Many Rivers to Cross

A home for books by carpenters, teachers, and upcoming writers, Minnesota's New Rivers Press looks for a future beyond its founder

C.W. Truesdale's first experiences in publishing were, as he later described them, "a total mess." Starting out in a shed in Massachusetts with an old Chandler & Price letterpress, Truesdale aspired to join the movement of small publishers that swelled in the late 1960s. But after risking his fingers in the ill-functioning mechanisms, splattering globs of ink on expensive paper stock, and spending about 15 minutes on every two pages he printed, he realized that his motivation to publish had little to do with the fine art of printing. "My own interest lay in the book itself and what it had to say," he later wrote. Still he plugged away with the cranky machine, creating, in six long months, the first three books for New Rivers Press.

Thirty years and about 250 books later, C.W. Truesdale, known as Bill, described these exploits in The Talking of Hands, the New Rivers Press anniversary anthology that celebrates the history of this tenacious independent publisher. As New Rivers author David Haynes wrote in the book's introduction, "Thirty years is a long time for any venture, but in publishing it is nothing short of phenomenal." Since relocating the Press to the Twin Cities in 1980, Truesdale has become synonymous with New Rivers and its devotion to emerging regional writers, especially through its annual competitions that determine more than half of each season's list.

Open book: Many of New Rivers' titles come from regional competitions and previously unpublished writers
Open book: Many of New Rivers' titles come from regional competitions and previously unpublished writers

Which is what makes the trials of the past year particularly difficult for this Minneapolis-based nonprofit. Last February Truesdale suffered congestive heart failure, and though he'd previously intended to step down from publisher to senior editor on April 1, his health continued to give way, making even this diminished advisory role impossible. Summer brought a series of maladies, including kidney failure, which continues to keep him in the care of a nursing home. To further complicate matters, New Rivers executive director Phyllis Jendro was diagnosed with breast cancer last spring. Suddenly the future of this staple of Minnesota publishing seemed as uncertain as those first few handmade books.

Though Truesdale's condition has stabilized, he's taking an extended medical leave and isn't expected to return to his office. Jendro, meanwhile, has resumed work after successful surgery and treatments, and as she says in the Press's newsletter, "I expect to have many more years to enjoy working in the literary community." But like many small presses, New Rivers is very much tied to the vision of its founder. The question remains, then, what happens when the infrastructure of a press outlasts the vision?

Truesdale's idea of a good book is one that caters to neither highbrow academics nor thrill-seeking genre readers. Rather than associating with any particular movement or school of aesthetics, New Rivers has always reflected Truesdale's personal taste as writer, reader, and former English professor. "In my view, every book that New Rivers brings out is like no other book ever published," he wrote in his introduction to Talking of Hands.

"It's a bad premise to run a press on," New Rivers author Heid Erdrich says, "but it works." Erdrich, who published her first poetry collection with New Rivers and will co-edit an upcoming native women's anthology, says, "Bill is one of the first people to have taken a sincere interest in publishing native writers--and not out of any p.c. interest, but out of real craving for new voices." "Eclecticism," Truesdale wrote, "is not a negative term as far as I am concerned."

Allan Kornblum, founder and publisher of Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, met Truesdale at a New York Small Press Book Fair in 1975, when both were still fairly new at the business. "When we met each other, we both knew we were in it for the long haul. We just recognized that in each other," Kornblum muses. As an editor who has weathered the vagaries of nonprofit publishing for more than 25 years, Kornblum knows the importance of a small press's focus and identity--its one advantage over the big presses. "Bill has a very exciting record in introducing a new generation of Midwestern writers," he says. "It's important that the board of New Rivers think through who is going to shape the new identity. They need to get behind a publisher with a vision, and let that person shape the press rather than be a tribute to Bill's vision."

The Press's best prognosis comes from Gordon Thomas, just hired as associate director to boost fundraising and sales efforts. New Rivers sells to bookstores nationally, though their print runs tend to be 500 to 2,000 copies--fairly small, even for small presses. Thomas, whose 12 years of publishing experience includes the University of Minnesota Press, Hungry Mind Review, and Hazelden Publishing, also worked at St. Paul's Graywolf Press when it underwent a "founder transition." This kind of change, he says, "is always chaotic and can be troublesome," but doesn't indicate an end of operations. New Rivers even expects to expand in the next few years, increasing its annual run to ten titles from the current eight. Thomas is also seeking funds to hire their now-uncompensated artistic director, Robert Alexander.

Along with former intern and current editor Eric Braun, Alexander has so far maintained New Rivers's contests and series, selecting judges and talking with authors about manuscripts. The staff at New Rivers maintains a business-as-usual outlook, but has initiated some new developments to keep the presses rolling. They recently split the Minnesota Voices Project competition into two, reserving the original for Minnesota writers only, and opening the spinoff, the Headwaters contest, to writers from the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. They also have high hopes for upcoming anthologies on Southeast Asian writing and Native American women's writing.

While some of the writers Truesdale has shepherded into print have gone on to careers as professional writers--most notably David Haynes, Charles Baxter, and Diane Glancy--others have simply had the one-time pleasure of seeing their work in book form, then retreated back to full-time jobs or the more private practice of writing. Truesdale's favorite stories of the press's long life are those of hard-working writers--carpenters, teachers, parents--who make their debut with New Rivers when they're on the brink of abandoning hope for publication.

"It's like a dream come true," says Pamela Gemin, an English teacher from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, whose book of poems was released this September. "I feel very grateful." After submitting her manuscript to the Minnesota Voices Project competition four times, and receiving increasingly encouraging notes from Truesdale on her rejection slips, Gemin finally won the competition for Vendettas, Charms, and Prayers. "I have always loved New Rivers books," she says, "and thought to myself, This is where I want to be published."

Occasionally, this adamantly noncommercial press stumbles upon a salable title in the course of its regular business. Jendro notes the recent happy occasion of the sale of paperback reprint rights to Annie Tremmel Wilcox's A Degree of Mastery; the Book-of-the-Month Club has even made it an alternate selection. A memoir that rolled off the presses during one of Truesdale's last months of work, this title details Wilcox's experiences as a master bookbinder's apprentice in Iowa. And the success of such a book--focusing on the pleasures of a now-antiquated art form, and the ways it remains both satisfying and important--makes a fitting salute to New Rivers' founder.

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