Interview with Dan Cafaro, Founder and Publisher
How did Atticus Books start?
Given my background as a bookseller and editor, I first envisioned Atticus as a bookstore/publishing house (in the spirit of City Lights in San Francisco). Alas, my finances (and lack of business plan to secure startup funds) turned Atticus into a low-budget literary press, almost by default. In March 2010 I attended an indie & small press book fair hosted by the New York Center for Independent Publishing. The experience inspired me to start Atticus with the mission of discovering distinct voices being shunned by the establishment. Six months later we produced our first novel (Fight for Your Long Day) and now have 20 titles under our belt: 13 novels, five novellas/story collections, one memoir, and one collective history of the American literary magazine (Paper Dreams), in addition to a vibrant weekly online journal (Atticus Review).
Tell us a bit about Atticus. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The backbone of Atticus is shaped by the scrappy and disenfranchised beacons of artistic freedom, such as Barney Rosset (Grove Press/Evergreen Review), James Laughlin (New Directions), David Godine/John Martin (Black Sparrow Press), George Plimpton (The Paris Review), Sylvia Beach (Shakespeare and Company), Maxwell Perkins, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (City Lights), Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s), Terry Southern, the Village Voice, Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!), and by the fascinating life of one of our spiritual namesakes, Titus Pomponius Atticus.
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?
We released our first memoir this year (Belief Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela) and what excites me most is the fluid, creative way that Lori approaches her mostly nonfiction narrative. Her book has further opened my mind to the myriad possibilities of mixing and melding traditional storytelling with the cleverness of a fiction writer and the probing, intuitive eye of a journalist. It’s helped me redefine what we mean by “genre-busting” and our continued pursuit of such works. Autobiographical novelists get away with bending truth, so why should we not think all memoirists (and historians) skew the past in a selective manner?
We look for books that relay universal truths and lies, twisted fables, and small (or earth-sized) revelations—see Armageddon, Texas. We are on the eternal hunt for tales told in a fresh, unconventional yet fully accessible manner.
My present focus is on tapping into societal trends and behavioral drivers. Does the universe need yet another novel about a writer in the throes of existential crisis? Surprisingly the answer may be yes, but only if the choices presented help us see the world in a new light.
What’s more important: voice or story? I guess that depends but if the writer’s beautiful phrasings don’t stir a reader’s soul or itch a remote corner of his or her skull, then it’s fallen short of its objective and a missed opportunity.
If we’re looking to break new ground, it’s not only the inventive technique of the writing, or even the fine quality of the prose, that distinguishes one writer or press from the next. It’s more likely the ability of the writer to: (1) see past his or her navel (or to at least navigate the navel in an altogether illuminating fashion—e.g., The Shimmering Go-Between); (2) engage the reader; and (3) help the world heal.
Our ’16 list will contain four books that change the way you think. One or two may shape your mind, and one or two may wake up or blow your mind. As long as our books don’t coddle your mind, we’ve done our job. (See our Atticus Eleven shortlist.)
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I am enthralled by this idea of “changing the everyday narrative” and bringing literature to news. We often don’t think of literary journals and current affairs in the same breath. They may seem like birds of a different feather. They’re not.
I’m excited about alt-lit journals and zines that publish several times a week—they’re stepping up and filling in where mainstream media has failed. Our citizenry deserves a free, unfettered press to cover vital issues in rabble-rousing fashion.
I am jazzed by the drive, aesthetics, and missions of presses and journals like Guernica, The New Press, Seven Stories Press, Project Censored, The Progressive, n+1, H.O.W. Journal (Helping Orphans Worldwide), and so many others, that protect our interests and look out for the little guy.
I am stoked by random acts of citizen journalism that appear on my Facebook and Twitter newsfeed. I like the fact that the voice of the poet is not being shunned, that people are debating the worth (or inherent dangers) of conceptual poetry, for example. As long as we keep the dialogue going, then we’re doing okay, in my book, that is, advancing our profession and contributing immeasurably to civil discourse.
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 Atticus Books?
After five-plus years of face palms and hand-wringing over finances, I’ve surrendered to the real possibility that Atticus may never make me a nickel. And I’m not okay with that because it concerns me that if a press like mine cannot make a profit, then there is no way in hell that writers can earn a decent royalty publishing with a press like mine, and that depresses the shit out of me. So I cope by believing in the value of language and communication. And I cope by believing in our indie lit community and the power of the written word. And I cope by waking up each day with a mission to shred the page and change the narrative one crooked letter at a time.
Sorry to do this, but given your name and everything… What’s your take on Go Set a Watchman?
I didn’t read it, nor am I planning on reading it. Exploitation of old people isn’t my bag, and as much as I understand how curiosity would attract droves of readers to consume this release (and it’s fun to rewrite and reimagine classics), it bothers me that an early draft of a beloved novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) that an editor once rejected has now tainted the fabric of a standup character and role model (and skewed a justice-prevailing narrative, to boot) for future generations.
George Orwell said that “at 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” Martin Amis apparently updated this to say “at 50, everyone gets the face they can afford.” Somewhere in this mess of an analogy, Atticus Finch got a transformative facelift he did not deserve because of a publisher’s selfish longing for a windfall. HarperCollins, of course, could afford the risk and fallout from what amounted to be a brilliantly conceived, woefully unethical publicity stunt. It’s prime-cut pillaging Ivory Tower-style. You might say that society gets what it deserves too but make no mistake: the late Alice Lee is rolling in her grave and a legacy so long protected is now distorted.