Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 19 August 2014, Garnette Cadogan, freelance writer and co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance, leads a discussion on Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
What was your inspiration for working on the Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance?
I kept encountering the influence of the Harlem Renaissance — on art, music, literature, dance, and politics, among other spheres – and longed for a fresh, interesting discussion of the Renaissance in its splendid variety. My close friend and colleague Shirley Thompson, who teaches at UT-Austin, often discussed with me the enormous accomplishments and rich legacies of that movement. So, when she invited me to help her bring together myriad voices to talk about central cultural, intellectual, and political figures and ideas of the Harlem Renaissance, I, of course, gleefully joined her to arrange The Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance.
Where do you do your best writing?
On the kitchen counter. The comfort of the kitchen is like nowhere else, nothing else. (Look where everyone gathers at your next house party). To boot, nothing gets my mind revving like cooking. I’ll often run from skillet to keyboard shouting “Yes!”
Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?
No one moment — it was a multitude of taps, then a grab — but having one of my professors in college call me to ask that I read my final paper to him over the phone was a big motivator. I took it as encouragement to be a writer, though, in retrospect, I recognize that it was my strange accent and not my prose style that was the appeal.
Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?
Someone who could handle the distractible, chatterbox me, the troublemaker who had absolutely no interest in books or learning. Someone with a love for books who led a fascinating life and could tell a good story. Why, yes, George Orwell — What a remarkable life! What remarkable work! — would hold my attention and interest.
What is your secret talent?
Remarkably creative procrastination, coupled with the ability to trick myself that I’m not procrastinating. (Sadly, no one else but me is fooled.)
What is your favorite book?
Wait, what day is it? It all depends on the day you ask me. Sometimes, even the time of day you ask. Right now, it’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson (the handsome, authoritative edition edited by R.W. Franklin). I stand by this decision for another forty-eight hours.
Who reads your first draft?
Two friends who possess the right balance of grace and brutal honesty, the journalists Eve Fairbanks and Ilan Greenberg. They know just how to knock down and lift up, especially Eve, who has almost supernatural discernment and knows exactly what to say — and, more important in the early stages, what not to say. But who really gets the first draft are my friends John Wilson, the affable sage who edits Books and Culture, and John Freeman, whose eagle eye used to edit Granta; I verbally unload on them my fugitive ideas trying to assemble into a story (poor fellas), and then wait for red, yellow, green, or detour. Without this quartet, everything I write reads like the journal entries of Cookie Monster.
Do you read your books after they’ve been published?
My books haven’t been published yet, but I imagine that I’ll treat them like the rest of my writing: mental detritus I avoid looking at. I’m cursed with a near-pathological ability to only see what’s wrong with my writing.
Do you prefer writing on a computer or longhand?
Painful as it is to transcribe my hieroglyphics from writing pads (or concert programs and restaurant napkins), I prefer writing longhand. My second-guessing, severe, demanding, judgmental inner-editor makes it so. On a laptop, it’s cut this, change that, insert who-knows-what, and at day’s end I’m behind where I began. And yet, I never learn. I still do most of my writing on a computer.
What book are you currently reading? (And is it in print or on an e-Reader?)
I own two e-readers but never use them; I get too much enjoyment from the tactile pleasures of bound paper. I’m now reading a riveting, touching account of the thirty-three miners trapped underground in Chile four years ago, Hector Tobar’s Deep Down Dark, which is much more than the story of their survival. It’s also a story about faith and family and perseverance. Emily St. John’s novel Station Eleven is another book that intriguingly explores survival and belief and belonging. And art and culture, too. It’s partially set in a post-apocalyptic era, but without the clichés and cloying, overplayed scenarios that come with that setting. And I’ve been regularly dipping into Michael Robbins’ new book of poems, The Second Sex — smart, smart-alecky, “sonicky,” vibrantly awake to sound and meaning — not because he’s a friend, but because he’s oh-so-good. I’ll be pressing all three books on everyone I know that can read.
What word or punctuation mark are you most guilty of overusing?
The em-dash — since it allows my sentences to breathe much easier once it’s around. It’s so forgiving, too — I get to clear my throat and then be garrulous, and readers will put up with me trying have it both ways. The em-dash is both chaperone and wingman; which other punctuation mark can make that boast? Plus, it’s a looker — bold and purposeful and lean.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Something that takes me outdoors — and in the streets — as much as possible. Anything that doesn’t require sitting at a desk with my own boring thoughts for hours. And where I get to meet lots of new people. Bike messenger, perhaps.
Image credits: (1) Bryant Park, New York. Photo by cerfon. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via cerfon Flickr. (2) Garnette Cadogan. Photo by Bart Babinski. Courtesy of Garnette Cadogan.