An Interview with Brian Gresko, by Maria Gagliano
June 17, 2014
In honor of this father’s day week, I chatted with Brian Gresko, editor of the new essay collection When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood (Berkley Books/Penguin). The book is an amazing compilation of voices on fatherhood from all ends of the literary spectrum—from Lev Grossman, Rick Moody, and Benjamin Percy to Slice alum Alexi Zentner. It’s an impressive roster, to be sure, but Brian’s own introduction to the book is not to be overlooked. As a literary dad himself, Brian writes with heartbreaking clarity on the joys, confusion, and beautiful mess that is parenting.
I wish I could get every parent I know to read this book. Each essay is a unique reminder that no matter how lonely we may feel as parents, however badly we’ve felt we’ve messed up our kids, and however dark, corny, desperate, or ecstatic we may feel at times, we’re not alone in this. These guys assure us that we human parents are much more connected than we realize.
You mention in the book’s introduction that in your early days as a stay-at-home dad, you longed to meet other fathers, perhaps even another stay-at-home dad who might be going through a similar experience as your own. It’s interesting to see how far you’ve come in that regard–from a lone dad looking for a parenting comrade to the editor of a book brimming with voices on this very topic. What made you decide to begin working on the book? Was there a particular parenting moment, or some other catalyst, that inspired you to bring these voices together?
My son was born a week after I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and after a couple of months I was home alone with him full-time. I began writing about that experience for The Huffington Post, and I was surprised at not just how helpful I found the work — as with any essay, I worked through a series of problems and questions, though in this case I was writing about my personal life, so the process had a therapeutic quality to it — but also how strongly the essays resonated with people, many of whom had never read a dad’s take on raising a baby before. I began looking around for what other authors had written on the subject, in part to improve my craft, but also because I’ve always turned to books for comfort and guidance, and becoming a father (let alone a stay-at-home dad) is a huge change in a man’s life. I found plenty of blogs, but on the whole these were composed of quickly written posts with tidy endings, whereas I sought work that was more artfully crafted, and thoughtful, and better reflected the messy, confusing reality of life with kids. Fiction inspired me, but the dads of great books are usually not model fathers, and besides, they don’t often have a lot of interiority when it comes to their kids. Since I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I decided to make it, to turn to great writers and ask them to write about their experiences as fathers.
I would imagine that editing When I First Held You has left you with a wealth of eclectic insight on fatherhood. Has your perspective on parenting changed much after working so closely with these essays?
You know how when an author talks about his or her writing process, there’s always this hope that the author is going to pull out a pen and say, “I’m a great writer because of this magic pen. This is all you need to do it!” I kind of thought that there might be a similar secret to being a great parent, that there was some easily adopted mantra, or a trick that would relieve my anxiety about fatherhood. There’s not. And there’s no magic pen, either! Every writer worries about their work and how it will be received, and every parent worries about how well they’re raising their child and how he or she will do in this scary, beautiful world. As Lev Grossman put it, each novel requires a different strategy, and each kid comes with a unique personality and requirements. So I’ve come to relax my expectations a bit, because all of the stories in When I First Held You feature guys who worry and wonder about their parenting—no one has it figured out. All you can do is love your kid the best way possible, without guilt, or shame, or hesitation, and allow that feeling to motivate your parenting decisions.
What was your process of finding and working with contributors for the book? How did you decide whom to invite to contribute?
Finding contributors took some research, because there is no central database where you can easily suss out which male authors are fathers, nor is that something many male authors are asked about in interviews. I developed a long wish list, and turned to friends for suggestions too, then I did my best to find out if the guy was actually a dad before asking them to contribute. (I made a few mistakes in that regard.) The contributor list developed over the course of months, because not everyone accepted their invitation – some guys had projects going, others didn’t want to write about their family lives, and because I reached out to fiction writers, some said no because they just don’t write essays.
Did any contributors especially surprise you with the essays they turned in?
They all did to some extent, because I didn’t know much in advance about the stories they were planning to tell. For the most part, after an author agreed to contribute we didn’t talk again until he submitted his essay. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to receive their essays in my inbox! It was like getting a gift.
The bigger surprise came when I assembled the essays into a manuscript. Sitting side-by-side, themes emerged, and these weren’t themes that I had directed the guys to write about, or which they had talked about amongst themselves; they came about naturally. Several contributors write about feeling like failures as a father, or of seeing the world differently after having kids. Some have crises in which they realize they don’t know how, nor would they want to be, a traditional, “man of the house” style dad, but they’re not sure what kind of dad they’d like to be instead. Others talk about faith, which, as an atheist, was a theme I didn’t see coming at all. The collection as a whole shines a bright light onto the state of contemporary fatherhood in our country, and while that was certainly my hope, I had no clear sense what it would reveal.
As a full-time stay-at-home dad, how do you juggle fatherhood, married life, writing, and the overall maintenance of your own sanity?
You assume that I do maintain my sanity! Some days I wonder. Seriously, it’s a daily struggle, and I don’t often have the balance that I would like. For me, the important thing is to avoid resentment – either because I’d like to be writing but am with my son, or because I’d like to be out with my family on a Sunday morning and instead I’m inside, alone, writing. I try to be in the moment that I’m in without any negativity, because if I am emotionally torn up about my situation then I’m not able to be a good dad — my temper runs quick, I get grumpy — and I’m not able to focus enough to write well. I find I have to forgive myself, and accept that I don’t have enough energy in the day to get done everything that I’d like to get done. Though who does?
André Aciman has this great line in his essay about how, when his sons go off to college, he realizes that the relationship he’s ignored the most over the years has been his relationship with himself. That’s certainly true for me. I make time to write, and play with my son, and see friends and colleagues. But I largely read for review purposes, and not often for pure pleasure. I don’t see many movies. My once regimented exercise routine is now catch as catch can. I haven’t gone to a yoga class in years. The first thing I jettison from my schedule is the stuff that I’d like to do, in favor of what I feel I have to do.
Can you tell us about the novel you’re currently working on?
It’s very different from the parenting pieces: it’s speculative fiction, set off-planet. There are spaceships. It draws from my love of sci-fi movies, and the work of Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut. Ok, so parenting still plays a part: one character is a mother-to-be. I’ve spent so much time thinking about fatherhood, I’m curious to imagine what pregnancy feels like, which isn’t something I can explore too deeply in an essay.
What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines, a special writing space, or quirks?
I write for a couple hours in the morning when my son is at school, and for a bit in the afternoon while he watches TV, and sometimes at night after he’s in bed. I work at the kitchen table, or on the couch, or I jot down notes while riding the subway. As a parent, I snatch whatever time I have available wherever I am to scribble. Sometimes I’m not literally writing when I’m “writing.” Novelist Eleanor Henderson told me that a parent who writes has to redefine their conception of work. So it might look like I’m building LEGO with my son, but inside I’m mulling over a piece of dialogue or planning out an essay. This isn’t to imply that I’m not mentally present when I’m with him! It’s more like there are plenty of opportunities for daydreaming when you’re spending a long afternoon with a four-year-old, and I try to use these to their fullest.
As for quirks: I take breaks to dance and move, to recharge my imagination. This goes over a lot better when I’m working at home than when I’m in a cafe.
Photo credit: Zola Acker
Brian Gresko has written for Poets & Writers Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Salon, TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at briangresko.com.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications.