Impossible Owls (FSG Originals, October), a collection of far-flung essays, combining the personal and reportage, that explore the interconnectedness of the globalized world— from tiger trails in India to sumo wrestlers in Japan, from the vastness of the Yukon to small-town Oklahoma— and the relationship between history, myth, and the search for meaning.
Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernert Company. Editor: Emily Bell.
First printing: 9,000.
I came to write essays the oldfashioned way: via a series of desperate, unplanned, last-ditch decisions made blindly and in a state of profound terror caused by the Internet.
After college I moonlit as a literary critic— often literally, in the sense that I couldn’t pay the electric bill. I loved writing about poetry and fiction, but my real passion was working hard for free, so when blogging came along I jumped headfirst into that. I started a blog about soccer, a hobby of mine, and that led to a job at Grantland, a website owned by ESPN that covered sports and pop culture (as it turned out we covered much more than that, but that was the initial brief ).
At Grantland we were always scrambling to find new ways to spend the money the people at ESPN were giving us before they realized they were doing so and stopped. So I would say crazy things like, “What if you sent me to Alaska to cover the Iditarod, and I had to learn to fly a small plane and land it on frozen rivers, and I began a complex psychological chain reaction that led to my having a borderline nervous breakdown at a sumo wrestling tournament in Tokyo nine months later, and I wrote about all that.” Most editors would log off the chat window the instant you pitched that idea, but at Grantland they’d come back with every writer’s dream response: “Please don’t die.”
I read a lot of essays. I was obsessed with Virginia Woolf’s, loved Didion’s, felt exasperated by David Foster Wallace’s while still memorizing huge chunks of them, and adored Colson Whitehead’s. I scanned every new issue of the New Yorker for Larissa MacFarquhar profiles before I’d even read the cartoons. But it never occurred to me that I might work in anything like this vein until I was basically already doing it. What I was trying to do was explore ways to translate the qualities I loved in blogging—freedom, serendipity, naturalness, surprise—into larger forms. Of course these are all Montaignian virtues, but if you were writing on the Internet in 2012 or 2013 or even 2014, you had a sense that no one had ever done anything quite like what you were doing.
The idea of publishing an essay collection as my first book was one I resisted for a long time. I was stupidly lucky, thanks to the platforms I had at Grantland and MTV News, to have a few editors interested in working with me. I thought a single-topic book would be more ambitious and make a bigger splash. But I get bored easily and am Morris the Cat when it comes to finickiness about topics, so I kept putting off the moment when I had to commit to a subject.
Finally it dawned on me—I think it might have been my agent who pointed this out—that death is racing toward all of us at every moment, and if I delayed much longer I might never publish a book. So I thought, “What kind of writing am I doing right now?” And the answer came: essays. What sort of writing am I interested in doing right now? Essays. “Is it possible,” I thought, “that I’m...an essayist?” I’m still not sure, but the wonderful team at FSG Originals was at least willing to entertain the idea. So here we are.