Interview: Danielle Dutton of Dorothy, a publishing project

Interview by Tobias Carroll

Dorothy, a publishing project, released its first two books to much acclaim in the last months of 2010. One of them was a new edition of Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (which we reviewed last week); the other was Event Factory, Renee Gladman’s surreal novel of travel and language. (John Madera’s review of the latter, for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, provides a good overview.) Both works are haunting and deeply unique, and I was curious to learn more about the press that had released them. Via email, I discussed Dorothy with its editor Danielle Dutton: what prompted the project, how it had gone so far, and what comes next.

What provided the impetus for creating Dorothy, a publishing project?
I’ d been kicking around the idea of starting a press for several years, and I’ d been working at Dalkey Archive Press for a couple of those . . . I have a huge amount of respect for Dalkey and its amazing list of books, but I admit I found myself thinking, on an off, “ If I had a press I’ d do X rather than Y.” So there was this sort of entrepreneurial impulse, and this group of ideas constellating for me. Meanwhile, I heard that Renee Gladman—whom I’ d long admired—had a book finished and unpublished, the first in a trilogy. Basically, I contacted her and said I’d start a press if she let me publish this book. So Renee’ s book was the
catalyst. If she’d said, you know, “ What? Who? No,” I wouldn’t have started anything in that moment, and so whatever I finally started wouldn’t have been this; it would have been something else born out of some other need.

How did you first encounter Renee Gladman’s work?
It might have been in a class . . . I think the first thing of hers I ever read was Juice (which has become a book I often teach myself now). Then The Activist, for which I wrote a review. I know for sure that I first encountered her simply as a reader with a text, knowing almost nothing about the person who wrote it.

Given that her trilogy provided the impetus for the press, do you see the themes of said trilogy as emblematic of the work you’ll be releasing on a greater level?
That’ s an interesting question. Since the trilogy is not yet complete, I’ m hesitant to be too definite about this. I might say that the work is so far concerned with (among other things) communication itself, and narrative, and language. So, in this sense, yes, I suppose the work is emblematic of something I’ m aspiring to with the press . . . or emblematic of the kind of work I want to publish, which, without being too narrow about it, will be, ideally, fiction full of gorgeous, thoughtful, complicated, self-conscious, fresh, provocative language. Books that both wrangle with and revel in narrative.

To what extent did you look to existing models of running an independent press when laying the groundwork for it? Were there any ways in which, from the outset, you knew you wanted to break from what had come before?
Models: Dalkey, of course. Also, Hogarth. Also, Flood Editions. Also, Virago. I don’ t know that Dorothy, a publishing project is a break so much as an amalgam of different elements from different presses. I knew I wanted something small and sort of homespun, or earnest, which is how (part of) Virginia and Leonard
Woolf’ s Hogarth Press always struck me. I didn’ t want it to be slick or hip. Not that I even could be hip or slick, but I consciously wanted to avoid giving anyone the misimpression that I or the press might be hip and slick. I also wanted Dorothy to be professional, to be rigorous, to take itself seriously and to take its books seriously. I have this impression that there are a number of very small presses doing an amazing job with poetry but fewer dedicated to fiction and to doing a really good job with that work. So I felt there was some need. Too, I decided to focus mainly on women’ s fiction. Again, I felt there was a need, and also my own desire. Ultimately, my hope is to create what I’ m calling “ a project,” a conversation about fiction born out of the books themselves, the ways all these very different (and I hope they’ ll all be very different) books communicate.

In terms of beginning a conversation among the books you have released, do you see this as more of a metaphorical goal, or something that the press will take an active part in?
I admire presses that push to create literal conversations around their titles. Les Figures Press in LA, for example: they host events—salons, readings, panels—and they also include an introduction to each book they publish, something that perhaps begins or extends a conversation around the book itself. That’ s lovely, an interesting decision. Right now, for Dorothy, I’ m more interested in the conversation that takes place inside a reader . . . I suppose I think about the books a bit like paintings on the walls of a gallery, speaking to each other in different ways for different people who wander in. Of course the only way this works is if someone encounters more than one of Dorothy’ s titles, and to this end my plan is to always publish two books in the Fall, always two very different books, and to offer a nice discount when those two are purchased together . . . the idea being to get, for example, Renee Gladman’ s Event Factory into the hands of someone who was initially only interested in Barbara Comyns’ s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and vise versa. The idea of that exchange is kind of thrilling to me. Ultimately, too, I would like to publish a book of literary criticism, and/or some provocative essays on fiction, and/or interviews with interesting writers, all of which would be a way to more specifically continue or initiate the kind of conversations I’ m interested in having.

I hadn’t heard of Barbara Comyns until The Rumpus reprinted Brian Evenson’s introduction to Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which prompted me to pick up both the book in question and the NYRB edition of The Vet’s Daughter. When did you first encounter her work, and what drew you to it?
In fact one of my colleagues at Dalkey, Jeremy Davies, loaned me his old Virago copy of the book. I loved it. I couldn’ t believe it was out of print in the U.S. It’ s such a bizarre and beautiful and funny and disgusting little book. It’ s just sort of perfect.

Going forward, do you envision Dorothy, a publishing project to have a balance of new works and reissued editions of older works? And if so — how do you find the right balance of contemporary work and reissues?
Yes, I’ d happily do more reprints, but I don’ t have any in the works. Overall I plan to focus on contemporary books. This fall we’ ll be doing the second in Gladman’ s trilogy—The Ravickians—and a translation (by Brian Evenson, in fact) of stories by Manuela Draeger about the detective Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn (and jellyfish that float in the air, a fly that plays the slouch-horn, meteor-destroyed train stations, a wooly crab that sells candy. . . ).

Is Manuela Draeger’s In the Time of the Blue Ball the author’s first work to appear in English? How did you first encounter the book?
Yes, it’ ll be the English-language debut of Draeger’ s Bobby Potemkine stories, which came my way via Brian Evenson, who shared one of the stories with my husband and me a while back. He thought we’ d get a kick out of it and we did. The three stories we’ re publishing appear as individual books in France, where they’ re marketed as young adult novels (actually), although I’ m treating them as stories for all ages. There’ s an astonishing here-goes-nothing quality to Draeger’ s imagination that reminds me maybe a little of Margaret Wise Brown (Color Kittens, anyone? Rose tree turns white on the count of three!) but with also a sneakily sophisticated (French?) sensibility. They’ re just completely great.

Are there any particular issues that arose with releasing a work in translation?
No issues, so far, if “ issues” means frustrations. There are different contracts, of course, and editing a translation is not quite the same as editing a book written in English.

Was it difficult to secure distribution before any books had been released?
I was lucky. Renee’ s books sell very well at Small Press Distribution, so that alone likely would have ensured me distribution. Also lucky was that going into all this I knew a few people on staff there and had a basic sense of how things worked. I’ m very pleased to say that our first two books have been consistently in the top 10 of SPD’ s fiction bestsellers list since they came out, and for a while shared the #2 and #3 spots.

How far ahead do you have books scheduled?
Through Fall 2012.

(Logo by Yelena Bryksenkova.)