SFWP was founded in 1998 by Andrew Gifford. The goal was to offer recognition for excellence in writing in a time of declining support for writers and the craft of literature. What started as a grass-roots trial effort supported by a small group of writers and arts advocates, has since spawned an internationally-recognized literary awards program and an online literary journal fueled by a community of authors who are organized around the Project’s goals and ideas. SFWP embraces its mission with a spirit of artistic preservation, bringing to print stunning books and authors ignored by the mainstream publishing industry.
Andrew Gifford: Born and raised in Washington, DC, Andrew Gifford is the founder and director of the Santa Fe Writers Project (www.sfwp.com). Over the years, to (in his words) fuel his crippling publishing habit, he’s worked as a caterer, a bookseller, a groundskeeper, in call centers, as the wire editor for an Associated Press company, as a business writer for Oxford Intelligence, and as a development editor for the American Psychological Association books department. He is currently working on completing his own memoir highlighting his experiences as heir to the Gifford icecream legacy, We All Scream.
Ramola D: You’ve said elsewhere that you only publish books you love, that yours is a mission of recognition and preservation of great books. How do you decide which books to publish these days? Are you the sole arbiter or are other writers and readers involved?
Andrew Gifford: I am the sole arbiter, yes. Describing my decision process, though, is strangely difficult. It really does boil down to simply publishing what I love. A recent example is Richard Currey’s The Wars of Heaven, originally released in 1991, slumbering out of print since around 2000, and now reissued by me as of May 1st of this year. When I read The Wars of Heaven in 1991, it shaped the way I thought of literature. It was then, and is still one of my top five favorite books. What kind of world do we live in where one of my top 5 favorite books is out of print? Unsupported? So…decision made.
Another example of my erratic process — a year ago, I put out a call for a fantasy novel. As a kid, I loved fantasy. It was my escape. So, one morning, I woke up and I told myself “I’m going to get into genre fiction” and threw out a random Facebook post telling people to send me their work. Next thing I knew, I had a slush pile that took me most of a year to sort through…
Deep in that slush pile was Dan Ford’s Ordination, the first volume of The Paladin Trilogy. It was both a throwback to the more classical fantasy of my youth, and an interesting update/twist on some of the modern tropes. It’s full of great characters, and has a storyline that had me hooked from the first few pages and carried me right to the conclusion.
So…decision made. Dan’s book will hit the shelves in Spring 2016.
The four forthcoming titles in Spring 2015 are the winners of the recent Literary Awards Program, judged by Lee Gutkind and David Morrell. So I suppose, technically, the judges made the decision for me. Same with the reissue of Charlotte Gullick’s sublime By Way of Water, which won our 2002 Literary Awards Program, judged by Jayne Anne Phillips.
But, even then, publication is not a guaranteed part of the prize. That final decision rests with me. If I had disagreed with Gutkind’s and Morrell’s picks, I would not have brought the authors on board.
Rd: When you started your press, was it on your own or with others? Did you feel you needed some external impetus or support in getting started, or was it all self-driven?
AG: SFWP has an ignoble beginning at the El Dorado Hotel bar in downtown Santa Fe. This was November, 1998, and I was visiting the contingent of my family that lives out in New Mexico. Over several drinks in the cool, crisp air on the patio with my uncle, we lamented the “declining support of literature in America” (as our original mission statement would rant about at length). My uncle, by the way, is Richard Currey.
So we sat at that bar at a time when his two books – The Wars of Heaven and Fatal Light – were drifting out of print. Though both had been bestsellers, the face of publishing in the late ’90s was deeply entrenched in the old boy’s network that demanded authors either make the press money or get packing. He and I share a theory of a “publishing pendulum,” and how independent presses – the curators, and the voice of our literary culture – seem to have 20-year cycles. In the ’50s, we had the Beats. We entered the ’70s with people like John Martin and his Black Sparrow Press, and Seymour Lawrence. Then came the era of the Big Box mentality perpetrated by Crown, Borders, B&N, and, lurking in the shadows, Amazon. The ’90s had missed the indie beat, and our literary culture was slowly fizzling away.
I had started a publishing company when I was a junior in high school (in 1991) called Purple Publications, largely with the idea of aping the zine culture that had boomed and busted in the space of a few years at the end of the ’80s. That company did surprisingly well, but the demands of college (and finances, as I scraped together my back-breaking tuition from six odd-jobs) meant that Purple Publications was defunct by 1995.
So all this brave, drunken talk beneath that big New Mexico sky a few years later about recognizing, supporting, and championing literature was just what I needed to revitalize my publishing dreams. I swore, then and there, spilling my vodka tonic down Richard’s shirt, that he would never go out of print. No great writer would ever go out of print again! It took till 2004 to get enough funds to publish our first book. (Funnily enough, it was not Richard’s book.)
Rd: What was it?
AG: Moody Food by Ray Robertson.
Rd: I understand at the time you began your press you were also battling an impossible neurological condition while also holding down a day job, as detailed in Laura Wexler’s Washington Post story linked on your website, which makes the story of the inception of the press quite amazing and unique. Did starting the press offer any kind of relief, in those terms?
AG: In 1998-’99, when the press began, the Trigeminal Neuralgia was intermittent and undiagnosed. I was getting used to the bursts of pain, and I’d have a couple of pain-free months in between each episode.
The pain became constant in 2000, and remained undiagnosed until 2002.
Much of my life has been a blind, hopeless act of defiance. But, if I ever stopped and gave in to the pain, I was certain it would overwhelm me and kill me (and it sure came close to that many times). So I pushed forward with SFWP and I saw, in it, a clear mission, and the ongoing realization of my dreams that Purple Publications represented. What Wexler omitted was that, to pay for SFWP, I worked four jobs, not just one day job. I clocked in seven-day work weeks, sometimes sleeping at my post in between 12-hour shifts. I’d run from a night job, finishing at 3am, to sleep in my car outside the Metro, which I would catch to my daytime job in a customer service center. I took up freelance writing gigs, and I worked like a dog to fund SFWP’s first quartet of books.
All of that helped distract me from the pain, yes. But – relief? There is no relief for TN sufferers. Relief only came with highly invasive surgery. What I was doing with the jobs and with SFWP is something chronic pain sufferers probably all recognize – I was creating a routine. There is an element of relief in routine, I suppose, but not in the way a normal person would define the word.
Rd: That is absolutely astonishing, that you worked so hard to personally fund the first books, and through such difficult circumstances.
What were some of the material aspects behind starting a press–like finding a printer, deciding on press runs, etc., and how did you resolve those?
AG: SFWP would not exist without my layout guru Gwen Grafft. She’s the one who slaves away on each book to turn it into print-ready files. That’s the hard part, as far as I’m concerned. She also designs the majority of our covers.
Finding a printer is the easy part. You just search for the lowest price and the highest quality. Those kind of printers were a dime a dozen when I started out, and I would just contact them and let them get into a bidding war. There are spreadsheets out there that’ll give you the potential earnings based on per item cost, expected returns, etc. A little bit of arithmetic, and you’ll arrive at a desirable press run.
These days, of course, there are no press runs. I – and many other publishers, large and small – go with digital short runs. We print according to demand. This changes the whole face of publishing. What used to cost me $10,000 up front to produce now costs nothing. This may shed more light on your first question and my decision process. Now I can publish whatever I want and it doesn’t matter. The book can only sell 200 copies and, accounting-wise, it’s a winner. No pulping, no warehouse fees, no depressive regret that I have a flop in my catalog, no garage full of boxes. Though we’re able to supply orders, worldwide, via the Independent Publisher’s Group (IPG), as if there were a huge warehouse behind me stacked with books.
Rd: How does the press currently support writers and their books, after the publication?
AG: Supporting writers and their books is always a bit hard, especially in the current literary climate. Despite lower up-front costs, I’m still paying for this company with my day job’s paycheck. I try to send my authors around to tactical readings at schools and our ever-dwindling indie bookstores, I take out ads here and there, I push hard through social media, and I’ve recently brought on a publicist via IPG. Much of how well a book does depends on the level of involvement of the author, of course. I ask my authors to beat the street for reviews, and to find appropriate venues, and I pay for them to enter their books into various contests. If they have a friend somewhere who’s plugged into a local literary scene, then go fly a couch for a weekend and do some readings. I try to engender a community with all of my authors, and encourage them to help each other.
Above all, though, I’d like SFWP to be a brand readers trust and, despite genre or style or mood, I’d like all of my authors to be a unit, a part of that brand. What’s good for one book is good for all books.
Rd: I understand you grew up in the Washington DC area. Are you now physically located in Santa Fe?
AG: Ah! I touched on this in an earlier question. There’s family out in New Mexico, and that’s been the case for decades now, so Santa Fe is a frequent destination. The name, though, is really in honor of that moment on the patio of the El Dorado.
I had a terrible childhood, and had been roughly treated by my parents. I left home at 18 and never looked back, putting myself through school and life. Letting Purple Publications die was heartbreaking… There was no room for dreaming when I was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no room for hope. When my uncle took me to that bar, I was in a state of mild depression, punctuated by severe episodes of Trigeminal Neuralgia pain. The world felt like a horrible, sad, unforgiving place. But it all changed there at the El Dorado. For the first time in my life, everything made sense. Here was a cause still worth fighting for! Here was a way to evolve my calling from high school chapbook publisher to custodian of the arts (that’s vodka talk!). In the even darker days of pain to come, that moment at the El Dorado would be my touchstone.
I briefly thought about changing the name in 2005, but it seemed like it would somehow betray the birth of that dream.
I have a hard time explaining this to people, by the way. Everyone asks me “why Santa Fe?” because, yes, I am physically located in Bethesda, MD. Instead of ranting wildly about my calling in life, I usually just say “that’s where I first had the idea.”
Rd: It sounds like it was the work of certain writers whose work you personally knew and loved that propelled your in starting and running the press–Pagan Kennedy, Richard Currey, etc. How do writers come to your attention, and has this changed over time?
AG: I have always been constantly reading for pleasure. That’s usually how I discover folks. From the publishing side, sometimes writers are brought to my attention – one of Alan Cheuse’s students introduced us, and Simon Fruelund’s translator, K.E. Semmel, is a good friend. Sometimes writers seek me out – like Lisa Lenard-Cook.
It’s probably very sad to say this, but my reading habits have not really changed that much over time. As a kid, I read any trashy fantasy I could get my hands on. Now I read less-trashy fantasy. The non-fantasy authors I discovered and loved – Pagan Kennedy in 1990, Iain Banks in 1995, and a multitude of others – sort of influence what I look for today when browsing.
Rd: How do you generally acquire manuscripts? Is this changing somewhat as you proceed?
AG: We have open submissions at the moment. I’ve recently become a devotee of Submittable: https://santafewritersproject.submittable.com/submit
If something catches my eye and I want to reissue it, I just track down the author or their heirs and open a dialogue.
From the Awards Program, we get about 300 manuscripts a year. I’m slowly working through those, as well.
I’ve only this year started looking into less passive acquisition methods, and am in discussions with April L. Ford about a nonfiction work on a topic that I’d love to see developed.
Rd: So writers could in the future query you about manuscripts they may be working on?
AG: I get queries all the time. So…keep ‘em coming!
Rd: I understand you’ve been running your press for over fifteen years now. What were some of your early challenges and how did you stay your course? Do you feel you’re in a different place now?
AG: Money. That’s always my challenge. SFWP would have closed shop in 2012 if the digital short run thing hadn’t become a viable, cost-effective option. So I barely stayed the course, and I lost about $150,000 on the first ten years of SFWP while I was only earning a pittance from my multiple jobs.
I also made poor staffing decisions in the early 2000s. I had one person I brought on as an editor who stole the original files for a book, and a webmaster who held my page hostage. I had a couple of run-ins with predatory publicity-oriented organizations designed to “help” indie presses largely by parting them from their money and doing nothing in return. There was a big boom of folks like that in the early 2000s.
I was in great physical pain, so you could certainly argue that I was never really in my right mind between 2000-2007 (the 24/7 pain years), so bad choices were made and decisions were arrived at in an uninformed haze. Pagan Kennedy’s The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex was my proudest moment, and yet I spent much of the book’s production phase bedridden, barely able to eat, drug-addled on addictive pain medication, and recovering from surgeries. There were printing errors and other mistakes that should never have seen the light of day.
So, yes, I am very much in a different place now! I am pain-free, I no longer have to pony up a fortune to print a book, and I have the A-Team helping me out! Gwen Grafft for layout and design, my copy-editor Karen Kovacs, Sheila Lamb, all the very helpful folks at IPG, and Rose Solari and James J. Patterson, who have their own publishing company – ASP – that falls under SFWP as something of an autonomous imprint. Rose and Jimmy are my sounding board for many things in business and in life.
Rd: What might you count as some of the milestones that have brought your press to where you are currently?
AG: Three milestones!
First and foremost was actually getting a book out there in 2005! How could I call myself a press if there were no books?
In 2010, while SFWP (that is, I) was in bad financial straits. I was considering shutting it down, and talked at length with friends about going into a “hiatus.” The four books would be available, but SFWP wouldn’t really exist anymore. The books would just carry on organically.
Then I met James J. Patterson and Rose Solari. She detailed that meeting in her interview with you, and we really did hit it off. They had some wonderful books that they wanted to publish and I helped them develop Alan Squire Publishing, their company, and today manage the distribution of their titles under SFWP’s umbrella, as well as assist with marketing, production, etc. On paper, their company comes across as an imprint of SFWP. In truth, it’s a collaborative effort, and we’re all on very equal footing. They have a vision for ASP that is very much in keeping with SFWP’s mission, and we share resources and authors. We’re the two lonely villages in the jungle who have bonded together to survive the harsh elements. At a time when my interest in maintaining SFWP was flagging (very much a parallel to Purple Publication’s woes in 1995), Jimmy and Rose breathed new life into my dedication to the cause. They are big personalities, and their energy and love is infectious. SFWP survived those days because they believed in it…in me.
Finally, in 2012, technology caught up with digital printing and what had once resulted in a chintzy, obviously-POD product could now produce books that felt and looked great, just as if they had been traditionally printed. Having not been able to afford to publish a book since 2009, I suddenly found myself able to publish as many books as I wanted. Between 2005-2009 I published four books at tremendous personal cost. Between 2012-2014, I published eight books and didn’t really worry about it.
Rd: You’ve said elsewhere that as the old school publishing industry slowly disintegrates, more of the daring and different work that is hidden from view–censored, really, by old publishing norms engaged in “mainstream” publications–will begin to emerge. Do you feel that has started to happen today? Are writers writing differently, are small presses publishing daringly? And what part does or will online/e-publishing have to do with that?
AG: Yes. Non-mainstream writing is certainly starting to emerge, and writers are approaching how they create and then market themselves differently. I’ve made a little study of how the SFWP contest has developed over the years. Our first contest was in 2000 and, through 2009, the judges picked very marketable writers. Our future Elite Literati. They’re all remarkable writers (and some have become our Elite Literati) but, as the manuscript travelled through the judging process, I could spot it early on and predict with maybe 90% accuracy who the winner would be. Because, of course, that’s the guy or gal who’s gonna get snatched up by Penguin in a year. You can see it a mile away.
Then, in 2010, a shift happened. The grand-prize winner – the gifted and charming Tara Laskowski – is this wild dark horse author with a brilliant chap-book/experimental work. 2011’s winners were all unique and would have been ignored by old school publishers back in the day (they aren’t anymore). By 2013 – these folks I’ll be publishing next year – we’re completely off the wall. We’ve got the next Bell Jar in Annita Perez Sawyer’s memoir, we’ve got two lean and powerful collections of short stories from April L. Ford and Stephen G. Eoannou, and we have the first collection of essays by a Chinese-American male to be published in over a decade from Allen Gee.
My publishing efforts used to be a crazy idea, and I think I was very much alone there for a few years. Now thriving indie presses are legion – and many are doing great work. We’re back! We skipped one of those 20 year pendulum shifts in the ’90s, but I think we’re in one now and we’re going to see the death of old boy’s club publishing in the next few years. (Assuming Jeff Bezos doesn’t have us all shipped off in the night.)
Rd: In her introduction of your press in our Spring interview feature, Rose Solari of Alan Squire Publishing, noted SFWP as being instrumental in helping ASP collaboratively extend the reach of their books. Your website also mentions an interest in helping small presses increase their distribution. How does this work, and really, why does this work? Is there no central distributing group that all small presses can plug into?
AG: I am a big advocate of having a distributor. Technically, they’re also a dying breed, in terms of the strict definition of who and what they are. But there’s a lot that a distributor does beyond simply getting your book to the vendors. You get better recognition in the industry, you get support from their various marketing teams, you don’t lose your hair chasing down invoices… You can better concentrate on the production aspects.
While anyone can sign up with IPG or other distributors, it’s still a bit of a headache… And there you are, with maybe a handful of books, one of many, many voices in the wilderness. SFWP has in-roads with IPG – and a long and fruitful relationship – and the ASP collaboration has sort of proved the theory. Their books and mine all feed off of each other. All these authors are part of a family, and they help each other out with events and coverage.
I enjoy the collaboration. I want to see a confederation of like-minded small presses rise up against the elements.
And we will need to work together. Along with that literary pendulum, you always see a corporate backlash. For every indie moment, there’s going to be a Crown books, or a Barnes & Noble, or a Borders, or an Amazon. Amazon, especially, is the biggest threat to our literary culture. If indie presses stand divided, we will eventually be marginalized and censored. Amazon showed us what they were capable of in 2012 in a dispute with IPG. Literally with the flick of a switch, they removed 4000 titles from Kindle. (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/amazon-pulls-thousands-of-e-books-in-dispute/)
All is okay now…but what happens next time? What happens if Amazon reads this and says “We hate SFWP” and delists all of my books? They can. They have the power to single-handedly usurp, shape, and censor our literary culture. And you know they will. That’s business.
If they delist me, or someone else, who cares? Who’ll even notice? If they delist 4000 books and multiple indie presses, it’s news.
Rd: That also brings up another question. Very often these days, the onus of marketing and distribution in the world of small and university press publication is laid upon the writer. When my short fiction collection came out for instance with the University of Massachusetts Press, I was given to understand I could put putative paperback publishers in touch with the press–this suggests writer-engagement in a field with which many writers are barely familiar. (My book has not gone to paperback yet.) Writers would welcome support in that arena– would you consider working with writers to further the distribution or other-media publication of their books?
AG: If you’re asking if I could assist authors who are in a similar position that you’re describing in your question…probably not. If I take on a book as I described above, it becomes a de facto SFWP title. I’d have to work with the publisher in question, not the author.
The situation is not unfamiliar, though. Small and university presses are doing a sort of passive publishing. I don’t know if they’re worried about money, or if they have staffing issues… I see this in surprisingly large and active university presses. My only guess is that they’re simply publishing to justify their budget. They don’t care about the books. Which, in my opinion, makes them a cousin of vanity presses. You’re not a publisher if you’re not promoting, distributing, and handling the day-to-day of each book. (Of course, part of being an author is also being able to market your work, but that should be in collaboration with your publisher.)
My only advice to writers is to carefully review the contract – and ask questions! Authors need to know the ins and outs, and it’s not really as overwhelming as it seems. Authors need to learn to say, hey, so how’s this work? What happens with that?
I’ve tried to pare down the SFWP contract as much as possible, and explain exactly everything that I’m going to do. I have an open dialogue with the authors during negotiations, and I welcome questions. If they want to make changes, I’m glad to do so, or clearly explain my position on why I don’t want to do so. I am not just buying some book to toss around – I’m investing in the author. I’m banking on their voice, their ability, because I believe that voice must be heard by the public, and it is my duty to be a servant to the arts. Every publisher should do this and, when shopping for a publisher, every author should look for this.
Rd: You publish rather eclectically, across the board from memoir and fiction to poetry, travel essays, other kinds of creative non-fiction, young adult, fantasy, poetry, etc. Do you envision substantial growth in any or all of these areas? I guess I’m also curious, would you ever imagine moving from small-press to big-press, and is there an “official” description of those terms?
AG: Since I’m really just publishing whatever catches my eye, I don’t think about growth in any particular genre. I don’t know what the next big thing is going to be in the industry… I don’t care. Nor do I intentionally try to develop any particular genres within my catalog.
I don’t really imagine SFWP will ever be a “big-press.” I lack the focus, the funding, and the mercenary resolve. It’ll be hard to maintain the solvency of a big press if I keep saying, “Yes! Publish that crazy flash fiction with all the scary drawings! I love it!”
Honestly, my dream is just to make enough so (a) I don’t have to drag my ass to a salary serf job every single day and (b) I can hire a full-time assistant (who, um, possesses enormous amounts of focus and mercenary resolve…)
Rd: In addition to the press, you run a literary awards program and an online journal. How do these complement or support the press? Do any of them constitute more work than the others? Do they each offer more of or a different kind of engagement with the writing community?
AG: They all feed off of each other, yes. Our spring 2015 releases are all Awards Program winners, and I’m very slowly digging through the finalists and winners of past Programs to find more folks. 90% of our Awards Program winners go on to publication, which is a source of pride for me. We’re discovering people here, and we’re helping put them on the literary map.
But, the contest is probably the hardest part of what I do at SFWP. In fact, I took this year off. On average, I get 300 manuscripts. Unlike most writing contests, these manuscripts aren’t randomly sorted, and their destiny isn’t shaped by whatever current demands there may be in the literary market. So every single entry gets read. First, by me, to make sure that the author followed the guidelines and isn’t doing anything insane (we once got a story written entirely in WingDings). In some years, the judge then reads every single manuscript. In other years, I have to bring in a reading committee – this is comprised of past judges, NEA fellows, award-winning authors, editors from elsewhere in the publishing industry, and potential future judges. Then there’s still a flood of manuscripts that hits the final judge.
The contest usually runs for 9 months, and the judging process can take another 3-5 months. Every single judge has told me that the quality of entries exceeds that of any other writing awards program, and that makes it hard. Judging the best of the best in writing is subjective, and it falls to me to give non-winners the bad news. This is usually followed by rounds of hate mail and – once, in the 2002 program – a death threat that seriously started with: “My mother says my novel is the best novel ever written, and she’s never wrong!”
The SFWP Journal, on the other hand, is low impact for me. The editor is the magnificent Sheila Lamb. She handles the day to day operations and, without her, there would be no journal.
The journal pre-dates the publishing wing. It sort of has a different trajectory, and that’s fine by me. In a way, it’s the voice of SFWP. It’s a platform for people to discover new authors. I occasionally force Sheila to do some marketing thing, like interview upcoming SFWP authors, but otherwise I let the journal grow and evolve freely.
Rd: What does any writer need to know, about submitting work to the SFWP Journal or Press?
AG: The basic guidelines for both are in that Submittable link way up there in an earlier question. I’d like to attract more book reviewers for the journal. I have this hare-brained idea that a subsection of the journal will become “the voice of indie books” where we highlight titles from like-minded publishers. We’re sort of doing this now, but I only have a couple of folks willing to review.
For the Press, I ask that authors send me a brief cover letter/proposal and the first 5 pages of their work. You can’t really tell much from 5 pages, but you can tell if they’re a potential fit for SFWP. I can see the voice, if not the story, in 5 pages. The voice is what I’m after.
What I’m secretly looking for is also in the proposal – can the author express themselves?
I ask the authors I sign to fill out a long marketing questionnaire – this, ultimately, is morphed into the language that’s transmitted to the distributor. There are some big tests on this form – the author is forced to describe their book in 150 words or less. They’re forced to find three comparable titles – every book, no matter how experimental, has competitors – and they have to explain why these three titles are both alike and different. The form forces them to think about their audience, and how to manipulate that audience. They have to think about their books like a publisher, not an author.
So when I get a proposal, I’m looking for stuff like that. Can the author describe their story succinctly? Can they name three books that are similar, or do they declare that their book is original and there’s nothing like it? If the latter, that’s a red flag. Can the author tell me who their audience is? That’s vital, because I also look for authors who are able and willing to engage their audience directly. I want to see functional webpages, interesting blogs, a presence on social media, or, at least, the hint that they’re comfortable going in that direction when the time comes.
Rd: You have an intriguing line-up of books currently, including Lisa Lenard Cook’s Dissonance, about a pianist uncovering hidden stories that span across buried music and concentration camps, and Pagan Kennedy’s biography of William Shepard, the unusual African-American explorer, and Charlotte Gullick’s By Way of Water (such a lovely title), about a Jehovah’s Witness family from Northern California in the ’70s. How did these–or any of the other books you’re currently releasing–especially interest you?
I read them and I loved them. Charlotte Gullick’s writing is captivating. She really is the next Steinbeck, as the cover of her book declares. When Dissonance appeared in my slush pile, I couldn’t put it down. I was weeping openly – on a crowded subway car to work – when I hit the last page.
I’ve had a bit of hero worship for Pagan Kennedy since 1990, when I first discovered her hand-drawn, Xeroxed zine in a headshop in Bethesda, MD. Her quirky writing saved my life. I was 16, my family was a mess, my world was upside down, and I was convinced I’d be dead by 21. Pagan’s zine got me writing my own zine, and it taught me to come out of my sad little shell and laugh (and scream) at the ridiculous world.
Rd: You note on your website your interest in growing in different ways to champion writers. What directions in growth do you contemplate these days?
AG: Well, you’re probably getting tired of it at this point, but the digital short run thing comes back around here. The best way to grow, in my opinion, is to develop an unusual press. All the old limitations are gone – we can do experimental graphic-oriented books as ebook releases, we can print a slim volume of flash fiction or a doorstopper fantasy novel, and we can do it all, regardless of what the market, the catalog, the accountants, the industry, or common sense would expect.
We’ve also redoubled our efforts to bring our literary journal to life and provide a voice for authors, both recognized and unknown.
I’ve become very interested in the preservation aspect, as well. Bringing out of print authors and books back into print and keeping them in print no matter what. The fruits of that initiative have been realized in 2013 and 2014, and we’re not going to slow down.
Rd: I guess this interview won’t be complete without touching on your own history as heir to the famed Gifford’s Ice cream empire in Washington DC. Thank you for being open to speaking here about it. I have read Laura Wexler’s feature of you in Washington Post Magazine and understand the excavation of these childhood and other betrayals must be challenging on so many levels. You are writing a memoir currently on the subject of your family, among other things, while also maintaining a blog online noting its progress. Is this your first big writing project, and is this one of those necessary writings, where you write to create closure of some kind?
AG: This is my first writing project, yes. I have a multitude of bad novels that I use to prop up my dining room table, but this is the first writing project I’m seriously approaching with the intent to publish.
It is, indeed, a necessary writing. Gifford’s is a big name in Washington, DC. Though my dad vanished in 1985, and the company dissolved, not a week of my life goes by without someone seeing or hearing my name and asking if I’m related to Gifford’s Ice Cream.
My father stole everything when he left – payroll, pension, the money in the cash registers, and even my little kiddie bank account that I started with a handful of dollar bills in 1980 and, by ’85, probably wasn’t even worth $30. I believe his goal was to punish the ghost of his parents and kill Gifford’s. But…it didn’t die. Over the last few decades, the ownership of the name has changed hands many times, occasionally falling in with shifty people – there was a big blow-up in 2010 that landed the owners in court and further tarnished the legacy.
Many of these owners have claimed kinship with Gifford’s – the unbroken chain of a legacy started by my grandfather in 1938. But they won’t give me the time of day. It’s a bit tough. Especially when I’m carrying this name around with me and strangers get excited and talk to me incessantly about their great memories of the ice cream.
There are so many dark and twisted things from my childhood that haunt my dreams even now. This wound would have healed, I imagine, if my father had succeeded in killing Gifford’s once and for all in ’85, but instead it gets poked at and re-opened every week, every time someone recognizes my name. And every time someone tries to revive Gifford’s in DC and cash in on the legacy.
In the memoir – for the first time –I’m telling everything. Every secret I was sworn to keep, on pain of death, when I was a child.
And I’m going to reprint all of the original recipes.
The closure I seek is to take the power away from all of these secrets. I’ll give them to the public and they will no longer be my secrets. And, as payment for suffering through my writing, everyone will be able to make authentic Gifford’s country caramels in their own kitchens.
Rd: In writing your memoir, and really, in approaching the writing of it too, constructing it, etc., were you guided by any other writers or books?
AG: I’ve been trying to write all this out and address these wounds since 1990. Every version is sort of a Cliff’s Notes of the family history. Everyone I’ve shown previous versions to has said: Come on, Andrew! This is your story. Tell your story.
But I didn’t know what was happening when I was a kid. I was quiet, reserved, and content to exist in my own fantasy land.
You could never get a straight story – still can’t – from anyone in my family. My dad is a blank trail. Nobody – including me and mom — ever exchanged more than a few words with him. When he died in 2007, I discovered, much to my surprise, that he had served in Vietnam. I discovered that he had no records between 1985 when he vanished, and 2000 when he reappeared to sue me for my mother’s estate. While he was running Gifford’s, he never drew a salary, and never paid taxes. This man was a ghost…and he was the CEO of one of the Washington area’s most beloved institutions.
It seems like everyone who knew my mom knew a different person. We get together and swap stories and it’s like you’re each talking about a complete stranger.
My grandparents, who founded Gifford’s in 1938, are equally mysterious, and trying to unravel the byzantine intrigue and betrayals that were rooted in those modest beginnings over 70 years ago has provided much meat for the memoir. The company – and the family – were destroyed by such bizarre dark influences. It’s the stuff of horror fiction, really. Too bad it isn’t fiction…
But how do you write about this family? There are no answers, and there’s no one left alive who can even begin to speculate on the answers. There’s no guidebook or inspiration.
So I don’t know what happened. The breakthrough for making it “my story”, the story of an innocent bystander, was a quote from the novel Augustus by John Williams when a character is trying to recall past events and warns the reader: “I do not know the truth. I have only memories.”
Rd: What inspired you to actually get started working on the memoir? Also, is this a genre you are particularly attracted to, as a reader? Or have other genres–say fiction or poetry–also influenced your decision to write the story down as memoir, foremost?
AG: It’s my girlfriend’s fault. She’s this practical New Orleans native, and there’s that whole laissez les bons temps rouler thing, right? Why dwell on the bad shit and let the demons gnaw at your soul when you could be in each other’s arms in the hot tub, sipping wine?
She learned, in 2013, that I was paying $1000 a year to store all of mom’s junk. She forced me to clean out the storage shed (and, in the process, I uncovered the answers to many, many questions). She says I need to burn all this out and be happy. Put it behind me. Dad, mom, the Gifford family? “F— those people!”
This translated, in my mind, to: Tell the secrets. Tell the story. Take its power away.
I don’t see myself as a memoirist, nor do I have any particular attraction to it over any other genre. This is only happening because it’s stupid to hang on to it.
Rd: Who are some of the writers you read or return to for inspiring, whether at the level of language or heart?
AG: My favorite author, who died last summer, was Iain Banks. For my “pleasure reading,” I tend to lean towards fantasy, sci-fi, or history. Pleasure reading for me is escapism, and I rarely quit on a book. I also remember just about everything I read, so I rarely return to books, and I only really follow authors if I’m involved in some trashy fantasy series and waiting for the next one to come out.
I’ve kind of made a point of publishing the authors who truly inspire me. So the answer to this question could easily be a self-serving rant about the books in the SFWP catalog!
Rd: Is SFWP publishing your memoir, and do you have other readers and editors helping with the project?
AG: I would hate to self-publish the memoir. I think that’ll be the kiss of death, and it’ll hurt the SFWP catalog and insult my authors. I’m currently seeking an agent (and collecting rejections).
But, as you can probably tell by the answer above, the memoir is slaying a demon. So, if I can’t find any interested agents by the end of the year, my last resort is to self-publish. I need this story to be out there and in the hands of the public. I hope I don’t have to do that, though.
I’ve called on many folks to help. I always doubt my own writing… The memoir is currently in its fourth revision, which I think will be the last because, as I push through a rewrite of the first 100 pages, I’ve started to have the wake-up-screaming nightmares I used to have all the time as a child.
Rd: How has your writing of this memoir influenced you so far as a publisher? Would you change anything about how you run the press after the writing?
AG: You could probably reverse that question. Being a publisher has influenced the memoir. I’d guess that maybe 80% of the work submitted to the awards program each year is memoir. For the press, I see a memoir submission maybe once or twice a month. So, since 2000, I’ve probably read a few thousand memoirs from folks.
While I dislike my own writing, I’d like to think that, by osmosis, perhaps, I’ve picked up some pointers on what works and what doesn’t. At least from the publishing perspective. That has influenced how I’ve crafted my memoir.
Rd: In today’s climate of change in publishing and the opportunities offered by online and electronic publishing, what might you offer as advice to any writer out there playing with ideas of setting up a publishing-house themselves? Is publishing for everyone, or does it take a particular species of courage to embark on it?
AG: I don’t know if I have any constructive advice. When this sort of question come up I always reference Alice Flaherty’s book about the “neural basis of creativity,” titled The Midnight Disease. She talks about “hypergraphia” – the overwhelming urge to write. We write because we can’t control it. It’s a flaw, a quirk, a squiggle in the brain.
Publishing is an extension of this. I’m driven to do it. I spend my rent money doing it. I go into debt doing it. I become emotionally attached to the books. I’m describing a drug habit here… An addiction. I’ve been doing it, in one way or another, since high school. It’s just what I do.
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