Eve Bridburg is the Executive Director of Grub Street in Boston, an independent center for creative writing, dedicated to providing an innovative, rigorous, and welcoming community for writers to create their best work, find an audience, and elevate the literary arts for all.
Bridburg was recently named as one of Boston’s 50 most powerful women by Boston Magazine, and is an at-large-agent with Zachary Shuster Harmsworth.
As a literary agent, Bridburg’s nonfiction titles include Donovan Campbell’s New York Times bestseller Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Leadership and Brotherhood (Random House); Blogger Matt Logelin’s New York Times bestseller Two Kisses for Maddy(Grand Central).
Her fiction titles include Kirsten Menger-Anderson’s critically acclaimed short story collection, Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain (Algonquin), and Len Rosen’s Edgar Nominated thriller All Cry Chaos.
A graduate with a degree in Philosophy and Religion from Colgate University, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship.
Over the years, Bridburg has participated in numerous national conferences where she has given presentations on publishing, the future of publishing, and what it takes to build a literary arts center.
Derek Alger: This year marks the 15th anniversary of the start of Grub Street.
Eve Bridburg: Actually, now that it’s 2013, we’re officially sixteen. We taught our first fiction workshops in Brookline in the spring of 1997. My friend Julie Rold taught fiction II, while I taught fiction I. We had eight students. This past year, Grub Street worked with over 3,700 students. The community has certainly grown well beyond any expectations I had when I first began. Yet, despite our growth, we remain committed to the original vision: to create a supportive and rigorous home for writers outside of the confines of academia. What’s exciting and invigorating at the moment is all the change we’re seeing in publishing. At Grub, we’ve radically expanded our offerings to address these changes. Writers are being called on to play a bigger role in the business and promotional aspects of their publishing lives. This new reality appeals to 1 writer in 50 in my experience. At Grub, we’re trying to provide community and training to help make these new responsibilities less onerous. We’re even trying to make the work creative and joyful.
DA: Grub Street is known for the diversity of its students.
EB: We’re home to writers of all ages with all levels of experience from complete newbies to those with established careers. Our students work on everything from fiction and nonfiction to poetry and screenwriting. Though I think we have a fairly literary reputation, we work hard to make sure that writers working on genre fiction also feel welcome and supported. Most of our students have day jobs and work in a huge variety of fields. This year, we’re thinking about ways to make our student body even more diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender. We have many more women in our classes than men. Are you listening, guys?
DA: Tell us a bit about the philosophy behind Grub Street.
EB: We have core values that we’ve recently been articulating a lot out loud. We don’t want to lose ourselves as we grow. We take writing seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We hire instructors – all working writers – who are down-to-earth and approachable and who can laugh at themselves. In every class, we aim to be honest and tough with our students to push them toward their best work, but we are careful to make sure our criticism is never damaging or mocking in any way. It’s always constructive and helpful, never cruel. It’s also very important to us to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable. We treat our students as writers as soon as they enter our space. That way, they can spend their creative energy on their writing and not on proving themselves.
DA: Your parents were originally from Dublin.
EB: Yes. They have a very romantic story. My mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish. When they married in 1962, their union was pretty scandalous in Ireland. My mother had priests approaching her at the hospital where she worked as a nurse, telling her that they had come to see the face of a sinner. My father’s family was adamantly opposed to their relationship and threatened to crash the wedding to break it up. One week after they said their vows, my parents boarded a ship to America. They figured they’d stay through my father’s residency and then head back to Ireland, but they fell in love with Connecticut and my father decided to specialize in psychiatry, a tough field back home in the sixties. I spent every other summer in Dublin with family and cousins growing up so I feel very connected to the landscape and culture and to my extended family. My parents just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary last summer.
DA: When were you first aware of a love of reading?
EB: Unlike my daughter who has been reading voraciously since the very start of her reading life, I didn’t start reading seriously until high school. I had a wonderful teacher my sophomore year, Mrs. Hess, who read books aloud in class. I can’t remember all of the titles, but I do remember her reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to us. During the same period, my father was helping me understand Shakespeare by reading the plays aloud. He had performed in a lot of Shakespearean plays while at University and really knew how to bring the language to life. I’m not sure why hearing books aloud was the doorway in for me, but it was.
DA: What were your thoughts when you went to college?
EB: I wasn’t the kind of eighteen year old who thought much about my future. I got to college and just followed my interests. Philosophy and Religion classes really captured me.
I’m a fairly idea-driven person so thinking about and experimenting with many different world views intrigued me. I wrote my senior thesis on Buber verses Kierkegaard, coming down on the side of Kierkegaard. Writing that thesis really helped me define the kind of person I wanted to be. Along with philosophy, I minored in English. I read a lot of great African American literature in college, including Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Both books remain among my favorite American novels. Do you have any sway with Toni Morrison? She’d be a great Muse keynote.
DA: And after college?
EB: I went out to San Francisco with some friends and found work with an environmental nonprofit. My original plan was to work for a year and then to get a PhD in Philosophy, but once I was in the world, I realized that the academic life wasn’t for me. It felt too removed from the action. Instead, I applied to law school and got accepted into some good schools, but when the time came to make a final decision, I decided to defer (which broke my mother’s heart). Everyone I knew who didn’t know what to do with their lives was going to law school and I realized that I was exactly the same. I had a vague notion that I’d do advocacy work but that was all.
DA: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention your hiatus on an organic farm in Oregon.
EB: Yes! What a summer. Having deferred law school, I decided I wanted to learn more about food and farming. I’d become a big foodie during my time in San Francisco. I had grown up eating meat and potatoes and little else so discovering the big, wide world of interesting food and exotic flavors was eye opening and I was eager to learn more.
For various reasons, the original farm I was supposed to go to fell through at the very last minute. Stranded in Eugene, I found another place to go, but along with being a farm, it was an intentional community (commune). The people there kindly let me stay with them for the summer as a guest. So beyond learning about planting beets and harvesting potatoes, I found myself inside of a radically different family structure. I lived in a camper on the property, ate vegetarian food, rolled my own organic cigarettes and, like an anthropologist, grilled everyone in an effort to understand why they’d made such a nontraditional choice. The people on the farm were wonderful and very welcoming, but I knew pretty quickly that I didn’t really belong. I’m cynical by nature and independent-minded. And I just felt out of place. I got in trouble once, for example, when we were selling grain burgers at a state fair for refusing someone a burger in exchange for her rendition of Amazing Grace. But perhaps some of what I experienced and learned at the Alpha Farm in Deadwood Oregon is alive at Grub Street.
DA: You then decided to travel to see what you could see.
EB: The economy was bad. I knew I didn’t want to stay on the farm, and I was still unsure of what I wanted to do in life. I decided to take a year and travel abroad. I thought I’d travel around some and then head to Dublin. I started in Prague because I’d been reading about the arts scene there and I’d also been interested in Eastern Europe. Within a few weeks, through a random encounter, I met the owner of an international bookstore. He was looking for a manager and offered me the job. The bookstore, called the International Bookstore, Praha, was located in the old Jewish quarter of Prague on the second floor of an office building. Our best books were gorgeous Abrams art books on Modigliani, Degas, Picasso, etc. They were entirely unaffordable to most Czechs so the art students used to come and browse for hours. There weren’t many other books worth reading, some outdated travel guides and a few remaindered titles.
I remember always promising to buy The American Look by Jaclyn Smith for my very literary friends. Even though the bookstore didn’t carry the kinds of books I would have liked, I loved the atmosphere, the other staffers and the adventures we had. The owner ran a million small businesses and always had a new project for us. One day we were movie producers, the next travel agents. We booked venues for bands traveling through and the list went on and on. Eventually, I asked to co-manage the store with a friend so that I had more time to read and to work on my writing. One day, the owner fired my co-manager for no good reason so I quit. Within 45 minutes he had hired us both back with a pay increase. That day was emblematic of my whole experience there: magically absurd.
DA: You then earned a graduate degree in writing.
EB: Yes, I left Prague because I got into Boston University’s creative writing program on a teaching fellowship. While there, I studied with the wonderful Margot Livesey, who remains a dear friend, as well as Ralph Lombreglia and Leslie Epstein. The program was rigorous and often painful but I learned a great deal about good story telling and editing. I also had the opportunity to teach creative writing while I was there, which I loved, though I never enjoyed grading drafts of stories. It never felt right.
DA: What came next?
EB: I graduated and started teaching composition at a small university in Boston. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as teaching creative writing, and I had other friends who felt the same so I decided to start Grub Street. This was pre-internet, 1997, so I started by posting a few fliers on trees and telephone poles in Brookline. We started with just a few classes, but within two years, we were teaching hundreds of students. There was clearly a need for a place like Grub Street in Boston. I ran it in the early days very much like a nonprofit even though it was technically for profit. As my husband loves to say: we were a non-profiting for profit.
By 2002, with a new baby and another on the way, the financials just didn’t work for our family any longer. I tried to find someone else to take over. There was some interest, but inevitably, the interested party asked to see the balance sheet and that was that. Right after 9/11, we took a hiatus. I remember being on vacation with my husband in Maine around this time and walking the beach and talking through what it would mean to close down Grub Street permanently. We were a real community by then and it seemed a shame to not try to go on.
In the end, I decided to try my hand at turning Grub Street into a nonprofit. With a few teachers and students, we held a phone-a-thon in the offices of Houghton Mifflin, asking former students to kick in some money to help us find office space and re-launch. A stunning 80% of the students we called donated, including one guy who sent us $8 and change after selling off his books for the cause. Back then, I thought turning Grub into a nonprofit would take one year. It took four years of steady volunteer labor. I’m grateful now that I knew so little about what was in front of me. Of course, I wasn’t the only one volunteering. Chris Castellani was my partner in creating the nonprofit Grub, and we relied on so many great and smart and inspired people to help us make it all work. By 2005, we had wonderful space in downtown Boston with views of the Boston Commons, an incredible small staff (Whitney Scharer and Sonya Larson) and hard working board members. It felt to me as if Grub Street was in good hands and on steady footing. I was ready for something new.
DA: You went on to success in another endeavor.
EB: I had met Esmond Harmsworth through Grub Street. I took him out to lunch to talk agenting with him one afternoon and he invited me to join his agency, The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary and Entertainment Agency. I loved my time there and still remain an at-large agent working with a few clients. I developed, edited and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers such as Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette and Penguin. A few of my books became New York Times best sellers. One of them, Joker One, by Donovan Campbell, is about his experience leading a platoon in Ramadi in 2004. His platoon arrived a few weeks before the city exploded in violence. If you’d have asked me two days before I first read Donovan’s pages, I would have told you that I had no interest in war memoirs, but I was entirely captured and moved by his story. It’s not editorial or edgy, just honest, smart and gritty testimony about life on the ground in Iraq. I read it and thought: everyone needs to read this. We were at war in Iraq and yet nothing had changed for us civilians. The military and their families were carrying the full weight of it. Many publishers turned Joker One down because it lacked a big sexy hook. But Tim Bartlett at Random House had faith and it turned out to both garner great reviews and to sell well. Another book I’m very proud of is Len Rosen’s All Cry Chaos, a smart, literary thriller set in Europe with a math equation at its core and an ending which proves or disproves (I can’t tell you which) the existence of God. I couldn’t sell the book to a major publishers. I heard from one editor that it was “too smart.”
Finally, after it was published by Marty Shepherd at Permanent Press, All Cry Chaos was an Edgar finalist, a Chautaugua Literary Prize finalist and it won the Macavity Award for best first fiction, among other honors. It’s been published in nine foreign countries and on and on. What I love about ZSH as an agency is the amount of hand holding and editorial work we do. I worked with Donovan over the course of many months to help him turn a collection of essays into a narrative. Len and I worked together for well over a year.
DA: You also were committed to books you found important.
EB: Yes, I guess I’m a mission-driven person and can’t really escape that. Becoming an agent, I discovered my love for what I like to call “top-shelf self-help.” For example, I worked on a book called Growing Up Brave with an incredible Boston University doctor named Donna Pincus. I found her in a BU alumni magazine and learned that she had discovered simple parenting techniques that can mitigate or prevent anxiety. This is huge given that anxiety is the basis for so much emotional and physical trouble later in life. Along these lines, I worked with an incredible Episcopalian Priest by the name of Ed Bacon on 8 Habits of Love. Ed is an inspired religious leader fighting for gay marriage, interfaith religiosity, and tolerance. His church, All Saints Church in Pasadena California, has a long history of social justice. They were recently in the news because they hosted a major Muslim Conference. Hard right Christians showed up to protest this. One of the protesters took a copy of 8 Habits of Love and stomped on it, a telling moment given that Ed’s book is a practical spiritual guide for living a life based on love and inclusivity as opposed to fear and hatred. I do tend to love books on a mission to make the world a better place.
DA: And then you proved “You can go home again.”
EB: Yes, by 2010, Grub Street was on the hunt for an Executive Director. I was on Grub Street’s board at the time. We hired a search firm – a first for us as an organization – but we didn’t find a candidate that everyone could get excited about. I’d been following the trends in publishing as an agent and I’d also been working on strategy for Grub. I started to feel strongly about a way forward for Grub Street so I decided to throw my hat into the ring. What excited me was dramatically expanding our offerings to include education along the entire writing journey.
Writers need new skills and a new mindset to fully embrace all the new opportunities ushered in by the digital age. Happily, the board and staff liked my vision and they hired me back. Since then, we’ve all been working to create the most innovative, welcoming and dynamic writing center in the country. So far, so good, I think. Since 2010, our enrollment is up 75%, we’ve launched a blog, a major giving circle, have expanded teen programs and our daytime programming. We’ve also piloted and launched three major new programs in three years. I’ve been very happy to be home, that’s exactly what it feels like.
DA: Do you offer online courses?
EB: We’ve offered two courses online to date. In 2013, we’ll be offering many more. We’re planning to experiment madly this year with online offerings. It’s very exciting.
DA: What are some of your visions on the future of publishing.
EB: In my most optimistic moments, I see a world in which editors and writers are again at the center of the publishing process, partnering to create the next generation of great literature and relevant, important nonfiction.
DA: You offer an amazing array of courses at Grub Street, from “Jumpstart Your Memoir,” to “How to Write a Lot”, to “Crafting Fiction from Personal Experience.”
EB: We have the most varied, rich and layered course catalogue for writers in the country. We now have something for everyone, from newbies to writers who are working on marketing their third novels. Chris Castellani, Our Artistic Director, and Sonya Larson, our Program Director, amaze me. They create over 600 workshops, seminars and events per year. And they are endlessly inventive and fun in addition to being rigorous. For example, this winter, if you were studying at Grub Street, you could take: Great Endings, How to Finish What You’ve Started, Micro-editing, Funny is the New Deep, Writing Social Justice, Writing a Hypertext: Narrative for the Digital Age, How to Talk about Your Book at a Cocktail Party, Look Before you Launch and more. I’m also really proud of our new offerings for advanced students and established writers.
Our Novel Incubator Program is the only program of its kind on the country. It’s a year-long intensive novel workshop built from the point of view of the novel and the novelist as opposed to structured to fit into an academic schedule. Writers must have a solid draft to be admitted and our ambition is to help them finish. Our Nonfiction Career Lab is in pilot right now; it’s a year-long program which teaches our students what being a professional nonfiction writer means in today’s world. The students work on a book length project while also writing and pitching essays and articles to magazines and journals. And finally, with the Launch Lab, we brought together fifteen talented authors with books debuting this year for a series of workshops and classes focused on marketing strategy, skills and tools. Our aim is to prepare them to be the best partners they can be to their publishers and to create a community for them so that they aren’t in it on their own. So far, the group is very bonded and the work is going well.
DA: We should mention the Grub Street Reading Series.
EB: I think you must be referring to our NEA funded series: “Publish it Forward.” With this series, we aim to educate our community about the changing publishing landscape by bringing innovators and pioneers to Boston to share their wisdom and to excite our writers about the future. So far, we’ve hosted Barry Eisler, Richard Nash, Jason Ashlock, and Susan Orlean. All the talks were very informative and can be found on our website: www.grubstreet.org.
DA: Grub Street also makes a point of reaching out to the youth of Boston.
EB: Yes, we’re committed to working with the next generation of writers and have several great programs. We open our doors one Saturday a month to area high school students. They come and take free creative writing workshops in fiction, screenwriting, slam poetry, and graphic novel. We also run The Summer Teen Fellowship which immerses teen writers in the publishing and writing life. And finally, we offer afterschool intensive creative writing workshops. Unlike the other offerings, they are fee-based, but we reserve two free spots in every class. We never want money to be a barrier. This is true for our adult offerings as well. We raise money for scholarships every year.
DA: Any special plans for the future, or will you just continue to continue, which seems more than enough.
EB: We’ll continue innovating and keeping up with what writers need, pushing all of our students toward their best work, and having fun. That’s one thing I hope never changes at Grub Street: all of us, our staff, our instructors, our students, our board, we’re all having a great time.