I’ll Tell You in Person: Chloe Caldwell Gets Intimate with Emily Books

Chloe Caldwell

Emily Books is a five-year-old feminist e-subscription service and publisher run by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry. This summer, the publishers are partnering with Coffee House Press to bring their first-ever imprint to life.

I reached out to Emily Books’ first authors to talk publishing, feminism, and being part of something brand new.

I called Chloe Caldwell, author of the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray and the novella WOMEN, at her mother’s house in upstate New York. We chatted about the ups and downs of writing personal essays, belonging to the Emily Books family, and how she had to live in the past to write her new collection I’ll Tell You in Person, due out from Emily Books and Coffee House this October.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emily Books sold a digital version of your novella WOMEN pretty early on. Is that part of why you decided to send your manuscript to them?
I’ll Tell You in Person went out for submission around April 2015. I met with all the bigger publishers in New York in 24 hours. They gave me some really amazing feedback, but nobody made an offer. They all wanted to see another draft, maybe in a year or six months. Everyone had a different vision for it, so it was a very confusing time for me. Emily came upstate to Hudson to sketch out her next novel [during the submission process], and I was in the thick of it and super stressed out. We went out to dinner, and she was like, “Can you tell your agent to put us on your submission list?” because they had just teamed with Coffee House. It was perfect timing. I had worked with these indie presses before, and I just thought this book was kind of perfect for them. Plus that way I’d be able to keep it in its natural state, which is, like, not having an angle or a brand.

What were the competing visions for your book you weren’t interested in? And what did Emily and Ruth bring to the table that you liked?
Oh, one person wanted it to be a memoir. There was a lot of like, “What does this mean? Why does this matter? How can we make it more redemptive? And smarter and deeper?” Deeper is fine and whatnot, but sometimes things just are what they are. So then I got really fucked up in the head and started to go back to my essays and add a lot of that stuff. Like, “Looking back, I see why I this or that.” I thought [my book] wasn’t enough as it stood. You know how with personal essay collections lately, they have to be about something larger than you. And mine is and it isn’t. I didn’t have that angle, so I was trying to make it have that angle. Ruth and Emily basically told me to stop, that it was what it was, and it’s voice-driven, and people are going to connect to the voice—not because it has any kind of redemption.

They were amazing editors. I liked how they work together. Emily sent the large-picture stuff, a fifteen page letter that broke down every single essay. Ruth was the line edit person. It worked so well. I love that they made my writing better. There was a lot of technical stuff but there was no, “Well, why do you think you’re making those choices?” kind of talk.

They just let your experience speak for itself. It was its own kind of evidence.
It wasn’t about the selling point, or branding it. And that’s what I love about both Coffee House and Emily Books.

I’m also really excited that you told me the distinction between their big picture and line edits. Because even after talking with both of them on the phone for many hours, they didn’t tell me that.
They wouldn’t! Through my eyes, it was this amazing attention I was getting. I printed out Emily’s letter. I kept it next to me in my desk, in the drawer. It was really special. I’d never had an editor write me a letter like that. Since they’re only doing a few books a year, they can really give each author the attention that they need. It’s so nice to have these people just support you every step of the way.

You’ve been published by two smaller indie presses, and now you’re moving on to Coffee House. How does that feel, to belong to that family now?
It feels really good. It’s the best of both worlds. I still get to have a lot of input but instead of just my input or just my legwork doing readings, I have really, really smart people who know what they’re doing guiding me. It took a little bit of getting used to. When I found out I had a publicist, I was like, “Wow! Wait! I know how to do this!” I went on two DIY book tours [for Legs Get Led Astray and WOMEN] in a van that we rented.

That’s hard. And expensive.
It’s hard! I’m just used to doing all that. So it’s crazy to me to have this publicist, Amelia Foster, who I cannot say enough nice things about and who I bother all the time, just because I think she’s really cool. She knows so much.

Have you thought at all about how you see yourself fitting into the Emily Books community?
I feel so lucky to be a part of it. All of the books that they chose, those are the same exact books a) that I’m looking for in life and b) that I have on my shelf. And whenever I would want something to read, I would just go to their site, and they would just always have the perfect book. Exactly what I was looking for. I read a lot of books from them that were super game changers.

Are there any in particular that you remember?
While I was writing WOMEN I was reading the buddhist by Dodie Bellamy. That one was so helpful for me. Even now, I’ll be sitting there thinking, I really want to get that book Surveys by Natasha Stagg, and then they’ll have it on their site the next day. They just choose the coolest books by women, and that’s always what I wanted to write. So to see there were other women that were publishing books were off the beaten path was super inspiring. I think it’s really amazing what Emily and Ruth do. It’s so powerful that they’re supporting all these women.

Do your readers tend to get caught up in the scenarios you write about rather than the writing itself? How do you wind up negotiating what you share and how you share it with the public?
That’s a loaded question for me. Most of those essays are actually already online. If it were my first book or some of those darker essays weren’t published online, I would be more scared. I do have anxiety about it every single day. But I also had anxiety about Legs Get Led Astray and about WOMEN and nothing bad ever happens. You always think you’re going to get sued or never get a job. With WOMEN, I thought I was going to get hate mail. And beautiful things have happened. I get more jobs. WOMEN got me all of my teaching jobs, which is how I live and have more money than I’ve ever had. What ends up happening is you make more artist friends and you get more opportunities. And yes, of course, the content gets in the way of the writing. That is frustrating and sometimes a little bit sad. I do the same thing when I read personal stuff. I feel lucky to be given a voice and publishing a book, so I try not to get upset about that.

Are there questions about non-fiction writing and what you do that you’d be really happy to never answer again?
I would be happy to not get asked what my parents think. We’re in such a hypocritical culture. People are like, “Oh, yeah! Women should write whatever they want, blah blah blah feminism.” But then those same people kind of make me feel like I’m a bad person for writing about my friends and my family. And what that does is create a sense of otherness, and it really ostracizes the writer. I have better relationships with my parents than all of my friends. And I have amazing friendships. Sometimes it’s like, “Well, I wasn’t feeling bad about writing about my parents until you asked me that question.”

Right! The question “Are you anxious?” implies you have something to be anxious or ashamed about.
There’s not one person who doesn’t feel anxious before their book comes out. People just aren’t happy with whatever you label your book. You just have to roll with it, unfortunately. If I had called WOMEN a non-fiction novella, it probably would have gotten shit, too. You just can’t win. The other misconception when you say you write about your life is that people think that you think your life is really important or interesting. I write about my life because I’m a writer. I don’t write about my life because I think anything remarkable has happened to me. I don’t think I experience life differently than anyone else. It’s too bad that you can’t just write anymore because you like it. You have to have an angle or a brand or some kind of crazy adventure you went on. Emily Books give a voice to people who don’t have an agenda. Having no brand is the brand.

What’s the hardest part of making an essay collection like I’ll Tell You in Person
The hardest part is sitting at your desk and writing about the past for a year. You have to think about the past, which is depressing. You have to make the past entertaining. You have to find a little bit of meaning. Even if it’s not dark, it prolongs your past and it brings your past into the future. And then the book is done and you can get back into the world. I do wonder if writing a novel that’s more imaginative, if that feels a little bit more joyous. It probably doesn’t.

To read more about the Emily Books and Coffee House Press venture, visit here.

Photo courtesy of Anna Ty Bergman.

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