Graywolf Press is lone wolf in book publishing

The publisher is a thousand miles from NYC but remains one of the best

The body becomes the art

Of identity. A face

In a photograph. The bas relief

Around the morgue door.

You, singularly you. And gone


Bang was extremely close with son Michael Donner Van Hook, an aspiring painter who was the only child of her first marriage. He was 37 in 2004 when he died from an overdose of barbiturates. Though her son's death was ruled a suicide, Bang believes it was accidental and cites the negligence of the doctor who wrote him a prescription for a large number of pills.

While composing the works that came to make up Elegy, Bang—already the author of four books of poetry—was solicited for submissions by magazine editors. Not expecting much enthusiasm due to the poems' somber nature, she was surprised when editors requested more and more of them. "The fact that they wanted so many convinced me that it wasn't just that they were being kind to someone who was grieving. I began to think over time that maybe there was something in the poems that actually had some meaning for somebody else, not just to me."

Though another publisher was interested in turning the elegies into a book, her agent, Bill Clegg, suggested she consider Graywolf. Bang had once taught Jeffrey Shotts in Washington University's MFA program, and she says her partnership with Graywolf has been uniquely beneficial.

"My previous publishers were all relatively laissez-faire, including Grove [Press]," she says. "They really didn't take an interest in poetry. That's not the kind of book they mainly publish, and so they tend to not want to invest much time or energy—and certainly no money—into it. Whereas Graywolf really believes in poetry and really cares very much about representing their press and the fine people behind it." Bang gives much credit to Graywolf's promotional efforts for Elegy's staggering success, capped by the National Book Critics Circle Award. "They want to make sure their books have every opportunity of being noticed, and so they put it in front of people to nominate it for prizes."

That her triumphant book is tied up in tragedy is a mixed blessing, but Bang takes comfort in her son's admiration while he was alive. "I feel like this is something we've done together, so that whatever attention comes to the book has been attention to him. When he was alive, he was one of my most steadfast admirers. He would be so happy to know that this happened, and he would be so happy to know that he was a part of how this happened.

"I think there's always going to be that sense of conflict, that something good should not happen out of this," she adds, "but it has, so there's no undoing that, nor would I because of the good that's come in terms of being able to feel close to him." One of Michael's paintings, Firing the Neurons, which depicts a tangle of brown branches before a green background, serves as Elegy's cover art.

LIKE THE MINNESOTA TWINS, another small-market business that is up against better-funded competition, Graywolf must rely on solid fundamentals and player loyalty to succeed.

But whereas the Twins lost Johan Santana to a higher bidder, Graywolf won't be losing its heavyweights anytime soon. Take Per Petterson, whose value skyrocketed after Out Stealing Horses. McCrae practiced due diligence by visiting him in Norway this summer, but she says the confidence Graywolf showed in him before he was big time was most important. "We met with him in April. That was before he became 'capital P, capital P' Per Petterson," she says. "When he came back in September he'd had the front page of The New York Times Book Review, but he knew we'd been there for him in April. So now he was fiercely loyal."

In fact, big-name free agents are defecting to Graywolf. Acclaimed author Stephen Elliott chose it over Harper Collins and Norton to publish his forthcoming memoir, The Adderall Diaries, and Robert Boswell, another renowned major-publishing-house novelist, recently jumped ship for Graywolf as well.

"Writers think of it as one of the best presses in America, I know that for a fact," Boswell says. "As a literary writer, you're looking for a press that's interested in publishing the highest-quality work they can find. In theory every press is trying to do that, but in practice a lot of presses are [too] driven by the bottom line. I feel that Graywolf genuinely practices that policy."

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