Writing a Life One Moment at a Time

Timothy Schaffert
From the March/April 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In selecting books for the American Lives memoir series at the University of Nebraska Press, editor Ladette Randolph makes a distinction between autobiography and memoir. "I'm not so interested in the whole life," she says. "I'm interested in an aspect of a life. That's a mistake some writers make when they're writing a memoir—they want to tell too much." For the series, which debuted one year ago, Randolph seeks writers who relate a "more carefully told life experience," such as the portrait of a marriage in last year's Thoughts From a Queen-Sized Bed by Mimi Schwartz, and the story of the heartrending decision to sell the family farm in Lee Martin's forthcoming Turning Bones. "When you're focusing deeply on one element or time, one pivotal moment in a life, your prose can expand," Randolph says. "You can describe more widely, incorporate character development and beauty of language. You can do the things that make an ordinary story extraordinary."

This careful storytelling, along with careful marketing, has helped American Lives attract the attention of talented authors, national reviewers, and bookstore sales reps. The memoirs, one or two of which appear each season, have consistently sold out their first print runs of approximately 3,000 books. Randolph says these numbers reveal the series to be as successful as the academ-ic publications the University of Nebraska Press has had more experience in distributing and promoting. Local Wonders, poet Ted Kooser's pastoral memoir about a year in the country, sold out three printings after being selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover series in the fall of 2002.

Floyd Skloot's In the Shadow of Memory, a collection of prize-winning essays in which he examines his attempts to piece together fragments of memory following a viral illness that caused irreversible brain damage in 1988, will be published in the American Lives series this spring. Skloot had sought out the press following a year of rejection by commercial publishers. Editors were enthusiastic about his book, but marketing people were uncertain whether to label it as essays, a memoir, or a narrative about illness. Finally, Skloot wrote query letters to university presses, and it took only six weeks for the University of Nebraska Press to accept his book for publication. "I knew they were going to do exactly what they have done," he says, "which is to publish it with love and respect and no confusion at all about what it is."

Other books in the series are Marvin Arnett's Pieces From Life's Crazy Quilt, her memoir about her childhood in an African-American neighborhood in Detroit, and Janet Sternburg's Phantom Limb.

Randolph says she must strike a fine balance between marketing potential and literary value—she seeks books whose strengths can be conveyed in compelling jacket copy, but that also tell "uncommon stories that are not harrowing or titillating." Tobias Wolff, who recommends manuscripts for American Lives as the series editor, says, "I think the beauty of a series like this is that we can find books of great quality that don't depend on a sensationalist hook to get the reader's attention."

Though Randolph primarily credits the press's marketing department for the success of American Lives, authors have contributed their own ideas about publicizing their books. "We're having to respond to authors who watch what's happening to their books more carefully than perhaps a scholar would," she says. "These are writers who are good self-promoters, and we're learning some different ways of marketing." For example, several American Lives authors asked the press to print and distribute promotional postcards for their titles, a common practice among trade publishers but a new tactic for the press.

Randolph says she is encouraged by the word-of-mouth success of the American Lives memoirs, and looks for the series to continue to attract quality manuscripts and to reach an even wider readership. She says Secret Frequencies, John Skoyles's comical memoir about his boyhood in 1960s New York City, to be published next fall, exhibits exactly what she looks for: "the force of personality coming through in great writing."

To learn more about the American Lives memoir series, its authors, and upcoming titles, visit the Web site at www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/americanlives.html.

Timothy Schaffert is the author of the novel The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (BlueHen/ Penguin Putnam, 2002). He lives in Omaha.