Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The first two nonfiction chapbooks I ever held in my hands were Amy Monticello’s Close Quarters (Sweet Publications, 2012) and Donna Steiner’s Elements (also Sweet Publications, 2013). I had seen poetry chaps and flash fiction chaps, but never nonfiction. They were hand-bound gorgeous objects and the essays in them were thematically linked, but each stood on its own. Later, I got two chapbooks from Rose Metal Press that seemed to blur the fiction/ nonfiction boundary in ways that I found exciting (Shampoo Horns by Aaron Teel and Betty Superman by Tiff Holland) Those four books were game changers. I’ve since tried to collect a few CNF chaps each year at AWP, but those two will always stand out for me.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I secretly longed to be solicited by Sweet Publications for years! Okay, I still long for that. But mostly, they showed me that what I wanted to do was possible. I can and do write lengthily, but I love writing shorter nonfiction, and the chapbook is a great showcase for that. At any given time, I have around three different configurations of short essays out for submission.
What’s your chapbook about?
Ologies contains four essays that use scientific and pseudo scientific lenses to explore human relationships. I always felt awkward as a kid and have had trouble ever since with some of the relationships that should be the closest — in Ologies I look at that phenomenon specifically. Rather than narratively and narrowly focusing on the personal, from school yard ostracizing to uncomfortable exchanges with my estranged father, break-ups and loneliness, I examine natural phenomenon, perform detailed tasks (of research, of taxidermy). In this way, my narrator can step back from her personal discomfort and see a greater world at work.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“Phrenology” is the first piece in Ologies, and it was the piece that took the longest to write. That essay went from second to third to first person. It went through about five different “organizational” stages—chronological, by sense (touch, taste), etc. I would print it out and cut it apart so I could move the fragments. I played with justification and fonts before settling on floating boxes, and then the boxes shrank and grew a few times. It was simultaneously the most frustrating process and the one closest to the collage work that I did in art school in undergrad. The third essay, “Pyrology,” was written as a direct response to the first, a kind of “grown up” voice responding to the earlier child-scientist. Spoiler: the grown up is still an uncomfortable outsider when it comes to most affairs of the heart.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I just write. Eventually shapes in the essays I’ve completed begin to appear. They become more like blocks than separate stones. So, then I might start pushing pieces together to see what they look like side-by-side and also to see what gaps appear that I can yet write into. It’s a slow process, and not an especially well-organized or comforting one, but it’s mine.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual pieces in the chapbook?
The first essay was part of my master’s thesis, which was titled “Careers in Science,” and in it, all of the essays were supra-titled after an “ology”—phrenology, geology, mnesiology, tautology, etc. Originally, the three new essays in the chapbook were going to be a part of an expanded manuscript, so they too became ologies… I didn’t want to re-use the manuscript title, and I toyed with a half a dozen names before I settled on what seemed the most obvious.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I did not even know what would be on the cover until after the book had gone to the printer. I’m learning to love it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of lyric essays that might become a memoir project, and I am processing hours of research for a book on vultures.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Read chapbooks. They are easy to collect, and there are some really great presses doing wonderful work for writers and literature. Reading chaps is the best way to find which editors and presses might be amenable to your own work. My favorite presses include the aforementioned Sweet Publications and Rose Metal Press, but also Curbside Splendor, Origami Zoo Press, Tiny Hardcore Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, and New Michigan Press. Work through their catalog pages, or do like I do and stalk their tables at book fairs like a creepy creeper.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved throughout your career? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015). Her prose has appeared in a variety of places including Orion, Passages North, Brevity, Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, River Teeth, Sonora Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Olive B. O’Connor nonfiction fellowship and the Carter Prize for the Essay. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and currently teaches writing workshops at ApiaryLit.org and keeps a journal at RoamingCowgirl.com.