Co-founder of the Awl Choire Sicha’s first book, Very Recent History, is an “entirely factual” story of the lives and loves and apartments and jobs of several young professionals in New York City in 2009. The book’s road to publication has a few interesting potholes, including the departure of its acquiring editor; in the end, Harper’s Barry Harbaugh, new to book editing, shepherded it to publication. Sicha and Harbaugh discuss the process in this Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.
Barry Harbaugh: Do you think it is pertinent to begin by explaining how you came to write this book, and why 2009? I read a draft for the first time when Julia Cheiffetz, an editor who used to work here, left for another house, and she had—I think—more or less commissioned whatever you would come up with.
Choire Sicha: Julia and I met in her office, when HarperStudio (RIP!) was acquiring books rather … quickly, and, you know, we had a really delightful conversation about what was going on in the world, and particularly in New York City, and how utterly frightening and real and dark it was and what we could do about that. And the thing is, it’s so easy to forget now what that era was like! We immediately all tried to move on, but do you remember? I remember when the consultant came to lay us all off at the magazine I was working at, and how ridiculous he was. And I remember when I emailed Kim France, asking if there was any caption writing work in Lucky magazine. And I didn’t. Even. Hear. Back. So, dark times.
Harbaugh: Yeah, I think everyone in New York has their 2008/09 story. Mine was being laid off from Condé Nast Portfolio. I walked in one morning in April ‘09 and everyone was drinking whiskey and throwing stuff away! Where were you?
Sicha: Haha, let’s see, by then my landlord on St. Mark’s Place had realized that I’d abandoned my apartment after several months of, let’s say, “withholding rent.” That was about the same time that I got my very own case officer at the IRS. I hadn’t written a word for money in months. So, yes, I sold this book on a conversation and then went out and I found a whole bunch of people, some of whom made it into the book. A long time later, I turned it in a draft, and I think it’s fair to her to say that Julia hated it. She couldn’t even respond, and when she finally did, she was like “I don’t know what to say!” And then she left, and the book went into limbo, and then, by some process that I do not know about, you appeared.
Harbaugh: I have no idea what she thought of what you turned in but I can imagine—because I actually went through it myself—her wondering just what the hell you were up to, and whether this was a serious approach or not, this breaking of every rule of narrative nonfiction that I could think of. Part of what was so unusual about that first draft was the voice: the casual knowingness of the tone, the shrugginess (not a word) which seems of a piece with your other writing. To say nothing of the fact that this voice seems to be coming from a not-too-distant apocalypse. What did you expect reactions to be?
Sicha: On both a conscious level and less-conscious level, I really wanted to write a book that many people hated. I believe very strongly in nonfiction, but I also love science fiction—in fact, I don’t really read anything that isn’t sci-fi. For a while I was calling this “science nonfiction” which isn’t a phrase that really works. OK BUT WAIT. Let’s get real. You ended up with the manuscript of a book you didn’t commission or buy. And honestly the first draft was more than a bit hairy. I mean, even I knew that; I didn’t think draft one (or two, or three?) was like … perfect. Were you like “Ugh, this piece of shit, what to do!?”
Harbaugh: Well, I remember thinking it was messy or something. But I liked that about it. Honestly, I was thrilled to be asked to work on the book, because I knew of your stuff online, and knew that Julia had done something really smart in going out there and getting your signature in blood, and so I think the project after I’d read the draft was trying to parse out what aspects of the casual voice were in pursuit of the story, and not just signs that there was a lot of work to do. But there was a lot of work to do, and you had to sort of rediscover your motivation.
Sicha: But Barry. How many books had you actually edited before this one? I will tell you how many books I’d written before: none!
Harbaugh: Ha. Um, that was pretty early in my days at Harper. I was editing under David Hirshey’s guidance/pre-eminence. Some of the first books of my very own were definitely yours and Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black, both of which came from Julia’s keen eye. Usually, nonfiction projects sort of develop under an editor’s feet—we see drafts of chapters and outlines and stuff as we go—but with yours there was this really weird, thrumming manuscript to dive into. And it was so different than the other stuff on my desk. THAT WAS SO LONG AGO.
Sicha: OK, so sometimes I got the sense that you were frustrated by 1. the fact that it was nonfiction and relatedly 2. the reporting. Like any good editor, you wanted to know things: “WHAT COLOR WAS THE SHIRT” or “WHAT DID THEY EAT” or “WHY WERE THEY EVEN TALKING ABOUT THIS” (LOL), and I was like “Well, Barry, I don’t know.” And you took that really well (and I went back to notes and tape where I could!), but did it drive you crazy? And my orneriness about not changing a single word of dialogue, that it had to be “as spoken,” was that irritating?
Harbaugh: Yeah, there’s a ton of backseat driving that’s endemic to something so severe and presumptuous as a marked-up manuscript. And most of that first or second edit was just a bunch of questions that were trying—I think—to get you to confront the decisions you were making. Like one thing the book does is subvert the kind of description we’re used to. You explain familiar concepts like credit cards and cheese graters as though they’re alien to us, and I think it took me awhile to really see the project from your point of view—e.g. that there was a lack of physical description or other narrative detail because you wanted the reader to read through a looking glass. It’s funny because you’re a very accomplished editor yourself, and this must have been a new role.
Sicha: I found edits really painful. Like … they were impossible to look at. (This is not unusual for writers.) But what happened is I sat with your letters and I figured some things out while listening to you. That sounds wrong! I mean, you told me things, and I got them! It seems relevant to mention that I don’t give two fucks about the marketplace, and I just wanted to write a book that a small group of people will perversely cling to. So my point, and I do have one, is that the point of editing is to make a book successful. And “successful” can mean a number of different things. I know I didn’t make things accessible maybe. Or maybe not easy, or not pleasant. But it wasn’t supposed to be.
Harbaugh: I am new to book editing—it’s been three years now, but only one when we started, and I’d come from the magazine world. But the contents of a book, whether fiction or not, are being sold under the banner of the author’s name and not the publication’s. Because one doesn’t really edit for house style in books, it means that really unusual projects like yours have room to take shape in this organic way. So I just needed to learn what/where you were coming from and what that voice was doing. I just felt like we had to make you happy, because you would make readers happy.
Sicha: Heh! I’m so glad I got you while you were still young.
Harbaugh: And we had to have a book. I’m sugar-coating, I guess: The real commercial pressure was that we had a project that was in the air, and someone had to decide what to do. Did you have examples of books that you wanted to deviate from?
Sicha: I just felt like there was this boring mainstreaming of nonfiction. Like the pinnacle of writing nonfiction means you get to like, I dunno, write a piece about crime in a small former Soviet bloc country for The New Yorker or like go to rural America to write about abortion for Harper’s, either of which of course I would love to do, just for the record, but magazines largely make you adhere to conventions, unless you’re old and crazy and fun. And then so the books do, too. And then everything sounds the same. Great, I sound unhinged.
Harbaugh: I’d really like The New Yorker to send you to a Soviet bloc country.
Sicha: That sounds like a threat. Did I pull off being a diva without being a pain in the ass?
Harbaugh: So far. Seriously, I never thought you were a diva.
Sicha: I’m so good at hiding my insanity. I wish more writers were. Just STUFF IT DOWN. Yell at your cats. Don’t send the first drafts of your emails to editors. DON’T SUBTWEET. It’s not that hard. Anyway we need to talk about the time we sat down and read the book out loud, which was horrifying for me!
Harbaugh: Was reading it out loud more or less productive than the editorial passes you dealt with at home alone? What was horrifying?
Sicha: Well, I’m easily embarrassed! And so reading it out loud felt so terrible. Which is stupid. (I’m not vain, but I am shy!) So the great part of reading it out loud was that we nuked a thousand terrible sentences. That process really, really, really worked for me. Like saying it out loud just truly exposes the horror of a vomitey sentence. That was just terrific, and I should read more things out loud before publishing them. Also let us not forget that there were two other editorial reviews: that of the characters, and also by the wonderful HarperCollins legal department! The legal department had more inquiries than all the characters combined.
Harbaugh: Some of the pre-pub reviews, like Kirkus, have called the book a hybrid of genre, while others have similarly seemed not to have wanted to believe that this was in fact (as the subtitle states baldly) a work of complete nonfiction, complete with real life characters that had to at least be made aware of what you’d written about them.
Sicha: I love that there is confusion about this as a work of nonfiction, particularly because it is so strident in its nonfiction rules. (Like, there are a lot of very, very carefully constructed sentences to convey facts as far as I can convey them.) Jason Kottke presented this really reasonably:
Harbaugh: And also: that came to bear on the revisions. I’m looking again at the first edit memo and I ask you about why we can’t give more of a description of the main character’s work life. But I thought the same thing! Is this fiction? Can we publish as fiction? Why did I want to do that?
Sicha: Maybe we’re being a little coy. Any confusion is our fault.
Harbaugh: “Entirely Factual”!
Sicha: Well, yes. That is pretty overt. I would like to assert that there are no fiction tricks at all in the book! None! Zero! A friend of mine recently told another friend of mine that there was a composite character in the book. And the other friend was like “Um well that’s me! And nooooope it is not composite, it was me the whole time!” Isn’t that great? Or not.
Harbaugh: I mean, are there composite characters in the book?
Sicha: Barry! Of course not. What do you think now will become of this book? You’re a gambling kind of man. Let’s make this interesting. For reference, on July 8, 2013, on Amazon I was apparently “No. 3,598 in Books.” On July 26, I was apparently “No. 28,691 in Books.” This is very silly.
Harbaugh: Following David Hirshey’s lead, I think it will be a succès d’estime.
Sicha: Ooh, what an interesting phrase. I think it will sell 1,200 copies. But, as Tina Brown would say, the right 1,200 copies. (Dies laughing)
Harbaugh: I think it will sell much more than that, but who cares. People will read it after we’re dead, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Sicha: Everyone’s going to be dead pretty shortly after we’re dead, so who cares? Anyway, I think reviews will be all over the map, I pray there will be no scandals, and I thank each and every one of the 1,200 people who will buy it. Fortunately, with 1,200 people, I can thank them individually.
Harbaugh: Do you think they’ll care who the characters are?
Sicha: Well, it’s in people’s nature to want to know who people are, I get that. But it’s actually not at all a necessary or interesting question. (I don’t recall people asking that of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s work, by the way.) The people in the book are just people like you and me, and I think that people who read the book will want to be kind to them. Everyone’s privacy is really important to me. I mean, apparently not important enough to not write the book? So in the end, everything is my fault.
Harbaugh: Janet Malcolm just smiled.
Sicha: But it was a really chilly smile.
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha. Harper.