Jill Bialosky is an editor at W.W. Norton, and she has also authored two books of poetry, The End of Desire and Subterraneans—as well as having contributed poetry to The Paris Review, The New Yorker and The American Poetry Review. She studied poetry at Johns Hopkins University and at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She has recently published her first novel, House Under Snow. She lives in New York City with her family and is at work on her second novel.
Robert Birnbaum: In baseball terminology you would be referred to as a triple threat: a poet, an editor, and now, a novelist. Why did it take you so long to write a novel?
Jill Bialosky: I've worked on this book for a long time, on and off. It took me a long time to figure out how to write a novel, coming from a poet's perspective. The novel, for me, began with an image, as a poem often does. In this case, it was the image of a house being buried in snow. I had the characters in my mind and the situation for them and the setting and the emotions, which I had to write through. After a while, I figured out that the book didn't have a plot.
RB: After a while you figured that out?
JB: Right. So that was the challenge. I wrote an entire draft because I thought that action just happened over a course of time. But after many years of putting the novel aside, I realized that wasn't the case. Plot has to be about a dramatic situation that changes the course of the characters' lives—that the plot has to grow out of the characters. It took me a long time to think about that and to learn how to write a novel because I had never studied fiction. I went to graduate school and took poetry workshops. I had never learned any techniques of fiction so it [writing a novel] was a trial by error. The thing I am amazed about is that I kept at it for as long as I did. I had so many versions of this book. A very early version of the book was told from the point of view of a very young child and it was in the third person and—again, I was violating point of view, without really knowing it. I was this third person limited going into the heads of other characters. It was a frustrating process for me, but the characters kept me hooked and I didn't want to give up on them. Over the course of years and putting [the book] aside I was able to figure it out. It was 2 years ago when I realized what I wanted the plot to be. Then it came pretty quickly, at that point.
RB: The characters kept you hooked?
JB: Yeah. Even now when I am giving readings, I sometimes walk around thinking about what one of these characters had done and I wish I could go back and add an anecdote or a scene. They are still very alive for me. It's pretty hard to cut it off.
RB: Will you write more about these people?
JB: You know, I don't think I will. Just because I am working on something else now that is exciting me, so I want to try and stay in this new thing. I was reading the NY Times and this article quoted Gabriel Garcia Marquez as saying all of his work came from this one house, being in this one house in the town that he grew up in. That struck a chord with me. In other words, that there is enough imaginative life in one place that could fuel your entire life's work.
RB: You edit novels. As you are searching for a way to write your own novel, does it affect the way you advise authors and your confidence with that form?
JB: I don't think it does. I see the two enterprises as very separate. I've learned how to compartmentalize having a career as an editor and then as a writer. The writer part of me is such a private little world, in my own head. I think if I allowed any of the editorial things that I do at work to get in there it would really interfere with the process. On the other hand the same thing happens when you are editing somebody else's book. You enter into the landscape of that particular book. I think every book sets up its own criteria, and as an editor I am not a heavy-handed editor. What I love to do with my authors is have a conversation with them about their book and it's like a long dialogue. Of course, I offer more then. I think you are constantly being asked to honor what the author has set up for himself or herself and if they have achieved what they have set out to accomplish. That's always the question I ask as I am looking at a book I am working on. When I was younger and first in publishing, it was intimidating to be working with published authors and I felt that until I was published in book form that I couldn't really say I was an author. I was an apprentice. For years, I was toiling away on my own, trying to write poems and working on parts of this book but I would never talk about it to my authors, that I was a writer.
RB: Not one?
JB: Maybe there were a few poets that had known me, that I had gone to graduate school with and our worlds had overlapped. I just didn't feel comfortable doing that. In fact when my first book of poetry was accepted I had sent it to Harry Ford at Knopf. I had known him as a junior editor when I first got into publishing. He had no idea I was writing poetry, so he was shocked. I had queried him…my manuscript had that same fate that many first books have, which was that I had sent it to all of those first book competitions and I was a finalist at a handful of places. One of my friends who was a poet said, “Why don't you send it to Harry Ford and just see? You have nothing to lose.” I wrote him a note and asked him if I could submit the manuscript to him. He wrote me back—I still have the letter—saying, that he'd be delighted to read it but that there would be very little chance that he could take it on. But he would tell me what he thought. I sent it to him and 2 or 3 weeks later he called me up and said, “Jill, this is a good book.” I remember his voice. It was one of those turning points in a writer's life, for me. Once that book was out, I felt that it was much easier to come forward as a writer. I am very hard on myself. I think most writers are.
RB: Can that still happen? An unknown writer contacting a senior editor somewhere…
JB: I think so. In poetry, probably the trade houses don't take on that many first books anymore. It's hard to get support for them in house and to create enthusiasm for them. Trade houses tend to take on poets when they are on their second and third book. I've published a few first books as an editor, so I do think there are still those moments. And for fiction, most fiction writers have agents now.
RB: Can you talk about the way publishing has changed?
JB: I'm very fortunate because I have always worked for this one house [W.W. Norton] which is a mid-sized publishing house, employee owned. From that perspective, because we haven't been bought by any of the big conglomerates, the culture within Norton has pretty much remained the same, committed to good books and quality publishing. The marketing aspects have changed. There is more pressure to learn how to market books better and a lot of an editor's job—part of the job is how to position a book and where it fits into the marketplace.
RB: Are you involved in more marketing meetings?
JB: Yeah. That's when it can get tricky being a writer and being in publishing. I feel sometimes I'm overexposed and see too much of what's going on in the media and what can happen and what can't happen. I sometimes envy writers who are off in Madison, Wisconsin working on their books.
RB: Is your life totally enveloped by the world of writing and publishing? Do you garden or something like that?
JB: Actually, I do like to garden. I have a son and I am involved in his life and his interests. I love to swim. That's another real passion of mine. My day job is being an editor and on the weekends I try to have my own life which involves writing.
RB: Are all editors acquiring editors?
JB: There are some in-house editors that do more manuscript editing and copyediting, but in most trade houses editors do acquire books. Most of it is through agents now. With the whole anthrax scare, people are less inclined to be reading unsolicited manuscripts.
RB: Do you care whether people think about House Under Snow in terms of its autobiographical strands?
JB: It's a question that I get asked all the time, and my theory is that anytime you write a domestic book about a family it is perceived as autobiographical. Something very funny happened to me a few weeks ago. I was in my office and I got a phone call and this woman said, "I'm Lilly Crane." (the mother character in my book). She said she had seen a review of the book in the Washington Post and was really freaked out because she had lost a husband and she had three daughters. And she said, “This is really freaky. Do you know me?” I said, “Absolutely not. This is totally out of my imagination.” And I thought about how all of our stories are other peoples' stories in one way or another.
RB: I don't think it matters whether fiction is autobiographical, but it goes to the readers' need for the stories to be true, in some way.
JB: I think that they do want them to be true. I don't know whether that's the voyeuristic aspect of our personalities as human beings and this interest about what goes on behind closed doors.
RB: When you are reading fiction, what does truth have to do with it?
JB: When I am asked that [about the autobiographical aspects] I take it as a compliment because I think it means there is an intimacy between the reader and the writer that has been established. I know when I read a novel I wonder if this really happened. Finally, you do away with it because it doesn't really matter. It's whether you are swept away by the story and moved by the preoccupations of the writer. I try to stay away from that question. Even with poetry, my own poems tend to be somewhat autobiographical, but I know the imaginative leaps that take place and I would never want to have to say, "Oh this part of the poem really happened and this part I made up." It seems to minimize the creative process if you try to deconstruct a poem that way. Maybe some incident spurred them on, but from that point on they take on their own life. It's the point at which you leap from the personal into the imagination that I think that the process of art is made. The emotional life of any work tends to be autobiographical.
RB: If I understood what he was saying I think that's part of the point of David Shields' latest book, Enough About You. One way or another the writer is in the stories.
JB: I always think literature is much more interesting that real life (laughs). If you were just documenting the day to day—I mean what do we do on a daily basis? We have coffee. We meet our friends. We get dressed in the morning. I turn to books because I want to escape daily life.
RB: You aren't excited by getting coffee in the morning?
JB: (laughs) I enjoy it and I like the sense of order in a life and that's important to me.
RB: You grew up in the Cleveland, Ohio area and where did you go to school?
JB: Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. As an undergraduate I was an English major, but I did take a poetry workshop that was really influential for me.
RB: What did you intend?
JB: I really didn't know what I was going to do. I was one of these people that went to college and I knew that I loved books and being an English major seemed like the only thing that made sense to me. I wasn't very practical as a young person. In fact, when I look back on it now it's quite amazing that one would decide to go to graduate school in poetry in the world that we live in today and the kind of life that I had where I put myself through school and didn't have the resources. I didn't occur to me that maybe I should be a business major or something more practical.
RB: You went to Johns Hopkins in poetry?
RB: And did you go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop?
JB: Yeah. What happened there was that Hopkins program was one year and I was 23 at the time. After I graduated I moved back to Cleveland and I was working as a waitress and trying to write poetry and I really didn't feel that …I felt a little lost. I met a poet who told me about the Iowa program and encouraged me to apply there. It was a need to be more validated as a poet and a sense of order to my life that waitressing wasn't providing.
RB: Is poetry as big a deal as fiction is at Iowa?
RB: I remember reading, in of all places, the Wall Street Journal a few years back some critic remarking that more people seemed to write poetry than read it.
JB: I know. I think that is a depressing aspect of our literature today that we can't get people who are outside of poetry to embrace it. There seems to be a larger audience than there was with the proliferation of readings and recent poet laureates have been trying—I was the editor for Robert Pinsky's anthology, America's Favorite Poems. The reality is that it's much easier in getting people interested in talking to you as a fiction writer. The media is not that interested in revealing poetry. A real difficulty in publishing poetry as an editor is trying to get the books noticed. There are not many forums for discourse. Very few papers review poetry anymore or if they do they will reprint a poem rather than review a book. I think that the audience is limited.
JB: I don't know why. Perhaps in the movement toward a lot of experimentation in language, poetry is moving the audience further away from poetry—which is distressing. Not that poetry shouldn't experiment with language, but there is a risk that you are alienating the culture even further. It's always interesting to me that people who are doctors and lawyers want to read novels—you see that much more than someone carrying a book of poems on the subway. Poetry has always been accessible for me, so I don't understand why people don't find it as accessible as I do. Maybe people are stigmatized by their childhood education?
RB: What does a successful book of poetry sell?
JB: If a poet sold 5000 to 10000 hard-cover copies that would be very good.
RB: What about the Pinsky book?
JB: That's an anthology. I think it's in its thirteenth printing. Then there is the Billy Collins story. His book has sold in the tens of thousands. I don't know how many but a lot. He was on National Public Radio and he's a great reader and very personable and he really connects with the readership. But I don't know what the Billy Collins phenomenon is all about. But it's great for poetry. If somebody is going to read Billy Collins they are going to pick up Louise Gluck or Mark Strand or Marie Howe.
RB: Do you edit poets also?
RB: How do you do that?
JB: Most books of poetry by established poets don't require much editing. You might talk about the shape of the book and what are some of the weaker poems and whether they should be cut or new poems added.
RB: Not much specific to the individual poems?
JB: Poets at that level have already worked the poem before it arrives on my desk.
RB: And you are not one of those heavy-handed editors?
RB: Does anyone admit to being heavy handed?
JB: Some people really love to line edit and to really get in there. I don't know how much their writers like that?
RB: How do you edit someone like John Dufresne [Deep in the Shade of Paradise]?
JB: He tends to be someone you have to pull back a little from. I have worked with John on all his books, so I think I understand his creative process.
RB: He'll throw everything and the kitchen sink in. He's one of the happiest writers I've met.
JB: I think he is one of the most imaginative writers I have ever come across. He has such gifts. His last novel was much vaster than his previous. But his stories can be very contained and I think he understands plot and his new book, Deep in the Shade of Paradise, was much more experimental. I see that he may be going back to something a little more traditional. For him, each book sets up its own challenges and he walks through it very courageously as a writer.
RB: How do you tell him something isn't working?
JB: He is very voice driven. Sometimes there is such pure enjoyment and pleasure in his voice that I found, as an editor, I didn't want to tame that book back so much. Although that book went through—I don't think John would mind me saying it—many different drafts.
RB: John wasn't bashful about saying he worked hard on this book, he also wasn't bashful about saying—reminiscent of Richard Ford about his editor, Gary Fisketjon—he didn't know if he could continue writing if he didn't have you as an editor.
JB: He's very sweet. I think that he could. It's nice to hear that.
RB: It does speak to a crucial relationship. One writer, Brady Udall, explained to me that in other times the editor was the advocate for the writer and that these days the editors are the publishing houses' advocate.
JB: As an editor, I think your first interest is in the book itself and in the author because without that you have nothing.
RB: You sat that from the vantage point of a relatively pure environment. Nobody at Norton is suggesting that Bigger Thomas [Richard Wright's Native Son] be turned into a white man [as the apocryphal story of MGM's offer to Wright goes].
JB: That's true. That would be very distressing. I have been in a fortunate position of working for a house that really cares about authors.
RB: The Norton authors I have met all say that.
JB: Speaking from an author's point of view, what an author wants most of all is to be understood by an editor—wants an editor to embrace their own vision and voice because you can't rely on reviews as an author. You'll be crushed if you listen to whatever is being said in print about your work. That is one way of writing for an audience but not writing out of your own obsessions. Listen, let's face it, books are not easy to get out there. When I go into a Barnes and Noble, sometimes I want to give it all up. When you think about all of the books, the competition. It's staggering.
RB: Is this book tour an education for you?
JB: Yeah, it has been educational. I have realized also how so much of this is—one person loves a book and they talk about it and then somebody else goes and buys it. The word of mouth is phenomenal in getting a book going. When you are in New York and working in publishing it feels as if a certain kind of book is what people want to read. When you are out on the road you see that the world is different than New York City. So it's a little more encouraging in a way.
RB: Writers who don't live in New York are certainly aware of the inbred nature of book publishing.
JB: The New York Times Book Review loves to feature writers like Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody. I like their work very much but…
RB: They are not featuring Charles Baxter or Lorrie Moore.
JB: I'm sure their books get reviewed. Patricia Henley got an “In Brief” review. I find reviews can be very frustrating. Your book is given to one person and the person that it's given to can determine the fate of the book. That's really frightening for a writer. [On the other hand] The New York Times can make a book happen but there are other ways. Like word of mouth.
RB: Is it safe to assume that you are going to continue editing, writing poetry and fiction?
JB: For the moment I am. This is who I am. I think people like to define you. As a poet, a fiction writer, an editor. For me, I consider myself an editor and a writer and the form that work takes is just whatever form it should take.
RB: Do you write short stories?
JB: I find short stories very difficult to write. I tend to want to go on more, I get involved in my characters. There is something about the compression of a story which I have not learned how to work. Then there are other writers that say that they can never write a novel, they can only write stories. There are many writers that fall in that category. Raymond Carver had a hard time writing a novel. What's interesting is that reviewers can be skeptical of a novel written by a poet. Many reviews of my book have started out by saying that.
RB: Well, reviews are their own form. I think reviewers start thinking about the structure if the review before they have gotten very far into what they are reviewing and in fact depending on their deadline maybe before they have even started reading. Another reason I don't want to read reviews.
JB: That's true. What's been fun about going on the road with House Under Snow is to see readers really appreciating something just off the cuff.
RB: What are you reading these days? Do you have time?
JB: I know. I'm trying to think of the last book I did read—The Corrections, which I liked very much. I just bought Sharon Olds' new book of poems. I like reading essays. I like Adam Phillips' essays. He writes a lot about Freud. Sometimes I read books—as an editor—to see why they did so well. I read Ann Packer's Dive From Clausen's Pier. For my own writing I like to read Chekov and Henry James.
RB: Alice Munro?
JB: Short story writers really love her work. They think she is a goddess.
RB: Love is an understatement. Reverence, worship seems more like it.
JB: I always love reading her work in The New Yorker. I tend to like to read novels, when I have the time.
RB: You finish this book tour and then back to NYC and then what?
JB: I'm pretty into the [next] novel right now. It's inspired by Chekov's play The Three Sisters and the quest for meaning in a meaningless world.
RB: Wuthering Heights is clearly a reference point for House Under Snow. Is there a pattern emerging here?
JB: I do feel that some of these works that enchanted me as a child still have a lot of relevance to my way of thinking about the world. I've always felt closer to characters in books. Maybe because I understand them more because their interior lives are evoked, somehow.
RB: I seem to be able only to reread Garcia Marquez's books.
JB: I think it's a good idea [reread] for writers to do because it connects you to the tradition. As a poet that's been very important to me, to be writing out of a tradition and to understand the trajectory of history. That's why in thinking about a new novel I like to think of a great work that has inspired a reinterpretation…in House Under Snow, it's such a small part of the book, but it meant a lot to me as the writer, to think of Wuthering Heights. I mean, how many themes are there in life?
RB: Do you look at what you do as being important?
JB: God, I don't know if I could get up in the morning. That would be a little scary.
RB: It seems like the answer should be, “Yes!”
JB: It should be yes. I think my life would be very empty with out it.
RB: Would you rather read a book or buy a Chanel suit?
JB: I have both sides to my personality. I wouldn't choose Chanel, though. There is a lot to be said for the life of the mind. I've always struggled with this idea of normalcy, of what is normal. Because I have never felt normal as a human being. So I tend to glamorize people who are more simplistic because I think their encounters in the world might be easier. That if you are complex—your life might be richer but the struggles might be deeper and harder. So there is a sense of envy for someone who can be content as a consumer. But I don't think it's the richer life, ultimately.
RB: It never occurred to me to see the material consuming life as satisfying.
JB: It's true. It becomes an obsession. It feeds into our culture of restlessness and ADD. Labeling our kids with ADD. What is that? It's because they are so distracted. They have Nintendo and Gameboy.
RB: You look at TV screen when you watch a cable station and there 5, 6 or more things scrolling and flashing on the screen.
JB: It's amazing. I always think of the writing life as the contemplative life. That's what I love about it so much as a writer. It's the one time that you have to contemplate the universe you want to create. I'd be lost without it. But it's always interesting to think about whether one would have pursued something else.
RB: Well, good. Thank you.
by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing