This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Here’s Part 1. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress
Roz Laura, tell me how Forest Avenue Press started.
Laura It began as a grassroots display of community. And as a way to keep my brain busy while nursing an infant through colic. I knew so many talented, hard-working Oregon authors knocking on doors in New York and being turned away. It made sense to create one more home for literature right here in Oregon, instead of trying to bend our aesthetics to appeal to East Coast tastemakers. Besides, there are so many long-running literary presses in Portland. I was surrounded by willing mentors, who held out their hands to me as a newcomer.
I’ve always had a strong do-it-yourself ethos, probably inspired by my dad, who founded a collector magazine and put issues out for years. That’s how I saw my press—and still do: as a way to bring people together around a common subject matter. His passion was air horns; mine is literary fiction. When we had the opportunity to go national by signing with a distributor, I took it. We do publish authors from all over the US now, but a high percentage of our catalog remains Northwest focused.
Roz Your website sums up the Forest Avenue personality – ‘a fresh, complex, sometimes nutty, and often-wondrous approach to storytelling.’ How did you develop this? How long did it take?
Laura That speaks to my personal taste as a reader, and how I want our readers to be surprised by our books; a lot of readers come up to me and say how refreshing it is to read titles that aren’t predictable. We’ve always wanted to create space for essential voices that weren’t finding homes elsewhere —authors of color, LGBTQ authors, neuroatypical authors, and other underrepresented voices—as well as amplifying other authors and presses who are doing this kind of work in the world.
Roz Was it your intention from the start?
Laura The personality of the press has definitely shifted over the years. One of the things I love to tell new publishers is that it can take some time to get clear—and then clearer—about your mission and goals and taste. And that’s okay.
Roz Did you make any wrong turnings?
Laura When I first started, I wanted quiet novels, because those were the ones New York kept saying won’t sell. Asking for quiet novels seemed like a statement of purpose to take that phrase back, to turn ‘quiet’ from an oft-repeated rejection to a celebration of character-driven fiction.
But after growing into my publisher self more, and really honing in on my reading taste, I realized I love more whimsical, quirky—and dare I say it—loud novels. Boisterous novels—whether through their unusual language, or their humor, or their ambition to say something in a way that nobody has said it before. Novels that carry us someplace else while lodging deep into our hearts.
Many of our releases in the past two years have some genre aspects, like Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, a lush and poetic evocation of a marriage from the point of view of a village. It’s based on a Filipino fairy tale about star maidens and its mix of gorgeous language and real-world grit is buoyed by the theme of how we as human beings tell stories about each other because we can never really understand each other.
One constant, which I didn’t realize until our readers began telling me that they appreciated it, has been publishing books that aren’t predictable, that don’t fit into a commercial mold. Their stories might go anywhere—and often whirl into surprising territory. Unpredictable territory. I want to believe our readers come to our books and experience wonder and delight, the way we felt as children, when the world of reading opened up.
Roz Wow. It takes a confident, masterful storyteller to pull that off.
Let’s talk more about story. There’s a perception that literary fiction is often disdainful of plot. Clearly some of this is personal taste – a book that is plotless to one reader is an up-all-night page-turner to another. But many of my favourite literary writers are also cracking story writers by anyone’s judgement. Any thoughts on the plot-plotless debate?
Laura After planting my flag on “quiet novels” and receiving submissions where the characters sat around and looked at each other, I realized I needed to retool my thinking. I love deep, introspective, character-driven fiction. I love language that takes chances.
Roz I do too…
Laura But I do love a good plot. And writers who do all of that well end up with not-so-predictable, evocative, and completely fascinating novels. And that’s what makes me happy as a reader and as a publisher. I want it all!
Roz Me too!
Laura There are plenty of small presses pushing experimental work out, and it’s great, but I land in this plot-with-deep-characters-and-cool-language side of the industry, and I’ve cultivated a readership of fans who love these kinds of books.
Parts per Million by Julia Stoops, just out from Forest Avenue, is one novel that blends detailed characterizations with a heady, forward-moving plot. Julia worked on the book—about a trio of eco-activists—for 10 years, and it was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Three point-of-view characters propel the engine of the plot, which moves inexorably toward a stunning conclusion. Parts per Million is full of protests and environmental activism but it’s also built on the stranger-comes-to-town trope, where a young, sick woman who has nowhere else to go disrupts the household these three characters have built for themselves. We’re super-excited that we have a deal with Blackstone Audio for the audiobook.
Back to personal taste, in our first year as a press, my wise publisher friend Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books told me to publish books I love, because that’s how I would build a brand and a community of readers. We can’t please everyone and shouldn’t try, or we’ll fail. We just have to keep going, one book at a time.
Roz It’s so interesting to hear you describe this process. You’ve built a style for Forest Avenue in the same way as writers build their distinctive identities. We try a few things, find some don’t excite us as much as we thought, then we discover our true calling. Wonderful.
Coming up next time: marketing literary fiction