We are thrilled to announce that Tin House is curating Dear Reader, the writing residency series with an epistolary twist, for Ace Hotel New York this 2017. Each month, a writer selected by Tin House will spend one night at Ace Hotel in Manhattan, penning a letter to an imagined audience. On a surprise date the next month, the letters will be laid bedside in each room, to be found and read by unsuspecting hotel guests.
Kicking off the 2017 series is Garnette Cadogan, brilliant essayist, author of “Walking While Black,” editor-at-large for Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Garnette’s letter will “drop” on an unannounced day next month, but first he talked with Tin House about the glories of the epistolary form, writing for his best and worst selves, and the literary importance of kitchen counters.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
What better correspondence is there than one which makes you rip open each letter—or click open, if, like most people, email is the way you exchange letters (but, oh, the tactile joys you’re denied!)—excited at the things you’ll learn? Things you learn not only about the person writing, but also about the world, about yourself, about things you didn’t even know you’d ever have any interest in. If there’s charm and humor and brilliance and affection and playfulness in the mix, all the better. I guess, then, that I’d love to correspond with Virginia Woolf, who could be all these things and more. (I would, however, tell her to hold back on the Bloomsbury gossip; and I would hope that my criticisms of her snobbishness toward the middle-class and my stronger criticism of her more inexcusable intolerances wouldn’t make her stop writing. If so, I’d just start corresponding with George Orwell, whose life was so full of varied adventure and who had so many wise things to say about books and politics and life in general, that I would only send him letters that said “Tell me more, Eric.”)
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I map out my writing in the loosest way—by writing a word cloud. I jot down the themes, questions, and problems that most intrigue me. (This is why I always begin my writing on paper; my first drafts are a bunch of words and a few questions, with lines drawn between them). I write down words that remind me of people or scenes or stories that I’d love to explore or introduce to readers. And then I start searching for a way in: I fuss over the beginning, treating it as a skeleton key that will unlock the rest of the piece. Once I know how to begin I feel confident that much else will fall in place. I then write the opener, and pull back to write a word cloud for each successive paragraph, moving from a neighborhood of words to a pathway of paragraphs.
And I’m never sure where I will go. Not true, actually—I always know where I will go before I begin writing, but I never want to end up there at the end. If I follow the route I had seen in my mind’s eye, then I feel that I have learned nothing; my writing, at the least, should be a process of discovery. Writing should teach me something new, should open doors that lead to interesting new places. This is why in the early stages I plan very little beyond putting down the ideas, moods, and characters that interest me—I’m reluctant to shut down the side routes that lead to fascinating destinations.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I am drawn to questions that demand patience and thoughtfulness. As I pursue these, hoping to discover stories and ideas that reveal how fascinating and irreducibly complex our world is, I hope that I’ll please myself at my most curious, most thoughtful, most compassionate. And in doing so, I pretend that I am a stand-in for an audience of thoughtful people. But I also imagine myself at my worst—impatient, lazy, obnoxious—and try to write to move this version of me to listen to the best me. So, I try to be a spectrum of readers and hope that, in satisfying the various versions of me, I’ll say something that will enrich to a variety of readers, including some not ready to give me a fair listening. But I am sometimes—too often, really, when I write— my own worst critic. When I can’t turn off Mr. Hyper-Critic, I imagine that my dear friend Becky Saletan—as good a reader as you’ll ever encounter—is my audience.
And I’m always surprised by the people who are drawn to my work. Without exaggeration, I am surprised by anyone who is drawn to my work. I’ve roamed around my own head and seen the detritus in there; since my writing is me trying to shape something coherent out of the rubbish that often passes for my thinking, I’m always taken aback when a reader tells me that my words were worth reading. Until I can read my work with the objectivity that Becky does, I’ll be constantly surprised—but it’s not such a bad thing that I’m grateful for every reader who has taken the time to read my work (including those who don’t like it but took the time to read to the end).
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
It seems perverse to wish that a book that is well-known (in the United Kingdom, that is; far too many in the U.S. are unaware of it) were much better known by many more people, but I’m convinced that not enough of us have read Robert Macfarlane’s marvelous The Old Ways, a book he rightly describes as being about “landscape and the human heart.” It’s a beautiful—yes, that’s the word!—book about the joy and richness of encounter, the value of friendship and companionship, the beauty of nature and people who find themselves attracted to it, the importance of attentiveness and its role in deepening compassion, and the fundamental need for us to wander and wonder. Maybe one day I’ll stand on the street corner with crates of this book and hand them out to everyone who passes, shouting “Read it today, I beseech you!”
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
The only rituals that accompany my writing are ones that need to be quashed. After all, they are rituals of procrastination: talking to friends; reading good books on related topics; nightwalking during which I turn over ideas in my head (and, alas, turn away from my desk, to which I ought to chain myself). I have no ceremonies or requirements that accompany my writing, except that I need to have pen and paper (in any form—napkins, concert programs, even cereal boxes; I don’t write on a laptop until I have most or everything down on paper).
I do have preferences for my writing, though—the most important of which is that I love writing on a kitchen counter. I do my best work writing on a kitchen counter. In my dream office, my desk is custom-made from a kitchen counter.