Chris Mackenzie Jones is the author of Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication (University of Chicago Press, 2018). He has spent the last eight years working at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, one of the largest and most respected literary arts centers in the country.
CMOS: Behind the Book is about eleven writers and their experiences in writing and publishing. There are already an awful lot of “How I Got Published” blog posts out there in the world. How is your book different?
CJ: Let me just say, I love those kinds of posts. I think it’s really valuable to read about an author’s publishing approach. I’d argue, though, that most of those posts present a far too narrow lens. If you ask an author “How did you get published?,” they may give a little background, but they’ll rightly focus on the big breakthrough moment(s) where they knew that their book was going to be a reality.
But in my experience, how someone gets published is more complicated and requires more context. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to aspiring writers at the Loft Literary Center, and I’ve come to realize that the modern author’s path to publication extends far beyond those big breakthrough moments. I felt like a large part of the story was missing and that aspiring authors still felt lost among all the potential steps and choices.
With Behind the Book, I wanted to try to answer the question of “How I Got Published” with a wider lens. I set out to tell the full life history of eleven successful debut books, tracing them through inspiration, process, craft, theme, setback, support, revision, breakthrough, sale, promotion, publication, and lessons learned. My hope is that this book is different because it presents a fuller picture and better prepares someone for many of the potential choices, barriers, approaches, and steps to becoming a published author.
CMOS: An obvious move would have been to give each writer a chapter. Could you describe what you did instead, and why?
CJ: I’m afraid I’m the obvious one. My initial book proposal had a sample chapter structured exactly like that. When I sent the proposal to the University of Chicago Press, editor Mary Laur had two initial comments. She really liked the concept and wanted to talk more, but she felt that the project would work a lot better if the chapters were organized by specific publishing steps rather than author by author.
That idea made the book a much more challenging project. It took a lot more planning to explore the common and uncommon threads from my conversations with all the participating authors. But it was absolutely the direction the book needed to head. Rather than eleven linear and compartmentalized stories, the chapters were able to discard repetition while allowing for conversation and comparison between the stories.
CMOS: Were you surprised by some of the experiences your writers had along the way? Can you give an example or two?
CJ: Rebecca Makkai sent a spam email to her now agent to make sure she was back from vacation; as a child Cynthia Bond once sat on Maya Angelou’s lap; and Courtney Maum spent a decade writing and rewriting a book based on a scrap of paper taped to a Paris art gallery door.
So there were a lot of surprises in the specific stories, but I think the biggest surprise was in a shared theme. I knew there would be some common threads. Modern authors need skills, support, and often privilege or luck to succeed. But I never intended to find a traceable shared path that others could replicate or follow. There is no one path. That’s part of the point and why I intentionally profiled authors from different genres, approaches, and backgrounds. I wanted to provide a spectrum of successful examples so that others could forge their own unique approach based on them. But there was something shared in these stories that surprised me and seems really important: each of these authors faced major barriers, setbacks, doubts, and rejections.
Some gave up for a time—even a decade. Some abandoned earlier projects that had taken years to write. But at some point, they believed enough in the work or themselves to keep going. The most important trait shared by these authors wasn’t insider connections, ambition, dedication, passion, savvy, or even writing chops—it was simply that they didn’t give up. They persevered.
CMOS: You’re a published poet, and (we see) a beer lover. Any good stories behind either?
CJ: Ha, none that I’m willing to share except over a beer. But I will say this: in some strange way, poetry and beer are two sides of the same coin for me. The introspective side of myself turns to reading and poetry, while the social side turns to shared laughs over good beer. My love of each followed an eerily similar path. The first time I tried them, I gagged. Eventually I returned and grew a taste. Then I overindulged a bit and needed to take a break (unsurprisingly, these two things converged in my MFA program). Now I just really love each in moderation. They’re at their best when shared, cared for, and left unexplained.
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