In this 5 On interview, author, editor, and publisher Rosalie Morales Kearns discusses why she started a feminist press (and what it takes to run it), favorite writing exercises, the deeply held interests that fuel her own writing, and more.
Rosalie Morales Kearns (@ShadeMountainPr), a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the founder of Shade Mountain Press, author of the magic-realist story collection Virgins & Tricksters, and editor of the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois and has stories, poems, essays, and book reviews published in Witness, Drunken Boat, Fiction Writers Review, the Nervous Breakdown, and other journals.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: What technique, style element, or device, if there is one you can choose, did you observe as a creative writing instructor that novice writers (or even non-novice, possibly) usually benefited the most from learning or being introduced to?
ROSALIE MORALES KEARNS: The writing exercise called “The Exquisite Corpse” was a big favorite. The variant I used goes like this: students in one half of the room each write down three noun phrases (“a thief around the next corner”; “the sobbing clown”). Those sitting on the other side of the room each write down three verb phrases (“did the calculus homework”; “knows the secrets of the universe”; “ran wind sprints in the basement”). Then we read our phrases aloud: one noun phrase, one verb phrase together. You can choose any of the resulting sentences, your own or someone else’s, to use as the basis for a short story. The sentences have their own weird logic (“The sobbing clown knows the secrets of the universe”), and it seems to make people feel free to write imaginatively, leaving behind cause-and-effect reasoning and ignoring their inner editor.
A great reading assignment is an essay by Francine Prose entitled “Learning from Chekhov,” in her book Reading Like a Writer. The basic point is that there are all these “rules” that seem to be floating around the writing workshop, and we tend to hit people over the head with them, but all of them can be broken and have been broken to brilliant effect by Chekhov. My students found it extremely freeing to learn that.
What is your strongest childhood memory of your parents’ efforts to raise you as a Catholic, and in what ways (if at all) did that overall facet of your childhood help inform your novel seeking publication, Kingdom of Women?
We should add the word “unsuccessful” to the description of my parents’ very well-meaning efforts at a Catholic upbringing for their children. They just had the wrong children—me in particular. But here I am with a novel whose protagonist is a female Roman Catholic priest (this is, obviously, a slightly alternate near-future scenario). I think the important thing is that I was steeped in Catholicism—Catholic school (kindergarten through high school), compulsory Sunday mass, priests invited to dinners and family events, and so forth. Also I’ve always been interested in religion, the bewildering variety of beliefs, the bloodshed it inspires, the way organized religion can and has played such a huge role in supporting the privileged and oppressing the have-nots. And then as a feminist I always found it enraging that the Catholic Church won’t allow women into the priesthood. But you have to wonder, why should I have cared? It’s like I was resenting my exclusion from a club I had no wish to join.
That said, I really enjoyed inhabiting the mindset of a character for whom Catholicism is the very air she breathes, even as she’s aware of the institution’s flaws, the misogyny, the inflexibility of the hierarchy. I remember reading in a biography of Galileo that he angrily resisted pressure by his inquisitors to describe himself as a bad Catholic. He was a devout Catholic, he asserted; it was the leaders of the Church who were evil.
What have you noticed as a copy editor are issues many writers seem to have (realistic / character-specific dialogue? Confusing sentences? Tense shifts?), and how would you characterize the level or type of attention writers devote to the technical aspects of writing now as compared to when you started twenty years ago?
My experience as a copy editor has mostly been with scholarly book-length manuscripts, as opposed to creative writing. Writers with PhDs can be shockingly careless with their noun-verb agreement and also with dangling modifiers. I come across dangling modifiers everywhere: in the New York Times, in PBS documentaries. But I don’t know whether it’s worse now than twenty years ago. It seems to be a constant.
Now as a publisher who reads a lot of fiction submissions, I can say that a big problem I see in the work I reject is when an author frontloads too much backstory; for example, a character wakes up, and then thinks to herself all kinds of information about what’s been happening in her life for the last week, or months, or even years, and all through this she’s merely staring at the ceiling or perhaps sitting up and getting dressed.
Who are your favorite contemporary authors, and what is it about their writing that grips you?
I would say Toni Morrison is my all-time favorite, and I love to re-read her novels. She raises questions without answering them in any pat or easy fashion—large questions about patriarchy, racism, justice, love, mercy, retribution, the burden of history. A couple of first novels in the last few years have really blown me away. One is Rene Denfeld’s book The Enchanted. You would never guess that a novel about prisoners on death row would be so poetic and timeless, almost fable-like. Another recent debut I loved is The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, about an African-American family in Detroit, which basically has everything I love in a novel: there are a lot of characters, who are interestingly flawed and relatable; it spans decades; it has a touch of weirdness and unresolved mystery. I’ve recently discovered the Russian author Lyudmila Ulitskaya and the British author Kate Atkinson and now want to read everything they’ve written.
I’d like to bring one other Nobel laureate into this conversation, although he’s dead so he doesn’t qualify as contemporary. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a huge influence on me. As I recently re-read Cancer Ward I was reminded of why: here was a person who was almost crushed by huge forces beyond his control, and in his fictional world he makes a great effort to truly understand the mindset of those who participated in those larger social forces that brought him such misery. He has that large-heartedness in common with Toni Morrison.
In a world where every short-story writer is allowed to save only one of their own from eternal destruction, which of yours do you save (and why)?
What kind of deranged world is that?! I would say “Devil Take the Hindmost,” in my collection Virgins & Tricksters and online in its original form at Terrain.org. It takes place in one of my favorite places on earth: a section of virgin forest in the Bald Eagle State Forest in Snyder County, Pennsylvania. At least four generations of my family have loved that place; we picnic there, we hike there. The story’s plot might seem grim, having to do with exclusion and fear and death, but then it becomes a tale of joy and solidarity and transformation.
5 on Publishing
You said in an interview at Entropy that as a writer seeking publication you would often come across small presses started by a single person, and one day, you thought, “Wait a minute, maybe I could do that too.” Why did you want to?
By this I mean that I understand you wanted to give underrepresented women a place to share their writing, but was there something in particular—some story in the media, something you saw or heard about—that solidified the desire and created that resolve to move forward with Shade Mountain Press?
Lots of things were coming together in the years just before I started the press. First of all, VIDA was starting to release its famous counts showing that women were published significantly less, and their books were reviewed significantly less, which I had noticed and been appalled by for decades, but it didn’t seem to be something that anyone was talking about. And since then, other authors and organizations have done work to analyze which novels get published, who gets literary awards, who finds employment in the publishing industry, etc.
It’s difficult for an individual writer to know for sure whether she’s being marginalized. Most editors don’t come right out and say, “Sorry, but your work just isn’t as important as the work of these men we’ve accepted,” or, “We already have one woman in this issue,” or, “We only like work featuring Latinas when they’re acting in stereotypical ways—utterly abject, or oversexualized, or criminal, or abusing drugs.” So you don’t know for sure. But when you see statistics about the review coverage or awards or simple publication rates of women versus men or of writers of color versus white writers, the larger picture of marginalization becomes clear.
Another factor in my decision to start my press was that I had finished the revisions of my novel and was ready to send it out, and it seemed like a good time to start a new project. Also, I’ve always loved themed anthologies, and I knew that being a publisher would give me the chance to do one—which ended up being one of last year’s titles: The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women.
One of the nice surprises in my work with Shade Mountain Press has been the willingness of total strangers to help out. Established writers have put in the time and effort it takes to read an entire book manuscript and give a blurb, because they like and support our mission. Rene Denfeld is an example. And last year I contacted the artist Elsa Muñoz to ask how much she would charge to let us use a detail from her brilliant painting Copper Vessel for the cover of our short story anthology. She wrote back giving us permission to use it for free, explaining that other people had helped her in the past, and she wanted to be able to do the same. Again, I was a total stranger to Elsa, but she responded with such graciousness and generosity.
Shade Mountain Press operates with the help of donations—the majority, you said in Foreword Reviews interview, coming from people who know you or the authors and support the company’s mission. You’re publishing only one book this year, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai (an author who was previously interviewed for 5 On), so you can “retool and prepare for 2017’s titles, and also work to get nonprofit status for the press and then pursue grants.” What does it cost to professionally publish a single title, and how close are you to achieving your goal of earning enough each year to cover the cost of publishing the next year’s title(s)?
In the Entropy interview I hazarded an estimate of $10,000 per title, but that depends to a certain extent on choices about print run, length of the book, how much to invest in advance review copies, ads, award submissions, etc. I’ve been able to save money by handling a huge amount of the editorial and publicity work myself, and I’ve been extremely lucky to have a really talented graphic designer who volunteers her services for our covers and layout. The titles aren’t yet self-sustaining, but I don’t think that’s too unusual for brand-new, very small presses.
The downside is, I wasn’t fully prepared for how much of my time it would take, much of it invisible to authors. I had to learn about taxes, HTML coding, metadata, distribution, ebook conversion; then there was all the time and research involved in getting media coverage for books, as well as the more obvious work on design (both interior and cover) and editing. My background was in editing, and I did have a certain amount of preparation in typesetting principles, so that aspect of the work was less daunting, but still hugely time-consuming. I’ve needed to scale down the number of titles I work on—at least until I get more funding.
Since starting Shade Mountain Press in 2013, what changes, if any, are you seeing in overall (industry, reader, reviewer) reception to the kind of work you’re publishing, which you say on the Shade Mountain Press website is “precisely the kind of work that the mainstream publishing establishment tends to reject”?
Not as recently as 2013, but in general the expansion of social media has been a great benefit to small presses and writers from marginalized groups. We can seek out like-minded journalists, book bloggers, organizations, and journals that espouse progressive, inclusive values and are more likely to take small-press titles seriously, and have found an audience online without the usual “connections” and financial backing it takes to start a conventional journal.
How many submissions do you receive in a year, on average, and how do you decide what to publish?
The numbers vary a lot because I have specific submission calls rather than being always open for submissions. Right now, our call is for novel manuscripts by African-American women. The description is on our Contact page, along with details about what I’m looking for.
The decision on what to publish is so subjective. Which was something I heard constantly, over the years, from journal editors, from literary agents, from small presses, but it really is true. I’ve seen plenty of stories and novels that are perfectly well-written but just don’t grab me—and this applies to work that’s published elsewhere and work submitted to my press. The works that I’ve published are stories that made me want to keep going, to find out what happens, to figure out the characters. In general I love novels with complex female characters, novels that raise important questions but don’t settle for pat answers.
Humor is always wonderful. One of the things I appreciate about our most recent title, Yi Shun Lai’s novel Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, is that it made me laugh even after I’d read it multiple times in different rounds of editing/proofreading/checking printer’s proofs/checking the ebook conversion. I remember a phone conversation with the author where I would read out the phrase or sentence that I had a question about, and chortle all over again just from the fun of saying them out loud. For example, the narrator compares her boss (and ex-boyfriend) to a silverback gorilla who “gets up on his hind legs and bangs on his chest right before he rips the jugular out of a younger, presumably errant gorilla.” The “presumably errant” part just kills me.
In the Foreword Reviews interview mentioned above, you named Louisiana by Erna Brodber as one of the most overlooked titles by women. This is how you described Louisiana:
To truly appreciate this novel, it helps to have recently read Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic works on the Caribbean (Tell My Horse, Mules and Men) and to have at least a passing familiarity with Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices. Even at that, the narrative is difficult to understand and has to be read carefully. But it is one of the most brilliant novels I’ve ever read. A true masterpiece.
There’s believing a work should be in the world, and then there’s pragmatic business. If you in your current role as an independent publisher were to receive Louisiana as an unpublished manuscript today, would you publish it?
My gut reaction is: I would publish it and would thank the fates that brought it my way.
I don’t want to sound glib. Obviously a publisher needs to think about sales, even Shade Mountain’s modest goal of making enough from a title to help fund the next title. But consider the case of Louisiana: it was published by the University Press of Mississippi, which may well have had a funding source in its university, but even if not, those editors back in 1994 had to make a similar decision. Obviously they kept the book in print and it is certainly taken seriously (I discovered it because it was on the syllabus of a graduate school English class on literature of the Americas ten years after its publication).
And the thing is, you don’t know for sure how well or badly a book will sell, even a book by a celebrity. With a masterpiece that is, admittedly, not “accessible,” all I could do is start with a very modest press run; work hard to find reviewers who seem like the right readers for the book; submit it for the relevant awards; over time, work to bring it to the attention of academics who might assign it in a literature course; and hope for the best.
Thank you, Rosalie.