Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A little Q+A with Caroline Casey and Michael Taeckens

Caroline and Michael(formerly of Sarabande and Algonquin) are two great additions to the local book scene--what follows includes a teaser about celebrity editing and proper usage of the word epiphanic.

So, the two of you have been in the book biz for some time: why the move to mn?

CC:I've pulled up stakes a lot of times (this is my fifteenth move), so moving to Minnesota seemed an eminently sensible thing to do: super job, big, cheerfully competitive literary community, and finally, a real winter again. There were so many reasons to come here, so while I loved Kentucky, and my last press, this was so obviously, if unexpectedly, a good thing. And it's proven me more right than I could have predicted. 

MT: I worked at Algonquin Books, located in Chapel Hill, NC, for the past 11 1/2 years, and at Duke University Press and UNC Press the 4 years previous. Fiona McCrae, Graywolf's publisher and director, offered me the marketing director position at Graywolf and it was impossible to resist. Graywolf has been one of my favorite publishers since the late 80s, when I first read Linda Gregg's TOO BRIGHT TO SEE. And I've always heard such wonderful things about the Twin Cities. It was a win/win situation.

If there is such a thing as a 'normal' workday what does it entail?

CC: A normal workday is not something I have — there are always piles of email to answer, but my job concerns itself with so many different pats of the life of a book (from design, marketing, and publicity, to managing stock in our warehouses) that a routine is something that I can only superimpose on what I'd call pleasant unpredictability. It forces me to work ahead of the calendar, which I like. 

Favorite book from old press/new press?

CC: Favorite books is too dangerous a road to go down! I will say that I'm very much looking forward to a couple of releases from Sarabande — Moth, by Thomas Heise, and October's Let Me Clear My Throat, by Elena Passarello. And I'm totally sweaty palms for Karen Tei Yamashita

MT:Algonquin: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke
Graywolf: Since I already listed Linda Gregg's book, I'm going to go with Claudia Rankine's Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Is the physical book dead?(trick question) and/or what is its future?

CC: The physical book isn't dead. I don't think that seeing an either/or future for books is helpful, or realistic, but so often people in this world are looking for a magic bullet, whether it's the platform or the marketing (Pinterest will save us all!), when really it's a matter of divorcing means from ends. That cliché that railroads got in trouble because they thought they were in the trains business, when really they were in the transportation business?

It's true of us too. People want to access writing in lots of different ways, and ebooks are another delivery mechanism. So are chapbooks. Look at how successful Ugly Duckling Presse is — some people want books that are even more objecty than your fancy Penguin Classics. And one could argue that someone like Kenneth Goldsmith is taking literature out of the realm or reading entirely, or that he's turning books into conceptual art not even meant to be read — all of that is exciting! It's not like Day functions like Mobile (a favorite of mine), nor should it. Those are both recordings in a way, but very different, and entirely different from say, Anna Karenina. Which is the book I always suggest to less than enthusiastic readers because it is such a ripping story and the chapters are so short (makes you feel like you're accomplishing something). All of that to say, it's fun to work at a press like Coffee House that comes from letterpress and embraces literature as a good that can be enjoyed in so many ways. We're of a more-is-more mindset, and I like that. Possibilities are fun; retooling out of desperation is not. 

MT: The death of the physical book has been greatly exaggerated! It’s true that physical books (or p-books, as some people are starting to call them; sigh) are on the decline while ebooks are on the rise, but I don't see ebooks ever replacing physical books. And it’s important to note that there are no ebooks for poetry collections yet—and poetry titles comprise about one-third of Graywolf’s list each year. I do think that fewer and fewer hardback books will be printed, but we'll continue to see deluxe editions of hardbacks with fancier design and exclusive material.

Do you read reviews of books you edited/worked on? if so, which ones matter to you?

CC: I definitely read reviews, because it is my job to. And I think that anyone who does pay attention to criticism more generally knows where they're going to find opinions that interest them. So those are the reviews that matter to me as a reader. As a person in publishing, I would say that they all matter, because they all matter to the author. How much they make a difference in terms of sales is hard to quantify. I just want our books to find the audiences that will have a charged relationship with them — and the New York Times, as august a venue as that is, might not actually be the most direct route there. So we try to be thoughtful about the places we send our books (in addition to the Times, etcetera). What are the venues that this book's reader will trust? 

MT: I read reviews from a wide variety of places--The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, the Star-Tribune, the Millions, etc. I believe that all reviews matter and I love reading as many as I can. It's interesting to see that sometimes a review from an online venue (e.g., BoingBoing) can have a great impact (i.e., sell more copies) than a review in the Gray Lady.

What is your favorite bookstore in the United States?

CC: Three Lives and Company. Hands down. I always walk out with a bunch of books, and none of them are things I ever knew I wanted. I also invariably gush at the counter and embarrass myself. 

MT: I'd have to say Prairie Lights. I went to University of Iowa as an undergrad and grad student, and Prairie Lights was like a magical land of wonders. You can't go wrong with three stories of books and a great cafe to boot.

Best fiction/non-fiction read in last year?

CC: My favorite novel of the last year was Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation. Just crazy gorgeous and brilliant and unexpected (I use that word a lot). It was recommended to me by Paul Yoon, and has sold me forever on his taste. As for nonfiction, I'm partial to the project of a friend of mine — T Fleischmann's Syzygy, Beauty. People don't even know what to call it, but I l call it sly and natural and epiphanic.

MT: Fiction: THE THIN PLACE, Kathryn Davis
Nonfiction: ORPHANS: ESSAYS, by Charles D'Ambrosio

Do local pubs compete or accentuate one another?

MT: Accentuate! I love that the Twin Cities have three nationally recognized presses that publish creative fiction and nonfiction, and I think there's more than enough room for all of us.

Is there one book for fall 2012 you are excited about?

MT: Graywolf: FAMILIAR, J. Robert Lennon
non-Graywolf: NW, by Zadie Smith

One thing/job you do that you would not have guessed you would do--

MT:Well, this is more of a one-of-a-kind thing, but I’m going to include it anyway: Read a manuscript by a famous celebrity. (Details to come!)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A little Q+A with Patrick Thomas: Milkweed Editions

Patrick is an editor and Program Manager at Milkweed Editions. This discussion specifically came from some questions I had regarding Amy Leach and working with her writing. Some thoughts I had about her reading(and calling it that rather than a performance seems rather flat and unfair) are here.

More importantly, Milkweed is currently having a contest to win a signed copy of "Things That Are."

Every time I've seen Amy Leach's book "Things That Are" mentioned or reviewed people use words like quirky or singular or odd. Most of that is meant as a compliment--but several questions come out of this: Was major-reworking of the book done? How long ago did Milkweed sign the book? How were decisions made to have illustrations accompany the text?

PT: The 'major work' I did on the book related almost entirely to ordering. As you and many have noted, these essays are different sorts of beasts than most are used to, so Amy and I worked together to ensure that the reader's entrance into the world of Things That Are wasn't too jarring. Thus the progression from the more immediate and tangible world in the first half of the book to the more fantastic and distant worlds of the universe and the mind in the second. The decision to illustrate the text was similar: We knew that once someone opened the book, they would be entranced and buy it without a second thought, but as you know, getting a reader to open a collection of essays by a debut author is close to impossible. So the illustrations and the construction of the book were an invitation to the reader to take a chance as much as they were a celebration of the beauty of the contents and Milkweed's love of bookmaking.

A random grouping of other thoughts/?'s follow. Feel free to answer as you wish. How was editing this book different(or similar) to others you've worked on? I imagine it might be easy to simply drift into reading mode rather than working on the text? Is that so?

PT: It was terrible. I'd reread pages again and again, reminding myself throughout I was supposed to be working, but it was so hard to resist falling into the essays and leaving the markings behind. And yet, at this point, the difference between reading and editing for me (whether I'm reading for enjoyment or for work) is hard to discern. So I know that if something is working so well that I'm not making marks, it's time to stop making marks and call it 'done.' And for the most part, Amy's work was done before I even considered the majority of these pieces.

You had mentioned that you fell in love with her writing after reading something in A Public Space(I think). Was that piece something that is in the book. Is it different in significant ways now?

PT: "Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumber" was the piece, and no, it wasn't changed drastically.

A customer gave me a new comp. last night which was A.A. Milne with Mary Ruefle with Annie Dillard(thanks, Jennifer) Who are some of the writers you find comparable?

PT: Amy's style is so unique that I've resisted comparing the words and sentences themselves to other writers. For me it's the feeling I had upon first reading that I can relate to other writers. So, the first time I read Dillard, or Solnit, maybe David James Duncan--the way those writers called me to reconsider the world and my relationship to it without actually asking me to do anything, that's what I'd compare the experience of Amy's work to. Pick this book up if you'd like to alter your perception in an enriching way.

To a reader who might be scared by 'philosophical nature essays' what could you tell them?

PT: Don't be scared? Kidding, but seriously, this is why I hate labels: Readers are led to believe that if they haven't studied poetry/philosophy/nature they can't read books with those or other categories listed on the back. And yet they're all just narratives (unless you're talking about academic philosophy I suppose) about life as we know it; narratives meant to be reinterpreted and understood personally by every reader who comes to them. Sure there's some core of meaning there that most readers will see in something like the same light, but it's up to each reader to see it in their own way. What would I say to an intimidated reader? Don't think about meaning or the author's intent when you pick up the book. Don't think about anything. If you enjoy what happens in your brain as you read the first sentences, then buy the book and prepare to have your mind properly blown.

If there is one major difference in your thought process of editing fiction vs. non what is it?

PT: Not really. In nonfiction you're more beholden to reality, but you still need to tell stories that resonate emotionally.

Given your job at a small publisher--which means juggling several jobs--what kind of books do you gravitate towards on your own or in your free-time?

PT: I'm reading The Dog Stars right now, which brings my childhood love for My Side of the Mountain, my adult fascination with ecology, and my general grim interest with apocalypse together in a wonderful way. In general though, my reading is all over the place. I've got that novel going, but also some nonfiction on the evolution of religion over the past 40,000 or so years, William Souder's biography of Rachel Carson, which is amazing, and a few other books all in the mix. In general, I'm looking for books, whether for enjoyment or for acquisition, that make the world feel bigger, more full of possibility.

Finally, this book sent me towards other sources(dictionaries, the internet, assorted natural history books) to look up definitions and get some background on certain references or simply to find out which words were simply made up. How often were you scrambling for similar info?

PT: Almost every line. If you want to spark someone's interest in etymology and entomology at the same time (thus ensuring a lifelong battle to explain the difference between the two to others), sending them to the OED and Peterson Field guides simultaneously, this is the book for it.