Nicole Chung Talks Anthologies and the Nerdy Joys of Structure
The All You Can Ever Know Author on Reading Women
In this episode of Reading Women, Kendra talks with Nicole Chung about the anthology she co-edited, A Map Is Only One Story out now from Catapult.
From the episode:
Kendra: Today, I’m talking to Nicole Chung, the editor in chief of Catapult Magazine and also one of the co-editors of the anthology A Map Is Only One Story, which is also out from Catapult.
You may remember Nicole Chung as she was shortlisted for the Reading Women Award for her memoir All You Can Ever Know back in 2018. We absolutely loved it. And so now she is back as her role as an editor, putting together this anthology, A Map Is Only One Story. And this anthology focuses on twenty writers on immigration, family, and the meaning of home. And I loved talking to Nicole about how she and her co-editor, Mensah Demary went and put together this anthology and chose selections from Catapult magazine.
A little bit about Nicole: she was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. And her memoir, All You Can Ever Know, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award, and named a best book of the year by numerous publications. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Nicole Chung.
Nicole, welcome to the podcast. I’m so excited to have you on.
Nicole: Me, too. Thanks, Kendra.
Kendra: I first became familiar with your work with your memoir in 2018. And it was shortlisted for the Reading Women Award.
Nicole: Yes, I remember! I’m so grateful for that. Thank you.
Kendra: Huge, huge fan. So I’m so excited to talk to you today. But you’re here today to talk a little bit about your work with Catapult magazine.
Nicole: Yes. I’m very excited.
Kendra: So you’re the editor in chief of Catapult magazine. What is an editor in chief for listeners who may not be familiar with it?
Nicole: Oh man, that’s a really good question. I should have a very good explanation. I think it varies a lot depending on the publication and the type of work that they typically publish. But, you know, at Catapult, what it means is, effectively, I am in charge of a group of editors who also work on the magazine. So I very much do not edit everything myself. There’s no way I could do that. I have a wonderful team of editors, including my managing editor Matt Ortile, an associate editor, Mallory Soto, and an editorial assistant, Alisen Hae Ji Lichtenstein. And there’s also a number of contributing editors, people who work for Catapult in some other capacity as well. So they work for like books or classes or writing program, but also like to edit pieces for the magazine as they have time. And then we have a whole roster of contributing editors who freelance for us. So there are a number of editors on the site who work with writers.
So what I do as editor in chief, I read every pitch or every draft as it comes in. So I give the final thumbs up or thumbs down, although that makes it sound kind of like a tyranny. And really what it is is a discussion. Like it’s a conversation because often a pitch will come in, and we can’t quite envision it yet. So it might not be an immediate “yes,” but we’ll talk about it. I’ll talk about it with with my editor. They will talk about it with the writer. We’ll kind of go from there. And the same thing can happen even when we’re submitted a full draft. Right? There can be a lot of back and forth. And once you really get into the editing itself, I sort of like to view that as a chance to have like a workshop with each writer and like a mini workshop when we’re working on this piece together and trying to make it as strong as it can be.
So as editor in chief of Catapult, I do edit at least usually two to three pieces a week for the magazine. And it is like an editor-first position as opposed to being all oversight or all planning or budget. I really think actually working with writers is my favorite part of my job. So even though I’m the editor in chief, I have not and probably will never give that part up. I feel like at Catapult magazine, you know, we have a really great team. It involves a lot of discussion and collaboration on everything from the writing to the art to headlines and social media. So I kind of just think of myself as sort of like the spoke in the wheel, you know, sort of helping to make sure all those different tasks are kept on track, that everyone’s collaborating and getting something out of the experience, especially the writer.
I think of myself as sort of like the spoke in the wheel, you know, helping to make sure everything is kept on track.
Kendra: So how long has Catapult been publishing pieces?
Nicole: We’ve been publishing for about four years. So I actually was not with a magazine at the beginning. The magazine has been part of Catapult since it was established. I joined, I would say, like a year, a year after that because at the time Catapult was founded, I was still at The Toast, which closed in 2016. Catapult was established in the fall of 2015.
Kendra: Yeah. RIP The Toast. That was a sad time.
Nicole: I know. A moment of silence. So my association with Catapult, the magazine, actually started before then because I was a guest editor for a great essay series featuring adopted writers. Obviously adoption is an issue really close to my heart, and I’ve written a lot about it. And Catapult offered me the chance to guest-edit a series of essays by other writers all focused on this topic. So I jumped at it, even though I was at the time still full time at The Toast. Just kind of made the time. And it was a great experience. We published eight essays by adoptees who are also writers, and I wrote a little intro for the series. And it was wonderful. And it was such a good experience working with the magazine that once The Toast closed, I came on board as a contributing editor and then eventually became the managing editor reporting to Yuka Igarashi, who’s our founding editor in chief.
Kendra: Oh wow, that’s a pretty great trajectory. And so you mentioned already that you now have your first anthology from Catapult. And it’s A Map Is Only One Story, twenty writers on immigration, family, and the meaning of home. So what inspired you to take some of the pieces from Catapult magazine and turn them into an anthology?
Nicole: We’re very proud of the magazine. And I really do think of it—and I’m not the only one who thinks of it this way—but I also tend to think of it as a daily, weekly, ongoing expression of Catapult and our values. I’m just so proud of the writing that is regularly featured. I’m proud of the writers that we’ve gotten to work with. I’m proud of the editors who contribute.
And I think—I don’t know if it’s from the beginning because I wasn’t here at the very beginning—definitely by the time I joined, we were talking about the possibility of print anthologies that drew from the archives of the magazine. This is a chance to get the work out there in a new format. It’s really exciting given it’s a chance too for the writers, some of whom might not have books out yet or might not have been in an anthology like this before. It’s a chance for them to go through that publication experience and learn something from it as well. And obviously then just have their work out there in a different way, hopefully finding different readers. I mean, we had started talking about the possibility of print anthologies and then thinking about what would a good theme be for the first one. And we kicked around a lot of different ideas because I think from the beginning we realized, having just a general anthology, where we chose our favorites, was always going to be impossible because there’s so much great writing. And if we didn’t narrow it down by a theme or a topic, then it would just make choosing essays impossible.
Kendra: I can imagine. The theme is twenty writers on immigration, family, and the meaning of home. How did you come to decide on that particular theme for your first anthology?
Nicole: We were talking about a lot of different ideas for the first anthology, including the possibility of a fiction anthology, which is something I would really love to publish in the future because I think we’ve published some fabulous short stories. A lot of debut writers. And I would just be so excited to edit that and publish it.
But when we were talking about possible themes like immigration and family and community, these were ideas we kept coming back to, partly because we have had a long running series called “Migrations” on the site, in the magazine. So we knew that was really a deep well. It wasn’t like we necessarily put out a big a big call for these essays. They just started coming in to us and have since the beginning. And it seems obvious as to why, now looking back. You know, the subject is so important. It affects so many families and communities and has been for a long time so important in terms of national conversation and identity. And it intersects with so many other issues like family, like community, like identity and race and culture.
So we had a lot of the essays as part of the series already and a lot of other pieces actually in this anthology weren’t part of that “Migration” essay series. But, you know, they might have been in other series, but they still seem to us to be fitting for this anthology. And we kept coming back to immigration as a focus just because the idea of borders and belonging and the actual consequences of laws and policies in the midst of that conversation, I think what you see in the stories in this particular anthology is that before it’s about any of those things, migration is so much a story about individuals, about their families, about the communities that they leave behind and the communities that they find and that they form.
You know, when I was rereading work to try to think about this anthology, I was really struck by this line from Jameela Osmond’s essay, “A Map of Lost Things.” And she writes, “A country is impossible to contain. People are impossible to boil to the salt of parchment. A map is only one story. It’s not the most important story. The most important story is the one that people tell about themselves.” And obviously, the title of this anthology is drawn from that essay. And I think also that for me that line just kind of set the tone in terms of what this is really about because we do hope that readers will think about, as they read these stories, that migration is the story of people before anything else.
Kendra: And you have so many great essays from a wide range of writers. And there’s even a graphic-memoir type essay in the anthology, which is just so delightful to see. I love that the anthology is so inclusive of different types of storytelling and people telling their own stories. What was the process of choosing the different pieces? Did you reach out to the writers? Did you make any changes to the essays for the anthology edition? What was just that process like?
Nicole: This is where the collaboration, again, came in. And I think one of my favorite parts of the process was also one of the hardest parts. Right? When we’re actually trying to pick essays. And we originally talked about having fewer than twenty. And then . . . first of all, again, it’s just so hard to choose among so many great, great writers. And secondly, it just felt like expanding the number of the pieces in the anthology would just allow us to show that many more important perspectives. Right?
So several different editors had edited pieces in this anthology when the pieces were originally published. I think that we had like a group document, and everyone who edits had access, and everyone could nominate pieces that they thought should go in an anthology. And honestly, we took and we ended up including most of the ones that people did suggest. So I think every editor who has ever edited for Catapult or currently edits for us now—sorry, an essay in this anthology, you know, unless they came after the essays were set. So it’s just been a really collaborative process from the beginning. And I love that not only are there so many writers that we got to include in this, there are so many editors who also had a hand in it.
Something I love about anthologies or just collections in general is the order in which you read the pieces—the way that it’s sort of like a good playlist.
Each anthology contributor had the opportunity to make any changes that they wanted to make to their pieces for the book. Many did not take us up on it. They were happy with the pieces as is. But several did make small adjustments or changes, and so they all did have the opportunity to do that before we went to print. So a few of them . . . there have just been a few updates or a few corrections, but they are pretty small changes.
Kendra: So the one of the things I love about anthologies or just collections in general is the order in which you read the pieces because of the way that it’s sort of like a good playlist, like you want the feelings to follow from one piece to another and to flow in that way with its structure. What was the process of just figuring out what order the pieces were going into? And I know this is a very nerdy structural question, but. . . .
Nicole: I love this question! But also I love all nerdy stuff. Structure is like the hardest part of a book and writing in general, at least for me. And I also really could talk about it for hours, probably because I agonized so much over it. So it’s a good question. So with this collection, once we had the pieces pretty much set, I was actually the one who sat down and organized it, at least the first draft.
And I mean, I just said the process was very collaborative, and it was. But like it would have been really hard if six people were doing that. So I said I would take first stab at it. And I was . . . I’m an editor and as a writer, I’m always kind of looking for narratives, for narrative arc. And it’s a challenge when you have an anthology with so many different writers and so many different perspectives and styles. Each essay obviously has its own little arc. That’s really essential. But I wanted the experience of reading the whole book. If you do start at the beginning and go to the end—which you absolutely do not have to do; you can read in your own order—but if you read from beginning to end, I did want it to feel like there was somewhat of an arc, even though obviously these are somewhat disconnected pieces. Right? They weren’t written with each other in mind.
And really it was trial and error. You know, like I went back and forth on which essay I thought could maybe open and which could close. If one essay, the ending of it made me feel like it led well into the next or could be in conversation, I guess, with a piece that followed or a piece that preceded, I thought about that. So I probably spent a week or two just kind of like moving things around. And then I asked for feedback from readers. And I think we might have changed a couple of things, but I think basically most of those early readers were pretty happy with the order itself. So I hope it doesn’t feel haphazard. I hope it feels kind of intentional because I was trying—we were trying—to think about, you know, how . . . about that order and about like what . . . how that affects the experience for the reader.
Kendra: I think, like you said, it’s such an important part is the structure, just because you want the pieces to also be almost in dialogue with each other as well. Structure is always my favorite. And I’m always here for nerdy questions about structure. And when I used to be handed a manuscript to make better, I would always start with structure. Because it was always a mess. And I was like, well, this is why you can’t think of, you know, your ideas is because you’re all . . . you know . . . you’re everywhere. And that was always my favorite part was fixing structure of things. So I’m always here for nerdy questions and discussions about that.
Nicole: Yeah, I’m remember really agonizing over that with my book, my memoir. And it was. Structure is like the hardest thing. When I teach workshops, we always end up talking about structure for hours. I think it’s definitely the most challenging part. But I also find it so rewarding when something clicks into place. And then as you read, it feels kind of effortless. That’s one of my favorite parts.
Kendra So you mentioned your own memoir, All You Can Ever Know. And what was it like or generally what’s it like for you editing someone else’s work versus working on your own?
Nicole: I love editing so much. And in many ways, I feel freer editing than I do writing. I’ve loved editing from the first time I was exposed to it. I just knew like this . . . this is great. This is it. This will always be part of my career if I can . . . at least if I get to choose. I don’t think I could really give that up. There’s so much I love about it. Again, the collaborative process, having kind of like a workshop experience but one-on-one with the writer.
in many ways, I feel freer editing than I do writing.
I love how much editing teaches me. I appreciate, and I’m grateful for how it makes me a better writer. I also think, you know, having had to write and revise my own work has helped me. It’s given me a different perspective on my editing too. It’s funny. In some ways, I think I have more confidence in myself as an editor than a writer. And I really, truly trust the revision process, which has helped me in my own work because when I feel stuck or impatient with myself or just like this is the worst thing I’ve ever written. It’s never going to work. I try to remember, “You edit every day. You’ve seen drafts go from . . . like a good solid drafts, right . . . to like just beautiful, brilliant pieces of work. You should be able to trust this process and trust that you can make it better with time.” It is such a valuable lesson and has been hard for me to internalize in my own writing life. And editing keeps that truth ever present in a very comforting way, to be honest. I really love working with writers themselves. I love how it’s always different no matter how many times you’ve edited. Like a writer, they can always surprise you no matter how many years you’ve spent editing. You can still learn something new. It is just to me endlessly fascinating and instructive and inspiring. So that’s why I love it.
Kendra: I really love that feeling of being sent a piece and reading it and saying, Oh, this is amazing. Also, what if we just move this around? What if you expanded on this idea? It’s one of my favorite processes because usually writers come back with something even better. And you just like, how did you do that? How did you . . . how did you do . . .? This is great. This is great!
Nicole: I have joked that one of the keys to editing is learning which very annoying questions to ask because you don’t always have a solution. In fact, I mean, usually you don’t. Even if you do, it’s a guess. And ultimately, the writer has final authority on the piece. They’re the ones who will know if it’s right and who kind of have to come up with at least a lot of the solutions. But you can really guide that process through the questions that you ask, the places that you highlight and put your comments. And it’s one of my favorite parts of the whole process. Often my first edit in a piece is . . . it’s not . . . I mean, before I get to a line edit or anything, any grammar or anything else, I go through, and I sort of read and I see like, where do I have questions? And it’s always where I start. So I think that’s probably the most important part of the process.
Kendra: I really love that perspective because I think a lot of readers who pick up the book, maybe they’ll pick up an anthology like this or or a longer piece. I think a lot of readers don’t realize what an editor does. And I think that because editors are so behind-the-scenes, it’s often like a mysterious kind of “what does an editor do,” you know? And so I really appreciate you telling listeners and giving kind of an inside look at that because I think it’s often shrouded in mystery for people who don’t work inside the industry, as it were.
Nicole: Definitely. And, you know, it obviously varies a lot depending on an editor’s editing load, the things that they’re looking for, who the publication is aimed at or why it exists. Right? So we have a very different function than like a breaking news site. Or even like a site that publishes a ton of like op-eds or cultural commentary. You know, we’re something very different. Not that our pieces don’t contain their author’s opinions or cultural criticism of one type or another. But, you know, the focus for us is really at Catapult, it’s on the story itself and narrative and the purpose that can serve in terms of helping both the writer and the reader understand something or think about something they hadn’t before.
So we don’t really publish . . . we don’t publish like breaking news. We don’t publish a lot of hot takes. And we’re really kind of focused on the writing itself. And I think that’s why we have really built in the time. And thankfully, we have the luxury to go ahead and spend weeks if we need to, working with a writer on a piece. And it’s not at all a chore. Like all of our editors, we got into editing because we like that. We really like that collaboration, and we like that process. And we love working with writers. So, I mean, for us, that’s the point really.
Kendra: So when you were working on this project for the anthology, did you read any other anthologies to kind of see how they were structured or maybe how they were done? To kind of give you ideas of how you wanted to do this anthology, especially since this is the first one that you guys have put out?
Nicole: That would have been so smart. I didn’t really. Which is not to say I haven’t read and really enjoyed anthologies. I have. It’s more that, you know, we’ve been putting this one together for, let’s say a year and a half. And so because I was kind of doing it in the margins around my day job of editing and publishing a magazine and also around things like book tour and parenting, I didn’t actually have a chance to do the kind of research that you mentioned. That would have been really useful. Like as in, I didn’t revisit anthologies I had read to see how did they structure this? You know, I had work in an anthology. I have an essay in the book Nasty Women, which is a large collection of essays. And I remember reading other anthologies. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan edited a collection focused on Asian immigrants and the diaspora. And I remember reading that a couple of years ago, but I didn’t revisit anthologies looking at structure. And that’s a really good point. Like now I kind of wish I had. I just kind of trusted my own gut on this one and also the opinions of people that I gave it to to read and offer feedback. But it actually would have been really useful to look at a number of anthologies and see how they were put together. Totally. Should have done that.
Kendra: Next time.
Nicole: Right! This won’t be our last anthology, probably.
Kendra: Last year for whatever reason, I really got into anthologies. And I just absolutely love them. I don’t know why. Last year I read Our Women on the Ground, which is edited by Zahra Hankir, which is Arab women telling stories from the Arab world. Gorgeous anthology of essays. And even some of them are translated from Arabic. And it was just like . . . if I hadn’t gotten into anthologies, I never would have read all of these amazing pieces.
Nicole: Right. Right.
Kendra: It’s really great. And for me, as someone who primarily reads the audio, when the essays make it into an anthology and then that anthology makes it to audio, it’s often the first time that I have an opportunity to focus in and listen or read, I guess, with my ears than when something’s on a website, and there really isn’t an audio version available. So I think also having them in anthologies is a great way for accessibility needs as well.
Nicole: I think so too. And speaking of that, I’m excited because I found out there is going to be an audiobook of A Map Is Only One Story. I don’t have details on it yet, I’m afraid. But I know I know when it’s coming. So I’m really excited about that.
Kendra: That makes me very excited as well. I was going to ask you actually sometime during the interview, so I’m glad that you mentioned that.
Nicole: No, it’s a good question. It’s such a good point about accessibility. So, yeah. I mean, one thing I wish we had more of is just more audio, more audio components in the magazine. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot and have started to explore. So, I mean, stay tuned for more on that. I just also really enjoy that component. And like, I love it when I read something and there’s like an option to hear the author reading it, which I know New Yorker does fiction often and places sometimes do for poetry. And I really like that and would love to have that as a regular part of the magazine.
Kendra: Not That Bad by Roxane Gay, all the authors read their pieces.
Nicole: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Kendra: And then there was the The Good Immigrant, the US edition. Most of them read their own pieces in that one as well. So great audiobooks. They make great audiobooks.
Nicole: Right. You can never get bored when you’re hearing people reading in their own voices, like their own stories. You know, it’s just like the variety itself too. It must make for a very cool listening experience.
Kendra: It definitely does. And then when you have the author reading it, not only do you have their narrative voice in the piece, but you also have them audibly reading it. So it adds another layer of depth to the essay and also emphasizes certain parts of the essay you would have missed if you had just read it in print.
Nicole: Yes, totally. I remember very much not wanting to narrate my own audiobook when my book came out. I’m like some people—like many people maybe—I’m kind of insecure about my voice. I don’t know. I’m not afraid of public speaking, and I enjoy reading when I tour. But I remember thinking I should not subject people to hours and hours of my voice reading my book. And I really thought the audiobook narrator did a great job. She did. Janet Song. I have some flashes of regret because, I don’t know, it would be a cool experience. But maybe someday. In a future book or something.
Kendra: Yeah, I really enjoyed the audiobook of your memoir. I thought it was very well done, and I was very excited when I found out there was going to be one. I’m always nerding out when I finally get the delayed information that there’s also going to be an audiobook. So it’s like I get to celebrate the publication of this book twice.
Nicole: Yay! That’s cool.
Kendra: Well, before I let you go, I usually ask some fun questions at the end, but this one in particular I thought might be appropriate. If you could edit another anthology, your dream project, what would the theme be? And if you could have anyone contribute that you desired, who would you have contribute to the anthology?
Nicole: Oh wow. That is so, so difficult. I mentioned earlier how I would love, at Catapult, I would really love to at least have us print—whether I edit them or not, because there are plenty of other editors here who could do a great job with future anthologies—I would love for us to publish a fiction, like a short fiction anthology. I just really love so much of the fiction that we publish on the site.
That’s not quite answering your question though because this is like a dream sort of anthology. I’ll just say it. I’ve wanted to edit for a while an anthology of adoption writing. I mean, one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to edit a series for Catapult was because, you know, we have more stories by adoptees now than we used to have. Like when I was growing up, it was just so hard to find stories about it from the adoptee’s perspective. But I just think we need so many more. And that essay series is still and will always be near and dear to my heart. It would be wonderful to get to take some of those pieces or all of them and then also take new work and expand it and have a whole anthology of writing by adoptees from all different backgrounds and different types of adoption experiences like international and domestic and from foster care and kinship adoption. I don’t think people realize just how many different forms of adoption there are and how they differ. But I just still feel there’s such a need for it. My book is one of like, you know, not very many books, I guess put out by mainstream publishing that offer that perspective in terms of nonfiction. And it’d be a great honor to be part of a project that just allowed so many more adoptees to share their stories because we need so many more.
Kendra: Yeah, I think that would be a great a great resource and a great way for people to tell their stories. And, you know, as you were talking, and when I read your memoir, I couldn’t remember many stories like this. I’d read like essays, short pieces, little interviews, maybe on podcasts or whatever, but never like a long form piece like that. So it definitely, definitely. I would read it. I would share it with the world. So if that ever happens, let me know.
Nicole: I will.
Kendra: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today and sharing about this wonderful anthology. It’s great to learn more about it.
Nicole: Thank you so much. It was really nice talking with you. And yeah, thank you for Reading Women. It’s such a wonderful community, really, that you’ve built.
Kendra: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.
I’d like to thank Nicole Chung, for talking to me about the anthology A Map Is Only One Story, which is out now from Catapult.