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“If you don’t tell the story someone else might, and they’ll change the facts”: José Vadi and Mensah Demary in Conversation
Mensah Demary: You’re not just an essayist; you’re a playwright, a poet, a filmmaker, a skateboarder, and more—can you talk about what led you to writing the pieces that eventually became
MD: This was a long process, with a lot of workshopping and talking through pieces as if we were in the same room, when in actuality it was mostly over the phone or in Track Changes and Google Docs. I think we found a good rapport, figuring out what was going to really make this collection work. Your form was literally taking shape piece by piece—it was interesting and fascinating trying to keep up with that without screwing with the process too much.
Speaking of process, what was it like for you to work together over years secretly assembling and revising this book?
MD: It’s been an interesting journey from an editor’s perspective. I took a leap of faith at the beginning of this process, and I was upfront with you, José, about there being no promises or guarantees regarding the end result. I took the leap because I saw a writer with a poet’s sensibility translating that prose into essays, which demonstrated to me an opportunity for an essay collection that hadn’t yet existed. I had to learn, as an editor, what would make an essay collection work, how to create one—I didn’t have an answer to that question, I just knew that you were a gifted writer who could pull off something, and I suspected you had the determination to work through some of the kinks in this process, as well as the willingness to build the process as we went along. It was risky, but I was also motivated by my commitment to not selling you short. This book was a top-secret mission. No one in the office (Soft Skull, Counterpoint, or Catapult) knew I was doing this, and I wanted to keep it that way because I didn’t know how this would work, and I found it liberating to work in that kind of laboratory setting.
Through our relationship, I’ve found that editing is far more collaborative than I’d ever recognized. I couldn’t have edited these pieces in this way without being able to talk to you as an artist and trying to understand the context of why you were doing what you were doing, not making assumptions. When you have an intuitive relationship with a writer like this, that’s half the battle. The other half is to ask pointed questions. A lot of these pieces were revised five times or more, and some essays didn’t even make it into the collection. It was a lot of work and a lot of thought, and I learned not just about editing on the line level, but creating a book.
MD: And it was fortuitous because I thought could fit on the Soft Skull list, but I had no foresight into what would happen one year later. I didn’t know I would become Editor-In-Chief of the list that you had a personal connection to. This book is my first Soft Skull title, and we couldn’t have predicted that this is how things would align. This is the perfect book for Soft Skull’s evolution while shepherding a new list.
Our working relationship taught me a lot about what it means to take risks and protect an author’s voice. Writers, if they’re allowed to write the way they want, break rules and disregard grammar and style. Rules and conventions can squeeze on writers when they should merely be constraints that allow the writer to operate and make more space. This risk-taking style of writing and editing is what I hope to continue to bring to Soft Skull as we evolve. Working on opened my mind to new possibilities.
How did you come up with the title for the collection? Why two words? Has the title changed or expanded in meaning since you originally wrote these essays?
Essays From California
MD: One meaning I took away once we’d compiled the manuscript and settled on that title was the embodied nature of the essays themselves. Their interiority had to have a kinetic movement that wasn’t first-person omniscient, or navel-gazing work; it had to be that on the ground: feeling the asphalt, hearing bits of conversation, or seeing details like shoes on a sleeping man on a 6 a.m. train, details that harken back to the inter state of being. I was happy to see all the essays retain this throughline of being in a place and having that place envelop you in a way that animates everything and takes readers into another dimension. The book is fast, not because it’s short or easy to read, but it moves and breathes and has a real musical quality.
Can you speak to the subtle but incredible throughline of skateboarding and skate culture that weave in and out of this book?
MD: I’m one of those civilians, I’ve never skateboarded, but I think there’s something deeply Californian and personal and cultural about skateboarding detectable in your work that’s also connected to the throughline of an embodied narrative as expressed through different modes of transportation, from the board to the back seat of the car to public transit. The skateboard being an important vehicle with which to be in a changing landscape that’s here today, gone tomorrow, like the board itself, or the person on the board. With a state as vast as California, you need to be open and willing to inhabit multiple perspectives. A skateboard is a personal device that you have to prepare and take care of and take chances with.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book, both regionally and more widely?
How, if at all, has this project changed your writing/life? And what’s next?
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Of all the things that have come and gone in my life, I wanted this one thing, just one: to be a writer.
No one else can judge your practice. You must believe in the work that is in front of you, taking shape before your eyes.