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.