Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Uncertain Inheritance

Today, I interview Nell Casey, bestselling author, about her new book, "An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family." Nell tells us how she found all those great writers for her anthologies and how hard it is to have to edit them.

Tell us about yourself.
I am a writer and editor living with my husband and son in Brooklyn, NY. I write for magazines—including a column for Cookie, a parenting magazine—and I have edited two anthologies, one called Unholy Ghost and one, recently published, called "An Uncertain Inheritance."

Tell us about your book, “An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family."
This is a collection of essays about, as the title suggests, looking after family members who are sick. It includes a wide range of responses to this experience—from Helen Schulman’s poetic struggle to find the reward in it to Ann Harleman’s moving sense of fulfillment in learning how to care for husband after he is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Various relationships are represented—children looking after their aging parents, parents looking after sick children, siblings caring for each other, husbands and wives seeing each other through. I was very lucky also to work with an array of talented writers: Julia Glass, Andrew Solomon, Julia Alvarez, Sam Lipsyte and Frank McCourt, among many others.

Your book, "Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression," was a bestseller. How did you come up with the idea to have writers tell their stories on depression in an anthology?
The idea for Unholy Ghost actually came from my former editor at William Morrow, Taije Silverman. (She’s since left William Morrow.) She had the excellent idea of gathering varied stories and voices about the experience of depression. Not only was it a brilliant idea because depression itself has so many different meanings but also the book came out at a time when the culture was very interested in and open to really understanding the illness. So I was very grateful that Taije came to me to bring her idea to life.

Was "uncertain inheritance" an extension of that thought process?
In part, yes. When I started compiling Unholy Ghost, I decided I wanted to include companion pieces throughout the book. So I asked people who had cared for family members with depression to write essays that would run alongside essays by person they’d cared for. Rose Styron and William Styron, for example, both wrote about Mr. Styron’s struggle with depression. My sister and I also wrote about the experience of my sister’s depression. When I did readings for Unholy Ghost, people were very interested in the caregiver perspective. I realized that there was a real need for a very honest exploration of the caregiving experience. And having cared for my sister through her depression, I also knew how deep and complicated and meaningful the experience of looking after a family member is. I wanted to create a book that gave voice to this.

You've written for Slate, Salon, the New York Times, among others. How difficult is it to edit other writers?
I really, really enjoy editing. When it works well, it’s a very satisfying collaboration. I learn too: I learn about other people, other experience, about writing and other people’s creative processes. I especially enjoy the combination of writing and editing—one forces you to look inward and the other forces you to look outward.

How did you get writers to participate in your anthologies?
I find that many writers are very willing to write for anthologies. I think, in large part, it offers an opportunity to write freely and in creative form. When you write for magazines and newspapers, you’re often beholden to the sensibility of the publication. With anthologies, writers can express themselves a little more uniquely. Also, with depression and caregiving, the writers I asked to participate felt very strongly about getting their stories out and possibly helping others by speaking up on these subjects. That said, I did have to recruit and recruit and recruit. People turned me down or dropped out of the project along the way. I just stuck with it until I had a group of writers I knew would make the book as lively and intelligent and compassionate as I felt the subject deserved. And they did just that.

Frank McCourt wrote the foreward, what's the story behind finding him for this?
I met Frank McCourt through a non-profit storytelling organization here in New York City, called Stories at the Moth. Needless to say, Frank is one of their star storytellers. Anyways, when I met him, he said he had read my first book, Unholy Ghost, and really enjoyed it. So when I needed someone to write the foreword—someone who had spent a good deal of time thinking and exploring and writing about family—Mr. McCourt immediately came to mind. I sent him a manuscript and he wrote back “That’s one hell of a book.” And he agreed to do the foreword. I was thrilled!

How does the writing process work for you - when is your best time to write, do you have to have a certain place, etc?
I actually wish I had more of a method. I have a 2 1/2 year old son so basically just finding the space and time to write is a challenge. When I have the time, I plunge right in. In that sense, it has helped to have my hands full with my son. I don’t procrastinate during my work hours.

How did you find your agent?
I met with her when I was starting the proposal for An Uncertain Inheritance. I was introduced to her through another writer I have edited in the past—and whose work I admire. My agent was interested in the subject, and she had very good, smart ideas. I liked her sensibility and her approach.

What's next for you?
I have a number of things I am working on at any given moment. I write a column for Cookie magazine. I just sold my first short story. I hope to have another book proposal done soon. It’s a bit disorienting to have so much going at once but so far it works for me. And it means I’ve always got something to work on!


Post a Comment

<< Home