The Makings of a Regional Press: In Conversation with Laura Stanfill
Forest Avenue Press, an Oregon independent publisher founded in 2012, recently released A Simplified Map of the Real World by Stevan Allred—a debut novel that has received well-deserved praise. Instead of brief cameo appearances by characters, Allred explores people in-depth: an in-the-closet man living in the middle of Mormon territory finds his soulmate in the most unexpected place, a stoned-stripper moves back with her parents, neighbors battle, people in a small town intertwine. A Simplified Map of the Real World is an outstanding debut collection, rich in unique and surprising story lines. Laura Stanfill, founder of the Forest Avenue Press, speaks to the pitfalls and glories of creating a new venue for Oregon authors and the experience of publishing a fantastic debut novel.
1. Forest Avenue Press is publishing “Quiet Books for a Noisy World.” What makes a book a “quiet book?”
Quiet books are character-driven and rich with language and story. The hero’s journey is an interior one, where the protagonist is changed by the world, rather than charging out to change the world. Quiet novels explore the fractures in society and the gulfs between people that keep growing wider—and less reparable—in this digital age.
Forest Avenue Press’s goal is to publish new classics—literary fiction that explores relationships and internal shifts without sacrificing story. Sometimes quiet is a euphemism for plotless, but all our books have strong arcs and plenty of action. Our next release even has a chase scene!
2. What is unique about Forest Avenue Press?
We’re a regional press, focused on publishing and promoting Oregon writers with an emphasis on building community. We work with our authors—often face to face over coffee—through every step of the process, and then we celebrate the results by organizing regional appearances and inviting writers, readers, friends, and the public to come together and listen.
Our writers aren’t all writing about Oregon; two of our first three fiction titles are set elsewhere, and the press has national reach through reviews, interviews, radio appearances, blog features, and our efforts to connect with independent bookstores in different parts of the country.
We also hire regional artists to contribute illustrations to our books, which gives them an extra-lovely sense of objectness on the shelf. So far we have worked with Laurie Paus, Reid Psaltis, and Clare Carpenter.
3. How did the press begin and how has it evolved?
When I heard about Powell’s Books installing an Espresso Book Machine, I began brainstorming about using such ultra-local technology. This remarkable printer hybrid can produce a high-quality book in about five minutes, sort of like a literary gumball machine. I loved the idea of making a book inside a bookstore. We published our homegrown anthology, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, featuring interviews and flash essays by forty-two local authors, exclusively through the EBM in October 2012, and it spent four months on the Powell’s Small Press Bestseller List.
While in production for Brave on the Page, I realized two things: ISBN numbers are less expensive in bulk, and many writers in Oregon have spent years waiting for agents or editors in New York to notice them. Why not publish local authors’ fiction right here in Oregon? I bought my first batch of ISBNs, chose Lightning Source to print and fulfill bookstore orders, and opened for submissions.
4. Can you tell readers about some of the titles you’ve published?
Our first fiction title, Stevan Allred’s A Simplified Map of the Real World, a linked short story collection in the tradition of Olive Kitteridge but with more divorce, was released in September, complete with a hand-drawn Faulknerian map and story trees that map the connections between the characters.
Dan Berne’s debut novel, The Gods of Second Chances, about an Alaskan widower raising his granddaughter while battling ice storms and lawsuit-happy tourists, will be released March 1. Our Oregon short story anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River, edited by Liz Prato, is due out in May to coincide with Short Story Month. Skin Drag, the debut novel by poet Kate Gray, slated for September, takes an honest look at bullying through the eyes of two young teachers reeling from their own losses. We’ll be opening for submissions in January to continue building our catalog.
5. Surely there were pitfalls, surprises, and glories along the way to becoming a publisher….?
My background is in community journalism, manuscript editing, layout, and public relations, all skills that relate to small press publishing, but I had never published a book before. So there were plenty of surprises getting Brave on the Page out, and plenty more shifting from an anthology to working on our first single-author release.
Thanks to advice from some regional publishers—including Cameron Pierce (Lazy Fascist Press), Matt Love (Nestucca Spit Press), Rhonda Hughes (Hawthorne Books), Kevin Sampsell (Future Tense Books), Jarrett Middleton (Dark Coast), and Michael Heald (Perfect Day Publishing)—I have avoided a number of pitfalls.
One of the less-pleasant surprises for me, coming from the print journalism side, is how few newspaper pages are set aside for reviews these days. We did really well getting into community weeklies, but the dailies and entertainment papers have been harder to crack. It’s a good reminder of how reaching readers is totally different than it used to be.
Glories: Reading the slush pile and wanting a manuscript with all my heart. Seeing one of graphic designer Gigi Little’s covers for the first time. Standing under the Powell’s marquee with Stevan Allred’s name up in lights, knowing that together we were making his dream come true. Spotting one of our books in the wild. Arguing over commas. Watching seats fill up at a reading. Working with our team of editors and designers and artists. Sending out advance copies, each one packaged with plenty of tape and hope.
5. How do you visualize Forest Avenue Press in 2-5 years?
We plan to continue publishing two or three books a year, with a focus on quiet novels, but we also hope to release more anthologies. The Night, and the Rain, and the River, our short story project, attracted 167 submissions from all over the state. The interest is there, and including multiple authors in one project helps us build a strong sense of community around the press.
Five years from now, I expect we’ll still be a regional small press, but in a bigger sense, pulling authors from throughout the Pacific Northwest while continuing to grow our national presence.
6. I’ve had the pleasure of reading Stevan Allred’s A Simplified Map of the Real World, which is the most skillfully-woven collection of linked short stories I’ve read to date. How has the world reacted to the birth of this wonderful book?
Thanks for the compliment. Stevan is one of the hardest-working writers I know, and he definitely deserves the accolades his debut has earned. It has been especially wonderful to watch support roll in from powerhouse Northwest authors, including Brian Doyle, Scott Nadelson, Robin Cody, Yuvi Zalkow, Joanna Rose, Scott Sparling, and Tom Spanbauer, who said: “Petty, profane, sacred, scared, hilarious. We’re all in this book. And that’s quite a triumph.”
The Sept. 12 Powell’s launch of A Simplified Map of the Real World attracted an overflow crowd of 160 to 180 attendees—not to mention a silver-painted street performer who inspired one of Stevan’s stories. That event kicked off a six-city book tour, and we have more appearances in the works thanks to the great connections we made at the fall Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow.
The collection is set in Renata (loosely based on Estacada, Oregon), and its Northwest flavor, coupled with Stevan’s stunning prose and sense of humor, is the perfect way to start our Forest Avenue Press fiction catalog. I’d love to see A Simplified Map become known as a classic Northwest book, one that keeps getting discovered and rediscovered thanks to the readers and booksellers who love it.
Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water (Press 53) and Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press). Stefanie’s published and forthcoming work can be found in magazines such as Witness, Sou’wester, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, American Literary Review, Night Train, Edge, and Pank. She is the former Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review. She contributes regularly to Late Night Library in her column, Up Past Midnight.