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Interview with Victoria Zackheim, Editor of He Said What? Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed

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Next month, writer/editor Victoria Zackheim celebrates the release of the latest anthology, He Said What? Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed (Seal Press), that she has shepherded from initial concept to publication. In a recent email interview, she was kind enough to discuss the anthologies she has edited in the past.

Her new book, He Said What?, is described by Seal Press as an anthology where “26 gifted women writers share profoundly personal moments in which a man in their life said something — good or bad, poignant or hilarious — that changed them irrevocably.” 

While the majority of our discussion focuses on the editing of anthologies, we also briefly touch upon her work in documentaries.

You have successfully packaged and edited four anthologies, with a fifth in development. How did you come up with the concepts for the books?  Were any of the four harder to pitch for publication than the others? 

The first one, The Other Woman, came to me while I was driving on the freeway and listening to NPR. I heard the words “the other woman” and immediately thought of mothers-in-law! I contacted Sandra Dijkstra, my dream agent — that is, the agent I could only dream of having — and she loved the idea and told me to research it. When I discovered that a similar anthology was about to be published, I decided to research anthologies on infidelity, expecting to find many. There was not one! I contacted Sandra, who introduced me to her associate, Jill Marsal. Jill deftly (and patiently) guided me through the process of writing the proposal. Finally, it was ready to pitch, and she did so with great enthusiasm. It sold to Warner and I was thrilled.  

The second book, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance (Seal Press), came to me quite naturally, since I was dealing with those very issues: body, aging, accepting. I loved that book and how the writers approached the physical, emotional, even spiritual challenges we faces as we age.  

Again, it was a natural progression to The Face in the Mirror:Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age (Prometheus). How often do we look back at our youth, at those hopes and dreams… and expectations… that perhaps guided us through life, and then we’re suddenly at a place where we wonder, How did I get here? Am I satisfied with the twists and turns of life, or do I wish I’d done it differently? One of the messages I wanted readers to take away from this book is that it’s never too late to evaluate those youthful dreams and perhaps put some wisdom and energy behind them. I know it can happen, because I’m living so many of my dreams of youth now, fifty years later. 

The idea for He Said What? Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed (Seal Press) came to me one day and wouldn’t leave me alone. I want a divorce. The meeting ran late. I love you, but… So many times when women hear that word, that phrase, and nothing is ever the same. I had to ask myself if women were willing to write about memorable, outrageous, hilarious, sometimes damning or emotionally devastating things said to them by men? They were! Our pub date is May 1st and I’m very excited about this book. There will be group readings in New York, Boston, Toronto, L.A., and the San Francisco Bay Area.  

The anthology that sold to North Atlantic Books last week was a hard one to pitch. The working title is Exit Laughing: How We Use Humor to Take the Sting Out of Death. Editors found it worthy, but their editorial boards were skeptical. I’m very pleased that North Atlantic bought this book—they have the sensitivity and gravitas this book requires. Anne Connolly is our editor at North Atlantic and there’s no one better to guide this project. 

What’s the biggest challenge to editing a variety of writers with differing styles? 

Without a doubt, the challenge is to edit in their voice, not mine. It’s so easy for editors to interject themselves and, often without meaning to, change the author’s personal and distinctive style. One of the ways I assess this is to pass every edit by the author, down to the addition/deletion of a comma. Nothing gets sent as “final” to the publisher without the author approving the piece.    

Each anthology features a variety of writers, some higher profile than others. In the case of The Other Woman, how were you able to attract writers like Susan Cheever to the project? 

I have to smile at this question, because I immediately think of the morning when Jane Smiley and I were being interviewed on ABC’s View From the Bay. The host, Janelle Wang, asked me how I succeeded in “encouraging” so many top authors to tell such intimate stories. Before I could respond, Jane announced, “We were just waiting for her to ask!” And judging by the responses I got to the invitation, she was right. While a few emailed back, “I’m interested, thanks,” most came back with heart-felt responses like “Oh, sweet revenge!” and “How could I not write this essay.” Most of the authors had never heard of me, so their acceptances were based primarily on a desire to tell their infidelity stories…and they sure did! Word got out quickly and I began to receive emails from authors asking to be included. The cut-off was 21, but had I created a waiting list, I’m guessing it would have included more than 300 names. 

You have writers in your anthologies who are known worldwide, and others who have published primarily in their local papers. Is there a difference in the way you work with them? Or in the way they respond to your editing? 

The Other Woman was my first anthology, so I was quite nervous. That I was editing Smiley and Cheever, Freed and Abu-Jaber, Weber and Leavitt, and other top authors…well, who was I to suggest changes to their work? But in time, and with lots of encouragement from my agent and author friends, I dove in and edited. What I quickly discovered was that writers, whether Pulitzer winners or contributors to the hometown gazette, are generous and appreciative of a good edit. I’ve been asked often about having to deal with the egos of the bestselling authors. While there were a few editing suggestions that authors chose not to take—most often a case of personal style and voice — not one author pulled out the A-list card. I found each one receptive and cooperative. That’s when it finally struck me: they all wanted their best work to be published. If I happened across a phrase that needed to be clarified, or some inconsistency or confusion, they were appreciative.  

Each of the anthologies covers a range of topics, and as a result, appeal to a wide range of audiences. In fact in our initial interview discussions you noted how communities spring up around each book, due to bi-coastal readings — can you discuss that trend in greater detail? 

It’s funny, because I rarely think of topics in terms of audience interest. Rather, I choose topics that interest me. (And when you consider that I spend months editing, writing, marketing, planning events, etc., it’s important that the subject of all that work is something that resonates for me.) 

As for the communities that spring up: this is perhaps the greatest joy I experience around any book. When we launched The Other Woman in New York, 14 of the 21 authors arrived at the bookstore for the reading! Women flew in from all parts of the country, even after being told that they each had only two minutes to read. That’s when I understood the special nature of anthologies. With each book, I organize readings on both coasts and take immense pleasure in authors getting together, reading together and, in many cases, forging friendships that will last for decades.  

The Other Woman is being developed into a play, are you involved with that project? 

I’m almost afraid to discuss this, because I’m so excited. As of last month, a wonderful theater production company, Jonathan and Hillary Reinis Productions, is working with me to develop the play. At the moment, it’s a compilation of  five essays from the book, broken into fragments of text and then woven together to create a script. There was a public reading in New York and San Francisco in 2007, a private reading in Marin last summer, and then a performance directed by Ellie Mednick at the Marsh theater in San Francisco in December. Following this last performance, I was approached by the Reinises. I’ve no idea where this will go, but I’m loving the adventure! 

Your latest anthology, He Said What?: Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed, can you discuss the range of topics covered in this collection? 

Let me first say that this anthology is like the others, in the sense that I imagined the essays I’d receive, and I was completely wrong! With this book, I expected quite a few bordering on male-bashing—the bastard said xx and xx; I was insulted/offended/devastated when he said xx and xx. Instead, twenty-five women wrote about truly diverse experiences. Whether it’s the Women’s Rights conference in Beijing, or the husband who disappears one afternoon and never returns, the priest-turned filmmaker who turns his back on social issues, the attentive boyfriend with the violent streak, or the brother who comes out as a gay man, no two experiences (or essays) are alike. Fathers, brothers, lovers, teachers, business associates, you name it…they all have a place in this book that is funny, serious, and sometimes heartbreaking.  

When editing anthologies of these kind, are there ever contributions that you wish you could include but are unable to, due to space? 

No, because I don’t put out a universal call for essays and then cull through all of them to choose the best. Instead, I invite specific authors to write, with no idea what they’ll deliver months later. I trust the authors, and I’ve never been disappointed. As I tell my students: you can ask 30 writers to submit an essay on a hangnail on their right thumb, and you’ll receive 30 very different pieces. 

Is it too early to discuss the anthology you most recently sold? 

My agent just sold our fifth anthology to North Atlantic Books. Exit Laughing resulted from the eighteen months I spent caring for my mother before her death last year. We had a very complicated relationship and found that humor eased us through difficult times. When Mom realized she was dying, her black humor came through and eased some of the pain. It made me think about the link between death and humor, and I appreciated having a mother who could laugh about something that is rarely considered funny. Or so I thought…but I quickly learned that many people associate humor with dying and death. When I sent out the invitation to thirty authors, I was hoping that five would accept. From that, I figured I’d build the list of authors. You can imagine my surprise when 26 of them accepted! And several of the acceptance messages included the vignette about which they intended to write. It’s going to be a unique and, in many case, a very funny collection. Contributing authors are Barbara Abercrombie, Sam Barry, Joshua Braff, Amy Ferris, Bonnie Garvin, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Barbara Graham, Erica Jong, Carrie Kabak, Aviva Layton, Malachy McCourt, Richard McKenzie, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Christine O’Hagan, Karen Quinn, Dianne Rinehart, Jenny Rough, Starhawk, Ellen Sussman, Abigail Thomas, Michael Tucker, and Leon Whiteson.  

Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about? 

I would like to mention the work I do with Rosemarie Reed, founder of On the Road Productions. She’s in the final stages of edits for a documentary, Where Birds Never Sang: The Story of Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camps, and I wrote this script. We’re also working on a film that I brought to her several years ago, and a project I’ve wanted to write for 15 years: Tracing Thalidomide: The Frances Kelsey Story. Dr. Kelsey is the woman who single-handedly blocked distribution of thalidomide in the United States. Her work resulted in the drug being taken off the international market, and forced important changes in our country’s drug laws. Being associated with someone like Rosemarie, a woman with a strong sense of social conscience and ethics, has been both exciting and fulfilling. 

After your anthology on death and humor, is there a sixth book in the works? 

At the moment, I’m preparing for the publication of He Said What? and sending emails to the Exit Laughing writers about their June 1 deadline. For the time, there’s no room in my brain for another book. But knowing me, something will come to mind!

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About Tim O'Shea

  • kristine van raden

    7th grade I was 6′ tall and weighed about 105 lbs. my dad and brothers called me the human zipper…”turn sideways and stick out your tongue and you look just like a zipper.” They would laugh and laugh and then tell me that I had an enormous butt. i couldn’t figure out how I could be a zipper with a big ass, but the taunting made me so self conscious. I tried to get a glimpse of that junk in the trunk but couldn’t ever see what they said they could.