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Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press: RevolutionSF Interview
© Jeff Topham
July 18, 2002

Anyone who's been paying attention recently has probably realized that much of the best speculative fiction being published these days is coming from small presses. Gary Turner's Golden Gryphon Press (headquartered in my old home town of Urbana, Illinois) has published an extraordinary series of titles by some of the best new and established writers in the field. In the UK, Peter Crowther's PS Publishing has been turning out an impressive series of novellas showcasing work by some of the field's best new writers. It should come as no surprise, then, that two of the best story collections of 2001 also came from a small press—Small Beer Press, to be exact. What is surprising, however, is that these books were Small Beer Press's first two titles, both trade paperback originals collecting the short fiction of two relatively unknown writers.

As it turned out, Small Beer Press's first two titles—Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen and Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room—were among the most recommended books of 2001. Both titles raced through first printings, mostly on the strength of word-of-mouth recommendations and enthusiastic reviews. Link's "Louise's Ghost" picked up a Nebula, and both Salon and The Village Voice placed Stranger Things Happen on their Best of 2001 lists, as did more traditional genre outlets like Locus and Fantastic Metropolis. Meet Me in the Moon Room also showed up on quite a few best-of-the-year lists and was also nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. Not a bad debut for a new press.

The driving force behind Small Beer Press is the intrepid Gavin J. Grant, who, along with his wife Kelly Link, runs Small Beer Press out of an office in their Brooklyn apartment. "We have a nice little office in our apartment," Gavin explains, "and the whole press basically exists there (on my Mac), at our P.O. Box, and at our fulfillment house, Pathway Book Service, who warehouse our books." Since 1996, Gavin and Kelly have published the literate, idiosyncratic, and thoroughly engaging zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, whose decidedly handmade look belies the quality of what's inside. Now on its tenth issue (just out!), LCRW has published stories by Jeffrey Ford, James Sallis, Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Joy Fowler, and Ellen Klages, as well as some very fine poetry and an eclectic mix of humor, criticism, and other tidbits of an uncategorizable nature. Small Beer Press has also published the first two entries (Kelly Link's 4 Stories and Dora Knez's Five Forbidden Things) in an ongoing chapbook series offering bite-size samples of work from new writers.

The following interview was conducted via email earlier this spring, when Gavin was swamped not only by the work of finishing LCRW #10, but also by final production on Small Beer's next projects: not one, but two books by the wonderful Carol Emshwiller. Gavin was nevertheless gracious enough to take the time to answer questions about the upcoming Emshwiller titles, why he likes zines, and how you can get chocolate with your subscription.

RevolutionSF: How did doing LCRW lead to a decision to publish collections and novels?

Gavin J. Grant: Doing LCRW gave us skills (but not skilz, sadly) without which we couldn't have done the books. That said, being able to put together a zine in a week really gives you the wrong impression of the time it takes to put a book together!

Moving from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet to doing chapbooks and then the books seemed like a natural progression—although there's always that last minute rush to hit the deadlines. When we realized we could publish not one, but two books by Carol Emshwiller, we knew we were on the right track!

We've been helped, advised, and consulted by various friends in and out of publishing, although at this point we are still doing everything (except the all-important proofreading!) ourselves. One of our July chapbooks, Messages and Echoes by Alex Irvine (the other is by Judith Berman), is being designed by someone else—Thom Sohn—which will be a first. I'm waiting to see how this works. If it goes well, maybe we'll do more of it in the future.

RevolutionSF: There's a certain self-effacing humor that runs through LCRW and that also shows up in the name of Small Beer Press. The reception accorded to your first two collections, however, has been far from modest. Were you caught off guard by the success of these titles? Why do you think these titles have taken off like they have?

GJG: Um, good writing? We were very lucky to get to do a collection by Ray Vukcevich. He's been publishing great stories for years, and when you gather his stories in one place they just have a tremendous impact. He consistently amazes me with what he can do in a thousand words. Kelly's book is a different kettle of fish. I was pretty confident that it would do at least OK, but now it's in its third printing—I didn't really expect that. The success seems like it's coming from word-of-mouth, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about that, either to start or stop it. Both of the books are, in my perhaps-biased opinion, very, very strong. Between that, the interesting art on the covers, the lovely writers who gave us blurbs, and that we were a new press—all together that's a pretty good package. We're waiting for the backlash. Actually, I'll take all the backlash as long as in the meantime more readers find Carol Emshwiller's books!

I think the humor is inherent to LCRW because of the disconnect between its physical outlook and its philosophical outlook. On the one hand, you have this photocopied, card-cover zine that comes out every six months—but the universe wouldn't exactly stop if it didn't. On the other hand, from the start we've wanted it to be as good as it can be. I wanted a magazine that I wanted to read, which is the reason many people start things. I like to eat chocolate, therefore you can order LCRW with a chocolate bar, see? But at the same time, I'd seen some fantastic magazines (Crank! comes immediately to mind) have immense difficulty in surviving, so it had to be something that I could continue doing without breaking the bank.

RevolutionSF: Eccentricity and humor seem to be two things that characterize much of what you publish. How important is humor in what you publish?

GJG: Actually, the eccentricity/quirky label is something I'd like to avoid. It gives people an easy reason to ignore what you're doing. We're very serious about what we're doing—although some readers won't realize it, which is fine. I realized again how serious we were when someone ran an ad of ours that looked awful; it wasn't what we'd sent at all. It was amazingly upsetting to have our work represented in that fashion. It's too easy to ignore the small presses, and we don't want to give people easy reasons to do so.

Humor is important in the zine and—to some extent—in the stories. It sets a shared ground between the reader and the work. I'm not specifically looking for humor, mostly because there are so few good humorous writers out there. What we're looking for is the best work there is, really. However, most people are smart and send their best work to SciFiction! We're looking for the work that is great but hard to categorize. Cross-genre work seems to come our way, which makes me happy. The easiest way to see what we want and what we like is to read the magazine.

RevolutionSF: Small Beer Press has gotten off to a strong start with two relatively new writers: Kelly Link and Ray Vukcevich. How did you hook up with these two characters and what attracted you to their writing?

GJG: I met Kelly a while ago when she started working at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop [http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com] in Boston. She'd published a number of stories, and was interested in doing a collection, but all the larger publishers wanted a novel as well and at that time she wasn't interested in writing one—although she seems more interested now. After a contract with another small press didn"É1;t work, we decided to do it ourselves. It was great fun. Hard work, but great fun. We received so much help from people—and we needed it!

Kelly had really enjoyed Ray's story "Catch" in Ellen Datlow's cat anthology. Then we read his story "By the Time We get to Uranus" in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. When we realized that he didn't have a collection out, we jumped at the chance to do it. He was really easy to work with (and thus spoiled us forever!). We later met him at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas and he's a great guy. I heartily recommend his novel, The Man of Maybe Half-a-Dozen Facesit's fantastic. I keep pushing it on people who like Douglas Adams, and now Jasper Fforde. Hopefully it'll be out in paperback soon.

RevolutionSF: Your next books will be by Carol Emshwiller, a wonderful writer who has been around for a while (and has also been consistently under-appreciated). Tell us a bit about the upcoming Emshwiller collections.

GJG: We can't believe how lucky we are to publish not just one, but two books, by the wonderful Carol Emshwiller. Carol is very much a full-time writer (she has another novel being looked at, and I think she's about to start another!). She gets up in the morning and writes. Then she'll go teach, come back, and write some more. In the evening she's as likely to be going to one of her writer's workshops as anything else. She is an incredibly dedicated, incredibly talented writer who has inspired countless other writers with her short story collections (Verging on the Pertinent, The Start of the End of It All) and novels. I'm especially fond of Carmen Dog and Ledoyt.

The first book is a collection of stories, Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories. About a third of the stories are new, and they prove that she's writing as well as anyone else. Of course, I've read them innumerable times, but as with Ray Vukcevich's stories, the more you read them, the more you begin to wonder (and maybe see), "How do they do that?"

The second book is a novel, The Mount. It's an incredibly strong book and we've got quotes on it from people like Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Maureen McHugh. Both of the books will be out in August. They are trade paperback originals, and I think will be stocked in quite a few bookshops across the country from the pre-publication interest we've seen. Like all our books, they can be got in any bookshop anywhere, or from our website.

Basically we're hoping to bring Carol to a wider audience. She was published very well in the past by Harcourt, Coffee House, and Mercury House, but her last couple of books (Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill) didn't get as much attention as we thought they deserved—and we were working at a bookshop at the time, so we could tell! So now we'll give her as big a push as we can, and see what happens. And if we lose our shirts, well, at least it was for the best work we could find! (But we won't; these are Carol Emshwiller books!)

RevolutionSF: What else is on the horizon right now?

GJG: The other two items we're doing this summer are chapbooks by two up-and-coming authors. The first is Judith Berman, who wrote an essay that started a little controversy about the state of science fiction. She's written some very good short fiction (although now she's working on a novel for Ace) and we're very happy to publish it.

The second chapbook is a collection of four stories by Alex Irvine. His first novel (A Scattering of Jades, Tor, July 2002) also comes out this summer, and it's great. In the chapbook, Messages and Echoes, there's a new story, his first published story, and a couple more. Alex is interested in wide variety of things, and I enjoy the way he can mix the serious and flippant together without the one spoiling the other. We hope to continue doing the chapbooks for a while. I think they're a good bridge between the magazines and books. It's hard to commit $25 for a new hardcover, or $16 for a trade paperback, but $5 for a chapbook is a good bit of reading for not too much money.

Of course we're also continuing with Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. The tenth issue is out now, with stories from Jeff Ford, Steven Bratman, and loads of people you may not have heard of, but will-hopefully—in the future.

RevolutionSF: Your day job with BookSense involves working with independent bookstores. Now's your chance to propagandize a bit: Why is it important for readers to patronize the independents?

GJG: Diversity of viewpoints is a big one, availability of a place for local zines (see next question!), a place for authors to read who haven't been okayed by the big bosses of whatever particular chain. I like some of the chains well enough—Waterstones comes to mind, although maybe all they have left are their airport stores, which despite a certain car-crash appeal, are boring.

The indies (and I include used bookstores here) are bastions of iconoclastic rebellion. Drive anywhere, around your hometown or across the country, and you'll see that it's not just bookshops, it's all kinds of retail. The big companies (i.e., the management who answer to the shareholders, the richest 3% of the country) are putting the local shops out of business, and pulling all the money out of the community. Talk to anyone in a town where a Walmart opened five years ago. Some readers will be quite happy with this, and some will point out that their ex-local bookshop was run by a bunch of snooty gits, oh well, but this isn't about anecdotal evidence, this is about local stores of all kinds being put out of business.

Between rising rents and the illusion of discounts at the chains (it is rare that anything other than the bestseller list is discounted), it is getting harder for people to start up an indie bookshop, never mind survive those critical first few years. Fortunately there is a lot of support across the country (and around the world), and a renewed awareness by the bookshops that their livelihood is worth fighting for.

RevolutionSF: What's exciting to you in fiction these days? Any writers you're particularly fond of, or books that you want to shout about?

GJG: OK, everyone else will too, but Ted Chiang's collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, is fantastic. Also, Six Kinds of Sky, a collection by Luis Alberto Urrea, Ghost of a Flea by James Sallis, Green Music by Ursula Pflug, anything by Jeffrey Ford . . . I'm lucky in that at my day job at BookSense I get to interview (or solicit essays from) authors I admire, and also write about a book I like every month for the Staff Picks page. I also review sf&f for BookPage (in print and online), and I try and pick books I actually like.

RevolutionSF: You've written a number of stories yourself, including a collaboration with Kelly that was selected for Windling and Datlow's Year's Best collection. Any plans to write more fiction?

GJG: Yes, thank you. It's odd, this writing thing, especially if you have the wonderful opportunity to publish someone like Carol Emshwiller. The question naturally arises, "Should I work on my own stuff, or should I do something for Carol's books?" Guess which one usually wins?

Oddly enough, I'm publishing a couple of poems this year. One was published in Full Unit Hookup, a zine put out by Mark E. Rudolph, and one will be in Turbocharged Fortune Cookie, a new zine debuting in May.

RevolutionSF: You're also enthusiastic about the proliferation of local zines, and LCRW maintains a wonderful DIY aesthetic. What's so exciting about these smallest of small press publications?

GJG: It's all about the voices. There's no way (short of precocity so strong that it's almost off-putting) that a lot of zinesters could get published by any-sized press, but, with a couple of dollars, a friend who works at Kinko's—Voila! A zine!

Even in a field like sf&f where there are quality magazines putting out quality work, there's always room for another point of view. As long as the stuff is good, then I'm for it.

Also, you can't beat the price point of a zine. My question now is, "Why not?" As long as you only publish good stuff and you treat your writers well, why not? Everyone should now go to Quimby's or Atomic Books and buy some zines. At least pick up a copy of Zine World and get hooked!



 
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