Two Good Men

Abbott and Rushforth Read at The King's English

Abbott and Rushforth read at The King’s English

Two men stand silhouetted against an  sublime sunset, scholars perhaps, contemplating their place in the cosmos.  Such is the cover image,suggested by author Scott Abbott, by 19th -century German Romantic landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich.  Friedrich’s paintings characteristically set a human presence in perspective in expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that, according to the art historian Christopher John Murray, directs “the viewer’s gaze towards their metaphysical dimension.” A smart, appropriate and elegant cover for a smart and elegant book .  And then, of course, a mountain bike ran over it. (see it here)

The best thing about publishing has been the people we meet.  Scott Abbott and Sam Rushforth are smart, passionate, highly educated men.  Not to mention strong enough to conquer mountain bike trails that put younger men to shame.  Last night they opened Wild Rides and Wildflowers at the incomparable The King’s English Bookstore in Salt Lake to a standing room only crowd.  Before the reading we grabbed dinner next door to the store with Scott and Sam and the women they dedicated the book to, Lyn and Nancy.  Sam and Nancy have just retired from Utah Valley University while Scott and Lyn continue their stint there a while longer.  Dinner conversation ranged from publishing to how death and dying is taught and covered in the humanities.  You should have been there.

Next door, as Scott and Sam elegantly took us through the book, alternately making us laugh and cry, I was hit by one of those moments of clarity where I was glad to be a publisher and proud that we had a part in making this work see the light of day.  These men are full of heart and love.  The proof is in their lives.  No fewer than three of their sons came up to Kirsten afterwords thanking her for publishing their dad’s work.  I think she was feeling pretty happy too.

-Mark Bailey

Posted in Book Review, Environmental, topical nonfiction, Independent Bookstores, Literature and Philosophy, Literature and the Environment, Publishing, West, Western Lit | Leave a comment

Lessons of Another Season

Most of the work is done for our Fall/Winter 2013 book season.  We are just back from four trade shows.  Kirsten and I were hosted by our fabulous reps Howard Karel and Lise Solomon at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association show in South San Francisco, Anne by the gracious Bob Harrison at the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Association show in Portland and all three of us by our fairy godmother, Dory Dutton, at the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association show in Denver.  And author Charlie Quimby was hosted by John Mesjak at the Heartland Fall Forum in Chicago.  Thanks to all.

We enjoyed the energy, generosity and enthusiasm for books of all the terrific folks we meet in this biz.  And we learned a lot.  We learned, for instance, that the shows aren’t as much about selling books as they are about building relationships.  I admit, I was a bit naive about this fact.  Charlie’s title, Monument Road, is getting extra attention and will even be on the ABA’s IndieNext list in November after a starred review this month by Booklist.  All that is an accomplishment that Charlie and THP can be proud of.  But it isn’t moving the sales needle much.  We are still optimistic that this title will sell itself as it gets out there next month, but again, I’m surprised we weren’t able to create some orders now.

In order to do justice to great novels by new authors like Charlie, THP is going to have to build our brand a bit more.  It means we will have to be more selective for awhile about the track record of the authors we hire.  The trade respects, like nothing else, the author’s previous track record.  If there isn’t one, and it isn’t recent, the trade is dubious and reluctant.  I spent this morning on the dreary job of submission rejections.  There was some good stuff in there from lively, attractive authors, but we just don’t feel we could do the titles justice.  We are going to increase our focus on relationships with agents for the coming year and see where it leads.  Onward, at any rate.  -Mark Bailey

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Why Culture Matters

The day I realized I am a Westerner, I was in New York City. I was visiting family in my hometown and bent down to talk to my three-year-old in what felt like a miniature grocery store aisle. Crouching among tiny, packed shelves and tiny, packed shopping carts, I understood: I am at home in wide open space. I am a Westerner. In the midst of what is arguably the cultural capital of the country, I understood that my identification with the West is shaped not only by its landscapes, but by its culture. The stories of Stegner and Abbey, the art of Remington and Moran help explain me to myself. Of course, culture matters more than just as a reflection of identity.  It also conveys values, questions norms, and celebrates life.

Though the West is more urbanized than most of the country, with more of each states’ population living in cities than not, many of us in the West are here because of its big open skies, majestic mountains, cold running streams, sublime and spectacular deserts. From the words of Ivan Doig and Terry Tempest Williams to the transcendent light-play of Douglas Snow and Bonnie Posselli and the soaring dynamics of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir our literature, art, and music illustrate these landscape qualities and express their value. If you live in the West, chances are that you feel connected to the land in some way, that you identify with a relationship to it whether as a steward who tames it to use its raw materials, a steward who strives to conserve its most natural state, a recreation enthusiast reveling in wild places, a pilgrim seeking solace and spirit—or a combination of the above. The identity you take reflects how you value the landscape, and the stories you tell, read, and share about it convey the values you hold. Culture matters because it is the vehicle for sharing our values and shaping our identity.

In addition to conveying values, culture illustrates and even questions norms. As America’s nineteenth century cities grew more industrial, writers, artists, and musicians looked west for inspiration, and in the process changed American identity by incorporating the heroes and hardships of the American West. It was the last frontier, the last place settled by Europeans—and for good reason. With annual precipitation sometimes a quarter of that typically received east of the Mississippi River and strewn with unnavigable rivers and canyons, the West didn’t offer much promise of successful settlement. The literature shaped by the West shows an evolution of identity and values. Mark Twain explored the ruggedness of the Western landscape and the people who settled and developed it despite its crushing difficulties. John Muir suggested that the wild places being conquered held other benefits, some more spiritual than material. Edward Abbey went further, arguing not only that wild places are a spiritual resource but also that our land management practices are destroying them. Today, writers such as Timothy Egan and Erica Olsen contemplate both the desolation of destruction and the still point of hope that can lead us to new ways of living with the land.

Indeed, living with the land is the crux of our culture here in the West. And celebrating our place-based culture adds richness to our lives. Beginning September 28 and 29, the Utah Humanities Council brings the Utah Humanities Book Festival to the Salt Lake City Library and venues across the state throughout October, giving every Utahn the opportunity to participate in the creation of our culture.

-Kirsten Johanna Allen

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Let Them Paddle, by Alan S. Kesselheim – Review

Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the WaterLet Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water by Alan S. Kesselheim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In middle age the notion of doing what you love and then figuring out how to make a living at it gets ever more attractive. I cringe at the notion of my old business buddies calling and asking how my new publishing biz is going. They listen politely and if feeling dismissive say it sounds more like an expensive hobby and if expansive that it must be a labor of love. It is about the land for me, and I do love it. And I do intend to make it into a business.

Al Kesselheim is making a living as an avid outdoorsman, as in look it up in the dictionary and it says “see Kesselheim.” He met and fell in love with his wife in the backcountry of southern Utah. She may be even more intense about living in natural places than he is. They were into big expeditions, including two year long canoe trips in Canada. They bought a Pakboat canoe, folded it up, packed their gear, hired a float plane, and in they went. Along the way, after numerous heartbreaking failed pregnancies, all three of their children ended up on their first canoe trips, in the womb. His wife, Marypat Zitzer, knows that it is not good science to speculate, but the fact that she was out in her beloved wilds when she first was able to take a pregnancy to term she thought was not a coincidence.

As a writer, Kesselheim makes hay out of his experiences in this memoir. I hope he is still able to make a living this way. As a close observer, as good writers are, he more deeply enjoyed the growth of his kids than many of us might do. The backbone of the book is three river trips with his young adult kids on the rivers they first ran in Mom. The places and people are observed, the wildness indulged, and the kids grow up natural citizens of their environment. It was a chuckle how often the Kesselheims enjoyed being in outback nature au naturale.

Kesselheim is a naturalist who knows his flora and fauna. It is part of the pleasure of going along for the ride. As a guy who enjoys looking up at night, I do have to point out that a sliver of moon seen in the evening is setting, not rising, and that a bright star in the morning is Venus. There.

And nice paperback treatment by Fulcrum Publishing. I like the French fold cover leafs. Very classy. But enough with the deckle edges! -Mark Bailey

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Prisoner of Zion, by Scott Carrier – Review

Prisoner of Zion: Muslims, Mormons and Other MisadventuresPrisoner of Zion: Muslims, Mormons and Other Misadventures by Scott Carrier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As we hone our strategy and niche at Torrey House Press (THP), I am thinking a lot about the West, and the land, and what it means to live in such a beautiful, crazy place. Wallace Stegner spoke of the “geography of hope” and of a culture to match the scenery. Sometime I think, given the predominate culture in Utah, that THP should move to some place like Berkeley where there may be more than one progressive thinker to buy our books. Utah is amongst the reddest of states politically and as such anti-environmentalism is a required political plank for the rank and file here. My heck, as we say, we earmark $300,000 of taxpayer treasure to anti-wolf lobbyists every year even though there is not one known wolf in the entire state. What we really worry about, according to those lobbyists, is MEXICAN wolves. But we are dead last in the nation for per capita education funding. We are anti-immigration, anti-environment, anti-womens’ health, pro gun and pro war. The word Taliban often comes to mind.

So it is with a hoot of delight and recognition that I read Scott Carrier say, “It doesn’t bother me that Mormons believe God grew up as a human being on a planet circling a sun called Kolob. I’m not upset when they tell me He came to Earth in a physical body and had sex with the Virgin Mary. These beliefs, as Jefferson said, can neither pick my pocket nor break my bones.” Carrier says he does have a problem with one belief, ” . . . that Mormons are God’s chosen people and He gave this land to them. This is Zionism, and I’m against it, wherever it occurs, because it is nothing but a lie used to justify taking land and liberty from other people.” He adds that he respects the thinking of his liberal, open minded Mormon friends, as do I, and of which there are plenty, and that they are slow to judge others. Who is this guy? I’m only on page 8 and he’s got me.

Carrier goes on to examine why he loves living in Utah anyway. As do I. The next chapter starts with him examining the reason he wants to go to Afghanistan right after 9-11. “I don’t believe the news. The news is selling war and we’re buying it. We’re the richest nation on the planet and Afghanistan is the poorest nation on the planet. It’s not war, it’s a business, a trap, and we are walking right into it.” This guy is good, I think. He’s off to Afghanistan where he sees Taliban for himself. He ends up bringing a young man back as a student to Utah County. In the end, lives are changed. Mine was, just sitting in my armchair reading this book.  -Mark Bailey

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Four Girls, Two Canoes: A Trip Down Labyrinth Canyon

My experiences with water have not been unusual. I wash dishes. I water the tomato plants on my balcony, when I remember. I enjoy lounging by implausibly blue swimming pools while reading, slathered in SPF 50. Sometimes I even take baths. So when I found myself floating down the Green River in a yellow canoe, jumping out to swim, watching herons, silver fish, and a beaver, I was in over my head—in the best possible way.

 Three friends and I were three and a half days on the river, figuring out how to paddle (if a canoe paddle had settings, like a radio dial or a toaster, they would include: Meditative (Right, Left), Leisurely (Right, Left), Slight Corrective (Right, Left), and Pensive (Right, Left). For a while, ours were frequently Frantic, Over-the-Top, Frenzied, or Sporadic—eventually we learned to tune in correctly).

 Red cliffs, blue sky, white clouds; richer and more complex than the jumbo boxes of Crayolas I relished as a child. None of us brought cameras, but I recall moments as snapshots infused with warm breeze and cool currents, bird calls and moonlight, rivulets of sandy sweat, sharp stings of bug bites. The first night, we set up tents and collapsed inside, before dinner and bed. On our last night, we stretched out on a beach and looked at the stars. Dark shapes appeared around us on the mudpacked sand: frogs, illuminated by our headlamps, delicate-looking and spotted.

 That night, as we drifted off to sleep, Kira sat up suddenly in the tent pitched next to mine. “I forgot my keys in Anne’s car.” This announcement, met with stunned silence, meant that when we reached Mineral Bottom, her Jeep would be waiting for us—but we’d have no way to drive it back  to Green River State Park. What could we do but keep on paddling? Hope that someone would take mercy on us and give us a ride. Hope that someone would be there at all.

 In the morning, a half-delighted shriek: Lauren had found a frog in our cutlery.

 A half-hour after we arrived at the deserted Mineral Bottom, minutes after I’d waded back into the river figuring I might as well go for a dip—who knows how long we’d be waiting?—a rickety shuttle pulled up, depositing a bachelor party onto the shore. I’m sure we gave them a promising start to their pre-wedding venture: four girls in various states of undress and distress running toward them, visibly excited and relieved.

 We hitched a ride with the shuttle’s driver, Doug, a large, ruddy-skinned man who listens to Vivaldi every morning (“Gets my thoughts in line,”) and longs for the good ol’ days (“Used to be I wouldn’t hafta call the shuttle company and charge you—we could stop by Ray’s and shoot some pool and I’d buy you a beer. Now there’s all them regulations.”)

 Several hours later than planned, we were back in Salt Lake City—unscathed, except for slight sunburns. Hearing about our trip, you might call it a disaster; after all, we’d spent much more time and money than intended. But I’d rather turn my dial to Meditative and picture cliffs and sky.


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House of Western Lit and Literature and the Environment

Kirsten and Mark TwainThe news that J.K. Rowling’s latest fiction title had sold only 500 copies in the months it was out before the word leaked that she was the author using a pseudonym left us feeling a strange mix of hope and despair. By way of contrast, her previous work of adult fiction under her own name sold 1.3 million copies.  We felt hope because, hey, little Torrey House Press was doing as well or better promoting unknown authors as a Big Six (now Big Five) imprint.  We felt despair because the market is impossibly fickle and it is truly very tough to sell books.

We decided to go with hope.  It may not be intuitive or rational but we are doing an internal reorganization and instead of retreating, are increasing our focus on high quality literature.  Recently we had been discussing switching our fiction/nonfiction mix to 75% nonfiction or more and cutting our fiction title acquisitions down to as few as one a year in an effort to increase sales.  We have noted that other successful, independent, environmental publishing firms do not do any fiction.  The reason is becoming obvious.  Yet we found that we were simply unhappy with the idea of little or no fiction and, as we thought about it, felt our mission would suffer without it.   Until now, I have been in charge of acquisitions while Kirsten and Anne have done the editing and publicity work.   With the reorganization, Kirsten will be doing the acquisitions and editing of all things literary and I will be focusing on nonfiction including environmental issues and topical, environmental nonfiction, topics such as our 2015 title with author Dave DeWitt on micro farming.   Our aim is for a roughly 50/50 split of fiction and nonfiction.

Kirsten has a background in Western Lit and in Literature and the Environment.  Torrey House Press likes to think of itself as a publisher with a cause.  We feel that literature has the key role in defining our perception of the natural world and our place in it.  Kirsten sees philosophy and literature as a conversation and she wants to be an active and significant part of it.  I see her, in a favorite Western term, as a pioneer, a pioneer with an idea that Western Lit and Environmental Lit are the cutting edge by which, as Max Oelschlaeger says in The Idea of Wilderness, “. . . nature’s experiment in humanity is transforming itself.”   “Where is the literature,” Thoreau asked, “which gives expression to Nature?”  Kirsten wants to answer Henry and to build our brand as the publisher he would use and that would do him proud.

We know that sometimes we will come out with titles that we will find difficult to sell 500 copies.  We are proud of what we are producing but the market is tough.  While 500 copies isn’t enough to cover expenses, it isn’t nothing.  It could be enough to make a difference and move the conversation forward.  Probably after I am dead, I remind Kirsten.  But she is more optimistic than that and will be looking for ways to find new authors, meet the existing and established writers in the field, and publish some new, smart, high quality, literary work.   A growing, high quality catalog is bound to lead somewhere interesting.  Furthering the conversation will be fun. Starting this month Kirsten will be reviewing the fiction and literary nonfiction submissions I have put on the short list and I will be setting out in further search of topical, environmental nonfiction ideas.  Anne, of course, will be busy helping us keep it all together and make it work.

Send us luck.  Buy a book.    –Mark Bailey

Posted in Environmental, topical nonfiction, Literature and Philosophy, Literature and the Environment, Publishing, Western Lit | Tagged , , | 3 Comments