Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Nancy Lord, author of Rock, Water, Wild

On Monday and Tuesday, March 1 and 2, 49 Writers hosts an online book club discussion of Alaskan author Nancy Lord’s Rock, Water, Wild.  In preparation, we asked Nancy to tell us about the book and discuss what it takes to write and publish literary nonfiction.  If you have questions for Nancy, she’ll be “stopping by” our discussion that begins two weeks from today.

How did writing and assembling this collection of essays differ from your previous nonfiction endeavors?

I had a lot of essays and articles that I’d published in various places over the last decade or so and wanted to give them another life. (I also had a few pieces that, for one reason or another, I hadn’t published but were—I thought—deserving of at least one life.) It seemed to me that collected together they formed a kind of memoir. So I went through what I had and picked out the pieces that still seemed current and fit what I wanted to compile as a body of work. Then I did quite a bit of work revising them for shape and tone—to try to get them to fit together in one narrative of my life and with a similar tone. (Some had been more journalistic, and I tried to make them more essay-like.) I also updated some information, cut out redundancy, and added personal and thematic information to consolidate the narrative. And I wrote several new pieces to fill the book out with some of my more current concerns and life experiences.

I assembled the whole not chronologically but into three thematic sections—my beginnings as an Alaskan and a writer in the first part, then pieces specific to Alaska, then wider-ranging (geographically and otherwise) in the third. In the end, in a piece about my father, I tried to close the circle with a return to my beginnings.

This is a different kind of project than starting a book from scratch, with an idea of a singular narrative. It was very much a case of rewriting and assembling, assessing my life through what I’ve been driven to write.

How did Rock, Water, Wild find its home with University of Nebraska Press?

My agent was not enthusiastic about this project. She finds it hard to sell books of essays (even though I tried to convince her it was a memoir). Agents need to make a living, and they can’t do that on fifteen percent of nothing, so I understand her reluctance. But basically I was left on my own with this book.

I had read several books from a series called American Lives, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and loved them all. Some of them were similar to my book, in the sense that they were memoirs made up of essays. One of the latest in the series was Peggy Shumaker’s memoir (really an assemblage of prose poems), Just Breathe Normally. I knew that Peggy had had a good experience there and that she thought very highly of the editor, Ladette Randolph. Peggy encouraged me to submit to Ladette.

Ladette did accept the book—not in the American Lives series that I coveted but as part of the general list, and for a tiny advance—and she was great to work with. She went on to a new job before the book came out (a not uncommon experience at any press, especially these days, with so much upheaval in the industry), but others at the press carried on. This was my first experience with a university press, and it was generally a good one. They did an excellent job on the production side and, while they (university presses in general) can’t do much for promotion, they were supportive of my own efforts and helped where they could (fliers, posters, etc.) One distinct advantage of university presses is that they keep books in print for a long time instead of pulping them in a year or two.

How has teaching contributed to your growth as a writer?

I teach about one class a year at the Homer branch of the University of Alaska Anchorage and as an “associate faculty” in UAA’s low-residency MFA program. It’s a smallish teaching load, which suits me. Teaching really does help me as a writer, as it forces me to keep up with various craft books and anthologies and to articulate what I think about craft and process. I really enjoy my students and feel that I’m learning right along with them as we all study the masters and critique student work together. I wouldn’t want to teach full-time, as I know I’d end up writing almost nothing if I did. I admire writers who can both teach and write, but there’s certainly a tension in trying to do both well.

What advice do you offer on publishing literary nonfiction?

It’s hard. Know that it’s hard to publish literary nonfiction and expect to get plenty of rejections. There are hardly any mainstream magazines that publish literary work anymore. There are more opportunities with small literary journals, although there’s little to no pay involved and small readerships—smaller usually than the number of people submitting their work. It’s really the same situation with literary fiction and poetry. If I have any advice it’s to pursue those small journals and hope that someone who sees your work there will help propel you into more opportunities, such as a full book. As an example, the writer Heather Sellers submitted an essay about her “face blindness” (prosopagnosia—look it up) to Alaska Quarterly Review. Ron Spatz, the editor there, not only accepted it but raved about it and nominated it for “best” collections. It won a spot in The Best Creative Nonfiction. That became chapter one of Heather’s latest book, Face First, due out later this year from Riverhead Books. Heather has written on her website, “I am grateful to Ron Spatz at the Alaska Quarterly Review for first publishing the chapter and giving me such strong support early on.” (Ron has also been very supportive of my work, for 25 years, and stories and essays first published in AQR have later reappeared in several of my books.)

There is of course the obvious advice—write a really compelling story, and write it really, really well.

Anything else you’d like readers to know as they consider Rock, Water, Wild?

Just that I’m very flattered to have it chosen for the book club. I’d like it if readers would read the preface first, as that lays out a little background and context. Then they should feel free to skip around in the book. I look forward to the discussion March 1 and 2 and will be checking in during those days.

1 thought on “Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Nancy Lord, author of Rock, Water, Wild”

  1. Nancy's success is the result of commitment, diligence, longevity, and study. Hers is a life's work and it shows in ever-improving quality.

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