Monday, April 02, 2012

La Bloga interviews Gayle Wattawa regarding "New California Writing 2012" (Heyday Books)

Gayle Wattawa, who readily admits to being thoroughly addicted to contemporary literature, always carries with her a well-worn public library card and, as she puts it, "a relentless weakness for book reviews, literary journals, and lit news blogs." There is only one logical home for people with such addictions: publishing.

Gayle is the founding editor of Heyday Books’ New California Writing series and editor of Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California's Inland Empire. I first learned of Gayle’s editing expertise through Inlandia which I reviewed for The Elegant Variation calling it “an ambitious collection that finally gives the area its due as a culturally and historically vital component of Southern California.” As Heyday's acquisitions and editorial director, she has supervised the assemblage of a half-dozen other literary anthologies as well.

Now comes the second in the New California Writing series, New California Writing 2012, which is being released this week. With a provocative foreward by book critic and founder of Libros Schmibros, David Kipen, Gayle brings together 43 pieces of fiction, poetry and nonfiction “culled from thousands of choices, [that] offer a variety of voices that will enliven the mind, expand the imagination, and stretch the heart” (to quote Heyday Books’ description).

It is a breathtaking, stimulating and thought-provoking collection that includes such writers as Manuel Muñoz, Jon Carroll, T. C. Boyle, Caitlin Flanagan, Michael Pollan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Daniel Orozco, Francesca Lia Block, Eric Puchner, Rebecca K. O’Connor, and Mariah K. Young. (I was startled to learn that I have a little piece in it, too.) The collection has already won praise from such literary luminaries as Dagoberto Gilb and Tim Z. Hernandez.

Gayle kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga to discuss this new anthology.

DANIEL OLIVAS: This volume of New California Writing is the second in the series. Who came up with the idea for the series, and what is its goal?

GAYLE WATTAWA: The idea of publishing an annual "best of" had been bouncing around Heyday for a number of years—an analog to Houghton Mifflin's Best American series, which are wonderful but often East Coast–centric. Heyday has been copublishing with Santa Clara University for the last decade under our "California Legacy" imprint, mostly reprints and themed anthologies with a heavy focus on the past. We always came back to the question, who is creating California's legacy now? How do we get in touch with them? How do we articulate this legacy-in-the-making to our audience? It's also a way of celebrating Californian writers, publishers, and publications, all of whom shouldn't need to look east for validation.

DO: How did you go about choosing the fiction, poetry, memoir and essays that wound up in the 2012 volume? Was the process markedly different from what you experienced in putting together the 2011 volume? Were there any surprises?

GW: The process was similar for both editions. It involves reading through direct submissions, following up on recommendations and suggestions, using volunteers and interns to scour literary magazines and periodicals, paying attention to lit blogs and reviews, and looking into what writers on my ever-expanding "writers to watch" list are publishing. Aside from the obvious requirements of California content and publication within a given time frame, emotional engagement was a must. Each piece is a surprise in its way, but selections I was particularly delighted by include Holly Myer's creepy short story "The Guest Room," her first(!) published piece, taken from ZYZZYVA; a heart-wrenching chapter from Chris Adrian's novel The Great Night; and the mouthwatering "36-Hour Dinner Party" piece by Michael Pollan, originally published in The New York Times Magazine. Ant invasions, fairy-raised children with cancer, and marathon BBQs: yes, each of these surprised me!

DO: In David Kipen’s foreward, he decries the fact that most of the writers included in the 2012 edition have day jobs such that they are not able to spend most of their time writing: “Mystified, shamed, I can only marvel at how the predominantly part-time writers gathered here manage to write so well.” So, he offers this proposal to readers: “What if you fronted these scribblers just enough dough to spend a year or so writing a WPA guide to California today? Think about it. Most of ’em aren’t exactly geezers, so the health costs might not break the bank. A few miraculously still have day jobs for the time being and could afford to say no. But the rest, working together, could hold a nonfiction mirror up to contemporary California that would make your head spin.” As one of those “part-time” writers, I kind of like David’s proposal. What do you think?

GW: Wouldn't this be amazing? I shared Kipen's foreword around the office immediately after I received it. Our publisher and our sales consultant came to my office minutes later filled with excitement: what if? what if? what would we do if someone actually handed us a check? It would be such a strong statement of value. Our writers are doing important work: asking questions, uncovering truths, reexamining our past. Their influence is subtle but powerful: the writing in this collection expresses and influences the way we see ourselves. How will we look back on these challenging times? This collection shows our best minds in action. We should be supporting our writers in every way possible.

DO: New California Writing 2012 comes right at you, without hesitation, with Eric Puchner’s devastating essay “Schemes of My Father” which first appeared in GQ. Why did you decide to begin with this non-fiction piece, and how did you approach the ordering of the forty-three pieces included in this anthology?

GW: Puchner's relationship with his father—from larger-than-life myth through crushing disappointment to a nuanced, uneasy understanding—clearly mirrors California's own arc, from Golden Dreams to What now? It sets the tone for an emotional, soul-searching look at Californian themes. The remaining pieces were sequenced fairly intuitively; I strove for dialogue between writers, pieces, and viewpoints. I could probably come up with an entirely different lineup now, given distance from the material, but I suspect that nine times out of ten I would have started with the Puchner piece.

DO: The pieces you selected represent the great diversity of California. And since this is a La Bloga interview, my eye was caught by the Chicano/a and Latino/a writers who made the cut such as Manuel Muñoz and Daniel Orozco. Was this intentional or did it happen naturally?

GW: The diversity of the collection is very important to me—not only ethnic but cultural, geographical, thematic, genre-wise, etc. That said, there's nothing forced about it: there are no quotas I struggle to fill. It definitely happens naturally. We have an amazing array of Chicano/a and Latino/a writers in this state, and the pieces you mention are among the best in the collection. I especially love learning about up-and-coming writers featured in La Bloga, which is an amazing resource for an anthology editor like me, who is always on the lookout for new writers.

DO: Are you working on New California Writing 2013 now? If so, are you still accepting submissions?

GW: Yes! We will be accepting submissions until July 1, 2012, and we'd also love to hear readers' recommendations and nominations. For more information about what we're looking for and how to get in touch with us, please visit

DO: Mil gracias, Gayle, for spending time with La Bloga.

[NOTE: Launch parties for New California Writing 2012 are set for San Francisco and Los Angeles. Visit here (Los Angeles event) and here (San Francisco event) for details.]

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