The New Leaves Writers’ Conference: An Outsider’s Perspective

by Hailey Scherer

There are few things more enchanting than watching an author read his or her work aloud. They give voice to their narrator—something which Stillhouse Editor-in-Chief, Marcos L. Martínez defines as style, syntax, cadence, and tone, "but more like pheromones; something you know only when you feel it." The author fleshes out their work, their narrator's voice, with their own, making it sink into your bones. To hear the phrases fit the voices, to see the facial expressions, the unconscious body movements, is to experience their work on another level.

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir,   POP!   (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

As a visiting intern at Stillhouse Press and a high school senior with little experience in the professional writing world, I felt excited but largely unsure of what to expect from a "writers' conference." Would the discussions be stiff and formal? Would I feel excluded or in the way? Would I get to meet an actual author, those superhuman beings behind all my favorite books? As the conference began, however, I was immediately swept up in the words of the very real, very human writers and their readings.

I watched authors affiliated with Northern Virginia's small publishing community read from their recently published and award-winning works. I sat in rooms filled to the walls with George Mason students, Stillhouse Press and Gazing Grain editors, and others like me—lovers of the literary world who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The energy was palpable. It shifting in flavor from reading to reading, but was always charged with a positive, fascinating intensity.  

By reading from their work or answering questions, each writer had the opportunity to instill in the audience some message, about themselves, their work, the world, or all three. Gazing Grain's Nora Brooks infused emotion and personality into the practical affair of cooking, using it to explore things that make us uncomfortable, while Heidi Czerwiec discussed the socioeconomic, political, and environmental issues of western North Dakota in her work Sweet/Crude. Czerwiec's poems read like a report, but with lovelier words, poetic phrasing, literary organization, and curious anecdote, which serves to simultaneously further her points and to make her work all the more interesting and beautiful.

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Mark Polanzak’s enthusiasm was particularly apparent, and rightly so, as part of the conference was dedicated to celebrating his first book POP!, a hilarious work about a decidedly un-hilarious subject, the death of his father. Polanzak described his book, quite fittingly, as “factually unreliable but emotionally true,” a work that really speaks to “the absurdity and integrity of memory," and his reading brought the audience to life. Listeners let out genuine, full-voiced laughs, sighing at the more poignant lines. Hearing him read from his book while the sun set on George Mason’s blooming cherry trees and the wind-rippled pond remains one of my favorite memories from the conference.

The collaborative, enthusiastic, supportive atmosphere of the New Leaves Writers’ Conference reminded me that writing is not as individual a career as one might think. Or if writing is an independent affair, the sharing of that writing—the part that makes it all worth it—is decidedly not. Authors may give a solo performance, may use their writing to untangle unprocessed trauma, like witnessing a devastating global event or experiencing the death of a parent, but it’s the collaboration between writer and editor, the interaction between author and reader, that gives writing its texture. This is where it all comes together, where you get to feel and see and hear a writer's work. It's in the exchange that the words take on meaning.


Hailey Scherer is an intern at Stillhouse Press and a senior at Flint Hill High School. As an aspiring author/poet, she aims to learn as much as possible about writing and publishing during her internship this spring. She will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall.

Tattoos & Nostalgia: Designing Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely

by Alex Walsh

I’m not saying that cover design for a novel is easy, but there is certainly an extra level of difficulty when it comes to creating a cover for a collection of short stories. Matthew Fogarty's Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely, which will be published by Stillhouse Press in September, contains such a variety of vivid, weird, and beautifully unique stories that to simply represent one story on the cover would have an injustice to the collection as a whole. While a drawing of a mermaid and a robot may give you some sense of what lies within, it does not fully illustrate the incredible range of Fogarty’s work. What about dinosaurs in space? What about Bigfoot working as a temp? What about zombies and cowboys, and a man who accidentally hangs himself on a copper wire? What about André the Giant?

An early iteration of the "tattoo" concept created by Walsh.

An early iteration of the "tattoo" concept created by Walsh.

With Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely , my goal was to capture the whole of the collection, without giving away what it's really about. I wanted to allude to the presence of mythology and science fiction mixed with stories of great depth and realism, to greet the reader by saying, “In the pages of this book, you are going to see a lot of strange things and meet many interesting characters along the way. Come on in.”

Early in the editing process, conversations with Matt led me in the direction of creating a tattoo-like cover—something bold with vivid color, heavy in meaning and closely associated with memory. From there, I made a few sketches and designs that never came to fruition. Some were gritty, some were too complex, and some were overly cartoonish, but the real sticking point was that none captured the presence of nostalgia in the book. That was until we landed on the idea of the temporary tattoo, something people associate with childhood. Temporary tattoos represent a time in life when we’re most likely to drift into a world of make-believe, when we can erase our mistakes and are allowed countless "do-overs." But temporary tattoos are also associated with the weighty notion of the permanent tattoo, a very real and deeply meaningful adult concept. To us, this seemed to align perfectly with the tone of the book.

The Final Result:  Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: 38 Stories and a Novella , Stillhouse Press, 2016

The Final Result: Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: 38 Stories and a Novella, Stillhouse Press, 2016

I then looked at how temporary tattoos come packaged: each fit tightly together on a single sheet of paper. It seemed like a viable way to feature all (or most) of the Maybe Mermaids characters on the cover, each placed closely against the others to make an almost-solid, almost-patterned image. Matthew and I selected 18 characters and objects from the stories, and I drew out each one. In order to keep things simple, all were inked with very little detail. This allowed the images to blanket the entire area of the cover without distracting from the title and secondary text. Then I selected bright, eye-catching colors, which I felt embodied the richness and energy of the book, and the cover became what it is today.

In a single glance, the reader may pick out a mermaid, a guitar, the Pope’s hat, a dog, a yeti, or an astronaut. They may ask questions about these creatures: What is a jet and an old Plymouth doing together on book? Who is this robot? What's Elvis got to do with anything? Each image comes together as part of one large tableau that suggests a new world filled with adventure and mystery, but also feels familiar.


Alex Walsh is a book designer for Stillhouse Press and Copy Editor for Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art.  He is also a student at GMU, where he is seeking his MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction.

The "Process" of Grief: POP!

By Mark Polanzak, author of Stillhouse Press' first memoir, POP!

Drag Me to Hell  (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

If you've seen Sam Raimi’s comedy-horror film Drag Me to Hell, you'll understand my writing and grieving process pretty well. The main character, Christine, finds herself cursed and goes to a medium for help. The medium channels the dark spirit haunting her into a goat in order to slaughter it and rid Christine of the curse. There are parallels between Raimi’s film and my father’s death, and subsequently my writing about it years later. But although there is a proper process for channeling spirits, there isn’t a prescribed path for grieving. And instead of a goat, there’s my first book, POP!.

As a bereaved seventeen-year-old, I didn’t want to go through the grieving process. Not because I didn’t want to admit that I had lost my dad—though that was in there—but because it seemed really, really difficult and complicated. I didn’t want to cross the Rubicon that separates blissful teenage naivety and experienced young adulthood. I was having enough trouble learning the mitosis cycle and how cosine waves worked; I would surely botch the task of grief. But of course you can’t refuse to grieve. It’s autonomic.

One important thing I learned about grief is that there is no standard process. You can’t do it wrong. The order of grief operations we’ve all heard about—denial, anger, acceptance, and stuff—isn’t real. The person who conceived of it flat out made it up. But I didn’t know this between the ages of 17 and 21, which messed me up. I thought there was a right way to grieve, and so my sadness and sacredness and confusion and anxiety—all coming at me out of order and without warning—were compounded by a sense of self-castigation that I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t being serious and dedicated enough to the process of grieving. I had no control over any of it. It owned me.

POP!,  Stillhouse Press, March 2016

POP!, Stillhouse Press, March 2016

The process of writing my very personal, if-not-exactly-memoir, POP! mirrors my discoveries along the path of grief. After two years of writing fabulist, fantastical, magically realist, and absurdist short stories in my MFA program at the University of Arizona, I thought it was time to write a magical, fantastical novel. It seemed really, really hard, but I did it anyway. I began a book (it was about a stick figure). And pretty quickly, I hit an enormous problem in the story (big shock—the character was flat). I abandoned it after a year. I concluded that I was not ready to write a book, not there yet. So, I stopped trying.

I thought that there was a certain way a book was supposed to look sound, arc, unfold, and there was a way a writer wrote a book—through diligence every single day, working through scenes, developing characters, constructing plot and making the setting just so—I knew I couldn’t be working on a book when I began, at first haphazardly, writing what would become POP!. I wrote unlinked vignettes in a notebook, wrote a scene four different ways, drew characters and then redrew them, stuck them where they didn’t belong, and never gave a thought to the elements that I believed all real books needed.

But that’s just it: there is no proper way to write a book. These vignettes, fragments, character morphs, and all the rest eventually presented themselves as parts of a single organism that was steadily growing together. The pieces I had simply thought of as good practice for a big project began to come together, to brush up against one another, until one day there was a whole. The ending scene reached back and connected to the beginning. I had done it without really knowing it. I had written a book.

The book is about my father’s death, its many meanings and effects on me as a son and a writer, and on my mom and my brother. Yet I was never sad while writing it; I was in the medium’s trance. I was excited and energized to be writing something personal, something that broke the rules of how I felt I was supposed to write. I am sad now when I read sections of POP!. I channeled my grief into the book. It no longer possesses me. I can kill the goat or keep it.


Mark Polanzak is the author of the forthcoming hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016) and several short stories. Despite his conclusion that there are no rules in grieving or writing, he is currently writing a fictional rule book on etiquette. Read more about Polanzak here.

Source: http://www.stillhousepress.org/pop

‘DELVE’ FOR MEANING

MANAGING EDITOR, DOUGLAS LUMAS, ON CREATING THE COVER ART FOR DIG

Preliminary Cover Art; Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Kent Adams.

Preliminary Cover Art; Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Kent Adams.

One of the most difficult parts of turning a manuscript into a book is the visual nature of the final product: the cover. We certainly don't want to merely represent a story or poem, but to encapsulate what the whole of the manuscript is doing in the visual equivalent of a thirty-second pitch; essentially, how do we tell the reader what this book is about without telling them exactly what it's about? With DIG, one of my first goals was to create something that tapped into the material presence of a book—the page texture, the way that the physical construction mirrors the content—creating a conceptual argument for reading a physical book, a proposition as essential as DIG author, Bryan Borland's assertion that "the world needs another love poem / like it needs blood in the throat."

Working with Jonathan Kent Adams, the cover artist for DIG, we've been able to create something that transforms some of the more subtle themes in the text into a featured part of the experience of reading the book. Conversations with Bryan early in the editing process led us in the direction of imagining as abstract a landscape as possible, one in which definitions and forms become abstract as well—a concept that Jonathan's work engages with. While the editorial staff was deeply into the layers in the book's text, we picked up on the distinct visceral nature of the text, and Jonathan decided to foreground it.

The reader might work through the process of the book in a way that is similar to the tactile and visual nature of the cover that Jonathan has developed.

“After reading some of the manuscript for DIG, I realized how much my process as an artist related to the content of the poetry. I am constantly wanting my viewer to go within. To dig. To search. To rethink. To struggle. To reinvent. The content reminded me of peeling through all of the layers of the self. Digging to the heart. I used anatomy and figurative drawing, because I wanted the imagery to be about the human experience and not necessarily any specific objects. I also wanted something that was not very direct to the viewer. I wanted the image to seem as if you needed to search or pull back a layer. I believe the best art allows the viewer or reader to search. DIG made me search. I hope the cover is a reflection of that," Jonathan explained.

DIG  in two parts; Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Kent Adams.

DIG in two parts; Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Kent Adams.

The reader might work through the process of the book in a way that is similar to the tactile and visual nature of the cover that Jonathan has developed. Essentially, the top-most layer engages with its nature as the 'skin' of the book, allowing the reader to delve further through physical layers until reaching the text itself—the most abstract part—the poems. Now that I write it, "delve" seems to be a perfect companion to the notion of digging, a willingness to fall headlong into what has been dug up. With the cut-out cover and the multi-layer physical depth of the book, the conceptual argument of the manuscript seems all that much clearer, that there's an essential kernel buried beneath the surface—even if you have to dig a little while to find it.


DIG (forthcoming Sept. 2016) is a book of poems by Bryan Borland. Borland is the author of two previous collections of poetry, My Life As Adam and Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems from the First Year Without My Father.

Douglas J. Luman is the Poetry Editor for Stillhouse Press, the Book Reviews Editor for the Found Poetry Review, Editor of So to Speak, and Assistant Poetry Editor of the journal Phoebe. He can likely be found asleep in a library somewhere in Northern Virginia.

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.

Stillhouse's Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us, and all of us here at Stillhouse Press are eagerly awaiting the end of the semester, the chance to see our families, eat good food, and relax. As you make your own holiday plans, here are a few books our staff heartily recommend.

Whether you're looking for the perfect gift for a bookworm relative or just need something to while away those dark afternoon hours, we’ve got you covered. Cheers to you and yours, and happy reading!


Prayers for the Living  , Fig Tree Books, 2015

Prayers for the Living, Fig Tree Books, 2015

"Imagine the American dream—with all its possibilities and pitfalls—told through the lens of matriarch, Minnie Bloch, the narrator of Alan Cheuse’s Prayers for the Living. As a reader, I find Minnie’s voice remarkably engaging, at once fierce and philosophical. She witnesses her son's transformation from an impassioned rabbi to an American business executive. Sex, faith, and lineage weave through this novel, creating a taut multi-generational fabric. As a writer, I am fascinated by Cheuse’s chutzpah in reassessing one of his earliest novels, The Grandmother’s Club (1986), and rewriting it into a book as fresh and relevant as tomorrow’s news headlines about a mogul’s rise and fall. Eloquent and inspiring, Prayers for the Living is hands down my must read for 2015."

- Marcos L. Martínez, Editor in Chief

Marcos L. Martínez is a founding editor of Stillhouse Press and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. As a Sally Merten Fellow, he has taught creative writing in Northern Virginia high schools and public libraries; his work has appeared in Whiskey Island, The HIV Here and Now Project, The Washington Blade, and RiverSedge.


The Things We Don't Do ,  Open Letter, 2015

The Things We Don't Do, Open Letter, 2015

“I've really enjoyed The Things We Don't Do by Andres Neuman. One of my Intro. to Creative writing students brought it in and asked if I had read it, and I hadn't but the first story, ‘Happiness’ hooked me with its voice. Plus, I think I'd read just about anything that has a blurb from Roberto Bolaño on the cover.”

- Justin Lafreniere, Prose Editor

Justin Lafreniere is a writer living in Northern Virginia. He is the Fiction Editor for So to Speak and has been published in Charlotte Viewpoint, The Western Online, and Frostwriting.


The Empathy Exams,   Graywolf Press, 2014

The Empathy Exams, Graywolf Press, 2014

“I suggest that people read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The essays in this collection range from working as a medical actor helping to train doctors, a 100-mile endurance race known as the toughest race on the planet, and an unusual disease which some people are not sure even exists. In all of these, Jamison contemplates the subject of empathy by examining the pain of others. It’s a great collection, and Jamison’s voice brilliantly tackles the subject.”

- Katie Ray, Prose Intern

Katie Ray is a creative nonfiction student in George Mason University's MFA program. She has previously been published in Prime Number and the Eckerd Review.


Nets  , Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015

Nets, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015

“Jen Bervin’s Nets should be familiar to many, even if they’ve never read or heard of it. Exploring Shakespeare’s sonnets, Bervin fashions poems out of what she takes away, creating an entirely new poem from what remains. Visually minimal as well, Nets is an example of the structural aphorism ‘less is more.'"

- Douglas Luman, Poetry Editor

Douglas Luman is a poet and editor. He is currently Stillhouse Press' Poetry Editor, the Book Reviews Editor for the Found Poetry Review, Editor of So to Speak, and Assistant Poetry Editor of the journal Phoebe. He can likely be found asleep in a library somewhere in Northern Virginia.