Jessica Karbowiak, author of the haunting These Things I Know, has just been published in the anthology Joy, Interrupted: An Anthology on Motherhood and Loss. This very thoughtful collection of short stories, personal essays, and poems all center around the ways that motherhood can turn into loss. I got a chance to ask Melissa Miles McCarter, the editor of the anthology, some questions about her art and the process of editing a collection of other people’s writing.
Tell me about the journey of this anthology. Where did the idea come from and how did you find a home for it?
I “conceived” of the anthology about two years ago. I had been struggling with infertility since my daughter died of SIDS in 2003 and been pretty miserable during those years. I thought that getting pregnant would be my way out of my misery, but it just didn’t happen (and talking to other mothers who have been pregnant in the wake of a traumatic death of the child has taught me that another child isn’t a grief elixir). I basically decided that I wanted to do something positive with my grief–I guess on some level I felt that if I couldn’t birth a child, I could birth a book. In terms of finding a home for it, there wasn’t ever a thought that it would be with another press. I had self-published a memoir about my struggle with bipolar disorder with the idea that the lessons I learned would be used for developing a small press. I really was planning just to focus on publishing others, starting with re-issuing my husband’s novels once he got the rights back. It took awhile to build up the infrastructure of a small business, and in the meanwhile I focused on developing the online bookstore part of my business plan. I am not sure specifically what was the eureka moment–what inspired me to say, yep, I am going to edit an anthology.
What is your own history as a writer? Had you ever considered editing an anthology before?
I kind of touched on this earlier, but my history as a writer is a pretty long one. I decided at age 11 after reading two books: The Bridge to Terabithia and A Wrinkle in Time. In fact, the second would inspire me so much I named my daughter Madeleine after Madeleine L’Engle. They are both very bittersweet books, with lots of grieving in them, actually. If you ever read L’Engle’s memoirs and books for adults you see this even more. Anyway, I decided that writing would be my vocation and took every opportunity to do it. I was a diligent reporter for the 6th grade paper until I left for college. I wrote and read in all of my free time, much more than the time I spent with friends. I was naturally an introvert so writing was kind of a lifeline through the turbulence of adolescence. I have a giant crate full of journals from that time period. I really hadn’t ever considered doing an anthology until that eureka moment I don’t remember. It made sense for me because I had been looking for this anthology, a collection of losses that could make me feel less alone and isolated. I was pretty desperate after Maddy died, trying to find my experience or a semblance of some experience that was like mine. I found a few books and online groups, but they only comforted me so much. Probably I was beyond comfort and so even if I had a mirror put in front of me in the form of a text, it wouldn’t have cut through my pain. But that longing never went away. I have noticed that the blogs and other social media makes the grief community much different than in 2003. This was before Facebook really took off (the days of myspace!) and even though there were discussion groups and bulletin boards, there wasn’t the same openness I see now on the net. It was almost like we were meeting in dark rooms and sharing our pain. Now, things seem to be more in the light…I see people talking about grief in a much different way. Probably that’s why the anthology was able to come together and might not have right after my daughter died. Basically, the rhetorical situation has changed.
Editing an anthology is its own special task. How did you find contributors? Were there any submissions that surprised you?
Speaking of the changes in the rhetorical situation and the openness–finding the contributors was the easiest part of the project. I put a call for papers/submissions in H-Net, upenn, and The Art Guide and got swamped pretty quickly. Halfway through, I found submittable, and things got more manageable. I got probably around 80 people submitting things, maybe like 200 pieces in all because I encouraged multiple submissions. The end product includes a little over 50 contributors. I think I accepted 60, and some people fell by the wayside. A certain portion of submissions involve people who just want to see their writing in print, the sooner the better, and some didn’t have patience for what would turn into a two year process to get the book done. I was surprised by every one of the submissions–one, by the quality. I was in awe, feeling like I couldn’t have ever written what they wrote–many expressed things I didn’t even realize I had thought or felt. Two, I was surprised by the breadth and variety of losses and the unique takes on those losses. Every contribution is my baby, so I can’t pick and choose my favorites, but off the top of my head, some of the paradigm shifting pieces include Mary O’Neil’s “The Founding,” Robyn Parnell’s “Maddie is Dead,” Gail Schwartz’s “Loving Benjamin,” and Monika Pant’s “Run.” There were many more, but those all really hit me in the gut.
What was the most surprising challenge that arose in publishing this anthology?
Most of doing an anthology is organizational in nature. You are basically a project manager, which I had never done. Plus, I had no idea how to compile, edit, and publish an anthology, especially the scope I was attempting. I was basically trying to do a one person Norton Anthology, without the other 30 or so editors helping out. Plus, this was a very emotionally wrought subject–on the one hand I deeply connected with many of the contributors, having wonderful conversations. I definitely felt part of a community, something I had wanted early in my grief journey but didn’t have. Sometimes such intensity lead to some conflict, hurt feelings, and mis-communication. I like to say doing an anthology of this scope is like herding cats (which might annoy some of my contributors!)
The anthology is organized in different sections, all titled with one word, like “No,” “Acceptance,” and “Furies.” What was your intent behind each of these sections?
Each section was supposed to reflect one of the stages in Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. I know that in some ways her categorization is fictional and much more fluid and recursive, but I thought it would be a good organizational framework. I changed No, Furies, and Longing from Denial, Anger, and Depression–I just found those three words had negative connotations and didn’t really convey exactly what I felt in my grief journey (and I say journey because I don’t think it ever really ends–you continue to grieve but the inner terrain changes). My intent was to highlight the emotional similarities between the pieces rather than the types of losses. I had some suggestions to group similar losses or intensities of losses together, but I felt that was rhetorically limiting (you can tell I finished a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition while editing this book). I wanted to show the of emotions, and the various dimensions and universality of that processing.
If there is one thing you want readers to take away from reading Joy, Interrupted, what is it?
I think I want the book to take the reader through a grief journey, helping them process their emotions, finding it cathartic and making them feel visible. I want it to be a resource, a book sitting on your nightstand that you dip into whenever you want to take a few moments to grieve outside of the day-to-day needing to keep it together. I want the readers to move closer to joy and hope they find it as healing it was for me to edit in reading the anthology. I also hope that it opens up the dialogue about maternal loss more. I mentioned the rhetorical situation being much more open, but I think there is still a stigma to that kind of grief. Our culture is mother/baby obsessed, highlighting all the wonderful, loving and hopeful aspects of the experience. In fact, I think that’s why there was a backlash to Brooke Shields and others admitting having post-partum depression. I want us to talk about how loss is a normal process of all acts of love, especially mothering. I think realizing how we always risk loss, and pain, in love helps us appreciate the relationships we have with people much more.
Thanks very much for answering my questions!
If you want to learn more about Melissa and Joy, Interrupted, check out the links below!
Donation page: donatejoy.org
Small press: fatdaddysfarm.org
Twitter: @DrMilesMcCarter, @fatdaddysfarm and @donatejoy