Sunday, 19 October 2008

Interview! Victoria Blake (Underland Press)

Over the last year and a bit I've been lucky enough to get to run questions past authors, and editors, whose books I have enjoyed. (Which leads to a slight digression, would anyone like to see me interview an author whose book I have hated? Just a thought...)
Anyway, one thing I haven't done yet is to interview a person who gave up their job in order to start up their own publishing company. That was the case until fairly recently when I got chatting with Victoria Blake who (funnily enough) gave up her job at Dark Horse Comics to found Underland Press. I've already Reviewed one of their books and it's damn fine...
Here's what Victoria had to say,

Hi Victoria, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions!

Absolutely. Thanks for asking me.

What leads a person to give up an editorial position at Dark Horse Comics and start up their own publishing company?

Brian Evenson sent me his Earthling chapbook of “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.” I read it during a lunch break at Dark Horse. When Brian told me he had written a follow up, I knew that I wanted that to be Underland’s first title.
But you asked why leave Dark Horse? Dark Horse is a great company, and it’s full of great, interesting, smart, creative people. But we were all employees, ultimately. I looked around one day and I realized that the only way I was going to be able to do in my life what I wanted to do was to start my own company.

As an office worker I regularly daydream about just turning the computer off and going home to get started on something more interesting. How liberating is it to be able to drop everything and go for something like setting up a publishing company?

I love making decisions. Are women supposed to say things like that? Screw it, it’s true. I love being in charge, and being accountable for the success or failure of what I’ve put my energy into. This is the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s the most stress I’ve had, too. I didn’t used to wake up in the middle of the night, worried about galleys. The two go together, though. I wouldn’t trade any of it.
Not too long ago, I realized that my great grandparents ran their own flower nursery, that my grandparents ran their own construction company, and that my parents ran their own legal practice. So I think starting a business was in my blood.

Underland Press is going to be giving its readers fiction that is “weird, strange, odd and unsettling”. I find that most fiction unsettles me if I look at it in a certain way... Are there any specific genres that Underland will be focusing on publishing or is it a case of ‘anything goes just so long as it has that unsettling quality to it...’?

Good question. Emily Dickinson advised poets and writers to look at and write about the world slantwise, which I think is the central quality of all great work, regardless of subject or genre. Brian Evenson’s “Last Days” does this. So does Jeff VanderMeer’s “Finch” and Will Elliott’s “The Pilo Family Circus.” All of these are in some way weird, strange, odd, or unsettling.
This kind of writing has been called New Weird, Slipstream, New Wave Fabulism, Speculative Fiction, Alt-Lit, and even American Magical Realism. Sometimes it’s called literary fiction. Think Cormac McCarthy, think Amiee Bender. It’s also marketed as fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror. I don’t think this is an “anything goes” stance, but rather a “call it what you want” approach.
In general, though, I’m interested in stories that have a little more going on than divorce, affairs, and suburban angst. But I’m also interested in stories that are driven as much by character as by plot. There is traditionally a divide between those two camps—on one side, literary fiction, and on the other, genre fiction. What I’m interested is in the crossover, stylistically as well as thematically.

The first books published by Underland Press will be Brian Evenson’s ‘Last Days’ and ‘The Pilo Family Circus’ by Will Elliot. For anyone who hasn’t visited your website yet, what can you tell them about why they should be rushing out to buy these books when they hit the shelves?

Oh gosh… For the reasons I mentioned above, and because these books are really, truly incredible. I don’t say that just because I’m publishing them. I consider it an honor to be able to publish them.
Brian Evenson’s book is unlike anything in your bookshelf. The prose is tight and spare, but it is still incredibly evocative and descriptive. The book is violent, even gruesome, but the writing never goes over the edge. Brian is a stylist, in that he is interested in how language works. He is also a formalist, in that he pays very close attention to the way his pieces are structured. He is a master, truly.
Will Elliott’s book starts in the real world, and descends into a crazy, carnival-esque under world. Think Katherine Dunn crossed with Stephen King. His clowns are scary because they are so real, because they behave like demonic versions of ourselves. I don’t know how he did it, and I’m amazed that this is his debut book. I’m super, super jealous.

While we’re on the subject, what’s a ‘wovel’ and why should we all be reading it?

A wovel is a web novel. The central idea of the wovel is to allow readers a stake in the plot. Every Monday, the author posts an instalment with a binary plot branch point and a vote button at the end. The length of each instalment hits the sweet spot of online reading—just about the right amount to read during those ten minutes you have to spare at work. Voting is open until Thursday, the author writes over the weekend, and a new instalment is posted again on Monday.
Why should you read it? Because you get to tell the author what to do, and because some really interesting things happen with that power.
I should say, though, that the wovel isn’t trying to be a web serial, and it’s not trying to be a traditional book. Fiction online is a new breed of writing, and we’re still figuring out the rules. How does the form affect the content? What is the optimum length for text online? How about the font? The margins? Imbedded or downloadable? Each of these questions has implications for story structure and approach. Just like the physical form of the newspaper and the way news was broadcast—through the wire—led newspaper writing to look like it does today.

Finally, Underland Press may only just be starting out but what do you see in its future?

Underland is putting out four books and one wovel in its first year. I hope to grow that by two books a year, until I’m at about twenty. When I’m at twenty books a year, I think the cash flow will work out so that I can start to look at possible expansion points. Can I take the Underland model and apply it to other types of books? When I started Underland, I started it as an LLC division of a larger LLC called Fourth Chapter Books. I started it with plans to grow.
But today, right now, I’m focused on the tasks currently on my desk: finding a binder to do a cover for a limited edition of “Last Days,” getting the screen printer ready, reading submissions, working on the web site. Little steps for little feet.

Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it.

Good questions, Graeme. Thank you for the chance to answer them.

If you want to find out more about Underland Press then click Here.


Hagelrat said...

great interview.

gav ( said...

She's a very brave woman! Fingers crossed that Underland Press find it's niche and readers :) Sounds like my kind of thing ;)