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October 24, 2022

Giskin’s latest work, Essays, was born from his previous book Arcade of Memory. From there, he began to explore the essay format until it coalesced into Essays, published this year. We spoke with Giskin about what makes a good essay collection and his experiences writing one.

Can you tell us the story behind Essays?

Essays began as an experiment in an earlier book called Arcade of Memory. That book consisted mostly of poetry and short stories but did contain three brief essays. Writing these three short essays was an exercise to find out if the essay form was something I was able to master as well as enjoy. In beginning to write Essays, I was unsure how the book would play out. The title came after I had written a number of pieces and is a nod to perhaps the greatest, and one of the earliest, essayists, Montaigne. My aim in writing the book was to say something about my life and interests in a way that I hope will appeal to readers. That’s the tricky part, because what interests the writer may not always interest the reader, though this is the challenge of any kind of writing. You must write from the heart but also keep in mind that you’re writing for others as well. It’s a kind of juggling act, a learning process, and discipline.   

Did you write the material specifically for the book or did you build Essays from pre-written work?

All the material in Essays is new. This was part of the enjoyment I had writing the book, the idea that I would be creating something that had relatively little to do with what I’d written before, though about things I’d given quite a bit of thought to over the years. As it happened, the isolation provided by the pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity to spend a lot of time writing and thinking, something that caused me to better understand the solitary nature of writing. For the most part, it’s simply the writer developing a relationship with their own mind and sentiments, which I found a fascinating complement to the writing process. Curious also is the idea that oftentimes one doesn’t know precisely what one thinks about a subject until it’s set down in writing. This is not to say that putting something into words finalizes one’s sentiments, only that it forces them to be more precise.   

What do you think a good essay collection should accomplish?  

This is an interesting question. In the afterword to The Maker, Jorge Luis Borges writes about a man who sets out to draw the world, filling it with people, places, kingdoms, mountains, stars, and many other things, only to discover that what he has sketched out is “the lineaments of his own face.” I think more than anything an essay collection is a portrait of the author, their likes and dislikes, even prejudices, assumptions, and idiosyncratic view of the world. The essay is a literary form that makes no pretense of objectivity. A good essay collection should present a view of reality that is unique, probing, and honest, allowing the individuality of the writer to color each topic discussed. Then it’s up to the reader to decide if the “portrait” presented is of interest or not.

What do you hope that readers take away from Essays?

First, I hope the collection is an engaging read. Beyond this, I hope the book prompts people to think about things they perhaps haven’t, such as the importance of self-examination, the formative role of family, travel as a form of knowing, what science teaches us about our place in the universe, as well as our relationship to history, both recent and long past.

Can you share what’s next for you?

At present, I’m working on a collection of poems and have plans for an extended philosophical meditation on some of the issues that have concerned me over a lifetime.