Interview with Sandra Doller, Founder & Editrice
How did 1913 Press start?
When I was in graduate school at University of Chicago, I became slightly obsessed with all the mentions of the year 1913 that were recurring in my studies. This was certainly a function of my studies’ focus on early modernist experiments in film and writing, but the year itself just kept cropping up…and it rhymed and contained the odd number 13.
So I got it in my head that I would start a magazine that picked up on all these serendipitous overlaps. I wanted a beautiful magazine that published things in-between, unidentified objects, brilliant toss-offs, and radical orphans. When I started the magazine a year or so later, I really had no idea what I was getting into.
Then a few years later, in 2006, I started publishing books, first with Seismosis by John Keene & Christopher Stackhouse, which embodied all that I wanted to see in a book—gorgeous sketchy visual art work in total and generative conversation with the stunning, deep, and unraveling written word.
Tell us a bit about 1913. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Well maybe the above speaks to that a bit. But also, I love the idea of the “little magazine” and the micro or mini or nano-press (as Cole Swensen says of her fabulous La Presse). Something that can be at once a gallery, a collaboration, a hand-made and a digital object. Something that flies below the radar, not flashy, not commercial, but solid and full of the best work out there.
As editrice, I hope that the 1913 writers-artists feel part of a communal undertaking, maybe even a familial bond with the other writers-artists with whom they share page space and label space. It’s one way of reading and being read—to take account of your surroundings, the manner in which your work is presented, whose work yours is sandwiched in between, what conversation you’re a part of when you publish with a certain press or in a certain journal. I know when I publish my own work, I feel this sense of being part of something in particular. Orchestrating and curating and selecting and ordering each issue and each book, I pay close attention to whose work speaks to whose, and I imagine these affinities and friendships developing.
Other than that, some guiding principles are a punk resistance to order and commercialism, a fierce devotion to inclusivity and diversity, and a willingness to rethink aesthetic categories and bounds.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
At the end of June the submission period closed for The 1913 Prize for First Books, to be selected by the original 1913 author, John Keene! It’s always so exciting to run the prize and screen the manuscripts, since there is so much wild wonderful work happening right now. So many of the manuscripts that come in are completely unpredictable and risky in new and exciting ways—we often end up publishing more than one because there are simply so many fabulous first books. As with all of our publishing projects, we do not limit the prize to genre or length, preferring to be on the lookout for just the baddest and the best. We’re also committed to publishing work that doesn’t seem to be getting published. So, while we always do have wonderful people on our finalist list who have been finalists elsewhere or whose books have been picked up, we also find ourselves drawn to writer-artists whose work has yet to be recognized by other presses or journals. Publication is not a pre-requisite for 1913!
In addition to the prize, our forthcoming books include a choose your own adventure cat lady narrative by the inimitable Lily Hoang; a series of linked persona poems by the ever-brilliant Ronaldo Wilson; a beautiful collaborative book by Cynthia Arrieu-King and Hillary Gravendyk; and last year’s two prize selections: Leif Haven selected by Claudia Rankine, and Mia You selected by moi/l’editrice!
Our newest books now are by Sarah Riggs, Brenda Iijima, and Amaranth Borsuk & Kate Durbin…each poetry, but also something else entirely…please check them out!
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
It’s very heartening to see publishing move away over the last few years from traditional notions of commodity, marketability, and known entities. Small presses are taking risks and publishing books that defy easy categorization. Over the past 10-15 years, there has also been an increasing attention to visual design—a movement led by small presses—and it’s always wonderful to see those collaborations between text & image influence each other and push our art form forward.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at 1913 Press?
This is a tough one. As much as I love the freedom from capitalism and market concerns that 1913 is all about, I do wish more people bought more books. There are so many presses now, which is best, I believe, but there’s also a lot of commotion and noise and it can be hard to cut through. I don’t think the very best books always get the most attention. But I do have a somewhat old-fashioned sense of the slow-burn—lots of books have a long shelf life, and just because they’re not blockbusters right away, doesn’t mean they aren’t long-lasting, important, and live-giving works of timeless literature. In fact, I think ALL of 1913’s books are exactly that!
Running 1913 for the past 10 years as a mostly solo act—with design help from my partner Ben Doller—has definitely shown me my limits in extreme detail. Like, maybe I’m just not good at marketing and selling (true—I’m self-banned from 1913’s AWP book table because I give all the books away and am socially anxious). So I’ve enlisted the help of a new team of assistants and interns, who will take 1913 into the future as of this summer, and I think this might be the energy boost we need. Working on a press is really such a great way to engage in literary community, especially when you’re coming up as a writer. But after 10+ years, I’m exhausted…and I really dislove getting rude emails and dealing with the many gripes and snipes that come in regularly, ugh, so it’s good to be passing the matchstick.
But to be clear, 1913 has never broken even from printing costs on ANY book we’ve published. We run the First Book contest and fundraisers and pre-sales to help keep 1913 afloat, which covers SOME expenses but definitely not much. Sometimes people will teach our books, which helps a lot, especially if they buy from us or SPD instead of Amazon, where we practically lose money on each book. We occasionally get small, medium, or large donations from incredibly generous lovely people who love 1913, which is incredible (but finite). And mostly, Ben & I have put a LOT of our own cash from working full-time (we don’t have trust funds or anything, unfortunately) into 1913, which means, truthfully…a lot of credit card debt. But…we’re having a baby this summer, so that all needs to change…but quick!
This is a new question, and it might be a strange one. As a writer yourself, how do you see your own writing being influenced by/influencing what you publish with 1913?
This is such a great question, which doesn’t mean I have a great answer.
I think it’s really important to recognize how very much of the editing and publishing work out there is done by actual practicing writers, mostly on a volunteer basis, not only people whose paid “jobs” it is to keep these presses up & running (though I love that those jobs exist, and I love the people who do this work as a job!). But when you’re a writer first, and an editor/publisher second, I think it is really ALL a part of your work—for me, at least, this is the case. My work changes with each book we publish, with each issue of the magazine, with my reading of the prize entries. 1913 has become my writing community in many ways, which has altered my work and taken me in radical directions, or at least confirmed for me the radical directions I want to go in my own practice. From the other direction, of course, I’m attracted to work that speaks to what I’m interested in as a writer at any given moment, which changes. So it’s completely one body of work. Just as when I read, I write; when I edit, I write. It’s all part of the making.
And it’s also very humility-inducing to edit as a writer—to get to read these amazing writers and see their mind-blowing new work before it sees the light. I get so stunned and excited when I encounter the freshest new something—as an editor I’m greedy and I want to publish it! As a writer, I’m in awe and excited to be part of the world of this new work. This is how I felt when I saw Mia You’s manuscript among the submissions for first books (and why I chose it as our first ever Editrice’s Choice!); and also how I felt when I heard and then read the Lucy poems by Ronaldo Wilson; and when Lily Hoang sent me her Cat Lady manuscript, I was sitting in a faculty senate meeting at work and I couldn’t stop reading it. It’s an invigorating place, that faultline between writer-and-editor, and an important way to participate beyond one’s own work.