Origins of an Indie Press

A few months ago we posted an article from LitHub about the origin stories of several independent presses.  In the spirit of new beginnings, we have decided to reflect back on how our humble indie press first got its start. Not surprisingly to most of you who know us, it all began over a small batch whiskey and a serious love of books.

Relegation Books, est. 2012 by Dallas Hudgens

Relegation Books, est. 2012 by Dallas Hudgens

In Jan. 2014, George Mason University MFA alum Dallas Hudgens visited Creative Writing Professor Stephen Goodwin’s graduate-level class to talk about his own launch into small press publishing. Hudgens, who founded Relegation Books in 2012 after becoming disenchanted with his own experience publishing with a larger house, said he he was inspired by what he saw during his visit. “After I spoke, I had the opportunity to watch as the students gave publishing presentations for the class. They were so well prepared and had done so much good research... Afterward, I thought it would be a good thing if the students had the opportunity to apply their knowledge and creativity to an actual press,” said Hudgens. He sat down with Goodwin and GMU’s MFA Program Director Bill Miller shortly thereafter to begin scheming on how they might offer students the opportunity to begin a small press of their own.

From there things progressed quite quickly. The first meetings with students took place in late Jan. 2014 and by March of that year, Stillhouse Press had begun to take form, centering on the idea of “craft publishing,” which Hudgens and Relegation Books’ publicist, Lauren Cerand came up with one evening over a few glasses of whiskey. “Lauren and I were talking about whiskey and craft distillers,” Hudgens said, “and she said that we were trying to do the same sort of thing with publishing. It’s not about the number of books that you publish, but taking on projects that are important to you and doing the best possible job every step along the way and also being open to new ways of doing things.”

The idea of working hand-in-hand with authors to deliver a more personal publishing experience was one which attracted the attention of Stillhouse’s founding editors, Marcos L. Martinez and Meghan McNamara. “We really latched onto this idea that being small was actually a very good thing, because it meant we could create a more intimate publishing experience with our authors. It’s their art, and they should have a say in how it is presented to the world,” McNamara said.

It was only a matter of months before Stillhouse had selected its first book, the short story collection Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) by the late Wendi Kaufman. Kaufman was terminally ill with late stage cancer when the book was contracted, therefore time was of the essence. GMU Professor Scott W. Berg, who had been a close friend of Kaufman’s and now serves as the editorial advisor for Stillhouse, worked as the managing editor, helping to move the book through publication in just under three months. “It was a very fast process, and the students involved, especially Marcos and Meghan, worked very hard and did a great job,” said Hudgens.

The staff would go on to spend much of 2015 fielding submissions, putting together the annual Mary Roberts Rinehart Contest, and contracting nearly a dozen new books. In just less than two years, Stillhouse is on the heels of publishing its second book, POP! (forthcoming March 2016 from debut author Mark Polanzak), with four titles close behind it, including Stillhouse’s first foray into poetry. Hudgens said he’s pleased with the direction Stillhouse Press is heading and sees the press as both an asset to students, as well an inspiration for his own work with Relegation. “I hoped it would give students practical experience in the world of publishing, whether that eventually led to a job with a publisher or simply knowledge that would help them when their own books were published… As time goes on, I'm sure that I will learn more from their approach and experiences than they have learned from Relegation.”

Of course, as with all things fluid, running a student press is not without its challenges. “Continuity is important as new students come aboard and others leave,” said Hudgens. “Also, maintaining a clear vision and quality in production and publicity. But I know that everyone involved recognizes those and other challenges and will be prepared for them.”

So pour out a few fingers of moonshine and raise your glasses, folks! It’s time to usher in the new year and all of the exciting things that Stillhouse Press has planned.

Politics & Prose and Stillhouse Press Celebrate the Life of Local Writer, Wendi Kaufman

By Meghan McNamara

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Osborne, http://www.elizabethosborne.com

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Osborne, http://www.elizabethosborne.com

I have read Wendi Kaufman’s short stories again and again. When Stillhouse Press first selected her collection as its debut publication, I devoured them. When the books arrived in our offices the morning that we learned Wendi had passed, I found consolation in them. In the months that followed, as we organized an early release of Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories and fervently promoted the collection, I came to know her narrators intimately. Wendi never had the opportunity to complete an interview about her book, but her voice lives on—powerfully, enchantingly, painfully—in this voice-driven collection.

This sentiment was fondly echoed Jan. 25th at Politics & Prose Bookstore in NW Washington, D.C. at the event celebrating Wendi Kaufman’s life and work.  Stillhouse Press Editor, Marcos L. Martínez said of Wendi, “The same caring spirit that she possessed in life is vivid on the pages and focused on her characters; young women in difficult situations, always aware that the other shoe is about to drop, surviving and sharing their wisdom from story to story.”

Mary Kay Zuravleff, speaking Jan. 25 at the Wendi Kaufman Memorial Celebration

Mary Kay Zuravleff, speaking Jan. 25 at the Wendi Kaufman Memorial Celebration

Mary Kay Zuravleff (Man Alive!), who penned the introduction to Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, remembered Wendi’s ebullient energy, which had the power to inspire writers of all backgrounds, young and old, established and emerging. “She brought the party to the room,” said Zuravleff, who shared memories about informal literary salons on the Kaufman front porch and her work with the Changing Lives Through Literature Initiative, through which Wendi taught creative writing to female juvenile offenders. “My girls, she called them,” Zuravleff remembered warmly.

Scott W. Berg (38 Nooses)—a long-time peer of Wendi’s and co-founder of the Rotisserie Writers Group, which she and Berg and three other graduates of George Mason University’s MFA program maintained informally for the better part of 20 years—reflected on the early iterations of “Helen on 86th Street,” the title story in Wendi’s collection, which was first published in The New Yorker in 1997. “She caught lightning in a bottle with [that] story,” he said. “Helen on 86th Street” was easily Wendi’s most successful story, appearing in The Best American Short Stories, The Elements of Literature textbook, and later adapted into a play, before becoming the face of her full collection.

Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories , Wendi Kaufman (Stillhouse Press 2014)

Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, Wendi Kaufman (Stillhouse Press 2014)

During the event Jan. 25, Berg read from the final scene in the story: the pinnacle moment in which Vita, the 12-year old narrator, enacts the closing scene from her school’s rendition of “Helen of Troy,” secretly hoping to spot her absent father in the audience:

I’m supposed to hit my fist against my chest, draw a hand across my forehead, and cry loudly. Mr. Dodd has shown me this gesture, practiced it with me in rehearsal a dozen times – the last line, my big finish. The audience is very quiet. In the stillness, there is a hole, an empty pocket, an absence.

This scene—like so many in Wendi’s stories—resonates with the reader, because we find ourselves so completely drawn into the mind of the narrator. “Her voice in this collection of stories is a magnetic blend of strength, humor, and compassion,” said Martínez, reflecting on the power of Wendi’s narrative voice. And it’s true. These very elements are what initially drew me to her collection. As a young woman, I find so much veracity in her stories. They feel so true to life. They remind the reader that life is not without its ups and downs, its painful truths, which are made endurable with just the right balance of humor—a technique which Wendi so elegantly employs—and the compassion of others. Knowing this, I can’t help but feel the impulse to want to read Wendi’s collection all over again.

~

Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) can be found at: www.stillhousepress.org/helenon86. For more information about Wendi, please visit the “Authors” tab at the top of the screen. In an effort to share her stories with others, Stillhouse Press is open to arranging readings from her work. If interested, please contact: Meghan McNamara, media@stillhousepress.org.


Photo Credit: Alexis Glenn, GMU Creative Services

Photo Credit: Alexis Glenn, GMU Creative Services

Meghan McNamara is a third-year fiction candidate with George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program. She serves as the Director of Media and Communications for Stillhouse Press and was one of the principle project managers for Wendi Kaufman's short story collection. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where she is at work on a novel length work exploring addiction and relationships, told through the lens of a female protagonist.