Four Memoirists Find an I in Team

by Anna Mantzaris

News and Trends

Posted 11.1.06

November/December 2006

Last year a total of 172,000 books were published in the United States. Although that number reflects a 10 percent decrease from the previous year, it's easy to see how any one book could get lost in the shuffle—especially if it's one among the many memoirs being published every season. With the idea that there's strength in numbers, four memoirists who published books earlier this year have joined forces to promote their titles, developing a community of like-minded authors—and fostering emerging writers—along the way.

Hillary Carlip, Maria Dahvana Headley, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, and Danielle Trussoni formed the Memoirists Collective after meeting on the community Web site MySpace. After exchanging e-mails, in April the group posted its own profile on MySpace, at www.myspace.com/thememoiristscollective (more than thirteen hundred people have since joined as "friends"). Shortly thereafter the collective launched its own site, www.memoiristscollective.com.

One of the authors' original objectives in banding together was simply to publicize their books as a package. Headley's The Year of Yes (Hyperion), Kilmer-Purcell's I Am Not Myself These Days (HarperPerennial), and Trussoni's Falling Through the Earth (Henry Holt) are all debuts, while Carlip's Queen of the Oddballs (HarperCollins) is a third book. "[We thought] maybe it would be more attractive. Instead of getting one interview, we'd get four," says Kilmer-Purcell. The authors began sharing advice online to help navigate the relatively unfamiliar territory of the book business. "We were really new not only to the publishing industry but to the idea of publicizing a book, and we spent a lot of time in the beginning comparing notes about the publishing industry," says Trussoni.

In addition to allowing them to pool their resources and exchange work, the group's cyberexchanges helped build a strong sense of community among the four authors, each of whom lives in a different city—Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Providence. "Writers don't have a lot of chances to commune together. As we were e-mailing we were learning so much from each other," says Kilmer-Purcell. "It's like being in the best MFA program you can imagine, where you actually really like all of the other writers," says Headley.

The collective has extended its support to unpublished writers through literary contests held online at MySpace. None of the contests have required entry fees, and prizes have included a meeting with the authors (the "Win a Date With the Memoirists Collective" contest) and an opportunity to have an agent at the William Morris Agency read the winner's book proposal. The third and most recent contest, held from June 12 to July 19, called for eight-hundred-word memoir submissions. Several hundred writers from the United States and abroad—ranging from seventeen to ninety-one years old—posted work online to win the chance to have a manuscript read by editors at the publishing houses of the collective's members. During the contest MySpace users could read and comment on the entries. "It's so unusual," says Headley. "Most contests, you go behind closed doors. In this case, it's been a totally transparent contest." Seven finalists were chosen by the collective and asked to proceed with an additional two-thousand-word submission.

On August 7, twenty-four-year-old Luke Son of New York City was announced as the winner via a live Webcast of a reading by the four members of the collective—the first time they had all read together—at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cleveland. Over seventy people attended the event, and a portion of the profits from book sales went to the Ohio Center for the Book at the Cleveland Public Library.

While the James Frey and Nasdijj controversies have exposed the art of memoir to some criticism, the group says they hope to use the Memoirists Collective as a platform for calling positive attention to the genre. "We saw the memoir genre getting knocked by the mass media, by people we didn't think were fair critics. Why is Oprah critiquing literature? Shouldn't it be writers, academics?" asks Kilmer-Purcell. "Part of us getting together was to get another playing field for debate on memoir."

Anna Mantzaris is a freelance journalist.

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