Amy Zhang ’15 is writing a book, and she doesn’t know how it will end. That is, she has concepts planned and stories drafted, but as for where everything intersects and what it will mean, she has only ideas.
Zhang has been working since October, and her first complete draft deadline is set for next week. Yet for Zhang, one of this year’s Stethoscope Press writers, creating a 40-page book is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for experimentation and self-discovery.
Stethoscope Press received book proposals from 40 students, who ranged from freshmen to seniors, at the beginning of the school year. After having published four student-produced books every year since its founding in 2009, the Press decided to expand to five writers for its 2013 series.
Zhang has enjoyed the process-focused experience so far.
“I always write to understand myself better,” she said.
Fittingly, her currently untitled book seeks to reconcile her cultural identity with her experiences growing up and facing stereotypes in both China and the United States.
“A lot of clichéd, third-world literature is told in one way,” Zhang said, “but there [are] so many other ways to describe this Chinese-American transformation.”
Her approach is to tie in elements of memoir, poetry, prose, and journalism, looking at the economic and historical backgrounds of the two countries while still including her own perspective.
This type of complicated, genre-defying project was exactly what the editors of the University’s only student-run press wanted for this year’s series.
“[We were looking for] the things that, in some sense, needed to be a book,” Editor-in-Chief Piers Gelly ’13 said. “It would have to be greater than the sum of its parts. We want to use Stethoscope to bring about books that otherwise wouldn’t be.”
What the writers plan to include in their books varies wildly. Josh Krugman ’14 is working on a book of poems, Nate Dolton-Thornton ’15 is writing a novella, and Rachel Pincus ’13 and Kate Weiner ’15 are grappling with concept-heavy, interdisciplinary projects.
Pincus originally set out to write a novella, but instead found that her idea about young people in the early Cold War era worked best as a series of three related stories.
“I was more interested in many small arcs rather than one large arc,” Pincus said.
Her project grew out of a short story written for Associate Professor of English Deb Unferth’s Techniques of Fiction class. In the piece, a girl who spies on her classmates at boarding school becomes unsure if she caused her favorite male teacher to suddenly leave.
“[The stories are about] being at that age where you don’t really know if your actions have any impact on the world,” Pincus said.
Pincus is still trying to figure out what the three stories have in common. Like Zhang, she doesn’t yet know how they tie together.
“My goal is to have my conflicts be central to the Cold War but also be relatable to people now,” Pincus said. “I’m more interested in being middle-brow—not pulp and not pretentious.”
To accomplish her goal, Pincus works closely with her personal editor, Amy Block ’13. All writers are paired with Stethoscope editors who help them through the creative process, read through drafts, give suggestions and ideas, and keep them on deadline.
“[She’s] a terrific bouncing board for ideas,” Pincus said. “We get together, have tea, and just talk about it.”
That opportunity to simply brainstorm with another, more experienced writer is central to the Press’ structure. Often, a Stethoscope writer goes on to become an editor the year after to help a new writer create his or her project.
For her book, Weiner is working on a mixed media project on the concept of home. The project, composed of smaller, thematically connected pieces, requires a lot of conversation with her editor, Jason Katzenstein ’13.
“Now that we’re in college, our childhood houses no longer feel like home,” Weiner said. “People are more homes to me.”
To explore this idea, Weiner is playing with everything from collage and drawings to short stories and poetry, while Katzenstein helps her organize and edit her many components.
“All of these different formats are coming in, and it keeps me on my toes as an editor,” Katzenstein wrote in an email to The Argus. “It’s always exciting to get her new work because, no matter the genre, I know I’m in for beautiful language and especially killer last sentences.”
Katzenstein is particularly qualified for this type of project, having himself published a graphic novel with Stethoscope last year—a first for the Press—with Gelly as his editor.
According to Gelly, each book requires specialized attention and consideration in its production.
“[With Zhang’s book,] we’re going to find a way to package all of these things that would normally be totally disparate into one thing you can read, and you can get the kaleidoscopic and crazy sense of what she’s trying to do,” Gelly said.
The ability of Stethoscope to accommodate so many different types of forms and media has greatly changed since the days when Davy Knittle ’11 would produce the books using the Russell House copy machine. Now, Stethoscope writers look forward to bound, letterpress books designed this year by Alahna Watson ’13 and Sam Maldonado ’13.
Stethoscope looks to print around 400 copies per book, adding up to over 1,000 dollars per author. As its writers branch out into illustrations and color, the press wants to further individualize the production process, adding more costs but allowing for the best possible results. Funding is always an issue, of course, and Gelly admits that this year he was late to scrape together the few thousand dollars they need.
The deadline, meanwhile, still stands.
After their drafts are due next week, the writers will continue to edit, expand, and revise their books. By the end of March, Stethoscope plans to send the completed works to press; in April, piles of student-written, edited, and produced books will be available free of cost around campus and at Stethoscope’s annual reading event.
Though the deadlines are set, Zhang is not sure when she’ll even know her project is over. Maybe it will be when her writing can properly convey her thoughts and experience to others, or maybe it will be when she’s come to a new realization through her own work: everything is still in the process of connecting itself.