Q&A with Michelle Dotter, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Dzanc Books, Prior to 2020 Cabell First Novelist Award

October 7, 2020

Michelle Dotter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books, an independent nonprofit press that champions innovative and award-winning literary fiction and nonfiction. While attending the 2020 virtual VCU Cabell First Novelist Award Night, she will participate in a live panel discussion about the process of publishing a debut novel, alongside her client John Englehardt, whose novel Bloomland won this year’s award.

Michelle Dotter, Editor and Publisher for Dzanc BooksCan you give us a glimpse into the very early days you spent with John Englehardt's Bloomland? What were some of your initial thoughts or impressions as you first started reading the manuscript? What aspects in particular kept you compelled to keep reading?

Bloomland was submitted to us as an entry for the Dzanc Prize for Fiction in 2018. It’s a pretty competitive prize – we usually see more than 700 entries each year and many of them are incredibly skilled.

From the very first chapter of Bloomland, though—the second I picked it up—I was pretty sure I’d found our winner. It left me breathless.

The first thing that struck me was John’s fascinating use of second person. He does it flawlessly, but what impressed me even more was the first-person narrator kind of tucked behind the second-person POV, one that arises in flashes and glimpses until that character finally steps onto the page. I’d never seen that before—an author playing with the implicit “I” that must exist in a story about “you.” Between that, John’s nuanced style, and the complex subject deftly handled, I was hooked.

Can you describe a bit about your working relationship with John Englehardt? While editing the novel, how often did you correspond?  When you’re actively working on a piece with an author, what forms of communication do you prefer?

John was fabulous to work with. I didn’t have much I wanted him to overhaul—most of our edits centered on the nuances of each section, as well as some in-depth work on the end. (The end, by the way, is something I work on with nearly every author. It’s hard to get an ending just right.) John and I had an initial call around acquisition, where we discussed my editorial vision and made sure we were on the same page, and after that we corresponded primarily by email.

I usually end up leaning on email a lot, just because it gives authors the freedom to send me follow-up questions or revised scenes whenever they’re ready. But I actually prefer talking on the phone when possible. Email has no tone; it’s easy for an email full of edits to feel like a full-force condemnation. I’ve even had an author respond to an email by asking me, “Do you even think this book is worth saving?” Which of course it was.

I want to make sure authors understand what I love about the book even while I’m suggesting revisions. You can’t beat the phone for that—unless you’re lucky enough to meet in person.

In terms of prose and style, what qualities, trends, or habits do you see in writing lately? What advice would you offer to writers in response to these observations?

This is a tough one, because trends vary widely across subgenres. In literary fiction in particular, I’m seeing a lot of manuscripts written in a style I think of as dreamy minimalism: short and declarative sentences threaded with startling metaphor or imagery, ideas that jolt the reader because they’re peculiar. For the record, I love it—some of my favorite authors write this way.

I’m not surprised to see this style on the rise. We’re living in a time when reality and unreality seem to exist side by side: in our impressions of truth, in our virtual versus physical realities, in the crises we’re witnessing, many of which are beyond our ability to process sensorially. Is it any wonder things get a little dreamlike?

My only note of caution regarding this style is that it takes some perfecting. It’s easy for evocative phrases and metaphors to feel tired or trite. You have to be exacting with it, to keep revising until you get something truly new and striking that is utterly unexpected and yet evokes an instantly recognizable feeling. Those are the sentences that give me chills.

Tell us about some other projects you’ve been working on, either ones that are upcoming for publication, or that came out in the last year or so.

This is always the worst question, because you’re asking me to pick favorites! But I’ll give a brief snapshot of a few things coming up next year.

First up is As You Were, a memoir by David Tromblay that centers on his traumatic childhood, the family scars from centuries of oppression experienced by Native Americans, and the separate trauma of David’s time in the US Armed Forces. I’m not going to lie, it’s downright brutal—but David tells it like it is, with utter honesty, and it’s a book that packs a real punch.

Call It Horses by Jessie van Eerden won last year’s Prize for Fiction—in fact, John Englehardt was one of the judges who picked it out. The story of three unlikely women from small-town West Virginia setting out for Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico sanctuary with a languorous basset hound in tow, it’s a reimagining of the road trip novel, beautifully written and deeply felt.

In the Event of Contact, by Ethel Rohan, is a lovely collection of short stories centered on Irish characters. Ethel was born in Dublin and later moved to America, and her own questions of place, of where we are versus where our stories are, carry over into her book. There’s a scrappy teen who wants to be the next Sherlock Holmes, a woman defending her decision to remain childless, and a dancing specter of Oscar Wilde, among others.

Finally, in June we’re publishing And Then the Gray Heaven by RE Katz. RE is a nonbinary writer, and the novella centers on the nonbinary and trans communities, exploring the themes of queer grief and affection, queer failure, burial as hero’s journey, and the grotesqueries of artistic determination within and beyond the institutions that define our lives.

I could go on and on, probably forever, so please come by our website and check out our list of great books.

What do you find most interesting and/or rewarding about your work as an editor and publisher? What do you find most frustrating about it? And what, if anything, do you wish writers better understood about the publishing process?

Working with the authors, always. There’s nothing better than the closeness of working shoulder to shoulder with someone on a creative project—giving a suggestion and feeling the author’s spine straighten, even over the phone, as if you have cleared a persistent fog and revealed the topography of their own book to them in a whole new way. Editing is my favorite part of the job.

My message to aspiring writers is this: think honestly about what success in writing means to you and how you’ll achieve it. There are so many different versions of the creative, well-lived life. Career writers aiming for Big Five presses; writers publishing with passionate small presses or publishing on their own; writers putting their work out there through literary magazines and anthologies; writers working on exactly what they want to work on, and the devil take the rest.

I admire all of these approaches. But I see a lot of writers who haven’t thought seriously about what they want, or how to achieve it, and end up taking the publishing road that presents itself, whether that’s twisting a passion project out of shape so it can be published commercially or self-publishing something they later wish they could take to a traditional press. Make choices deliberately. Think about what success means to you, and then go after it.

 

The 2020 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award night is Thursday, October 15 at 7:00 p.m. Join us—virtually—for a panel discussion about traditionally publishing a debut novel with author John Englehardt, editor and publisher Michelle Dotter, and first reader Katharine Toombs. Free and open to the public, but please register in advance through VCU Libraries.