Monday, March 4, 2019

TBR: Be with Me Always: Essays by Randon Billings Noble

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

“Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Heathcliff begs this of his dead Cathy in Wuthering Heights. He wants to be haunted – he insists on it – and I do too. The essays in Be with Me Always explore hauntedness – not through conventional ghost stories but by considering the way certain people or places from our pasts cling to our imaginations. Some essays are traditional in form, others are lyric; together they reveal the unexpected value of being haunted.

Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?

I really enjoyed writing “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” [link below].  Well, I enjoyed the writing of it – but not the pain part. I was on a residency at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was thinking about writing about the timeline of a crush. But before I began, I tried to move my desk so it faced the window – and I pulled something deep in my lower back. Instead of writing, I started researching. I looked up “torn muscle” on WebMD and slowly saw that the treatment plan for a torn muscle was similar to the treatment plan for a bad crush. Then I realized that the heart is also a muscle – and the essay almost wrote itself. It became what’s known as a hermit crab essay, an essay that borrows its form from another kind of writing (the way the hermit crab borrows its shell from another kind of animal). In this case the essay’s form was a WebMD page, with sections on symptoms, treatments, “Exams and Tests,” etc.

The essay that gave me the most trouble was “Ambush.”  It started out as a more of lyric essay, divided into sections, and each section started off with a quote about ambushes from the Army Ranger's Handbook. I kept playing with the order, trying to make each section fit with each quote and each type of ambush. But one day – a Sunday – I decided to take out all the quotes and the sections of the essay fell into place, and it was exactly the way I wanted it to be. I remember that it was a Sunday because I had just read the Modern Love column in the Sunday New York Times and I thought, this essay feels like a Modern Love essay. So I sent it in. (And I was right!)

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

This book's road to publication felt like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Early on – too early, really – a fancy New York agent found me through the Modern Love piece I had published. She took me out to lunch at Nobu and asked me all the right questions. She read my whole manuscript and said all the right things. But after I had signed with her she wanted me to revise my collection into a memoir. I tried to arrange the essays chronologically, to have something of a thorough line, but for me, memoirs and essays are two very different organisms. It was heartbreaking to think of filleting all my essays of all their spines and then trying to mold them into some kind of book-length fish-cake story. And in the end I couldn’t do it. My agent and I parted ways. I thought I had missed my chance.

But I kept writing. I kept publishing individual essays. The theme of the collection shifted and I started sending it out again – this time to agents and presses that champion essay collections. It took a while, but then one of my dream presses – the University of Nebraska Press – said yes. Although the whole process took much longer than I might have liked, it worked out beautifully in the end. Be with Me Always is a much better book than its earlier versions. I couldn’t be happier.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It comes by way of Henry James: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How much of it – the writing and the ordering of the essays – happened intuitively. Dinty Moore has described essay writing as following a “invisible magnetic river,” and that’s what much of the process felt like.

How did you find the title of your book?

I struggled with the title. The collection is loosely themed around hauntedness but the essays address so many different things (a near-death experience, Anne Boleyn's relationship with Henry VIII, the chemical composition of Tylenol, the mythical properties of different gemstones) it was hard to settle on a title. But then I reread Wuthering Heights for the essay "Striking," and that line from Heathcliff almost knocked me over: "Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!”  I thought, That's it. That’s what all these essays are about – the things that haunt us, that stay with us always, that never want to be lost and not again found.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

In “Yet Another Day at the Jersey Shore” I write about the yellow cake my grandmother used to make. Hers was Duncan Hines, but mine is from the Magnolia Bakery in New York City. When I lived there I would end the week by buying two cupcakes; I’d walk down the block to the Bleecker Street Playground or Abington Square and eat one (sometimes both, although I always planned to save the second one for later). When I moved to DC I bought The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook and have made this lovely cake for birthdays, snow days, any day ever since.



READ AN ESSAY FROM THIS BOOK, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.