Meet the Editor: Jill Talbot 

Interview conducted by American Literary Review Editors

Jill Talbot is the Essays editor at American Literary Review. She is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Jill Talbot will be signing books at AWP at the ALR table (T1353) on Friday from 12-1pm. We asked Jill a few questions about her views on craft, her work, and her editorial philosophy.

ALR: What was the last book you read, in any genre, that taught you something new about your craft?

Jill Talbot: I admire books that engage me syntactically. The books that teach me the most have the most of my underlines in them. Either due to a writer’s mind or to sentence rhythms. I learn from rumination, from universal claims or queries, from a line that shows me what I didn’t realize I already knew. That kind of teaching happens when a writer steps back in a pause, a consideration. But I also learn from sentences that convey—through rhythm, length, sound—that there’s a nuance behind or beyond what’s being told. I admire writers who follow behind the story as if they are walking down an abandoned road, a few steps behind, attuned to the echoes of what they are watching from a distance.

So. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, not only because he’s focused on the line, but because he pares down our lives to the spaces that inhabit or hold them: houses, drawers, wardrobes, nests, shells, corners. He made me think about how I should stay with something small to reveal something larger. Here’s a line: “The lamp is a symbol of prolonged waiting.” That made me think about lamps I’ve known. What did they wait for?

Going back to that syntactical pause? Mark Slouka’s opening sentences. Often before I sit down to write, I’ll open one of his books and read the first sentence of a story, an essay, even a section. Those lines are more often than not a brief statement offering an overture of what’s to follow. It’s like Slouka puts his hand in a river, asking me to consider the water before watching it run.

ALR: What kinds of research feeds your creative process–music, movies, non-literary texts, archival work, etc.?

JT: I’ve only written two essays with traditional research, one that engages in conversation with the transcript of an NPR “Talk of the Nation” program and one that maps portions of my personal history with Coronado’s 1541 search for gold. Mostly I rummage through the archives of memory or I think through something. That thinking through, the thinking on the page an essayist does is its own form of research. The essay as research.

ALR: Could you talk about what you’re currently working on?

JT: I’m currently writing a year-long series for The Paris Review Daily about my daughter’s last year at home before leaving for college. The series includes an essay each Friday in Fall (November), Winter (January), Spring (March), and Summer (June). But I’m not writing a journal or a diary of these months. I’m writing, or hope I’m writing, universal contemplations of time, the past, memory, grief, and the way we all leave, at one time or another, for this reason or that.

ALR: As an editor for ALR, can you say a little about what kind of work excites you when you see it in our submissions queue?

JT: I’m lucky to have such a strong group of readers, graduate student essayists in our program, who offer considerate, careful comments on the essays in our queue. Their insights on persona and craft always impress me. I enjoy working with them and our Assistant Essays Editor, who offers guidance, leadership, and a strong intellect toward the genre.

I think all editors, including me, say good writing, strong voice, attention to detail, but here’s another—a clear understanding of the essay genre, that’s important to me.

Finally, when I read essays in a journal issue or essays in a collection, I first flip through or click through to see the forms, the shapes of the essays. I’m excited when I come across an essay that’s interested, in some way, with disruption, with risk. Essays that expand the possibilities of what an essay can do, can be. I’m not interested in work that experiments just to experiment. I’m excited when the form of the essay feels intrinsic, organic to the material. Form and content in subtle, revealing conversation.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, Diagram, Hotel Amerika, Longreads, The Normal School, and Slice Magazine and has been recognized in The Best American Essays. She is currently writing a year-long series of short essays for The Paris Review about her daughter’s last year at home before leaving for college called The Last Year.