Thursday, September 6, 2012

A little Q+A with Patrick Thomas: Milkweed Editions

Patrick is an editor and Program Manager at Milkweed Editions. This discussion specifically came from some questions I had regarding Amy Leach and working with her writing. Some thoughts I had about her reading(and calling it that rather than a performance seems rather flat and unfair) are here.

More importantly, Milkweed is currently having a contest to win a signed copy of "Things That Are."

Every time I've seen Amy Leach's book "Things That Are" mentioned or reviewed people use words like quirky or singular or odd. Most of that is meant as a compliment--but several questions come out of this: Was major-reworking of the book done? How long ago did Milkweed sign the book? How were decisions made to have illustrations accompany the text?

PT: The 'major work' I did on the book related almost entirely to ordering. As you and many have noted, these essays are different sorts of beasts than most are used to, so Amy and I worked together to ensure that the reader's entrance into the world of Things That Are wasn't too jarring. Thus the progression from the more immediate and tangible world in the first half of the book to the more fantastic and distant worlds of the universe and the mind in the second. The decision to illustrate the text was similar: We knew that once someone opened the book, they would be entranced and buy it without a second thought, but as you know, getting a reader to open a collection of essays by a debut author is close to impossible. So the illustrations and the construction of the book were an invitation to the reader to take a chance as much as they were a celebration of the beauty of the contents and Milkweed's love of bookmaking.

A random grouping of other thoughts/?'s follow. Feel free to answer as you wish. How was editing this book different(or similar) to others you've worked on? I imagine it might be easy to simply drift into reading mode rather than working on the text? Is that so?

PT: It was terrible. I'd reread pages again and again, reminding myself throughout I was supposed to be working, but it was so hard to resist falling into the essays and leaving the markings behind. And yet, at this point, the difference between reading and editing for me (whether I'm reading for enjoyment or for work) is hard to discern. So I know that if something is working so well that I'm not making marks, it's time to stop making marks and call it 'done.' And for the most part, Amy's work was done before I even considered the majority of these pieces.

You had mentioned that you fell in love with her writing after reading something in A Public Space(I think). Was that piece something that is in the book. Is it different in significant ways now?

PT: "Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumber" was the piece, and no, it wasn't changed drastically.

A customer gave me a new comp. last night which was A.A. Milne with Mary Ruefle with Annie Dillard(thanks, Jennifer) Who are some of the writers you find comparable?

PT: Amy's style is so unique that I've resisted comparing the words and sentences themselves to other writers. For me it's the feeling I had upon first reading that I can relate to other writers. So, the first time I read Dillard, or Solnit, maybe David James Duncan--the way those writers called me to reconsider the world and my relationship to it without actually asking me to do anything, that's what I'd compare the experience of Amy's work to. Pick this book up if you'd like to alter your perception in an enriching way.

To a reader who might be scared by 'philosophical nature essays' what could you tell them?

PT: Don't be scared? Kidding, but seriously, this is why I hate labels: Readers are led to believe that if they haven't studied poetry/philosophy/nature they can't read books with those or other categories listed on the back. And yet they're all just narratives (unless you're talking about academic philosophy I suppose) about life as we know it; narratives meant to be reinterpreted and understood personally by every reader who comes to them. Sure there's some core of meaning there that most readers will see in something like the same light, but it's up to each reader to see it in their own way. What would I say to an intimidated reader? Don't think about meaning or the author's intent when you pick up the book. Don't think about anything. If you enjoy what happens in your brain as you read the first sentences, then buy the book and prepare to have your mind properly blown.

If there is one major difference in your thought process of editing fiction vs. non what is it?

PT: Not really. In nonfiction you're more beholden to reality, but you still need to tell stories that resonate emotionally.

Given your job at a small publisher--which means juggling several jobs--what kind of books do you gravitate towards on your own or in your free-time?

PT: I'm reading The Dog Stars right now, which brings my childhood love for My Side of the Mountain, my adult fascination with ecology, and my general grim interest with apocalypse together in a wonderful way. In general though, my reading is all over the place. I've got that novel going, but also some nonfiction on the evolution of religion over the past 40,000 or so years, William Souder's biography of Rachel Carson, which is amazing, and a few other books all in the mix. In general, I'm looking for books, whether for enjoyment or for acquisition, that make the world feel bigger, more full of possibility.

Finally, this book sent me towards other sources(dictionaries, the internet, assorted natural history books) to look up definitions and get some background on certain references or simply to find out which words were simply made up. How often were you scrambling for similar info?

PT: Almost every line. If you want to spark someone's interest in etymology and entomology at the same time (thus ensuring a lifelong battle to explain the difference between the two to others), sending them to the OED and Peterson Field guides simultaneously, this is the book for it.

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