Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: an interview with joshua ellison

-dianna lenney, la review of books


“THE EXPERIMENT IS SIMPLE,” begins Ruth Ozeki in The Face: A Time Code. “[T]o sit in front of a mirror and watch my face for three hours.” It’s an assignment — originally “designed to feel excessively long” — that she’s borrowed (and tweaked) from an art history professor who requires students to spend that much time in a museum or a gallery “observing a single work of art and making a detailed record of the observations, questions, and speculations that arise over that time.” About an hour in, says Ozeki, “Dad is looking out at me reproachfully again.” Before time’s up, she’ll reckon not just with Dad, but with her mother, of course — as well as with beauty, spirituality, work, aging, and death.

But Ozeki’s is only one way to go with The FaceRestless Books’s new series of pocket-sized paperbacks, three of which have been published so far. The books vary not just in content, but also in form. Chris Abani creates a collage in Cartography of the Void, with lists, conversations, and short lyric essays mostly focused on his relationship with his father (“To wear the face of someone you can’t help loving even as you can’t help hating them,” he writes, “is to be caught in an infernal struggle for your own soul”); whereas Tash Aw’s Strangers on a Pier is a more traditional long-form essay — an investigation of his physical appearance as it does and does not define him for the rest of the world. “Sometimes,” writes Aw, “I just pretend to be whatever someone assumes I am.” Ozeki, on the clock, examines her features in present tense; and Abani, too, plays with a meta-approach from the start: “You’re writing an essay on your face?” asks his brother. “Yep,” he answers. “Book length.” Aw’s installment is no less focused on family (and fathers), but is perhaps more purposefully contextualized in the legacy of place.

So The Face, as with the best of literary nonfiction, incorporates elements of memoir and essay, conjecture and meditation, allowing the reader to accompany each author as he or she creates a text that is utterly unique and universally affecting. Each book, on its own, is quirky, funny, sad, and profound; taken together, they have much to tell us about the culture at large, the ties that bind, and the truth — painful, hopeful, reassuring, provocative — of our place on the continuum as daughters, sons, and citizens. It’s a brilliant idea: give a bunch of good writers a prompt that is at once personal and political, and you’re bound to send readers running to the mirror, turning this way and that in an effort to reckon with who they are and who they want to be. At the very least, they’ll want to know more about the series — how it began and where it’s going. I did, anyway — and I approached editor Joshua Ellison to find out.


DINAH LENNEY: First of all, tell me, please — how and when did you get this idea?

JOSHUA ELLISON: This is one of the first concepts we came up with a few years ago when we were imagining what Restless Books would become. We asked ourselves: what stories does a face tell? A face has a social history: it tells of lineage and belonging. It exists in relation to other faces, past and future. Our faces are constant but evolving companions. They are not the faces we are born with, and we don’t know which face we will be wearing when we die. A face accumulates signs of wear and betrays our habits of living. Above all, our faces are our most distinctive signatures, flesh-and-blood emblems of the identities we carry around invisibly.

Last spring, we published these first three installments (from Ruth Ozeki, Tash Aw, and Chris Abani). We have forthcoming editions from Roxane Gay, Lynne Tillman, and more.

And more, you say — how many more?

We hope the series will continue for a long time, starting with a few books a year, and growing.

Who is “we”? Tell me about Restless Books.

Restless was born out of conversations, over a number of years, with my partner Ilan Stavans, about our frustrations with the parochial nature of publishing in the United States, and our ideas for what a publishing house could be. Our goal is to be a globally minded publisher, reaching out to the world, but not segregating “international” — or “translated” — books from the North American experience, either. We are now publishing 18 to 20 books a year, with a growing staff, and international distribution through Simon & Schuster.

And how are you choosing the writers for this particular project?

Our goal is to invite a diverse group of writers — whom we admire, who help introduce us to new readers — to give readers a tour of that most intimate terrain: their own faces.

Do you feel responsible for representing an array of values as well as complexions? Is the series essentially American?

It is not an American series, per se (Tash Aw doesn’t live in the United States), though so far we have approached mainly English-language writers.

Did you give them any kind of direction?

We intentionally left the brief wide open for our authors, but we gave them this passage by Jorge Luis Borges: “As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”

Beautiful. Did the quote actually spark the project? Or did you find it after the fact? And beyond the quote — no writers’ guidelines?

The quote really did precede the series! We saw right away that it was a powerful invocation for a series of writing about the face; it just took us a few years to create the opportunity to make it happen.

As for guidelines, we’ve given writers a word count and a short background, but that’s all.

Well, okay — first, about that word count: How many, please? What would be too few or too many words?

We initially asked for between 10 and 15 thousand words, though in future editions we will try to push a bit higher. Ruth’s came to about 16 thousand in the end, which is a nice length. I wouldn’t want to go shorter than 10 to 12, since we want the volume to feel substantial and to stand on its own, but I don’t think we’d have a problem if a writer wanted to go substantially longer.

And did you, at the beginning, have a political agenda or message in mind?

Because we are talking about appearances, or self-image, ethnic and racial diversity is a natural interest — but I don’t think that is the only kind of breadth we have achieved, or hope to achieve.

Have your ideas about the potential of the series changed (since the manuscripts started coming in), and if so, how and why?

Well, The Face was originally conceived as an ebook series, and the transition to print has been a very significant development — for this series and for the company. We’ve chosen a small format that we can imagine sitting beautifully next to the register at an independent bookstore. It’s portable and it provides an intimate reading experience.

One thing that has been especially gratifying with the first round of manuscripts is how utterly original each installment has turned out to be. We hoped that would be the case, of course, but it has been a thrill as an editor to watch each writer make the assignment their own. I think the authors were a little surprised to discover just how hard this assignment actually is — and I got to watch them summon all their writerly resources to rise to the challenge.

Could you say more about why the assignment is hard, please? (I’m dying to hand out this prompt to colleagues and students.)

The writers in the series so far have been primarily novelists, so this exercise worked a slightly different muscle. I also think that writing about one’s appearance is particularly sensitive, and it requires you to think deeply about how others see you, which can be uncomfortable.

Makes sense. But not just uncomfortable — also risky, right? It’s not as if writing about the self doesn’t already raise eyebrows, and now this: enough about me, let me tell you about my face. Now that you’ve published three books, will the assignment come with a warning label? Are there predictable pitfalls and might you caution your writers accordingly?

Now that I’ve been through it a few times, I can assure authors in despair that they will likely come out the other side happy to have done it. Any writer who signs up for this is clearly up for a challenge, and I think the biggest challenge — besides the candor, which is harder for some than others — is finding an entry point into a subject that feels so limitless. We are essentially proposing a metaphor that the author must find a way to make meaningful for herself. More often, writing assignments move in the other direction: writers are given a topic and must find the symbolic language to convey their perspective about it. But “the face” is more a symbol than a subject, I think, and that’s why you see each writer finding such different meanings in it.

One of the discussions I now have with potential contributors is to give them a choice to read — or not read — the previous installments. Some appreciate the chance to see what’s been done already; some prefer to start with a clean slate.

Will you tell me a bit more about your own role? How much hands-on editing is involved?

The editing has been hands on, but very collaborative with the authors. I think my most important function was as a sounding board, especially in the early stages as each writer was trying to arrive at his or her unique approach. Each initial draft came to me in a rather richly realized form, so from that point it was just a matter of helping the writer refine it. These writers are seasoned professionals and expert craftspeople, so I edit their work with great humility.

I wonder if you’re familiar with Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series — it feels similar, although with “things” it might be easier for an author to keep her distance, right? Can you imagine one of your writers taking on the idea of “the face” as a reporter or a historian? And would you encourage that? Or is this investigation necessarily personal every time?

I do know the Bloomsbury series, and I agree there are strong parallels. As you say, the personal nature of our assignment is rather different. We do expect other approaches to emerge — some of the writers I’m talking to now have proposed approaches that are more historical, even journalistic, though I think they will retain a direct connection to the author.

Explain, please, why you’ve mostly gone to novelists?

We have approached nonfiction writers, too, and hopefully will add some soon. What attracts us to novelists is the chance to commission something that is totally unlike anything they had likely published before, which is what I think we got from the first three. We also wanted to encourage unconventional approaches to autobiography — though there are many nonfiction writers who can do that also — so we thought it would be interesting to see novelists apply their craft to this project.

Has it occurred to you to include illustrations or photographs?

We are working on an edition that will include photographs — historical, in this case, rather than portraits. But we are open to any creative approach (production constraints notwithstanding).

And in the name of genre bending and blurring: What if you were to give this assignment to a cartoonist? (Like Alison Bechdel, for instance. Or Chris Ware.) Is that out of the question?

I’d be thrilled for Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware to contribute! We have one noted poet who’s just agreed, though we haven’t yet discussed if she will write poetry, prose, both, or neither.

Have you ever turned a manuscript away?

No rejections so far. I’ve certainly made suggestions and asked probing questions during the process. We’ve been very selective about the writers we have approached, and we have no doubt that each has the capacity to do something extraordinary with this project.

I’d love to know more about those “probing questions.” Could you give me an example with one of the first three books? Where you felt most challenged and excited as you worked with Ozeki or Abani or Aw? Or with all three?

Each of these books required me to immerse myself more deeply in an unfamiliar world, which I suppose is the real privilege of being an editor. As an editor who specializes in international literature, I always need to be alert to where the reader is starting from, in terms of cultural fluency, assumptions, and background knowledge. These three writers are already expert at bridging those divides, so it was something we could explore together.

I feel as if there is some principle of editor-writer confidentiality that I should observe — though I don’t actually know if any such presumption really exists. Maybe it’s an indication of just how intimate this process felt.

Joshua Ellison, Restless Books

Joshua Ellison, Restless Books