By Tom Gilson (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) [email protected]
And Katina Strauch (Editor, Against the Grain) [email protected]
ATG: Scott you are both an author as well as an editor/publisher with China Grove Press. Can you tell us a bit more about the press? What inspired you all to become publishers? What type books/journals do you publish?
RSA: It is a result of a long process, almost everyone who was initially involved with the China Grove project came from the contributors and staff of the JOURNAL of the Mississippi State Medical Association, and we had already worked together for many years in that capacity. The JOURNAL is one of the last state medical association monthly scientific journals published in the United States. It was a scientific journal that also featured regular poetry and prose columns and features. My partner in China Grove, Luke Lampton, is the elected editor of the JOURNAL and I was the chair of the Editorial Advisory Board as well as author of the prose features, Una Voce, and The Uncommon Thread. Luke is also a newspaper and book publisher. His company Magnolia Gazette Publishing has been in continuous operation since 1872, (it is the oldest business in Pike County, Mississippi) and I owned the e-book company IsoLibris, we decided to unify our two projects and created China Grove, primarily to put out the literary journal China Grove.
ATG: So initially your and Luke’s main objective was to publish the literary journal China Grove. What was the motivation for starting a literary journal? Why the name China Grove?
RSA: We wanted to do something we thought should be out there, a combination of literary history, interviews with major figures about writing, and short stories, poems, and essays with a little art scattered about as well. Our original name for the journal was For and About (writing, of course.) We went with China Grove as a reference to Eudora Welty’s famous story Why I Live at the P.O. which features the quintessential unreliable narrator, Sister, who was the postmistress of the second smallest post office in Mississippi at China Grove. Luke actually owns most of what’s left of the original China Grove, Mississippi, which lies beneath a long-leaf pine plantation in Pike County. He and his in-laws were very close to Miss Welty, and it seemed like a nice tribute.
ATG: How many issues do you publish a year? How do you get submissions?
RSA: We are committed to at least one issue a year, we are putting two together at once right now for 2016, but we only got one out in 2015. We use Submittables, as a means to manage submissions, but just go to www.Chinagrovepress.com and hit the Contact us…submissions…combination and it should pop right up. We don’t know how people find us, so far that hasn’t been a problem. But here’s a pitch, if you have a great piece you want in print send it.
ATG: Where does the book publishing fit in? How does it relate to your initial interest in publishing a literary journal? How many titles do you publish a year?
RSA: It is just an outgrowth, Luke and I were both doing it, there were writers we wanted to see get published because we liked their writing, so we did. We are looking to do five to eight books a year, eight is a full time job for most individuals.
Are you publishing both print and eBooks? Besides Luke and yourself, how many staff members do you have?
RSA: We are doing both print and e book formats, I’m not too fond of e books, but they are here to stay so I guess we adapt. We have a floating staff, with a core group of about six folks and two or three others in and out. That’s how we select stuff, we vote on it, you get three readers, if you get three votes – you’re in, if you get no votes or one vote – you’re out, and if you get two votes we argue about it.
RSA: I don’t edit my own work. Luke has been my editor for more than 10 years, I don’t see a reason to change that. I work with our authors that we include in China Grove or that we are working with on a book. Our hope with China Grove is to put young authors in a journal with mid-level competitive writers, and historical icons. Our first issue featured everything from first time writers to a new short story by Ellen Gilchrist, letters from Eudora Welty and Ross McDonald, and a letter about an unpublished manuscript from Mark Twain.
As you know, I am also a Radiation Oncologist and run a very busy cancer center, so the days are full. By day I’m Dr. Anderson, trying to cure cancer, at night, when I’m not sleeping (which I don’t that much) I’m working on my literary pursuits. I’m pretty streaky about what I work on, it depends on what’s on the front burner at the time. China Grove, edit a book, write a little…writing when it’s best, is a storm, you just pound away until you have something you’re okay with, then put it down for a bit, and forge on. When it is perfect you’re short of breath, panting, writing as hard as you can, feeling like you can’t even take a deep breath you’re so intent on getting the words out.
ATG: Do these different roles complement one another? Are there any conflicts or frustrations in trying to do both?
RSA: Editing helps me with the re-writing, I don’t let the editor get in the way of the writer, if you get what I’m saying. The writer writes, the editor doesn’t.
My biggest frustration is a lack of time to do my own writing. I have three books I am in the process of writing right now, but it seems I can never get enough time to do any of my own work.
ATG: We understand that as an editor you see encouraging and nurturing the next generation of writers as essential. But that’s not an easy task, how do you make that happen? How would you describe the ideal author/editor relationship?
RSA: Working with the writers we have been fortunate enough to publish has been an eye opening experience in many ways. One of the key rules I try to follow is “read the work,” don’t start editing or deciding until you’ve taken the time to read the work, you can’t get a feel for the author and what it is they are trying to do until you read the work, if you don’t like it at that point get out of it, don’t try to edit it. Let the champion for the work, interact with the author, you can’t edit a work you don’t like or understand. The ideal relationship is that of two like minds who understand that the work is an entity that they are both working on to help achieve its best form.
RSA: I started out writing screenplays with my friend Kevin Ivey, who has won an Emmy, and my oldest son Jackson. We did a few good screenplays, got some interest and sold two of them as feature films, but with the collapse of the banking industry and the evaporation of the hedge funds devoted to funding small films it stopped being fun, so I converted Time Donors Wanted, a screenplay Kevin and I worked on, into a novel and put it out under the pseudonym of Russell Scott. We collected my Una Voce and The Uncommon Thread columns that had been published in the JOURNAL, and put that out as The Uncommon Thread under my own name, and I just finished a book tour for my latest novel The Hard Times, again as Russell Scott.
After we get the two issues of China Grove we want to do out I have the three other projects I’m working on: a kids book, Terrence and the Toilet Fairy, that’s an adaptation of a screenplay Kevin, Jack, and I wrote, it made it as far as Jack Black’s production company, Black and White Productions, but we never got the financing squared away (the banking crisis had arrived), a mystery that features Willie Weeks, the detective from Time Donors Wanted, and recently I’ve come into a number of letters and diaries of a very talented writer who recounts his experiences as a combat medic during WW I, the author was a friend and contemporary of American writer and educator, Waldo Dunn, and through Dunn this remarkable trove has been preserved intact.
ATG: Contrary to popular opinion you believe this is the golden age of small presses. What are you seeing that others don’t?
RSA: There is a flow in the market, every publisher wants a press that stands for quality, that forms a niche for other books of similar quality to flow into.
The major publishers have traditionally been a conduit, that created its own evolving quality standards and sought to guide all output into an orderly flow which they could control and exploit. And everything worked pretty well because offset printing was expensive, unwieldy, and the only way to get a book to market. Then, with the arrival of digital printing, two things happened, an infinite number of new pathways to production opened, and because more individuals saw that they could access these pathways, the amount of product coming into the market expanded. Digital publishing became a disruptive technology allowing content production that became readily available to the individual, the monopoly on production held by the major presses at the upper end of the publishing spectrum, actually created the anarchy of self-publishing on the other.
ATG: Admittedly digital publishing is a disruptive force but with big companies like Smashwords, and of course Amazon playing a more dominant role, do you think the “anarchy of self-publishing” will continue? How do you see self-publishing evolving?
RSA: I don’t know, but in the indy film industry, when the money dried up, so did a lot of the filmmaking. There were a million “how to” seminars for filmmaking back then and that’s what’s happening with self-publishing right now. When the con wears off and the average person understands that they aren’t going to make money doing it, it will come down to those that actually have something that they need to express that will remain. The con of “You too can write a book” makes money for the guy pushing out the book, seminar, or program to teach you to write the next bestseller, and is usually a waste of money for the prospective author.
If you want to be a writer…write, then read it aloud, if it doesn’t sound like you, start over. Once you have a piece that you feel that you’ve found your voice in, let someone else read it. Listen to what they say and rewrite the piece, then put it in a drawer for three months, write more stuff until then, so you always have stuff in the drawer, but after three months read it again, if it sounds good it probably is, if it sounds like crap it probably is too. You can’t be a writer without a base of constant writing and self-criticism.
ATG: Do you see any parallels between small literary presses and university presses in academic publishing?
RSA: There are a lot of similarities in terms of selling, but academic presses, and really things like the JOURNAL of the Mississippi State Medical Association exist outside the need to break even, money is less of a constant concern. For us it is often, do we have the money to put out an issue of China Grove right now? Can we afford to pay a featured author? If we don’t, Luke or I have to pull out our own checkbook.
ATG: What about libraries? Do you sell to libraries? How do you see libraries affecting publishing in the future?
RSA: We try to as much as possible, libraries have a responsibility to the population that they serve, but on another level they have a responsibility to preserve quality literature. They are a major market, and will determine if smaller presses survive or not.
ATG: How has the incredible growth of e-books and self-publishing affected small presses like China Grove Press? And perhaps more importantly, what are their impacts on writing and literary quality?
RSA: The scribe gave way to the plate press, which gave way to offset printing, digital production and electronic distribution is just the next step. But uncontrolled production without restrictions will erode quality at some level, there is no arbiter of content or production.
E-books have suffered from the vagaries of re-flowable text, and dissimilar device standards, so it is just now arriving at the kind of quality we expect in what we read. But there are advantages, you can take a hundred books on vacation and fit them all in your jeans pocket.
ATG: When you look into your crystal ball what do you see in China Grove Press’ future? Will you expand in to other formats like graphic novels or multimedia publishing?
RSA: I don’t know, I’ll stay on as long as we’re doing something worth doing, but at 60 I know things end, maybe when I retire from medicine I will focus more on China Grove, or I may just go to my farm and raise cattle or to Florida and play golf. We are starting to look for a professional managing editor, someone to take the reins and do a better job for Luke than I have time to. Luke doesn’t need me to survive, and as he is much younger, he is the future of all of this, we have started with a look to history, we don’t do things for next Tuesday, or next month, or next year…we hope someone looks at what we’ve done in 100 years and says, “those guys were crazy, but look at what they did.”
ATG: With all you do for China Grove Press not to mention your day job as a radiation oncologist, you must need some down time? What do you do for fun? Do you have any hobbies or outside interests?
RSA: I have a kaleidoscope of stuff that constantly evolves, painting, golf, my farm, hunting, fishing, these sort of things, but when you are younger the things you do reflect the activities of your children, as I get older they’ve begun to revolve around my wife and grandchildren. I don’t so much care what it is I end up doing if at the end of it I can sit down with “the Amazing Charlo,” cook a meal on the grill and drink a glass of wine.
ATG: Scott, we really appreciate you taking the time out of what must be an incredibly busy schedule to talk to us.
RSA: Happy to do it, hope it fits what you wanted. A lot of the time I just go off and start spouting, the last two interviews I did on TV I sat and talked for thirty minutes to fill a couple of one minute slots, so here it is, hope it didn’t drag.