Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Cats2 (2)I would love to quote feline jazz philosopher/poet Thomas O’Malley here, but I know how jealously his parent company guards his lyrics and wisdom, even though I doubt that alley cat was much of a company man at heart.

At a sales reps’ meeting in New York City, the last of the December meetings I believe, I concluded the presentation of University Press of Mississippi’s list and was gathering up my gear. Bruce Joshua Miller, UPM’s Midwest sales representative, lingered at the conference table, and began talking buoyantly about a book he was going to edit for Minnesota Historical Society Press. “It’s about research and writing and maybe the value of non-digital research, interviews, archives, libraries. I have a lot of discretion.”

Right after I make an hour-long presentation, I am not always at my best. Dizzy, spent, dry of mouth, sopping at the brow… I hope my reaction was kind and congratulatory, but… I may well have said, “Who’s gonna wanna read that?”

Whatever I said, Bruce pressed on (he’s really great at that). For this book he was planning, he wanted me to write an essay about the research it to took to create Morkan’s Quarry: A Novel.

Here’s the thing about Bruce. Everybody who cares about literature in Missouri, about books in Missouri, about Missouri’s story and who tells it, owes Bruce whatever he asks. In an unforgettable fight, he and author Ned Stuckey-French saved University of Missouri Press from being shuttered. You can trace much of what they did at the Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page. If Bruce asks, I answer.

Subtext3And I’m really glad I did. Below are two videos/vimeos from likely the largest gathering there ever will be of the contributors to the resultant book that Bruce edited, Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research. These were filmed from a stationary KODAK touchcam at St. Paul’s SubText Book Shop, which filled with sixty-plus people, a larger crowd than I have seen at many a book signing. Bruce was exactly right: people need a book that affirms the magic of research beyond The Google. Below are two videos shot by my wife, Tamara Gebhart Yates, who traveled the many miles to St. Paul with me.

The first video is of the five contributors reading three-minute excerpts from their essays.

The second is the lively question and answer that followed.

BOOK 1
I DREAM YOU

In the story, it all happened in the Ozark Mountain country,
many miles from what we of the city call civilization.
In life, it has all happened many, many times before,
in many, many places. The two trails lead afar.
The story, so very old, is still in the telling.

—Harold Bell Wright, The Shepherd of the Hills

CoverShotThat’s how The Teeth of the Souls could have opened. Sequel to Morkan’s Quarry and due from Moon City Press in March of 2015, The Teeth of the Souls: A Novel has four sections or “Books.” Book 1: I Dream You; Book 2: The Curtain of the Future World; Book 3: How Merry Are We; Book 4: Easter 1906.

Previous to final editing, each of these “Books” started with a quote from something that had inspired me on the long road to writing and publishing The Teeth of the Souls. I started writing it in 1994! And originally there was not going to be a Morkan’s Quarry. There was going to be one giant novel called “The Teeth of the Souls,” an opus maximus like The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All or Soldier of the Great War or Dog Years. Thankfully there arose a chorus of voices that intoned, “DUMB DUMB DUMB DUMB!” (sung to the theme song of Dragnet).

There have been so many revisions along the way. And so many tricks I played on myself to make sure that storylines had a chance to tighten and became more intense and interesting. The Teeth of the Souls is the story of a marriage that was a lie and a lie that became a marriage. It spans the years 1865 to 1906 in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. Almost as much had to be written as had to be shed.

Four quotes stuck with me, and yet in the end stuck out from the manuscript like big pinfeathers. One was a quote from Vance Randolph about lucky stones and nightmares, one was a favorite sentence of mine from Donald Harington’s The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, another was a quote from that heartbreaking essay Mark Twain wrote after the 1904 lynching in Pierce City, Missouri, “The United States of Lyncherdom.” And one, right smack at the beginning, was the quote above from arguably the first and most famous fiction ever written about the Ozarks.

Why do writers stick quotes from other writers in their books? Sometimes, especially in historical fiction, multiple quotes at the beginnings of chapters clutter the works, violently, archly interrupt the seamless dream, and actually put an intimidating distance between the storytelling and the reader.

Quotes at the start of each chapter can read like a plea: “I swear to you I read all this arcane stuff! I did my research, I promise!” Or the quotes can sound like the writer protesteth too much: “This hugely unlikely circumstance really happened, I swear, I swear! See, here! Some old Colonel wrote about it!” Or, worst of all, quotes can be perceived as the writer saying to the reader, “I read all this stuff; I am so smart. Kneel before my brain shines!”

Ugh. And so I ditched those four pin feathers to deliver unto the reader four meaty and clarified servings instead.

I was surprised and gladdened when the editors at Moon City put up a fight to keep the quote above. These quotes, once I had severed them in my heart from The Teeth of the Souls, came to mean for me only private lights, small votives that lit a personal path. But one editor protested, the quote from “Wright is so, well, right” where it is in the manuscript.

That editor saw some flickers of what I felt then in the light of that votive. The story of the marriage that was a lie and the lie that became a marriage begins in Book 1 I Dream You. Happily in the case of more than one of the lost quotes, some character in the book says them aloud anyway. Judith, struggling with Leighton’s pending marriage plans, says to him, “I used to dream about you when you was at the war. I dream you through fires and bullets and mens that came running towards you. They part and turn like birds at a steeple in my dream.”

And it was the commencement of this dual story that made those four sentences from Wright stay with me. “In the story, it all happened in the Ozark Mountain country, many miles from what we of the city call civilization. In life, it has all happened many, many times before, in many, many places. The two trails lead afar. The story, so very old, is still in the telling.”

I will confess, I have a lot of trouble appreciating The Shepherd of the Hills. In my first year at the writing program in Arkansas I forced myself to read it—I was home in Springfield to get my wisdom teeth out. High on hydrocodone and diet coke, I wrote the part of Morkan’s Quarry that was published in the Ontario Review, where Leighton with Looney’s Home Guards travel the White Hills to hunt Sam Davies and end up killing “men of no renown whatsoever.” And I read The Shepherd of the Hills, in which all the killing, the main climax of the novel, happens while the protagonist (or at least the current point-of-view character, the person the story should be about) has fainted.

I figured you could not be a writer of the Ozarks without confronting this book. And along with St. Augustine’s City of God, Plato’s Republic, Marx’s Das Kapital, Duane G. Meyers’ The Heritage of Missouri, and Njal’s Saga, The Shepherd of the Hills was indeed a prominent book on the family shelf.

Published in 1907 The Shepherd of the Hills was Harold Bell Wright’s second fiction, and it was among the first American novels to sell over one million copies. If the stats at Gerry Chudleigh’s very thorough website about Wright are to be believed, The Shepherd transformed Harold Bell Wright into the Nicholas Sparks of his day, a writer with that magic-touch ability to thrill, move, and entertain a mass of readers while making his fiction conform to all the comfortable values and sentiments current in the mainstream. Charming, heartwarming, tear-jerking, sometimes thrilling, but never challenging to commonly held sentiments and sturdy beliefs, The Shepherd of the Hills was prototype of a kind of mass consumable American novel. And there is nothing in the world wrong with what me and a bookseller friend from Mississippi coined as “Cozy Comfort Fiction,” which is I think the most apt description of this ultra-portable, non-threatening genre. That I can’t get a kick out of it doesn’t mean a thing. Too bad for me.

But in The Shepherd of the Hills Harold Bell Wright achieved something beyond what Nicholas Sparks or Olive Ann Burns or Robert James Waller have ever created, something that few writers of Cozy Comfort Fiction ever manage to do. Wright, who was neither native nor from the Ozarks, left in the wake of his book a pious Western mountain ethos and a lasting log-cabin and overalls industry to those of us who are both native and from. In many ways Old Matt and crew gave the world its first handle on the Ozarks, a region which previously cast no substantial figure in the national imagination aside from lead mines and headlines of Balkanized, internecine killings. Even today a handy meme map of the nation had its cartoon determination of us Ozarkers as “NO IDEA.”

The sturdy, courageous yeoman Hillbilly, in many ways that we Ozarkers still have to deal with, was born in Wright’s pages. Vehicles as divergent as an outdoor play and the “Vigilante Zip Rider” both draw upon, maintain, and project the power of this old novel.

I can think of only a few other mass-consumed fictions that so permanently fashioned the broader world’s image of one place or region. Forks, Washington, may one day find there is a twilight to the bloodsucking, undead legacy currently feeding like a lamprey on its ferny forests and Spartan high school. But more than a century later, Wright has in the Ozarks living carriers and advocates of his metaphor, ambassadors that continue to stamp all of us hillbillies even if his actual novel is no longer read by anyone but writer/scholars newly missing their wisdom teeth and jazzed on codeine.

So there’s the now lost quote, curled on the editing floor, one of the most interesting sections of that Wright novel that marked this Ozarks forever, and certainly the one riff of his that stuck with me. Of course, excising this quote does not mean I’ll never confront (or embrace) Wright and his legacy again. The story, so very old, is still in the telling.

CoverShot

This is the front cover to The Teeth of the Souls, sequel to Morkan’s Quarry and forthcoming from Moon City Press in March 2015.

            The front cover art comes from a photographer I have long watched and admired, Springfield, Missouri’s Jeffrey Sweet. The cover is a detail from a really spectacular photograph Jeff took one morning out at Lake Springfield when early light was searing off bare trees in that wintry transition between water and ice. With recent weather in the Ozarks, my parents and friends back home may know this winter light all too well this past year.

            I spotted the photograph when Jeff had turned to blogging. Jeff runs Jeffrey Sweet Photography. In the lull during the recession, Jeff wisely started a photography blog, sharing tips, techniques, and insights about taking photographs. These blog posts were irresistible to amateur/moron shutterbugs like me. In one post Jeff featured this photograph as an example of practicing texture.

Jeffrey Sweet Photography: Nature &emdash;

            I knew the photograph meant way more than a mere practice shot taken to learn texture as a technique. And Jeff immediately knew which photograph I was talking about when I visited him in December of 2013 at what was briefly his home studio in Nixa.

            Wode, wood, and woods. These words for a wilderness are all related in ways that we have only recently shunted aside. On the whole, even the profoundly suburban among us tend to look on all wilderness with a post-Teddy Roosevelt glow. The wilderness is a semi-sacred place to be conserved, revered, and protected. A place to return to, to be rejuvenated by. We now carve out nature centers to tap what we believe is an ancient connection to the wild.

            But within living memory, many of us can recall relatives who thought very differently about the wild. My grandfather, Roma Yates, a tenant farmer from Dallas County, Missouri, actively loathed cedar and hackberry trees. To Roma, a dense stand of hardwoods had a value once cut, milled, the lumber sold, and the ground beneath them tilled, planted, and a crop harvested. That was the rational answer to the madness and chaos of a wood. There were also practical considerations about the woods. The wilderness contained bobcats in my father’s lifetime and cougar in grandfather’s memory. Even my father can recall the disturbance to the home after hearing the scream of what had to be one of the last cougars in the Ozarks, and all three brothers kept ready the story of the axe at the door—The Yates’s did not own guns. The woods were far more wild to my grandfather than they ever will be to me.

            Roma’s conception of wilderness was more near the meanings of wode and wood that come up in The Teeth of the Souls. In the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry, Leighton Morkan and his companion Judith negotiate the vigilantism that reigned in the Ozarks after the Civil War. Many times characters reflect upon the wode, the madness of the anti-horse thief committees, which often quickly devolved into vendetta and greed and had more to do with power than law and order. Shane Peale, Leighton’s old buddy from the Home Guards days of fighting and shirking bushwhackers, chides his tainted pal: “We about let it all get away from us again here, Leighton. Almost let it all slide back into that ole wode. Riding, avenge, revenge. No God but Death.”

            That’s what I saw in Jeff’s photograph, that old wode, golden and shining like the gilded age that arises in The Teeth of the Souls, but also mad and treacherous.

            Getting permission to use Jeffrey’s art as the cover to my own attempt at art represents a tremendous circle back, one that I find really inspiring. In the summer of 1987, Jeffrey (bass) and Erin Mayfield (drums and vocals) and I (guitar and vocals) started a basement band we called The Resonators. Ah, we were doomed by the usual clashes of young men trying to make original rock music—I thought the most important thing we could possibly do was finish a six or seven song demo tape on Erin’s four-track Fostex, thus making and selling art; Erin thought that was madness and that the most important goal was to practice until we had a marketable set and then play live and score girls. Looking back, I have a strong feeling Erin may have been right, or at least that he was surely the sanest of us.

1458447_10203437685484288_357312036_n

            But Jeff, playing the bass, stuck with me, and together we learned a lot about recording and making music. We finished the demo tape, and even manufactured some with cover art. And Jeff stuck with me while we flailed around trying to find a new front man. Neither of us could really sing, months of trying people who would never work out. By that time, poor Erin was rightfully infuriated. I had borrowed his Fostex long enough to consider the loan to be an outright theft, and then I think I even lost the instruction manual to it. Ugh, I am so sorry, Erin. Obsessed, determined, I was also criminal.

            Yet, guilt aside, Jeff and Erin and I (along with some drumming and advice from Jeff McNabb and Tony Nimmo) had created something that was not previously in the world. We had something to hand people, though admittedly not many people latched on to it, to hand people and say, Here, this is us. This is what we make. And even though neither of us can find the demo anywhere—we called it “Chasing a Big Coyote,” after some crazy Native American book I was absorbing—there was still that notion of success: we tried to make art together, and we did in the end make something. The one showed at left was uncovered by Facebook friend Lisa Wagner Haefner. Thanks, Lisa!

            I tried really hard to tie Jeff down for the cover art for Morkan’s Quarry, and then again for the cover art to Some Kinds of Love: Stories. But busy photographers are REALLY hard to tie down. So I was thrilled that he said yes, and then later approved the designer’s use of a detail from his larger photograph.

CoverShot

            There it is finally. Circle back and we are about to make something together again. While it won’t be any blockbuster (it’s a literary novel about some really hard times in Springfield; get a grip!), it will reach more people for sure than did “Chasing a Big Coyote.” How do I know that? Trust me on the sales projection here.

            I’m pretty sure Jeff and I were meant to attempt art together, and now clearly more than once. We just didn’t know then what we know now. And we weren’t yet who we were meant to be. Thanks, Jeffrey Sweet. This cover song is ours now.

1618497_10203174640588330_559052854_n

 

THE LEGEND OF THE ALBINO FARM

 

On the northernmost border of Springfield, Missouri, there once was a great house surrounded by emerald woods and lake and meadow, a home place and farm that, to the lasting sorrow of its owners and heirs, acquired a terrible, nonsensical legend marring all memory of its glory days irreparably within the city, for the estate became known and is still known, if it is remembered at all, as The Albino Farm.

Hettienne Sheehy marked that summer of 1946 in The Old Sheehy Place with much trepidation. Beneath the tan sunlight lancing through wide-flung windows, something was breaking open, she could feel it, like the rupture of damaged, peeling skin beneath which shined startling, new, white flesh. At the oak table in the library, the three Sheehy brothers—Uncle Simon and her father, John, men so tall their chairs and tumblers appeared miniaturized, and Uncle James, squat and round of face—whetted greedily upon every word Hettienne’s father released about the closing of the Office of Price Administration and what that could mean for wheat and oats. Simon and her father, John, seemed carved of the same tree, with hands so big and blocky, they overflowed their knees. When resting, their small mouths perched in sated but flat smiles upon their square faces, which were topped with full reddish-brown hair. Hettienne imagined them as giant, rough children Picasso might have painted in cubes and earth tones. Fashioning them in that Spaniard’s brute light brought something of Chicago here to the Ozarks and calmed her. For on this summer stay at The Old Sheehy Place it was becoming painfully obvious how she was the only child to bear the last name Sheehy. Those men scheming at the table, the acres of forest, lakes, and fields of wheat and oats, even the storied glory of Emerald Park and its legendary past held a kind of claiming tag upon her. It might be, she reckoned with agitation, that the joyous sprint of her childhood was nearing an end.

Cats2 (2)

Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research

Edited by Bruce Joshua Miller

 

“Each morning I would strike out for this temple of learning in the crisp autumn air . . . with a sense of purpose and the conviction that this was where I belonged.”—Marilyn Stasio from Your Research—or Your Life

            Inspired partly by Richard Altick’s The Scholar Adventurers, the fourteen writers in Curiosity’s Cats offer powerful arguments for the value of hands-on research, be it chasing documents, cracking mysteries, interviewing long-lost subjects, or visiting exotic and not-so-exotic locales.

Available from Minnesota Historical Society Press and better bookstores in April 2014

 

Contents

 

Introduction

            Bruce Joshua Miller

 

1395804_10202263745736528_334799935_n

Stay Here as Long as You Like

            Ali Selim

 

Ali Selim is a writer and director of television commercials, documentaries, music videos, and the Independent Spirit Award–winning film Sweet Land, named one of the Ten Best Films of 2006 by over a dozen critics. Recently, he has directed episodic television for HBO and CBS. A native Minnesotan, he now resides in Los Angeles and no longer shovels snow.

 

Catz

To Understand You Must Break In

            Steve Yates

 

Steve Yates is the author of Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press, 2010). The Missouri Review has thrice featured excerpts from that novel and its sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, forthcoming in 2015 from Moon City Press. Pieces of both novels have also appeared in Ontario Review, South Carolina Review, Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review, and Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. Yates is the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize in Fiction, and the University of Massachusetts Press published his collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories in 2013. Richard Russo and the editors of Best American Short Stories distinguished one of his pieces among the Notable Stories of 2009. Yates is assistant director/marketing director at University Press of Mississippi and lives in Flowood with his wife, Tammy.

 

562293_4012328508077_1799830290_n

Dating Albert Einstein

            Alberto A. Martínez

 

Alberto A. Martínez is the author of four books, including Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths (2011). He was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He earned his PhD in history of physics at the University of Minnesota while he lived in Dinkytown and worked at Vescio’s Italian restaurant. He now teaches history of science at the University of Texas at Austin. Although he is often sidetracked by interesting things, he prefers to work on important things. He also prefers cats over dogs, because dogs stare and drool. His favorite dogs are pretzel dogs.

 

1911740_10202726104385025_823936904_n

Research Can Be Murder

            Katherine Hall Page

 

Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-one adult mysteries in the Faith Fairchild series and five for younger readers. She received the Agatha for Best First (The Body in the Belfry), Best Novel (The Body in the Snowdrift), and Best Short Story (The Would-Be Widower). She has been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She has also published a series cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen, and Small Plates, a collection of short mystery fiction. A native of New Jersey, she lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband.

 

IMAG0404

He Liked Custard

            Margot Livesey

 

Margot Livesey grew up in Scotland and has taught at several American colleges and universities, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Warren Wilson MFA program, Brandeis University, and Bowdoin College. She is the author of a collection of stories and seven novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture and, most recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Emerson College.

 

397541_3076315628340_1277195365_3343239_2143172509_n

Prospecting the Past

            Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.

 

Theodore Kornweibel’s latest book is Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey, which won the Hilton Prize for best railroad book published in 2011. After earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kornweibel earned his PhD in American studies at Yale. He is retired from a thirty-six-year career teaching African American history, the last twenty-nine at San Diego State University.

 

IMG_20131120_145427

A Good Turn Every Day: A Boy in Duluth in 1926

            Bruce White

 

Bruce White is a historian and anthropologist who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of two award-winning books, We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People and Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota (with Gwen Westerman). He has researched and written widely in the field of the Native and early European history of the Great Lakes region, subjects on which he works as a consultant for Native communities and government agencies through his firm, Turnstone Historical Research.

 

395906_3325010765563_281668725_n

Curious Encounters in My Search for Vinland

            Annette Kolodny

 

Annette Kolodny completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969 and has since become an internationally award-winning scholar in American literary and cultural studies. She is currently professor emerita at the University of Arizona, where she previously served as dean of the College of Humanities. Among her most important books are The Lay of the Land (1975), The Land Before Her (1984), and Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (1998). Her most recent work concentrates on Native American literatures and early transnational contacts with the Americas.

 

 

601040_10200481631384783_900528392_n

Comanches, Cowboys, and a Political Rock Star

            Jan Reid

 

Jan Reid won the Texas Institute of Letters’ lifetime achievement award in 2014. Let the People In was honored as the book of the year in 2012 by the Texas State Historical Association, and the Houston Chronicle rated it one of the ten best nonfiction books published in the United States that year. His novel Comanche Sundown won the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2011 award for best fiction, an honor whose previous winners include Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Katherine Anne Porter. Reid is nearing completion of his thirteenth book and third novel, Sins of the Younger Sons. He lives in Austin with his wife, Dorothy Browne, and their collie, Gus.

 

The Mad Bomber Guy

            Bruce Joshua Miller

 

Bruce Joshua Miller has edited two books and written for public radio, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. He has worked in the book industry for thirty-five years.

 

1016683_10201454513066217_2126593775_n

Pilgrim Voices: Puritans, Immigrants, and Historical Research

            Philip J. Anderson

 

Philip J. Anderson is professor emeritus of church history at North Park University in Chicago, where he has taught since 1979. Since 1989 he has served as president of the Swedish-American Historical Society, also chairing its publications committee. His published writings have included studies in British, American, and Swedish American religious history and culture. He lives with his wife, Karna, in Hovland and Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota.

 

393831_3142363359492_1395897922_n

An Essayist’s Guide to Research and Family Life

            Ned Stuckey-French

 

Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coeditor of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, coauthor of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and book review editor of Fourth Genre. His essays have appeared in magazines such as In These TimesThe Normal School, Tri-Quarterly, culturefrontGuernica, and middlebrow and have been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.

 

Your Research—or Your Life!

            Marilyn Stasio

 

Marilyn Stasio is the Broadway theater critic for Variety, a columnist with the New York Times Book Review, and the author of several books. 

 

Cats2 (2)

housenewYOUR NO ONE IS MY EVERYONE

Thoughts on the scale of regional publishing and the sage advice of businessmen
Originally published on University Press of Mississippi’s blog as part of University Press Week 2013

The first time I fully realized the value of what I do for a living, I was stricken with the stomach flu. Illness is the one excuse to stop when you work at marketing anything. At that time I marketed books for the University of Arkansas Press in Fayetteville in my native territory, the Ozarks.

This was 1997, three years after I had completed an MFA in creative writing at UA Fayetteville. While working in publishing was never boring and far less hazardous than anything I had tried before, the value of university press publishing had not yet registered. Much of it seemed a struggle. In my worst hours, I found myself disheartened, reminded of the thankless chore of teaching grammar and sentence structure and eventually short stories and poems to classrooms filled with flinty-eyed, grim undergraduates, my fellow Ozarkers. Selling what no one seems to want—teaching Chekhov to ruffians from Roaring River and cheerleaders from Chadwick—seemed a lot like publicizing poetry and literary criticism to the rushing masses at Book Expo America. Even if you were peddling excellent paperback reprints of President Jimmy Carter’s nonfiction (and we were at Arkansas), at BEA your reward was a glassy-eyed glance at best. Almost at all times you could count on the cold shoulder, the customer’s hurried determination to be elsewhere. No one seemed interested at Chicago’s McCormick Place or New York City’s Javits Center, or at the Los Angeles Staples Expo Center. No one.

Your no one is my everyone. I’ve been longing for the chance to use that phrase on the smug businessmen who will sometimes cast an eye to what we do at university presses and then declare, “No one knows what you do. No one knows who you are. No one knows about that book.” Even for books that we have sold 15,000 copies of in three years, I have heard the cry, “No one knows about this book!”

One of the extraordinary impositions of American commerce is a zany, optimistic arrogance and an unstoppable willingness to share it. Because I have run a business, I can tell any other professional how to run any other enterprise under the sun. Hmm. I have earned a wage as a law office gofer, a sportswriter, a construction inspector and surveyor, a teacher of grumpy Ozarkers, and a publisher. And I have yet to identify that profession to which the American businessman will defer and not offer his certain opinion of how you ought to run your operation. Sometimes it’s well-meaning, unmotivated, clear-eyed observation, freely shared, and then the feedback is well worth the listen. But sometimes it’s the kind of wisdom that gets grocery executives hired for top dollar to run your giant bookstore chain… into the ground.

No one knows about this book. You would think niche and scale would make all kinds of immediate sense to the business mind. But despite some flickers of refined reasoning from Seth Godin and Chris Anderson and David Meerman Scott, American business advice on the whole remains fixated on mass success, worldwide, blockbuster sensation. Everything regional publishing is not. When we hear feedback, it’s as if scale was taught and forgot at business school, like scansion at the English department!

9781118027929 cover.inddFor the restaurateur who puts a new item on the menu that turns only one thousand plates in a year there will surely be some urgent considerations. Some menu mix analyses set the bar for “workhorses” and “stars” of profitability at around 47 plates sold each night, depending on food costs. Just a glance at Running a Restaurant for Dummies, 2d Edition (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011) yields several power-point-ready questions: How much does the dish cost? How does the menu describe the dish? How adventurous is the dish? “Is the item intimidating to your diners?” is the exact and metaphorically amusing Dummies phrase. How well does your staff know the dish?

A restaurant attempting to launch a new menu might budget only eight percent of forecasted annual net sales on all of marketing (and I mean everything from defining a target audience to public relations to mailing a coupon or flyer or running banner adverts on websites or boosting a Facebook post). The Small Business Administration advises companies with under five million in sales (and that’s a lot of us university presses) to spend five percent of annual net sales to maintain awareness and ten percent to grow the business. So really in raw dollars of marketing spend, we may not be so different from the restaurateur, who insists no one knows about us. No one knows about a book.

It is in that magic of defining a target audience that things get very different. The local restaurateur relies on a market (“butts in chairs,” say the Dummies) attracted from an audience frequently within defined metropolitan borders. Sometimes a regional book can astound by its performance and service to a market in just one metro area. See any number of books from The History Press, Arcadia Publishing, and even such books by University Press of Mississippi as The French Quarter of New Orleans, or The Garden District of New Orleans.

9781604731248But most often the regional book serves a market from a broad swath of audience territory that a restaurant cannot (dare I advise should not?) dream to target effectively. Our book Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of the Delta Blues has served its market in three editions, with over 15,000 shipped in twelve years. And while a restaurant in Helena or Clarksdale might market itself to the blues travelers once a year, I have trouble believing it will survive on one weekend’s take per annum. Something is different here.

Now I would never dream of taking Blues Traveling and targeting an audience of all the wage-earning lunchtime diners in a metro area. Food is a very different and more reliable consumer need than say content describing some aspect of the history of blues music in Jackson, Mississippi and elsewhere in the state. And while the best restaurants do market some signature dishes as a strategy, they largely market a whole menu and a dining experience, which is atmosphere and service. At UPM, we market every dish, signature or not, in a mostly singular fashion. And while I appreciate the utility and safety of our fifth floor in a ten-floor state office building, atmosphere is not UPM’s most appealing selling point. We do have fine customer service to our direct customers and vendors, but we don’t have full control of what the business types call the whole value chain. Our books reach consumers more often via someone else’s hands on shelves, in displays, in cardboard boxes with smirking smiley faces, all way beyond our control.

Despite these departures from standard business practices, UPM has in every year but one (during the recent recession) met or exceeded its budgeted sales goals. We set record sales in 2008 of $2.3 million, and have maintained $2.1 million in sales per year every year since 2009. Surely someone must know about us? Surely someone knows about our books?

When the advice begins with, “No one knows about you. No one knows about that book,” I think we have unfortunately arrived at a point when perspective on scale and niche is just too disparate to communicate kind, critical advice, freely given. Or, heaven forefend, we’re being prepped for say a little marketing of consultancy or food services. As Running a Restaurant for Dummies sagely submits, “Sometimes, the feedback represents a preference and doesn’t shine a light on an actual problem.”

faubusNo one knows about your book. On the couch, reeling with the flu, I was stopped long enough to read a whole book at one sitting, one that University of Arkansas Press was just about to publish. Nothing like the misery and isolation of the flu to set the advices of restaurateurs and indifference at Book Expo America and all that far aside. It is so rare for me to read a whole 408-page book in one spell; yet it is such a holistic and wondrous cognitive experience. The book was Roy Reed’s Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal. I knew who Faubus was—a monster to my father, who graduated from a small high school in the Missouri Ozarks the very year that Governor Orval Faubus shut down Little Rock Central High School rather than seeing it integrated. Faubus was one of the rare governors from the Ozarks elected to the highest executive office in either Missouri or Arkansas. And he had unleashed the very worst.

Reed took the whole life of the man to task in the biography. From his masterful political acumen, to his sappy prose poetry about hills and trees in our Ozarks, to his one sadness—the death of a pet dog in Faubus’s dotage—nothing was spared. And then came the conundrum in a final chapter exemplary of the biographer’s art. “The one big thing that Faubus got wrong was colossally, biblically wrong. But it was not simple,” writes Reed. And then at the close, the paragraph so electric I held the book trembling like a sparking wire: “He won four more elections because of the momentum that gave him.” And, “Even George Wallace finally apologized for the harm he had caused. Faubus never admitted that he had caused any.”

In that moment I recognized we, a team of but a dozen publishing professionals on a hill in McIlroy House had joined with an author to give the Ozarks, the whole state of Arkansas, even some of the nation an ineffable, unflinching expression of complexity and human frailty exposed in the hunger, the raw greed for power. No publisher in New York City would have entertained its production. The numbers were not there. The scale was different. But now I could return home to my father with this wonder of a book and say, Father, this is my work, and it answers your questions. Maybe dismiss it to fever and dehydration, but truthfully I saw for the first time in my working life the whole arc of value in what I was now doing. That I can sell you this, and it could be an answer.

The book succeeded, beyond any book in the five years I was at Arkansas, succeeded beyond what many regional books will. But by no means was it a worldwide, blockbuster sensation. Even in metro Little Rock, it was certainly not in a majority of households. And yet it is still read, sold, taught, and talked about. It still cautions. It still changes if not transforms minds. I’m sure some colder heart than mine (which was changed forever by that day’s read) would look over the sales reports and say, No one knows about this book. No one knows who you are. No one knows what you do.

Sure. Sure.

Your no one is my everyone.

SFOBposter3_small%20finalBook festivals are a tradition I’m thinking a lot about lately. By the end of the year I will have taken Some Kinds of Love: Stories to three of them—the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge.

To the nearly unknown writer, or to the only-known-locally writer, these festivals have both advantages and disadvantages. If you are business-minded, as I can sometimes be, and you apply risk-and-reward analysis to your prospects in such a venture . . . I don’t think you’ll see anything like a return on investment.

All three of the festivals that I attended had to be undertaken on my own dime. In fact, aside from a top tier of elite writers, the big headline draws at the festival, no one gets paid to come to these. Surprise! Now some have publishers that will include the festival stop as part of a larger book tour. But, I think I am in the majority at these festivals, being a writer published by a small press that can pay to create a poster here and there and will gladly and capably handle the coordination of books sold through the vendors at the festival, but that is about all. I should note that in the daylight, I work at University Press of Mississippi as assistant director / marketing director, and this is how we do it as well. Though, we also buy advertisements in print venues at the festival heralding our authors when we can.

logo_current

So, had there not been a surprise and timely and robust royalty check from University of Massachusetts Press, and two paying presentations (the Ozarks Studies Symposium and the Welty Symposium) I’m not so sure attendance at these three festivals would have been possible. DIY book touring has a cost, fellow travelers! And I must say, I did not go festival wild. I attended three festivals that had a regional connection to my writing—Arkansas, where for eight years I earned my MFA and worked in publishing; Louisiana, where Mississippi goes to unwind, our foreign, mad paradise next door; and, the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where all hillbillies must once in every lifetime make the Hajj.

So why take on book festivals? And how can you measure success? As an unknown or beginning author, you need to throw two things out the window right away: 1) the number of people who show up in the room for the panel I’m on is my measure of success; 2) the number of books I sign and sell afterwards in the book tent is my measure of success. Toss that all out with the chicken’s feet.

The number of people who show up in the room to hear your panel may not matter at all. An attendee at the Louisiana Book Festival observed a huge audience packed in a room to hear a panel for an anthology which included Rick Bragg. And yet in the book tent right after, the authors from the panel just sat and waited.

headerImage_300

At my first Louisiana Book Festival, me and author Kelby Ouchley were almost offsite in a lovely glassed in room of a faraway museum. I ended up being late, it was so hard to find. Once there it was Kelby, the moderator, David Madden, author of The Sharpshooter: A Novel of the Civil War, and Ouchley’s wife, and his sister. That was all! In the book tent no one visited, though one of my authors from University Press of Mississippi kept me good company.

Now at first I thought all that was a disaster. That’s because I’m a small-hearted, narrow-visioned Philistine from the most calculating, business-minded, margin-up region of the empire, the Missouri Ozarks.

Here’s the thing: Much of the good that happens at the Festival doesn’t happen in front of your face. David Madden, who I had always wanted to meet and who moderated with a vigor that could have handled a crowd of hundreds, reviewed Morkan’s Quarry in the Baton Rouge Advocate after the festival. There are many panels and options at a Festival, and the long-term website notice that an author was chosen to be there and the author’s name, face, and biography in printed materials about the festival, has a lasting effect. It’s like a twelve-month stamp of approval—after all, a panel of smart, hyper-literate volunteers did indeed choose me to be here and could well have said, Hell no, hillbilly!

Kelby Ouchley remembered me warmly at the 2013 festival. And who knows? UPM may find itself the proud publisher of a book by him, since he writes so well on southern natural science. The authors you run into at festivals are of great value—especially for me who cannot attend AWP and who will likely never qualify for fancy stuff like Sewanee and Breadloaf. At Southern, I finally got to meet my idol, Daniel Woodrell. And thank God it was early enough in the morning that I was able to keep a lid on my intense enthusiasm.

The authors you are empanelled with are golden to meet as well. I will never forget meeting and reading with Cliff Graubart at the Southern Festival of Books. The moment in this video below, in which he became so overwhelmed with emotion that he asked me to finish reading his story for him I count as one of the most remarkable instants of trust I will ever experience between authors. It passes in two seconds, but it felt like the world stopped. That he would trust me so told me many wondrous things. And that I could keep the presence of mind to encourage him to go on, that it was his art, he had to… I’m so glad my wife taped this, albeit on a cellphone.

Steve Yates and Cliff Graubart read from their short story collections at the Southern Festival of Books, Nashville from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

As an aside, I wish every book festival or at least every author or publisher would find a way to record and keep what is presented. University Press of Mississippi has done this for years, and look at the content we have managed to capture and curate here (on just flipcams and Kodak Touch Cams, cheap as dirt!). All of this at the Louisiana Book Festival would have been lost had my wife and I not recorded three years running. Authors, festivals, publishers, get with it!

And in the book tent in at the Louisiana Book Festival in 2013, three (3) readers, among those who came up to me and Manuel Gonzales, told me they had purchased Morkan’s Quarry (Sign the stock handed to you at the festival book tent; ask how much the store wants signed, and sign it all!) told me they read the novel and loved it, and they couldn’t wait to see the short stories in Some Kinds of Love: Stories. Three (3) readers, people I had never seen before in my life, and I got to meet them!

One last aside, at the Arkansas Literary Festival, volunteers (these festivals take squadrons of volunteers who are to a person wonderful!) set up a book table in the faraway museum in which our panel performed. That was great in that the sales that were possible were captured right then after we performed.

Now the margin-up, calculating, German-Anglo-Scots-Irish at my DNA core would never call the numbers I directly experienced a triumph. But know this: You sit in front of a stranger thoroughly excited to meet you and willing to part with cash money to read what you have written next. I defy you to find a more exalted and wondrous feeling outside of your family experience. If ever that moment of talking with a stranger about my writing as I sign over and hand back a copy of my new book, if ever that gets old, then I will stop going to book festivals.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: