Graywolf Press is lone wolf in book publishing
Until recently, Norwegian writer Per Petterson was little more than anobscure, aging novelist with a tragic past. In 1990, traveling on vacation to Denmark, his parents,brother, and another brother's niece boarded a ferry called the Scandinavian Star. In the middle of the night a pair of fires started on the third deck, spreading quickly. The captain ordered the fire doors shut and the air conditioning turned off, which had the effect of pumping smoke into the cabins of trapped passengers. Alarms failed, and because the hastily trained crew was largely Filipino and spoke neither English nor Norwegian, they could not properly direct passengers to safety.
Though some were able to escape on lifeboats, about one-third of the 493 people aboard the ship died, including Petterson's family. He learned of the tragedy through a phone call from his ex-wife, who told him to turn on the television. Petterson himself had considered making the trip with them.
"To put it cruelly," the 56-year-old author told the Washington Post of the tragedy, "it gave me material." Petterson confronted the situation head-on in his 2000 novel In the Wake, featuring a character whose parents and brother die in similar circumstances. The subject of loss is never far from the surface in his works. His follow-up, Out Stealing Horses, is a devastating rumination on forgiveness and pain. A 67-year-old Norwegian man moves far away from civilization to escape demons brought on by the death of his wife, before being confronted by a figure from his past. Much of the book focuses on the man's memories of time spent with his father as a boy.
Alongside the cabin wall there was a big patch of stinging nettles, growing tall and thick, and I worked my way around them in a wide arc, and then my father came round the house and stood looking at me...
"Why not cut down the nettles?" he said.
I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
"It will hurt," I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
"You decide for yourself when it will hurt," he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other...
Petterson, who lives with his wife on a farm in the forest outside Oslo, toiled as a librarian and a bookseller while writing his novels. Though some were successful enough to get published in English, he nonetheless remained relatively unknown for years. Out Stealing Horses would later win international awards and be chosen one of 2007's five best novels by The New York Times Book Review, but when it was first published in 2003 in Norwegian it found no interest whatsoever from the American market. Translated into English and published in the U.K. in 2005, the book didn't really take off until it was released in 2007 by Graywolf Press, a small but highly respected literary publisher in Minnesota.
"It was a Norwegian translation, and his first two books in English hadn't broken out. That alone is enough to put the American publishers off," says Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae, who obtained a copy of the book through Petterson's British publisher in 2006. "If it was by someone who was 23 and their story had just been in The New Yorker, then they'd read it through a different lens."
Yet for the nonprofit St. Paul publisher, whose philosophy puts art before profit, such prejudice didn't apply. McCrae and her cohorts soberly saw the book for what it was—a powerhouse—and bought its American rights for a minuscule four-digit sum. "It seems like a quiet book, until you realize it's stolen your heart and your mind," she says. "We really liked it, but we didn't think it was going to be a big, big book. We're not that bright."
When Graywolf published the book in April of last year, the transaction turned out to be the literary equivalent of the Red Sox snatching David Ortiz from the Twins for $1.25 million in 2003. Buoyed by the strength of outstanding reviews and Petterson's receipt of the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007 (beating out authors like Cormac McCarthy and Salman Rushdie), Graywolf has moved some 45,000 to 50,000 copies of the best-selling book—an extraordinary number for a novel of its kind.
Petterson's second novel, To Siberia, overlooked on its initial publication in 1996 but recently re-released by Graywolf, could see similar fanfare. The story concerns a young girl and her brother. Growing up in a small Danish town, they are forced to deal with their grandfather's suicide, the neglect of their parents, and the German invasion. In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly wrote: "The book builds up slowly, casting a spell of beauty and devastation that matches the bleak but dazzling climate."
For Graywolf, which publishes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, breakout literary successes are happening with increasing frequency, and its 2007 list even featured something of an oxymoron—a poetry smash hit. St. Louis writer Mary Jo Bang's Elegy, which contains works written following the death of her 37-year-old son, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, and Bang was profiled on PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and in Newsweek. Salvatore Scibona's novel The End was just announced as a finalist for the National Book Award. Poets Tony Hoagland and Elizabeth Alexander won $50,000 prizes from Poets and Writers in the last two years. And Graywolf titles were named in best-of-the-year reviews by everyone from the U.K.'s The Guardian to the Los Angeles Times. In the past year the publisher's sales have risen 25 percent, pushing them over a million dollars for the first time.
In an extremely literate metropolitan area that boasts three of the most successful nonprofit publishers in the country—Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press are the others—Graywolf is having the type of run a small press rarely sees. Jim Sitter, who for nine years ran a trade association for literary publishers—the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses—and who occasionally does literary consulting for Graywolf, says 2007 could well have been the most successful year for any comparable press. "They're competing with Random House and Simon & Schuster, with organizations that have a budget of a billion dollars or more, in some cases," he says. "That's very hard to do when you have a small budget. In effect, they're taking on competition that can be 1,000 times their size, and they're succeeding."
A THOUSAND MILES from midtown Manhattan, just east of Highway 280 on University Avenue, sits the yellow-bricked Chittenden and Eastman Building that houses Graywolf. The battered edifice looks abandoned to time. One of its storefronts is occupied by an empty office furniture showroom, and its dusty windows and unvacuumed green carpet suggest that its landlord has given up trying to rent the space. Rumor says the warehouse building's owner hangs on to it in hopes that light rail will increase its real estate value.
Graywolf's offices are on the second floor, down a fluorescent-lit hallway of '70s-style linoleum, tucked away in a dark corner across from the freight elevator. Having been at the location for over two decades, the company gets a pretty sweet deal when it comes to rent. Low overhead is a perk of Midwest operations, although there are downsides to being located outside New York. "It's not like I run into editors at parties," says public relations director Mary Matze. "Sometimes a [New York-based] assistant will be like, 'Can you just courier that over today?'"
Graywolf, which has about 10 full-time employees, including four in-house editors, was even further off the map when it was founded in 1974 by Washington state idealists Scott Walker and Kathleen Foster. Just south of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, in the microscopic burg of Irondale, they constructed a small edifice surrounded by raspberries that they called the "print shack." They couldn't have done it without the assistance of the guy next door who raised chickens.
"The neighbors were all builders and fishermen, and they were all very tolerant of the ink-stained wretch who lived next door," remembers Walker, who now does marketing for an environmental organization in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "I had the only phone in the neighborhood, so whenever a fisherman was out on a boat somewhere in Alaska and called home—it could be three in the morning—I would wake up and go down the street and get his wife or girlfriend."
Borrowing its name from nearby Graywolf Ridge and Graywolf River, as well as the federally protected canid itself, the press had early successes printing the poetry of heavyweights like Denis Johnson and Tess Gallagher. To Walker and Foster, the production quality of the books was nearly as important as their text, a value Graywolf maintains today. In the press's first years, letters were set by hand and copies were bound by needle and thread. "The pages, once printed, were folded one by one and gathered into booklets, which were sewn together into books," Walker recalls in the introduction to the 1999 retrospective The Graywolf Silver Anthology. "On quite a few of those little books the buyer would find the blood of the binder smeared in the center seam." It took them nine months to put together 1,500 copies of Gallagher's Instructions to the Double; they took so long that she added a whole new section before it was completed. The company neared the financial precipice during its first year, Walker notes in the anthology. "Every day was a wild, pressure-filled, anxiety-producing adventure."
Attempting to ease its transition from a hand printer of limited-edition books into a full-on trade publisher, Graywolf came to the Twin Cities in 1984 on the suggestion of a few advisors, who correctly predicted that foundation money would be easier to come by here. Ten years later Walker relinquished his duties to McCrae, a director at a major publishing house who was born in Kenya and grew up just north of London. She had a background that couldn't have been more different from that of Graywolf's freewheeling founders, having risen through the ranks at Faber & Faber headquarters in London. "I [first] worked for this grand old chairman called Charles Monteith. He had found Lord of the Flies in the slush pile. He was really an old-fashioned British publisher. Beckett was his author, and he'd get little postcards from him in the mail." In the mid-'80s she worked under editor Robert McCrum, whose authors included Milan Kundera, Peter Carey, and—in her first introduction to Minnesota—Garrison Keillor. "I thought it was much more fictional than it turned out to be," she says of his work. "I had no idea until I moved up here."
McCrae, who describes her age as "49 and three-quarters and a half," wears thin, black-framed glasses, and talks in a sort of Maude Lebowski accent, came to Graywolf after a stint at Faber's Boston offices. She had long been aware of Graywolf's reputation for quality work. "It just seemed like an absolute dream job," she says, adding that the prospect of venturing into the hinterlands didn't daunt her. "I remember people trying to put me off, saying everyone was 'nice' here. I thought, 'Well, if that's the worst thing you can say about the place....' I like the fact that Minnesota is far enough away from New York so it's not under that city's shadow, so Minnesota has its own identity. Because people have this idea that it might or could be a backwater, they make sure it isn't, by going to plays and engaging with the culture locally."
Here McCrae met her husband, John Coy, an author of children's books, and they live in Prospect Park. She believed it was important to maintain her predecessors' commitment to high-quality texts, both inside and out. "As a smaller press, you're not printing hundreds and thousands of copies, so there's a sense of being close to the values that the author would have. We try not to treat them like they're a widget in a widget factory. We give them a lot of choice about the covers." She adds: "The word we have thrown around is 'singular.' The work we publish is 'singular,' so we want a singular cover."
She delights in the opportunity to snatch up books a major publisher might ignore and says a Graywolf book can succeed by selling only a few thousand copies. "When we're not having to pay enormous overhead or debt for an acquisition or that kind of thing, the numbers we need for a book to do well are much smaller. From Faber I learned, rightly or wrongly, that it's not that books never make money, but that it takes time. Years after it was published, T.S. Eliot's [Old Possum's Book of Practical] Cats was bringing in significant revenue. I saw the way publishing and art intersect. The market goes for something that's done well before, but the most difficult thing is something that hasn't done well before. When you've got this nonprofit structure, you can stick more with the art side. If it's working artistically, we'll make the numbers work."
Under McCrae's watch, the nonprofit publisher has become financially solvent, thanks largely to her philosophy of courting financial support in the same way theaters and symphonies do. Besides relying on the largess of organizations like the Bush Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, Graywolf also receives individual support from many of the same wealthy patrons that institutions like the Guthrie do. In 2006 the publisher completed a million-dollar fundraising drive, with most of the money coming from individual contributors. The funds were used to acquire new books and promote them—including the house's first ad in The New York Times last summer, for Out Stealing Horses.
McCrae also orchestrated Graywolf's distribution deal with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2002, which greatly expanded its reach. More recently she established a New York presence for the press, taking office space in Manhattan and hiring New York-based former Farrar editor Ethan Nosowsky on a freelance basis. That has helped position the press to compete for top writers and top manuscripts, which it has done with increasing success.
"The goals were to get really good writers on our list, and to publish them well," she says. "The way I look at it is—to get into a flowery metaphor—you can put plants under the sun, but if you don't water them, and it's not good soil, the plants don't flourish."
"She knows what's going on. She has her finger on the pulse," says Charles Baxter, a University of Minnesota creative writing professor and Graywolf writer and editor. "I joke with them that they're going to have to be careful with their nonprofit status, with books like Out Stealing Horses. Before they know it, they're going to be making a lot of money."
"They've created a recognizable sensibility at Graywolf—innovative," says New York-based literary agent Bill Clegg. "I think their poetry and nonfiction, and more and more their fiction, have a recognizable courageousness. When a book comes out, one can say, 'Ah, that makes sense there.'"
It's worth noting, however, that certain titles have broken the mold over the years. Take I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's raunchy novel The Apprentice, which was published by Graywolf in 1996 and concerns ill-fated romance at an early 20th-century Japanese mountain inn. The work was dragged into the spotlight three years ago when Libby, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, was indicted in the CIA leak case. Wrote The New Yorker's Lauren Collins of the book: "Libby does not shy from the scatological. The narrative makes generous mention of lice, snot, drunkenness, bad breath, torture, urine, 'turds,' armpits, arm hair, neck hair, pubic hair, pus, boils, and blood (regular and menstrual). One passage goes, 'At length he walked around to the deer's head and, reaching into his pants, struggled for a moment and then pulled out his penis. He began to piss in the snow just in front of the deer's nostrils.'"
According to her staff, this is not a book McCrae likes to talk about.
NEARLY EVERY WORD out of Charles Baxter's mouth is spoken with great passion. Discoursing recently in his Uptown writing studio on everything from the RNC protests to the landscape in his former home of Michigan to the Hollywood adaption of his book Feast of Love (turned into a Morgan Freeman/Greg Kinnear film last year), he seems to take no subject lightly.
While discussing the state of literature in our society, the popular novelist and essayist gets so focused that his fingers interlaced atop his crossed legs tighten and turn purple.
"We're going to a screen culture so fast—video screens, movie screens, TV screens," he says. "The literary people are in a fight for their lives to keep the attention of readers. It's a very big deal to keep people reading. It's a huge deal."
In his mission to bring readable, quality nonfiction to the masses, Baxter teamed up with Graywolf in 1997 to publish a book of essays on writing fiction, Burning Down the House, which became one of the press's most popular titles. Though he initially considered offering it to the publisher of his fiction, W.W. Norton, the Minneapolis native ultimately decided to go with the much smaller Graywolf.
"I thought the book had a better chance of developing a longer shelf life if Graywolf did it," he says. "The trouble with larger publishers is that they generally want a return on investment faster than Graywolf. I think one of the great things about Graywolf is that they're patient, they'll wait for a book to do well."
Burning Down the House has indeed had a long shelf life, and Graywolf recently released it with two new essays and a new preface. Though it's regularly assigned in creative writing programs across the country, it's not a strictly "how-to" book. Baxter's essay "Dysfunctional Narratives: or, 'Mistakes Were Made,'" for example, concerns the inability of U.S. presidents to accept responsibility for their actions. (Of the arms-for-hostages deal, Baxter writes that Reagan "was not told; or he forgot; or he was out of the loop; or he didn't understand what was said to him.") He correlates this phenomenon with fiction writers' passing-of-the-buck when it comes to their characters' shortcomings.
How can the contemporary disavowal movement not affect those of us who tell stories? We begin to move away from fiction of protagonists and antagonists into another mode, another model. It is hard to describe this model but I think it might be called the fiction of finger-pointing, the fiction of the quest for blame. It often culminates with a scene in a court of law.
In such fiction, people and events are often accused of turning the protagonist into the kind of person the protagonist is, usually an unhappy person. That's the whole story. When blame has been assigned, the story is over.
City Pages called Burning Down the House "the most pleasurable and instructive book on the craft since John Gardner's The Art of Fiction." It wasn't for everyone, however. Baxter recalls a reader's peeved comments during a Washington, D.C., question-and-answer session. "I can tell you write your essays so people won't understand them," she insisted.
In an attempt to bring readers like her into the fold, Baxter is editing a series of books of criticism that don't read like...well, criticism. Called "The Art of..." series, Baxter authored the first, 2007's The Art of Subtext, and two per year are planned. "Something has happened to professional criticism, and I'm not the first person to say this. It became very theoretical and very specialized, and a lot of it became unreadable for most people. This is kind of an antidote for that."
He says his relationship with Graywolf has been extremely fulfilling. "Fiona has the best sense of almost any editor I've known, certainly in nonprofit publishing, about whether the breath of life flows through a text or not," he says, but adds that working with her hasn't always been easy. "We have had our disagreements on some things. The Art of Subtext, it's just this little book, but man, I worked and worked and worked on that book. She and [senior editor] Jeff Shotts, those people are sticklers for details."
His advice for young scribes? "If you're a writer and are in for the long haul, it's a big mistake to think you're going to cash in early, to think you're going to make a huge splash right away. Places like Graywolf are not in the business for a quick buck—they think of publishing books that have some staying power year after year after year. That's what young writers should be thinking about."
FOLLOWING THE DEATH of her son, Mary Jo Bang wrote poems, one after another. They were never meant for publication.
"I would find myself in a dark place, and I would sit down and try to talk to my son in the form of a poem," says the 62-year-old English professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "And the poem had to be fairly straightforward, because my son wasn't a poet. He loved and understood poetry, but if the poem was too adventurous he wasn't able to make sense of it. At the same time, I kept thinking that it had to be a poem, it can't just be a journal entry."
The process helped her quell her exquisite grief, if only for a few minutes. From "A Sonata for Four Hands":
Why are you not where you belong?
A black hat on a hook says nothing.
Ashes mirror ashes
In a mirroring window. And now how
Do we resolve this predicament?
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.