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The Writer Next Door: Reporting In
A letter slipped under our door from Amy Stewart, the current Tin House Writer-in-Residence at PSU.
Dear Wonderful People at Tin House,
Thank you for the loan of the spiffy red pen, which I have no intention of returning. Never hand a writer a Uniball and expect to get it back.
With this pen I responded to my copyeditor’s queries on the manuscript of The Drunken Botanist, now due out next March. Most of what copyeditors do is a mystery to me. For instance, why is there a funny mark around every em dash? Did I do it wrong? And what does it mean when a word has both an underline and a squiggly line under it? I know I could clear this up by buying a book or taking a class or just doing a Google search for a key to copyeditor’s marks, but I prefer to remain pleasantly confused by the process.
And in spite of my threat to just write “Stet” across the envelope and send it back, I really am so very grateful to copyeditors for the fine work they do. Have you ever had your house cleaned by a professional cleaning crew, maybe before a big party or that time you broke your leg and your friends all chipped in because as it turns out they don’t really want to help if “help” means cleaning your bathroom because you haven’t been able to do it since you got the cast?
Well, the thing about one of those cleaning crews is they go around and clean everything you didn’t even know needed cleaning. They clean behind the refrigerator, they get the dust that sits on top of the baseboards (who knew baseboards even had a top?), they polish the insides of cupboard doors and use a toothpick to remove gunk from around hinges and switchplates. It’s wonderful and shaming at the same time. And that’s exactly what copyediting is like.
So thank you, copyeditors, and thank you also for the strange enormous rubber bands in which you bind my manuscript. I don’t intend to return those either. I consider them my bonus. I became a writer for the office supplies.
Next item: Powell’s. I know you know how wonderful Powell’s is. You probably get tired of hearing, “Oh, you’re so lucky to have a bookstore like Powell’s….” Yeah, yeah, you must think after a while. We have a big bookstore. We noticed.
But really. Powell’s? Amazing. I used to go to Powell’s as a tourist, but now I’m going as a resident, as a regular person. I’ve been toying with two very different book ideas lately, and my way of toying with them is to get on the streetcar and go to Powell’s and wander from one room to the next, flipping through the books that relate, in some way, to these two ideas. So I’ll go look at books on French countryside homes and then pick up a book on carrier pigeons, then abandon that for the art section, then give in to the history of labor movements, then realize I need a book on the stringed instruments of Eastern Europe and a map of New Jersey and also that I have many unanswered questions about horses, buggies, and guns. (First person to guess the subject of either of these books wins a copy—if I get around to writing either of them.)
Anyway. It’s like walking around a much better-stocked version of my own brain. You can tell what book idea I’ve settled on by whether I’m spending more time in the purple room or the rose room. Although I am not immune to the seductions of the gold room…
Oh, and speaking of book ideas—here’s an observation. We writers have drawers full of half-abandoned ideas. Not drawers, even: more like storage units, units whose contents we have mostly forgotten about, but we keep paying the bill anyway. This can get frustrating sometimes. I was recently complaining to my husband that I had too many half-abandoned ideas sitting around and that I really needed to get better at finishing what I’ve started. In response, he sent me this.
Fans of Midnight in Paris will get this right away. Forty years ago Woody Allen had an idea to do a bit about a guy who hangs out with Scott and Zelda and Ernest and Gertrude. Forty years! And look where it got him!
Well. I find this very encouraging. Forty years from now, I’m going to write an Academy Award-winning screenplay about an Eastern European musician who moves into an old house in the French countryside and starts shooting pigeons until one day, when the rail workers of the town go on strike, he’s forced to harness his horse and buggy and….well, I don’t want to give away the ending. But Powell’s, you’ll know that it all started in the rose room.
Thanks again for the pen. I owe you another round of drinks. I have run out of bourbon and keep waiting for it to get warm enough for rum.
Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of five books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including three New York Times bestsellers, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. She lives in Eureka, California, with her husband Scott Brown. They own an antiquarian bookstore called Eureka Books and tend a flock of unruly hens in their backyard.