State of the Art #9: Michelle Dotter of Dzanc Books

Dzanc Books is, without doubt, one of the most exciting independent publishers out there. If innovative, risk-taking literary fiction is your cup of bookish tea, you can always count on them for a lot of exactly that. In this installment of our series of interviews with indie publishers, we introduce you to Michelle Dotter, the editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books.

Since starting her career with noted San Francisco publishing house MacAdam/Cage, she has worked with New York Times bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award honorees, and some damn fine people, too. She lives in Colorado with her partner.

The Nonconformist: Dzanc Books is an amazing indie press known for publishing award-winning literary fiction and running various community programs, but how did it all start?

Michelle Dotter: To stick to the short version, two people who were passionate about literature and deeply involved in the writing community — Steve Gillis and Dan Wickett — happened to cross paths and decided to put a lot of time, energy, money, and sweat into something they both cared deeply about: making room in publishing for books that were neither by well-known authors nor commercially savvy.

There’s a Poets & Writers interview from a few years back that goes over the finer points, but I have to take a moment to applaud their commitment — nothing the press has accomplished would be possible without their efforts, and especially without Steve’s continued support. So much great art relies on dedicated people giving a lot of themselves with no promise of reward, and Dzanc was lucky to benefit from some people doing just that.

Some books, are so radically different from what we’ve previously experienced that our brains actually have to rewire — carve out new pathways — just so we can understand them.

NC: Is there a story behind its name?

MD: This is actually a question we get a lot at conventions — along with how to pronounce it. (As to the latter, there are a lot of different versions; I say d’ZANC.) The story I heard is, Steve and Dan took one letter from the first names of each of their children and combined them to come up with Dzanc. Wherever it came from and however you say it, we’re just glad if you’re talking about us.

NC: What was your path to becoming the editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books?

MD: People say in publishing, it’s all about who you know. I’ve worked remotely for almost my entire career, and I haven’t gotten to know that many people, honestly — but having said that, I can thank my fellow intern from MacAdam/Cage, Guy Intoci, for almost every job I’ve had. Guy’s moved between a lot of different presses, and after he became editor-in-chief at Dzanc, he brought me on as a senior editor/extra set of hands.

One thing I’ve loved about working for small presses is that you get to do everything. Since coming to Dzanc, I’ve worked as a content editor, copy editor, and proofreader, learned to typeset, and taken over running the internship program, which has become something of a passion project. It’s a position I never would have volunteered for, but it’s hugely satisfying — almost as satisfying as working one-on-one with authors, indisputably my favorite part of the job.

When Guy stepped down to run Rare Bird Books out in LA, Steve Gillis asked me if I wanted the editor-in-chief position. I said sure, which is usually what I say when I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s astonishing to realize that I’ve been in this position for almost three years — this job constantly challenges me, and there are days when I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But it’s an incredible job, being given carte blanche to publish books solely on the basis of their artistic merit. I’m blown away by the work we’re doing, championing these extraordinary authors and getting their books out into the world, and I intend to keep doing that as long as we can.

NC: Let’s talk about Dzanc’s mission. How would you describe it?

MD: Publishing terrific literary and experimental fiction — books that break the mold. Literary fiction is a pretty broad category, and our catalog has a lot of variety, from books that just read like exceptionally well-written novels to books that read like somebody cut apart a newspaper with a pair of rusty scissors and glued it to a magnetic poetry set, and somehow it makes perfect sense.

I like to think about it through the lens of neuroplasticity: that some ideas, some books, are so radically different from what we’ve previously experienced that our brains actually have to rewire — carve out new pathways — just so we can understand them. That’s what Dzanc Books wants to do. They’re books that ask you to read closely, to put in the time to learn to speak the author’s language.

There’re books that ask you to read closely, to put in the time to learn to speak the author’s language.

As an example, one of our newest titles is Lance Olsen’s My Red Heaven, which takes place on a single day in Berlin in June 1929 — a book that takes the form of prose and poetry, screenplay, newsreels, photographs, ekphrasis and leitmotif, and a few pages where the words slam into each other and black each other out. It’s a complicated read. But it is absolutely phenomenal, and I can’t imagine working for a press that had to pass on it because it’s not commercial.

Beyond what we publish, we’re working to support and expand the literary community wherever we can. We help support the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, which takes North American writers to Portugal every summer (except this one) for extensive writing workshops and a chance to meet and exchange ideas with writers from around the world. We run a robust internship program, giving undergrads and grad students a foundation in working in publishing, and we’re also currently revamping our low-cost mentorship program, which allows aspiring writers to work one-on-one with our authors to improve their craft. And hopefully this list will just keep growing.

NC: What do you look for in a submission? Does a perfect submission even exist?

MD: Every time Lindsey Drager sends me her next book, that’s a perfect submission.

In seriousness, though: what I look for in a submission is a rigorously and carefully written manuscript, something in which the form — that being, language — is not simply the medium of the story, but an essential part of what’s being conveyed. I want to see your mastery over your story. That said, almost every book we acquire needs and deserves to be carefully edited. I don’t expect manuscripts to be perfect and print-ready when they come in the door. What I want to see is a book that contains an immutable spark: something at its heart that is indelibly alive.

Books that use descriptive language as a weapon, decisively. Books that wouldn’t be better as movies and make me work for the pleasure of dissecting a good story. Books that subvert the assumption that grit, violence, and rage are the truest expressions of being human. Or, you know, just good books. Sometimes a book with a premise I thought had no chance surprises me in the best possible way. (See below: sentient cockroaches.)

What I want to see is a book that contains an immutable spark: something at its heart that is indelibly alive.

NC: Who is your role model as a publisher?

MD: We’re very inspired by what Graywolf, Milkweed, Coffee House, and other presses are doing, raising small-press publishing to the level of national conversation. We’ve got a long way to go, but there are a lot of elements of Graywolf’s publishing program that I’d like to emulate.

NC: How would you describe the current state of the publishing industry from the perspective of an indie publisher?

MD: It’s a weird time. Four months ago, I knew the answer to this question. Now, a lot of things are up in the air. To me, there’s a sense that everyone’s trying to navigate this new landscape, where most events have moved online, or canceled, and indie bookstores, which are so wonderful and supportive of smaller presses, are redefining their business models and what it means to stay connected to their communities.

As a publisher, I’m hoping there might be a silver lining here, creating more opportunities for presses and authors to reach readers online and breaking the stranglehold that money sometimes has on this industry, putting the same hundred books in front of readers over and over. I’m inspired by what is doing and by the outpouring of support we’ve seen for presses and indie bookstores from readers and the whole literary community. But I’m equally concerned that the opportunities small-press authors have carved out for themselves, connecting with their local indies and their communities, could dry up, leaving us even less visible than before.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know this: The people who have made indie publishing their passion, who devote themselves to publishing challenging books and promoting amazing, underappreciated authors, they’re not going to stop doing that. The indie press community is formidable. We’ll get through this.

The indie press community is formidable. We’ll get through this.

NC: Which current or forthcoming books from your catalog would you call must-reads for every book lover?

MD: This is always the hardest question. We’re incredibly proud of all of our books, so this is much like picking between children, but if I can give props to just a few of our recent titles that have struggled to gain traction right now:

Don’t You Know I Love You, Laura Bogart’s debut novel, is a very powerful portrait of a young lesbian woman who has survived domestic abuse but keeps getting pulled back into her father’s toxic orbit — and into the high of letting her own anger take control. Laura has a great line about pain that strikes like an iron fist in a velvet glove; that’s her book, in my mind. Supple and powerful.

Another brand-new one is In Our Midst by Nancy Jensen. Set in 1941, it follows a German immigrant family in America, ripped apart and eventually interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a heartbreaking book to read right now, especially for its complex portrayal of America in the firm grip of nationalism and suspicion.

Our last-spring book is Lee Martin’s newest, Yours, Jean. This one is half true-crime, half small-town mélange — and if that combination doesn’t sound like it works, you don’t know Lee Martin, one of the most talented literary stylists I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.

Oh, and one last, slightly older rec for these very strange times: The Wonder That Was Ours by Alice Hatcher. The first-person plural narrators are a collective of sentient cockroaches who live in a taxi, love cheap Western paperbacks and Heavy Vibes music, and spill over with empathy and understanding for all living beings, however overlooked. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

NC: Lastly, what can we expect from Dzanc Books in the future?

MD: More great books! We’re already hard at work on our 2021 titles, and our annual contests are open — one of my favorite ways to find incredible new writers. This year, we’re working hard to expand and improve our Creative Writing Mentorship program to make it more useful to aspiring writers, and we hope Disquiet can get back to normal soon. We’re also hoping to expand our writing workshop opportunities in the near future, possibly launching a program like Disquiet here in the States so more writers can participate — but we’ll wait to forecast too much until we can meet in groups of more than ten people.

Dzanc has been around for almost fifteen years — not a milestone all that many small presses reach. Thanks to the support of our dedicated founders, our authors, our readers, and awesome people like you who help spread us the word, I’m very proud to say Dzanc’s going to be around for a while.

Dzanc Books
Dzanc Books was created in 2006 to advance great writing and to impact communities nationally with our efforts to promote literary readership and advocacy of creative writing workshops and readings offered across the country. Dzanc Books is distributed to booksellers through Publishers Group West.
Submission Guidelines

Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Dotter


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