Most writers feel as if being published, seeing their name in print for the first time right next to one of their stories, was a task as impossible and insurmountable as if they lived inside Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle. They desperately want to get in, but access to the coveted castle is denied to them for some inexplicable reason.
Today, we take you on a tour of the castle with John Trefry, a writer and an architect in Lawrence, Kansas, but also the architect of an indie press whose name was inspired by Kafka’s novel. We discussed with him the workings of the publishing world and let him convince us that, in fact, there is no castle at all.
The Nonconformist: How did you start your journey as an indie publisher?
John Trefry: I think it is worth noting that when I started Inside the Castle I knew absolutely nobody who was a contemporary writer. I honestly was not even reading anyone writing after 1980 and wasn’t even especially conscious that there was even a “scene” of independent literature. Looking back, it is rather an asshole position to be entering the mix from and I would be suspicious of myself at this point. At any rate, I started in 2014 out solely to give myself a platform to publish my book Plats, which I had finished in 2008. I had never had any luck with other publishers so I thought, “There is print-on-demand now, why not just print some copies and move on with my life.” I tried to get a friend to buy it, family, a couple of people I still knew from high school. It was pathetic. My friend Sean Caffrey introduced me to a writer, Paul Kwiatkowski, after the book had been out a while, and we talked on the phone. He was like, “You know there is a whole world of literature out there online?” So I started reading blogs and such and discovered people who were very much interested in the same things as me and started writing to them. Most of it was fruitless, but I did hear back from Joe Milazzo and Mike Kitchell, who were (and are) both very generous people. They really helped me see the context of what I was doing and gave me a lot of confidence to keep moving ahead. I published a second book, Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire, in 2015. Neither of these books sold much at all. But slowly I was meeting people via them and also by writing copious reviews of other people’s work. And finally, in 2016, sort of out of mutual frustration at the lack of outlets for this sort of work, Kitchell and I decided to publish a book of his called Hour of the Wolf, as an Inside the Castle title. And things took off from there!
NC: You mentioned Inside the Castle. You’re the mastermind behind it. Tell us, what were its origins?
JT: Mastermind is generous. I feel like a laborer. This consumes almost all of my free time, and a lot of it is just work. I don’t enjoy reading submissions very much, or even deciding who to publish. It is stressful. I very much enjoy just putting my head down and working on a book though. But the origins, well, separate from the above, I would say that the origins of my focus come from two sources. The first is my background in architecture and the manner of literature, or the attention to particular types of literature that it promoted for me. I was reading canon sorts of things through college: Joyce, Pynchon, Kafka, etc. But in graduate school my architectural education broadened significantly, was hardly focused on architecture at all, and I was introduced to people like Robbe-Grillet, Huysmans, Sarraute, Butor, etc. The concreteness and description-centered objectiveness of this writing really connected with my thinking about architecture as a mute, dead, empty thing that we as users establish a narrative around. I also read Eco’s The Open Work, Genette’s Paratexts, and Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction around this time which gave some conceptual foundation to this interest in books as objects and writing as merely filling the book with potential, like loading the canon and letting the reader point it wherever they want. Additionally, my youth was very connected to the DIY punk scene in Florida where I grew up and then in Atlanta where I went to college. I did a zine during that time called From the Ground and it sometimes had other people’s writing in it. But I think more important was the culture of the scene, or its aspiration of setting aside a space where people can make things happen without oversight, a nationwide (even worldwide) network of people who could depend on each other for the creation of culture that was bottom-up, rather than top-down. So, my interest grew into making a home for the kind of work I described above, let’s say “object-like” literature, while maintaining a distance from any kind of institutional support (which turns out to be quite easy lol).
The idea was, however, that the castle was no different than the rest of the town, and that there was no discernible mechanism for its power and that it would be indistinguishable from the subjugated world around it.
NC: You once said that your press’s name is a reference to Kafka’s The Castle. Why did you choose this particular book?
JT: I actually had the intention of writing a book called Inside the Castle, whose premise to me ultimately seemed impossible, which was that it was taking place inside the castle of Kafka’s novel concurrent with the events of the book. The idea was, however, that the castle was no different than the rest of the town, and that there was no discernible mechanism for its power and that it would be indistinguishable from the subjugated world around it. I bought a web domain and stuff years before I decided to do anything with it, and ultimately decided to give the name to the press that would publish my book. Over the years the relevance of the name has grown for me, specifically thinking about the fact that a book is just an object in our world, that when we open it it becomes part of the continuous surface of our environment, that in a sense it is indistinguishable from the fabric weave of your pants or the grain of wood on your desk, much like I saw the interior of the castle being collocated with the fabric of the town in The Castle.
NC: But what kind of authors can find a home for their writing in Inside the Castle?
JT: A large part of it depends entirely on the type of people who will send me their work, or trust me with it. I have solicited a few things that I have or will publish, but the majority of people came through our open submission process. It has always baffled me that a publisher who either purports an interest in innovative or experimental (puke!) work does not accept submissions. Like they just already know all the people who might be doing that sort of work? I don’t know, maybe people who came from an academic background do know a lot of people. I don’t. So I felt it very important to keep an open channel of discovery. Is it easy? No. Does it take a lot of time. Yes. But I really wouldn’t have many books to show for this if I’d not proceeded this way. Also, being very small, which I think is obvious to most people who look into us in any detail, we really only end up working with people who I would describe as not having commercial aspirations, whether in the business sense or the aesthetic sense. Everyone has been very down-to-earth, kind, and intelligent. Because I am the only one working with them, and the process of putting a book together can be rather laborious, I would never want to work with someone whose expectations of me were unrealistic, but more just because I would constantly feel like I was letting them down, and that isn’t a very sustainable emotional position for me to be in.
It has always baffled me that a publisher who either purports an interest in innovative or experimental work does not accept submissions. Like they just already know all the people who might be doing that sort of work?
NC: You’re an author yourself. How do you manage to reconcile the sensibility of a writer with the critical eye of a publisher?
JT: Following on the previous question, I am looking for work that does what I think my work does, which is recognize that the book is just a thing. I should elaborate that, because it is just a dumb thing doesn’t mean that what we put in it is irrelevant. It is critical. Going back to what I was saying about architecture. Every building is a mute mass of stuff. Some stand out, most do not. The ones that stand out recognize the raw materials they are working with, geometry and materiality, are the only communicative elements of a building. There is no “story”, no “history”, no “concept” explicit in a building. Those exceptional buildings utilize geometry and materiality in a way that distinguishes them from our expectations of them. To go off of Eco, who I mentioned earlier, we can look at cracks in the pavement all day long, passing by them, ignoring them. But when we see one that someone has drawn a frame around in chalk, we recognize that we are to look at it in a different way. Exceptional buildings highlight their difference by employing that chalk frame in their very essence. They say, “Yes, I am a building, but I have your attention in a way that a building should not.” Like… “SEX! Now that I have your attention, Happy Birthday!”… The books I look for do that same thing. They say, “I am a book, but I am asking you to consider me as such, and consider what potential there is in this simple object.” And my hope is that there is a didactic function in thinking of both books and buildings this way, that if people see enough cracks with chalk frames around them, they will at some point be able to see the latent potential in every crack. Perhaps they can learn to pick up a shitty book and read it their own way. Anyway! If this is the aperture of Inside the Castle, my interest is not just to fill it with people who write like me, but with people who think like me. I am more interested in the breadth of that conceptual position. And so far I think we have published a very variegated sampling of voices and approaches to that fundamental project.
NC: What is it like to be an indie publisher these days? How do you find a balance between your everyday life and publishing duties?
JT: Oh jeez I have no idea. I have only been doing this for about 6 years, so I don’t know whether its different or anything. I am not trying to play any sort of games with trying to seek success, so I don’t feel disillusioned or disappointed with not breaking through somehow. I am very happy with the presence Inside the Castle has and don’t need it to change really. And to the balance question, I recently became a father, which for a long time I was not really able to visualize myself as, and perhaps stupidly, the satisfaction I get from working on Inside the Castle gave me the feeling like I had emotional space to share with more than just my partner. Consequently, balance is more difficult because I now have a toddler. I don’t think Inside the Castle has suffered much because of that decrease in available hours, but my own writing has. I haven’t really written much in a year.
NC: Who inspires you as a writer and who is your role model as a publisher?
JT: I get inspired by the writers I work with, big time. I rarely read anything though and say, “Oh I want my work to be like that.” Someone in a writer’s crit group I was in way back told me, “Find an author you like an emulate them.” I can’t think of a more stupid thing to say. I am just doing what I do in my own writing and I am comfortable with it. Whatever that thing is started a long time ago, and although it is evolving, I think its genetic code is pretty intact. As fare as publishers, I think both Joe Milazzo with Imipolex Press and Mike Kitchell with Solar Luxuriance were both very important as role models to me. Partly for their separateness from the gamesmanship of independent publishing, but also for their openness and generosity.
Doing something to please other people is never a great motivator.
NC: And how would you describe the current state of the publishing industry from the perspective of an indie publisher?
JT: No clue. It seems pretty dumb. The metrics for success in the social media age are agonizing. What lists do you get on, who Instagrams pictures of your books. Who is the first person to be reading or praising someone. Who is publishing the person with fucktons of followers. It’s fucking stupid. My hope is that the books from Inside the Castle have more longevity. That someone might still want to read them a few or several years down the road even though they won’t get the cache of being “in the know” at the time it was most socially profitable. So I just want to plod along.
NC: What frustrates you and what delights you as a publisher?
JT: I am frustrated by the things I mentioned earlier. And I guess I don’t want to be overly negative, but the whole of what people might call “submission culture.” That being where people just carpet-bomb the publishing world with their manuscripts without really being conscious of whether it is a good fit. I think this is kind of a symptom of the above cultural situation of literature to be honest. I think a lot of people are making an identity of writing in the social media age rather than just writing because they are interested in it as a practice.
NC: If you were to sum it up in a few words, what is being a publisher all about?
NC: Which current and forthcoming titles from your catalog would you describe as must-reads for every self-respecting book lover?
JT: Dude, I can’t tell you that! They are all good. And I don’t know that we appeal to people with much self-respect.
Lots of people like to tell you what you can and can’t do. Most likely the things they say you can’t or shouldn’t do are exactly what you should be doing. So do them.
NC: If it’s not a secret, what are your upcoming projects and plans for the future?
JT: Well, I don’t like to announce things that haven’t been formally announced. Our 2020 catalog is all announced and they are all lovely books. I guess the only other thing is that in 2021 the AWP conference is in Kansas City. We are about 30 miles away so I would like to work on putting together something to occur during that time. I haven’t met many writers so it would be a cool opportunity.
NC: What advice can you give to those dreaming of setting up their own small press?
JT: Lots of people like to tell you what you can and can’t do. Most likely the things they say you can’t or shouldn’t do are exactly what you should be doing. So do them. And don’t stop because nobody cares. Doing something to please other people is never a great motivator.
Inside the Castle
Our books are unique from one another but share a vision, that literature is not representational but incantatory, that books are objects that exist much like other objects in your life and home, only they have additional dimensions, not dimensions separate or distant from the ones you occupy, but involuted dimensions that only become apparent when you reach out to them.
Photo: Courtesy of John Trefry