The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook is full of whimsy—but that book ended up containing a lot of heartache and hope, too, which tugged me right into the creation of Eat Joy. With The Lonely Stories, I wanted to go deeper into the depths of heartache and come back out into the light. We’ve all felt alone. We all will continue to feel lonely sometimes! I think reading about it, from a range of contributors exploring a range of experiences, can be a way of using loneliness to connect with each other.
I’m drawn to the idea of art as a way of transmuting loneliness into connection.
TI: I’m curious to know which one comes to you first—a theme that you know you want to organize an anthology around, or the feeling that you want to curate a selection of voices and find the right subject?
NEG: For what I’ve done, it’s always been the subject. I feel like I work pretty intuitively—I’m also a painter, and my paintings have always been very intuitive as well—I didn’t necessarily intend to pivot from doing something food-related, ostensibly cookbooks, to a book on loneliness and aloneness. But I just followed my heart and what I’m interested in. Maybe that’s a bit of chaotic energy. I know that, with publishers, people seem to prefer to put people in their little separate boxes. Meanwhile, I’m a painter, I have an MFA in painting, yet apparently I now am an editor, and a food person, but now I’m contemplating loneliness. I really don’t know what will happen next.
TI: Loneliness is presented so beautifully in this book. With something that’s that big, that relatable and resonant, how did you go about curating a multifaceted approach to the theme?
NEG: When I invited people, I typically would offer up various prompts. I definitely made it clear from the beginning that I was interested in [pieces] that explored the ways in which alone time can be maddening and isolating and painful, but also pieces that explored the ways in which alone time can be a thrill, or a joy, or something that you crave but can’t access, which I think a lot of people also experienced during the pandemic. There was this simultaneous excess of loneliness and then absence of solitude, which is something I contemplated a lot. I feel like one thing I learned from making the book—but after it had already been printed, of course—is that our longing for solitude is also another kind of loneliness. I think it relates to my experience of the pandemic, and probably a lot of people’s experience of the pandemic. There was so much loneliness, but also the loneliness of not having solitude. Like, I have kids at home, and solitude is something that I crave. It’s like loneliness from oneself. A lack of connection to yourself.
As the book developed, I sometimes changed the prompt, because I knew what I needed and what I didn’t have yet. I needed more joy—this might have been because I literally needed more joy, but I remember emphasizing, please, tell me about the joyful. And I think I got three more pieces that were like, “I love solitude!” It was exactly what I needed. And I think it was what the book needed. There was an evolution. I didn’t just do one call for submissions. There were rolling deadlines, building it over time. Sometimes people would go in and sometimes they’d come out; sometimes things worked and then didn’t. Other times people hoped to do it and then they couldn’t, which is completely understandable. It was a process.
TI: Your book was also a really lovely tour through geography. There was such a rich sense of place.
NEG: I’m so glad you noticed that and felt that way, because I really feel that too. As a painter, I really like it when there’s a sense of grounding, a sense of place, and also a vividness. I love it when I’m able to paint a picture in my mind while reading. That’s not a hallmark of good writing—there are so many qualities that can make writing compelling to me—emotional resonance is what I’m drawn to in all works of art, what I’m drawn to in paintings. But I also just really love a sense of place. I felt the stories were transporting, almost, which for me seemed unexpected for a book about loneliness or being alone, that each one took me into different landscapes and also different journeys through the landscape.
TI: Another thing that interests me, in your previous collection as well as this one, is that they’re both explicitly framed as being collections “by writers”—“X number of writers on”—and so much of this book is about the act of writing, the loneliness of writing, the connection of writing. What interests you putting the two into conversation—why writers on loneliness and writerson comfort food, specifically, beyond the practical answer? I’m interested in the extent to which the books themselves become about the writing process.
NEG: That is something that interests me, though I’ve experienced it more as a visual artist and painter. Painting and writing both require alone time. But for me, when I’m fully inside a painting, intimately connected to color and form and feeling, I feel profoundly unlonely. Maybe this is part of why I miss it so much—that dearth of alone time that I’ve experienced during the pandemic! Other contributors—Amy Shearn, Maya Lang, Jhumpa Lahiri—touch upon this as well: how they cherish the act of writing and reading in part because it’s a way of creating connection. Lev, though, brought up the converse: how writerly alone time can also be awfully lonely. I certainly struggle to find the right balance there, between feeling connected to others while still also connected to myself.
There were a lot of cleansing cries in the process of making this book.
TI: Do you think working on the book in any way changed the way you think about solitude and loneliness?
NEG: I would hope I view the different permutations with more compassion. The thing I was saying before, about the loneliness of not having alone time, is something that I think about more. That’s partly the result of the pandemic, during which most of the book was created. I actually sold the book in 2019, so it was born before the pandemic, but a lot of it was read and edited and put together in 2020. It was a hard time to make a book, I think. It was a hard time to believe in books, to believe that there would be readers who would need this and that there was joy that could be summoned from this and that it all would matter to someone. That our stories needed to be told. It felt really fraught, but at the same time I feel like making it at the time—when it worked—it felt so much more profound, so much more inherently therapeutic. There were a lot of cleansing cries in the process of making this book, on my end at least. I have talked about that with a few contributors who I’ve befriended along the way, which is a really dear aspect to me—maybe part of why I’m drawn to the form, honestly; maybe it’s part of my way of dealing with my own loneliness. I have forged so many incredible connections and friendships, ultimately, through the process of making these books, which is this incredible gift I feel very lucky and grateful for.
TI: Putting a book together does build a community, in a way.
NEG: Especially for this one, even more than Eat Joy. It’s a very intimate topic. It felt like a hard ask, and then especially in 2020, it felt like a harder ask. And there is still, I think, so much stigma about loneliness and about being alone. I would hope that it’s softened a bit because of the pandemic, because it’s something that we’ve all experienced in some form. I hope that that opens up an opportunity for talking about it in a different way, with less shame. I feel like the loneliness of shame was another thread that I was really hoping people would pick up on in the book, because I think it’s one of those things that can be so burdensome. Making peace with loneliness in general, really.
TI: Finally, what’s next for you, creatively?
NEG: I don’t know where I’ll be pulled next. I would love to do another book, but I do really miss the visual world and the visual language. I’ll probably be spending a lot of time in my box of paint in the basement when the book is done.