That’s been an important part of my approach, the fact that I’ve always liked the historical, because the publishing industry is geared toward the hottest and edgiest.
This is especially true in America, a country of amnesiacs who don’t remember anything.
You are known as one of the champions who brought personal essays to the forefront of nonfiction writing.
Can you talk about where that passion started and why you dedicated so much of your career to that work?
African-American writers announced themselves in the 20th century much more by the essay than by novel or poetry.
It becomes a way to address identity, and not only for ethnic minorities, but for the disabled, gay, feminists, and so on.
There’s no question that essays are going through another Renaissance, another Golden Age, with many collections coming out.
Of course there was a long period of memoirs being published, followed by backlash against memoirs.
I’d always been attracted to a kind of living voice on the page, whether in poetry or fiction, the first-person voice: confiding, intimate, establishing a relationship with the reader. I started off reading Hazlitt and Lamb, who directed me to Montaigne, who directed me to Seneca and Plutarch, and so it went.
I realized that the personal essay was a conversation over centuries, with these writers talking to each other. Those who are in on the game recognize their relatives. Editors didn’t want to publish books of essays; they wanted writers to reconfigure them with a theme, or as a continuous narrative.