Midnight Breakfast

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In Conversation with

Callie Collins

by Lauren O’Neal

I first met Callie Collins in a writing group in Austin a few years ago. We only met once or twice before I moved to San Francisco for grad school, so we didn’t really get to know each other, but it was clear to me, even with very limited knowledge of Austin’s literary scene, that she was a big deal. She worked at the prestigious literary journal American Short Fiction, she wrote with force and grace, and she just had this authoritative, put-together presence, like everything in her life was completely under her control.

Not long after I’d relocated, Callie and her ASF colleague Jill Meyers left the journal and cofounded a small press, which they named A Strange Object after a quote from the Donald Barthelme story “Florence Green is 81”: “’The aim of literature,’ Baskerville replied grandly, ‘is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.’” I watched from San Francisco as their project became one of the hottest commodities in a very hot market; in a city full of flourishing bookstores, lit mags, and other creative writing ventures, A Strange Object bloomed with particular speed and beauty.

Their first book, Kelly Luce’s Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, is a luminous collection of speculative-fiction short stories about America and Japan. Their second, an equally strange and lovely collection of stories by Nicholas Grider titled Misadventure, was just released. Luce and Grider will be reading at events all over the country, including Milwaukee, Portland, and Miami.

Now that I’ve gotten to know Callie and Jill over drinks in both Austin and San Francisco, I’m even more excited about what their press is doing. (And let me tell you, it does not make missing Austin any easier.) I talked with Callie over email about how they got where they are and where they’ll go from here.

Lauren O’Neal: When did you and Jill decide to start a small press, and what inspired you to do it?

Callie Collins: Jill and I decided to start A Strange Object in late summer of 2012, when the lit mag we were working for—American Short Fiction—lost its funding and was put on hiatus. The decision was hard on us; we disagreed with the board about the best way to move forward, and we ended up resigning in August. We’d talked for years about how amazing it’d be to work on full-length fiction, to take the work we were doing on a smaller scale, editing stories and working with authors, and deepen and expand it. But we didn’t have the time or resources to devote to a books division while we were putting out a quarterly magazine. So we knew pretty quickly our next project would be a small press.

We took a couple of months to settle many things—the name, the plan, the language to best express our aesthetic—and started to ask for manuscripts. We believe strongly in getting authors early, in finding new voices and helping to launch careers. It all seemed like a really organic progression.

O’Neal: Had you and/or Jill worked in other publishing-related ventures before American Short Fiction?

Collins: Jill had worked at commercial magazines and on other lit mags, and had edited books for university presses, too. I hadn’t.

O’Neal: Are there any lessons you learned at ASF that you’ve been able to apply to A Strange Object? And conversely, what have been some surprises or experiences that you weren’t prepared for?

Collins: I think some of the work is similar, for sure. We talk a lot about a return to classic, meticulous editing—that’s something we valued at the magazine, too. We learned through ASF how to be an active part of the literary community, in Austin and nationally; that is, how to plan events, how to collaborate with other magazines and series, how to build a brand and get people to recognize and trust our taste. We took a lot of risks in the work we published at the magazine, and we’re continuing to do that at A Strange Object. Both of our first books are story collections, so it’s been nice to continue to think deeply about the way readers move through stories.

We’ve had to learn a lot too, though, of course. A lot of practical things. There’s the business part of it—ASF was run by a nonprofit and A Strange Object is for-profit. Editing, production, and publicity schedules are very different for books than they were for a quarterly magazine. We’re learning a new world of reviews and publications and book tours. The scope of our work with one particular author is obviously much broader. We continue to be surprised by something that seems really obvious: there are many, many good books in the world. The quality of the work we’ve considered has been across-the-board awesome. So we’re learning how to be selective in a new way.

The lit mag world was one with which we were super familiar, and that could feel limiting. We’re freer at A Strange Object to try different sorts of projects, to experiment, because we’re building it from the ground up. We’re more nimble.

O’Neal: I’m interested in the notion of “classic, meticulous editing”—can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Collins: Sure. To say it fairly simply—we edit. Deeply. We don’t acquire a manuscript and then move it through a simple system to get it ready for publication. (I’ve heard writers refer to being on the “big house conveyor belt,” which just doesn’t sound very pleasant for anyone involved.)

We believe in—and take a lot of joy from—joining forces with our writers. That means developing a close and thoughtful relationship, coming to know them and understand their vision. Each book is its own project, and we work to respect that as much as possible. And we’re putting out so few books a year that we can afford to work with an author over a long period of time to get the book as close to perfect as possible. Sometimes that means ten rounds of edits, or cutting stories, or making significant structural changes, and sometimes it means slightly shifting one word in the penultimate sentence. We’re committed to the entire process, to always keeping the writer’s vision in mind. We think all that work and connection makes for better books and happier people, too.

O’Neal: What is the average day like for you (or something approximating an average day)? How do you and Jill divide work and responsibilities?

Collins: Our days vary a lot. It’s just the two of us handling most everything, so there are days where something like shipping takes up a good chunk of time and days where we’ll devote a lot of energy toward reading and discussing one manuscript we’re considering. We drink a lot of coffee. We share a lot of responsibilities, but we’ve each been the lead on one of the two books—Jill was the point person for Hana Sasaki, and I took the lead on Misadventure. We’ve found that to work really well.

We have this lovely spare office in an artists’ complex in east Austin. We just received the boxes of Misadventure yesterday, which was thrilling, but we need to acquire some better storage.

O’Neal: Aside from piles of manuscripts in your office, what do you think our readers would be surprised to learn about your process? What are some common misconceptions people have about small presses or publishing in general?

Collins: Damn your tough question, O’Neal!

There are obviously a lot of parts of this that are distinctly unsexy and boring—a lot of emailing and other totally expected any-job tasks. But I’d say part of the most important part of our process—to us, at least—is that we are really hands-on. We create models of the book, use Post-Its to signify certain stories, and move them around and see how we can set up different echoing or resonant structures. We put a lot of time and energy into the design and production quality at every stage of the process. (I think the finished books attest to that.)

I’ll say that being in Austin feels really important to our process and the way we experiment and endeavor. This work doesn’t feel isolating, even when we’re far away from the publishing epicenters of New York and San Francisco. If anything, it feels more expansive and collaborative here.

I’m not really answering your question, am I? I’m trying to get at it. What misconceptions do people have about small presses? That there’s a particular sort of book that can’t get attention at a larger house, a “small press book,” that’s not as well-produced or is necessarily kind of niche? I think that’s a misconception. Hana Sasaki has very broad appeal, I think. And Misadventure is dark and experimental but will resonate with a wide range of readers, too.

Small presses have been (relatively, sometimes not so) quietly publishing the best and riskiest work in the past decade or two, at least. And it’s becoming clearer as the big houses consolidate (and pay millions of dollars for celebrity memoirs and on and on) that the paradigm is shifting. I really do think small presses are the future of exciting contemporary fiction. We don’t have very modest aims.

O’Neal: I love the image of y’all shifting Post-It notes around. I feel like that’s just any author’s dream, to have their publisher pay that much hands-on attention to their book.

Collins: Thanks for saying that. We think you’re right—that authors really crave that particular sort of attention. And that small presses are in a much better position to give it to them.

O’Neal: I’m also very smitten with your immodest aims. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How do you see the role of the small press as part of the larger publishing landscape changing in the coming years?

Collins: I did an interview recently where the interviewer kept asking me about whether or not books are dead—because books are dead, I mean, they’re really dead, because e-books and shorter attention spans are killing everything and no one reads anymore! And none of that is true. I think it’s clear to everyone reading literary content on the internet that, while books may be changing form or getting to people differently, the community of readers who want fresh, kick-you-over content is just becoming more fervent.

I obviously understand where he was coming from. The major houses are, in a way, making that narrative solvent. But small presses aren’t stuck in the same loops major houses are. They’re more likely to find innovative ways to access that smart, committed, super-engaged online community than are publishers who have a hundred-year history of doing things the old way.

I also think it’s much easier for small presses to establish an aesthetic. Major houses have to publish so much that it’s mostly impossible to pick up a book now and know it’s a Random House book (or, well, a Random Penguin book) or out from Simon and Schuster. But there are so many small presses whose tastes I instinctively recognize and trust. That’s so appealing to me as a reader, especially when there are more and more demands on my attention.

All of this is to say: small presses have the potential to start luring away much bigger authors from major houses. They will without a doubt be publishing the riskiest, newest stuff in the coming years. They offer more to readers and more to writers, too.

And as for our own immodest aims—well, we’re from Texas after all. We’re looking to the big, thriving indies (McSweeney’s, Graywolf, Melville House) for models. We’re looking for books that transcend boundaries of genre or content or voice, books that surprise and endure. We’ve got a bunch of other projects (besides books, that is) cooking down here in Austin. We’re shooting to grow to eight titles a year in the next couple of years. (We’ve even got a little manifesto.) We want to be a part of the conversation right now.

O’Neal: As you shoot for those eight titles, how do you try to locate surprising, enduring, transcendent books? What is your process for acquiring manuscripts, and how do you know when you’ve found something special?

Collins: We were really lucky when we started the press to have worked at the magazine for so long. We had relationships with a truly awesome group of writers whose work we’d published in ASF. We reached out to those people for book-length work almost immediately. That’s how we found Hana Sasaki—we’d published a very short story of Kelly’s a couple years ago, and her collection was in the first round of manuscripts we looked at. (Our third book, out this fall, also came from one of our ASF favorites.)

We also reached out to agents we’d worked with before and to a couple of folks we didn’t know as well at New York agencies. That’s how Nicholas’s collection came to us.

In certain ways, the first two books couldn’t be more different. We wanted to try to get at two different sides of our aesthetic with Kelly’s and Nicholas’s stories, and I think that’ll be pretty clear to readers. But they’re both deeply invested in language, in a heartbreaking (and heart-challenging) sort of storytelling. I felt similarly thrilled when I encountered both manuscripts. So much of it is intuitive, I think. There have been several manuscripts that’ve come close for us, but the books we’ve picked are our books.

O’Neal: You’ve mentioned Austin a couple times now, and A Strange Object is one of many Austin literary ventures that have been blossoming recently. As an insider, how would you describe Austin’s literary scene? When did it start to really expand, who are some of the key players, and how do you see A Strange Object’s role as part of this ecosystem?

Collins: Austin is a strange place. It’s a city that’s really wrapped up in its own myth—that it’s a cheap, forgiving haven for strange, creative people—but it’s also exploding. It’s the fastest growing city in the country, and it’s growing at a rate three times the national average. Traffic is truly awful.

But—the lit scene. There are certain institutions and authors who have made their homes in Austin for a long time. There’s tradition for sure, and Austin’s always been a city that prizes the local. But it’s definitely boom time right now. There are so many new magazines and zines and reading series. The MFAs at UT and Texas State are becoming more prominent, and the Michener Center’s only getting better and bringing more impressive people to Texas. I’ve seen a lot of this happen since I started working at ASF, so in the last five years or so, but it’s been building for a long time. It has become such an inclusive, supportive, stout community. We’re excited that folks outside of Austin are starting to recognize it.

Key players and organizations? Danithan Mejia runs Foxing Quarterly, a magazine that’s doing really good work with comics and design. ASF has relaunched—they’re working on the second issue of the new iteration right now. Unstuck; The Austin Review, which is brand-spanking new; Write Bloody. We’ve got two new indie bookstores that have opened in the past year or so. There’s Steph Opitz, who just moved down here this past summer to run the Texas Book Festival and is killing it. Manuel Gonzales, who also runs Austin Bat Cave, a creative writing tutoring center. Jennifer DuBois just got here recently. Owen Egerton, Doug Dorst (have you seen S.?), Mary Miller, Kelly Luce.

I could obviously go on and on. We’re just pumped to be here.

O’Neal: Do you think the Austin lit scene’s rapid growth is a bubble that will burst, or does it have staying power? Obviously New York is going to be the whale in the pond for the foreseeable future, but do you think Austin will become a reliable, permanent alternative?

Collins: You know, I don’t think it’s a bubble that’ll burst, but I do think that we’re going through a period of particularly high development that’s probably not going to last forever. But I think that once it cools off a bit, we’ll be left with several stellar magazines and presses and nonprofits and collectives that’ll provide a sturdy base of quality and excitement for the foreseeable future. I do think Austin will become a reliable, permanent alternative to New York and San Francisco. For all of its problems, I think this town is still a very welcoming place. I’m confident this scene is just going to get better. Better and louder.

Lauren O’Neal is a freelance writer and editor working toward an MFA in creative writing in San Francisco. She has written for publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Rumpus, where she was formerly an assistant editor.

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