Brian Phillips

Poets and Writers - - The Genre Of Resistance -

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’ 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.

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