Story in the Narrative Essay
In the intense heat of the 1987 drought, my co-author Jane Staw and I climbed into the cab of a pickup truck, with cooler, computer, sleeping bags, and two dogs, and set off across seven Midwestern states to interview gardeners for our book Parsnips in the Snow ( 1990). A year later, we had talked to fifty gardeners and profiled twelve in our collection, including a mail carrier in Omaha, an African American philanthropist in Topeka, a stockbroker in Chicago, and a Trappist monk in Dubuque. Between our first stop for gas on Interstate 35 and our publication party, we journeyed through a writing process that struggled not only with the form of the interview as essay, but with the essay as narrative akin to the short story.
Once home, we had pools of melted ice cubes in the cooler and boxes of interviews on cassette tape, but we were a long way from having a book. Diligently, painstakingly, we put the pedal to the tape recorder metal and made transcripts of the information we had gathered. Then the real work began. We read and reread, searched and pulled out the best quotes from the interviews themselves. Because people often speak in non sequiturs, jumping from subject to subject, from place to place, we attempted to stitch the best quotes together, ordering them in a logical fashion, eliminating irrelevancies and redundancies.
After months of work, we found we were getting closer to the idea of the interview, the heart of a story about each one of these gardeners, the hearts of the gardeners themselves. We had created Studs Terkel-like oral histories that developed a dramatic tension of their own, a rise and fall of action, a peak moment of insight or epiphany. There before us was the raw material for a good essay, but we wanted something more.