teeth and marrow
An Interview with Naomi Huffman
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Naomi Huffman currently works in digital marketing for MCD Books, a new division of FSG Originals. Prior to this, she was the editor-in-chief of Chicago independent press Curbside Splendor, and is the former managing editor of featherproof books. Her essays, book reviews, and interviews have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Newcity, Bookslut, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter at @naomihuffman, and visit her website at naomihuffman.com.
TMR: For the past few years you worked as the editor-in-chief at Chicago indie press Curbside Splendor. Can you go into detail about what you did? How did you come to that position?
NH: I did not aspire to be an editor when I was younger. In fact, I didn't even aspire to be a writer. I always enjoyed writing, and did it a lot, but I was raised by very middle-class parents, who both enjoyed very traditional careers. My dad worked in manufacturing for General Motors, my mom was a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years, then got a job working at Bernard's doing inventory. I grew up in a very rural community where there weren't a lot of people working as artists, or working in creative careers, so it just didn't seem viable to me.
I grew up in a very rural community where there weren't a lot of people working as artists, or working in creative careers, so it just didn't seem viable to me.
But something switched my senior year of high school. I'd been writing for my city's newspaper for about a year, and a friend of mine was applying to a school in Chicago and it sounded like something that I wanted to do. So I applied to Columbia, initially for journalism, because again that felt more 'responsible.'
Immediately upon arriving, I was going to minor in fiction writing, so I came to Columbia with a much better understanding of the journalism department, but was really more intrigued by the idea of studying creative writing full-time. So ultimately that's what I chose to do. I changed my major within the first couple of weeks, and really enjoyed my time at Columbia. For a young woman coming from very rural Indiana to the amazing, hugely complicated city that Chicago is, Columbia offered a really nurturing environment for me.
Because I had experience freelancing for a newspaper in high school, I was able to obtain an internship at Newcity Magazine and that was between my sophomore and junior years at Columbia. I continued to freelance for them after the internship was over. After I graduated, they decided to hire a literary editor. So it was me. I was just so excited about that position -- I had no idea, really, what to do, so it was very much trial and error. A lot of it was receiving books that publicists sent to you and presses sent to you for review, a lot of it was keeping up with what was going on in Chicago, and all of it was very, very educational to me.
I was really fortunate to work under Brian Hieggelke, the founder in chief of Newcity, and it was a good balance of learning from him and learning from the city and teaching myself how to assign and edit and run a regular section in a bi-weekly magazine. Part of that education was going to various festivals and events and readings that people were throwing in Chicago, and one of the presses that I paid a lot of attention to, because they were very up-and-coming, was Curbside Splendor.
In early 2013, they signed with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, which is a big deal for an indie press, gaining national distribution. They were very aware that at their current staff size and their resources, they needed to bring someone else on. I'd been communicating with their senior editor for a couple of months, on press releases that he would send me for events, and he let me know that they were looking for someone. I had a phone interview with him, and I was hired.
Immediately, I was thrust into this position of: Wow, we have twelve books coming out in the fall, these are already printed and these other ones are on the way, and we need to make sure that all of that happens and we need to make sure that people are talking about our books and we need to make sure that we're maintaining and building our image in Chicago. So again I found myself in this position where I really had to teach myself a lot of things, what to do, how to launch a media campaign for a book. Sometimes I sit and think now about the things that I did, about the things that I thought were good uses of my time when I first started, and I wonder what I was thinking, but I didn't know. That's one of the things that's most exciting about Curbside. They're constantly re-envisioning what it is that they do, what publishing is. It's not just publishing books and delivering them to potential readers, it's also finding ways to connect writers and readers. That means hosting events and doing projects like Book Fort, where we brought together different literary small presses from around the country to come to unique events like the Pitchfork Music Festival, and the Logan Square Arts Festival, to allow them to sell their books and rent some space for cheap, and sell their books to audiences that wouldn't otherwise interact with them.
TMR: You said you've been a writer since you were young. How did your passion get started?
NH: I feel like I'm missing that genesis story of "this is where the love of writing came from, where the love of reading came from," because my parents don't write. They don't read. Art isn't something that is very appealing to them.
I was raised to be a very dutiful child. I was pretty quiet and reserved, and I think that inclination toward reservation, just being very tucked into one's self, really helped to foster my imagination, so I found a lot of solace in books. My mom took us to the library during the summers. The local library had a really great program that encouraged kids to read a certain number of books, and you won prizes and whatnot. I'm really glad that she did that, especially not being a reader herself. She would always get books, but my sisters and I would walk away with huge stacks, and we would go once a week, or once every two weeks, and I would make it a goal to get through all of them.
I credit my reading for my overall thirst for connection and for my thirst for knowledge, my thirst for being a part of a community. I was aware, from a very young age, of the outside world. It was the stifling aspect of my life that made me thirst for more, and then take on an awareness that this wasn't all there is. I had friends who traveled a lot with their families, who had parents who encouraged them to read, much more than my parents did. I was very aware of that distinction. It didn't feel unfair, and it wasn't something that felt like it was something I was being cheated on, but I was very aware of the differences between my life and others', and I wanted to bridge that gap.
TMR: What was the environment of your town like? Was it supportive of art?
NH: I think my teachers were up against very unique challenges. Our school was very small, and as rural small public schools go, there just aren't a ton of resources. I have to say, I had excellent teachers in high school, and not just my English teachers -- they were amazing in many ways, the reasons why I was able to come to Chicago to study writing in the first place, just through encouragement and very practical things like writing recommendation letters -- but my history teacher was awesome, and my Spanish teacher was awesome.
I had amazing teachers who worked absolute magic within the set of limitations that they had to work within. I was in choir and our choir was lead by someone's mother who had no classical musical training. It was a very typical small-town school, where the theater program was an afterthought, and there were art classes, but you couldn't take them because they ran during the same time as other important classes. There was just no culture of "this is art, and this is a thing you should be practicing if you want to."
In some ways, and this has been pointed out to me a lot of times, this is the great thing. I often get jealous of people who had very nurturing parents, or went to creative magnet schools. I feel like some of my friends are so steeped in knowledge that I am constantly trying to catch up to. But at the same time, self-education has been very important to me from the very beginning. Seeking out literature to read, and being in charge of the things that I was consuming, that's been important to me all my life. That's not something I really realized until a couple of years ago, when I realized that maybe I didn't have anyone holding my hand and introducing me to things that I would now still appreciate, but I've always had that desire to find those things for myself, and that serves me very well.
TMR: What do you see yourself doing in the future?
NH: I definitely want to still be Jane Goodall. I love baking. These are all hobbies, but I don't know. It's still something that I'm figuring out. Curbside has felt like home.
I don't have an MFA, and if I go back to school I don't think it'll be for literature. I would love to have the time to write, but I would also love to study science and history. I love fiction, and I write fiction primarily right now, but I love the idea of writing a sort of career-focused memoir. I don't know what that would look like, but I love when people who are writers first are able to pull from some other part of their life to write something compelling and nontraditional fiction or nonfiction.
I recognize that a lot of what I liked to do at Curbside is encourage community. I mentioned Book Fort before; it takes place at a couple of events across the country throughout the year, and the best thing about that is fostering that community. Allowing publishers to talk to writers and readers about what it is that they're doing, becoming much more interested in both literacy education and those community-building type projects. I could see myself doing more things like that.
NH: First of all, how can you be a small press in Chicago, where the live lit culture is just so pervasive, and not also have a show? For a while there was a show that Curbside was doing, that the former senior editor was doing, called Salon Splendor. There wasn't anything intentional about it, we were just bringing in writers, as we knew that they were coming to Chicago, or whenever we felt the itch.
The beautiful thing that's happening in live lit now is that there are so many shows, and they're forcing each other to get better. Not because there's any competition between them, because I think the great thing about the live lit community is that a lot of the shows are very distinctive of each other, but I think it became clear to me that we couldn't just go there on a stage at a bar and have people read. That's no longer interesting. Any time as an artist, in which you want to do anything and ask someone to come participate, you want to do a good job and you want to do something that feels very close to you.
Any time as an artist, in which you want to do anything and ask someone to come participate, you want to do a good job and you want to do something that feels very close to you.
So I started to talk to Leah Pickett, a friend of mine who is a freelance journalist. That was appealing to me because I realized that she could bring in people from the journalism community who are amazing writers, but maybe never read before on a stage, and I would bring the literary component and the know-how for hosting a series and organizing it. That worked out very beautifully. Now we work with touring writers, with Curbside writers and other Chicago authors, and people all over the city who we've seen perform, or people whose writing we've read and would be convinced they'd be great. The exciting thing about The Marrow is that we're often welcoming first time readers to the stage, and watching someone nervously do something for the first time is really cool. I'm such a sucker for earnestness.
TMR: You've done readings yourself. Can you tell us what you enjoy about performing your literature?
NH: I personally love it because it's hard for me. I don't like to talk in front of groups. I get really nervous. It's something that's becoming easier for me because it's a big part of my job, but it just doesn't come naturally to me. I really have to force myself to gather myself in front of an audience.
The Marrow has been around long enough now that Leah and I got in a groove with hosting, so I don't get as jittery as I did before, but I definitely did when I was up there reading. It's placing yourself in a position of vulnerability. Not only because you're up there in front of a crowd but also because you're delivering something that you really care about.
For me it's been very formative and very helpful. The things that you group from that, in terms of audience awareness, what works and what doesn't when you're hearing it out loud, it's so much different. I read everything that I write out loud at some point in the process, but reading it out loud to myself in my room is much different than reading it out loud to people, because you're getting a reaction.
I'm looking for something from that experience. I want to know how the work is going, I want to get something out of that, and then I also like to make myself afraid, a little bit. There is a thrill to doing it. It's one of those things where you know it's not a big deal, and you know you're going to do it well -- you just gotta read, and you want to be entertaining, so there's that pressure as well, but it can still be doable. But it's good to ask something of everything you do in your life, especially creatively. If you're just up there delivering a piece, what good is that?
TMR: Why is it important for writers to participate in their live lit communities?
NH: The three best examples I have for that are Toni Nealie, a Curbside author, Megan Stielstra, and Samantha Irby. Those last two, Megan and Sam, we published their first books because we knew about them from the live lit community. Cyn Vargas is the same. We didn't discover any of these women; they were doing their own thing, and had been for years, but we were aware of them, and we approached them because we knew that they had built an audience, they had a community around them that would support the book.
We published a memoir called The Telling, by an amazing writer named Zoe Zolbrod -- I knew of her, and had met her several times, but actually asked for her manuscript at a reading.
Even if you're not performing at a reading, or if you're not wowing some editor in the audience with your work, you're still interacting with the community. As an opportunity, to just exist around and converse with people in the literary community, I think readings are such an organic environment. Networking goes on, but organically. It's going and just interacting with the people who are there, reading or in the audience, it's just an invaluable opportunity.
TMR: Do you have any works in progress?
NH: I'm working on a novella right now that I feel really excited about, I've read a series of books that I've chosen very specifically to sort of warm the project. I know in my mind now, very loosely, how it needs to function, and that's called Never Never Yes Yes.
Aside from that, I have a series of short stories I hope to turn into a chapbook. I don't know what it's called yet, but all of the inspiration started because I was having this series of dreams about my teeth. They were all very violent, and very bloody, or very, very beautiful. Most of them were violent. The first few just made me feel weird when I woke up, and I would sort of take some notes about it then forget about it. Then one of them occurred and it felt very relevant to my life, so I wrote it down and tweaked it so it had a bit of an art and some more story than just the bare dream. Then it sort of bled into these series of small scenes, where teeth play either a humongous role or not really at all, and it feels very weird and enormous. It's the thing that I'm working on that has the fewest constraints, and that's good. Constraints are good, but constraints can be bad.
TMR: Can you discuss what the dream that your chapbook focuses on?
NH: I'm very interested in the idea of loss and the fact that we lose our teeth. You shed a part of yourself. And so I think that the reflection right now, if I were to use a word, it's about loss.
The dream that I had was the third or fourth in this series of dreams. I had just been through this breakup at the end of 2015, and the night I had this dream I was sleeping with this new person, and in the dream, we both woke up, and my teeth were gone. I turned over and he had them in his hand, all of them. And without a word we just got up and went to this circular room that was all white, and had these long curtains with huge windows, and they were open, the curtains were blowing in the breeze, and there was this wooden chair in the middle of the floor. I sat down in the chair, and we started screwing my teeth back in -- they went in like screws. And it was very, very visceral. And there was no blood, until the very end, and we were satisfied with that, that there was a little bit of blood.
There was no mirror and I had no way of knowing that he was putting my teeth back in correctly. So at one point I asked, "Do you need my help?" And he said, "It'll look better this way." Which is just very creepy, a squashing of my individuality. At the end of the dream, we went back to bed. From those kind of looks and images, the screwing of the teeth and the windows and the waking up with my teeth in his hands, I made this very short micropiece. I'm really in love with it. I still don't know what it is, but you need to be okay with that sometimes.
TMR: Can you tell us about your novella?
NH: It's about the degradation of women's bodies under the grimy wheel of society. There are two timeframes, and these two women who never meet. One is in her early 20's, mid-20's, and the other is the very recent widow of a very successful artist. They're both in this time of life where they're trying to figure out what to do next.
The young woman is a photographer, but she's trying to find a way to place her life closer to her art, and it's caught up in a series of things. I'm bringing in social media in a way that I'm finding really compelling. And she's a nanny, she works as a bartender, and there's a series of relationships that she has with men that are really enlightening to her. The other character, the older woman, I'm using to try to say something about the way society treats women at vulnerable ages.
They both try to find odd jobs that work out for them, but of course the older woman struggles more in certain ways. The younger woman's story certainly focuses more on the politics of the body, and sexuality. The older woman, her story is more about the way that we are very unfair in the way that we treat older people.
TMR: Do you remember the first story that you wrote?
NH: One of the first was about, I was reading the Saddle Club at the time, so it was about three young women who decided to take their horses on a mountain walk. They get snowed in and they have to live out of a cave for a week until they're rescued. That was one of my firsts.
I was also very drawn to mysteries, and I wrote this story that involved the underground railroad, and an actual barn in my hometown that was falling into disrepair, and all of my friends in middle school were characters.
I miss something about writing back then, because now when I'm writing, everything I do feels very intentional. Even the way that I get to the writing, it's carved out time that I have to really set aside, and back then I was just hanging out on a Saturday in my parents' spare bedroom on our first computer, just writing because I wanted to. I miss that impulse just to do that. Writing now feels much more precious. The stakes are higher every time I go to the page.
Writing now feels much more precious. The stakes are higher every time I go to the page.
Right now, the way I'm fitting it into my life is getting up an hour earlier. I've been doing it since 2016, getting up an hour earlier every day, and when I've been traveling for festivals, I'm staying with other people at an AirBnB, but I have to be serious. In the past when I've tried to establish such a routine it's felt like it's worn on me, but for some reason, since starting this, it feels very precious. I feel very lucky to wake up to that every morning, to have the writing be the way that I start my day. And sometimes that means that I'm not working on the fiction projects at all or the creative projects, that I'm just journaling. Just making it more about the time and using the time to read, or journal, or write fiction, giving myself those options rather than a very set goal, has helped. Writing feels more intentional, it feels like an absolute thing that I've decided to do. It'd be much easier to just not do it. But I think I would be a very unhappy person.
TMR: What has been the most difficult thing you've had to deal with,as a writer?
NH: Honestly, it might be finding the time to do the work. I love being critiqued, I love a big edit. I'm always frustrated when I write a review for a place and I get very little feedback or no feedback at all. I want to work, I want someone else's opinion. I think maybe the most difficult thing is allowing myself the process I allow my writers when I edit with them. It's a learning process.
It goes back to not having enough time. I get very anxious when I'm not excited about what I'm working on, or if there's a place of uncertainty where I don't know where I'm going next, or something doesn't make as much sense as it did before, something's compromising my distance to it. Finding the time to allow myself to cycle through that has been challenging. I get very impatient, I get very aware that I only have a limited amount of time, and I want the page to feel perfect every time I leave it and it doesn't always.
TMR: Do you have advice for writers who might struggle with patience? How do you force patience upon yourself?
NH: I think it's a very tricky balance between forcing yourself and knowing when to allow yourself a reprieve. The way that I've dealt with that is in the morning, if I don't feel like writing fiction, I'll journal instead -- giving myself options. There are mornings where I have to tell myself, "No, you've journaled the last two mornings, there's no way you can do that this third morning, so get to work."
It's striking that balance between forcing yourself into it and knowing when to back off, and I don't think I'm good at it, and I don't know how to tell someone else to find that. It's very intuitive. You have to listen to yourself. And that of course has everything to do with the shedding the idea of what you should be doing. Just stay close to yourself and your work is the best way to figure that out.