Behind the Words: Randy Osborne

Posted by on Jan 21, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Randy Osborne

Randy Osborne’s essay collection, Over the River and Stabbed to Death, won the international Beverly Prize and is forthcoming from Eyewear/Black Spring in the U.K. His work is listed in the Notables section of Best American Essays for 2015, 2016, and 2018. It has been included in four print anthologies and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, and many small literary magazines. He lives in Atlanta. 

Here, we interview him about his essay “Out of the Garden” published in the sixth issue of Spry Literary Journal.

As a fellow CNF writer, I know how tough it can be to write about mental illness fairly. Did you struggle with this in Out of the Garden? If so, what was difficult to show restraint or be more vulnerable? 

I did feel challenged by where to put energy. Telling the story from my own standpoint seemed obvious and natural, since it’s a personal essay. On the other hand, with another human being in the scenario – and a troubled one at that – I wanted to represent her as fairly as I could. In the end, her bipolar disorder turned out to be something I could not enter or inhabit, despite trying hard and reading books and talking with psychiatrists. I stayed with my girlfriend for about a year after she became seriously unwell; she refused medications, preferring to “self-medicate,” as they say, with alcohol. Friends and therapists advised me to leave, but I kept imagining that the person I once knew would reappear.  

If you could go back and edit this piece, would you? Why or why not, and what (if anything) would you change? 

Just now I read through the piece again and felt twinges or pangs, something like what I suppose a first-time, non-hardened criminal must feel in court when the judge reads the charges aloud. Most of what I write, when examined later, sounds to me like the dark, wistful prose of a guy who’s doing his best and probably won’t amount to much. But I wouldn’t change anything.

Is creative nonfiction the only genre you write in? If so, what do you like/dislike about it so much? If you write in other genres, which is your favorite? 

Probably because I grew up in journalism (it’s still my day job: I cover biotechnology for an online publication), I prefer the genre that we like to call nonfiction as opposed to what’s deemed fiction. There’s a certain strangeness I want to explore that can be made up in fiction but often seeps from everyday life. Much of what I’m writing now starts as realism and then departs; I appreciate touching that base first, like pocketing a lucky charm before I set off into the woods.

It’s been a while since the essay was first published in Spry. What’s changed in your life since then? 

Quite a lot. On the writing front, since that essay appeared in Spry, my essay collection, Over the River and Stabbed to Death, in which the Spry piece is included, won something called the Beverly Prize. The win entailed publication, so my book is forthcoming from Eyewear/Black Spring in the U.K. when the Covid-19 smoke clears over there. Pretty satisfying, as the contest was international and pan-genre. (Apparently the contest really was judged “blind.” That’s how the riff-raff gets in.) The book’s title piece is here. In the personal zone, I got married to my longtime girlfriend Joyce and became a father again. We adopted a little girl whose parents lost custody of her because of drugs. Leela’s almost six years old now. 

What 5 writers would you invite to your house for a meal (dead or alive)? What would you serve them? 

For the conversation, Virginia Woolf. And to make Virginia happy, Vita Sackville-West. Those letters! I would ask Mary Moody Emerson, aunt to Ralph Waldo. Those letters! Ralph once wrote of Mary, “All her language was happy but inimitable, as if caught from some dream.” Of course Ralph would be invited; rude not to include him. I guess the last guest choice should be one of the moderns who’d appreciate the company already assembled. I’d go with Branka Arsic. She wrote On Leaving: Readings in Emerson, the best book on him that I’ve seen. The food choices I would leave to Joyce, who is amazing in the kitchen – at the chef level in my opinion, though she might disagree. 

How big is your “In-Progress” folder? How many works-in-progress make it to a final draft?

Alas, I’m not that organized. “In progress” means that I have scribbled some notes, often cryptic, on slips of paper or I’ve sent emails to myself about some feeling that seems about to rise to comprehension. Usually it does rise, though not right away; the process can take years. By then I will have lost track of some of the slips of paper and emails, or all of them, but it doesn’t matter. They served their purpose.   

Whose work has had the most profound impact on your writing? 

I associate “profound impacts” with youth, that period when an aspiring writer is on the lookout for writers to emulate. For me it was E.B. White, whose essays I discovered in high school. I no longer feel that I would do anything if I could write like him, but have fond feelings and often reread him. These days the impacts, profound or otherwise, don’t come from others’ work. They come from “ordinary” life.

What is your editing process like? Do you follow a personal set of rules or does it depend on the piece?

Depends on the piece. In some cases it’s like peeling the clothes off a lover. In some cases it’s like repairing a watch. In some cases it’s like shoveling snow.

What published essay/story/poem are you most proud of? Why?

For its battle scars, I appreciate this one – rejected nine times before winning first place for essay in a Writer’s Digest contest, then getting published by Bodega and showing up in Best American Essay’s Notables section. 

For similar reasons I’m pleased with a piece in the print magazine 34th Parallel. I wrote it after a long dry spell, and felt certain it would find a home nowhere. Two publications accepted it simultaneously, which had never happened before. Days later I got a rejection that included an insulting message. You know, the “feedback” that I always appreciate when editors withhold. Please, just say yes or no. Let it remain a mystery why.

What does your creative space look like?

Books piled everywhere and on loaded shelves, some of which have collapsed. We rented a storage unit for the overflow (and it, too, is overflowing). The window at desk where I write for the day job overlooks our apartment complex’s pool, five floors below. As for the other writing, I’ve learned to do that anywhere. We have a comfortable sofa and a coffee shop downstairs and a clubroom across the street. I’ll always find the place and the way.  


Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. When she’s not working with big brands and small businesses to marry strategy, storytelling, and SEO, you can find her hosting the Talk Copy to Me podcast or exploring southeastern MA with her family and friends. Erin graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and then co-founded Spry Literary Journal, which celebrates undiscovered and established writers’ concise, experimental, hybrid, modern, vintage or just-plain-vulnerable writing

Reach out to her on Instagram or visit her website to learn more.