Interview: Danielle Dutton and Dorothy: A Publishing Project

image credit: Sarah Shatz
image credit: Sarah Shatz

Danielle Dutton, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Washington University in Saint Louis, has been kind enough to speak to LSQ about Dorothy: A Publishing Project. This independent press publishes two books by women simultaneously each year. Dutton shares her thoughts on Dorothy’s aesthetic, independent presses, and speculative fiction.

CW: How has Dorothy changed or evolved since its initial conception in 2009?

DD: I wouldn’t say it has changed so much as grown—evolved, yes. When we started Dorothy (my husband and I, that is), we had no idea what was going to happen, whether anyone would buy our books, whether anyone would send us their manuscripts, or how long we’d be able to keep it going, etc. Seven years later, the press’s performance and reception has exceeded our earliest imaginings. I’m wildly proud of the books and writers we’ve published, and I’ve been amazed (but not surprised) by how well they’ve done in the world: finding avid readers, garnering strong reviews, even winning awards. On a very practical level, one difference between Dorothy in 2009 and Dorothy in 2016 is that now we are overwhelmed by submissions of great variety and quality, whereas back then we were just sort of poking around on our own for what we might do next.

CW: Before Dorothy you worked with Dalkey Archive Press. How is Dorothy the same or different than your experience with other small presses?

DD: Dalkey is the only other press I’ve ever worked at, so my knowledge is limited, but as a writer I’ve had my own books published by three other fine independent publishers: Tarpaulin Sky Press, Siglio Press, and, most recently, Catapult. To speak generally, I’d say that every press is quite different from every other press—each has its own personality, its own style aesthetically and in terms of how it interacts with the writer and the world. There’s an absolute commonality, though, in that every indie press I’ve worked with is run by people who genuinely and passionately (almost pathologically!) care about books and literature and literary culture. At Dorothy we feel lucky to exist in a moment when independent publishing in the U.S. is as dynamic as it is—and not only that, but independent presses seem to be getting more recognition for the work they do. In fact, Dorothy was just featured in an article in The Atlantic called “Why American Publishing Needs Presses Like Graywolf, Coffee House Press, and Dorothy.”

CW: What were your goals in establishing Dorothy? Have any of these goals been met? If so, how do you adjust your goals but stay true to the mission to publish “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women”?

DD: Yes, our mission was, and is, to publish innovative fiction by women, not to ghettoize women writers, but to insist on the importance of women writers of innovative work, to put a spotlight on them and their work. I guess I was thinking something like: if you put all these books into one shared space—the space that Dorothy occupies in the culture—it will be impossible not to see it, not to see that these women are writing serious, strange, dynamic, brilliant, hilarious, provocative, important books that are totally unlike one another (i.e., there is no such thing as “women’s writing,” a term I dislike) except that they are all serious, strange, dynamic, brilliant, hilarious, provocative, important, etc. This goal, in my opinion, was met in the first year, when we published Renee Gladman’s Event Factory and Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changes and Who Was Dead, and it continues to be met every year, as we add new books to our list: this year, Jen George’s darkly comic debut collection The Babysitter at Rest and Nathalie Léger’s meditation-as-novel Suite for Barbara Loden.

CW: What has been the highlight of your work on this press?

DD: Unquestionably it’s been the relationships I’ve formed with my authors.

CW: What are the challenges and how have you overcome them?dorothy_stamp

DD: The main challenge is time. This is an all-volunteer organization run by me and my husband, with help, in the last three years, from some wonderful interns from Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach. Time, time . . . we will never overcome it! I suppose the closest I do come to accepting the challenge is when I’m able to see that my work on the press isn’t separate from any other part of my life, so working on the press is part of my teaching, is part of my experience of being a writer, is part of my family life, etc.

CW: From Dorothy’s website, you describe the aesthetic as pairing “books that draw upon different aesthetic traditions, because a large part of our interest in literature lies in its possibilities, its endless stylistic and formal variety.” Where does speculative fiction fall into this aesthetic and understanding of literature?

DD: Several of the books we’ve published could be considered speculative—Manuela Draeger’s In the Time of the Blue Ball, for example, which China Miéville described as “as close to dreams as fiction could be,” or Renee Gladman’s Ravickian series, set in the invented city-state of Ravicka, where the air is yellow and the buildings move. What I’m interested in, or what I’m looking for, when I’m reviewing a submission, isn’t really what the book is about, or its genre, but how it’s written, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, the freshness of its prose and ideas. Every year I aim to publish the best writing I can find, be it the hilarious, skewed realism of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper or the uncanny and surreal spectacle that is Joanna Ruocco’s Dan.

CW: In a previous interview for The Paris Review, you talked about wanting to generate cross-readership, where fiction readers read poetry and poetry readers read fiction. There’s a similar divide between those who read literary fiction and those who read genre, or speculative, fiction. What are your thoughts on this divide?

DD: As with any divide in readership or attention, I think it’s unfortunate. It’s a diminishment, for the reader. In my teaching, I try to combine excellent writing from an aesthetically diverse group of writers, since I can’t ever know what sort of writing is going to excite my students: modernist experimentation? literary realism? postmodern experimentation? a ghost story? Octavia Butler? George Saunders? Italo Calvino? Herman Melville? Clarice Lispector?

CW: Any thoughts on bridging this gap?

DD: Well, I suppose I sort of outlined it in my answer above. That is: to publish and/or teach and/or read and/or talk about all sorts of writers and books, together.

CW: Do you have any advice for female authors hoping to go into publishing?

DD: In all things, I think we should endeavor to know why we want to do what we think we want to do. I wanted to start a press for all the reasons I’ve said, but also because I wanted to work with writers whose writing I loved. Knowing that ahead of time, I managed to create a job (an experience) that made it possible for me to do the kind of work I was craving.  

CW: What additional thoughts would you like to share?

DD: Thank you for the work you do at Luna Station Quarterly.

Thank you, Danielle Dutton!

All books Dorothy has published (and will publish this year!) are available on their website.