Sunday, March 15, 2009

Victoria Zackheim: Day Two

In the past fifteen months, I’ve had the pleasure of developing and selling three anthologies covering three very different subjects. The first was infidelity; the second, body image; and the third (coming out in September), the dreams we had in our youth and the reality of our lives today.

Whenever I speak at a writer’s conference, or teach a course in Personal Essay, I’m asked many questions about the process of creating and developing an anthology. It seems that these are the questions that always pop up:

What makes a good anthology topic?
Look around you. Look at photos in your home. They give you clues to all sorts of relationships: father/son, mother/daughter, father/daughter, mother/son, grandparents, step-parents, family holidays, family abuse. Look out your window: issues around the environment, streets (traffic), travel. Exotic places visited and hated; best vacations ever; nightmares away from home. Look at your hands: jewelry, gifts…nightmare experiences shopping; things lost and found (love, health, joy, grief). Look at your history: school, family, friendships good and bad; great children and nightmare events…a child’s illness, getting arrested, the death of a loved one.

How do you find the authors?
In a way, they find me, because I always invite authors whose books I love to read. The process of inviting told me much about myself. Was I up to contacting Pulitzer authors, writers who regularly made the NY Times bestseller list, little-known authors whose work I admired? Yes, and yes again. I also have to say that I’ve been turned down by some of the finest writers in the world!

How many authors do you contact?
There are two primary approaches an editor can take, in terms of inviting authors to contribute an essay.

(1) Put out a universal call for essays, cull through them, and choose the best 20 or so. This is very time-consuming―had I done this with the first two books, there could have been 500 essays for each!―and I would have had to send out lots of “thanks, but no thanks” messages…which doesn’t sit right with me. So…on to option #2, which is (2) Contact specific authors with a personal invitation to write an essay. Not on spec…that is, if they’re invited and they accept, they’re in.

What if an author sends an essay that doesn’t work?
The role of the editor is to work with the author until it does work. I’m sure that many anthology editors have horror stories, but I have none. For the most part, the essays from the three anthologies (that’s 68 essays) arrived with almost no changes required. And when there was a need to edit, or even rewrite, it was a collaborative effort between editor and author, with both of us headed toward the same goal: the perfect essay.

Recommended Books
One nice perk of hosting a blog is my right to practice unabashed nepotism. My sister, Michele Zackheim, is a gifted writer whose last novel, Broken Colors (Europa), was a BookSense pick. I highly recommend it. From Kepler’s website:

Sophie Marks' path to artistic and personal fulfillment takes her from World War II England to postwar Paris and the Italian countryside. She leaves Europe and spends the next two decades in the American Southwest. Acclaimed at last as an artist, she returns to England to confront the hidden memories of her childhood and test the possibilities of a renewed love, a passion ripened by maturity.

UC Berkeley History professor Paula Fass has a new book, a memoir exploring the relationship between history and memory. Inheriting the Holocaust (Rutgers University Press) is the moving account of the author’s journey into the stories recounted by her parents, both Holocaust survivors. I’ve just started reading and Fass’s balance of personal and historical is very compelling.

That's it for Day 2. I hope you'll come back tomorrow, when I’ll talk more about anthologies, with emphasis on the personal essay. It’s a format I avoided for decades, but now that I’m writing essays for these anthologies, I’m fascinated by the process.

Day Three will also answer the burning questions:
Victoria, is there some kind of competition and you’re running for Anthology Queen?
And did you really throw up on Ann Curry, on the Today Show?


  1. It's great to see you blogging, Victoria. I love your anthologies (and have the pleasure of being included in For Keeps) and look forward to your next one.

    I'm also looking forward to hearing what you have to say about personal essay anthologies, my favorite kind. I hope you'll recommend others that I would enjoy, especially those that would appeal to women after midlife.

    Joan Price

    Author of Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty

    Join us -- we're talking about ageless sexuality at

  2. I want to hear that barf story!

    Your anthologies rock; I can't wait for the next one.

    Also, do you like chocolate or is there some other way prospective anthology writers can bribe you to consider including them?

    Laura Hoopes

  3. Laura, thanks for making me laugh...I needed to do that today!

    Chocolate doesn't do it, sorry. A studio apartment in Paris...that's another story.

  4. Lovely to catch up, Victoria! Now that I've turned to fiction for my own books, I'm particularly honored to have been able to contribute a nonfiction essay to "For Keeps." I hear about it from readers often!

    (And I want to hear the vomit story!)
    Clea Simon

  5. Very informative - I've have an idea for an anthology I've been toying with. Thanks for the helpful post.