Interview with Michelle Dotter, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
How did Dzanc Books start? More recently, what has been your path to becoming Publisher and Editor-in-Chief?
To be honest, I don’t know too much about how Dzanc started. I know it was the brainchild of the cofounders Steve Gillis, an author, and Dan Wickett, who runs the Emerging Writers Network. I’m pretty sure the first books came out in late 2006, so the company is technically about twelve years old—not too bad for a small press.
I’ve worked with Dzanc since 2014. I started as a staff editor, then worked my way up to senior editor and production manager—which wasn’t too hard, since even at our biggest we only had a staff of about eight people. Last May, when Guy was moving to LA and deciding to pursue new opportunities with a different press, I was offered the job as editor-in-chief. I officially took over in August last year. Since the beginning, I’ve largely worked with literary fiction, so leading a house devoted to great experimental writing felt like something of a natural progression. The job still has a lot to teach me, though; I feel like something new clocks me with a left hook about once a week.
Could you tell us a bit about Dzanc’s mission as you see it now? I’m particularly interested to hear what “experimental writing” means for you, and how it is related to the idea of literary fiction.
It’s cool to get to answer this question now, when Lindsey Drager’s last book, The Lost Daughter Collective, just tied for the 2017 Shirley Jackson award in the novella category. If I could put Lindsey on a poster, she’d be my answer to Dzanc’s mission going forward—but I’ll flesh that out a little more.
I think I mentioned that Dzanc was created to promote literature of significant craft merit that the co-founders felt was being ignored in favor of commercial and mainstream fiction. In a lot of ways, we’re still there, but obviously, with every new editor, you get a new subjective lens through which literature is viewed. Craft has always been of the utmost importance to me—I want to open a Dzanc submission and be astonished by the language and the wording, because it’s familiar words arranged in ways I could never have imagined, but which make perfect sense now that somebody put them together. I think “experimental” writing has a lot to do with this—putting the writing process first, before the reader, before the characters even. Literature, to me, is a category of fiction that refuses to behave; it does not condone prejudices or reinforce things we already believe. It can’t, because to read literature is to engage your brain’s neuroplasticity, creating neural pathways where none existed before.
I guess, if I could get technical for a minute, that’s essentially the definition of literary fiction, for me. Most commercial, general, or trade fiction is, to some extent, elements you’ve seen before or which are familiar to you in some way, rearranged with incredible skill to make an infinite number of new stories. Every book is different, and yet a lot of them draw on archetypes or plot points we’ve seen before—basically, our brains have already carved out neural pathways in this shape, and that’s part of what makes books like this so satisfying to read. Literary fiction charts new pathways and breaks new ground—you have to work for it, and fight it, and sometimes give up on it and come back to it a little older and wiser, when it makes more sense. The language itself challenges everything you know about connotation and denotation. And that’s not easy, and it’s not for everyone—but it can be immensely satisfying.
I love that definition of literary fiction. How does that square with small press publishing as a vehicle for this kind of work? Can a certain model of publishing best facilitate a certain re-charting of neural pathways?
I think it’s all about flexibility. Publishing is a business like any other, and the smaller the business, the fewer masters you have to serve. Our job is to bring out amazing books and somehow keep our lights on—and sometimes that’s about all we can handle, but regardless, it gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of what we publish, how we promote it, etc. I think small-press, literary readers are great for this, too: many of them are very loyal to the small press publishing sphere, and they want to support us and see what crazy stuff we’re coming out with. At the big New York houses, you’ve got shareholders to answer to, market share to keep up, and a lot of commercial engines churning toward the creation of real, significant money. Under those conditions, it’s hard to take a chance on something so fundamentally strange.
About keeping the lights on—we like to ask, how do you cope? A big part of this interview series has been the ongoing conversation 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 Dzanc?
It’s tough, to be honest. Dzanc was originally funded independently by Steve Gillis, and he continues to be incredibly generous with helping us keep the lights on, as you say. We keep a small staff, which minimizes salary expenses, and we do charge reading fees for submissions to our contests, though to be frank, the reading fees rarely even cover the cost of advances for the contest winners. We try to print small numbers of books and be conservative with our galleys. The press has been around for twelve years, but part of what we’re trying to do right now is to make the transition from relying on outside funding to bringing in enough money to stay in the green, and so far we’re wobbling more than walking on our spindly legs, but I’m hoping that will stabilize in the early months of next year. I’m also planning to run a funding campaign, as other presses like Graywolf and Milkweed have done successfully—but at the moment, I don’t have any ideas how to do that. So there’s a lot of this that’s a learning experience.
What amazes me about Dzanc is that despite what you mention above, the press continues to put out a large number of books each year, and to really get behind them. Could you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re looking to publish in the future?
Yes, absolutely. I’ll restrict myself to the next season, because I could go on forever.
First I have to talk up last year’s winner of the Prize for Fiction, The Wonder That Was Ours by Alice Hatcher. The story of a fictional Caribbean island amid social anarchy and the black taxi driver caught in the middle, the novel is narrated by the Greek chorus of cockroaches living in Wynston Cleave’s taxi. They’re well-read, funny, and fans of the Heavy Vibes Hour—and they’re also unbearably wise and sympathetic about human failings. This is one of those books that leaves me with a deep, socked-in longing that no harm will come to any living thing. Even cockroaches.
I won’t say too much about White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, but only because everyone else is already doing it for me! This book has been on must-read lists from the Huffington Post, the New York Post, and Vulture, and a ton of other places—not to mention the glowing blurbs from literary superstars like Lauren Groff, Amelia Gray, Jeff VanderMeer, and Jamie Ford. Sharp and incisive, this book won last year’s Short Story Collection Prize, and is full of diverse women of color—gay and straight, disabled, of many minds, of many backgrounds—facing a world of violence and prejudice and occasionally inflicting that violence on each other. Chaya’s writing is superb, and I expect to see this collection as a staff pick on many, many bookshelves.
Another book I can’t recommend highly enough is our November book, winner of last year’s nonfiction prize. Everything Lost Is Found Again tells the story of eighteen months Will McGrath spent in Lesotho, a tiny landlocked kingdom surrounded by South Africa. Lesotho has the highest HIV-positive adult population in the world, but though the book certainly touches on the crisis, as well as the Touching Tiny Lives orphanage that fights to save AIDS orphans, it’s also an absolutely joyous celebration of the spirit, culture, and sense of humor of the people of Lesotho, who beat the author at Scrabble and make impossible moonshine and really know how to celebrate Valentine’s Day or a graduation. If I could put a copy of this book in every reader’s hands, I would—not least because 15% of all sales are being donated to the Touching Tiny Lives orphanage. Very much in the spirit of Bill Bryson and Alexandra Fuller.
I should probably stop there, but here are a few short sound bytes about recent releases:
How to Set Yourself on Fire by Julia Dixon Evans: Secret love letters. Headless doll. Friendship. Family. Fire.
The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin: Small-town stories. Stars. Pitch perfect. Heartbreaking.
The Lost Country by William Gay: ’50s Tennessee. Road novel. Lost masterpiece. Must-read Southern fiction.
Lastly, what do you think the future has in store for small press publishing? Do you think it will become more central to the literary world? More peripheral? Will the dynamics involved in the market change? Sorry to ask you to predict the future—but if you have any thoughts as to what it will be like, I’d love to know!
I think small press publishing is likely to be more in the spotlight going forward, or at least I hope so. With all industries, there’s the push-pull of monopoly, and as the Big Five presses condense and cannibalize smaller houses and each other, I think a lot of readers start wondering what’s happening outside of the main narrative. The rise of independent bookstores over the last three or four years is an encouraging sign, too; indie booksellers are always friendly and supportive with local authors and small press authors, and that gives authors a greater chance of being discovered by the casual reader. A lot of blogs and media outlets, like Electric Lit, Lit Hub, and The Masters Review, make an effort to spotlight small press titles, too, which we’re very thankful for.
Ultimately, the one thing about literature is that it’s never static. As soon as something becomes a trend, readers are looking outside of that trend, wondering what new kinds of books are out beyond the breakers, or still an undertow. Small presses are the proving grounds for brand-new ideas and writers too risky for the big houses to take a chance on, which means we always have an opportunity to lead the way. And with the great inclusive, diverse, and straight-up weird books coming out from small presses right now, in my mind, that can only be a good thing.