Anne K. Yoder In addition to your writing and your work for Dalkey Archive, you recently founded Dorothy, a publishing project, a press with a mission “to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.” What was your impetus for starting the press? And how do you balance your many roles?
Danielle Dutton It sounds simplistic, but: I love books. Reading them, thinking about them, but also making them, handling them, shelving them, forgetting them and then finding them again, just being with them. So editing, writing, designing, teaching—they’re all just parts of one whole. Life is full, I’ll say that, and my one-year-old doesn’t care if I have a deadline, which forces a kind of balance.
As far as the impetus behind Dorothy, a publishing project: for a while there was a vague desire to start something, an unfocused exuberance, coming out of admiration for certain presses operating now and a few from the past. Working at Dalkey showed me what I could realistically take on. I learned how the publishing industry works, more or less, as opposed to thinking I knew how it worked, and I learned, in a practical sense, how to make a nice book. But just making a nice book isn’t enough. There are a lot of presses and a lot of books in the world. What could I add to a conversation that’s already a cacophony? So my exuberance had to wait for an occasion, a moment when my desire to publish encountered an actual cultural lack. Ultimately the catalyst was Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. I was a fan of her work—more than that, I think she’s an important writer—and I heard she had a manuscript. So the ideas I’d been kicking around started falling into place: to publish fiction. To publish fiction that might, at first glance, seem strange or difficult, that might even seem to be something other than fiction, and also to publish fiction that might be more obviously conventional, to bring different kinds of books and audiences into conversation. Also to make books that feel and look good in your hands. And I wanted to publish mostly women.
AY When we met at your New York reading, you told me that you are inherently drawn to work by experimental women writers. How does this play into your vision for the press? And for those of us who would like to know, would you give a mini-syllabus of women writers who deserve more attention?
DD Yes and I’m drawn to so many writers, most of whom deserve more attention because most good writers do. For example, Georges Perec, Renee Gladman, Kathy Acker, Diane Williams, Clarice Lispector, Robert Glück. I do find that I return habitually to a few, particularly Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Jane Austen. And I tend to teach a lot of experimental women writers in my classes, from Woolf and Stein to Pamela Lu and Selah Saterstrom and Bernadette Mayer. A few books I haven’t taught but plan to: Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal, Dodie Bellamy’s Academonia, Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City, Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence, Amina Cain’s I Go to Some Hollow, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Mirror in the Well, Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Jaimy Gordon’s Bogeywoman. There are many factors that inform my interests, some of them political and some aesthetic or theoretical, but finally the interest in publishing women just is, it’s personal, as is the project. In fact, the press is named for my great-aunt Dorothy, who was a librarian in southern California starting in the 1940s and who was, as I remember her, a quiet, somewhat grave, and (to me) rather mysterious single lady with a rose garden and modern art on her walls who gave me a book every year on my birthday.
AY How did you scavenge for, find, and select Dorothy’s first two books, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns and The Event Factory by Renee Gladman?
DD I heard a rumor about Renee’s manuscript. I heard it was the first in a trilogy, which intrigued me. I loved Renee’s work, and I’d met her the year before when I gave a reading at Brown, and so I emailed her with a proposition. Basically: let me publish your book and I’ll start a press. The Comyns is a new edition of an English novel first published in 1954. Jeremy Davies, who works at Dalkey, loaned me his old copy and said how much he liked it. I did too, and then I read something online where Brian Evenson talked about it being one of his favorites. And it was out of print in the U.S. So, once I had Renee’s manuscript lined up, I contacted the British agency who handles the Comyns estate and made an offer, which they accepted, and then asked Brian to write the introduction. He’s an incredibly generous person whose enthusiasm for literature is something I admire, and for that reason alone I’m glad to have him involved with this project at the start.
AY Renee Gladman’s Event Factory is a very different book, both in that Gladman is very much a living and producing author, and in its style. I actually see more of a correspondence between Event Factory and your recent novel, S P R A W L. Both books are, at their core, concerned with cities and inhabited spaces, the people who occupy these spaces as well as the cultural customs, habits, and expectations that shape their worlds. Event Factory is the tale of a “linguist-traveler” stranded in a foreign city, in search of the ever-elusive buildings and population in the city center. S P R A W L explores and inhabits urban sprawl by way of the narrator’s domestic still lifes, fragments of letters, and interactions with her husband, Haywood. Would you tell me more about your interest in Gladman’s work, and her language, for which she “has been celebrated as a key figure in the most recent innovations of the sentence”? Do you think your books have similar aesthetic visions?
DD It’s hard for me to say, but I’m flattered by the comparison. I’ve admired Renee’s work for some time, both her work as a writer and her work as an editor/publisher of Leroy Chapbooks and now Leon Works. In terms of her own books, I’m fascinated by the way she investigates how we construct experience, and what language/the sentence has to do with this construction. Renee has a philosophy background, which makes sense to me, in that her writing propels me into a space of questions. It’s a space I appreciate being put into. What’s been interesting for me in dealing with her work as an editor is how precisely and surprisingly and hauntingly she manages this questioning. The more I read Event Factory the more astounded I am by it, the more it works on me, and, actually, the funnier it gets. In any case, you’re right that Event Factory and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead are two very different novels, each challenging and wonderful in its own way, which is exactly what excites me about putting them forward together. Hopefully someone who normally would not have picked up Renee’s book will fall in love with it via an initial interest in the Comyns, and vice versa.
AY Speaking of factories and new presses, I’m interested in your opinion on a another new press that’s been called a “fiction factory,” James Frey’s Full Fathom Five. Frey’s venture seems diametrically opposed to Dorothy in its raison d’etre—which is to create revenue for Frey and his authors by way of branding and creating readily consumable fiction that easily translates to film. What do you say to the lures of an indebted MFA graduate or struggling writer with bills to pay, and also, about Frey’s mercenary scheme?
DD This image of a “fiction factory” is pretty great, Kafkaesque. The poor and penniless MFA grads. Frey rubbing his hands together, raking it in. I mean, are we supposed to take this seriously? Does anyone take James Frey seriously? Does James Frey take James Frey seriously? Having said that . . . wouldn’t Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead make for a gorgeous, madcap, disturbing movie? And Renee’s Ravicka with its yellow-tinged air on film, its bulbous urban growths! Picture me rubbing my hands together maniacally. Anyway, yes, diametrically opposed projects. I specifically set out to do the very best I could for the authors I publish, to take them seriously, to get them sold and reviewed and read, but to keep the whole enterprise small, personal, and, as much as is possible with a more or less capitalist endeavor, earnest.
AY In a previous interview, you asked a question I’ve been wondering myself: “Why is it, for example, that people who are into innovative film or music so often don’t know anything about the world of innovative writing?” I would like to ask you to answer your own question. Culturally, are people more open to experimental approaches in other art forms?
DD On a very basic level, my best guess is that writing asks something different of its reader than listening asks of the listener. Same goes for looking at a painting, even one that might perplex or upset us. To read, to connect words in a difficult syntax, like Stein’s, or make sense of seemingly simple sentences within a maddening paragraph, like Beckett’s, or piece together a narrative that doesn’t seem to add up in a familiar way, like Gladman’s or Woolf’s, the reader has to pay close attention, has to work. I’m not saying that experimental writing is all slog slog slog, that it isn’t rewarding or entertaining, because obviously I think a lot of it is, but that we’ve been trained to think that language itself should work in one way, should be clear, and linear, and should instantly reveal meaning, so when writing confounds those expectations it’s perhaps easy to feel cheated by it, or to chalk it up as wrong, bad, pretentious. I’ve had students who were very open to talking about cubist paintings, for example, but who became furious over Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. We’re taught to read, after all, and perhaps more importantly we’re taught to write (the subject-verb agreement, the five-paragraph essay, the rhyming stanza), whereas no one actually teaches us a particular way to hear or look, and rarely to compose or paint, which maybe, ultimately, means we’re more open when we listen and look. Maybe?
AY The Dorothy books are toothsome volumes. When I was reading Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, my roommate asked about the book because of its attractive cover. As a book designer and former art school student (who studied writing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago), what are your thoughts on the book as an objet d’art? And in relation to this, what are your thoughts on digital books?
DD Thank you! It’s essential to me that Dorothy books be lovely to look at and hold. I held a Kindle over the summer and it was slick and shiny but left me unmoved. I suppose digital books make sense environmentally, especially in terms of fat textbooks, but I like bookstores where you can wander around and discover books and talk to other people about books, and I like book covers, and I like the physical act of reading a printed book.
AY In a BookSlut interview you described your writing process, how you create your work in the context of other ideas, writers, and things. You said, “I work best when I can bounce my ideas off things… I’m interested in having things push me in different directions and the sort of chance occurrences that might arise because someone or something has pushed or provoked me in a peculiar way.” The extent of your conversation is revealed in your list of acknowledgments at S P R A W L’s end, which includes (to name a few) Georges Perec, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Rikki Ducornet. To what extent does what your reading shape your writing? Could you talk about the ways some of these writers (and their works) helped shaped your book? Where does Dorothy come in to play with this?
DD Absolutely what I read plays a role in what I write, how I write. My first book, Attempts at a Life, was more or less a conversation with many of the books I read growing up, and in school, texts that influenced my coming to be a writer at all, from Jane Eyre to The Tale of Peter Rabbit to Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination. S P R A W L uses texts in a very different way. The influences are perhaps less direct. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a phrase or line I sampled from something I read while I was working on the book, some series of words that struck me as peculiar or musical. Certain writers on the list had more of an impact than others; with Perec, for example, the influence is pervasive, an attitude that informs what I’m doing, his playfulness and attention to the everyday. As far as Dorothy fits in to all this, I guess it comes back to wanting to be around books, and to the fact that I think of myself first as a reader.
Listen to Danielle Dutton read an excerpt from S P R A W L here.
Anne K. Yoder is a staff writer for The Millions. Her writing has appeared in BlackBook, Tin House, and More Intelligent Life, among other publications.