don’t get as many nonfiction submissions as we do in poetry and fiction, we still get quite a lot of them, and I think this is because writers see both the diversity of nonfiction we publish, see that we care about design, and that we publish as much nonfiction (or more) in each issue as we do fiction and poetry. I’ll be honest, I find complaints from other literary magazines about a lack of “good nonfiction” submissions to be a little confusing, especially when many of these magazines only publish a couple of essays in each issue. Unfortunately, I think a lot of magazines are unwilling to take chances on nonfiction in the way they’ll take chances with fiction and poetry. For whatever reason, there’s a tendency to go for the straightforward traditional narrative and confessional memoir rather than for essays that, while partaking in some memoir elements, also take to heart the digressive “exploration” that defines the best essays.

If you could put together an All-Star list for Prairie Schooner’s inaugural nonfiction contest, which nonfiction writers would you include? What about their work do you find appealing? How do they define, challenge, or complicate the genre?

If you’re asking me for some favorite nonfiction writers I can tick off a long list, but here’s some contemporary folks who are writing and publishing amazing essays that define, challenge or complicate: Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, Patrick Madden, Ander Monson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Maggie Nelson, John D’Agata, Bernard Cooper, Patricia Hampl, Tom Bissell, Rebecca Solnit and many many others. But rather than an All-Star list for the contest, I guess what I’d put together is an All-Star list of essays that surprise and trouble and affect me emotionally, the sort of essay that I can’t stop reading and that, when I finish reading it, I have to exhale and gather myself. We have an essay in our current issue of The Normal School by Andrew Cohen called “Searching for Benny Paret,” that has had the same all-body effect on nearly every reader. It was one of those pieces that we knew immediately we had to publish because of its depth of thought and emotion, its lack of sentimentality and its grace. Cohen teaches at a community college and I believe this is his first publication. He’d been writing the piece for something like ten years. I guess I’d love to find a couple of essays like Cohen’s for the inaugural Prairie Schooner Nonfiction contest.

Readers will have the opportunity to read one of your essays in an upcoming issue of Prairie Schooner. What are you currently working on?

Right now, for Creative Nonfiction‘s “True Crime” issue, I’m finishing up edits on an essay about ears, Mike Tyson, Blue Velvet, and Travis the psychotic chimpanzee. I’m also trying to finish up a book of essays that, for lack of a better way to describe it, I’m thinking of as being about fatherhood, sound and morally relevant noise. My essay, “Auscultation” from the Best American Essays is part of this project. I’m also working on a long essay (possibly another book entirely) about Parkfield, California, the Earthquake Capitol of the World, a small community of 18 in the Cholame Valley that is the site of the largest array of earthquake sensing equipment in the world. Then there’s at least a couple of “side” projects going all the time.

It seems a lot of Midwestern writers utilize place in their writing. How does your hometown of Lawrence, Kansas show up in your work?

My last book, The Day After The Day After, is largely about the apocalyptic and violent history of my hometown and of the state of Kansas, and about the larger cultural meaning of Kansas and the Midwest. I have a couple of recent “Fresno” essays but this is a complicated place that, in many ways, continues to elude me. Then, of course, the earthquake essay I mentioned above is largely about the meaning of living at the epicenter of seismic activity in North America as well as about the effect of earthquakes on our understanding of everything from metaphysics and epistemology to the practical ethics of earthquake-proof building codes.